Saturday, March 31, 2007

Critiquing - fireweed blossoms on the burnt-over patch

I've been going through a dry spell of critiquing. Or had reached a plateau. A flat, dry plateau. Not a slough of despond, fortunately, but not exactly inspiring, either.

I like critiquing. My strength is probably line-critting rather than big-picture issues. I'm good at spotting continuity breaks, and inconsistencies, and keeping track of where the characters are in a scene. That's 'good' in the sense of amateur reviewer, not in the sense of 'people who get paid to do that'.
It was fun, because I could see where small changes could make a real difference, even something as minor as reversing the order of clauses in a sentence. Where someone could cut a couple of words and make a sentence stronger. Easy things to do, for the most part. Sometimes the other writer would immediately pick up on those tricks, and we'd have a back-and-forth where he'd apply the points that made sense to him (not all--this wasn't slavish). His next subs would be stronger and tighter, and more his own voice. It's very cool when that happens. Like showing someone the little painting tricks for trompe l'oeil, and watching them run with it.
I tried to google a citation for the line about editing and the irresistible urge to meddle with someone else's writing, but couldn't--probably because I'm not sure of the exact wording. I did find this:
"We live in a world where the three great motivators of humanity are 1) Food, 2) Sex, and 3), the need to change someone else's writing."
from Joe Clifford Faust's blog. It may be the primary source, but I expect the sentiment has been expressed before the advent of the internet, or even of wordprocessors.
In the interests of honesty, I'll admit that two people told me to never review their work again. In the interests of snarkiness, one of them had an MC who was an escaped slavegirl with natural healing powers and a mind-bonded unicorn, who was taught swordsmanship by an enchanted wolf, and whose hair changed colour when she worked important magic. I said as gently as I could that her heroine was verging on Mary-Sue territory. I guess I wasn't gentle enough.

Then, in the fall of last year, critting became a chore. I'd skim through submissions on Absolute Write's Share Your Work forum, and through the under-reviewed subs on the Online Writing Workshop, and I wouldn't be able to think of anything to say. Or I'd think, well, I could suggest that the writer do this or that, but would it really make a difference? Would they listen, would it matter if they did? Rather like depression, but specific to critiquing. The rest of my life was good--in fact I was excited about attending Viable Paradise.
The irony of this did not escape me. I was going to spend a week critiquing other people's work, in person, and I couldn't stir my stumps to critique online?
I pushed myself. I reminded myself that once I got started, I'd find things to say, and that, reading my crits afterwards, I'd find them more coherent than they felt while I was writing them. But while I did write a few, I fell with a flump off the Top Reviewers List on OWW and disappeared.

Well, after VP I'd be reinvigorated, right?
Yes, for my own writing. That zoomed (at least by my slow-and-steady standards). No for crits. I whined about it on AW, and got a few head-pats, a suggestion that maybe I needed to examine my motivations, and one very thoughtful post from Linda Adams: that since one learns by giving critiques as much as by receiving them, "you may not be doing critiques because you've learned what you need at this point."
I took comfort in that, and tried to think of it as plateau rather than burnout. I did crits here and there, usually of under-reviewed pieces, so I wasn't just repeating what other reviewers had said. (That's my usual practice. If someone's received more than two or three reviews, I figure the useful points have already been made.)

Gradually through March, the base urge to mess with other's prose has slowly, tentatively returned, like a crocus pushing through the soil, or some other trite simile. Whether it's really back, or about to be smushed into black slime by a late frost, I don't know. But I've posted three crits on OWW, and four brief crits and one multi-part line-crit on AW, which is more than I've achieved since, oh, November.

Writing, the stuff I'm really supposed to be doing...
The Willow Knot hit 71k this month. I'm slowing down, because I've reached the point where I need to figure out which scenes still need to be written, and write those, not just bumble around in the world and see what I trip over.
I also need to work out the details of the plot against Alard, and what makes it necessary to move at that point. Who gains what?
On the happy side, there's a fever-dream that I'd sketched in after Myl's encounter with the bear, where she's taken underground (foreshadow willow-root rescue later) and sees the root-forest as the reverse of the branch-forest, as lively and as beautiful, for all that it's worms and bugs instead of birds and squirrels. Originally it was just an idea that I thought was cool. Now I'm thinking it may tie in thematically with the latter part of the story, Myl at court. She's been humbled, now she's raised as high as she can go, but she'll need all the skills she learnt at the bottom to keep herself safe at the top. And she can see how necessary the roots of the tree are to the crown (pun, sorry) which may not be as clear to those who've never looked down.
Something for me to think about, if I can avoid being heavy-handed and preachy!

Just finished reading The Thread That Binds the Bones, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Very nicely written--she's a stylist. The premise is pretty much ZennaHenderson's The People gone bad, which is intriguing. Very readable, but I felt it skimpy in parts. Not that I wanted an explanation or backstory for the Family, or why they have Clearly Symbolic Surnames, but that the baddy was such a shadowy figure until the end, and it seemed the other characters were overlooking the source of the problem (which was perhaps established too early, or I'm too quick at guessing). Also I didn't really feel afraid for the hero; his powers were so mutable and adaptable I felt sure they'd rise to the occasion.
I enjoyed it, and I'd read other books by her, but it did make me wonder if she was held back by wordcount limits or other considerations.

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