bookmark_borderTiresome critiqing

Many of us fiction-writing types belong to one or more critiquing exchanges. Stephen King has his wife and a writing friend that review his works. Writing classes or workshops are, in whole or in part, made up of reviewing and critiquing the efforts of the participants. I belong to a local writing group and loosely to a couple online groups (one forum, one email).

Right now I’m finding critiquing difficult. Over the past year or so I’ve absorbed a substantial amount of grammatical, line by line and paragraph by paragraph editing information. Some of this is via critiques of my submissions, especially by a particular  member of my local group. Some is via reading high quality writing (The New Yorker, Pulitzer, Man Booker and other contest finalists). Some is from “It Was The Best Of Sentences, It Was The Worst Of Sentences”, a reference book which I leave in my bathroom so I can read a chapter now and then. The chapters are short.

And some is the result of keeping these sources in mind while writing and revising my own writing. Of practicing what I’m trying to absorb. Of trying to turn the bits of information into habits.

I think this has pushed the quality of my writing up significantly, at least on the small scale. My inner editor has developed a clarity of understanding and an improved ability to sense issues or potential for improvement (though not the ability to label and explain them easily; since I’m not in school I didn’t bother learning the names or terminology). I’ve developed a better eye for small errors like tense changes or the incorrect use of commas. I’ve developed an ear for issues like awkward, choppy, or repetitive sentence structure. And I have a feel for slightly larger issues like lack of flow due to missing transitions or dialogue that lacks action. The largest scale items; plot, character, setting I don’t pay much attention to when I critique for three reasons: most of what is presented to me is chapters of novels and I don’t know what’s going on in the other chapters, and, much (too much) of the writing is in genres that I have little interest in; fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal, and, when the writing quality is poor, the character, plot, and setting usually comes across poorly.

My standards have increased. Now I find it tiresome to review submission after submission that is well beneath these standards. I’d never release any writing of my own for review that has so many transparent problems. Sure, there are always things like these that we don’t see until someone else points them out to us, but to have so many indicates an obliviousness or a disregard, either of which make the writing unappealing to me to read.


In musical terms this is like a group or performer that plays out of tune, or consistently stumbles in difficult technical passages, or is unable to maintain a steady tempo/rhythm, or is sloppy with balance or with group entrances. The simpler or less sophisticated the music — less technical challenges, less complicated harmonic or textural or rhythmic elements — the less some of these matter. Madonna can get away with always singing flat for example, plus many of these rough edges can be polished off via recording technology wizardry, if you get that far.
Here’s an example of a critique request:

“I’m less interested in grammar/spelling/punctuation, and more interested in comments about the characters and the plot. Does the story work for you? Would you read on?”

This could mean:

  1.  The author prioritizes character/plot because that’s why people read fiction
  2. The author prioritizes character/plot because the other elements can be polished later if the character/plot are worth spending time on. There’s no point editing something that isn’t worth finishing, right?
  3. The author finds critiques that discuss grammar/spelling/punctuation boring
  4. The author pays little attention to grammar/spelling/punctuation because they don’t understand and don’t want to
  5. The author really likes their characters/plot and is looking for praise
  6. The author has had too many critiques in the past that wasted focus on grammar/spelling/punctuation and not enough on characters or plot, for their tastes
  7. The author is just starting out and is remembering the classes on character and plot (the class on setting is often forgotten; it’s usually only characters and plot)
  8. Grammar/spelling/punctuation is for editors, writing is for writers

I’m not saying that these beliefs are crap, just that I can’t help you a lot because 95% of what I read in my local group or the online groups doesn’t have characters or settings or situations that interest me. The genres of the submissions from the local group are forced on me, but even in the online writing groups, where I can pick and choose, I rarely find a story that is interesting to read. And those that are are usually ones that are well written; they have decent grammar and punctuation and spelling, as well as flow, variety, description and interesting setting, characters, and plot. Writers who state that they are focusing on character and plot only almost never get there for me. Maybe because they don’t know how to create interesting elements, and if they do, they don’t know how to round them out, and if they do, they don’t know how to present them, how to write about them.

If you’re a brilliantly creative writer or hit your target perfectly maybe you can find a publisher/editor/reader base that can ignore your failings. I think the Roberts Heinlein and Ludlum fall into that category. If you’re as good at marketing yourself as Madonna, maybe you have enough to sell anyway.

Or if you’re never intending to do more than the equivalent of singing at your local pub at amateur night, then it’s not going to matter if you’re out of tune or play every song at the same tempo. If you only want to write erotica that your friends will enjoy and praise you for, then good for you. But right now I’m tired of listening to sloppy, un-rehearsed, un-practiced performances that are one step above karaoke. Or reviewing the equivalent in fiction writing.


bookmark_borderComposition; musical and fictional

I was a classical composition major in university who came from a self-taught jazz background. Sometimes I think about the differences between writing fiction and writing music.

Music has a life of its own. These days if you compose something you probably have a synthesizer and MIDI and you record what you’re working on into a computer. Then you can have it play a version of what you’ve written, let it live, let it breathe, and critique it. Need more? Section too short? Texture too thin? Harmonic structure not ideal? Are the sections balanced with each other?

Even back in the day when I was studying, before MIDI, we did similar things by score reading. We’d play at the piano, even those of us who didn’t play piano, and try to pick out the important elements from a symphonic work so that we could get the pitches into our heads, and then once in a while we’d go to composition class and show that we’d figured it out. When I composed I’d do the same thing; sit at a piano and look for the pitches even though I might be writing a line for oboe or violin or French horn.

Learning to score read gave us composers the ability to look at a score and to hear it in our heads. Sometimes we needed some help from a piano to get us started, sometimes not. One day in a music history class we were given two pages from the middle of a piece for piano for analysis. After a moment of looking at the music I recognized it as being from the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach, though I didn’t know which book. I could look at the music, hear it in my head, and matched it to a Gould recording that I’d listened to many times before.

Fiction is different. Reading is not as passive as hearing; to review writing we need to read, and the act of reading removes some detachment, making it more difficult to let it wash over us from a distance, allowing us less perspective. Words that I’ve written don’t breathe on their own the way music, once written, breathes and flows and exists, separate from the composer. Even reviewing an un-sounded, memorized composition in my head is easier, and more accurate, and more detached, than trying to think about some piece of fiction that I’ve written. Interesting.

On one hand I spent a lot of focused time during relatively formative years (ages 17-24) studying music, so my inner aural skills are high. On the other hand, I’ve spent far more years reading and writing, so you’d think that would compensate.

If it were poetry rather than fiction perhaps I’d be able encapsulate it, freeze it, memorize it, and look at it with more distance, but somehow writing a novel and reviewing it is not the same as writing a 20 minute suite for concert band (which is the largest ensemble I wrote for) and listening and reviewing it in my head, and writing short stories is not the same as writing a 5 minute single movement for woodwind quintet. I’m unable to get that same level of separation, that effect of sitting back, of letting it wash over me (even if the listening is entirely in my head from looking at a score) so that I can test it for completeness and for balance and for polish.

Distance can help. Putting writing aside and reviewing it much later after some of the struggle has been forgotten can help. Getting others to read and review can help as well. In theory I could record myself reading my own passages, and then listen to the recording and get distance that way, but I don’t really like listening to audio books. It would definitely be different if I were writing plays.

And I don’t enjoy re-re-re-reading things that I’ve written or that other people have written. Not nearly in the same way that I’ve listened over and over and over again to some pieces that I wrote or that Bach or Stravinsky or Bartok have written. That’s a fundamental difference between music and writing in terms of how it’s enjoyed. Perfection of polish seems much more important when you hope your listener will hear your music many times, as opposed to the reader of your blog post whom you hope will get through it just once.