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Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #5

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Last week I wrestled over the propriety of writing this blog -- several of you thought I was betraying a trust to my fellow writers. I've undergone a bit of a reversal in that I'm now convinced the blog is a good. Say it with me now: blog is good, blog is great, all hail the mighty blog!

I liken the issue over breaking trust to that of a psychiatrist -- he is duty-bound to not divulge his patient's secrets. It's a matter of trust. But, in order to help his fellow practitioners, the psychiatrist may publish the details of some of his cases in professional journals, so that the science of psychology may be furthered. In these articles, the psychologist changes the patients' names to protect their privacy. This is considered professional behavior.

Yes, some of you are already howling that I'm no psychiatrist, the GVW are not my patients and a blog is hardly a scholarly journal. But the idea is the same. I'm not giving away anybody's identity, and some of you readers may benefit from seeing how a group like this works (or doesn't). I've already stated these chronicles will contain, by necessity, a lot of my personal opinions, so maybe you should just take things with a grain of salt. You've been warned. I am mostly at peace with what I am doing.

Week #5 begins on an odd note. It is July 3rd and tomorrow is the Independence Day holiday. The Hemby Bridge library where the GVW meet is locked and there is a notice on the door stating that the library will close early at 5PM today for the holiday. The GVW were not told about this closing, and none of us saw the notice posted last week. A half dozen of us arrive, meet in front of the library door, and proceed to bitch and moan for ten minutes.

Since we are already here, I suggest we go to the Mutton Hollow Mall, three miles away, and stake out a couple of tables in the food court, rather than waste the week. All agree, and fifteen minutes later we are at the mall.

Fabian has beaten us to the food court, and has a cheese steak, french fries and a Coke on a tray when we sit down. A couple of us grab some coffee or soda to make it look respectable for the mall people. Everybody watches Fabian eat his cheese steak, with various hungry looks.

Eventually, we get down to business. The good news is that the six other GVW members present are ones I consider to be mostly serious. The tourists must be tooling about in the Winnebago tonight. That's OK by me, since one of my stories is on the schedule and I didn't really need their sort of say-nothing critique.

My story is first up. The story is a science fiction mystery, with a new invention that creates a problem for the protagonist. The story has a bit of a problem (in my mind) in that it's too closely involved with the science instead of the human story of the protagonist. I think it's a good idea though and definitely a salvageable story.

The GVW's reactions are mostly positive, with some reservations. Between bites of his cheese steak, Fabian says he thinks the science is too wonky and the ending a bit harsh. That's fair enough, I suppose, but while he is speaking I can't help thinking how I'd really like to steal a few of his french fries. Kasim says he doesn't care enough about my story's protagonist. That's a problem I've already thought of myself -- I need to make the guy more likeable and give him some depth so the reader cares what happens to him. Hachi says she guessed the ending halfway through the story. I'm not sure if that's really a big problem or not here. Peter agrees with Kasim's assessment that the protagonist is not interesting enough, and with Fabian's call that the ending was harsh. Caprice was absent last week, so I give her a copy of the story so she can catch up next week. Pamela doesn't have much to say about the story except to pick at a few nits. That's OK -- I like having the small stuff pointed out. Often a writer is so familiar with his story that the minor mistakes really do become invisible to him, but are obvious to everyone else. Too often in a group like this, the members don't want to offend the author by rubbing his nose in what they think are petty problems, but it's better to point out the little things in a critique instead of assuming the author will discover them on his own. I always mark up such petty things on the manuscript and hand it back to the author, and concentrate on the major things in the oral critique. I've wondered many times in the past over simple mistakes I've made in my stories that no one in my critique group thought to point out to me.

After all have spoken, I ask the group if they agree with Hachi that the ending was easy to spot early. I am pleased that most do not agree with her. I mention a couple of ideas I have about complicating the protagonist's life and making him more interesting, and most of the members agree it might help. I ask if the science part of the story was clear enough. Fabian thinks the protagonist should have a sidekick, so he can explain the science to him (and the reader). That's probably not a good idea in this particular story, since the protagonist has to know something nobody else in the story knows, right up to the end. A sidekick begs the question, "Why didn't he ever tell the sidekick what was going on?" Most of the others didn't think the science was really a problem, but giving the human part of the story more depth would be an improvement.

They hand me back the copies of my manuscript, some with comments hand written in, some not. Fabian hands me back a copy newly decorated with a spot of ketchup on it. At least I hope it's ketchup. Most of them also hand me a written critique of a page or so, detailing the points they spoke about.

I'm reasonably happy with the critiques. I have a few ideas on improving the story now, and a bunch of nits to clean up. Fabian has finished his french fries and I can now concentrate on critiquing the next story -- Fabian's -- without drooling on the manuscript.

Fabian's story is a mystery. Not SF or fantasy or horror, but more of a traditional whodunit sort of thing. I went through a mystery phase in my reading taste when I was much younger, but really haven't followed the genre in many years, so I may not be a very good judge of what passes for "good" in those markets. Nevertheless, Fabian's story does not seem particularly new or clever in any sort of way to me. The clues are laid out in a fairly obvious (I think) manner, and there seems to be no real misdirection to throw a clever reader off the scent. I don't want to rip into Fabian too badly, since he's the nominal leader of the group, but the story just doesn't move me.

Lucky for me, I am not the first to speak, and Kasim and Hachi both say what I'm thinking: the story is too straightforward and obvious. The clues need to be buried more into the fabric of the story rather than just presented in the "here they are" manner they are now. I mention throwing in some sort of misdirection, so the story can have a bit of a surprise in it. I don't mention a lot of the little things that I've detailed in my written critique -- Fabian can read them at his leisure without me making him look silly in front of the others. Pamela adds a few nits and Peter agrees with the rest of us that the mystery wasn't all that mysterious. Caprice was absent last week and takes Pamela's copy to read for next week.

For next week, Hachi and Caprice hand in new stories. I'm a bit miffed: Caprice handed in a story in week #1, collected her crits in week #2, and was absent for #3 and #4, and now is back with another story in week #5 without tendering any make-up crits for the weeks she has missed. I think it's a bit unfair that she appears to be showing up just to get her own work critiqued, but I don't say anything. If she continues this pattern, I may not want to spend much time critiquing her work, but for now, I give her the benefit of the doubt. Pamela, the group secretary [pardon, I meant "administator"], is still tracking who hands in stories and offers critiques, but what's the point if nobody's enforcing the rules?

Meeting in the food court isn't nearly as bad an experience as I expected. Sure it's noisy, and curious onlookers glance at us and wonder what we're all up to with these manuscripts in hand, but nobody's really paying much attention. And hey, where else can you grab a cheese steak and fries during a critique?

We adjourn and everyone leaves the food court and heads for their cars. The mall is closing in a little while, so I jog down to the Waldenbooks to see if they have the new The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. I've probably read a lot of the stories in it already, but I buy the book every year as a more permanent record than the magazines, which I don't keep. What I really want to see, though, is the "honorable mentions" section at the end of the book. I had six stories published professionally in 2001, so it's possible the editor might mention one of them. Am I vain? You bet.

The store has the book in stock, and I open it immediately to the back. Dozois has listed my "Fresh Air" and "The Dove Cage" as honorable mentions. Will any of the GVW notice it or am I the only one who pores over stuff like this?

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6771

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