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Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #3

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It's week #3 at the Garden Variety Writers and three members are absent, with eight (including me) present. This seems like a pretty high turnout for a group that meets every damn week, especially as we're entering the summer months. It's encouraging that they get such a good turnout, and speaks fairly well of the group.

The meeting starts off with a bit of chitchat: some members gripe about the impending increase in postal rates, some voice nasty comments about a certain magazine editor who shall remain nameless, and a bunch of how's-it-going's are exchanged.

We start the crits with Pamela's story, which she distributed last week. This is an OK fantasy piece -- a modern retelling of an old fairy tale. I am not too familiar with the original tale it is supposed to be modeled on, which is perhaps a good thing, since it does not bias me one way or another. I read the story on its own merits without the subcontext of the old fairy tale. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited a number of anthologies with such "retellings" as these, but I don't think they're still doing that any more, so I'm not sure what kind of markets exist for such a story, but as I say, I read and critique this story on its own merits, and it holds up reasonably well.

So, my critique is mainly picky things. I point out a couple of bobbles where the point-of-view slips a bit, presenting facts that the viewpoint character could not have known. The story is not written in omniscient viewpoint, so these are definitely errors. The story is also told in first-person present tense for no apparent reason, which is a bit of a turn-off for a few editors. I think a lot of writers play with present tense stories more for style points than anything else. Some people seem to think a story sounds more literary or something in present tense. Other folks think it too gimmicky and pretentious.

We get into a bit of a discussion about present tense stories. We all agree past tense is far and away the norm for storytelling, but some argue that present tense makes the story more immediate, since the story is "happening" while you're reading it. I argue that it's a bit clunky for many readers and that there are only a few situations where present tense is really called for. If a story is told in the first person, and there is some doubt whether the narrator will live or not, then it needs to be told in the present tense. If told in the past tense, that tips the reader off that the narrator has lived to tell the tale, doesn't it? Unless the writer falls into the classic blunder, where the story ends, " . . . and then I died." With present tense, the narrator can end the story with some up-in-the-air ending, like "I walk over the top of the hill, not knowing whether I will live or die." You just can't do that acceptably in past tense. I also like to use present tense when the narrator is a robot, or a computer, or perhaps even an alien. Present tense just gives some stories a slight "touch of strange" that's needed for an unconventional narrator. The other members argue that present tense is a good device to keep from getting stale, so all their stories are not too similar. Yeah, OK, I go along with that, if it's not overused.

So you're reading this and saying to yourself, "Hey, this guy has a problem with present-tense stories, yet he's writing this weblog in present tense. What gives?" Uh, yeah. Well, maybe if I told it in past tense, then you would know that I, um, lived to tell the tale. But mostly I choose to do it this way because it's sort of like "dispatches from the front lines" -- you're living this along with me as it happens. And hey, doesn't it really sound much more literary this way?

The other members point out some other minor points in Pamela's story. A few folks are more familiar with the original fairy tale that this is supposed to be retelling, and complain that this story takes some major liberties with the original plot. That's not a problem for me, since I'm not that familiar with the original story, and who knows, maybe the plot of this retelling is more interesting than the original. Do these sort of stories absolutely have to end up exactly as the original fairy tale? I think not. Part of the fun may be doing something unexpected with the original set-up.

Next, the group discusses my story. This was (as I said last week) not one of my better efforts. It is an older story, and I've pulled an early draft, warts and all, out of the trunk specifically to see if this group can honestly identify a lame story.

To the group's shame, the story gets a couple of good comments that it certainly does not deserve. Perhaps the group does not want to scare me off, since I am still the New Guy, and they are feeling me out to see how I react to criticism. I have tried to be pretty honest and up-front with the criticism I've doled out up to this point, so I'm surprised anyone thinks I might have too thin a skin to take some heat. Some groups try way to hard to find something nice to say about everything, even when it is not deserved.

Fabian, the leader of the group does trash my story a bit, but not over the problems I am expecting. He gets a bit picky about character names and stupid stuff like that. Perhaps he's asserting his dominance, but he's missed the real problems in the story completely. Oh well.

Pamela's crit shows me that she's read my story and mostly understood it, but not really to the point of knowing what's wrong with it. She gives some supportive comments, but doesn't really tell me anything useful.

Kasim, Peter and Sapphire all touch briefly on what I know to be the real problem with the story. All three voice a bit of mild displeasure with the story and say it does not hold their interest all the way through. That's good, because this draft is bloated and meandering. The events in the story just happen for no good reason and the characters don't really have any justification for doing what they do. It's basically a mess, without theme, direction or motivation (hey, I was young). The three members don't really voice the problems exactly like that, but I think that's what they're getting at. They sense the problem, even if they can't put their finger precisely on it. These three members' worth instantly goes up a bit in my book.

On the other hand, two members (Nettie and Lewis, the "tourists" I mentioned in earlier entries) said they liked the story. They didn't have much else to say except some generalized bullshit comments about how I write very well and seem to know what I'm doing. Uh, thanks, but I could have gotten that sort of critique from my wife (who doesn't read genre fiction at all). Unless something happens to change my opinion, Nettie and Lewis might just as well not be there for all the lack of any constructive criticism they've contributed so far. Maybe they just need to find a BINGO game or something else to keep them busy on Wednesday nights. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I feel they are wasting our time every bit as much as they are wasting their own time.

After the crits, Peter, Kasim and Fabian all hand in new stories to be critiqued. Ouch. Three stories a week is a bit of a heavy load, and I worry about how much time I really want to spend on other people's stories instead of my own work.

Fabian says that the group charter says that no one is expected to critique more than two stories a week. Whew. Pamela looks in the crit log she keeps and says Fabian had the most recent story critiqued of the three, so we should concentrate on Kasim and Peter's story this week, and put Fabian's on the back burner, for the meeting after next.

I ask Fabian if I can get a copy of the group charter. I'd like to read any rules we're supposed to be abiding by. Pamela says she'll e-mail me a copy.

And that's how we end. Last week, I said this would be a make-or-break meeting for me. I've gotten three moderately helpful critiques out of seven. Not a great ratio, but three good crits is better than nothing. I suppose it will be worthwhile to stick around awhile. I just have to know who's dependable. Maybe I can turn some of the cheering squad into more honest critiquers. Perhaps next week I'll bring in a better story and see if they can really help with something that needs it.

We'll see how it goes.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6527

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