Friday, May 8, 2009

Riches in Red Ink

It was final semester senior year, and my poor planning had finally caught up with me. To claim my diploma, I need five classes in my concentration, four literature and one writing. As it happened, a creative writing class handily fit into my frantic schedule and became something of a shelter from a blizzard of reading assignments. Three times a week, I got to create rather than consume, got to study the ins and outs of narration and began to learn how to make language move according to my whims. What I didn’t enjoy, though, was the mandatory chore of having to critique others’ projects.

I wasn’t alone in my distaste. If you could’ve looked around the classroom while some poor soul read his work aloud, you’d have seen faces swaddled in boredom and apathy, faces that might have been a hundred miles away, they were so removed from the proceedings. No one wanted to correct clashing points of view when he could be dreaming up new worlds. No one wanted to delve into fractured diction or spotty grammar when he had nascent characters just waiting for him to breathe the breath of life into them. Sure, critiques helped the author, but we weren’t in the class for charity’s sake. We wanted to write.

The space of years and a little experience have taught me such an attitude is born as much of ignorance as arrogance. Proofing aids more than the proofee. Emotional distance allows you to accurately diagnose common errors, and repeated exposure to narratives penned at various skill levels teaches you what makes a story work. You stand a better chance of mashing the
expository lump, sending the shaggy dog to the pound and stuffing the deus ex machina back into its box if you’ve encountered them in works other than your own. So if someone asks you to give his story the old once over, don’t internally groan. Lucky fellow, here lie writing riches for the taking! Instead, clap him on the back, proffer your heartfelt thanks and break out that red pen.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


B. Nagel said...

I really do envy your writing style. I veer between the conversational and the overly-academic. And I've found that critiquing/peer-reviewing really does help both parties in the end.

Loren Eaton said...

Gee, thanks! Funny you should mention style. Back when I was fresh out of college, an editor kept complaining that my style was "too academic." That frustrated me, because I thought his was too colloquial. It's hard to claim the middle ground.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'd also like to add to the fact that editing lets one improve something that one doesn't have to go to the work of creating. It's lazy man's writing!

Loren Eaton said...

It certainly helps with polishing a manuscript. Usually when I get to that point with my own work, I'm burnt out and just want to be done with it.

ollwen said...

I can think of a popular fantasy writer of whose series I read only one, and it was full of deus ex machinas. I can think of a popular Sci Fi writer, and another of historical fiction who both had had expository lump problems. Haha.

The dues ex machina reminded me of this. Perhaps some of you will 'get it' more than I did.

Loren Eaton said...

Hah! That's funny and instructive. Here are defs for some of the more technical terms:

Peripeteia: "a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation."

Anagnorisis: "the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character's true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation."

MacGuffin: "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction."

Also, I'd heard -- of course -- the term "hoisted by your own petard." I didn't know, though, that a petard was a bomb. Heh.

B. Nagel said...

MacGuffin- Hooray for Hitchcock!

Loren Eaton said...

My favorite "Reverse MacGuffin" from the Dresden Codak comic is "necromancer solves case" under the "Mystery" section. The illustration rocks!