Whoppitas, Whirrs, and Ums

Marissa says something interesting about work-in-progress reviews by writers and non-writers, and I’m going to paste it here for immediate reference too.

I think it’s extremely valuable to have non-writers read and critique books. This is not in lieu of having skilled writers doing critiques but in addition to it. Ideally, the finished books will be read by non-writers, and just as only having people of one sex or only having people of one age critique a book can skew the type of critique one will get, only having people of one approach to the written word read it might skew the response.

I think some non-writers are a little shy about this because they don’t necessarily know what a good critique looks like. Trust me, writers sometimes have all the jargon down and brilliant ideas for exactly how, technically, to fix a scene — and other times we will look at each other and go, “I dunno, it’s just that this part kinda goes whoppita whoppita whoppita when it should go whirrrrrr, y’know?” Or else, “I think it needs to be more, kinda, um, um…manic…does that make sense?” If you socialize with writers you should know that we are not necessarily more coherent than other people until we’ve had several drafts to hammer out the whoppitas and the ums. And we probably ask each other, “Does that make sense?” more often than the international average, not less. And sometimes the whoppitas and the ums are the bits that make for a good and useful critique and the detailed, technical jargon ideas about how to fix something turn out not to be very useful.

“Does that make sense?” has to be one of my top five frequently-uttered sayings.

She’s right. Even though I’m a writer, I find it hard to put how a story works (or doesn’t work) for me into words. And so I often resort to the technical review instead. It’s a cop-out, but I feel inadequate giving someone a crit that essentially says, “That scene didn’t work for me but I don’t know why; it just felt like it fizzled”. I keep looking for a way to suggest a fix for it, instead of just saying “This needs something else here”. A non-writer wouldn’t necessarily be looking for the fix; I think they’d be more comfortable saying “This led me to expect X and I didn’t get the payoff, and what I got instead wasn’t enough”.

This is one of the reasons why I drag my feet about doing reviews of works in progress for friends. I get stuck over-analysing why I feel a certain way about a scene or a chapter or a turn of events, and I have no way to express it clearly. This is completely my problem and has nothing to do with the MS I’m critiquing. I hate handing something back with vague “this made me feel” kind of feedback; I feel as if I should be saying more, giving them more value, so to speak, because there’s nothing worse than getting a work back with no concrete crits whatsoever. (Hello, the A minus that has haunted me for decades! What made it an A- paper? What could I have done better to make it an A?) I always feel that I’m not necessarily the best person to give another writer with whom I’m personally acquainted feedback. I can do it for strangers, because I don’t know them and the way they write, think, and work: they are completely separate from their MS. Understanding how and why a writer does something because one knows them in person is in some ways a handicap. The general public does not know an author personally (and reading their on-line journals or web sites does not constitute ‘knowing them personally’), and reads a book or short story as a discrete entity, free of any authorial association.

To be fair to myself, I do need things to be as technically tight as possible before I can focus on reading and evaluating the story; that’s just one of my quirks. Floppy prose or distracting grammatical errors mean it’s hard to find the story in order to respond to it. So doing a tech critique before/while I respond to the story is just the way I have to do things. It means taking longer to do the crit, though, which is another reason I drag my feet.

That was all rather stream-of-consciousness, wasn’t it. And I have no pithy wrap-up for it, either.

*wanders off*

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