Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Milling the Ford: Don’t Expect the Wrong Things from Critiquing

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

I’ve seen recent online discussion of writers and workshoppers slagging the Milford method.  (That’s the formal name for classic critiquing method, used by most all F/SF writing workshops including Odyssey and both Clarions, where you go around in a circle and everyone gives the author their comments on a submission).

These writers blame it for, among other things,  sending young writers into a spiral of unending revisions on the same story and leaving them tied in knots of self-doubt about their own ability.

Those fates are possible consequences of critiquing. I’ve written probably a thousand critiques and had hundreds done on my own work.  I’ve seen those outcomes and at times resembled some of them myself.

But the Millford method is not the cause.

The cause is writers expecting things from critiquing that it’s not going to deliver without work.

Critiquing is only as good as the critique group’s insight, but not just their insight on writing in general or the specific type of writing in that submission.  Also their insight on you the author–what kind of writer you are, what your goal for that submission is. If they don’t know as much about your writing and its goal as they know about characters and their goals, they won’t be able to give comments that fit not just your vision for the story but also your aim for it.

The benefits of critiquing also depend on you the author’s ability to extract the wheat from the chaff. You have to decide which comments fit your vision for the story and which don’t. Writers who end up tied in knots from getting critiques clearly haven’t figured out how to do this. It’s difficult; even maddening. But that’s not the fault of the method.

And critiquing is never going to add a spark of brilliance or magic or “quan” to a story that doesn’t already have it. The onus for instilling spark rests squarely with the author. Maybe it happens on first draft, or maybe inspiration strikes after critiques or even during. But if the story ends up merely average or competent and without any spark, there’s only one place the blame lies.

To be fair, these subtleties require critiquers who are experienced, familiar, and mature, far moreso than the beginners at most workshops. In fact, a reason why most workshop critiquers are not this good may be that critiquers who are this good have no need to go to a workshop.

Rejecting the Milford method seems to feel liberating for some young writers, but to me it looks like an escape hatch. Spend time cultivating some familiar and mature critiquers, and tackle its difficult decisions, before you give up on it.

A Warrior Bold

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

My writer buddy Saladin Ahmed, author of a great story in BCS and a cool debut fantasy novel, has posted an original swords & sorcery story at his blog.

It also has a tip jar.  Saladin’s been having a rough stretch lately; if you enjoy the story, consider leaving a donation for his time.

Escapism and Epic Fantasy’s Mean Streak

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

On the heels of my post about escapism in F/SF and what works for me, Elizabeth Bear had an essay about it in Clarkesworld.

Filtering her cheeky epistolary voice, she seems to be lamenting the paucity of playfulness and fun in current speculative fiction.  Replaced, as she notes, by the moral complexity of layered character motivations. But she suggests that that move to darker fiction may have gone too far.

In my shallow survey of post-George R.R. Martin epic fantasy novels, I’ve seen that very thing. Through the mid-90s, epic fantasy protagonists on the whole had monochromatic motivations and battled singularly eeevil villains.  A Song of Ice and Fire brought characters with multifaceted motivations (which incidentally obviated the need for a villain because complex characters will, quite justifiably, do plenty of villainy to each other).

Like Bear posits about spec-fic in general, I’ve seen epic fantasy take that villainy or ‘meanness’, as she calls it, and pile it on, with seemingly no care for balance or reason. She laments the loss of positive endings. I more lament that the preponderance of villainy has given me John Gardner’s disPollyanna Syndrome, which she mentions: the expectation that every outcome will be the worst possible one.

It’s not that I want happy endings; I want to feel the chance of a happy ending. Or an unresolved ending. I want to feel the same uncertainty in a fictional situation that I feel in real life. I want to feel the characters fighting to control their destiny, and failing if they are going to fail but also succeeding, if that’s the perfect conclusion to that story.

This dark or brutal or ‘mean’ trend in current epic fantasy has sold tons of books and launched dozens of novelists’ careers, so plenty of readers are getting escapism from it. But I prefer the ones that are multifaceted.  I knew already that I find escapism in complex characters, but this makes me realize that I also find it in complex situations and nuanced outcomes.

Reader Guesses, Coloring Our Expectations

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Marie Brennan, author of a series of historical-fantasy novels and a bunch of short stories, including multiple ones in my magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, had a really neat post on the SFWA website a few weeks ago about audience expectations and reactions in terms of theories or guesses about plot twists or revelations.

She talks about how those reader guesses can change over the course of experiencing a work; how the author or the plot sometimes does meet the theory or otherwise react to it, and how we writers when reading may experience that more acutely than most audience members.

I really like her concept of “third-order (plot) answers”:

A lot of mysteries have an obvious culprit, and then a character who is, if you know your narrative conventions, the obvious alternative to the obvious culprit. I like mysteries that go one step further.

That’s what I try to do in my plots too.  My story “Of Casting Pits and Caustic Salts” (published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly) had several plots twists.  An older story of mine didn’t seem to have been very good at hiding who the culprit was, so with “Salts,” I tried especially hard to offer multiple culprits for each event of unknown cause.

Not so much an obvious culprit and an obvious alternate, as Brennan explains, but two or even more possible culprits. And multiple possible reasons why those culprits might have done that thing. “Salts” is a spy story, so the twists were important.  And to me, because character is always the key, the characters’ possible motivations for perhaps having done those twist events were even more important.

So I think the idea of reader expectations and theorizing of culprits is very important for us writers to consider as we craft the story. We want the reader to enjoy the read–I’m with Brennan in that the best plot twists are the ones you see coming half a second before the reveal. We need to make those twists engaging beforehand, yet still surprising once they happen.