Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Never do friends the favor of critiquing their work

When I first met a few fellow writers, I was really excited about it. I thought it was so cool to make friends with people who liked to do the same thing I did. And of course I thought that they would all love to read stuff that I wrote, and I thought that for the most part everyone was going to like what they read.

I met a few people here and there, but except for one guy I was dating, the making friends with other writers didn't seem to work out like I thought.

I signed up for a creative writing class in college. I thought that either the teacher would tell me everything was wonderful and that with a little more work I would soon be published. Or, at least that was what I hoped he would say. There was also the possibility that I would really learn something in this class, and armed with these new skills I would then write the great American novel over the summer break.

Neither of those things happened.

I unknowingly insulted a student that I really liked (over something other than writing), and a lot of others I just didn't seem to click with. One who really liked me was a little too loud for my liking. Of the original 25 students, half of them quit due to serious problems with the class, and I didn't get to know them or read their writing or anything. The teacher of the class seemed to have more important things going on. He missed a third of the class periods, and then it was a month before we actually wrote anything that would be graded.

And then he didn't really have anything helpful to say. During class, he would praise you and tell you all the things that you did right, but then when you got the story back it was graded C-. There didn't seem to be suggestions on how to make the story better, just that it somehow wasn't up to his standards.

Since the teacher wasn't around much, we decided to get together without him and read stories that the others had written. I think maybe we still didn't get much done, because we were afraid of hurting other people's feelings. But still, it felt like we were getting more done without the teacher than with him.

Still, you can't pass a college class without the teacher, and rather than have bad grades on our transcripts, six more of us dropped the class.

Regular freshman English was better, but it wasn't quite what I needed either.

Friends and relatives read my stories, but I still wasn't getting back the kind of feedback I really needed.

And then the rest of my life happened. I wrote a few things. Actually, I started writing a lot of stuff, but I didn't finish that much. Once, when I was really into writing something about vampires, our house was broken into and my computer was stolen. I mostly stopped writing for a bit, and I didn't seriously take it up again until I went back to college.

Once in a while, someone would read something that I wrote, or I would read something that someone else wrote. And even after the other person says that they want an honest opinion, what a lot of people really want to hear is that their writing is wonderful and there's no major problems with it.

If you start out critiquing a friend's writing, and you tell your friend the truth, you may end up losing a friend.

I think that people need a lot of different people reading their work and giving them advice. And maybe they do need most of their friends to pat them on the back and say "Well done" and "Good job." Everybody needs some encourgement sometime. Everyone likes to know that even though they might never be published, a few people read and like their work, so the time and effort was not entirely wasted.

But they also need people who will tell them the truth and ask the tough questions.

I went back to college. I took a few classes that required us to read and critique each others work. One of them even graded us on our ability to work as a group and edit other people's writing. It's a hard thing to get used to doing. It's hard to go and tell someone who thought he was finished with an assignment that there's a major problem and he practically has to start all over. It isn't fun to tell someone that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has already been done, and that the first one was a lot better. I don't like having to tell my new almost friend that his story about the spaceman who got out of his spaceship and fired his spacegun at the spacemonster so that he could fix his space-engine that was damaged in the spacestorm, really does seem like a bad episode of Space 1999 or maybe Lost in Space.

But, that's what the classes are for. You learn to do it. Maybe you also learn that you don't like doing it and never want a job that is anything like that. Maybe you also learn that you don't want to do this sort of thing for friends, unless maybe it is those same friends who were in class with you and they've learned to handle it.

I think that the especially bad part for me on either end is that there is so much work and time put into writing a story that you really don't want it all to be for nothing. You don't want to do major rewrites and have parts that you were happy with taken out. It would maybe be easier to do if you could read an outline first, and point out all the major problems before a lot of time and effort was made. But a lot of us just don't write that way.

And some people just like their ideas too much to change even the most obvious problems, even if they haven't actually done any of the work of writing the thing. They don't want to hear that similar things have already been done, and done better, and maybe even done so often that no one really wants to read another one. Some people just want to hear that they have a good idea, that you can't wait to read their story, etc....

I don't get paid to do this stuff. I don't do this stuff for free for friends who haven't already taken a writing class and don't really want to know that their stories aren't that good. And I'm not in a writing class now, so I don't have critique stuff for a grade.

So what is in it for me to do this stuff at all?

Maybe there's nothing in it for me. Or maybe sometimes I think I might save someone some disappointment later. Or I might be able to show someone how to fix something, or ask the right questions that would get the person thinking along different lines to fix something. Maybe someday I'll open a book and find a dedication to me, and read how invaluable my help was. Maybe someday I'll end up helping the next Stephen King, and he might recommend me for a job.
Or, maybe, there's really nothing in it for me. Maybe there's not even the good feeling of helping someone else. Maybe it is just a total waste of my time and energy. Maybe I shouldn't bother with it at all.
Maybe I should quit wasting my time trying to help other people with this sort of thing and get back to my own writing.


dmarks said...

Orson Scott Card's "Hatrack River" web site has a writers' forum including writing classes and critiquing. I was into it maybe 10 years ago. Back then, there were not a whole lot of web sites out there, compared to now. This page tells about it:

Rob said...

Re "And some people just like their ideas too much to change even the most obvious problems, even if they haven't actually done any of the work of writing the thing. They don't want to hear that similar things have already been done, and done better, and maybe even done so often that no one really wants to read another one. Some people just want to hear that they have a good idea, that you can't wait to read their story, etc...":

This sounds like a reference to me. If so, it misses the mark. For the most part, you didn't note any major problems in my story, only minor ones that I can address. You didn't say anything about similar stories being done--and I'm already aware of the many time-travel and dinosaur stories that inspired this work. Few people my age have read or watched more science fiction than I have.

FYI, Hollywood is already talking about making a live-action Turok movie. Turok--an Indian who fights dinosaurs--was an unoriginal idea back in the 1950s. My goal is to do a Turok-style movie that's better than the source material. That moves the story from the realm of pulp fantasy to science-fiction possibility.

Most important, I absolutely wasn't seeking back-slapping praise. I responded to each of your comments with an explanation that shows a) I took it seriously and b) I'd thought of the problem and addressed it. In contrast, you haven't responded to any of my explanations--pointed out how they fail to address the alleged problems. So I handled your critique of my ideas, but you didn't handle my critique of yours.

Sorry if you don't think I appreciated your effort, but I did. Perhaps you didn't appreciate that I've thought about this story a lot longer than you have. For most of the issues I glossed over, I've envisioned solutions. These will go into the final screenplay if necessary.

Finally, let's note that our mutual friend DMarks asked you to comment--not me. It's not as if I cajoled you into spending five hours and then spurned your efforts. I guess you should to ask him to think twice before requesting your help, eh? ;-)


P.S. Thanks again for your provocative critique.

laughingattheslut said...

If you are truly getting unsolicited advice because of Dmarks, that is between you and Dmarks. I do not have a problem with him.

If you don't think that I found any major problems in your story, the polite thing to say is that you are mistaken. And most of the minor things that you addressed only made everything worse than the first time around.

I am aware that Hollywood is already talking about making a movie, which is why I don't get why you've been sitting on your butt for at least three months. You should have sent this in the first week. In three months you should have a completed script to show for it. You're still working on an outline, and it is flawed.

If you're goal is to do something better than the original source material, you have to really do the work. Someone can do the research and write interesting characters and work on all the little minor things and end up with Jurassic Park. Someone else can skim over the science and write less interesting characters without proper motivation and add some sex scenes and end up with Carnosaur.

But at least someone actually sat down and wrote Carnosaur instead of just telling everyone that he was going to write it. It wasn't very good, but it did get done before Jurassic Park.

I have not responded to your explanations because I don't want to help you anymore. As I said earlier, I wish that I had not given you an suggestions as I should probably use them myself now. Why would I write back and point out the additional problems? I told you that I'm not going to do the work for you. If I'm going to do the work, from now on it will be for me.

I could only guess that I had just spent more time on the story than you had. If you have spent more time than I have, that's very sad to say the least. Before you claimed to have spent a lot of time on this and actually wrote all those thing after thinking about it, there was hope that you could fix things once you gave it some time, but I guess you have another problem entirely. If you can't figure this stuff out, even after all this, all the time in the world will not result in you writing a good script.

I can only guess that either you didn't get my email, or else, you just didn't understand it. I suppose I could post it here and someone could translate it for you. I have had a good laugh, but I am not going to help you anymore. There's nothing in it for me at this point. If you do eventually sell the thing, there would at least be a job for someone who was willing to do the rewrite.

Now, quit trying to convince everyone that you've written something good. Since you're not going to fix it, just send it in the way it is and get it over with.

bulletholes said...

My sister likes to give me advice on raisng my kids and Marriage. Of course, she has no kids and has never been married.
I take no counsel but my own.
My stories are all original, and have been written countless times before.
My last story, I stole from Shelley. The ending at least.
I'd like to re-write "The Day the Earth Stood Still"...i always thought that one needed some serious work.
So does
"Them" about the giant ants, which my son pointed out they didn't even bother to finish, as the kids are still trapped in the tunnel when the movie ends.

Hi, Laughing!

laughingattheslut said...

Steve, I have been reading your blog now and then, but I guess that I had not read enough to know that you also write fiction.

In a way, there are really no "new" stories, just new ways to tell old ones. There's still man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. God, and man vs. himself.

But there are stories that are similar to a lot of other stories, and there are stories that we really don't do anymore after a scientific discovery or some other different way of doing things. Like at one point there must have been endless stories about invaders from Mars, but after War of the Worlds, how many do you need? Still, if you wrote a really good one people would read it. But now we don't really feel like reading new stories about Martians, since most of us are reasonably sure that there are no Martians. Still, Mars is so close, it's a shame to waste it. So maybe we can still go to Mars and fight with killer robots left behind by the dead Martians. Or maybe the Martians all died from some germ warfare and one of the germs will get us. Or maybe the Martians are still there, just sleeping, or maybe they left in spaceships and are coming back soon. But for the most part, if you don't have the best story about Mars that anyone has ever thought of, it probably isn't worth writing.

I have also written my share of fan fiction, but I rarely finish it anymore. I realize that no one will ever read it, and I quickly lose interest. When I was younger I was going to write a sequel to Logan's Run, but then I read the book, which is quite different from the movie, and I found out that there is already a trilogy.

bulletholes said...

My stories are original, but they are generally not fiction. I consider them to be fairly dry accounts of things that have actually happened to me. I am trying to learn to throw in the occasinal twist or embellishment. That is as close to fiction as I have been able to get.

I wass thinking last night about what you had said about suspending disbelief and it made me think that there is some kind of equation for that. We have to be rewarded for that suspension with somethinmg, like an ending, or a twist, that is directly equivalent to the amopunt of investment we have made.

My kids are a good example of this. There are lots of old Sci-Fi that I made them watch that the story line and effects was weak and the amount of enjoyment was directly related to the "punch" delivered at the end of the movie.
I have already cited the movie them as a bad one....i'll give you one that really had a great effect on the kids...
"planet of the Apes," the original. They weren't that thrilleds with the movie until the end, but when Taylor runs across the Statue of Liberrty... what ever disbelief they had to suspend, whatebver special effects may have seemed cheesy, it didn't matter because the culminationmnwas just too stunning. They watched all the other Apes movies, disappointed too, because none had that same punch.

i just wrote you a lot, but I thought you might be interested in this.

laughingattheslut said...

In the book the Planet of the Apes, the story is found as a message in a bottle, so the twilight zone ending had to be done differently as the original did not work with a visual media. The image of the ruined Statue of Liberty had been painted and such often, and some of them had been done well before the movie. After the movie was made, it just became the symbol of we really are that stupid aren't we. I even looked for it in last season's Battlestar Galactica.

The other films are perhaps not as good, and probably most people did not like the second one as much as I did. And I really liked the live action TV series, and thought that the fourth and fifth movies were not as good as the series.

I had thought that when they were going to do the remake that they were going to use real apes and animatronics and CGI to make the original story in the book, but then the ended up mostly with actors in makeup and had yet another storyline.

My world history teacher once stopped during of his lectures to tell me that the Galen he was referring to was not a citizen of the Planet of the Apes. He was always throwing in stuff like that, but there were only two or three of us who had a clue what he was talking about.