Five years ago I posted a series of articles on Fanstory.com, 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!