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Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #6

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The library is open again this week and we meet in the downstairs meeting room, which is mostly just a storage room with a table. The room is piled high with boxes of old unwanted library books and donated paperbacks ready for the next library sale. It hurts me to see lots of my favorite books hidden away in a back room like this, and I make a note to show up early when the library has its sale.

Attending this week are Fabian, Pamela, Nettie, Sapphire, Lewis, Kasim, Peter, Hachi and Caprice. Everyone is here except Wilton, who hasn't attended a meeting since week #2. The members ask each other if anyone has heard from him. He's probably gone. Wilton, I hardly knew ye.

Groups like this always have some attrition. People lose interest in writing, discover they don't really have a talent for it, feel they can't keep up with others in the group, or just figure they've outgrown the group after a while. Unless a group is working out fabulously for you, it's probably a good idea to move on after some time, so you don't start writing what you think the group expects instead of what your heart tells you.

During the week, I have printed out copies of the Turkey City Lexicon, and I distribute it before the meeting get rolling. The TCL has a lot of clever buzzwords to describe some of the common pitfalls of genre writing, and it might be a bit of a timesaver if the GVW members were familiar with it so I could say in a crit that the author wrote too many As-You-Know-Bob's or point out a bad case of Squid-In-The-Mouth. Several of the members say they have seen the TCL before, but many have not.

We start the crits with Hachi's story, a very short but good fantasy story about selkies (marine seals that have assumed human form). A few of the members argue that the characters are not three dimensional and that they need to be fleshed out. I think the piece is mostly an idea story, and doesn't really depend much on characterizations. With a story this short in length, nobody expects to find fully fleshed-out characters. Adding more depth to the characters might make this a better story if done well, or ruin a good thing if done poorly, so I don't want to agree with the others that the story absolutelyneeds more characterization. Why fix something that's not broken?

Next is Caprice's story, which I am not totally happy about having to critique. As I said last week, Caprice has been notably absent except for the weeks when she is handing out a story or collecting her critiques. She never critiqued my story from week #2, and last week I handed her my story that she missed from the week before. Frankly, I'd like to see her critique either of the two stories before I critique another of hers, but I don't want to be the bad guy. Pamela is recording who submits and who critiques, and there's supposed to be some sort of mechanism to keep things fair, so I leave it up to her. Maybe when I've been in the group longer and see what's really going on, I won't be so shy about speaking up about such things.

Caprice's story is another fantasy yarn, this one about a search for the last unicorn. By the end of the story, the animal is found, suffers tragically in captivity, and then a nifty surprise ends the story with a ray of hope. It's an OK story, but not my usual cup of tea. I'm a bit put off by such done-to-death fantasy props as unicorns, dragons, elves, and such. The story is fairly well-written, though, and my only major quibble is that it doesn't have any action or compelling hook in the beginning to grab the reader or editor's attention. I suggest that the first page, which is mostly exposition, be scrapped and the story started with the first bit of action. If I were an editor, I might not make it to page two, and if I saw a story like this in a magazine or anthology, I might not be hooked enough by the current opening to continue reading the rest. I also mention a few minor contradictions and POV problems, but the story is otherwise basically sound.

Other members' opinions are generally positive. A couple of crits fault the story because the ending is not a big enough surprise. I disagree -- the story does not really depend on a surprise for its impact. I could easily see this story selling to a second-tier market, but the familiar unicorn theme may make it a long-shot at the better markets.

We get through the crits fairly quickly since Nettie, Sapphire and Lewis were not present at last week's mall outing and have no crits to contribute. As I expect, Caprice offers no make-up crits for my stories, nor any of the others she missed in the weeks she was absent. I may just forget to critique anything else she submits from now on, until I see her critiquing other members' work.

With some extra time on our hands, Nettie asks if she can read us a poem she wants to submit to a contest. I knew this was coming, but was not looking forward to it. I really cannot judge poetry. Perhaps I have a tin ear for it, but I often find it difficult to tell the difference between useless navel-gazing and genius. I just don't get most modern poetry. I'm old-fashioned in that I prefer poems with meter and rhyme, not just fancy imagery. Poetry that I prefer (Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, Ogden Nash) is considered doggerel by many. I'm apparently in the minority, as many editors and readers think rhyming is passť, and meter seems to have fallen by the wayside. I am not a good judge of modern poetry and I say so to the group.

I am also not happy about critiquing a work on the spur of the moment based solely on the author's reading. I much prefer to read silently to myself the work on the printed page. That's how the audience will experience the work, so that's how it ought to be done by the critiquers. An oral reading is a different experience than reading the printed word. The oral reading also relies to some extent on the acting ability of the reader, to put the story over. A bad reader can ruin a good work and visa versa. But since an editor is going to read the work on the printed page, not hear an oral reading, that's how a group like this should work.

Nettie reads her piece, and it is mercifully short. I don't know if it is any good. It seems to have a point, about making a peace before dying. There are some flowery words and poignant images, but I couldn't say whether it's publishable or not. The other members are kind, and praise Nettie.

I ask about the contest to which she intends to send the poem. Nettie says it's a nationally recognized contest with excellent prize money and an annual anthology. She was a past semi-finalist of the contest a couple of years ago when she entered it for the first time. From her tote bag, she produces the anthology containing her poem. It is a cloth-bound volume, with several hundreds of pages of dense, tiny printing. Each page contains three or more very short poems. I do some quick mental math and figure there must be near a thousand "winners" of this poetry contest that made it into the anthology.

Do I tell Nettie that the contest is a sham? These "contests" are advertised in the back pages of writing magazines, and prey on the writers who are desperate to be published. The fact is that everyone who enters a poem, no matter how bad, will be a "winner" and get published. The contest people will include the poem in their anthology, and the lucky winner can have a copy of their printed work for only $40 or $50. The only people who will ever see the book are the people whose work is included in it, since nobody else takes such things seriously.

Nettie has marked her poem in the book with a red tape flag, and I read it. Again, it seems like a reasonable enough poem, but there in the book with a thousand other poems that no one will ever read, I feel sorry for Nettie. Pamela shoots me a look like she knows what I'm thinking, and I suppose the others have talked this out before.

No, I do not tell Nettie that her poetry contest is a scam. She will enter this new poem in the contest, and once again be happy for being selected as a semi-finalist. She'll pay her $50 and receive her book, along with offers for some other optional services she can also pay extra for. She'll be happy, which is most likely something she would not be if I start a rant about how crooked the poetry contests are. To Nettie, publication in this fake book is vindication, and who am I to tell her different?

Kasim and Sapphire submit new stories for next week. I go home bummed out about Nettie and her phony contest.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6884

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