CREATIVE WRITING 101, PART ONE
Reviews, Reviewers, and Writing Fiction
Revised and expanded July 19, 2010
First a caveat: Anything I write is from my own personal viewpoint, and I am sometimes wrong. Nonetheless, I've been in this business since 1968, am reflective by nature, and assume that what I write may be useful to other writers. Next, I'm not writing about "literary criticism" here. Literary criticism generally deals with more than a single book, and often with an author's entire body of work.
As for critiques: here I use the word to mean a private evaluation of a work, for consideration by the author; or the same sort of thing done before a group by a teacher of creative writing, or by a mentor in a workshop. Typically a critique evaluates the skills used in creating a writing, assisting a writer, helping him or her improve their skills. Reviews, on the other hand, evaluate the product, not its creation. And while reviews may be useful in broadening the writer's viewpoint, they serve primarily to help readers decide what to read next.
Critiques and reviews are kin, and while mostly they are distinguishable, they are hard to disengage.
I'll look first at reviewing, then at critiquing. A review is the expression of a reviewer interacting with a story. It may, however, be appropriate, in reviewing, to evaluate certain writing techniques which enhance or degrade the story's impact on readers.
Sometimes a reviewer complains that the author should have written a different story. Say one in which the sensitive artist, instead of the hunky warrior, gets the girl. But that's a question of preference, and not of any innate quality of the story. Reviewers are artists with their own story preferences. Some prefer action-adventure, some romance, or alternate history, or fictionalized biography, or high fantasy, or... Some despise military SF, some reject stories with spiritual elements, some resent anything that crosses their social or political prejudices — right wing, left wing... whatever. We all have prejudices (well, maybe not you, but many of us do). Some of us are aware of ours, and some are not.
Then there are tastes and preferences. Horse breeders are artists. Some are interested only in thoroughbreds, or Arabians, others in carriage horses, or fjeld horses, or the heavy draft breeds (much less now than in the past), etc., bred for different uses in different environments and cultures. To judge any of them by the standards for the others is irrational, but they are all horses.
As for stories — they differ by more than type. Each story is to some extent unique. And each writer brings nuanced tools to the task, usable in many combinations for specific circumstances, needs and preferences. Thus the rational and central approach to reviewing is to ask does the story work for the reader? Considering that readers differ. Our nine-year-old daughter read Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth, a Pulitzer-winning psychological novel, and enthused over it. I'm sure if she read it now, at age fifty-four, it would seem a very different book.)
Meanwhile, how well do different aspects of our subject story work? That's where product and technique can be difficult to separate. Prejudices can intrude in reviewing, sometimes flagrantly, sometimes subtly. And some reviewers, when one of their buttons is pushed, switch into critiquing mode. Sometimes sneering, dripping scorn, as if to punish the author for the enormity of his sin. (I specifically recall a prominent science fiction reviewer savagely attacking a novel by Buz Busby, a novel I'd enjoyed. It seems to me the reviewer's problem was with the story itself; not how it was written, but that it was written at all. That was about 20 years ago. With his mid-life crisis now behind him, would that reviewer see it differently if he reread it today?) An annoyed reviewer can lose track of what the story is about, or for whom it was written.
The basic questions might best be: does the story work or not, and how? And why? That's a lot to ask of a reviewer, especially one who tends to feel passionately about things. Some do a much better job than others at recognizing that what bothers them may be a matter of individual perception, allowing for differences, and even pointing them out.
That covers the basics as I see them. Now let's look at writing technique, as it affects (or afflicts) the story. For example, story arc (alias "plot trajectory"), pacing, believability, ideas, color, characterization, aesthetics, and simply whether the story is interesting or otherwise appealing — inevitably reflecting the reviewer's background and tastes. Personal taste may act in ways the reviewer isn’t aware of. In a review of my short fiction collection, Otherwhens, Otherwheres, one reviewer said very nice things, but explicitly brushed off the two stories from theme anthologies as "weak, concentrating on concept and setting rather than story.” I suspect that, seeing them identified as being from theme anthologies, she plugged in more or less standard criticisms uncritically.
But how weak were they, really? Especially considering that concept and setting can be important and interesting, which is to say contributive. In these two cases, one was the anthology editor's favorite; the other was my personal favorite in its anthology. I chose them for my collection because they seem to work well outside the anthology context; many anthology stories don't.
A reviewer may not care for theme anthologies. As books — sets of stories — theme anthologies tend to be uneven, may even portray their story universe more or less inconsistently, harming the book's credibility. But some of the stories can be delightful.
I believe the novelet "The Railroad” is excellent, portraying a growing dilemma, a world threatened, as experienced by diverse individuals. Each with their personal situation and purpose, their own history and ethnicity, all caught together on a railway car, by circumstances initially mundane and benign, then increasingly grim as the story proceeds. Each character is affected differently, but at the end they draw together — all except Migruder — committing themselves to the only option short of suicide. That is the story.
Any anthology story is likely to be most meaningful in the context of the entire anthology volume, and even more so in the context of the extended series. Read outside that context, it may become a somewhat different story.
The other anthology story was "The Stoor’s Map," from a Warner Books anthology. It was a hobbit knock-off, written as a cover story for art already in hand (by the Brothers Hilldebrand; I’ve assumed it depicts the face-off between Samwise and Shelob in Tolkien's The Return of the King). I was invited to write a new story to fit the picture. I consider it an excellent and ingenious knock-off, and again with a rich ethnic feel. (Proud again? John!)
Suppose the reviewer did not think poorly of theme anthologies. Might she then have enjoyed those two? Maybe not; tastes are tastes, each with its own validity (something I keep struggling with). My point is, reviewers do have personal tastes; tastes we as authors probably benefit from more often than otherwise. They can lead to reviewer enthusiasm. (Let's hear it for enthusiasm!)
And finally, some reviewers recognize their preferences and aversions, and where they apply, and say so in the review, so their readers can factor them in. The reviewer just mentioned is quite good at that. But some reviewers seem to assume that their preferences reflect God’s own; that it’s their duty to promote and defend them, and never ever confront that they might be a matter of taste.
In the contemporary version of this God-dictated order of desirability, tension may well be number one, with the modulation of tension, notably "story arc,” close behind. These may be the most widely and strongly, and I feel wrongly held "truths" propounded by modern literati. That is, by the writing "gods” — usually prominent reviewers, and some professors. And some editors. They have as believers many lesser-known reviewers, many liberal arts graduates, and some authors. And many readers who forget why they read, especially readers who belong to book discussion groups led by senior believers. (Of course, as with other species of believers, some are more self-aware and flexible than others.)
Let me add here that I am not knocking the value of those "truths." They are not natural law, but they do tend to reflect experience and observation, and we are well advised to know them. They are useful. Tension can add force to the action and fire to the reader. While story arc — the curve of intensity through the course of a story — can help build that intensity. And in our culture today, there is a hunger — a greed — for intensity. For many Americans there is no such thing as enough intensity. It's as if they need it to remind them they're alive. (Intensity dominates TV advertising.)
But it is well to be aware of the limitations of those "truths." There may be stories we want to write which don’t fit them, and in such cases, we need to lay aside some particular "truth" while we write that story.When someone didactically states that a story, to be any good, must do, be, or have such and such, my mind tends at once to pull up very successful stories which disprove it as a law. But it is likely to be useful, even broadly useful.
There are numerous books on how to write fiction; I own something more than a dozen. Altogether they pitch many methods, and probably all of them have at least some validity. But one well-known author and reviewer goes so far as to say that if your story doesn’t follow his [actually excellent] formula, it isn’t a story! What he did, of course, was to redefine "story” to fit his theory; my dictionary lists ten definitions as nouns — and two as verbs (!); his isn’t one of them.
Fifteen or so years ago, our daughter-in-law Jill came across a popular series of novels by Jan Karon, "the Mitford novels.” Set in a fictional contemporary village in the North Carolina foothills, they deal with the doings of the villagers. Jill gave my wife, Gail, a copy of one in which the primary thread (not an actual recognizable plot) was the doings of the local Episcopal priest. Gail, who tends to be impatient with slow novels, commented to me that she'd liked it a lot. But when I asked her what it was about, she looked at the question a few seconds before answering. Then, "nothing much, actually,” she said.
Curious, I began to read it. It had nearly zero tension, nor anything I’d consider a story arc. A few sittings later I finished the book, and found myself missing Mitford’s villagers. It had been a very pleasant read, definitely not exciting, but very enjoyable. Charming. Ms Karon’s mix of human characters and small-town events worked nicely, even with very little tension. Yet it was not a collection of short stories. While the various characters and doings didn't constitute well-defined subplots, the threads were interwoven, with a fair seasoning of surprises. They worked.
And therein lies a lesson:The nearest thing to a genuine law of creative writing might be, "IF IT WORKS, IT WORKS, regardless of conventional "wisdom."
On another tack, a friend interested in writing recently sent me a list of rules he’d been impressed by: an exercise in didactics. One of the statements was that "show, don’t tell” is the "golden rule of writing." Huh! I wrote back that he shouldn’t ignore the less known flip-side rule, "tell, don’t show.” A needless suggestion for lots of aspiring writers, who often tell at great length and show little. So "show, don’t tell” is the more widely applicable advice, and comes more readily to mind. But a novel built exclusively on "show, don’t tell” could easily become deadly long and tedious. "Tell, don’t show” is very useful for getting quickly from one place in a story to another, and in fact is widely used. Call it a tool for pacing, for modulating the flow. Other techniques are available of course, with other advantages. But telling — laying it out in an interesting (repeat, interesting) data dump — often works well.
As for focus and story arc— some readers much prefer stories that focus on one character, or a couple, or at most a limited group. Something like that. I suspect that for some people, it's "wired in" to some degree. I'm told that persons with dyslexia are narrowly focused. I've been told that by dyslexics. (Hi, Hare; you still attending LASFS meetings?) As an observation, it's a useful datum, but how important is that in the overall readerly scheme of things?Should artists be criticized for using colored paints because some people are colorblind?
Do you enjoy reading histories? Most of them don’t focus on one character or a small group (though some do, of course). Do you enjoy biographies? Biographies have a strong focus, but may have no story arc at all. And I argue that it is entirely valid, and for some stories necessary, to lack one or both of those features. So if there’s a story you want to write, one which seems best approached without a narrow focus, or without a story arc, write the SOB that way. If it works, it works!Even if some readers are disappointed.
Of course, if it doesn't work for your intended readers, that's something else. You have to make it work!
I once partnered in a bookstore program with a local romance writer. Who took me by surprise, announcing that a novel, to be any good, must be 70 percent dialog. "How about 60 percent?" I asked. "Or 80?"Not 60, she said, and not 80; 70 percent. Period! (Now if your name is Seamus MacManus, 70 percent might be about right.)"Does that apply to other than romance novels?" I asked. "To all fiction," she answered. But for Snorri Sturlusson… Have you read any Norse sagas? They are very exotic, full of intrigue and rich in treachery, with large dollops of violence. But dialog? Even the conversations tend to be written as narrative or verse. (No pun intended.)
As for character as a defining feature or set of features, not only individuals have it. Ethnicities also have character, as do families and communities. Written into stories, these add diversity and flavor — and enhance realism. One of the weaknesses in much amateur writing is a tendency to treat everyone as ethnically homogeneous, or ham up or otherwise mishandle ethnicity. (Of course, if you're writing humor...) Some readers may not notice, but some will be unhappy with you.
People who write short stories have to paint character with a few small strokes, Zen style. When we write novelets or longer, we have more room.
Reviewers too paint on small canvases. They don’t have room to remark on everything, even if they want to. So they tend to stress the strong and weak points in a story, which often includes the characterization of principle characters, but perhaps not often of ethnicities, families, and communities. Gypsies played an important role in Stephen King's (oops, "Richard Bachman's") novel Thinner, and in places, King had them speaking "Romany" (without translation). To my surprise I could read them. Romany, it appeared, is simply Swedish without the diacritical marks. (Not really; I'm being ironic. But he did use Swedish, not Romany.) Some of it even made sense, while some was cheerfully non sequitur, but they were real Swedish words. King may have decided finding or dealing with a Romany speaker was too much trouble, but there seems to have been a Swede available — and who would notice anyway? Or maybe Stephen was just being playful.
Some reviewers and professors consider "expository lumps" evil, like lumpy oatmeal in the old days. ("Data dumps" is another term for them.) "Show it happening," they say.Put in such black and white terms — "expository lumps" aka "data dumps" — is both perceptive and misleading. As for "show it happening" — that is often good advice, to the extent it's artistically doable. Often it isn't. Victor Hugo's famous Les Misérables was published in 1862, and in it, up near the front, Hugo spent an entire robust chapter on the early life of an incidental character whose entire role would be to steal some silverware. I was impressed. Even in 1940 (I was 14 then), it seemed hardly worthwhile. But in 1862? Different era, different public. And of course there are stories in which substantial information is necessary early on. And to "show it happening" may not be feasible, or may simply be clumsy. At any rate there is something to be said for directness. The key is to make it interesting. MAKE IT INTERESTING! — and compatible with your purpose.
I’ll close with a final comment on reviewers; they have their own styles, their own charm. When A.J. Budrys reviewed for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, his reviews — perceptive, interesting, and sometimes playful — were invariably the first thing I read. Just as John Campbell's editorials were the first thing I turned to in Astounding and Analog. They were art in their own right.