Yesterday I did my first round of reviews for Martin Ingham's Shootout, and it was certainly interesting. The Shootout is the same as DL Hammons' WRiTE CLUB, except admission is closed and so it's only a game for participants now. That means writing stories and then getting them reviewed. There were so many eager writer that Ingham broke us into four teams, and we review stories from a different team. I read six stories yesterday, and almost immediately I started having flashbacks to similar experiences...
In high school and college, I attended writing classes, and the results of reading my peers' work could usually be broken thusly: some simply could not write, some wrote based on story structures gleaned from movies and television, and some wrote overly flashy but otherwise ambitious and interesting exercises. For simplicity's sake, we will call these archetypes the Underachiever, the Misguided, and the Overachiever. In short, it's extremely rare to find someone in a class like this that will read exactly like what you will find in a typical book, no matter your preference. The Overachiever will always be the most impressive, mostly because they're trying to impress, and are obviously influenced by some writer they greatly admire. The problem is, they do not have an authentic voice. The Misguided is more tragic than the Underachiever, because they don't seem to realize that there's a difference between the storytelling techniques exhibited in prose and screenplays. The Underachiever is just sad, because they're the clogs in the machine, who don't seem to realize that they probably should not be writing. This is the makeup of all the amateur writing to be found, even on the Internet. It is extremely rare to find a writer who does not fit into one of these categories. Sometimes you'll find an Overachiever you're absolutely convinced will be a good writer, but it's rare that they will actually have something to say. They're the perpetual short story writer. There's nothing wrong with short stories, except eventually they develop their own mutant sense of logic, and will even bleed into generic novels some critics will always fawn over, for lack of interest in ambition.
(Now, there is a difference between amateur writers and writers, and that's where the bridge between Overachiever and Achiever can be found. I would argue that the best writers are not Achievers or Overachievers, but simply writers, confident in their own abilities and having nothing to prove, and lucky enough to be in a position where they can do exactly that.)
It was always painful, sitting through material like that in a classroom. Believe it or not, but it was actually easier when I briefly co-edited a literary journal. The writing was on the whole better, but short stories have a tendency to bring out the worst in any writer, making stories too simplistic, too gimmicky, if the writer is intent on following the basic patterns they've been taught all their life. You can't tell writers from these patterns that they aren't accomplishing their objective. Every amateur writer believes that they are better than they actually are, because they surround themselves with people who refuse to be their Simon Cowell, to give an honest assessment, and instead opt for encouragement, which in itself is fine, because being a friend is better than being a de facto antagonist in someone's life, but it confuses matters a great deal.
So anyway, I sat down yesterday to read some Underachiever, Misguided, and Overachiever fiction. I don't want this to sound belittling, for the record. It's just extremely rare in these circumstances to read the best possible material, and I think most of us are willing to admit that to some extent. Ingham provided participants with a handy ranking system, and also encouraged comments. Here's where I hope I am most helpful, even if it sucks to hear that there are fundamental, even conceptual problems in the story you've submitted for strangers to read. I aim to provide what I believe, at the very least, to be objective suggestions, changes that would make the story more cohesive, compelling, coherent. Maybe my ego's bigger than I think it is, and I'm just another amateur writer with a false self-identity, and maybe that has nothing to do with the ability to review someone else's work. There was a point where doing this sort of thing would have almost been a career for me, if that journal had worked out, except we accepted stories as is, with a little editing required, and generally (at least on my part) wrote back to rejected writers what exactly was missing, and how they could if they wanted fix it. We didn't exist long enough to see a lot of feedback, other than one extremely persistent writer who kept coming back even though we'd rejected several stories already. The internal conversations between the editors during this period helped me learn a great deal about how this beast is supposed to work.
Out of the six stories I read, I liked two of them a great deal, but with reservations, and I wrote at length about those reservations, but no more than for the stories I didn't particularly enjoy. Maybe all of these writers will be annoyed at my anonymous comments, or maybe they're accept and consider them, and I'll have helped some promising writers along. As cynical as I can be about amateur writers, I strongly believe in allowing them to explore their potential, but within reason. I do not believe that there is a framework of adequate support for writers at the moment. Publishing companies are cavalier at best, and beyond that there is no regulation at all, and that makes no sense at all. There are too many people who want to be or already consider themselves to be writers, and too little development of this ambition. That's why today we have a hundred thousand books published (or self-published) every day, and virtually no effort at comprehensive examination of the results. (That's why, Mr. Dilloway, we need things like Pulitzer Prizes.) Unlike movies or music or television, there's barely an effort to cover even the most popular releases. We know authors and we know book titles, but few of us know anything beyond that. That's why there's the periodic publishing phenomenon, because it's exactly that, periodic. It's not regular. Sure, there's the bestseller lists, and USA Today has arguably the best version, but once you get past the classics and these bestsellers, how many readers can come to even a 1% consensus (if such a thing can even exist) on the mounds of books that remain to be considered?
It's a crapshoot, and so yes, I'm cynical. Even successful writers are arguably no better off than amateur writers, and so those very upstarts may seriously and justifiably believe that any level of writing is acceptable. There's nothing that presents a convincing counterargument. So the best I can do is what I can do and hope the Shootout (and WRiTE CLUB) presents a worthwhile outlet for a frustrated writer.
In the meantime, Rusty Webb over at The Blutonian Death Egg may have finally convinced me that one of the writers in the community I stumbled across during a blogfest earlier this year is one worth discovering. Her name is Mary Pax and she's just released a new book. Given all that I've just said, I'm surprised, I must say, (this is no insult to Pax or Webb), and pleasantly so. I only wish that all these writers weren't so keen on the digital reading format, because some of us still believe in the printed word. It's easy and cheap and convenient, but it also assumes that everyone wants to read books this way, and that's not the case. Especially among the die hard wordies, physical books will always have precedence.
Hopefully I have not succeeded in pissing anyone off...