So for almost a year I have been a member of the Online Writing Workshop (www.onlinewritingworkshop.com) and I pay $50 for the privilege of having my writing critiqued by my peers. All in all it is a pretty good system. If people are willing to part with the money, it usually means they have a certain level of commitment to their writing and writing as a craft. It also works on a sort of crit-for-crit basis, meaning you have to give critiques in order to receive critiques on your own work. The flipside is that you also get a lot of know-it-all pretentious wanna-be writers who are narrow-minded and use the internet as a free pass to be blatantly rude. I have heard of these encounters and never quite experienced one until last week. And trust me, I am not just being overly sensitive about my work. I write all day and all night. I have people giving me feedback 24/7 and I know from experience that to be able to detach my personal feelings from my written work and look at comments and criticisms of my writing objectively means that in the end I have a much stronger piece. I am, all around, a big time fan of critiquing and revisions.
So here is what actually happened.
Over the past month I have been experimenting with flash fiction. I try to write 500 words a day, and sometimes they are parts of a larger story and other times they are pieces that stand alone. Regardless, I posted some of these writings to get some feedback, inspiration, and a better understanding of what was working and what wasn’t. When you submit you have the opportunity to select rough draft, middle draft or completed draft. So I select rough draft, because I know that I am going to be making some major changes, and I just want to get a firmer grip on what direction to go in.
Let me back up a minute to say that for each critique a member does they get one review point. When you have four review points you can post your story to the queue for reviews. If you are the first person to review a story then you get a bonus point, (I think this is intended to ensure that each piece gets at least one review in a relatively timely fashion). So needless to say, the flaw in the system is that certain people give drive-by reviews, where they copy a bunch of text from your story and make a few lame comments, just to meet the length requirement for the reviews and then take the review points and run. So a member who has 200 reviews under his belt doesn’t necessarily mean that they are highly reputable and/or competent. It simply means the did 200 reviews.
Now, I post some flash fiction pieces and the very first review I get is from a gentleman who instead of critiquing the piece (which was only 1,000 words, that’s like 2-3 pages of single spaced text) writes it off in the first sentence of his review as too literary to be posted on this science fiction, fantasy and horror genre board and then gives me a one page explanation about the difference between literary and genre, what it is and why he feels it will never mix well. Ok fine. You don’t like literary stuff. Fine. It wasn’t intended to be an extremely literary piece. If emotionally driven characters and motivation vs. plot is your definition of what qualifies as genre then fine. I don’t agree but as a writer I can see where you are coming from. Then this person continues on his tangent, suggesting that I have never written before, and am trying to imitate writers such as Stephen King, who may use some literary elements in their work, but are the exception and should take time to figure out what I want to write first before going any further.
This is what I have a problem with. And I keep seeing it over and over again. There are some genre writer’s who want to keep it old school. If their aren’t aliens or hobbits and it doesn’t fit into the structure of what hundreds of writers have already done before then it doesn’t belong. I think that most genre writers grow up being a fan of the genre first and naturally they want to continue seeing what they fell in love with years ago. But there is some incredibly wonderful stuff that doesn’t follow those same conventions, that blurs the lines and meshes the genres together and that is always what I as a reader have been fascinated in. I read vampire novels, but not Anne Rice novels. The vampire novels I read are also mystery novels or hard-boiled detective novels. Neat combination, right? And the novel I am writing blends the lines between science fiction and fantasy, because the science element involved is the human reaction to the magical world they discover. And in reality isn’t that how it would go? Wouldn’t humans look toward science and technology to level the playing field? I am all about cross-genre writing, and it should be noted that those stories were posted in the cross-genre category. So what was his problem?
So, I responded to his review via email and asked that he kindly review the actual writing and not provide career advice or editorial commentary on the writing industry. It wasn’t requested and it really irks me that he got two review points for simply going on a tangent about his personal thoughts. There was absolutely nothing in that review that was useful. Luckily I received four other reviews within the week that were useful. Hmm, how is it that they all found constructive criticism and he couldn’t think of anything to say?
The good thing about it, I think I was prepared for this kind of experience. I have known others who have had far worse luck with online critique groups. I am also used to weeding out comments and being able to evaluate what suggestions should be followed and what ones shouldn’t. I think the two most important things to do as a writer are to: 1) learn how to take feedback and make revisions on your work and 2) have a strong enough understanding of the story that you want to tell so that you are always in control. Some people will completely change their story based on a critique, not realizing that it is just one person’s view. I think it was Charlie (http://home.earthlink.net/~ccfinlay/ )that told me, “everyone who reads your story might find trouble with one particular element but it still doesn’t mean that the element should be cut. It might simply mean that you didn’t do your job well in setting up the other elements so that that one component makes sense.” And that was probably the best advice anyone has ever given me. So if everyone keeps telling me XYZ doesn’t work and I want to include XYZ then I need to find away to alter the structure of the story so that it does work. And this is why writing takes so damn long.