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Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers -- Week #8
It's a typical muggy night in North Carolina, and the Garden Variety writers meet at the pool club of the King's Arms Apartments. [Q: Where's the King's Arms? A: Around the Queen's butt.] I've brought my wife and kids, kicking and screaming to the GVW pool party. I've also brought a crock pot of baked beans and a twelve-pack of Rolling Rock bottles, but they go quite willingly. We arrive and the kids disappear into the pool. I don't expect to see to see much of them for the rest of the evening. Can't say that I blame them, really.
A few of the other GVWs are in swimwear, but most of them are in their regular street clothes. I'm wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt over a pair of baggy swim trunks, so I'm ready to join the kids in the pool if the adult activities get too dull. Everyone except Wilton is present (no surprise there). I make an attempt to remember which significant others go with which GVW members, but it's a losing game. One of the GVW has a same-sex partner (who seems more interesting, actually, then the member --- I wonder if we can get the partner to start writing), another has a small infant who is breastfed during the proceedings, and there are several other children displaying varying degrees of impoliteness. I'm learning a bit more about the GVW members than I really want to know.
Peter grills up burgers, hot dogs and chicken. Other members have brought salads, cakes, chips & dips, wine & beer and the like. Lots of beer. Pamela acts as the hostess, and after observing them together for a while, it becomes clear that Pamela and Peter must be a couple. When I say something to one of the other members, he confirms it: Peter and Pamela share an apartment here at the King's Arms. Why did I not notice this before? I'm sure there were signs (like, um, the mailing address on their manuscripts), but I just never caught them. Did they meet in the GVW? If so, then it's probably the best thing to have come out of the group -- they seem like a nice couple.
We eat, we drink, we chitchat about writing habits and aspirations. To keep things fair for the significant others, we also talk about life in general in the Carolinas. Nearly everyone in the GVW is from somewhere else -- Charlotte is somewhat of boom town and the native Charlottean (Charlatan?) is a rare breed. We drink some more. The spouses proclaim their support for their partner's writing aspirations. My wife nods and agrees, and lies a bit that she likes my writing. Actually, she doesn't ever read my fiction, but that's not a problem. It's just as well we don't start a new argument over spouses' support in front of the families. Tonight is a social event, and we all play nicey-nicey. For a while. The beer and wine flows freely.
After some food, talk, and lots more drinking, we get down to business. This is still a writer's workgroup, and we have two stories to critique this week. I'm surprised when the group proposes to just start the crits poolside, in this mixed setting, instead of moving the writers away from the other family members. I suppose they want their significant others to see the group in action, so they will understand just what it is we do at the regular meetings. I don't think this is an especially great idea, though, since the spouses are not writers, and do not know much about what we are discussing. I'm also not comfortable with kids listening in, since it is an adult group, and kind of hard to beat up on a story when the author's kid may be listening in. Peter and Pamela are this week's authors to be critted, and don't have any kids, so that's not a problem.
Peter's story is first. It is the same horror/dark fantasy piece that the group critiqued in week #4. Peter has apparently made some revisions and resubmitted the piece. The thing is, I can't tell any difference between this version and the one I already read a few weeks ago. I do notice that a couple of things I marked up on the manuscript as minor glitches in my previous critique are still not corrected in this version. These are not points of differing opinion, but outright mechanical errors. Hmmm. Back then, I concluded that this was a very good story, and practically ready to go. It is still a good story, still ready to go. It is the same. What has changed?
Why resubmit a story to a group with only minor changes? I can understand wanting an opinion on a major rewrite, but not this. If the author agreed with my previous comments about the story and made some revisions accordingly, then what is he looking for now from me? My seal of approval? Should I now try and find something else wrong with the story to comment on? And if the writer did not take my advice on that earlier critique (as it seems here) and make the changes, then does he not expect me to find the same exact faults I pointed out before?
I mark up the same minor nits on the manuscript I noted in the earlier version. In the oral critique, I again mention the point that I think the story drags on a bit too long after the climax. I tell Peter the story is very good and highly polished. He should send the thing out and get to work on the next story. The other members all agree that Peter's story is good, just as they did the first time around. This is not at all a painful critique, which is just as well, since we have an audience.
Pamela's story is next. It is a fantasy piece, with a fairly involved plot. I find I cannot get into the story, though, because the main character is somewhat disagreeable. That's not an absolute story-killer, and a tale can succeed with an anti-hero, but that is not the case here. This kind of fantasy story is mostly read, I think, for escapist entertainment value. To that end, the reader needs to identify at least somewhat with the protagonist. We don't necessarily have to agree with or even like the POV character, but it does make the story easier to get into if we can empathize with the character. If there is something at stake that the POV wants, we need to care one way or another whether he succeeds.
Alas, Pamela's POV character is brutish and very politically incorrect for these times. It is a shame, since the plot is a pretty good one. I suggest in my critique that the character should get a major overhaul to make his situation and thinking patterns a lot more sympathetic. Several other members also comment on the POV's nastiness. Pamela tries to defend her choice by saying she wants to shake things up from the accepted norms. I argue that while it's good to avoid the tired old clichés, having a sympathetic POV is probably not one of the conventions a writer should mess with too much. Readers usually want to identify with the main character in a story, especially in a genre like fantasy that many read as a form of light escapism.
For next week, Hachi and I turn in new stories to be critiqued. Mine is a hard SF "invention" story. I think it's an OK story, and don't expect too many major problems will surface in the crits. But you never know. That's what groups like this are for.
After the critique session, my wife and I decide to take a dip in the pool and join our now wrinkly-skinned kids. The water is refreshing, and my wife is grateful to get away from all this writerly talk for a few minutes. A few other members and guests that came clothed for bathing also pop into the pool. One of them is Peter, and he swims alongside.
"I've seen your web page," he tells me.
Oops. Peter knows about the blog. I presume this means Pamela also knows. Hi, Peter. Hi, Pamela.
"OK, so what do you think about it?" I ask.
"It's cool," Peter says.
"You don't mind if I keep doing it?"
"Not really. You're probably the only one in the group who knows what he's talking about. I won't tell the others."
"Thanks, Peter. I'm not doing this to hurt anybody."
"It's not really that bad. Pam and I kind of like it, actually."
So, the secret's out, at least to a couple of the GVW members. But don't think this means I'll go soft on your critiques next time, Pam & Peter.
While this little exchange is taking place in the pool, an altercation has started back among the landlubbers. Kasim is standing over Fabian, and both are talking loudly and pointing. Peter and I swim over to that end of the pool to see what's going on. Kasim has apparently taken offense at something Fabian has said, or the way he's looked at Kasim's girlfriend. Fabian is single and has come alone. I never quite get it explained to me exactly what transpired, but the two argue loudly, and Kasim calls Fabian a pig. Kasim's girlfriend tries to calm him down, but the beer is probably doing most of the talking here, and Fabian confronts Kasim. The two stand toe to toe and get into a shoving match and the pool lifeguard on duty blows her whistle. Peter tries to break it up, but before he can get out of the pool, Fabian is pushed in, clothes and all.
Kasim makes some hasty apologies, launches one last barb at Fabian, and departs with his girlfriend. Fabian dog-paddles to the pool ladder. It is an electric moment, and the GVWs and significant others are all a bit stunned. A few people start murmuring among themselves and Pamela hands Fabian a couple of towels as he climbs out of the pool. He is not exactly my favorite member of the GVW, but I can't help pity him at this moment, standing there in his soggy street clothes. It seems so . . . high school.
I get my wife and kids out of the pool and we all dry off. The altercation has brought the party to an abrupt halt and the members start drifting away. I collect my crock pot, thank Peter and Pamela for having us, and also make my exit.
Earlier in the blog, I said I'd explain where I got the name "Garden Variety Writers" from. A bunch of years ago, when I was living in New Jersey, I used to belong to a group called The Garden State Horror Writers (a nice bunch of folks and I miss the monthly meetings still). For a time, there was an idea floated in the group that we might want to change our name to something a little less horror-specific, to attract writers from other genres, since the group embraced all genres. Back then, I used to hang out on the now-defunct Genie online service, and I asked the group-mind there if they could come up with a better name. None other than Damon Knight responded with the "Garden Variety Writers" moniker, a perfect choice to emphasize the Garden State and a variety of writing genres, with a neat, self-deprecating play on words. The Horror Writers didn't go for it, though, and stuck to the old name (which I still think was a mistake, but then I'm mostly a science fiction author). So that's where the name came from. Thanks, and rest in peace, Damon.
Tonight, though, I'm thinking I should have dubbed this group the Full Contact Writers.
Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante Count=6572
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