Critique Group Sagas
Note: This is an opinion piece generalized in nature and does not refer to any specific author or writer. If you see yourself in this piece, though, my work here is done.
I’m currently in two writing critique groups. I consider them essential as a writer; otherwise, I end up in a continuous loop of thinking how wonderful my writing is. All that seems obvious and clear to me in my work may not to a reader, and that’s one aspect of a critique group: looking at someone’s work through the eyes of a reader.
Because we’re also writers, we bring that to the critique table, too. In one of my groups, which has been meeting for some time, we have discussions about foreshadowing, conflict resolution, and denouement. Fascinating stuff, all that writing knowledge/trivia.
However, I also bring an editor’s skills to the table. I was a reporter for and editor of a magazine for more than fifteen years, and I edited hundreds of government documents from correspondence to blue ribbon reports. When I read something for a critique group, the MS gets a reader, writer, and editor’s eye. Some are not so appreciative of the latter. My standard reaction is, “Get accustomed to it. It’s better to catch the typos, style errors, and punctuation and grammatical flubs now rather than have an agent or publisher reject your MS for them later.”
For someone who is about to undergo his or her first experience with a critique group, that triple-threat may be intimidating. I don’t intend for it to be. In my warped little mind, I’m being helpful. When I look back on some of my earlier writing, published without the benefit of a critique group, I wish I’d had someone like me to find those embarrassing slip-ups and to point out the things which would make an agent toss an MS into a slush pile.
Critique groups aren’t mutual admiration societies, even though I can’t wait until I receive the next installment of every member’s work. Yes, I come to admire and look forward to their writing, but there is also mutual trust and honesty. We trust each other to be honest. You can’t simply say, “It doesn’t work for me.” You have to explain yourself, and the excuse can’t be you just don’t like something. For example, I’m not a fan of most YA, fantasy, or romance writing (or the various iterations thereof), but if it’s a good story and the writing shines, I’ll read it and probably enjoy it.
Some people seem to approach a critique group with an attitude of not wanting the details, just the big picture. Yes, the details are annoying and nitpick-ish, but they’re there for a reason. A comment about correct placement of commas or use of a semi-colon, etc., are not mortal blows to your writing. Rather, when I read an MS where the grammar’s good, the punctuation spot-on, and the style elements appropriate, I think to myself, “Here is someone who took the time to learn all the aspects of being a writer.”
Having an idea for a story is excellent. Putting it down on paper (or in the computer) is also excellent; you can now call yourself a writer. Staying a writer depends on your willingness to learn–whether through the feedback from a critique group, a writer’s workshop, or writing conferences. (I’m amazed by people who call themselves writers who don’t go to writers conferences or workshops.) You don’t just write and say, “That’s it. Let someone else worry about the silly punctuation details.” Breaking news: Publishers don’t employ copy editors anymore, and the only writers who get to dump a mistake-riddled MS on a publisher is someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald; and he’s dead.
Pointing out punctuation, style, and grammar errors isn’t a reflection on your ability to be a story-teller. You might say it is a comment on your writing ability. Well, yes, because that’s part of the package of being a writer. Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t constantly refresh your writing knowledge and skills? You could, but I’ll still point out the problems, and, believe me, I don’t pull these things out of my arse.
The devil is in the details; learn from them. I know I do. If you don’t want to hear the details from me, at least invest in some time-honored resources: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage are just some of them, but those three on your writing resources shelf will take you a long way.
Stirring the Pot
Over the weekend I stirred a small controversy when I replied to a post on Facebook. It was a link to a blog post by someone (and I’m leaving out the names to keep the guilty from suing me) who extolled “unedited self-publishing.” This phenomenon, the person indicated, was fresh and new, and this person preferred the name “alt fiction” or “alt lit” for such work. The important thing, the blogger indicated, was that more people were getting published and essentially thumbing their noses at traditional publishing.
Now, I’m all for making traditional publishing reconsider itself (I have self-published and will probably do so again.), but I commented on the Facebook status that I hoped the blog was a parody because reading unedited writing was a waste of my time and energy. Calling it “alt fiction” was just an excuse for not knowing how to write.
I got a long dissertation from someone–not the blog writer–about how narrow-minded I was. Didn’t I know language evolved? Didn’t I know grammar changed over the years? What followed was several paragraphs, un-punctuated and full of typos by the way, about how I was behind the times and too rigid. The whole “write as well as you can and use an editor” thing was a condescension to traditional publishing and why would we want to be like them anyway?
Okay, that’s a possibility. I’ll acknowledge that I’m pedantic about spelling, punctuation, and grammar because I don’t want to read crap. Experiment with language all you want, but if you have an entire book that is essentially a mis-punctuated, misspelled run-on sentence, you’re not breaking etymological ground. Call it “alt lit” if you want, but your readership will be small; and you’ll be lonely in your self-satisfaction.
And, yes, I’m aware grammar, usage, and punctuation evolve. I taught English lit, for Pete’s sake. However, evolution takes time and has to gain almost universal acceptance for real change. I mean, we’re still debating the Oxford comma.
The thing that gets me is that the resources to assure your writing is grammatical, properly punctuated, and makes sense are plentiful and cheap. Not wanting to use them is just laziness and marks you as uninterested in perfecting your craft. And that makes me uninterested in reading what you’ve “written.”
Believe what you will, but I still consider a poorly written, unedited work dreck, not “alt lit” or any other appellation attached to it as an excuse for, well, not knowing how to write.
G&P They Ain’t So Bad
I learned grammar and punctuation a couple of generations ago from teachers who’d learned them a couple of generations before that. My approach to both, then, tends to be on the old-fashioned side; some might say pedantic. I even learned how to diagram sentences–not that I ever used it after that classroom exercise in 9th Grade.
As a result, I’m not forgiving of “experimental writing styles” and just see that as an excuse poor writers use when it’s obvious they haven’t taken the time to proofread and correct glaring errors. “A good story will shine through,” others like to say. Well, not if you can’t see the forest for the trees of bad grammar and incorrect punctuation.
If this all sounds familiar, I’ve beat this drum before, especially regarding indie or self-published authors. You can’t succumb to the lure of instant publishing and slap up a story scribbled in your journal on Amazon then wonder why you get one-star reviews for the mess. Worse than that is when friends give you five stars because they’re your friends and not necessarily editors. That fools people into buying the mess, and where that might get you a check from Amazon, I think it’s deceptive.
The counter argument comes: Oh, I’ve seen typos and grammatical errors in traditionally published works, and they still sell.
Yes, I’ll concede that–one or two per book; I’ve spotted them myself. That’s not in the league of ten or twelve per paragraph, as I’ve seen in some Indie books I’ve read.
Of course, grammar and punctuation go out the window in dialogue, especially if that fits the character. If you’re writing in first person from the point of view of an uneducated person, then precise grammar doesn’t ring true for that character.
I recently wrote a story I submitted to a contest that is all dialogue, but without quotation marks and dialogue tags. I know my 9th Grade English teacher is spinning in her grave, but for this story, it worked. And it’s grammatically correct and properly punctuated otherwise. That’s about as experimental as I get.
Grammar and punctuation don’t stifle your writerly voice. They’re icing on the cake. They make what you’ve written “look pretty” and, more importantly, read sensibly. They make you, the author, appear to readers as a true writer, someone who has taken the time to do it properly. If that makes me pedantic, so be it.
Don’t forget, go to Saturday’s post and vote for the cover of my new e-book.