April 25th, 2006

On Workshopping & "the Rules"

A while back someone started an interesting thread in one of the forums I belong to. The thread started off dealing with the potential dangers of getting your story critiqued in a workshop setting, and it gradually evolved to include a discussion concerning the rules of writing. After a while I piped in, and since several people on the forum proved responsive to the post in question, I thought post it here as well. Since the forum was private and an LJ is public, I'm going to delete the names of any authors/series I mentioned. It's one thing if I'm reviewing a book for a magazine, another thing if I'm just saying that said author sucks. I suppose I'm "somebody" in the industry in these days, even if I'm just a small somebody, so it seems right to extend this courtesy. Other than that, the post remains unchanged. So, without further adieu:

This is an interesting thread. I'd like to add my two cents. Yes, you should know the rules, but rules are also made to be broken. I can't count the number of stories I've read--be it for Realms of Fantasy or otherwise--where the author is so frightened of using the word "was" that he/she goes to ridiculous lengths just to avoid writing it. The language and style become stilted as a result, and the story suffers. "Was" is a part of the English language. You can use it. You should use it. Just don't lean on it. Know where to use it. How to use it. Same thing goes for pov and every other rule you can think of.

When I'm slushing for ROF, I don't worry about the rules. I just worry about whether I like a story. Does it keep my attention? Is it intersting? I've passed along stories (and have had Shawna buy some) that break rules. But who cares? They were good tales. The "rules" are nothing more than a guide to steer you away from the most commonly made mistakes. But you know what? You can follow every one of the rules and still write a turd. Rules can't help you come up with a good idea (although maybe they can help you avoid some bad ones). They can't make you a superlative world-builder. You can write a whole battle scene devoid of passive voice and still make me yawn.

Workshopping stories is great, but as several people are noting, the greatest danger is the tendency to overanalyze. Sometimes you have to just kick back and read. Just pretend you're twelve years old, reading for the sheer enjoyment of it. By now we've all read plenty of genre work and we know its tropes. If the story is bad or has problems, you'll know it. You rarely have to go looking for it. But too many people go on "literary witch-hunts" when critiquing, often without realizing it. If editors held all stories to the same scrutiny that some of us do, think about how much stuff would never get published. [Insert specualtive bestselling author] . . .[Insert another one] . . .[One more time] . . .the list goes on. Granted, I can't stand the first two, and I'm only reading [name of series] out of a sick, twisted sense of obligation, but at the core of each of these universes, the authors are telling stories, ones that people want to read. And this is perhaps the most important rule of writing fiction . . .to keep your reader entertained/interested. If you have to break rules to do it, then do so! Just know the rule you're breaking, which will allow you to (hopefully) do it skillfully.

Strangely enough, the stories that are easiest for me to critique effectively are the ones that are publishable or close to it. Reason? At heart, fiction editors have two chief responsibilities. One is picking out good stories. The other is playing at literary repairman. And the easiest cars to repair are the ones in need of the least work. But trying to fix a rusty, beat-up piece of junk is just annoying, overwhelming, and often pointless. A harsh thing to say, sure, but it's true for about 90% of the stuff I reject. Of course, a lot of Codexians I reject fall into that other 10% :)

My rather hefy two cents.

back to present day. I still feel this way. I absolutely believe a writer should be familiar with "the rules," but not to the point of obsessing. And workshopping can be a wonderful. I attended Odyssey and then sought out more punishment (err . . .teaching) at Orson Scott Card's workshop. Both experiences helped me grow as a writer. And these days I do belong to a critique group. But sometimes when we sit down to critique something, we attack flaws that aren't really present in the story, because we feel compelled to offer something worthwhile. But if you don't see any true flaws, it's not the end of the world. Sometimes, even if you think you're giving a crappy critique, it's better to simply say "I liked it." At least that's honest, as opposed to a "literary witch-hunt."

1000 Words of Pain

Writing is tough. I had forgotten that for a while, because in the current story I'm working on I was pretty much grooving along for about 13,000 words (or so I'd like to think). But I pounded out another 1000 words tonight, and man oh man, it was a struggle. I suppose I should be glad that I did 1000 words--that's a fairly productive day. But I'm getting near the end of this story now, and I thought I had a solid handle on these final scenes. Seems I was wrong. So now I'm in battle-mode, fighting just so I can reach the ending. Whatever. At least I'll have the first draft done in time for my critique group. That's right, you poor bastards. I'm at over 14,000 words . . .and you're going have to read all of it!

Cue evil laughter.