Monday, May 26, 2008

Asking for and Accepting Constructive Criticism

I find it re-affirming to ask people critiquing or giving back notes on your unreleased work to focus on an aspect or two and for them to return with responses similar to your own suspicions. Hearing their different articulations of their responses also helps address a problem or see something good in your work.

This past Wednesday, I attended the Chicago-SF Writer's Workshop. About a month beforehand, I submitted my 10 double-spaced pages. A couple weeks after that, I sent out an inarticulate questions inspired by Alex Epstein's blog entry, "PLAYWRIGHTS". After having made a link to Alex's entry, it's kind of odd since he compares TV writing and theatre writing, whereas I write fiction. Right after reading his opinion on the different styles behind TV and theatre writing, though, I had the question, "Well, how do novelists treat their writing style and characters?"

I still haven't gotten an answer to that question, and other than to fulfill my own curiosity, I didn't see much of a point in asking Alex's to compare novel writing with those two other forms of writing characters. Instead, I asked the Chicago-SF Writer's Workshop the following:

I want to know if it feels like there's too much meaningless squabbling amongst the characters and if that gets in the way of the story moving forward. If so, does anyone have any thoughts how these types of dynamics work? When do characters work too well together, making a story somewhat boring because there's no tension? When do characters argue and squabble too much, thus distracting story with too much frivolous tension? That's all the questions I can think up at the moment, but any thoughts on this topic (at the workshop), would most certainly be appreciated.

More succinctly (especially after the workshop on Wednesday), is the novel more character or plot oriented, do the characters get in the way of the plot, does the story dwell too much on some things so the plot doesn't progress, does so much focus on the characters get repetitive and boring?

In the entries, "Finding My Beat and Chugging Along" and "Keep the Story Linear and Interesting, Stupid, and Other Writers Facing the Problem," I explored this topic somewhat; just mostly in the form of avoid repetition from showing the same event from different perspectives.

I think the issue here may actually arise from trying to write similarly to a TV or movie writer. With a visual medium that allows for splitting the screen for different perspectives and other tricks, the whole different perspective trick can be accomplished easily without too much annoying the audience. The split screen trick allows for showing the story from different perspectives at the same time. Further, the visual medium itself doesn't take so much time or demand too much cognitive processing by the audience to see the scene at hand.

With prose, the visual can get difficult because the author needs to write from different character's viewpoints, which also includes their sense of things that are significant. Two people in the same room with a specific design aesthetic, different objects in it, different actions occurring in it, etc. etc., have different perspectives and assign alternate interpretations of significance to each other, themselves, the design of the room, the objects of the room, the location of the room in the building, the building, itself, the location of the building and the whole matter of significance can go on and on into infinity.

So unless an author wants to go in the direction of James Joyce's Ulysses or various novels of William Faulkner, both of which have infuriated many readers and load readers with much cognitive work, an alternative approach needs to be taken.

I didn't expect the discussion would pretty much go in this direction along with a couple comments that my characters were becoming stereotypes/caricatures (I want to know that this is occurring, and I'm not necessarily sure it's a bad thing; if it serves the novel, it should happen) because of certain degrees of repetition. The direction of discussion shouldn't have surprised me, though, seeing as how I have the same complaints and already have figured out some structural ways to address the matter.

One option for me would be to complain that the workshop doesn't fit my needs because of the page limit for submissions every month (10 double-spaced pages or 5 single-spaced pages) and that the limit doesn't allow the group to critique my current writing (I've submitted work I've done from 5 or 6 years ago and am now submitting work I've done 3 to 5 years ago) and how the writing style has changed. Submitting current work from the novel could get confusing because the group hasn't read everything previously (even though the repetition in the writing could negate that issue since it would provide a tool similar to the "previously on. . ." montages at the beginning of some TV shows, which I think might have been the intention with the repetition originally, after hearing people complain about some shows being too complicated and requiring a person to have watched since the first episode to understand what's going on).

Neither do I have the intention to edit anything I've written first draft yet to provide a satisfying storytelling from the beginning for the workshop because I could get frustrated with the process and not actually reach the end of the novel. I followed the technique of writing and editing a section at a time until I got a satisfactory response from a workshop, and after awhile, I just had to scrap that version of the novel and start over from the beginning. In the process of trying to get that satisfactory response, I ended up getting influenced by other things I read, which ended up changing the whole story, anyway. I figure that I might as well just write, write and write until reaching a conclusion, absorb influences through the process then go back and address points of fact and reader satisfaction at the same time. To me, a lot more efficient than trying to get section by section perfect.

I guess it just gets dissatisfying when, to a certain degree, I've already answered questions that I raise and have addressed, to my satisfaction, discussion points that arise during workshops. . .but to adequately address current work, these conversations have to start by virtue of submitting short clips of the story in relation to what has already been written. It feels kind of like wasted time because some amount of my time during the workshop involves me saying, "Yeah, I know, I've already raised that question, I'm going to address that when I rewrite it" to a lot of critiques.

Every once in awhile, though, it's nice to hear something new that I haven't thought up, from praise to frustration/dissatisfaction. It also helps to hear my dissatisfactions get articulated differently or even receive some suggestions on how to address an issue (especially when I haven't put too much thought into correcting it).

Hopefully I've come up with a good tactic for cutting down on the inefficient discussions that I've already had with myself. For future submissions, I will do a minimum of editing, taking the form of excising repetitious parts of the text and asking the workshop if they feel like they've missed anything, tightening up the language and welcome any other critiques that come up, which hopefully don't address matters that I've already thought a lot about.

In the meantime, I've got a fair amount of research and writing to do for the academic side of things. The fact that I could do a fair amount of writing for the novel without distracting myself from writing the academic side has just occurred to me. Will have to put some thought into that. . .but not addressing that matter probably won't affect my working with the workshop. Ahh well. . ..

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