photo by Kelly Robson
Here is the kind of paragraph I absolutely love to see when one of my students is critiquing another:
Your writing has some grammatical errors. I saw some confusion between it and it’s, and several comma splices. You might want to look into subject-verb agreement too. I’ve included some great and thoroughly unimpeachable links about these rules.
The reason I love this–especially if it’s tucked in at the end of a critique, after all of the substantial issues within the manuscript have been addressed–is it means the person doing the critique has learned that it is a misguided use of time if they copyedit* their classmates‘ manuscripts.
The urge to edit in a peer workshop is a powerful one. There is no greater joy than marking up someone else’s manuscript. Track changes options in word processing software make it easy and, to be honest, it’s fun. Providing a marked-up manuscript to a classmate shows an intense time commitment, usually earns some gratitude, and gives the reader a chance to directly share their own (possibly hard-learned) writing lessons.
So why am I arguing it is a bad use of resources?
Workshop submissions should always assumed to be early drafts. What’s important in a draft stage is to get the story out, and some writers cannot get out the words if they are worrying about the commas. Some members of your workshop might be perfectly capable of fixing up their grammar in later drafts, but are submitting 10 minutes before the workshop’s drop dead deadline. The reader can’t know if either of these things is the case. You could be driving someone into a panic without meaning to.
Almost no one in a student workshop is an actual copy editor. You’re fixing the errors you can see. A copy editor, who will ideally go through the manuscript in the latter stages of production, after even the savviest author and editor have polished it to a shine, can still find and address errors 90% of us won’t even dream of. Think of the movie ads that say: professional driver, closed course. Don’t try to drive the copy-editor’s race car.
Some participants may actually alter things that are correct and make them wrong. Unless the instructor checks every alteration in every edited manuscript, there’s no guarantee that someone isn’t teaching you bad grammar. Remember, there’s nothing to stop that person with the its/it’s problem from marking up your doc!
Copy-editing actually reduces the chance some people will learn the lesson. Look at the paragraph I love, above. If you tell someone they need to learn subject verb agreement, they have to go find out what the hell that is. If you just go and fix their sentences for them, all they have to do is hit Accept Change and go on making the same mistake in the next draft.
Copy-editing reduces the chance that you’ll learn something. All that time you spend changing mistakes that the author might know how to fix themselves (and possibly also mistakes they’re making deliberately as a style choice) is time you could’ve spent practicing your substantive editing skillset. That is to say: reading the manuscript more closely for big-picture strengths and weaknesses within characterization, plot, structure, setting detail, good images, not so good images, and clear thematic content.
Balance and positivity: Most workshops encourage readers to strive for a mix of positive and negative commentary in critique, so that the author knows both what they’re doing right and where they need to improve a story or novel. A document full of typo corrections and grammar notations is, by definition, a litany of negative notes. There is almost nobody who out there takes the time to mark up a manuscript while paying equal attention to the writer’s good sentences, clever ideas, nice character nuances, and brilliant turns of phrase.
Accountability: In a face to face workshop, you have to look the author in the eye as you deliver your opinion of their work. In an online workshop, your critique post has the same effect: whatever you say is out in the clear, where you’re responsible for it—and where the other members of the workshop can debate whether they agree or disagree with your points. If you say “I was confused by X,” another reader has the opportunity to say “I thought it was crystal clear and here’s why.”
The comments you append to an annotated manuscript aren’t public fodder, not really. Even if they’re available to the rest of the group, 99% of the time nobody but the author is going to read them. You’re taking a portion of your critique and tucking it out of sight, where it can’t be discussed.
Highest and best use of time: In a student workshop you should be aiming to try to achieve two amazing things with each and every critique. One is to give your classmate the best substantial reading you possibly can. The second is becoming a better reader and writer by formulating that outstanding critique. By reading deeply, digging below the surface (which is where the grammar lives) you sharpen your own sense of story. Every second you spend polishing the buttons and shoelaces, the commas and semicolons, is one you spend depriving both yourself and the submission’s author of deeper insights.
It is not always the case that the best and most thorough readers in my class are also the best writers. But there is a strong correlation. The better someone is at critting, usually, the better they are at craft.
Grammar can be a dodge: If a story is particularly difficult to critique—which happens both with the very problematic stories and the ones that are so good they seem done!—picking at the rules of language may even be a way of letting yourself off the hook. It’s hard to read and crit a great story. It’s incredibly tough to shine the way forward for someone who’s just beginning. If you’re copy editing their piece, are you really just writing yourself a pass to not wrack your brains about how to make the ostensibly great story incandescent? Or the apparently broken piece just one doable step closer to viable?
Give it some thought.
Finally, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not saying don’t critique the author’s writing style.** “It’s ungrammatical and hard to read” is a valid part of any prose critique… but it isn’t the whole story, and probably shouldn’t be all you have to say on the subject of their line by line writing.
All writers have to learn grammar. It’s okay to tell someone you think they’re falling down on this part of the job. Make the note, pull out a few offending sentences, offer some how-to links if you like… and then dig deeper. It’s tougher, but it’ll vault your whole workshop forward, and take your own writing with it.
*Most new writers don’t necessarily distinguish well between line editing and copy editing. I don’t particularly want my students line-editing each other in a separate document either, and I’ll talk about why at length sometime, but the tl;dr meat of it is in the Accountability item, above.
**I’m also not saying that instructors shouldn’t do some document editing, or that peer workshops between pros might not agree that this is useful.
photo by Laurie Grassi of Raincoast Books
For those of you who will also be attending SFContario this November 17-19th, here’s the short and longer versions of my schedule!
What, When, Where
Creating Languages: Saturday 10 AM; Solarium
Eating and Ethics; Saturday 11 AM; Solarium
Plot Complications (Moderator): Saturday 1 PM; Parkview
Reading: Sunday 11-11:30 AM; Parkview,
Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My! Sunday 1 PM; Solarium
Who else? and Panel Details!
Creating Languages: Many SF/F worlds have their own languages, Elvish and Klingon being two examples. From etymology to grammar to culture, there are many characteristics to consider. How do you craft languages that make sense? How does a language reflect the identities of its speakers? How do we make our languages and vocabularies believable? Alyx Dellamonica, Sephora Hosein(M), Lawrence Schoen
Eating and Ethics; What is the ethical scope of our food choices? Is buying local really better than buying imported food? Are Vegans better for the environment? How do things like socioeconomic status, mental health, and disability intersect with the ethics of food consumption? Charlotte Ashley (M), Alyx Dellamonica, Lawrence Schoen, Gunnar Wentz
Plot Complications: Characters in a story are attempting to solve a problem. In the best stories, their attempts go horribly awry. Who can forget the moment when the Crew of the Enterprise, attempting to defeat the Borg, is faced with the announcement from their beloved Captain–“I am Locutus of Borg.” And the course of the story is changed. Or, when Boromir falls to the lure of the Ring and tries to take it, splitting up the Fellowship and changing everyone’s paths. Panelists and audience are invited to present their own favorite heart-stopping moment from books and film. Timothy Carter; David Clink, Alyx Dellamonica (M), Cathy Hird
Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My! Economics is frequently overlooked in SF. Do adventurers simply live on nuts and berries and what they can kill? What do they pay with when they visit an inn or buy a drink? How is trade carried out, particularly between species? Is there still a struggle for resources or has science advanced to the point where anything can be fabricated? Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My!; Alyx Dellamonica, Cenk Gokce(M), Kelly Robson
I was so pleased this weekend when Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest took home an Aurora Award for Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, which includes my story “Tribes” as well as fiction by Gemma Files, Hayden Trenholm, James Alan Gardner and so many other great writers. This was one of the Laksa Media series anthologies, done as a benefit for people with mental health challenges, and I was proud to be included.
Lucas and Susan haven’t rested on their laurels, or even paused for breath: this year they have followed up with The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, and there will be a launch in Toronto on October 11th, 2017. Here’s a link to the Facebook Event, and here’s the poster:
Many of the authors in the antho will be there, talking about the story behind each of the stories in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound. As the poster says: Sandra Kasturi, Rahti Mehrotra, Derwin Mak, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Toni Pi, Karen Lowachee and Charlotte Ashley will all be there. And so will I, talking about the Proxy War story series generally, my piece “Bottleneck” in particular, and what a story about a hard-bitten army sergeant is doing in a book of pieces about caregiving and caregivers.
One of the things I’m doing in the first weeks of my MFA program is a top ten list of TV shows, based pretty much on whatever criteria I want, with notes on what makes them interesting. Here’s what I came up with.
W1A –This comedy about the bureaucratic workings of the BBC is something I return to again and again because the dialog has so much verisimilitude and I kept seeing new things within the characters until maybe the 5th or 6th viewing.
Shetland—the vast majority of my current TV viewing originates in the UK and this show, based on a series of Anne Cleeves novels, is my front-running fave. This is the one that would change as soon as I developed a new obsession, but right now Doug Henshall’s Inspector Jimmy Perez and the Shetland Islands settings loom large. The construction of the second season was brilliant.
Quantum Leap—I love time travel. Loooooove it! I came to this years after it aired, when it was in rerun on the Space Channel. Many things about it do not hold up, but Scott Bakula’s performance as Sam Beckett and the compassion he brought to every leap still get me. What’s more, I’ve seen shows that try to copy this format time and time again, only to, in my opinion, fail: Tru Calling and Journeyman are two examples that come to mind.
Farscape–What fascinates me most about Farscape (Boomtown has this too) is that even from the second episode, the characters and situations were established with a confidence and depth that made it seem like they were already in their third season.
Hannibal—There was a time when this would have been too gory and graphic for me, and I realized afterward that my bar had shifted. I like the dark humor in this, the fact that the first season in particular is a meditation on the nature of art and art criticism, as mediated through serial killers creating installations using murdered human bodies. Grim, yes, but effective. Also, as others will no doubt note, Hannibal is slashy AF.
Parks and Recreation– I am not much for sitcoms, but numerous people insisted that if I held on through S1, I’d love this, and they were right. Brilliant casting, good ensemble storytelling, and what I liked most was the attempt to create romantic relationships that lasted rather than building unresolved sexual tension indefinitely, paying off with sex, and then staging a spurious break-up.
Battlestar Galactica—the original. Cheesy and dumb, and doesn’t hold up, but I cannot pretend this was not formative for me: I still write a lot of fiction about genocide and fleets of ships on the move.
Veronica Mars– witty, good mystery construction, compelling characters, and I liked the Nancy Drew + noir mash-up. Most high school based shows falter when their MC goes to college but some interesting things happened in Veronica’s freshman year on this series.
Boomtown– non-linear storytelling, reasonably diverse cast, play with POV, great s1 arc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer —I caught up with this a few seasons after it initially started airing, and rewatched it all again for Tor.com a couple years ago. It was one of the first shows that had online discussion groups breaking down every episode as soon as it aired, and I had to quit one such group to avoid spoilers. Because I did my rewatch in a fairly public way, it spawned after-the-fact discussion and analysis from many fans. As a side show to the actual show, there’s the ever-fascinating and still current public discussion of Joss Whedon himself. Is he a great writer or a hack? Is he a feminist or not? It’s all interesting.
The better you get at something, the harder it is to improve.
This philosophy–which I’m pretty sure I first encountered in a science fiction novel by Kevin J. Anderson, expressed there as the Law of Diminishing Educational Returns–has borne out with many of the skills I’ve pursued in a less than professional fashion. Yoga, photography, choral singing, and aikido all come to mind. You get to a certain point, and you’re somewhere between not bad and decent, and it’s clear that the amount of time and effort required to get up to impressive is going to ramp up in a big way.
Leveling with aikido is an especially on-point example, because each belt exam comes after a certain number of hours in the dojo, on the mat. That number rises… not exponentially, but significantly as one travels from white belt to yellow and upward.
I also believe that if you aren’t trying to improve, you’re coasting. And what is coasting, really, but a gentle drift downhill?*
I certainly don’t think I’ve stopped striving, as a writer, but I also don’t want to wait until I reach some hypothetical future where I’ve eased up, unknowingly. I’ve gotten very good indeed at a lot of things, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. And I’ve written a couple things lately that feel like new breakthroughs. I love breakthroughs. Getting better is an incredible feeling!
All of which means that now is a great time, for me, to greedily reach for more. And, specifically, to look for some coaching. It’s easy and necessary to cultivate self-sufficiency in this game–to follow your instincts and see where they lead you. But it isn’t a good idea to do that all the time.
To that end–and for a bunch of other reasons besides, most of which I’m betting you can guess–I applied last December to the UBC’s Optional-Residency MFA program for creative writers. (Wow. December. So long ago!) I was accepted in February, or around there, and quietly settled into a state of waiting to start school. This has been rather like existing as a chrysalis: neither caterpillar nor butterfly. Suspended animation.
Well… okay. I’ve been as suspended as one can be when one has books due, classes to teach, a new university bureaucracy to navigate**, and fabulous trips to Finland to first go on and then reminisce about. But I haven’t said anything while I was waiting, waiting, for this exciting new thing to begin.
Now the chrysalis is cracking: I did homework today for my Writing for TV class, and things officially get rolling on September 3rd. I’ll report in, as I’m able… in the meantime, I hope you’ll wish me luck!
*I believe this observation comes from Joan Welsh, but the Internet’s opinion is mixed.
**I’m telling people I’m now in a polyamorous relationship with three universities. Oh, the humanity!