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Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #2

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This week's meeting begins with an announcement: Hachi has sold a fantasy short-short to a webzine. Her story was apparently critiqued by the Garden Variety Writers in an earlier meeting, so all the members are extremely happy for her. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, so I don't ask if it is a paying market.

The two members who were absent from last week's meeting are present tonight, and we exchange brief introductions/bios. These two are no farther along than the others I've already met, so it's mostly beginners in this group. I'll eventually sort out the talents from the wannabees and never-willbees, but right now the only two I have any concrete evidence on are the two whose stories we will critique tonight.

The two members who were absent last week deliver brief, not too helpful critiques of the stories we covered the week before, and one other member adds a brief crit of a story he missed from a couple of weeks ago. I don't know any of the stories they are discussing, but none of them talks about any of the stories for more than a couple of minutes each. For each of the two stories we are supposed to crit this week, I've typed about a page and a half, single spaced, in addition to minor comments I've hand written on the manuscripts, to be handed back to its author. I suppose I've spent more effort on these crits than they're used to, but I'm sure everyone will assume I'm just out to impress, being the New Guy and all.

We start going around the table, discussing this week's stories. Everyone gets to talk for a few minutes, Clarion-style, and the author is not supposed to interrupt or respond until all the crits have been delivered. The first story was a science fiction short story turned in by Kasim, a thirtyish guy in funky clothing. The story is (in my opinion) fairly clichéd and predictable. It's a lightweight bit of space opera, but not totally without merit. The critiques are mostly positive, and the few members who claim not to have "gotten it" (Nettie and Wilton) excuse themselves by saying they are not SF readers and not qualified to judge. That's a bit of a cop-out, but at least they're honest. Now I know not to put a lot of weight on their crits of my mostly SF stuff. I'll take the same cop-out if somebody starts pushing their poetry -- I am not a good judge of most poems.

When it's my turn to deliver a crit, I mostly read from my typed copy. Others have crits hand-written, some are just scribbled in the margins of the story manuscript. A few others have typed crits, but none are a long or detailed as mine. Since nobody is taking more than a few minutes to deliver their crit, I gloss over mine a bit to keep things moving. Kasim can read all the gory details of my crit at his leisure, and I don't want to rub his nose in too many specifics and slow the meeting down. I think I make a few good points that no one else has mentioned -- some scientific errors, a protagonist who's too passive, and an ending an experienced reader will spot a mile away. Kasim seems to take the criticism OK, but I'm probably a bit tougher on the story than most of the other members, who seem to be more of a mutual admiration society than a tough crit group. To keep things civil, I end by saying I liked the story (a mild lie) and that it might very well sell to a good market (a slightly stronger lie). I have to remember that while I'm judging this story, all the others are judging me, trying to get a feel for what kind of critter and person I am.

The next story is a traditional fantasy by Caprice, a 40-something woman with wavy blonde hair. (These descriptive tags, BTW, are not judgements, but just some sort of handle for me to remember these ten folks by. I'm not good with names, so a quick note to myself, "Caprice -- wavy blonde, 40," is just a memory jogger to remember her by.) The story is a straightforward princess-in-a-tower rescue sort of thing, with a knight, a villain, and some magic thrown in. This is not exactly the kind of stuff I like to read, but I'm familiar enough with the genre to critique it, I guess.

The other crits are, again, mostly positive. So far, this group is being too kind -- Caprice's story wasn't really that good, but nobody seems to want to be the bad guy here. My prepared crit isn't all that positive, and I think I need to be a bit gentle in how I deliver it, lest they all think I'm too negative. First, I make a few comments about enjoying the story and comparing it favorably to similar work I've read. Then I get down to the problems. The story has an inconsistency in that it shifts point of view back and forth between the princess and the rescuer, so it's not clear whose story this really is. The magic used to resolve the tale comes from out of left field, so I mention that the magic must be introduced earlier in the story to play fair with the reader. I find Caprice's prose a bit simple and the sentence structure repetitive, almost like a child's book. She needs to add more detail, vary the sentence structure, and involve more use of the senses. Clarice doesn't react at all to my crit, but I sense she feels a bit stung.

I have to think about how to handle future critiques in this group. The others seem to not get too specific, and want positive critiques. I'm all for positive reinforcement, but critiques where everybody tells you how good your story is are mostly worthless to me. If I've blundered, I want to know what people really think, without worrying about hurting my feelings. Writing is not an endeavor for the thin-skinned.

The crits end and Fabian asks if anyone has new stories to distribute. For this week's meeting I have brought in ten copies of an old trunk story that failed to sell (and quite rightly). I'm pretty well aware of the failings in this old story, but I want to see what the GVW think. Over the years, I've revised this story, but never to the point of making it a success, and the version I turn in tonight is an earlier version with some real obvious problems. Next week, if they tell me the story is great, I may have to bow out. If this group is no more than a cheering section that can't call a spade a spade, then they will be of no use to me. The best thing they can do, in my mind, is tear this loser of a story to shreds.

Pamela, the group's secretary also distributes a story for next week. After that, we have to wrap it up and leave fairly quickly. The library closes at 9PM, and the staff doesn't want to stay any longer than they have to for the likes of us. I can't say that I blame them.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6828

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