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.
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.