Monday, December 20, 2010

I'm a Heartless Critter

And I don't mean I'm a snake or spider.

One reason why I don't do a lot of critiquing for fellow writers is that I believe in honest, brutal truth. Unfortunately, not every writer can handle the truth.

I understand that. We, as artists, are essentially self-absorbed and we believe in our works. Furthermore, we're very protective of such works. Everyone likes to hear praises, "well done" and "you're such a great writer." Rejections of any kind, including constructive criticism is hard, even something as minute and simple as "you have a comma splice."

Been there, done that. So I can certainly understand.

However, I can't offer my critique without being true to myself and the craft, and that is: Be honest and upfront about everything. I am not going to do a crit if the writer only wants praise and encouragement (I give them, too, but not in the form of critiques). I don't think that kind of critique is useful to a writer. And I also make sure they understand that everything I say, as harsh or as unflattering, is all from the heart and the way I see it. They are only my opinions.  OPINIONS. These opinions may be wrong -- I may be very wrong! -- but I don't give them because I am trying to be condescending, to say, "I know better than you." I'm not trying to insult other writers. I'm not trying to say "you suck."

Far from it. What I want to do is to pay it forward and help my fellow writers. I have no ulterior motives. I don't get the jollies for ruining other people's self-esteem. If I didn't want you to succeed, I wouldn't offer my help. I'm not trying to ruin you or your career. I'm not trying to sabotage you.  When I crit, I'm honest with my opinions but I am not mean-spirited. I try to be very professional about it, even if  you're my cousin's daughter's boyfriend.  Especially if you're my cousin's daughter's boyfriend.

However, I've also lost a few friends because of my honest opinions. The truth is, some writers are not ready to accept their writing needs work, or something still isn't right with it. Or they simply don't agree with me, thus they think I'm a fraud. Or a meanie. Or just plain wrong. And that's fine. But to lose friendship over this? It's not worth it.

Therefore, I decided a while ago that I wouldn't be doing any more crits. Whenever a writer asks me to offer my opinions, I start to tread carefully. The thing is, even if they say, "Be brutally honest with me. I can take it," they don't really mean it. And they think I'm wrong. Worse, they become resentful.

Yeah, that happened to be a few times.

Not worth it.

In fact, I'm a much happier person now that I'm not doing any crits.  I've found peace.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I admit I don't read much fantasy and I may not be the best person to talk about the genre (and I'll probably offend others who write fantasy...but!) Recently I read and critiqued a few fantasy queries and I noticed something:

- Most queries/stories start with a boy or a girl who has some kind of handicap (broken family, orphaned, physically ill, etc.)...
- who has magical powers, whether he or she knows or not
- they're usually taken or led to a magic realm....
- where they're quickly met with the villain(s)....
- and they discover they have special power, or destined to save the magical realm, either via some kind of prophecy or by being thrust into that position
- they must choose to go back to their normal life or fight to save the world

OK, I may have exaggerated a bit, but not too much. After reading about 10 queries that follow a similar arc, I begin to wonder: Is Fantasy really that derivative? And how are the writers supposed to set their manuscript apart? If I were an agent and I read 100 queries that sounded like that (albeit with different names, locations, artifacts and "magical powers"), I'd feel like drowning myself.

I suppose that's the bane of genres, especially if you're on the other side, trying to find something unique and good to publish. How are you going to dig through all those manuscripts when they all sound similar. I assume the same could be said about anything (romance, for example -- all variations of the same "X meets Y and they fall in love against all odds" premise).

I'm not knocking genres. Seriously, I'm not. Obviously these story arcs work. But my question is, how does a writer distinguish himself/herself from the pack, if everyone writes a similar arc?  I suppose the trick is in the details:  the characters, the locations, etc.  The problem is, if you're writing about a magical kingdom and a magical stone, chances are you're competing with 1000 other writers who wrote about magical kingdoms and magical stones, and your risk having the disenchanted agent skimping and saying, "What's new? Next."

It's a tough business, and when you're writing a genre that is full of tropes and conventions, it gets even tougher to set yourself apart. More of the same thing is not necessarily a good thing. It's indeed a tough job to set yourself apart.