Recently there has been some furore over a review of Dave Freer’s Dog and Dragon. After Patrick Richardson posted his excellent and quite accurate review, not only did a gentleman (note I use the term loosely) feel the need to throw a big hairy hissy fit over the fact that no good fantasy has been written in the last twenty years and that since his writing idols wrote all possible plots twenty years ago no new ideas could be written BUT another gentleman (again a very loose term) felt the need to write an entire article on the grammar and typos in an UNCORRECTED ADVANCE READING COPY.
This is not designed to highlight the fact that some gentle– oh, heck – some cranks didn’t like Dave’s book. The first didn’t read it, and the second read it looking for things to throw snitt-fits about. Also, since the first took the time to comment on how wretched that Pratchett creature is, I think Dave should be rather proud of hanging with the good people.
No, this is designed to illuminate a type of person all of us, published, unpublished, wanna bes and serious workers at the word-vine will come up against, whether we want to or not.
Reading the screaming hissy fits above, what struck me was the pointlessness of it all, and it reminded me of an incident back when my husband and I were very young (a condition that’s often covalent with stupid, but in this case it was a good-stupid.) After about six years of infertility treatments, when we were twenty eight we decided to take the option that had been suggested by everyone: take a long vacation. Dan took a month unpaid break and we went to Portugal to get away from our normal environment for a while. (This didn’t quite work as we didn’t conceive then, but we conceived shortly thereafter, so perhaps it was delayed effects?) A lot of this time was spent at the beach and one day in a fit of silliness, we decided to build a sand castle.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an excess of geekness made this a whole day project and therefore caused us to build turrets and ramparts and an artesian fountain in the courtyard.
Towards the end of the afternoon, as we were finishing, we noticed a group of kids glaring at us – by which I mean glaring. I wondered if it was a cultural thing since adults in Portugal rarely play in public or do anything that seems less than dignified. But I was wrong. As soon as we packed and turned our backs – and I mean, before we had gone three steps – the group attacked the little castle screaming and gleefully destroying it.
To this day I’m baffled by this behavior. Yes, I know tearing down the castle is part of the fun when you made it for that purpose, but this wasn’t it. They acted as if the castle were evil and had offended them in some way. Besides, the castle wasn’t that type. It was the type that I’m always delighted to come across, usually as the waves are starting to take it, and examine what people did and how.
I didn’t understand their anger or their impulse until years later, when I was trying to write for publication and we had a writers’ group.
There was a gentl– oh, heck, a crank – in the very first formation of our writers group who started every critique with “To begin with, this didn’t work for me.”
Now, I will be the first to note that when that group started, almost nineteen years ago, we were all green as leeks and twice as wet. Sometimes, by blind groping, one or the other of us would produce a fully functional short story, but most of our poor efforts were truncated, deformed and went lurching into the night of unpublishable.
That said, none of us deserved the critiques this critter gave. After that hopeful start, he would go page by page noting every time we’d misplace a comma (yes, dears, it IS a wonder he ever got through critiquing my stories.) Then he’d open with something sweet like “Your grammar is a mess too” after which he would give us every single typo that might be misinterpreted as a grammatical mistake. (What, you never left an apostrophe before the s in a plural? Then you’re lucky.) From this he would proceed to tearing down your character’s motives. One of my characters, who was confused and rather paralyzed by a situation got classed as “supine”, doubts were cast on the character’s masculinity and, oh, yeah, do not dare in any circumstances to have a character who is anything but heterosexual because then the critique would include YOUR moral shortcomings. This, by the way, even if the character was an alien from a species with three genders.
By the end of this spittle-flecked tear down, most of us would feel like never writing again.
Curiously, this person rarely brought anything in. When he did it was usually a short short of such a startling lack of originality as to sound like the slush at any hundred magazines. While competently written for the most part, the stories would provide plenty of fodder for those of us who wanted to go after commas or typos and, oh, yeah, by the way, the moral implications of some of these just-so stories, if you wanted to explore them, were … uh.
Fortunately he was so in-your-face poisonous that the rest of the group – fumbling and inexpert though we were – got together and decided we could not take it anymore. As such, we tried to gently give him hints. When that didn’t work, we changed the meeting time and day and place and told him the group had dissolved. After which the group continued with what he had stigmatized as a “love in” – amazingly, we didn’t want to tear each other or even each other’s stories to shreds. Who knew? – and shortly thereafter (two, three years) we all started getting published in turn.
Since then I have met variants of this gentleman everywhere, from local writing groups to reviewers. They are not all as openly poisonous as this person or even the commenter and “reviewer” mentioned above. Those are openly wreckers and though their motives might puzzle those of us on the creative side of the equation, their aggression and poison is as obvious as that of those kids on the beach.
Some commenters and reviewers are semi-reasonable and will be taken seriously at least for a while. Take the “published author” who joined our group five years after this incident (she had a book published ten years before and had written nothing else. We failed to take in the implications of this, because, duh, young and stupid.) She was not so nakedly transparent in her tear downs, but she would say things that we felt we should understand, and which paralyzed us just as effectively, such as “Your story has no engine” or “your grammar is a mess” or… all of it with no specific examples.
I can honestly say she delayed our learning a good three years, until she left the group, after which we started writing more and getting published more again. And it wasn’t until I had sold my first novel and told her about it that I realized she’d been just like Mr. “To Begin With This Doesn’t Work For Me.”
I realized it at that point because it was obvious. First, she couldn’t process that the book had SOLD, even though I told her that first thing, and it was WHY she’d asked me to send her the manuscript. Second, she simply didn’t GET it. Third, she tried to tear it down as she had things in the workshop. Her note back started with “You’ll never sell this book” and then told me that the story had no engine and that it read like a romance (a withering criticism coming from her) because of all the interior dialogue and the feelings.
Later on, through gossip (this field gossips) I found out the reason her career was benched was that, having been selected for a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey, she’d told Anne that her plot was all wrong and that she couldn’t plot. Even Anne, who had a reputation as a gentle mentor, couldn’t take that.
BUT that in a way is almost endearing because it shows you how strong the compulsion is, to the point of being self-destructive, and how little it has to do with a wish to advance one’s career or even to help one’s fellow writer.
And that is where we must start to understand the wreckers. I never knew those kids on the beach, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find any number of them are now hardened vandals – though frankly that wouldn’t make them much different from their age group in Portugal, the whole thing having to do with lack of jobs and possibly lack of supervision – but every other … Let’s call them “Wrecker” I know is an unhappy, bitter person whose problems extend to far more areas of life than writing. They’re also, almost to the last one, startlingly unproductive in terms of creativity, though claiming that they are “artists” or “creative.” Oh, and when they do “create” the stuff tends to be pap and so generic as to need a white wrapping and a bar code.
That is part of the problem, I think. These are people who were brought up thinking they were creative geniuses. They have tried to be creative, have fallen short of their own ideals and want to – no, need to – tear down anything else anyone else builds, to salve the gaping wound in their ego and self esteem. Unfortunately, they feel drawn to environments like writers’ groups where they’re forever reminded of how short they fell of their own expectations, and that frustration fuels their anger at anyone else who dares create and PARTICULARLY at any work that is particularly good.
Because these people infest the creative professions and often take over writers groups, and because in the new age of self-publishing they are gravitating to “reviews” I will give you a way to recognize them, deal with them and counter them. Like vampires they can be relatively harmless if you know how to deal with them. Like vampires too, they seem to be incurable. At least I never heard of a single one who reformed and started creating. It seems like once the wrecking urge sets in the pleasure of destruction feeds upon itself, and creation becomes impossible.
I will however also give you a way to combat your wrecker tendencies, in case you feel yourself going that way.
How To Recognize A Wrecker
1 – minute critiques of a story, even if you asked explicitly for an overall feel. (You are excused if it’s your first time betaing, you’re overwhelmed and try, desperately, to do something useful. We’ve all been there.) If you asked for plot coherence and you’re getting typos, you’re either in the presence of a wrecker or your critiquer couldn’t find his/her own *ss with two hands and a seeing eye dog. The later is curable, the first isn’t.
2 – Critiques that go beyond the manuscript to your personal traits, sometimes descending to over-the-counter Freudian. This can range from “you know, I could never write a character that cowardly.” which subtly implies you can do that because you lack moral fiber to the fist-in-face blunt “I see you have another dumb character, just like you.” to the implication they know you better than you know yourself “Ah! Another species with three genders. I wonder what that means about your sex life.”
3- Pointless nitpicking and sweeping generalizations. You’ll get for instance that “your character lacks consistency” which turns out to be that at one point in your manuscript you wrote down he was blond instead of saying his hair was brown. (Possibly because you heard “blond” off the corner of the room as you were typing.) The critiquer will open with something like “your character kept changing and I had no idea who he was” and you think “Oh, I messed his personality” and it turns out to be something totally irrelevant that you can fix by changing a word. Or “Your grammar is attrocious in this manuscript” and it turns out you have a dozen misplaced commas. *(Commas are a favorite nitpicking thing for wreckers, partly because they’re so easy to get “wrong” that each House has a different comma manual. More on that at the end in footnote.)
4 – Stunning failure to produce, or really trite output, while, at the same time being deeply involved (often increasingly involved) in critiquing and reviewing and seeking out every opportunity to do so.
5 – Failure to be pleased with or admire anything they read since late adolescence or anything that is not universally considered a classic. Even a few of those will bring out the sneers. These are the people who sneer at Agatha Christie or well, tell Anne McCaffrey she can’t plot. Yeah, I know my opinion of Dan Brown doesn’t bear repeating, but I’m willing to admit he must have done SOMETHING right. (Just don’t pretend it was historical research, mkay?) And I don’t care enough that people love his stuff to devote TIME to tearing him down. There are many, many books I don’t like in the world. I’m too busy writing MY OWN books to give much of a hang, frankly.
6- A new but consistent trait is the call for gatekeepers in publishing. These people, as reviewers, rant, moan and bitch about the need for someone to keep the “sludge” out of the sacred halls of publishing. This is particularly puzzling since by their own admission, publishing hasn’t produced anything worth reading for twenty years.
Yes, critique is important, but if you find the critique is both sweeping and detailed and always negative, you are in wrecker territory.
If someone’s critiques routinely shut you down, take a look at what you’re actually getting: is it important stuff you couldn’t get otherwise? Some insight or detail that you’d never have seen (like in A Few Good Men Sanford noticed inconsistencies relating to clothing which I’d never noticed and were actually important. Or Patrick went out of his way to research the behavior of a punctured oxygen tank. While these are detail-oriented they are USEFUL. And neither of them opened the critique with “First of all, what universe do you come from?” or “You have some serious inconsistencies” or… you get the point.) Or is it an accumulation of nitpicky details and inconsistencies, some of them not real (a contest judge kindly informed me, for instance, that my vocabulary wasn’t up to par because when I used stolid, I meant solid – i.e. the judge didn’t KNOW stolid, so she assumed…) all presented in a way to make you feel dumb and incompetent and to elevate the critiquer to authority?
If the second be aware that this is a person who NEEDS to believe him/herself an authority. The things to understand are the following:
1- this person can’t create. Either he or she started out that way, or he or she has become that way, but in either case, he or she can’t create. When in the presence of something that they feel is better than what they could do (which in terminal stages of the disease is EVERYTHING) they are driven to assuage their wounded ego by showing they’re better than the creator and giving themselves justification.
2- if his/her fury is particularly fierce, your work must be particularly good.
3- You MUST cut them out of your writing process. Leave the group, or if the entire group complains, have him/her leave; stop giving them beta copies; stop reading their reviews. Even totally misguided critique can cause the type of self-doubt that makes writing grind to a halt. And if you become frustrated enough you could turn into a wrecker yourself.
This is another way in which wreckers are like vampires. Stay in a group full of them long enough and you will turn into one.
Part of this is learned. You learn to see “flaws” because you’ve heard them pointed out so often, and, of course, in group critique sessions you want to prove you’re competent, even if you have all those “issues” they keep seeing in your writing.
Part of it is psychological. By tearing down your confidence (however small. Most writers have a hole where their confidence should be) they destroy your ability to create or to show what you create. And then you have to salve your self-esteem by tearing down others and showing that really, it’s not just you…
IF you find yourself having wrecker- behavior: you find that a story is making you pick at flaws and point out everything the person did wrong. Or you find yourself incensed at a story… Walk away from that story.
Look, there are stories that will p*ss you off. Some even written by friends. There are published, award winning stories that make me froth at the mouth. This usually has more to do with their theme or plot than their execution.
It is better to excuse yourself in those cases, than to vent your misguided fury on little things. Because the wrecker behavior is an habit.
There is another thing – particularly with those you mentor – sometimes someone will write a story so startlingly and wonderfully perfect that you want to find a flaw in it SOMEWHERE. It is a form of envy too, and a form of assuaging your wounded pride. Don’t let it. It is common, but it is wrong. Just keep in mind that writing ability/careers criss cross. The mentor today might be the pupil next time. Compete only with yourself (unless you’re competing to produce MORE which is valid.) And rejoice when your friends make a big leap in craft. Or, if you can’t rejoice, keep it to yourself and go and practice your own craft.
While I don’t advise staking wreckers, they are exactly like vampires. They can no longer walk in the light and the sun, and they’re trying to drag you down to their own bitter state. Let them go their own way, and you go on creating.
* Commas are a favorite target of wreckers. Most of us – except me, and there are reasons for that – think we know how to place commas. Most of us can advise people to diagram sentences or some other solution. The thing is that, except for extremes, commas are highly individual. We can safely say my mother – who uses them in lieu of periods, which she reserves for the end of the letter or essay, I suppose to signal the missive is over and you should avoid continuing to read what’s not there (and yes, we all tease her about this. She ignores us.) – is wrong. We can also say I tend to overuse commas. (The reason I do so is that my first instruction in punctuation was in romance languages. The way you separate clauses and parentethicals and emphasize bits of the sentence that English language doesn’t. And even though I know the rules for commas in English, the instinct to use them is older than that. I can “glue on” comma sense by doing grammar exercises obsessively in my free time. And I would if I didn’t have so much else to do.)
But even for native speakers, commas can be QUITE individual. If they weren’t then each house wouldn’t change them in different ways (Baen tends to add commas to my writing, while Berkley takes them out to the point that some sentences are incomprehensible in my opinion.)
Being subjective, commas of course attract wreckers like honey attracts flies. In fact an obsession with critiquing your commas), (unless you’re Amanda, to whom I’ve given control over mine because I KNOW I need a minder and she’s generally sensible on those 😛 And note, though she teases me as I do my mother, it’s NEVER a tear down) is a sign of a wrecker. Particularly if that’s all they find, or almost all they find, and if they make a big deal out of it.