Like many writers in the science fiction and fantasy genre, I have been the beneficiary of advice and constructive criticism from a number of successful authors. In my case, I am in debt to Raymond Feist, Joel Rosenberg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede, and Bruce Bethke, all of whom assisted me in my literary endeavors to varying degrees. I am also most grateful to the woman who ran the Compuserve writers’ forum some 18 years ago. Unfortunately, her name escapes me now but I’ve never forgotten her excellent advice: “Stop committing writing! Just write!”
After publishing a few novels and joining the SFWA, it occurred to me that I would do well to follow the altruistic example of those who had helped me and try to assist other would-be authors hone their talents. So, a few years ago I joined an online writers workshop and participated by writing critiques for about a year. I probably read around sixty or seventy short stories in all, but to little avail despite the workshop’s obvious desire for professional participants. I discovered, to my surprise, that not only did most of the workshop writers not want to hear any constructive criticism of their stories, but more than a few were downright upset at the very notion that their literary efforts might possibly be just a little bit flawed. Actually, as was far too often the case, the utterly unoriginal nature of the stories tended to stand in contrast to the extraordinarily creative approaches to spelling and grammar.
Now, I’m no grammar Nazi and my execrable habit of going back and changing a word here and there without bothering to read the entire sentence occasionally lends itself to the evolution of serious grammatical howlers. But it’s one thing to run across the infrequent typo or infelicitous sentence structure, and another to be repeatedly shellacked by text that reads as if it’s written by an alien from another planet who has repeatedly failed the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Twice.
Take, for example, the furious response of one writer, who was mortally offended when I suggested that she might want to provide the reader with some explanation of how her Strong, Independent, Kick-Ass, but Eminently Desirable heroine was able to so easily cut a bloody swath through an entire army of hard-bitten enemy warriors. You know, by making her a demigoddess, or giving her a magic sword, or whatever. However, the writer was absolutely convinced that a female warrior teen, clad in the usual chainmail bikini, would have no trouble at all slaughtering literally scores of heavily armored men by herself without ever breaking a sweat, breaking a nail, or receiving so much as a scratch in return. My own doubts on that score were quite reasonably attributed to: a) sexism, b) ignorance of the martial arts, and c) insecurity about my own literary talent.
That was far from the only indignant response I received to my critiques, which were far more gentle than anything I’d ever heard from the aforementioned authors, whose advice could often be best described as “caustic”. Pat Wrede, for example, provided me with literally pages of notes that chronicled the errors which littered my first novel. I can still recall the mischievous and faintly sadistic smile that crossed her face when she drew my attention to the very important fact that the notes covered BOTH sides of each page… and I am still grateful to her for the salient lessons she taught me that day about the importance of resisting the temptation to give in to literary sloth.
It was with no small amount of relief that I finally quit trying to offer what was quite clearly unwanted assistance. These would-be writers obviously didn’t want my help or feel they needed it, and to be honest, I tend to doubt that any amount of help from anyone was likely to do most of them any good. Although, for all I know, that woman may now be a best-selling author of urban romancefantasy featuring a Strong, Independent, Kick-Ass, but Eminently Desirable protagonist. As one of my editors at Pocket once told me when explaining how he’d failed to sign Dan Brown to write more novels after publishing Angels and Demons, no one in the industry really knows anything.
These days, I reserve any altruistic instincts for the games industry. But, for those writers who are seeking to improve their skills, I would highly recommend a visit to The Ranting Room, which is run by a very helpful and award-winning author and features weekly challenges as well as a nice little community of intelligent, talented, and aspiring authors.