When some one asks you to read their first story…
This summer I worked with the Butte College Literary Arts Club to put out a journal called The Inky Squib. We took submissions from any student currently enrolled and taking classes at Butte, and the only student this excluded was myself because apparently it’s unethical for editors to have a horse in the race… I can understand that. I’m very proud of this journal, and the submissions we received (1 day soon I’ll tell you all about how this project came to be).
There’s one poem in there that I’d like to talk about in particular. It has to do with the appreciation of work when somebody shares their writing with you. I talk about storytelling freely, and as such some of the folks in my life (younger writers and people from my hometown who think if they talk about writing enough one day they might wake and discover “holy shit I’m a writer!” ;P) treat me as if I’m a source of information and an authority on the subject. Because they view me in this light, I do get asked to evaluate fresh works.
This scares the shit out of me!
When I’m talking craft, nothing’s at stake. A budding writer might pick my brain, but more often than not they’re looking for an opportunity to tell me about the stories they’ve loved and that have inspired them. I can easily tell when this is what they’re after, and it doesn’t bother me. We’ve all been there, and what they’re really looking for isn’t advice on writing, but someone who will understand their budding passion and who will tell them, “you’re on the right path my friend, and you should do this.”
All I can do is be encouraging. Some people will sample the writing life and realize just how much work goes into the process without seeing results. Without ample gratification some folks will opt out shortly, or call themselves writers for ages and ages with maybe writing a poem here or there to justify their self-definition. That’s fine too. I suspect these folks will dive in again later on in life with more resolve.
But when one of these folks ask me to read their work and tell them what I think about it, now we’re in dangerous waters. When I talk to them about craft I’m very positive, anything is possible with hard work and critical thought. I imagine the ones who come to ask my opinion on their short stories or poems really do want to be writers, but this is the hardest part, because I take critique seriously and that first short story of ours so rarely applies techniques common to good fiction writing (mine didn’t).
I begin to read their story and usually find that the first couple of pages are throw away. The author is hunting for a jumping point and gaining confidence with their character every word of the way. Finally they find it and there’s a development. There will be a few too many intrigues that will remain unanswered by the end of the piece, and when the point of greatest conflict comes along the budding author will usually write it as fast as they can when instead they should have slowed down to really savor the heart of their story.
If I didn’t give a shit about them and was selfish I’d only lie and tell them I liked it. I can always name a few things they did well and mean it, and if I wanted to I could leave them with that and do no harm to our friendship. I don’t however. I try an be honest. Tell them where their jumping off point was, tell them the author was being too damn clever here, tell them this character seems a lot like you, is it? …You need to expand here. You’re being coy here. This dialogue isn’t convincing, and the worst by far, this feels a little cliche (I hate saying this one because it’s the last thing any of us wants to hear). I don’t do this to be mean, but they need to know that no matter how positive your outlook the act of writing can be damn hard work.
Thank’s for reading,
PS- The reason I bring this up is twofold. For One, I’d like to talk about that point in our writing where we’re gunning for the climax and things should start to intensify, but we’re just having trouble achieving that. For two, giving, receiving, and applying good critique is what has made me the writer I am today. Solid critique is writer’s-gold, and don’t forget it.