Wake up, Polly Parrot.

 











Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #7

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It's a hot night in North Carolina, and the air conditioner at the Hemby Bridge library is struggling to keep up. It's warm and muggy in the meeting room. Not exactly the greatest conditions for workshopping, but here we are. All the members are present this week except for Caprice (no surprise -- she'll be back when she has another story to be critted), Wilton (is he dead?) and Nettie.

The big news this week is that Lewis, whom I've previously characterized as a tourist, has sold a novel. I'm about to revise my opinion of Lewis upward in a major way, but as the details of the "sale" come out, I find Lewis' status diminished from tourist to . . . something else. (Come on, Mr. Big Shot writer, you're the one who's good with words--pick one! Dreamer? Victim? Fool? Dupe? Naïve? Gullible? Yeah, all of those.)

First off, Lewis tells us it is a Romance novel. It's not exactly unheard of for a man to write romances, but a bit unusual. Lewis' book will be published under a female pen name, of course. Someone (not me, I swear!) asks Lewis if he actually reads and enjoys Romance novels. Lewis says he's read a few, mostly as research before starting his novel. He is not a regular reader of romances, and I think this is not a very good sign. After all, I would have major reservations about someone who read mostly mysteries for pleasure, and then decided he wanted to write science fiction without having any knowledge or background in the field. Lewis seems to have settled on Romance as a business decision, not because he has any deep love or knowledge of the genre.

But it gets worse. I ask who is going to publish the novel, and Lewis mentions some outfit here in Charlotte. To the best of my knowledge, there are no legitimate pro book publishers in the Charlotte area. I desperately want to ask which way the money flows on this transaction, but Lewis seems unaware of the fact that publishers are supposed to pay advances to the author, and tells us some of the details without my having to pry the information out of him. He talks about set-up charges and copy-editing charges, and price per book, and placement of the book in the publisher's catalogs. Lewis is excited. I am, too, but not exactly in the same way.

It's a subsidy publisher, which is to say Lewis has paid to have his book "accepted." The money flows the wrong way. I think Fabian and Pamela understand this is a bad thing, from the tone of their voices and the look in their eyes. Perhaps Peter and Kasim, as well, though nobody wants to come out and tell poor Lewis that he's making a big mistake. As with Nettie and her scam poetry contest last week, this group doesn't seem to want to steer its members clear of the sharks.

OK, Nettie is probably going to have to fork over $50 to get her poem in that bogus anthology, so it's not that major an expense (unless the contest people con her out of additional money) but forking over money to a subsidy publisher for a novel can become big bucks. Even though I'm still the New Guy of the group and the others have no reason yet to trust me, I feel someone should speak up and get it out in the open. I mention the adage: Money flows to the writer. Lewis says he already tried several of the traditional Romance publishers without success, and cites several examples of famous books that were first self-published by their authors. He understands he's going to take a loss on this book, but he seems to have arguments planned for my line of questioning, and his hope is that he'll somehow get his novel in the right hands to be reviewed and noticed by the big guys, so perhaps the next one can sell for real money. I bet he learned all those arguments from the subsidy publisher's own propaganda.

Lewis is making a mistake. I know it, and I'm sure at least some of the other members of the GVW's must know it, but nobody seems to be lining up behind me in trying to discourage Lewis. Now I really have to question the usefulness of this group. If a writer's group like the GVW turns a blind eye to shady publishing practices like the poetry contest and vanity publishing, then what good are they? Is this just a feel-good club so a bunch of beginners can kid themselves that they know what they're doing? Don't these people read instructional books about writing and know what's what? Obviously they do not. I'm a bit disgusted right now, with the ones who don't know any better, and especially with the ones who do but say nothing to keep from hurting feelings.

We have a couple of stories from last week to critique. First is Kasim's story. It is an SF "man who learned better" short story. Technology causes problems for the POV character, until something causes him to change his way of thinking and deal with the problem. It's not bad. Not great, perhaps, but there's nothing major that's glaring. My critique, then, is mostly minor nits that can easily be fixed. I probably shouldn't bother raising such minor points in the oral crit, and just let him read my handwritten comments on the manuscript, but rather than have nothing to say, I go over a few. There's a very long scene that might be better split into two smaller ones. The story is long on narrative and short on dialog. I point out a few places where the story tells instead of shows the action. Some of the other crits point out inconsistencies in the POV's thinking, but most of the comments are positive.

After the crit, I mention that the story seems fairly well polished, and apologize that my crit picked at such minor things. We get into a discussion about how polished a story should be before submitting it for a critique. I say my stories are usually second drafts -- a bit closer to a finished story than the first rough draft, but still in need of some work. I don't like to slave over many rewrites to get the story "perfect" before submitting it for critiques. What's the point in that? It seems too much like cleaning up the house before the maid arrives. (OK, my wife wishes we had a maid to clean the house, but you know what I mean.) If a critique points out some serious fault, I'd probably be a lot more averse to making any changes if I had so many rounds of revisions already under my belt.

A few of the other members agree with me, but some others think the story should be closer to the finished version, so the critiquers don't dwell on minor things like typos and grammatical errors. We have a bit of an argument about this. I contend that there is little point in handing in a "finished" story for critique, since the author may not be open to further changes. Critiques can help the author fix the major problems in a story before wasting his time polishing up bits that may get cut in later revisions. Some of the members seem to take offense that I propose to hand in rough drafts that waste their time with lots of simple errors that should be cleaned up before they read it.

If a story is finished, then I don't need a critique of it. It's stories still in development that can use some extra eyes, before I've signed off on it and moved on to other stories, and that's what I always submit to groups like this. My early drafts are written from fairly detailed outlines, are not too shoddy, and can probably stand up to finished work from some of the other members. If they catch me on some minor nits, that's fine -- I don't mind having the small stuff pointed out in a critique. We never come to an agreement about this, so the people who submit "finished" work will presumably continue to do so, and I'll continue (if I continue at all with this group) submitting slightly cleaned-up first drafts.

Why so many arguments tonight -- is it the heat?

Next, we critique Sapphire's story. It is a sort of SF-fantasy crossover. It's got spaceships and other trappings of science fiction, but it's also got ESP and magic, and the plot seems more like a typical fantasy plot than an SF one. Of course, the Star Wars saga is a very successful SF-fantasy blend, but I don't know if this is such a wise sort of thing to do for literary markets. It's too SF for Realms Of Fantasy , too fantasy for Analog , and the other pro markets . . . who knows? In my critique, I point out that the magic needs to be shown or explained in some unobtrusive way before its critical use to resolve plot problems, so it doesn't just come out of left field as some unfair deus ex machina. I also have a problem in that the ending of the story seems a bit weak and unresolved. Sapphire explains that this may or may not become the first chapter in a novel she has been thinking about. I tell her that changes how the story should be critiqued. If it is to be sent out as a stand-alone story, then it needs a clear ending that leaves the reader fulfilled. If it is to be a chapter in a novel (which is not how I critiqued it in my written report) then maybe she's presenting things a bit too quickly -- the characters and plot of a novel need to unfold a lot more leisurely than in this piece.

Most of the others agree with me (hey, they can't disagree with me all the time, can they?). A lot of the other comments were minor nits and such. It's probably not a bad story, but I have my doubts about what kind of market might buy this sort of thing (but I don't say that to the group). It could surprise me.

For next week, Pamela and Peter hand out copies of stories to be critted. The meeting will be a bit different next week: Peter is hosting a pool party at his apartment complex, and we will have a barbecue in addition to the critique session at his swim club. This will also be a social gathering, and spouses, spawn, and significant others are welcomed to come and hang out (but not for the critique session). This could get interesting, but I don't know if I really want to see some of the members of the GVW in swimwear. It might totally change my outlook on their work, for better or worse.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6516

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