Writers as Critics
Posted by Alan Edwards
I’m a writer. I make stuff up and write it down for embarrassingly small sums of money. I don’t write for the money, of course; I write because I like to do it, and sometimes stories nag me until I write them down, at which point they leave me alone and we never have to meet again (Now, I would be happier to do it for regrettably HUGE sums of money, but I guess that’ll happen along anytime now). I generally like what I write, although there are parts that I hate immensely and other parts that seem to me like a real writer wrote them, one I’ve never met but enjoy reading. Seriously, sometimes it’s like a stranger wrote something and dumped it in my manuscript. That’s a great feeling.
However, liking what I write doesn’t make it good, so like any other writer not completely ashamed of what he’s produced I give my work to others to critique. Sometimes I post it on a forum in a writer’s group, sometimes give it to non-writing friends, other times to writer friends. I hope for honest feedback and seem to get it (though how would I know). Since I’m an independent author, I don’t have actual editors to peruse my work, so most of the time it’s fellow writers who give the feedback.
This is great. It can also be absolutely horrible.
Good feedback from a writer (in my opinion, of course, but as this is my blog everything here is my opinion, so just keep that in mind and all will be well) involves grammar and other corrections, includes suggestions of things that could be added or cut to make it flow or to avoid repetition or expand on an idea, provides encouragement but honest assessment, and will say what works as well as what doesn’t. This kind of feedback helps writers grow and continue writing.
Then there is a critic of style. Every writer has their own style; even if they are merely aping someone else’s, their inability to accurately replicate that style makes it their own, generally lesser version. Some people are verbose and carry on in long-winded sentences meant to convey the narrator’s breathless infatuation with his own voice (which can work, believe it or not: Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards is told in this style, a throwback to Alexandre Dumas, as he assumes the voice of Paarfi the Historian), whereas other prefer to cut every interesting word from the prose to leave a dry and exposed skeleton (like, say, Hemingway). Some prefer dialogue to convey exposition, some use flashbacks, and still others use chunks of narrative. The choice is what makes a style.
Now, imagine Hemingway trying to give a critique of The Phoenix Guards. It would be hard to imagine someone whose style is so distant from the work he is attempting to give feedback for would be able to actually provide useful advice (it can be done, certainly; I just think it is rarer than it is common). A good critic would be able to do so regardless, but being a good writer doesn’t mean that you are a good critic. I myself struggle with it. I know when I am into something, I know when something makes me feel distant, and I know when I actively hate something. The difficult part is in analyzing the nuances of those feelings. Is it the story? The characters? Dialogue? Interplay? What? Much of the time, I get bogged down into “who the hell am I to criticize anyone?” mode, like my opinion isn’t worthy of the work I’m reading. Other times I wonder if my own writing style gets in the way of my ability to analyze.
As an example, I have a friend who’s been writing for quite a long time, mostly horror. He is a good writer, and I love the tales he tells. A while ago, we exchanged the first several chapters of each other’s current work-in-progress in order to give feedback to each other. When I received his, I appreciated about 50% of it – helpful suggestions, parts he liked, parts he thought I should add, and the like. The other half I rejected outright, since I couldn’t do anything about it. It was a difference in style.
He invoked what is, in my opinion, the All-Time Least Helpful Soundbite of Advice Ever Uttered to a Writer: the venerable “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s like the basic generic piece of advice to writers. It is important, don’t get me wrong, especially for beginning writers. Don’t tell me she’s angry. Show me she’s angry. I get it, really I do. But he said it in regard to my method for handling certain pieces of exposition: flashbacks. He said that flashbacks don’t work well, pull the reader out of the story, and violate the Show, Don’t Tell principle. He told me I should use dialogue for that.
Well, I have a problem with that, since I have a problem with dialogue in general. Too much of the time, dialogue in a story consists of words that no one would ever say to one another in any real setting. I can’t picture my co-worker coming into my office and saying, “Wow, you look rough. You look like that night when we drank the tequila we found in the bottom drawer of Joe’s desk, went to that bar with the huge bouncer out front, and you stabbed him in the gut for no reason and we had to drive out to Jersey to bury the body.” Yes, it covers the Show, Don’t Tell aspect by illustrating just how rough I looked. At the same time, it’s just ridiculous to imagine that being said out loud, between two people who were at the original event. In real life he’d have said, “Dude, you look rough. Weren’t buryin’ a bouncer last night, were you?” or something to that effect – alluding to it without retelling it in an awkward, stilted manner.
To me, a flashback IS Showing without Telling. You are showing the reader something that happened as it happened. Telling would be, “They trusted each other.” Showing them can be as simple as “They trusted each other completely, and there was a dead bouncer in Jersey no one talked about to prove it.”
What my friend and I have is a difference of style. I find his dialogue jarring and stilted and completely unconversational. He looks at my flashbacks as interruptions and flow-destroyers. We write differently. I could no more switch my style to his way of dialogue than I could write left-handed (legibly, anyway), and there is no way he could switch to my style. That’s OK. It’s how we do it.
I try to keep it in mind when I give feedback. I can read something, and my brain will automatically chirp up and say, “I would’ve done it this way,” but that’s not really the point. The writer isn’t trying to sound like me. Instead, I have to try hard to step back and ask myself if I like what I’m reading, and what would make it better, and who I’d like to here more from. The writers out there who also make great critics – I salute them. It’s really fucking hard to do well.
I don’t even know what the point of this was. All I know is, being told “Show, Don’t Tell” at this stage of my life really chaps my ass.