Critique Peeves (#1 in what will hopefully develop into a series)

I follow a writer and writing mentor on Twitter, K. M. Weiland (who is a lovely person and you should follow her, too). Every day, she posts a “writer’s question of the day.”  They can be anything from “What is the color of your antagonist’s hair?” to “What is the twist in your plot?” And unlike many writing exercises, I find them quite entertaining and helpful.

Today’s question was, “What do you find hardest when other writers critique your work?” I didn’t even have to think about it. The single hardest thing for me when other writers–or reviewers, or anyone, for that matter–critiques my work is getting a long-winded critique of the work that person thinks I should have written instead of the one I did, in fact, write. Now, you’d think it would be a non-issue. You read a book and remark on what’s there, right? Unfortunately for many people, in my experience, this is less obvious than it would seem.

It first happened to me about fifteen years ago. I sent a friend whom I trusted to be intelligent, with whom I had gone to school, the first five or six chapters of a fantasy novel I was working on at the time. My intent for the book was to explore how a certain noble family I had created for my world came to be wiped out, how their sole heir was raised in hiding and in ignorance of who she was, and how the discovery of her connection to her family’s doom led her to abandon the life she’d always known and become that world’s equivalent of a heroin addict. (It was called A Talent for Fire, and I never did finish it. I just didn’t have the skills at the time and then my interests led elsewhere.)

This was in the days before email was much of a thing (so it might have been more than fifteen years ago, okay). I sent her my pages and a couple weeks later got back a ten-page screed enumerating all the reasons why my entire premise was flawed, starting with, “the heir to such a prominent and powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity because political facti0ns would be struggling for control of the estates, blah, blah, blah, The Medicis.”

Excuse me? The heir to a powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity? Since when??? How many times in myth and folklore has this been just the case? King Arthur, anybody? And what the fuck did The Medicis have to do with my world, which I had created, where I made the rules?

I might point out that my friend had a fondness for long-winded novels full of Machiavellian political intrigue. She did not find this in my pages, so she proceeded to tell me how she would have written a novel. I wrote back and told her this, and furthermore reminded her that my book did not take place in this world, The Medicis did not appear anywhere in the world I had created, and I got to say what could happen and what couldn’t. Furthermore, she hadn’t actually addressed anything that did appear in the pages I had sent her.

Well, she was much chastened. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I have gone through the frustration of someone not truly considering the words I had put on the page, and not trusting me to know what story I was trying to tell. When The Unquiet Grave was in its early stages, I tried belonging to a critique group. Now, the central premise of The Unquiet Grave is the main character, a witch who has renounced using her powers, having to choose between taking them back to save her community–which would be harmful to her, personally–or remaining Mundane and saving herself. One of the people in the group gave me this feedback after chapter three: “We know she’s going to take her powers back, so why don’t you just make her have powers up front so we can move along.”

Because that’s the book, you moron!

I’ve gotten similar, um, mistaken suggestions in query workshops. People have asked my where the Dark Lord is, because all fantasy in all sub-genres OBVIOUSLY has to have a Dark Lord. “Shouldn’t leave that out of the query!” I’ve been told. I’ve heard that Caitlin Ross is a weak character because she is reluctant to make a decision that’s going eventually to destroy her and tries not to commit to it until the last minute. Personally, I call that a character arc, but whatever. I’ve been told I’m handling a certain demon wrong because “demons are evil.” Never mind that I’m operating in a system I created, which is not Judeo-Christian Standard. These negative experiences with people whom I’d think would know better has turned me into a virtual hermit, mistrustful of anyone I have not vetted through a series of rigorous aptitude tests (including a literary obstacle course). It makes me wonder about professional editors who are, I believe, swayed as much by current fashions in genre fiction as they are by the quality of any given work. (My friend, Stef, tells me I have “an adversarial attitude” toward the editing process but “that’s maybe not a surprise in a person with serious trust issues.”)

But people. Please. It’s NOT that hard. All you have to do is say what you see, rather than comment on what you feel is lacking. (Unless, you know, what you feel is lacking is a comprehensible plot.) What do you notice about the work? Come on, you have to notice something. Otherwise, you have no basis at all for saying, “This rocks” or “This sucks.”

Be as specific as possible. It’s okay to keep it simple; you’re giving useful feedback, not composing literary criticism. To a working writer, “I couldn’t tell your characters apart” is a lot more helpful than “the symbolic interactions of the window curtains and the night air had a deep meaning.” Also, keep it personal. We’re talking about what strikes you, not what some hypothetical future reader might think. Use your I-statements. Some examples: “I could really hear the dialog.” “I couldn’t visualize the setting.” “You use a lot of big words.” “You spend a lot of time talking about clothes.” “You described a character in depth and then he disappeared.” “I didn’t understand what was supposed to be happening here.” Now, use that as a starting point for your feedback. If you couldn’t tell the characters apart, you might say, “I’d like to see more individual physical habits” or “Does everyone have to be beautiful?” If the dialog didn’t work for you, you might say, “I don’t think people of that age talk like that.” If the action seems slow, try suggesting that the writer pick up the pace by adding more movement and gesture, or you might say “I think scene one should come after scene five.” Just address the work you’ve supposedly read, not some other thing that exists only in your mind.

Above all, remember you don’t own this. If you’re giving critique, especially to a work in progress, it’s not your business to force the book into the shape you wish it had. I always preface every critique with a disclaimer: “As always, this is your work and you are free to take or leave any of these suggestions. But this is what I see.” because, you know, we writers are an insecure lot and we’re almost always ready to fall all over the place trying to please everyone and get validation.

Okay. That’s my vent. As you were.

Are Writing “Rules” Gendered?

Rules of “good writing” have always bothered me. There are many reasons for this: I have a questioning mind and I don’t accept anything is so simply because some authority tells me it’s so. I see so many places where the rules are “broken”–sometimes for good, and sometimes not so much. (Rereading the Harry Potter series as I recover from my sinus surgery, I haven’t been able to help noticing how much static language and passive voice J.K. Rowling used, especially in the first three books. As an aside, it’s been interesting to watch her writing style mature over the course of the series.) And a lot of the time the “rules” simply don’t apply to my personal experience.

But one thing I never considered was that the rules of writing one sees so much might be gendered.

Like it or not, gender is an issue in a writer’s world, especially when you get into genre fiction. And I mean, the gender of the writer, not of the characters. It’s still a man’s world out there. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need con panels like “Women in Science Fiction;” the fact that women write it wouldn’t be seen as anything remarkable. Men still get most of the reviews, and men are still the ones asked to write reviews. And it’s possible that men are still the ones telling us how to write, whether or not what works for male writers works for women.

I started thinking about this just this morning, actually. Yesterday I read a blog by a prominent male author & blogger. The topic was one of the usual ones: Write even when you don’t feel like it. This is one of the “rules” that bothers me, and I felt moved to comment to that effect. This morning, I found that several people had responded to my comment. I fully expected my point of view to be dismissed, but when I looked at the responses all of them agreed with me and said they appreciated my articulating what they had wanted to say themselves. And all of the respondents were women.

It got me thinking. The idea of writing every day whether you want to or not comes from a place of privilege, doesn’t it? It assumes that you have even five minutes to yourself to jot down words, that you aren’t struggling with a chronic illness, that you feel justified in taking the time to write. It assumes that not writing every day shows a lack of commitment or the unwillingness to “develop the habit of writing.”

But I have to ask, who has the time? Despite many strides in feminism and equality, it’s still the women who are responsible for most of the housework and child care. Women are still expected to spend more time on personal grooming. Women suffer more chronic illnesses than men, including auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, which can be completely debilitating. Sometimes, we don’t write because we simply CAN’T, not because we’re lazy or less dedicated. And then we have the added burden of feeling guilty about not writing, because so many people who do not have our experience tell us we should be doing it every day, whether we can or not.

It made me wonder about other writing rules. A quick Google search came up with about 650 million results. Obviously I haven’t gone through all of them, but in the first five pages I found two references to lists of writing rules by women as opposed to 30-odd references to writing rules by men. (Many of these were the most recent list from Elmore Leonard.) Making a brief comparison between this list and another by Janet Fitch, it strikes me how dissimilar they are. Leonard’s are, in the main, definite instructions: Do this, Don’t do that. Fitch’s are more suggestions that an individual might apply to his or her own writing experience: Pick a better verb, or explore dependent clauses. I can’t help but feel that, perhaps, this difference may stem from a difference in world view and experience. And it makes me ask the question: Are women writers doing themselves a disservice when they try to follow the rules that have been made up by men in the field?

I don’t have an answer, and I think the question deserves further exploration. I’m interested to hear what others might think.

A Brief Digression About Linguistic Imperialism. Or Something.

A person I follow on Twitter posted today that she was unfollowing Wil Wheaton everywhere because he had “used his position as a celebrity to bully an innocent young girl.” I don’t follow Wheaton myself, but from everything I’ve seen/heard from him, this didn’t sound like him. Of course, I have personal experience in the fact that even the most personable and…socially enlightened of celebrities can make serious blunders regarding things they’re just not educated about or haven’t experienced. Anyway, I was curious. Fortunately for me, the person I follow reblogged the original post, which you can see here.

This exchange triggers me on many levels. In fact, it has been enough to get me up off the couch, where I’ve been recovering–not very graciously or patiently–from reconstructive surgery on my sinuses and drive me to write down some of my process. I’m kind of sure my thoughts on the matter will open me to reaming from various quarters, but, well, there it is.

In case you have decided, for one reason or another, not to follow my handy link, here are the basics of the exchange: Someone, apparently a woman of color (I deduce this from comments late in the exchange) addressed Wil Wheaton’s use of the the term “Spirit Animal.” As I said, I don’t follow Wheaton so I have no clue when, where, or how he used the term. I get the impression (also from things mentioned later) that he uses it often and sometimes as kind of a toss-off, not talking about an actual Spirit Animal, but applying the concept to a person or persons he would like to emulate. The woman posing the question pointed out that he was practicing a kind of cultural appropriation by using a term from Native cultures in this way and suggested he use a different word. Wheaton replied, in effect, that he doesn’t think he’s taking anything from Native Peoples by using the term. Which, yeah, is problematic. But that’s not what triggered me.

What triggered me was someone else’s response to Wheaton’s response, and this is why: It was obvious to me that she had already decided what kind of response she expected to the original question. Several times she reiterated, “Wheaton should have said THIS.” And then she proceeded to tear apart his “apology” for not being what she thought it should be. In fact, it wasn’t an apology at all, and that’s one of the things with which she seems to take exception. Here’s another white guy practicing cultural imperialism through his thoughtless choice of words and not taking responsibility when someone is kind enough to point it out to him.

I kind of get it, as much as I can being a white woman. That is, being part of the dominant culture of the United States. I’m generally not subject to “Whitesplaining,” but I have been and am subject to “Mansplaining,” which in my experience is every bit as crazy-making. And I live most days with “Mental-Health-Splaining.” It sucks big time to have someone not of your culture/background/experience, from whose social progressiveness in other areas you might expect to have a clue, not fall in with your attempts at education. It’s HARD to address this shit, to put yourself out there instead of keeping your mouth shut. And it hurts when someone to whom you look up just doesn’t seem to get it, or even WANT to get it. Honestly, I have been there.

On the other hand, getting defensive and ripping someone a new one when s/he doesn’t give the response you want and/or think you deserve isn’t productive. That’s no longer about education. It’s about you venting your feelings of frustration. And it isn’t conducive to good communication. Okay, yeah, you’re angry at having to explain the same things OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I’m sorry to say this, but SUCK IT UP. Working for change takes saying the same things over and over again. It takes being civil when you want to break things. The message isn’t magic. You have to repeat it more than once. And the more condescending you get, the less people are apt to listen to you. Because when you say shit like “Why am I always the one who has to be civil? The Oppressors never have to worry about being civil to me!” you sound like a kid throwing a tantrum. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! Yeah, life ain’t fair, and the people dealing with oppression and abuse have more on them than the people dishing it out. That’s something I learned my first time in  a mental hospital. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now, but it’s what is.

The respondent’s tone isn’t the only thing that triggers me about the whole exchange, though, and this is where I think I may be accused of being white. I think about this a lot, too, in case you assume that I don’t, but am just writing out of being triggered. I think about it because as a novelist I write about peoples and cultures I am not a part of. I have black characters and Native characters and Latino characters and gay characters–quite a few in my work in progress–and I worry that I can’t do anything to get it right. My male protagonist is a man of Scottish heritage who was the student of a Native American shaman and practices a particular form of shamanism. He has a Spirit Animal. Is it not okay for me to have made this decision because I’m not of Native descent? Or should I have made him Native because of his spiritual system, even though that’s not how I saw the character? I’m not a Native Scot, either. Maybe I should have just stuck with everyone being white American, because that way I wouldn’t run the risk of getting something wrong or being unintentionally offensive. Except then I’d be open to accusations of not being inclusive enough.

I don’t mean any of this as snarky. These are really questions I ask myself. I do my best to be respectful and honest. I do my research. But I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to “get it right.” And I get tired of having to keep my self-censor active all the time because I’m white. There. I said it. I’ll say it again.

I’m tired of having to censor myself so much because I’m white and I’m afraid of getting reamed by someone who thinks my skin color equals my thought process.

A while back I read a blog written by a Pagan man who had participated in a conference with people from varying spiritual and religious backgrounds, including Native American. He recounted how he led an opening ritual which included invoking the directions and casting a circle, as we Pagans do. Later, a Native man confronted him about the practice, accusing him of stealing a Native system for his worship. The blogger tried to engage the man in conversation and explain that many religions share similar methods of setting sacred space, and that doesn’t mean that anyone stole from anyone else. He wasn’t sure the Native man accepted his explanation.

It’s really easy to look at anyone who bears the outward appearance of the dominant cultural mode and think they’re the enemy. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for us poor white folks, even those of us who are trying hard have a lot to keep track of and we can’t always get it right. Sometimes we have to choose our battles, and sometimes our choices are not going to satisfy every single person who can find fault. Rudeness doesn’t win any allies.

I see this tendency toward being reactive all over the place, not just in matters of race. Last spring I read where members of a sorority at a college back east posted sticky notes on the mirrors in the women’s bathrooms. The notes read, “You’re beautiful as you are!” and other variations on this theme. It was the sorority’s attempt to do something positive and affirm women’s rights to come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The next day, the internet was full of op-eds descrying this gesture because “We don’t have to be beautiful. Beauty for women is a construction of the patriarchy. We need to affirm our right to be ugly if we want!” And you know, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But whom does it serve to shame a group trying to do something body-positive because it doesn’t fit your idea of what they should have done?

I don’t think I have anything else to say about this right now. I don’t have any answers. I guess I would just ask all activists, please, the next time someone makes you angry, I don’t care what about or where they’re from, just stop. Take a breath. Show a little more compassion and be a little less ready to blame. Anger is a good place to start change, but a poor work horse.