Up until yesterday, I was a member of Scribophile, an online writing site where you post your work up on your own page to gain feedback from other readers. I must say, I wasn’t too hopeful about the site when I started. Mostly because I was once a member of Fanstory.com and several Facebook Writers Group pages. And my experience with Scribophile was fairly similar to all of those other groups. The thing is, there is a potential there for crucial feedback. If only the service wasn’t rewards based. We all want to know how our writings fair when read by an outside observer. We hope that they will approach the work as a reader of any sort of literature. Regrettably, that’s rarely the case in these sorts of communities.
To start off, when you make up a free page with these groups (yes, there is a free page option available. If you don’t mind severe limitations on what kind of posts you can make), you can post a segment of your work for review. The demand from Scribophile is that the critique contain ‘actionable feedback’, meaning that saying that this works and I like it in a story isn’t enough to warrant Karma Points (their reward system that makes it possible for you to post your work) and you can be flagged and lose Karma Points that you’ve accumulated by not providing this vague notion of ‘actionable feedback’. I was flagged several times for not giving ‘appropriate’ critiques and it’s hard to know what you did wrong because the moderators refuse to tell you. It’s just, ‘follow the rules’ and no explanation as to what the violation was. Then what inevitable occurs is that every critiquer on the site is using the edit tool available to red-edit all of your work and writing it the way they’d write it rather than concentrating on how the work flows on its own merits. This results in ‘feedback’ that is nearly always based on grammar and restructuring of paragraphs as opposed to how the flow of the piece reads.
As you go along with the site and spend months and months posting and responding to critiques, you come to realize a pattern of response from the other writers on the site: they don’t seem to understand how being a reader works. They’re so busy trying to be brilliant writers, they ignore the art of writing itself. Story telling is something quite quickly dismissed by the majority of reviewers and it comes down to how they themselves would present the material.
In my previous post, I discussed what good feedback should contain from my own personal perspective. Instead of critical feedback from the community, I was ostracized as being whinny and uncertain in my writing. Accused of just wanting ‘positive reviews’ rather than the ‘actionable feedback’ I was desperately needing. The community of Scribophile is very tight knit and highly defensive of what they view as a family of writers. So any sort of criticism of the site is, ironically enough, dismissed as just the ravings of someone who can’t accept that their writing is trash. And I’ve heard this language utilized there (part of the reason I quit the site). The mentality of these sorts of sites (Fanstory, Scribophile, Inkett, Booksie, and just about all of the FaceBook groups) equates nearly to a cult. If you seek out one of these sites for your writing, be prepared, you’re the newcomer and they’re the ‘professionals’. Writing is secondary to pride. And usually the longer a writer has been on the site, the more reputation they have in the community. And they are more than ready to show it.
Now, this is not to say I didn’t derive some sort of satisfaction from the sites I’ve used. In fact, I’ve met a few good beta readers who’ve been helping me out with my own writing by exchanging works. But that comes at a cost because those folk are few and far between. Ninety Six Percent of the time, you’ll be dealing with people who think they can write better than you. And they can’t wait to prove it to you. I had a conversation on Scribophile with a guy who wrote like he was David Lynch, trying to be very obscure in his storytelling and confusing with his story beats. When he wrote these posts, it was in a scattered sort of way that described nothing and gave you no understanding of the tale he was unraveling. When I tried to message him about his work, his response to me was in that same voice. Because, strangely, he wanted to play the part of the eclectic writer who is what he writes. And I exchanged some messages with another writer who thought his work was so enlightened that it was beyond the average person to comprehend and made this thought known quite clearly. The pretentiousness of many of these old hands on these sites doesn’t translate to sales of a work or a good story, it only represents a community willing to raise them up to a platform they never earned. And it’s an easy trap to fall into.
I’ve seen several excellent authors completely derail their works in both Fanstory and Scribophile due to feedback from other writers who told them to ditch this and that, and rewrite prose in another certain fashion. Works of fiction that in their original state would have been amazing on the market of literature tossed to the wayside to please some random person who thinks they know how to write because they took a course in Creative Writing (I got a lot of heat for pointing that out to them. They thought I was the pretentious one because I wasn’t ‘talented’ enough to keep pace with the rest of them. Oh, and believe me when I say this, they are quick to turn on you if you’re not lavishing praise on them nonstop). Still, there are a few on these sites who are genuine. Maybe five percent, at best.
I spent five months on Scribophile. I spent three years on Fanstory. You know what I got out of it? Other writers don’t know how to read. They’re so busy rewriting your work, they’re not concerned on the story you’re telling. They’re not there to read your novel. They’re there to get a leg up on those precious points to post their own sections hoping that their greatest is what will be discussed. They’re not there for you, they’re there for themselves. I can’t blame them this conceit, because, if you’re looking for sites such as these, you’re there for yourself as well. Because you want to know how your story will be received. Well, reality check, if you think others’ works are boring, they’ll think the same about yours. If you’re not willing to put the work in to help another writer improve and write a bestseller, they’re not going to do that for you.
So what’s the moral of the story? I would say this, don’t trust online writing sites. Finding Beta Readers is a challenge. These sites are not Beta Readers. They’re businesses designed to separate you from your hard earned cash. I would recommend not worrying about them so much and trust your instinct on your writing. If, however, you’re that hard pressed over the matter, look for local groups that meet up in person. It’s not guaranteed you’ll get what you’re looking for, but at least they have to look you in the eye when they start talking about how they would have written your piece. I’ve spent over a decade and a half on one site and another and it always ends up the same way: with me walking away from them because they’re frustrating and rarely useful. I’ve squandered too many years trying to hear from the perfect reader. Instead, I should have just been polishing my work and finding an agent who could get me an editor. Editors don’t let ego get in the way, only the structure of the tale in question.
Random people over the internet? They couldn’t care less. If you sign up for one of these online sites, be prepared to be annoyed, frustrated, and angry. If you’re not and you like the ‘feedback’ you’re getting from these people, be wary. You might just be sacrificing your best work to ravenous animals. Beware and be cautious. Sometimes it’s better to find readers in your own neighborhood. And occasionally, very rarely, you’ll find a good quality reader who’ll give you honest feedback. I’ve been a patron of these sites since 2001. In all that time and all the thousands of posts, I’ve found three decent Beta Readers. Three. But I did learn an important lesson, what it means to be a good Beta Reader. And I focus on not just grammatical issues but the story as a whole. Because the story is why people buy your book. Not how pretty your words are.
But, what do I know? I’ve only been doing this insanity for eighteen years. Never been published yet (Wait! There was that one short story in Turkish thanks to a penpal!). However, I think the reason for that is this: I’ve spent too much time caring about what other people think and not enough time being true to myself.
You know what? For now on, I’m just going to be true to myself. Take from this what you will.
Okay, here we go! I’ve been a member of Scribophile since 2006. So, a warning, I have a potty mouth, nanner, nanner, nanner. Therefore, if you are easily offended by colorful metaphors of a profane variety, close your eyes.
You listen to that warning and suggestion? I hope so. You know why. Because I prefaced my writing here with it. That’s something that, number one, you should pay attention to. Because every writer has a certain criteria they are looking to have adhered to. If you ignore that very first suggestion, then that’s on you, buddy. You can’t make a comment saying, ‘Why are you cussing so much!? I don’t like that! It offends my delicate sensibilities!’ Well, then. I did tell you. But, apparently, you can’t read. Which, funnily enough, is something every writer should be accustomed to. I’m a very blunt, to the point person. I don’t mince words. I get right in and express my thoughts. I don’t give two shits about how offensive my perspective might be. Because, I’m not just approaching my thoughts as a writer, I’m also approaching them as a reader.
Here are some of my favorite authors: Stephen King, Connie Willis, Timothy Zahn, Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, Douglass Adams, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and KJ Parker (aka Tom Holt). What do these authors have in common? They write stories because they’re driven to. They are as different from one another as water and vinegar and yet I adore so much that they all write. It also demonstrates something else, their approaches to writing are astronomically as far apart as can be. Why is this? Why do they write so differently? Why do they have different audiences? Can’t they see that writing has one way, and one way alone to present!? Well, it’s because they write so differently that I like them. Because, they write from the heart, follow their characters, challenge the status quo of what ‘good’ writing actually is. Each and every one of them has a unique voice that gives so much characterization to their works. And each one of them you can pick up a work and say, ‘Oh yeah, so and so wrote this.’
Why bring this up here, you might be wondering. Well, it’s because of one unique trait that every one of those mentioned authors hold that hopefuls on this site seem so profoundly lacking of: a seasoned READER. Every single one of these authors write because they love to read and be taken into other worlds. And yet, on Scribophile, so many potentials seem unable to recognize that one basic goddamned tenet, read, damn you! Why won’t it read!? And it’s a question that’s been brewing in my mind in the many months since I’ve been back on the site. In fact, I originally left back in 2007 because of the incessant need for writers to rewrite other writers’ works without leaving any actual constructive feedback.
I think part of the problem lies in Scribophile’s directives that any commentary left needs to be, ‘actionable feedback’, which seems to baffle a good deal many writers. Apparently, actionable feedback from the majority means rewriting the work in question via red inline edits and then suggesting the author in question could be better served by not being: overly wordy, too descriptive, not descriptive enough, too much dialogue, not enough dialogue, this dialogue should be written this way because I don’t think they’d talk like that, I don’t need to know this, why don’t I know this?, I didn’t read the previous postings but who’s this guy?, you should tell us who this is and get into their backgrounds (in chapter 20!), stop using parenthesis!, you should use parenthesis, etc etc etc. And the potential ends up falling into this trap that narrative can only be written one way. The way they learn in creative writing. Yet, I wonder, would they make this suggestion to Stephen King and Connie Willis? After all, they write completely differently with different inflections and conditions in the story. So, what is the proper way to write? Well, isn’t THAT the million dollar question?
Here’s what I think, there is NO proper way to write. You write how you write and express what’s in your mind. There are no rules for that. Yes, grammar plays a role. But here’ s my feelings on grammar: they’re the final paint job on the work. Imagine, if you will, you’re building a car from scratch. Let’s say a vintage 57 Chevy, because those will never go out of style! You find a chassis you can use. And then an engine. You start building it up over the years, trying to get the gearing just right. But then you want to know, will the engine start? So you start trying to get that engine to start. But, it just won’t. So, what do you do? Well, call over a few mechanic friends to see what the issue is! You set the timing just right, see how tense the torque will be, build the crankshaft to specs nobody has seen before! Haa Haau Hooo! But, you’re not going to build the body around it without testing the engine first, are you? I mean, you have to make sure the sonuvabitch will even turn on!
That’s the process of writing. That’s why we’re here. We’re testing our engine. Seeing how it runs. Too many people are concerned about the final finish. However, how are you to get to the final finish without guaranteeing a strong, powerful engine? That’s the base story that we’re looking at here. Our first few drafts are our engines. We want to know how that story functions. Yeah, the grammar is shit, the phrasing ridiculous (by all means, point that out! But tell me, does it purr?), but tell me how the characters are. Tell me how the plotting moves the tale forward. I don’t CARE if I wrote, ‘…and they walked down the trail looking left and right hoping not to see the beast lurking in the dark…” instead of, ‘…The trail was dark and ominous as they huddled together, eyes darting in all directions, praying that the beast wouldn’t show it’s deformed face.’ That’s for after, AFTER, when I know the story works. That’s the paint job for when I know the story is purring so good all I have to do is add a few coats of prime language and gloss it over with beautiful metaphors. The story as a foundation comes first and foremost.
So, how can we be better critiquers here on Scribophile? Well, I’m no expert, but I know what I want. And it’s because of my wants I started critiquing a certain way. I no longer do red inline edits because I think it’s just disrespectful to the author. They know the voice they want to convey! My role is just to express how I felt as a reader! So I don’t delete and edit and rewrite. It’s disgraceful and pretentious! If I was a published author, I wouldn’t need to be here fleshing out my final work! I mean, I guess I could self-publish, but I don’t feel like that validates me as a writer (and that’s just me. You want to self-publish, more power to you and good luck!). I want that contract. I need that publisher saying, ‘Yeah, we want you.’ But, even if I was, I still wouldn’t do it. Because that’s discouraging to up and comers. If you’re here, you want support and ideas on how to flesh out that miraculous tome that might be the next Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, or just anything by King. And that’s where my suggestions come into play.
1- Don’t assume you know everything. Just like all of us here, you’re trying to be recognized for your own writing skills as well. Acting like a jerk and saying, ‘I wouldn’t have read this if not for the Karma Points’ isn’t doing you any favors. Be constructive, and polite. After all, you are building a relationship here. Trying to get others to read your work as well. If you’re rude, they won’t be coming.
2- If an author has guidelines on what they’re looking for in regards to their work, pay attention to that. Closely. Don’t dismiss them and do what you’re going to do anyway. Because that will just anger the author and make you look like a chump. They went out of their way to say that they’re looking for A and you seem content to only offer Z, which is nowhere near what they want. Stick as close to the author’s desire as possible. They’ll appreciate it and, without a doubt, return the favor.
3- Stop trying to rewrite the work as if it is your own! It’s not. Offer up what you see that’s flawed from a reader’s standpoint. When you constantly try to rework someone else’s story as your own, you only demonstrate that you aren’t interested in what their voice is. You’re only there for the Karma Points and not for helping the author develop further. This is a serious issue that hinders many critiques.
4- If a title says the chapter presented is: ‘Hollywood Is Self-Righteous Part 1″, the conclusion drawn must be that this isn’t the whole chapter but merely part of it. A part of a chapter is put up because of the limitations of Scribophile’s desire that works be no longer than three thousand words long. This is for pacing and concentration. If you like the part you’re reading, then read on to see how it finishes. Leave commentary on how the work made you feel and how it works on the narrative level. Don’t pretend like this is the first posting ever in this series. It’s frustrating to be in chapter 30 part 3 of a novel and to hear, ‘we don’t know who this is. Your reader wants to be let in on the dynamics of your characters. Describe them, explain who they are, walk us through their lives.’ If you’re saying this in chapter 30, you obviously haven’t been reading and you obviously didn’t pay attention to what the posting was to begin with. Take the time to get caught up with the narrative before commenting, or, if that isn’t an option, consider how the work is presented outside of the fact that it is part of a large narrative. Every good story should be able to hook a reader from the get go wherever they start in the story. Your job is to express how successful the author is in the endeavor. Not make it look like you’ve never read a book in your life.
5- Stop worrying about grammar! Yes, grammar is important. But it’s generally the last thing on an author’s mind when trying to flesh out a novel. If you want to be helpful, focus on the narrative as a whole and offer up advice on how it can be tightened up. We all know that our works can be prettier than they are. But if the sole focus is grammar, we’ll never know how the story works in general. Absolutely point out where things can be better written, but do your due diligence in also looking at the story as a whole. You are here because you want to be a better writer. There’s no better way of improving your writing than being a solid critiquer. It gives you insights from a reader’s standpoint you might not have thought of if not for taking the time to review someone else’s tale. This makes you more aware of balance and structure more than anything. Take the time to review a work and be thorough with it rather than dismissive. You’re not just benefiting the other author, you’re benefiting yourself.
6- Whatever you think writing is supposed to be about, toss it out. It isn’t. Writing is personal expression and no two people will ever write exactly the same way. This is due to the fact that we all have unique personalities and attributes. Yeah, we can better spell and more cohesively present our works, but at the end of the day, we’re making art. It isn’t specific, it’s interpretive. Which is why so many authors you have read have gotten away with some entirely egregious bastardizations of writing conventions. You write for yourself first and foremost. If you let anyone get in the way of that, you’re sacrificing your own word for the sake of committee. Stay true to yourself and be always aware that you won’t make everybody happy. You should come first in the narrative. So do that and your potential audience will follow.
7- When writing up a critique for a fellow Scribber, focus on the intent of the piece. Don’t think you can just come along and rewrite it for them. Highlight the piece and say this worked and that didn’t. Offer your suggestions. But don’t pretend that yours is the final word. Focus on how to help your fellow writer be a better author and not on how you can uplift your ego. We all struggle in being better writers. We don’t need people to sit back and claim they’re superior because they self-published on Kindle. That helps no one and only serves to alienate authors from a potential career and all because you think you know everything about writing because you took a creative writing course in college. Writing is an art, it isn’t the sort of skill that you learn from a professor. It’s a creative endeavor that takes a lifetime to master and a mind that is open to infinite possibilities. If you think that there is a narrow set of rules for the art of writing, you’ve already stifled your creativity. You’ve already eliminated your ability to advance and grow. Listen to your fellow authors, take advice with a grain of salt, and always, always, always read and continue to add to your retinue of literative devices.
In summation, those are my most basic ideas for advice for critiquing on Scribophile. Look to help advance an author’s work not hinder it. I’ve seen too many times other writers tearing down someone’s work because it doesn’t fit their narrow definition of what writing means. Language is always in a state of random evolution and it will never sit still long enough for any real ground rules to apply to it. Write how you want to write. Tell the story you want to tell. Show us the situations that your characters are going through in any number of ways. And don’t sacrifice your vision just because a bunch of writers thought it didn’t work the way they thought it would. Every classic story had its huge share of detractors and they’re only classic today because the authors stuck to their guns and made the best tale they could by themselves. You can please some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. Wise, sensible words. It’s your voice that needs to be heard, not the combined din of the masses. Write it, shake off the cobwebs, and then put it out there and see the results.
This site exists to put a spotlight on potential issues, but it can’t write the story for you. Be honest with yourself and be a solid critiquer. People really like it when you’re honest, concise, and deep delving like a spelunker for their works. Because when you take the time to be a thorough critiquer and offer up honest and true advice, other writers will take notice. So get in there, work through the piece, offer up how it made you feel! Stop trying to write it for them! Give them the synopsis of if you would actually purchase the work in question and why. Because, in the end, we are only made better by those who take the time to care about the narrative and share how it works overall. Giving a lackluster, ‘eh, you could’ve said this or that’ and then rewrite it to your specs, only says you don’t really care about what you’re reading.
And that, my friends, makes me sad. So be a good critiquer and offer up actual, useful advice to the potential writer. And don’t pretend you know it all, you don’t. None of us do.
Thanks for reading and good luck to you all!
~Timothy S Purvis
I’m about to say something unpopular.
I’m not one to hold my thoughts in, and I’m not going to start now. I kind of want to address a little blurb that’s been making its Facebook rounds the last week or so: ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’ And, I’ve never been one who agreed with that sentiment. I think it’s our constitutional right to complain whether we vote or not. Those who don’t vote, I think are making their voices heard as well. They just don’t think it matters. I understand that mentality. I think it’s up to the individual to make the decision whether or not they’re going to vote. So, I thought I’d make a little post explaining their decision making rational. Bear with me if you will, because these are actually not the people who complain. It’s those who’ve already voted who tend to vent their frustrations.
To the majority of Americans (the ones who find it unnecessary to vote in every election), it just doesn’t matter which party is in charge. To them, both parties are beholden to corporate special interests and lobbyists. If you look at how Congress is run, outside of those attack ads on one another, they tend to side with one another far more frequently than publicly revealed. It’s the hot button issues they yell and scream about to drum up constituent support. And many see this as just the same people doing the same thing and not working for the US citizen at large (though they will… when no one is looking), but rather for their own selfish interests. The general thought is they have their own lives to live so why worry about politics? The nonvoter rarely says, ‘It sucks the direction we’re going!’, but usually laments, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I hate politics.’
This is because most US citizens are not liberal or conservative, but moderate. They just want the government to do their job, regardless of who’s in charge. They want them to work together to bring policy to bear that will benefit the majority of Americans rather than making their lives more difficult.
I recently had a debate on a heavily liberal leaning page (almost socialist in its views) where the very notion of Centrism was viewed as a liability to the country. That the very idea was comparable to ‘hand wringers’ who couldn’t make a decision, and just wanted to kowtow to everyone in a bid to make as many happy as possible. They view it as destructive to our nation. That it would bring us to ruin if we allowed it to flourish. And I asked, ‘If you’re so opposed to Centrism, then what side do you think will benefit us most? Who has the answers then that will ultimately be our savior?’ Nobody had an answer for me (but they were REAL chatty when I said Centrism would be the best implementation of policy in my view and rather insulting as well).
And that, I think, is where nonvoters fall into place. They see the ideological divide and how badly scarring it is to the nation. And want nothing to do with it. Only hope for the best, keep their heads down, and focus on their own lives and family. Which, I believe, is what the majority of humanity does. Focuses on their own families and not worry about the larger battle for control of ‘hearts and minds’. I can understand this. Because it can be difficult to make your own opinion heard when both sides are tearing at each other’s throats (and trust me that’s what it looks like looking at the ideological arguments despite the fact some representatives are more aggressively vitriolic than others).
A confession, this is the first midterm I’ve ever voted in. Mostly because in years past I didn’t feel it made much of an impact. I was more for the presidential elections (which I think most people are), and still am. However, I felt that there is a tipping point in the balance of power with this one. That one side is in too great of a position to run with unfettered power. That is unacceptable to me. There must be balance.
Now, let me leave off this long post (sorry, I just couldn’t figure out a way to make it any shorter, there’s just too much that I wanted to say on this issue) with this last thought. Many, many, many people are screaming and yelling and making the point “Vote! Make your voices heard! Because we need to make a change!” The troubling aspect to this I’m finding is that I’m worried not enough people understand exactly what they expect to happen here. Now, I’m fully confident that a balance of power will be restored (which is generally what happens in midterms with an unpopular president). However, there’s no guarantee Democrats will seize the seats needed to gain control. Because, people seem to think in every election cycle that if a president is hated, then everyone will side with them and vote against said president’s party. ‘Yeah, guys! Let’s make a change! Yeah, we’ll show them!’ Yet, it’s just as likely everyone will instead say, ‘Eh, I don’t mind the direction we’re going’ or ‘I just don’t trust those other guys’ and the majority will vote to maintain the status quo. I’m not saying, ‘don’t vote’. I believe it’s important. It is a right. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to go the way you think it will go. And too many people think that if they just say get out and rock the vote that it’ll be what they imagine will happen.
Let me put it this way, in the 2004 presidential election, there was this major push to get the people out to vote so that we could take our country back. Yeah! We’re going to show that Bush, Jr that he can’t take advantage of us and run amok thinking he can do what he wants with impunity! Yet, he won. He won the popular vote as well as the electoral college. The was much crying and sorrow and lamentation of how ‘foolish can America be!?’ And people seem to forget that. The majority of America trusted Bush, Jr more than they did Kerry. And I can understand why. Kerry wasn’t all that electrifying of a candidate. Couldn’t stand the man myself. Voted for him anyway, because like the majority of the people towards Kerry, that’s how I felt about junior. I didn’t trust HIS policies and didn’t like the direction the country was headed. And yet, he carried the presidency for another four years. Of course, the midterms came in 2006 restoring a balance to governmental power. So it wasn’t a total wash.
So, don’t be too harsh on those nonvoters. They just see something the two sides don’t. While the liberals and conservatives are digging their heels into the ideological sand refusing to acknowledge the benefits both can bring to the table, the rest of the nation is just shaking their heads because they’re sick of it. Maybe there’s a lesson there we can all learn from their rationale.
If we listen, of course.
THIS MODERN AGE of ours is a pestilence. It’s boring and uninspiring. I say this not because I know where I live but because I know I don’t want to live there. We live in the constant threat of terrorist strikes and nuclear obliteration. We live in an age where we have to (HAVE to) work for a living. Gone are the days of the blacksmith, wandering bard, or professional student. You absolutely MUST get an education or fall into the rut of retail and fastfood (the service industry as a whole likely employs more people than specialized trades) if you hope to have a home, food, and family. Elsewise, you’re just some vagabond and nothing more. Nobody brags about working at Kroger or being a postal agent. People brag about being a ‘world traveler’, an agent in the FBI (or other government agency), or a CEO of a major conglomerate. Because these jobs allow agency. Whereas your average job just ensures a paycheck. And how many of you are just happy with a paycheck?
There’s always something more we endeavor to be that the Modern Age refuses to allow or admit to.
Maybe that’s why so maybe fantasies and science fiction stories are set anywhere and anytime other than the Modern Age. Think about the games you play or the books you read. How many of them are set in the here and now? And if they are, think about how much agency is put into the telling of that story. Sure, Hunt For Red October, the Outsider, and video games like the PS4 Spider-Man are all set in the Modern Age, but how fantastical are they with their elements to keep you intrigued?
Let’s face it, stories are only good if they’re looking back to the past or forward to the future. Not everybody like Tom Clancy or Stephen King can make the real world seem interesting (or Laurel K. Hamilton for that matter), but everybody loves a good yarn like the Lord of the Rings or a video game series like Mass Effect. Escapism is the magical word we’re all familiar with because the day to day minutia of our everyday lives is just so plain and repetitive. Hell, as I write this, I’m getting ready to go to work at the gas station that employs me for another long and exciting night of sitting there and taking the moronic attitudes of our clientele (Really? It’s our ‘pumps’ that aren’t functioning right? Are you SURE it isn’t because you don’t know how to read?).
And yet I long to finish the final drafts of my novel, find an agent, and escape this rut. To dive deep into my own imagination and escape to worlds that are fantastic and exhilarating. Not blase and unimportant. Not a place where all I do is work, pay the bills, and wonder how I’m going to repay my student loans (hint: never ever and no way). Sure, I love my family (my wife, my son, my parents, my in-laws). But nothing is more exciting than the worlds I see in my mind. Nothing is more exciting than diving into the latest Assassin’s Creed game (to see the past and the strange stories we might find there) or the newest Mass Effect (that has gone out of its way to leave the Milky Way behind and find new adventures in Andromeda). These are exciting stories (I’m still finishing up the Dark Tower series and looking forward to delving into the Outsider!) that draw us out of the everyday and plop us straight down into the middle of something that matters.
Yet, the bland and boring everyday that is filled with the redundant is something none of us are really thrilled about. And even more depressing is dealing with terrorist threats, school shootings, sexual assault perpetrators elevated to the highest levels of government, and the constant, looming dirge of war with foreign nations that we shouldn’t have to worry about be at war with. It makes you wonder what is it all about? What’s the point? What’s the end game? Everything I do today, I’ll be doing tomorrow. And every threat with have to contend with this year, will be the same threat next.
It never ends. But stories that are not in the here and the now gives us some sort of hope that maybe, just maybe we can find a better path and a better future. At least until we open our eyes and have to deal with the same dismal slog as we did yesterday. Then we start wondering again, when is that alien invasion coming?
Clearly they have more insight than we do.
I’ve been looking around the web, trying to find a site that maybe I can get some feedback through. I came back to that ole Scribophile site. I was there for a bit. But, like Fanstory, they suffer from a similar experience: people who are only concerned with HOW you can sell a story. And all those basic little “mistakes” first time writers make. An example of what I mean from one of these sites:
Putting this up, as I wrote it, the original text is, “SHE STOOD THERE, paralyzed. The hand around her throat pressing her face harder into the filth encrusted wall of brick and mud. She tried to stifle the sob desperate to unleash itself and braced for the inevitable violation of her body. She felt a grimy hand (calloused and not the least bit gentle), crawling up her thigh as her frilled satin dress slid up towards her waist. Her eyes clenched tighter, and the sobbing started breaking through.”
How the general reviewer response would be while reviewing this passage, “This is way too wordy. Try not to describe so much and just get into the basics. Why not something like this, ‘Her face was pressed into the wall. The hand around it clenched tighter. She cringed in fear as he pulled up her dress. She braced herself to be raped.’ As you can see, this description gets right into the action and doesn’t bother the reader with so much description. Let the reader get straight to the point. Don’t bog them down with unnecessary adjectives and long sentences. It’s extraneous and pointless.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the advice given with this passage (full disclosure: I did NOT actually post this to Scribophile. This is an example of feedback that I have received from the site and is exactly how the readers there review. I don’t have those old feedbacks readily available. So, I am giving an example of what is received while publishing there. Or, seeking advice anyway. And, should you seek out a website like this, expect similar statements). What’s interesting in this that I’ve found is that most people on those sites tend to stick to the perception of those industry standards that only look for straightforward works (this in spite of the ONSLAUGHT of multimedia projects such as: Resident Evil, Mass Effect, Star Wars, and any number of projects based off an already established product. Novels based on those entities such as Supernatural and Star Trek tend to not be very well written and only exist to get every last dollar. So, yay?) Here’s an example of that mentality straight from a blogger on Scribophile on the notion of selling your work to the mass market:
“If you dream of one day having your book at Barnes and Noble next to Wally Lamb or Mary Higgins Clark, you’d better learn this quick: It must show market potential—which means:
It’s engaging to read
It’s got an innovative, original concept
It’s written with clear, strong language
It plays to an audience that is currently buying books
If you’re an unpublished author and your work can’t meet these criteria, nobody in the publishing world will go near it.
Why? Because publishing is a business—a simple fact they don’t teach you in creative writing classes. When a project comes across an agent/editor’s desk, they’re only thinking one thing: Can I sell this? Although you may love and emulate books by Austen, Hemingway or Tolkien, you should realize—those books would never get published in today’s market!” (bold emphasis is mine but it IS italicized! BTW an aside. Clear, strong language is BS. What they want is simple, to the point language.)
That’s right, folks! Austen, Hemingway, and Tolkien wouldn’t be touched with a ten foot pole in the modern market. That means those famous authors (who, mind you, are the reason we even have a modern market) would have a helluva time trying to find a publisher to carry their works.
Let’s look at the very first paragraph of Tolkien’s seminal work, The Hobbit.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
To me, that’s a perfectly fine and exceptional passage. It immediately brings to mind a scene that suggests a small person hiding himself away under the ground. Safe and sound and secure. Yet, this passage wouldn’t even garner much more than a fleeting ‘eh’ from the modern editor (and, to be honest, Tolkien himself did actually have some issues with editors and publishers of his own time. Which was why Lord of the Rings ended up a trilogy rather than the single novel he had envisioned. But it would be even more difficult in this day in age, is all that I’m saying). So, what the MODERN editor is looking for, if you wish to be published through them, of course, would be something more in line with:
“He was a small person known as a hobbit. He lived in a small hole dug into the ground. It wasn’t dirty or nasty by any sense of those terms. But comfortable and safe.”
Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with this suggested edit. HOWEVER, I’m having a serious problem with our modern story telling conventions. They basically are saying there is no room for flourish (and I LOVE flourish). There is only room for getting to the point. And I find that sad. I think that might be the reason why we don’t have any modern day classics. Not like The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, and The Grapes of Wrath, or The Great Gatsby. No, our current day best sellers list includes things like:
The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
The Outsiders by Stephen King
Line of Sight by Tom Clancy
The Pharaoh Key by Mike Maden
and Shelter In Place by Nora Roberts
By no means are any of these bad books. They are all exceptionally well written, entertaining novels that bring the reader in. But there’s a problem with them. They don’t stand out in the test of time. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re mass marketed. These aren’t the Great American novels promised by the past. These are the books that make publishers money (not that there’s any wrong with that, of course. If you’re in it to win it, there’s a place for you. Believe you me). What it does tell me, though, is that if you want to make it as a published author, you’re going to have to play ball with the publishers and, hopefully, not sacrifice much of your artistic talents in the process.
Let me try to shine a light more on what I’m saying. I’m going to take a passage from one of those more popular authors out there, Stephen King. I love Stephen King’s works. They all entertain me greatly. There isn’t a book by him I won’t pick up, even if I’m not feeling it from the cover. That being said, I get the feeling that even HE would like to be more ostentatious with his writings (despite the major detours he makes in almost all of his stories as it is), but is beholden to his publishers to deliver something THEY think will sell (and I can tell you, a Stephen King fan will just buy his works period. They like his stories, prose be damned!) This passage I will use is from the very first pages of Carrie. King’s first novel. This isn’t the first paragraph as that is a news article but it is the very next one after that (rewriting a news article would be pointless so I’m not going to do that). The passage in question is as follows:
“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass. [break. new one line paragraph] What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.”
This was a pretty good passage that gets the reader into the story rather quickly. But I wonder how many drafts Mr. King had to write until the publishers were okay with it? Now, there are a few run-ons in it and I don’t mind them one bit. It tells me everything I need to know about the setup before getting into the action. However, since I’m a reader that loves flourish, let’s see if I can spice it up to what I like out of a good read (I’m not saying I can do better, this is just an example of what I enjoy. I think this is a wonderful book and I have no problems with it. This is merely a ‘what if’ exercise had I been the one to write it):
“Carrie White was a young woman that many of the girls in the shower room had known since first grade. She’d always been someone that they’d despised, picked on, and hated. Though they’d be hard pressed to say why, she just set something off in their heads. Some little inkling of fear that suggested she wasn’t one of them. Wasn’t right. A real whacked out weirdo that was overweight and ugly. A little white bitch that they kept waiting for to do something outlandish, so that they could remind her of just how pathetic she really was. Hallelujah if that simpleton didn’t just provide them with the greatest opportunity of ridicule ever. They were going to savor this for the rest of their lives (even if some of those other cunts didn’t recognize the treasure trove they’d just been handed). [Break. New Paragraph one line] Unfortunately, none of them understood the full scope of what they were dealing with. Even up until that very moment they’d pushed her to the breaking point.”
Like I said, not perfect. But it provides some flourish without divulging what comes next. For me, it’s the hook that keeps me reading. I don’t feel that I HAVE to spell out what the story is about. I’d rather let it say it for me. But publishers, well, they like having it spelled out up front because they don’t seem to think the reader is smart enough to get what’s happening. Or that they’ll be willing to delve further to answer those questions suddenly raised. Why is she being picked on? Why do they hate her? What did she just do to make them so happy? I like to build on the narrative and carry the themes through. Too many instances, though, are just publishers wanting to skip over all the narration, the exposition (and yet, somehow, still managing to give us too much from time to time and going nowhere), and just make it as simple as possible. Which, as I hope I’ve made clear, is not an issue. Sometimes, a story just requires a simple approach.
However, Jules Vernes, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare (I know, a playwright. But a writer nonetheless), and even the Greek poet Homer, were not simple writers. Their works required thought and a return read to truly understand the works they were writing. The modern day, though, seems to think everything needs to be mass produced to be successful and are not always so willing to let the author just let their work speak for itself. It has to say right there what it’s about and not allow the reader to fill in the blanks.
Let me provide another example for you (I know, I know, we’re getting to the end so cool your jets!) about the expectations of mass produced literature in this current age. This will be the first two passages to the novel ‘Resident Evil: Zero Hour’ by SD Perry (Stephanie Daniel Perry, who has pretty much exclusively written tie in books for the mass media franchises). I read all of the RE books and enjoyed them. I wished they’d served a deeper basis for the movies in fact. But this is what is expected when it comes to the mass media machine:
“The train swayed and rocked as it traveled through the Raccoon woods, the thunder of its wheels echoed by a thundering twilight sky. [Break. New Paragraph.] Bill Nyberg rifled through the Hardy file, his briefcase on the floor at his feet. It had been a long day, and the gentle rocking of the train soothed him. It was late, after eight, but the Ecliptic Express was mostly full, as it often was for the dinner hour. It was a company train, and since the renovation–Umbrella had gone to great expense to make it classically retro, everything from velvet seats to chandeliers in the dining car–a lot of employees brought family or friends along to experience the atmosphere. There were usually a number of out-of-towners on board as well, having caught the connection out of Latham, but Nyberg would have bet that nine out of ten of them worked for Umbrella, too. Without the pharmaceutical giant’s support, Raccoon City wouldn’t even be a wide spot in the road.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the strongest passage I’ve ever read. It says nothing about anything and doesn’t really make the reader care to know more (no offense to Ms. Perry. I enjoy her books even if they bring nothing new to the table-which is something publishers say they ‘want’ but never really acknowledge when they get it) about what’s going to happen next. It’s a pure by the numbers approach that exists simply to sell books. Name recognition is what drives multi media products.
Yet, even with an original work, you, as the writer, are still competing against the expectation of the sell. And it has to be something they can market it as. ‘It’s like Twilight, if it were a soft porno!’, ‘It’s like Star Wars with heroes that are truckers!’, ‘It’s like every 80’s classic ever was crossed with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!’. The sell is what the story compares to, not how it stands on its own. Publication, afterall, is like they say, a business. And it is a very hard sell to get your original work out there to the masses.
This is not to say it’s impossible. It just takes a whole helluva lotta work to get it out there. Now, of course, you could just publish to Kindle (Amazon’s own little publication site through the Kindle Direct Publishing moniker), but as I’ve mentioned before, the site is so much like Steam anymore. Sure, there are some diamonds in the rough, but it’s mostly full of shit. Making it hard to reach an audience. It can be done, but with a whole lot of extraneous work.
The reason why all of us writers have to work so hard (and I admit I’m a newbie. I’ve written 3 books, 25 short stories, 4 novellas, something like 30 non fiction works, and 12 poems. And only 1 published short story in a Turkish magazine) is because we’re fighting against the expectations of the publishers. We might have a potentially HUGE fanbase, but if it can’t be sold ‘like something’ then it might never see the light of day. Which, again, I understand. I get it. They’re a business. They are there to sell a product. And if I know anything, the public is a mass of fickle readers who want a story to remind them of another story they once read.
It’s like pissing in the wind and all you’re really accomplishing is making yourself wet.
What keeps a writer going is that they like to write. If you’re looking for a quick buck, forget it, bucko. You’re in the wrong line of work. But, if you like writing, just write. Fuck it. Your job sucks and you know it. But then you get to come home, drink a beer, and write your problems away. If the masses want to continue buying shit (forgive my french) then to hell with em. Just write what you enjoy and keep going. It’s an uphill battle, and any writer worth their salt knows it. What we REALLY hate is for people to say, ‘You want to write? Man, it’s so hard to get published. Don’t quit your day job’. Yeah, we know. Shut up, you insignificant twat! What we really want to hear is, ‘I know you know it’s hard. But, damnit, don’t give up! Maybe I’m no expert but I like what you write and want to see you published someday!’ If you’re not a writer but know someone who is, just tell them that. Let them know, it isn’t a wasted effort. Because writing is hard. The story itself, easy. I can knock out a story in a few months. Getting someone interested in publishing it, well, that’s another story altogether.
The truth is, writing is not a game for the weak. There is no immediate reward. We’re fighting against business interests just to be seen. We have to play their game to start out with if we ever want to set our own ground rules. There are a lot of popular books out there that say little but are entertaining reads. But they’re never going to be one of the greats. They’re never going to stand beside Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, James Joyce, Mary Shelley, William Faulkner, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, Emily Dickinson, or H.G. Wells. Because those were the authors who defined what modern story telling is all about. We write because they inspired us. Hell, even Edgar Rice Burroughs (much to his utter chagrin), demonstrated how to write a classic story. He is an inspiration of mine, afterall. But now? We write to fulfill a need. A need to sell the next New York Times bestseller. Anything less and the reader is mostly like, “Who?”
Don’t let that dissuade you, though. If you didn’t like writing, you wouldn’t be doing it, would you? So write. And don’t forget it’s hard. Because the people around you sure as hell won’t let you.
I don’t get on here as often as I’d like. Though, I guess the truth of the matter is, I don’t always have a lot to say. Sure, I could rant and rave over political opinions and considerations (Our country is being destroyed by Agent Orange!). But, really, do I have the time and effort? Probably. But that’s for later. This is something else entirely.
I’ve finished the first draft of my novel that I’m trying to get published. Maybe around Spring of 2019 I’ll start the work on searching for an agent. Right now, I’m trying to get it into readable shape. Somehow, I’ve managed to work on the first and second drafts simultaneously (the rough draft was just the story I told myself. Now I’m working on prettying it up so that it’s worth looking at!)
I’m pretty pleased with the story itself. I have a few people reading the rough draft so that they can give me notes on the story and give me thoughts on improvements I might not have considered. And I’m fleshing out story conceits, character developments, and plot points to make it a stronger story.
Once I know if this is going to sell or not, I’ll drop a line here and say ‘Check it out!’ I hope to be able to find an agent and get a contract to write a series. If not, I guess there’s always Kindle. But, that seems to be mostly a fool’s gamble where ANYTHING under the sun can be published but not necessarily sold. So, I’d rather not.
So stayed tuned and I’ll have more to say hopefully sometime soon! Thanks for reading and wish me luck!
~Timothy Scott Purvis