I am a member (paid, even) of an on-line critique group. It’s actually more of a mob than a group – there are thousands of members. You post a short story or a snippet from a larger work for critique and it goes into a queue. About 50 stories each week are pulled from the queue and posted to the main page where members can read and offer suggestions for improvement (aka: rip your story a new one).
I haven’t posted anything there in a while. I got frustrated that I would get only one really helpful critique for every ten that was some version of “You had a dog in your story. I like dogs.” I do tune in every once in a while to critique other’s stories, however. Looking for comma splices, passive voice, showing-not-telling, split infinitives and the like helps me to avoid the same errors in my own writing. Plus, I just like helping people. I’m a giver.
I will not critique a story if I can’t 1) offer at least three suggestions for improvement or 2) say at least one nice thing about the writing. Some stories are so rife with errors that I could edit every sentence, but if I can’t honestly tell the writer something positive about the story then I won’t critique it (I won’t ever tell anyone they should just give up). Then, I’ll read a piece that blows me a way in its creativity and execution, but I won’t post a critique if it’s just to gush.
However, there is one genre of writing that I can not - nay, will not - ever critique: FANTASY. I just can’t slog through it. It’s all so dense and convoluted that I can’t even tell if the writing is good or not. I barely finished The Hobbit, so there is no way I’m ever translating what spews from the pens of amateur Tolkien’s. I’d need a spreadsheet to keep up with all the story lines and the characters. Then there are the names. Good lord, people! Even Middle Earth had a character named Sam, so why can’t your realm have a couple of Steves or Marys.
Alaicorn, prophisied King of the Rylorean Clans of Higher Persulania had three sons, Eiorlyc, Ruionan, and Clive. All three grew to be lean and strong, each rulers of their own clans in time. However, one son, Ruionan, had a higher destiny, for at birth the seer, Briothiaae, had a vision of the mystical Griffin of Tiolwool clutching a flowering Nuuowir branch in it’s talons. Alas, this destiny will forever remain a mystery as our story takes place in Lower Aiierolania, not Higher Persulania.
Yeah, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. There are numerous different people all posting similar long-winded, dragon studded, elf eared, sword slashed tales of yore. Week after week. Is someone actually reading this stuff? And, more importantly, are they liking it? Have I just missed the boat?
I don’t want to make fun of amateur writers (well, I kinda do) because I am one. I’ve sold one story for money (a whopping five bucks) and had two others published for exposure in lieu of payment. I am as green as they come when it comes to every aspect of writing. However, I hope I can tell the difference between talented wordsmithing and formulaic drivel.
Ah, but that’s just it, isn’t it? The masses want formulaic drivel, don’t they? It’s what sells. Every romance novel ever printed follows a formula and those paperbacks fly off the shelves faster than you can say “quivering loins.” I suppose the fantasy genre is no different. Someone found a formula that worked and now everyone else is plugging their characters and locations into it. Who can blame them? Give the people what they want, don’t make them think too hard, and they will repay you with their cold, hard cash.
You might be thinking that I’m just bitter and jealous that others have managed to get a publishing deal while all I got is a framed five dollar check on the wall. Well . . . yes. That’s part of it. But, there is truth to what I say. In the forums of the critique website are actual published writers telling their publishing world tales of woe. Many of them say that no matter how much a publisher touts that they want fresh, original stories that challenge the reader, what they really want is a story that will sell. What stories sell? Obviously, stories that have already sold before. Just look at the recent vampire hysteria. I wonder how many brilliant first novels were ignored and tossed in the trash because publishers were scrambling to jump on the blood-sucking bandwagon.
This is the old dilemma of writing for money or writing for critical acclaim (even if the critics are just your friends and family). Do you want to be McDonald’s or the quirky little italian joint down town that is packed every weekend and serves the best damn bolognese this side of, well, Bologna? If you’re really, really, multiple-lottery winning lucky, you can get both.
I’m really proud of the story that I sold and it has nothing to do with the money. I was proud of it the moment I finished writing it. I guess that’s the only formula I need.