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Roger E. Eichorn's Blog: Fantasy, Philosophy, and whatever else I feel like writing about
(Originally appeared in 2002 here.)
A reviewer might wield any number of tools in the process of reducing your writing to Swiss cheese. Some critiques follow a predefined method; others are loose and free. Some discuss only broad narrative elements (the “Macro”), while others leave the Macro to others and focus on immediate grammatical or stylistic elements (the “Micro”).
Regardless of the manner in which your work has been reviewed, however, you should first run the review through a series of questions before you change your writing—a review of the review, so to speak. It’s especially important to ask yourself these questions when you’ve received a review of an isolated chapter of a much longer—and most likely uncompleted—work. Writing is, of course, an attempt to communicate, which is why following basic rules of grammar and punctuation is always advisable; if readers can’t understand what you mean, or if they have to consciously recast your sentences in their minds in order to follow your story, then it’s time you revisited the basics. But when Joe Q. Reviewer jumps in at Chapter 41 of your latest pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, he doesn’t know what occurred in the first forty chapters, he doesn’t know your characters or your world, and he doesn’t know where your story is heading. In all likelihood, he has little sense of you as an author. So when should you heed his advice, and when should you ignore it?
Sometimes good, solid advice will seem terrible at first blush; other times advice that won’t help at all—and may even hurt your writing—will seem spot on. My advice is that no matter how reasonable (or unreasonable) a reviewer’s suggestions may seem, always ask the following questions before either implementing or dismissing his or her suggestions (and these are good general questions to ask no matter what’s been reviewed, even a completed short story about to be sent to Asimov’s):
1) How much do I know about the reviewer?
a: Is the reviewer representative of my audience?
b: Do the reviewer and I share similar tastes?
2) Have I already given thought to the points the reviewer has raised?
a: Has the reviewer considered my intentions before criticizing my execution?
b: Is the reviewer attempting to hijack my story?
c: Is the reviewer pedantic?
3) I don’t agree with a reviewer, but am I just being stubborn?
Let’s explore these question further.
(For R. Scott Bakker…)
Artistic conventions. — Three-fourths of Homer is convention; and the same holds true for all the Greek artists, who had no reason to adopt the modern rage for originality. They were completely lacking in any fear of convention; this was precisely what held them together with their public. Conventions, namely, are the aesthetic means that have been conquered for the sake of the audience’s understanding, the laboriously acquired common language with which the artist really can communicate himself. If he, like the Greek poets and musicians, sometimes wants to triumph immediately with each of his works of art—because he is used to contending publicly with one or two competitors—the first condition is that he also be understood immediately: which is, however, possible only by means of convention. What the artist invents beyond the conventions, he voluntarily attaches importance to and wagers himself upon, succeeding in the best of cases in creating a new convention. Originality is ordinarily seen with astonishment, sometimes even worshipped, but rarely understood; stubbornly diverting from convention means: wanting not to be understood. Toward what, then, does the modern rage for originality point?
– Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow, §122
(Continuing from here…)
The OWW was my own informal MFA program. I posted regularly, from late 1999 through maybe 2002. I put up dozens of chapters (most from that first version of Three Roses), along with a number of short stories (not my strong suit), and hundreds of reviews.
Being a stubbornly ‘self-taught’ high-school dropout, I’d never experienced anything like it before. The feedback I received from the other workshoppers was eye-opening. Perhaps equally important was learning how to assess other people’s works-in-progress. I discovered my latent copyeditor’s obsession with style and punctuation. One workshopper dubbed me “the Dark Lord of the Nits,” because my lists of niggling little questions and corrections sometimes amounted to full-blown copyediting jobs. This was sometimes appreciated, oftentimes not. Cecilia Dart Thornton, for one, went absolutely ballistic when she read my comments on the opening chapter of what would become Book One of The Bitterbynde. (To be fair, I responded to her response in spectacularly ill-advised fashion, and the drama escalated from there.)
Toward the end of my time on the OWW, I put together some of what I had learned about critiquing and being critiqued into a document that is still on the site.
“How long have you been working on Three Roses?”
A reasonable question, but one without an easy answer. I could reply, “For sixteen years this fall.” In a way, that’s true. I could also say, “For eight years—or seven, really.” That would also be true, in a way. Finally, I could answer, “For about a year.” Again, that’s true. Sort of.