In Praise of Honest (and thoughtful) Criticism

For several years now, I have been a participant in the online writers circle known as Critters.  Although critters has communities for other types of writing, the largest community at Critters is the one comprised of people who write speculative fiction:  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  Each participant is expected to provide a 200+ word critique of other members stories, which come out in batches every week. If you critique one story a week for at least 3 out of 4 weeks on average, you are a Critter in good standing, eligible to have your work read and “critted” by the rest of the community. I have learned a lot from Critters, both by critting the works of others, and by having others critique my work.critters-pic

Last week, my “pastor meets space alien” story A Dangerous Philosophy came to the top of the queue. I received about a dozen replies from people of many backgrounds, and it’s time for me to apply the things I’ve learned in my next story rewrite. Before I do, I’d like to mention a few things I’ve learned and this and prior iterations of my Critters experience:

  1. Experts Give Better Critiques. If you’ve ever asked a friend for feedback on your story, and received empty platitudes, you know what I mean. The best and most useful criticism comes from someone who knows enough to tell you what’s wrong. That may be an opposite-sex friend when you’re trying to portray a character of that gender or a technical expert in the field your writing about, but mostly that means other writers. Most people who just like to read can’t tell you “character X has poor motivation” or “you’re overwriting here”, because they haven’t done battle with those particular demons — and those who can may be unwilling to tell you.
  2. Style Matters. I’m not talking about your writing style, though that certainly matters as well.  What I mean is that the way you provide critical feedback will make a big difference in how it is received.  There is a reason writers think of their stories as their children: the emotional response is the same. If you need to tell someone that their child is a delinquent, he’s more likely to listen to you if he feels like you care about that child as much as he does. Andrew Burt, who runs Critters, really pushes this issue, and he’s right to do so. People who follow this rule when applying #1 say things like “I don’t think X would behave as he does here,” or “I think your story would be stronger if you eliminated some redundant description here,” and are more likely to be heard for doing so.
  3. Diversity of Perspective Improves Results.  Some of the best crits I have ever received have come from people whose backgrounds are significantly different from mine.  Several years ago, a critter told me she thought my protagonist was offensively sexist when I was shooting for self-centered and ignorant. I never would have seen that perspective if it weren’t for her. With A Dangerous Philosophy, some of the most interesting crits have been feedback from people who don’t have my church background, showing me where I may need to tighten up the prose to make the inherent conflict between two ministers more obvious.
  4. Critters Read Differently.  Since joining Critters, my reading style has changed.  Whereas I once would have simply enjoyed a book for what it was, I now find myself pausing to appreciate how Hemingway phrases his English words to fit Spanish patterns in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or how Marisa Meyer gives her female protagonist a key action at the climax of Scarlet so she won’t be a passive victim in her story.

Early in my writing experience, I was able to quickly turn stories into rejection letters and didn’t grow from it. I liked my stories, and really didn’t see what it was that kept them from being accepted.  I don’t blame the publishers–these days, they simply don’t have any time to give critical feedback.  To fill that gap, I needed a writers group, and Critters works for me.


Baby Steps across the Racial Divide

Massachusetts bigotry is the zit that appeared on your nose the afternoon before prom night. At first, you didn’t even know it was there. Then, when you found out about it, you were embarrassed. You tried to treat it, to ignore it, to cover it up, but it’s still there, and everyone knows.

I first realized this in 1978, when my brother was home from college. It was Sunday, and my grandfather had come over for Sunday dinner. The big news that night was my brother’s upcoming date that evening. Since I was still in middle school, and hadn’t yet discovered girls, this seemed an appropriate thing about which to tease him.

“P–‘s going on a date,” I said.School bus zoom in front

“Is she white?” my grandfather asked.

“No,” my brother said. “He’s black.”

I knew when I heard this that P’s date was in fact a white girl. I also knew that my brother, with his reply, was telling my grandfather he had stepped over the line. Over the years, I’ve become proud of my brother for doing it. Since May 17 will be the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, it seems appropriate to tell this story today.

Unlike the plaintiffs in Brown, my life was insulated from racial concerns. As far as I can remember, my High School had one African-American student and perhaps two Asians when I was there. I’m fairly sure we had more identical twins in school than non-whites. Race never really came into my consciousness at the time, but since then, I’ve been thinking about it more and more.

I think about it when I think about Boston, a city I love. Bill Russell, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, described Boston as a “flea market of racism,” and never really felt comfortable with his home-town fans. Although Boston’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 was one of the first desegregation laws in the United States, minority students involved in that integration effort were met with thrown rocks when their buses came into white neighborhoods. And from what I’ve read, discrimination is still a problem there. In school, we learn about the underground railroad, and how Massachusetts regiments fought from the moral high ground in the Civil War. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to notify the bigots. Bill Lee

I think about it when I remember 2004, when a pair of dark-brown Dominicans named Martinez and Ortiz led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series Championship in 84 years. The real Curse of the Bambino was racism: if Tom Yawkey had been willing to hire a black man, baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays could both have easily come to Boston long before they went to New York.  Bill Lee may be a less-than-ideal poster child for your “Say No To Drugs” campaign, but he got it right when it came to understanding racism in Boston.

I think about it when I listen to music, because so much of “american” musical culture has come from the african-american community. The black gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop I enjoy may be popular with whites, but they were all birthed by people of color. Even the “traditionally white” opera on my iPhone is sung by Leontyne Price, an african-american woman.

I think about it when I try to write, because minorities have long been under-represented in science fiction. Unlike those things I’ve mentioned above, this is one area I can change. When I write, I need to find more ways that the protagonist of my story can be non-white. To be honest, this is hard for me, because I need to write what I know, and I don’t know enough about people of color.

To fix this, I’ve been listening to discussions on racial inequality from Fuller University on iTunesU. I’ve been reading blogs by people like EthiopianAmericanGirl who talk about integrating their minority culture into the white majority. And I’m trying to work up the courage to interview some of the many minority people I have met, but never really known.

I’m going to get there. I’m going to learn what I need to know. And my stories will be integrated. It’s only right.

Passing Notes

C and I had been friends from the beginning. When the other girls went to the far side of the playground for recess and the athletic boys took over the field, leaving a handful of us boys to play Star Trek with her on the jungle gym, we were friends. When we used to talk for hours about Tolkien and D&D on the phone, we were friends. And in seventh grade, in math class, we were friends.

The teacher, whom I’ll call T, had a strict rule in his class about passing notes: if you were caught doing it, your note would be posted on his bulletin board for the entire class to see. The prospect of humiliation was sufficient threat to keep the cool kids from even trying it. To me, it was a challenge.

T had organized the desks in his class alphabetically: seven columns of three desks each, with a fourth desk in the back of the first and last columns.  Because C’s name was near the start of the alphabet, she ended up in the back of the lefthand column. My name, at the end of the alphabet, placed me all the way in the back of the righthand column. Since I was a math geek, and C was well-behaved, T must have thought he had it all figured out. He was wrong.

Separated by five rows of empty desks, C and I couldn’t pass notes by any traditional method. Even folding the paper into a tight triangular football wouldn’t work; If T saw either of us pick up a piece of paper from the floor, he’d know something was amiss.  My solution?  A ball-point pen with its guts removed.

One day, when T had given us desk work to do, I saw my chance. I had disassembled a pen that was large enough to hold a fairly large note, provided the note was folded carefully and rolled up into a small cylinder. To test my theory, I wrote a brief note to C, inserted it into the pen, and slid it across the floor to C when T was looking away. So far, so good.

C wrote me a reply, and passed it back. T didn’t even look up, and I became bold. I wrote her a second note, inserted it into the pen, and shot it towards C’s desk. The pen banged loudly against her three-ring binder, and T looked up. C picked up the pen from the floor, and no one seemed the wiser. When C passed me her second reply, and I stepped on the pen to stop its progress, I was sure I would be caught, but T went back to his work after a brief glare towards my desk.a-note

At this point, I knew the jig was up. There was no chance I could possibly get another note past him, even with my innovative concealment methods. Knowing this, I fashioned one last, special note, waited for T to glance my way, and tossed it across the floor.

“Miss C,” T said. “Give me that note.” T and I had been challenging each other all year, and he seemed smugly satisfied to have finally caught me in the act.

C, who hadn’t even had enough time to look at the note herself, handed it over, a look of sheer terror on her face. T unfolded the note, glanced at it, and his face fell. Still, he had an official policy–no exceptions allowed–and he posted it on his bulletin board.

“THIS IS A NOTE” it read, in letters large enough that the whole class could read it without leaving their desks.

I feel somewhat sorry about doing that to the poor man, but I probably feel more guilty about the fact that I’m proud I pulled it off.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s

This past Sunday would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday. The day before, I had serendipitously   rewatched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which she famously starred with George Peppard.  I didn’t do this because Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous (though she is). I didn’t watch it because she has a lovely voice (which she does). I didn’t even watch it because Givenchy and Hepburn are a match made in sartorial heaven (which they are).  I watched it for the premise.

BreakfastBreakfast at Tiffany’s, like the Truman Capote novella on which it is based, portrays characters who would not be good role models for your children. Hepburn’s Holly Golightly uses her charms to get money from rich men as a means of support, and Peppard’s Fred is a kept man in the service of an older married woman. Despite this, I think there is something moving in the way Fred grows past his situation in an effort to rescue Holly from her chosen lifestyle, and the way Holly clings to hers because she’s afraid of real love. It’s a story I’d love to tell.

At the same time, I don’t want to be writing clichés, nor do I have any hope of matching Truman Capote, so I asked myself what would happen if this tale were gender swapped. What if Fred were the running woman, and what if she wants to rescue a kept man who isn’t sure he wants to be rescued? That question led me to gigolo Harry and young poet Persephone.

Persephone is young, but she has lived far more than a girl her age should be forced to do. Her mother’s business partner, Alex, had insisted she call him Uncle Alex, but subsequently tried things that an uncle shouldn’t do. When it became apparent that no help was coming from her mother, Persephone renamed herself Pip, lied about her age, and joined the crew of an interstellar freighter.

My story begins with Pip taking a job as resident poet for wealthy landowner Isobel and her seventeen cloned daughters on a distant planet. There she meets Harry, who was hired to provide entertainment and genetic material for the young women in the family.  It’s the closest thing I can conceive to Holly Golightly’s café society lifestyle, justified by my claim that truncated telomeres will keep cloning from being useful for multiple generations in a row.

Because of her background, Pip wants to rescue Harry from what she interprets as an abusive situation. Isobel, on the other hand, has invested a lot in keeping Harry and his genome intact, and doesn’t want to lose that. I find myself doubting that either one will ask what Harry wants.

For my own part, I think I have a pretty good handle on Harry’s emotional state and motives, but Pip’s are tougher for me. Harry doesn’t have any experience with “normal” romance, and is going to make dumb mistakes. Would she run away from him as well, or would she react in anger? What kind of words or actions would be most likely to set her off emotionally? That answer will drive the events of my plot.

Either way, I don’t think it’s going to end in a Hollywood happy ending, the way the movie did.

Microsoft Delivers

Nineteen years ago, I was one of the senior developers in a project to develop a new factory automation software package under the Windows NT operating system. I received, as part of this project, a “Solution Provider” tee shirt, with the tagline “Microsoft Delivers.” Being a stereotypical New Englander (read: cheap), I wore said shirt periodically. My friends, who knew me as an advocate for UNIX, would often question me about this behavior, and I would tell them a story.

cattle farm

No longer a dairy farm, but cows still live there.

My grandfather owned a vegetable farm in southeast Massachusetts. Though he sold most of the property long before I ever knew it, he continued to farm a small plot of the original land to supplement our diet with fresh produce.

Across town, a friend of our family owned a dairy farm. Every spring, when the dairyman mucked out his barns, he took a truckload of manure and spread it on my grandfather’s field.  Years of this habit led to my grandfather having excellent soil on his property, which in turn made it easy to find nightcrawlers there for an afternoon of trout fishing.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s farm was not the same as it had been in the days when my father was a child.  Over the years, a residential neighborhood had sprung up where once oaks and swamp maples had grown across the street. These neighbors, as you might expect, had a different perspective of the manure delivery:

  • As far as my grandfather was concerned, he was making an annual purchase of fertilizer for his fields.
  • As far as the dairyman was concerned, he was providing a service to an old family friend.
  • As far as the neighbors were concerned, however, somebody had just driven up in a truck and dumped a big load of crap in my grandfather’s back yard, and it stank to high heaven.

Clearly, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the slogan “Microsoft Delivers”, but as the storyteller I can choose to tell you whatever story I wish.  Still, I think that perspective matters, whether you’re buying a product, selling a service, or witnessing a transaction.