Post-Clarion Post – Part Deux

The following is cobbled together from several of my Clarion-embedded posts on LJ. It’s funny to look back on them three weeks out – and it’s always nice to be able to strip away the weeping/wailing component that inevitably went with the intensity of being ‘in-country’.

On learning to crit:
In week 2, one of my fellow Clarionites asked how I had learned to crit. Basically, it was a combo of:
(a) the short story class at uni;
(b) having the good fortune to go to the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in 2006 ( ) and be taught by the jaw-droppingly amazing Aimee Bender ( One of the most valuable things I took away from the Tin House experience was, I hope, to be respectful of people’s work;
(c) teaching first years at uni (marking creative writing assignments means you see the same problems over and over – so you recognise them!);
(d) indulging in a metric butt-load of practice, reading and writing.

In the first short story tutorial I attended as a student I noted down ‘Things to look for’ when critting a story. This is that list:
1. Characterisation
2. Plot
3. Setting
4. Dialogue
5. Description
6. Correct grammar, spelling and word usage (repetition of words and phrases?)
7. Info-dumps
8. Point of view
9. Voice/tone

As time went along, I added a few things like: is it a cool new idea or is there originality in the use of an old idea? Is there consistency of story/world? Is the story believable because the author has shown authority in the writing (if the story doesn’t make me suspend my disbelief, then why not?)? Is there a rhythm/cadence to the writing? And does the writer really know who or what the story is about? Do they know the world they have created?

These are things I am now so used to – the stuff that runs like a program in the background – that it was a bit of a brain-shock to have to express it for someone else. It was, however, useful because it made me examine what I did and reacquaint myself with First Principles.

On Giving a Crit:
The crit is about working out what is right with a story and balancing that by figuring out what is not working. When I give a crit/feedback, I guess the foremost thought in my head is “What can I say that is the most useful to this writer? What will help her/him polish their story so it’s publishable?”

In a Clarion crit-pit, where you go around the table intoning “Ditto” or “Anti-ditto” to others’ crit, no one needs to hear repeated what everyone else is saying. So you need to say only what is new and useful to the story and the writer. The other Big Thing to remember about the crit is that’s not about the critter or the crittee[1]; the crit is about the story. End of discussion. The point of the crit is not to scar someone so badly that they never want to write again; it’s not about making someone think “OMG, I just wasted my life’s word count! I just wasted ink and killed a tree for nothing! Nothing!!”

By Clarion week 3, critting got a lot harder – everyone’s work improved, but some people had just done the leaps and bounds thing so well that you had to wonder if they’ve been taken over by writing cyborgs. You had less technical stuff to crit, such as spelling, grammar and formatting (although comma placement remained a bone of contention), so you started to look at story extra hard …

The nature of the crit means it is a minefield, no matter how experienced critter and crittee may be. The critical line to be aware of is this one: at what point am I trying to improve the story and at what juncture am I slipping over into “Well, this is how the story would look if I wrote it”??? Note: it’s not your freaking story. The point is to make that story – which belongs to someone else – the best thing it can be in and of itself. Keep the vision of the writer in your head – not what your vision might be. A writer is like Michelangelo letting the David out of that block of marble – other artists had tried and failed to work on that particular block for years. Why? Because they were trying to impose a shape on it rather than letting the thing be what it needed to be. So, don’t try to impose your shape on a story that isn’t your own. What is the writer’s intent? What’s the best way to help him or her get to that final product? Offer suggestions, not orders.

If you don’t like something, then why don’t you like it? Acknowledge your biases. Just because science fiction isn’t your bag, baby, doesn’t mean that the story is inherently bad.

On taking the crit:

It’s easy to say “I can take constructive criticism!” It’s another thing entirely to get your story critted and feel as if you have poignards sticking in your heart. Some days it feels as if your skin’s been peeled off then handed to you with a cheerful “There ya go! Doesn’t that feel better? Nothing like a good flensing.” In about week 3, I heard a couple of my fellow Clarionites saying “Angela has nerves of steel” in hushed tones. Well, no. But I knew the crit wasn’t about me; and I knew the crit was about improving the story. I also knew there was a lot of choclit in the fridge and that I could eat comfort food until I felt sick or passed out on the couch in a choclit-coma.

One of the after-effects of Clarion is that, back in The Real World™, you sit down to write and find you’ve got not only your 16 fellow students in your head, but also your tutors. There’s a party happening, the Jameson Irish Whisky is flowing, someone’s made a choclit pavlova, but you can’t enjoy any of it. Your writing brain is not your own; you’ve been possessed; an exorcism is required. In the end I found the only method that worked was just sitting down at the desk, writing and yelling “Shut up, you’re so annoying!” in the tone of King Julian from Madagascar. Go figure. This may not work for everyone.

The other thing to keep in the fore-brain: you don’t have to listen to everyone (that way madness lies). You don’t have to listen to anyone at all. It’s about cherry-picking the useful and discarding the dross (i.e. the stuff that smacks of someone re-writing your story to their vision[2]). If the majority of critters say the same thing, then maybe it’s worth considering trying something they’ve suggested. Yes, it may well suck, but TRYING is the way to learn and explore. We only improve our craft by constant engagement with it.

You can refuse to change anything at all. Maybe you will get published and be celebrated as a cutting-edge-genius-writer-type; and you can transmit a range of contempt via the medium of “Nahnah-nah-nahnah”. Then again, maybe you won’t be published and you’ll spend your time sopping your soul with “Nobody understands what a genius I am.”

Fine. There are plenty of unknown geniuses out there. Do you really want to be one?

In summary:
The crit is about the story not the writer – if anyone mentions your shoes, however, then it’s definitely about the writer and you should feel free to react accordingly.

If the story genuinely isn’t working it doesn’t mean the words are wasted. Maybe it just means you haven’t got them in the right order yet. Or you’ve actually attached them to the wrong story. Maybe your storylines are crossed and you need to start unpicking them like crazy spaghetti. The crit is about helping a story be the best it can be. The crit is about flensing, autopsying, rebuilding from various body parts. The crit is about resurrection.

All writers are Dr Frankenstein.


[1] It’s only about the writer to the extent that s/he can learn from it (if willing).

[2] Note: someone correcting your bad spelling, grammar and formatting doesn’t count as ‘imposing’.

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