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Saturday, March 26, 2011


Ballot in hand. Who’d win the presidency: Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Daniels or Charlie Sheen?  Defend choice. Bandwagon ready. Jump on.


Must defend choice

At their prime.

Allow for: Intelligence, personal appeal, mass appeal, persuasiveness, public support, etc.

No Electoral College vote.  Winner chosen from popular vote.  Announcement forthcoming.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Who would win in a fist-fight between Mickey Rooney, Mickey Mantle and Mick Jagger?

Here are the considerations:


Each one in his prime.

Only one winner.

To the death or submission.

Consider all factors: Suseptibility to injury, intelligence, size, street savvy, ability to manipulate, form alliances, etc.

Have fun with this.  However bizarre your choice, be able to support it with credible evidence.  The winner will be chosen from among those responding (duh!) and the prize will be ... immunity from having to fight the winner.

4th In Series.... How This Critter Crits

What you may have missed:

My first three months with FanStory I critted without method, by the seat of my pants, as it were.  The preface of How This Critter Crits, explained that and pointed me in the direction of how I wanted to crit.  Chapter one, entitled Why this Critter Crits, explained the emotionally tinged meaning that "review" and "reviewing" held for me.  In chapter two, Macro/Micro Critting, I introduced the reader to the hobby my wife and I have of house hunting and drew parallels between standing in front of the "open house" and standing in front of a selection to crit.


            For those of you who were with me last time, and are now waiting to join me once again with my wife ... I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you.  I must leave Roseana on the sidewalk, in mid-stride between our car and the front door of the open house we were to visit.  I have other, more pressing concerns that won't leave me enough time to squander away an afternoon.  I need to spend some serious hours in front of my computer.
            Don't worry about the love of my life, though.  She has the car, and she'll find her way home.
            After living with me for forty years, Roseana understands -- or, even if she doesn't understand -- she has learned to accept my propensity for occasionally wandering off.  It is at all times honorable.  I don't do it often.  I always come home.  I'm never gone long ... and, it's almost always not a physical sojourn.
            I don't just wander from Roseana, it appears.  I seem to have become pretty adept, of late, at wandering from the subject.  Some brothers and sisters of the critter persuasion, whose opinions I respect, have suggested that they appreciate my humor, my honesty, my occasional self-effacement ... and then they say, almost in passing, that they can't wait until I actually get into the subject of critting.  Then there were the others who were immensely relieved that, following my lead, they were able to come out of the house-hunter's closet.  But, then, rather obliquely, they asked when they could expect me to get into the subject of critting.  One critter was more direct, bless him.  He simply suggested I quit with my similes, metaphors, and analogies and get with the program.
            So, with just a little thumb of my nose at his request for me to dispense with my metaphors, allow me to introduce the pure vanilla brand of macro/micro critting:

            However (and even at the risk of having more than one of you sighing, "Here he goes again,") short of dropping down, now, to a single-spaced, 8-point-font-footnote at the end of this piece, I need to take a minute to draw a big circle around everything macro/micro critting is and leave outside the circle everything it isn't
            First of all, I inject myself right in the middle of the circle.  I am developing macro/micro critting to help me work through the maze of considerations and choices I have to make every time I face a new piece of writing.
            When I use the terms "we" and "us" it is because I'd like to believe there is a degree of mutuality in the critting process just as there were with some of the preconditions we discussed last time.  Also ... it can be pretty lonely in the circle all by myself.  So, if you want to jump in with me at any time feel free -- and just as freely jump out when inclination or mood strikes you.
            Secondly (and, why do I have the feeling that some of you critters who were comfortably inside the circle during the first three segments, will soon be leaping out?) the subject matter inside the circle must be genre selective.  It will encompass: short fiction; the novel; and non-fiction, including biography.  It will be easier to list what will be left outside:  they are poetry and scripts.
            I adore poetry.  I love its grandeur and its economy.  And, how I admire the scriptwriter, who can do so much with the dramatic power of the spoken word.  Personally, though, I am not up to the task of helping any of these writers advance their craft one iota through my suggestions.  And, yes, I have critted poetry and scripts here.  And, yes, I may offer my comments on some of them in the future.  But, for the time being, I have not sketched out for myself a methodology for either. 
*   *   *
            With that circle behind us, we need to carry on where we left off last time with the problems inherent in critting an isolated chapter of a novel when the writer is well into the body of the work.  We'll take a look at the options the writer has.
            You know, it's significant to me that the first adverse comment I received as a result of my well-intentioned but less-than-tactful crit, came during my first week with FanStory.  Her comment began with (and, here I'm paraphrasing from memory and altering everything but the truth of it), "Of course you don't understand why Harvey acted the way he did.  You'd have found that out in chapter 2.  That was the chapter where I explained the reasons why he has absolutely no self-esteem, now, because of the incident in the third grade when his dad came into his classroom, pulled down Harvey's drawers and spanked him in front of all his classmates.  And, jay Squires, you'd have known if you'd had just taken the time to read the chapter just before this one, that Heloise did not throw up all over Harvey and his car because of the desperately clumsy and overly wet kiss he planted on her lips, but rather because of the slice of bad pizza she ate while she was waiting for him to pick her up."  That's how her comments began.  They ended with, "So, Jay Squires, if you come across anything else I've posted here, please feel free to pass it by.
            It would lead to a nice, tidy conclusion if I could stab a self-righteous finger at the fact that her chapter did not include a summary of preceding chapters.  The fact is I don't remember.  I suppose I could go back and check the archives.  I'd rather not.  I choose to leave that crit in my past.  One of you might argue that the lady hurt Jay Squires’ feelings.  To that Jay Squires would counter with ...  "Why, you son-of-a-bitch!"  Yes, I want to close the door on that crit, if you don't mind.
            The critter doesn't have to go far on FanStory to find any number of examples of other novels-in-progress.  Some will have summaries.  Most won't.  From the writer's standpoint, I must say I am mystified at the latter.  Why would anyone go through the agony that each of us goes through to finish a piece -- to change it, to polish it, to change and polish it again, until it says just about what he wants it to say, then box up and send out to the publisher or agent pages 125 to 132 without any explanation?
            The other night, (Remember, this was written years ago) Roseana and I watched Studio 60, Sunset Strip.  It was the third episode.  We had seen it from the beginning, so we got to know the characters and the developing plot and the theme right from the start.  But it wouldn't have mattered much if it had been our first time, because as we sat waiting, diet Coke and mug of coffee at our elbows, we were greeted with the words: "Previously on Studio 60, Sunset Strip," and there followed a one minute collage of scenes that would have brought a chimpanzee up to speed.  Can you imagine NBC offering the weekly chapter of its mega-multi-million-dollar product any differently?
            Why should the novelist on FanStory treat his or her own creation with less respect?  Yet some do.  And, I'm sorry, but that just flat mystifies me.
            These are the choices I find that the writer has:
            He can ignore the problem.  That way the problem simply doesn't exist.  There are no requests.  No injunctions.  The chapter is just "out there" for you to shoot at.  And, it's sad -- to me, it's very sad.
            He can ask the critter not to read the chapter until he has read all the preceding chapters.  If ignoring the problem is sad, expecting someone to do this is laughable, particularly if the writer is well into the story.  He would be just as successful garnering readership by structuring his novel and posting it as one 350-page chapter.
            He can invite the critter to have a go at the present chapter, but only crit for SPAG.  Now this is precious!  The writer might just as well mandate, while he is at it, that we read it from end to beginning, using the logic that we'll pick out more nits if we don't contaminate our SPAG-quest by following the pesky plot.
            And that leaves us with the following strategy: The writer can do a brush-stroke summary of everything that led up to the present chapter, providing a more detailed summary in the chapter just before.  The way I see it, this last method is the only one that makes sense -- it's the only method that gives the writer a fighting chance at finding an enthusiastic audience for his novel.
            If you agree with me, but can't imagine how to begin doing this, or you're staggered by the potential enormity of it, may I suggest a resource to study?  We have, right here at FanStory, a novelist who used this method with imagination and flair in his novel, Concentric Circles.  You'll find it under the *********** portfolio.  Study a dozen or so chapters carefully.  They are an education, not just in filling the reader in on what happened previously, but also in chapter salesmanship.
*   *   *
            While the writer has one of those four options from which to choose to introduce the best of what remains of his novel, the critter has only one responsibility in the face of whatever choice the novelist makes for his present chapter:  His responsibility is to bring into the novel the very best that's in him of his attention, his experience, and his caring.
            Would you agree with me that we're all built pretty much the same regarding our attentiveness to something we are interested in?  Leaving aside the Zen master with 20 years meditation experience, on the one end, and the scatter-brained Gilliganesque twit on the other, aren't we left with you and me and 95 percent of everyone else huddling in the middle with our similar abilities to focus on what interests us?
            How about caring?  Am I na├»ve in thinking that because we all know how wrenchingly difficult this job of writing well can be, we should have more than a small amount of empathy for our fellow writers?  If I don't care about the quality and accuracy of what I am critting -- well, shame on me!
            There is one variable, though, and that is experience.  Some of us have a fair number of writing years under our belts, and about as many years spent critically reading huge numbers of successful and unsuccessful writers within our specialty.  Others have only recently been bitten by the writing bug.  Some have taken a few creative classes.  (There are even a few people I've come across on FanStory who have taught some creative writing classes.)  There are some others -- and I'm talking about good writers -- who haven't taken a class of any kind since they dropped out of school in the seventh grade.  There are some of us who are walking encyclopedias of grammar.  And, then there's me (and a few others I'll bet), who is ecstatic over this curtain of cyber-privacy between the writer and me that allows me to thumb through my dog-eared copy of Woe Is I and The Elements of Style, and toss out corrections and suggestions, (even choosing the word "ellipse," for example, over "three dots"), as though they just now rolled off my tongue.
            So, how can we reconcile effective critting with such wide ranges of experience? 
            Some of the best advice I ever got on my first novel, a mystery thriller, a year before it was ready for publication, came from a young man after I assured him I wanted his unvarnished opinion of it.  I really wanted the varnished and glittery stuff of unbridled praise.  But, that was irrelevant -- and, it certainly wasn't to be the case!  He sat across the table from me in a coffee shop, rubbing the back of his hands, nervously, trying to figure how to begin.  Finally, he said, "It was really long."
            "Yeah -- I -- okay," I said.  "Long."
            "I liked the beginning.  I really got into it.  (Translation:  Good opening paragraph, compelling first couple of pages.)  "And, the ending ... I, um, I really liked that."  (Translation:  He made it to the end.  Good.  And, he found it satisfying.  Good plot resolution.)  "But ... but somewhere near - near the middle ... "  Here he started tracing the imaginary contour of a swayback horse.  (Translation:  Uh-oh!)  "Near the middle I, um, really started losing interest in Noah.  You know?"
            It was some of the best advice I ever got; and, from someone who was not a writer, but someone who liked to read.  He knew intuitively what worked and what didn't.  And this didn't work.  He knew that it sagged in the middle, but didn't know enough about the writer's techniques to explain precisely how.  No writer, or book on creative writing, ever explained to him how the plot has to have an ever increasing number of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome on his way to a major, seemingly impossible obstacle, the overcoming of which will result in the climax and the denouement (which -- dare I mention again? -- he liked in my novel).
            What he did, though, was make me look back into the belly of my novel.  It made me seek the answer to the hard (unasked) question:  Can I have Noah, who was fast on the trail of the Indian Cult leader who had kidnapped Noah's nephew, stop in mid-chase to preside over a success seminar?  Never mind that the cult leader had Noah's nephew and other novices in a hilly hideaway that Noah wouldn't be able to get to anyway, until dawn of the next day.  Never mind that the seminar showed a side of Noah that could scarcely have been revealed in any other setting.  The hard fact was that the seminar took three hours of fictional time, and fifty pages, and about an hour of actual time to conclude, during which time the reader was hankering for the showdown between Noah and the Indian cult leader.
            At that point, only two people had read the story.  One thought it had all the makings of a best-seller -- if not the Great American Novel.  The other, who was not me, thought it suffered through excess saggage.
            The point is, the critter doesn't have to have the word saggage in his arcane literary vocabulary to be helpful.  It was plenty effective for my friend to say, "Somewhere near the middle I started losing interest in Noah."
            Regardless of the level of experience, with honesty, caring and patience anyone can deliver a helpful crit.
*   *   *
            In the next segment of How This Critter Crits we will finish Macro Critting with ways to preview (read that, pre-view) and size up what we've chosen to crit.  It will be a short chapter, but it will take us to, and through, the doorway into micro critting.


 NOTE:  I thought seriously of abandoning this part of the series since it relies much, much more heavily on the FanStory experience of critting where the author would submit one chapter at a time for the reader to crit.  Obviously, under usual reading circumstances, one has the entire novel in front of him and there would be no reason for the author to have summarized what went before.  The reason I left this segment in, though, is more to preserve the continuity of the entirety.

3rd in Series....How This Critter Crits

What you may have missed:

The preface, "How This Critter Crits," was a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory.  Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.  The second installment, "Why This Critter Crits,"explored the reason why I chose "crit" and "critter" over "review" and "reviewer".  The answer may surprise you.
There is a chuckle or two in each.  Combined, you'd be looking at only 5 minutes reading time.  Personally, I've found them to be abundantly entertaining bathroom reading.  But then, you may not have your computer in your bathroom.  So, that should be your first priority - unless you want to print them out.
So ... with crits held high, let's proceed.


(The Nuts and Bolts in the Road Where the Rubber Meets)

            One of the weekend activities my wife and I enjoy is going to open houses.  I can almost hear some of you, out there, saying, "Get a life, Jay!"  Well, despite your sarcasm, we do find it entertaining.  I have my ever-present mug of Starbucks in the cup holder, and next to it sits Roseana's 44-ouncer of diet Coke we picked up from McDonalds along the way.  You can't drive two miles without coming across a Starbucks or a McDonalds, so our containers are never empty.  And, those establishments always have restrooms, so our bladders are never entirely full.  Add to that an air conditioner blasting out frigid air during Bakersfield, California's blistering summers, and a heater that keeps our feet toasty during the winters, when the temperature dips way down into the thirties or even the twenties (which is rare because, well, this is California), and you have the recipe for a perfect Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
            Could life be any sweeter when you have with you the woman you've loved for forty years, your beverage of choice at hand, a controlled environment inside, and outside a city of two hundred and fifty thousand, with a labyrinth of streets to explore for that elusive one-in-a-million home you can't live without?
            Of course, we will live without it.  You see, we have no intention of buying.  We are anathema to realtors.  We stand proud, thumbing our noses at them.  We are lookey-loos.  Understand us, Critters, and love us ... in spite of it!

            According to our newspaper, there's an open house over on the next block.
            As we pull up to the curb, I notice the drapes pull apart just a little, then settle back.  Behind those drapes, feet would be now scurrying about, a blur of hands, picking up clutter, tidying countertops; parents telling the kids to stay in their rooms and be quiet. 
            The homeowners might well be wasting their time.  See, we don't know, yet, whether we'll even go in.  There are other important considerations. 
            "Look at those."  I am referring - with an inclination of my head first right, then left -- to the houses on either side.  The one on the right is in obvious disrepair.  Plywood covers one window, like a patch over an eye.  The stucco is leprous.  The grass is uncut, weedy; trees are untrimmed, with their branches hanging over onto the roof.  An engine-gutted pick-up is hunkered in the dirt, off to the side.
            "Behold, my love, the Bakersfield hillbillies before striking the bubbling crude."  I am thinking out loud.
            "Now, Mr. Drysdale ... aren't you being a bit of a snob?"
            I frown.  No one wants to be called a snob.  I direct my attention to the house on the other side.  It is exquisitely cared for, but has been painted a gaudy pink with powder-blue fascia and shutters.  The window coverings are white and lacey and corseted to the window frames.  A miniature pink picket fence, not more than a foot tall, lines the walkway to the door.  A two-foot-wide strip of blooming groundcover is on either side.  Okay, this is a gal house.  No poker night here.  No Monday Night Football.  I don't voice this prejudice, though.  I dare not voice it.  In fact, I don't say anything at all.  I just glance at Roseana, then away -- but not until I see her grin start.
            "You could always ask her if she'll let her husband come over and watch the game with you."  It's uncanny how she follows my thought processes.
            "I don't know what you mean," I say.  But, then I have to smile.
            She finishes the last of her diet Coke and sets the cup in the holder.  "Let's go for it."
            "Let's," I answer, and I push open the car door.
            Ascending the steps to the long sidewalk leading to the front door, I turn my attention to the house itself.  It sits far back on a large expanse of lawn.  It would require a lot of upkeep.  Rose bushes have been cropped down below the huge picture window.  But the rosebushes won't stay below the window.  And thorns prick, even through gloves, when you cart the severed stems to the trash. 
            Still and all, the house, itself, has good structure, good bones.  Its stucco finish has been painted a pale yellow, with a brighter yellow framing the windows and the eaves.  Nothing screams out, "Look at me!  Look at me!"

            Before we get to the front door, allow me to issue a challenge:
            Take me away from Roseana, the beverages, the car with all its comfort features and remove me entirely from that neighborhood, (knowing I'll be back to join my lovely wife before the front door opens).  Further, allow me to preserve not only the memory of this house, but also all aspects of the houses on either side, including all my prejudicial baggage, then plop me down in front of my computer, cranked up to the "Start Reviewing" screen on FanStory.  What do we have?
            We kind of have -- I say, kind of have -- my personal model for macro critting (and, I trust that if you didn't make careful note that "my," back there, was italicized, you'll go back now and check it out.  We'll wait....)
            When I double click on "Start Reviewing," it means I've already answered in my mind a critical question: "Do I have enough time to do a decent job critting a piece of writing that is very important to one of my colleagues?  Am I rested enough and in the right frame of mind? 
            These are important considerations.  Roseana and I choose weekends to house hunt, so we'll be relaxed.  And, we wouldn't think of beginning at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the signs start coming down at 5:00.  And, why would we go hunting at all if we weren't in the mood for it?  It would be too much like work, like a job, wouldn't it?  Likewise, we critters wouldn't click on a story or poem after we'd had a run-in with our boss (or spouse) earlier today, and risk the replaying of our acrimonious conversation being superimposed on the lines we are reading.  We wouldn't, would we?  Well, would we?
            But wait!  You only have two "member cent pumps" and $3.42 in member dollars in your stash (Please see note at end)*, and the story you promoted yesterday is already starting to make that greased descent.  You need to pump some life in it, and you need to do it now.  You need to pump ... it ... up ....  I guess it's up to each of us, individually, to deal with that dilemma.
            So the first consideration is: do I have enough time and am I in the right mindset to do justice to another's pride and joy?
            Assuming I can answer "yes" to both, I do a double click on "Start Reviewing," and check out what's next on the queue.  It happens to be "Spiritual Poetry," and with it, the next consideration I have to face.
            I bring back to mind the Clampets' hovel and Barbie's precious domicile.  And, I ask myself, do I have similar Spiritual prejudices, as well, on the surface, or lurking beneath it?  More basically, do I have poetry prejudices?  And, more basically, still, do I have the skills to adequately crit poetry, particularly the more formalized, rhymed and metered variety?
            In reality, I won't have to dredge for an answer to each of those questions.  Rather, from my emotional center the answer will come of itself with a resounding "Yes!  Yes!"  Or it will be a "Yuk!"  If it is a "Yuk," now is not the time, nor is this the place, to begin a program of poetry appreciation -- not at the expense of the poem in question.  Save education for another day.  Okay, Jay, double click on "Next."
            "But, wait," I might stall.  "Poems are usually short.  There's a twenty-five percent chance I'll get a member pump. (a brief glance below, please)**  I can read and crit three or four poems in the time it would take for one prose piece -- and give me better odds at getting my prize.  And, simply by reading them, I'll even get better at understanding.  I'll learn, and while I learn, I'll be generous with my crits ... and in the meantime, five or six additional pumps could be mine."
            Don't you even consider that brand of logic, Jay!  Double friggin click on "Next."
            I do.  And, of course I'll do it again and again, as long as I'm being honest with myself, as long as I ask myself the tough questions about each choice that pops up.  Do I have a bias against romance stories?  How about a predisposition against children's literature?  Or, this: am I prejudiced against a particular short story which warns me that my ears are about to be scorched by the language the writer promises to use, and that he will provide, free of charge, a bevy of sweaty, naked bodies writhing on the floor emitting animal sounds?  I may even have to admit to an unseen judge that I am over eighteen.  Oh, my!
            But you get the idea...
            As a critter, don't we need to stand outside the story or the poem, the script or the essay for a spell?  We've got the time.  We're in the right frame of mind.  So, now, don't we need to sit at the curb for a moment, as it were, to scan the environment, to look left and right at the surroundings?  Shouldn't each one of us seek for the answer to the question: "What will my comfort level be in this neighborhood?  And, if I'm not comfortable here - yet choose to stay here -- am I liable to treat my neighbors unfairly?"
            Let's assume I've found the neighborhood I can be comfortable in.  I make my selection of what I want to crit.  It's a crime novel.  What's next?  I start reading, right?
            Well ... not quite.  Not when I'm in the Macro part of the Macro/Micro critting system.  I'll have plenty of time for reading it.  In fact, by taking not much more than a minute now, I should be able to make the reading go more rapidly and enjoyably -- and, more importantly, I might do a better job of helping the writer strengthen his piece.  And bonus time!  By focusing on the elements of effective writing, how can I help but improve my own writing skills?
            As a fellow critter, let me ask you a question.  If I were to hand you a Tom Robbins novel to read, after thanking me profusely, would you sit down, grab a beverage, open the novel up to chapter fifteen and start reading?  Of course not.  But, why not?  That's what many writers on FanStory expect you to do when you select a chapter of their novel to read.
            So, let's say the selection I have chosen to look at (to decide whether or not I'll crit) is chapter seventeen of a crime/thriller novel.  By now, most characters are well developed, a few are killed off, and the story line has taken many twists and turns.  What, then, should the writer expect of me as a critter?  And what expectations should I -- what expectations should we, fellow critters -- have of the writer?

            This is a good place to ask you to hold that question in mind.  The next segment is just around the corner.  In it I'll be wrapping up macro critting.  We'll explore together the overall structure of the selection, we'll weigh it, measure it, check out its thickness - still trying to decide whether it's something we want to devote our time to.
            So, until then, keep writing, keep critting.
            And, if you happen to see Roseana, tell her I love her and I'll see her before long.  She'll be the one on the walkway between the front door and our car -- the one with the bewildered look on her face.  Alas!  She seems to have lost her husband!  He was there just a moment before ....


*  Again, for those who haven’t an experience with FanStory,  let me give you a brief explanation of the “money value” of critting a story or poem.  The critter is “paid” to crit a piece.  The denomination is in “member dollars” which can only be spent at FanStory, and used to increase the likelihood of readership for your own creative endeavors.  You see, every time you post a story (know that I also mean poem, script, etc.) you are guaranteed that three people will read and crit your story.  And the money value, to the critter, of each of those three crits is a higher “member dollar” value than the 4th and successive crits, assuming the writer does nothing further, to promote it.  After the 3rd crit the story drops in value to 2 member cents.  However, the writer of the posted story, wanting more than three crits, probably will promote it.  How does he do this?  By spending his member dollars to “raise” his story as high as he can.  I would regularly spend 40-50 member dollars to assure me of getting 50 or so crits.  There’s a lot more, but that’s sufficient to give you a feel for how it works, and to understand my references.  Phew!

**  I’ll not explain the “member pump” at this time, fearing it will bog things down overly.  If anyone wants to know about it, let me know.

2nd in Series....How This Critter Crits

If you missed the launching of "How This Critter Crits," you might want to go back and read it first. It's about a three or four minute read, so, the way I figure it, you'll be rewarded about one-half cent per minute of reading time.*  But, please don't read it for the two cents you'll get.  Ultimately, you'll feel cheapened and tawdry acting under that motivation.  Read it, instead, because you hope it might address issues you've wondered about.  Read it because you might find it entertaining and enlightening.  Read it because, like the mountain, it is there.  Hell, read it because you have five minutes before the Viagra kicks in.  Whatever -- just read it!
            But, given all those reasons, if you still choose not to read it, I reluctantly offer this summary:
            "How This Critter Crits" was, itself, a summary -- a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory.  Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.

*    *    *    *

            I think it was the second day after posting How This Critter Crits that I received a particularly glowing response.  I had already answered probably twenty of them -- mostly favorable ones, with a few being, well, less than sterling.
            Anyway, I scrolled down her crit to the response box and, after thanking her for her kindness, I told her how -- owing to what she and others had voiced -- I was literally quaking in my figurative boots.  I told her I'm like the rookie ball player who listens to, and then internalizes, what the press is saying about him: to wit, that he will break the home run record, if not this year, then surely the next.  Does he, for one moment, reflect that the press's job is to sell newspapers and they're notorious for being wrong?  Just once, does he let the thought that his teammates still have the nerve to call him "kid" bring him down a notch?  Oh, no!  Not this rookie!
            Instead, the first time at bat he points to the center field fence (Babe Ruth style), and with the first pitch he closes his eyes and swings a mighty swing that miraculously sends the ball far over that same fence.  As he trots around the bases, his hat in his hand, nodding his head right and left, and grinning fatuous acknowledgment to the cheers of the standing fans -- inside him, his stomach is churning.  He bristles to himself, "There you go ... Now you've done it, dummy!  You had to go and point your stupid finger, didn't you?  Thanks to your idiot finger, you've got yourself one long, scary season ahead of you!"
            Anyway, I haven't looked back at my answers to your wonderful crits, but I think there's a good chance I might have spewed a little enthusiasm all over you about the segments that are to follow.  So ... if you find me pointing to a fence here or there, please forgive me.
*   *   *   *

            One of the reviewers of How this Critter Crits asked me why I found the need to invent "Critter."  After all, what was wrong with "reviewer?"  It's a very good question.  And, while I can't promise you a good answer, I can promise you a rather long one. 
            I choose Crit/Critter only for myself, and I choose it partly because it's fun, fanciful and informal.  But, did you notice I snuck in a "partly" back there?  It's because there's another reason I choose not to review or call myself a reviewer.  And, I want to say right away that my reason is highly subjective.
            It involves a bit of a story, so bear with me.  There will be a point to it, somewhere near the end.  I promise you.  Here goes:
            About three years ago, I published a novel -- my first.  Okay, it was my only novel.  It was a mystery/thriller, entitled The Dead of Winter, and you have no idea how proud I was of it!  I thought it deserved national if not world-wide recognition, with a place on the shelves of every library in the United States.  Of course it got neither.  None of that should be important to you.  But, besides my just wanting to say it, it does segue into the subject I want to broach -- and, somewhere toward the end of that subject, it offers the point I promised.
            The story has to do with all of us writers whose books were birthed by this particular publisher (by the way, don't expect me to mention the publisher's name, and though some of you may figure it out before I'm finished, please don't shout it out.)  What is important, as I said, were all of us writers.  You see, we had a message board which the publisher owned, and on which we could chat, share ideas about marketing our prides-and-joys, pluck a person up when he was down, bring a person down a peg or two when he was too full of himself.  It was a brotherhood, a sisterhood.  And, life was good in the hood!
            You've been very patient, so now I'll at least approach the point.  Our books were sold on, among other book dealers.  If you are familiar with the books found on Amazon, you've noted the "star" rating system, very much like FanStory's (but without the venerable and elusive six star rating).  As a reader, you can say a little or a lot about your opinion of the book's worth, and rate it accordingly.  Of course, prospective buyers may peruse those reviews and make a decision whether or not to buy it.  So the rating is important.
            Now, because of our brotherhood, sisterhood relationships (the groups and sub-groups and cliques formed on "the board," as we called it), there was a lot of inner buying, selling, and giving of books to one another.  It was a kind of literary incest, if you will, within our brotherhood/sisterhood.  But, with it came a price.  Once you had one of your friend's precious cargo in your hands, had read it (and some of them were sheer anguish to read), you were expected to review it.  And, this is how that worked in the hood: the review was first presented on the board where it was peppered with oohs and ahs and a half dozen variants of work of genius.  Then, with approval gushed by that book's author and other friends, grateful permission was given for the reviewer to place it, with the full five-star rating, of course, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders.
            I did my share of reviewing.  Oh, yes!  Probably more than ten authors got my rave reviews and not one was less than a five.  My own novel sits elegantly on Amazon, though I have since severed my contract with the publisher.  Ten reviews (I counted them just today) still reside there, all but one penned by authors on our board -- yes, by my friends, my brethren, my sis-tren.  All fives.  All bristling with verbs and dripping with syrupy adjectives.  And, of course -- in my case -- all sincere, all true.
            Now, to take this story to its conclusion, and the promised point ...  I remember an incident concerning one of the darlings of the publisher, and a formidable Titan among the published writers there.  As I was checking out the message board one day, I happened upon his posting which was blistering with invective for a newbie upstart who dared to deposit a three star review on Amazon, with comments advising the prospective buyer that the plot was thin, the characters thinner, and that she was saddened for the tree that gave up its life for this novel.
            The poor young lady was, indeed, a newbie, her book having been published only the previous month.  She was abashed.  She shot back an answer that she was sorry but she was under the impression that she was supposed to be honest in her reviews.
            A few minutes later, his reply came sizzling back.  "Honest?  Honest!" he seethed, while, I'm sure, flinging spittle over his keyboard.  "Who the hell told you we're supposed to be honest?  We're here to help each other sell our books.  No more, no less!"
            Well, to say that their exchanges sparked controversy on the board is understated.  Adherents pitched in both camps.  Battle was imminent between pragmatism and idealism; between doing what works and doing what's right --ultimately, it would be whether you would choose to be lying to, lying for and lying with each other, or "to thine own self be true," as someone, perhaps a writer, once said -- and, while we're at it, let's let him finish his thought: "And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."
            Now you know the how and the why the other "partly" came about.  I warned you it was subjective.  But, to me it's very real.  Call this process we're all involved with what you want.  Review away, if you wish.  As for me, with a little shudder of remembrance I can't seem to dislodge, I choose to crit.  And, whether my crits are good or bad, inspired or pedestrian, this much I pledge to you:  they represent the best I can do with the knowledge I have at this moment in time.  Further, I know you want -- no, you should expect -- any critter to deliver only the best he has in him.  For your part, I am going to assume that with your posting you are announcing to each and every critter out here: "This is the absolute best, most highly polished, work I can offer at this moment.  Please help me find ways to make it better."
            We only grow, as writers and critters, by stretching out of, and beyond, the creative skin in which each of us resides at every individual moment in time.  We exist in a true symbiotic relationship.  We feed off, and at the same time nourish, each other.  And, what each of us deserves is that which is true and genuine in the other.
            If, however, flattery is what a person craves, allow me to whisper in that person's ear the name of a publisher whose authors will gleefully offer a full, fragrant dose of it -- for a price, of course....

            At the conclusion of "How This Critter Crits" I previewed what was to be this, the second installment, saying it would contain "The flesh and bones (with enough fat for the flavor) of an attempt at applying the same yardstick to all crits."  Little did I know that someone would innocently ask me why I don't call myself a reviewer.  It just goes to show there are no innocent questions ... or short answers.  Allow then, if you will, today's offering to be as a huge set of parentheses between the first installment and the third.  And in that third installment I will try, once again, to explore the method I will use in trying to apply one and the same yardstick to all crits.

* Note: This reference and what follows would be completely understood by a FanStorian, and was therefore an inside joke.  The gist of it, then, is that it takes only 5 minutes to read, so why not just read it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1st in Series....How This Critter Crits

Five years ago I posted a series of articles on, arguably the premier website for writers and reviewers.  I was pleased have it received with considerable acclaim.  It started out as an explanation of my theory of reviewing, but along about the third chapter the perception of the readers seemed be that the series was turning into a manual on writing.   I claim no expertise in the teaching of writing, though I have been active in the craft for better than 60 years.

I would like to lay these chapters out on the table before you, the readers, with a hope that they will spark a dialogue, the results of which will enhance the level of reviewing and writing of all who choose to engage in the process.


How This Critter Crits

May 11, 2006

            It took me over forty years to discover FanStory.  During those years writing was in my blood.  Unfortunately, so were laziness and a whole lot of other distracting things.  The net result was that I managed to publish only one novel and a handful of short stories - oh, and one poem.  All occurred within the last five years.  I try not to think about how far I might have gone had I dedicated just half my energies spread out over even a measly half of those forty years.
            But, that's my cross.  I'll just thank you for not reminding me I am carrying it.
            I have been a member of FanStory for about three months now.  I've shared some of my stories and poetry here.  Some of you liked them.  Some didn't.  Some of you were really quite bright, others lacked critical discernment.  Life is simple, given the right mind-set.
            Over the last three months, I have reviewed probably five-hundred stories, poems and essays.  I call it reviewing.  I prefer "critiquing," but that would make me a critiquer, and I just don't like the way that looks on the screen or page.  Neither does my good friend Mr. Spell-Check  "It's not a real word," he tells me, underscoring his conviction with a squiggly red line -- and that, by gum, is good enough for me!
            So the search began for a fitting name for the process.  It didn't have far to go.  I happily settled on the shortened "crit," and called myself a Critter.  Yes, I like that -- I do indeed!  A Critter!  It has something of a maverick ring to it.  So what that Mr. Spell-Check doesn't like it.  What does that anal-retentive pedant know?
            So, with my title, Critter, at the ready, I felt emotionally and intellectually prepared to launch forth and crit.
            Before I tell you how that went, allow me a little side step to fill you in on some other stuff.
            My other job -- my wife and my children call it my real job -- is selling insurance.  I've been doing that for about as long as I've been writing.  I mention this for one reason.  As a businessman, I know that to be successful, you have to know how to keep score.  You do that by checking your progress periodically.  I check quarterly - at least I try to - and I check my results against my goals.  It's called a quarterly report.
            Since I've been a member of FanStory for three months, may I offer this as the quarterly report of my critting experience over that time.  I want to say, without hesitation that during this, my first quarter, I flew by the seat of my pants.  My journey was experiential and not at all organized.  Of course, I had a ball!  I'm still having a ball.  So, with the first quarter behind me, let's pop those corks, friends.  Raise high the glasses.  Toasts are in order.  I'm a Critter, you see.  And, I'm in good company.  We're all Critters.  Viva la Critters!
            If you got the idea that I'd been feeding my crits on a diet of enthusiasm and emotion, you're absolutely right.  But, today marks the end of an era, my friends -- a three-month era -- ha!  And, it simultaneously begins the second, third and fourth quarters of a new era.  Thus, I shall be ushering in an era of responsible critting.  As much as possible, rating will be quantitatively arrived at as opposed to emotionally and arbitrarily. 
            As loose and disorganized as my critting has been, these past three months, I've been able to slot each piece I read into one of four categories.  The borders between them kept shifting, expanding and contracting, for the reasons I gave above.  And as we explore them, you will easily see how one (using the impersonal "one" takes the heat off me nicely, thank you!) can be generous or damning to the degree that one is arbitrary in one's critting.
            These, then, are the categories, or groupings, into which I ceremoniously or unceremoniously slipped your soul's work after it had satisfied my literary palate:
            A small percentage of them were superb.  A larger number were very good.  A small number were good to passable.  And, a percentage about as small as the superb group was simply abysmal.
            To the writer of superb fiction I awarded a 6 star.  My comments were glowing.  There were also a very small handful of writers whose work only deserved a 5, but got a 6 for any number of stupid reasons -- subjective reasons.
            If the writing were very good, the writer got 5 stars.  Strangely, my comments in those instances could be equally as glowing.  Some effervesced, even scintillated.  There were also a fair number of superb submissions who only got 5s because, alas! I had already squandered my 6s.*  Guilt-ridden, I spewed praise over these.  If praise were water they'd have been drowned, in some cases scalded by my boiling passion for their genius.
            For good-to-passable works, they received 4 star ratings.  I made copious comments and suggestions, usually in the area of grammar and punctuation, on what they could do to improve their submission.  In nearly all these cases I offered to re-read their work with an eye to improve the rating as long as they either made the suggested changes or justified their not making the changes.
            Then came the abysmal submissions.  That this is a delicate category, I am fully aware.  Generally, though, I give this group a 3, rarely a 2.
            There are some for whom English is a second language.  I have befriended a few of these wonderful people, and I have nothing but praise for their high courage.  I can only imagine how sterling their writing might be in their own tongue.  For whatever reason, though, they chose to bare their souls in English.  In my crit I try to bring this out in the open right away.  Most all their errors are in the areas of grammar and punctuation, and often there are so many that I can only generalize, suggesting they watch their agreements between nouns and verbs, double negatives and the like.  I also have suggested some on-line grammar sites.
            It is easy for me to imagine myself trying to communicate in their country; so I make an effort to exercise a great deal of tact while critting their writings.
            Falling into the abysmal category, there is also a strange breed of writers who seem to have a cultural or literary chip on their shoulders.  Their writings are written and submitted in a way that an unwilling high school student would submit an English paper.  Their personal biographies are often abrasive and challenging, and many times vulgar.  I wonder why these people paid their membership in the first place.  Yet, submit they do, sometimes prolifically.  Usually they refuse to spell check or edit their material.  Their grammar is atrocious once you figure out what the words are that are laid out on the screen before you.  I tried at first being tactful with them, going to great lengths to point out what they might want to consider changing this, adding here or deleting over there.  But, did they want that?  One, very tellingly, commented after I reviewed his script that I reminded him of his mother!  Oh my...
            Finally there are those stalwart warriors who submit daily, who truly want to improve their writing and have a healthy approach to receiving criticism.  Their only problem is they have not come close to mastering even the basics of the craft of writing.  Still, their need to reach out to others, to find an audience for their souls' stirrings, can bring tears to this old man's eyes.
            So, there we have it: a bit of a confession of a flawed, short life in the FanStory world of literary criticism.  Here I am, dear fellow Critters, warts and all.  Tell you what -- you don't twitter** and point at my warts and I'll overlook your enormous Critter butt....

*    Note to the new reader:  At FanStory, only 5 “6s” were allowed in each calendar month.
**  As a side note, the phenomenon of “Twitter” didn’t exist when I chose that verb!