Beta & Switch

As I near the finish line with my fantasy epic, I’ve posted requests for beta-readers. I have now sent out Book 1 to several readers, and have received a round of responses from people who actually sat down and read the silly thing.

They’ve made a few good suggestions, and basically they’re being very complimentary. They like it — yay!

Sadly, this silver lining has a cloud. These readers are themselves writers, having in most cases produced self-published novels of one sort or another. So I figured, what the hell, the least I can do is buy their books to repay them for their hard work in volunteering to read mine. Scoot over to Amazon, download a few novels to the Kindle app. Mission accomplished.

I’m not going to name names, because one or another of these people might stumble upon this blog, and it would be hideous to repay their support and enthusiasm by ripping holes in their egos. But after slogging my way through Chapter 1 of a novel by one of my readers, I’m compelled to wonder whether the whole idea of beta-reading is a mistake. What’s the point of having someone compliment you on your writing or your characters if they’re not actually writing at anything like a professional level? If my writing were bad (it’s not — I’m just saying…), how would such a reader know? Can I trust their judgment? Clearly not.

If they make specific inept suggestions, I can easily breeze past the suggestion and move on. What concerns me is the big picture. Well, that and the medium-sized picture. The opening chapter that I read this evening was written with no conception of tone or mechanics, no conception of how to ground the reader in the scene, and no conception of how an opening chapter ought to get the plot in gear. If I were making any of these mistakes, it’s clear that this particular reader wouldn’t notice.

I think I’m probably going to scrap the whole beta-reading process. I could certainly use good solid feedback on what I could improve, and in fact earlier this year I paid a professional editor several thousand dollars for exactly that sort of feedback. It was money moderately well spent.

Hiring another editor at this point, though, strikes me as not really very cost-effective. I think I’ll just publish the damn thing, warts and all. The nice thing about electronic publishing is that if I get feedback from readers who bought the books after they were published, I can make a few changes and do a 1.1 release.

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Teaser

As I creep toward the finish line with my four-volume fantasy epic, I’m recruiting a small cadre of dedicated beta-readers. Yes, you’re invited! One of my potential victims — I mean “rescuers,” that’s what I meant — asked if I could post the first chapter so he could decide whether to subject himself to the torment.

So here it is — Chapter 1 of The Leafstone Shield. 

*****

1: Onions, Scholars, and Blue Lightning

In the heat of the afternoon the plaza of Tyvik the Wish-Bringer seethed with life. Hundreds of merchants had set up stalls and loudly touted their wares. Farmers from the surrounding districts hawked fresh produce, and food vendors waved sizzling spicy meat on skewers. Craftspeople had spread their plates and shirts, scissors and shoes, potions and amulets, baskets and jars on tables beneath fluttering awnings. Children ran and whooped and chased one another while streetcorner orators harangued the crowd. Stylishly gowned matrons shaded by tassel-tufted parasols took tiny steps in their satin shoes, pretending not to notice the filth underfoot. Three red-faced men struggled to manage a snarling demon, tugging ropes looped around its neck while it strained at the chains that bound its taloned hands. A pair of uniformed Watchmen paced, wicked-looking long-barreled rifles strapped across their backs. A high-wheeled carriage, one of the new horseless kind, made slow headway through the crowd, the blue-liveried driver on his high perch between the gleaming brass lamps cursing and snapping his whip close enough above people’s heads to knock a few hats off.

Market basket on her arm, Kyura worked her way down a broad aisle between stalls. Other than picking her way carefully, holding her purse tight, and keeping an eye out for bargains, she barely noticed the hubbub. Uppermost in her mind was the need for trout. Catfish would do, if no trout were to be had. Also candles, salt, a jar of honey, and a bag of onions. In three hours the inn’s guests would be wanting supper, and the cook could surely summon up something savory with fresh catfish and onions.

When Kyura was younger, Aunt Timabara had brought her to the market and taught her how to count her pennies and see that the produce was fresh. Aunt Timabara was gone now. At seventeen, Kyura took money from the cash box herself, and went to market. Someday, when Uncle Dulan was gone, the inn would be Kyura’s. And yes, there were moments when she wished she could trade the catfish and onions for silks, exotic creatures, and the clash of bright swords, and had to remind herself that it was foolishness to wish for things that would never be. But most often she was either working too hard or exhausted from working too hard to waste more than a minute or two teasing herself with daydreams.

She was slim, with long dark hair, a chin that she thought too prominent, and a nose that she wished was short and turned up rather than long and narrow. The boys she knew — a few stolen kisses on a warm summer night, but none of them had stolen her heart away — would have said she was very pretty, but she seldom had an extra penny with which to be vain about it, and was far too busy to use a curling-iron, though she had one (somewhere).

At the center of the market plaza, towering above the stalls, presided the gray and solemn statue of Tyvik. Seated on a cube of stone, more than twenty feet tall at the crown of its head, handsome once but now crusted with centuries of city grime, half its face sheared away by time and weather, or perhaps by cannon-fire in some long-forgotten battle, the statue gazed out across the plaza, its eyes now benign, now sad or thoughtful or stern as the light and shadow played across them. Tyvik had been a god once, if there were such things as gods, but he no longer had any worshipers; all that remained of his divinity was this massive misshapen relic. His temple, a mile to the east on the riverbank, had been swept away long ago in a flood. Only a few bare pillars jutted up from the water to show where it had once stood. But the statue in the plaza remained.

As Kyura neared the statue, a change in the tenor of the voices on all sides snagged her attention — that, and a cool mineral odor that slid around the mingled scents of sweat and fresh produce like water over rocks.

People were pointing and saying, “Look! There!” Pale veins of blue lightning snaked up from the base of the statue, and a dark unruly tornado of crows swirled around the statue’s head, crying out raucously.

Somebody shouted, “Back! Back!” The crowd retreated, leaving an untidy pool of emptiness around the base of the statue. Kyura knew why: Occasionally Tyvik stood up and walked, pacing aimlessly across the plaza, tipping over the tents and dragging them along, his slow stone footfalls jarring the ground and rattling nearby windows. And sometimes he spoke. She had never seen him move or speak, but she had heard the stories. On one of his meanders, years ago, Tyvik had stepped on a dog. People still talked about that.

A young man wearing the yellow vest of a messenger rushed past Kyura, nearly bumping her, and dodged away into the depths of the crowd.

The veins of pale fire sought upward across the surface of the statue, probing, retreating, dimming, brightening, casting off occasional crackling sparks. More crows angled in swiftly from here and there across the city.

As the veins of lightning crept up the statue’s neck toward its defaced face, the messenger returned, elbowing his way through the crowd of onlookers to clear a path for two scholars in long flapping brown robes and broad-brimmed hats. The scholars carried writing-trays laden with paper and pens, which threatened to spill, but they managed to reach the base of the statue without mishap, or as close to the base as they dared go, and unlimbered their writing implements.

The statue’s mouth opened and it began to speak.

Kyura was standing at the leading edge of the crowd, not more than fifty feet from the cube of stone on which the statue sat. Its eyes ought to have been leveled at the city skyline, but though its features hadn’t altered or its head tilted forward, she was awash suddenly in a queasy feeling that it had dropped its gaze to look down at her, the eyes (angry? amused? indifferent?) drilling holes straight through to her soul. Her back and neck and shoulders prickled. Less curious suddenly about what Tyvik might say or do, she suppressed an urge to run.

The statue’s voice was impossibly deep, a grating rumble punctuated by long pauses and what sounded like inarticulate groans. The crowd had fallen silent, and hundreds of faces gazed up at the seated figure, rapt. The utterance went on for some time, and the scholars scribbled busily. Kyura thought perhaps she recognized the words “dragon” and “tower,” but if Tyvik was speaking Garathian, it was an archaic dialect.

Eventually the pale lightning veins retreated into the base of the statue and then into the ground. The cool smell dissipated, and the crows lost interest and flew away. Conversations started among the crowd, and people drifted warily closer to the pedestal. A few moved in to peer over the scholars’ shoulders, but most people drifted off, back to their business, whatever it was.

A bold little merchant went straight up to the scholars and said, “What’d it say? It’s a prophecy, ain’t it? What’d it say?”

“It’s not for the likes of you,” one of them said. “It’s for the king. Get on.”

“We got a right to know, don’t we?”

“You have what rights the king says you have.”

“The king don’t care. He sits up there all high and mighty—” The merchant waved his arm at the royal palace, which crouched atop a steep-sided rock that all but abutted the south side of the plaza. “—and when there’s trouble, we’re the ones who catch it in the teeth.”

“Get on, now. We have work to do.”

After a grumble aimed back over his shoulder, the little merchant marched off. The two scholars put their heads together (their hat brims colliding), murmured, and scribbled. The trout she hadn’t yet bought were calling to Kyura, but her curiosity was a burning itch. Soon she and two or three others were the only onlookers who remained.

One of the scholars said, “That’s it, then. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Holding up a piece of paper, he read aloud from it, not making it a proclamation, just reviewing the text for the benefit of his colleague:

Come far and his kin with a horn that is broken,
Their birthplace Sa’akna as it is hers, bringing
A part of the wheel a heedless boy shattered
To her, the boy’s cousin, who labors obscure,
An unknowing hope, the savior of thousands,
Conversing with dragons and known by the sea,
In the hostelry signed by a pitcher of silver.
An old one is freed from the tower of pain
By her and two others. The tower collapses
In flames, the city in turmoil, the blood
Of innocents paid for in blood of the wealthy.
Pursued by a priest and an ogre, they flee!

“Sounds about right,” the other agreed. “‘Wheel,’ though; are you sure ‘disk’ wouldn’t be better? Or ‘circle’? And ‘tower’? I still think he said ‘vault.’”

They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away. The scholars stoppered their ink bottles.

Most of the prophecy made no sense to Kyura, but the bits she understood terrified her. The statue had been looking down at her! She had been born in Sa’akna — and a shattered disk — and a pitcher of silver? Her uncle’s inn was called the Silver Ewer! But the blood of innocents? The tower of pain? Conversing with dragons??

Trout and onions receded into the dim and misty distance, and she turned to run, but after a few swift steps she faltered, though her heart was still pounding, and turned to look back at the statue. Tyvik certainly wasn’t looking in her direction now. Her imagination must have been playing tricks on her, that was all. The statue couldn’t possibly have been talking about her. What a ridiculous idea!

Act like a grown-up, she told herself sternly. Do your marketing. It will come to nothing, you’ll see. In a few days you’ll be laughing about it.

But right now she didn’t feel like laughing. Worry, obscure but implacable, crept through her the way the veins of pale fire had tickled their way up and down the statue. Fortunately, crows weren’t buzzing around her head, those were only flies. She waved the flies away and went on about her business.

 

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The Presence of Other Worlds

The title above is borrowed from a book I read many years ago — a biographer of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Interesting guy, Swedenborg. Drank 40 cups of coffee a day. Had visions. Founded a religion. But that’s not what I want to talk about today; I just borrowed the title.

In opening a novel to read it, one enters another world. That world may be very like the world we know, or it may be strikingly different, but in any event it’s another world. The first task of the fiction writer, then, and perhaps the most important task, is to imagine and then bring to life a world that readers will want to enter. If your newly minted world is a jumble, or boring, or unpleasant, only the most masochistic reader will slog on through to the end of the book. Most of us will put it down quickly.

I sometimes cruise the aisles of the mystery section of the local public library, looking for mystery authors whose work I haven’t read. I grab a couple of books by writers who have multiple titles on the shelves, bring them home, and crack them open.

I seldom find myself in a world where I would want to spend much time. A happy exception was the series about Inspector Montalbano, by Andrea Camilleri. Set in modern Sicily, they’re not great, but they’re pretty darn good.

A more typical experience was provided this week by Brought to Book by Anthea Fraser. It’s set in modern England (in a charming small town not too far from London — a charming small town, that’s the first red flag). The main character seems to be Rona Parish, a successful writer who is evidently destined to become an amateur sleuth.

Amateur sleuths are the norm in the “cozy” subgenre of the mystery genre. Amateur sleuths who are successful writers rather than, you know, somebody’s maiden aunt are not the most interesting characters, both because one suspects the author is showing a want of imagination and because writers are not really very interesting people, what with all the time they spend with their noses buried in a word processor. But whatever.

There has been, as usual, a suspicious or at least odd death, and the police seem not very interested in trying to discover foul play — again, a standard trope in the cozy subgenre. The cops are always well-meaning but inept. It will, I’m sure, be up to Ms. Parish to ferret out the evildoers.

She has been hired to write the biography of the dead guy — another famous writer, wouldn’t you know it? So she will have an excuse to trundle around and interview the suspects.

But that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem with cozies in general, and with Brought to Book in particular. After 20 pages, we have learned about Rona’s unusual living arrangement with her husband Max, and what he does for a living. (He’s an artist. A successful writer and a successful artist. Already this is feeling awfully shallow, isn’t it?) We’ve learned that Rona’s sister is divorced and is wary of her former husband. We’ve gone on a walk with Rona and her dog Gus in a public park, and watched Gus retrieve a ball that Rona threw. We’ve learned where Rona parks her car, and her cooking habits, and the kind of house she lives in, and the reconstruction she and her husband had done to the house after they bought it. There’s no onstage sex, but we’ve learned that Rona and her husband drink brandy before having sex, and listen to a CD (before or during, you’ll have to imagine that part).

This is the world into which Fraser has invited us. Time for the Shatner impression: It’s ped-ES-tri-an.

As to the nature of the crime (and of course it will turn out to be a crime), Fraser has revealed very little. The dead man was found floating face down in a pond, and that was six months ago. As an urgent predicament, this falls rather flat, but at least we can listen to a CD while drinking brandy.

Here, for your delectation, is the opening paragraph of Chapter Two:

Max left immediately after breakfast. When he’d gone, Rona went back upstairs and had a shower, after which she surveyed the contents of her wardrobe for several minutes before deciding on narrow brown trousers with matching jacket and a cream cashmere sweater. Smart but businesslike, she told herself.

Doesn’t that grab you by the short and curlies? Just for kicks, I took Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse down from my shelf. Here’s how Chapter Two starts:

He came back, though, wearing a purged expression which failed to tell me what had been purged, or who. I took the hand he offered me across my desk, but I went on disliking him.

This is not an especially striking paragraph, but the difference between MacDonald and Fraser is palpable. In MacDonald’s paragraph, something is happening. We have entered a world where unpleasant things are lurking just out of view. And we neither know nor care what private eye Lew Archer is wearing.

If you want people to read your novels, invite them into a world of intrigue, or exotic beauty, or bitter struggle. All three at once, if you can manage it. And no matter what you do, you must not have your lead character fretting over her wardrobe choices and deciding on a cream cashmere sweater. Just don’t.

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Runnin’ on Empty

Didn’t George Orwell say, “Ignorance is wisdom,” in 1984? If he didn’t, he should have. I’ve ranted about this before, but it keeps coming up. A guy in the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out responded to a post mentioning a certain how-to-write book by saying (paraphrased), “Pretty much everything you need to know about writing you can learn in a high-school English class.”

I asked if he would want to drive across a bridge designed by someone who had never studied engineering, or have an operation performed by a surgeon who had never been to medical school. He huffed that those occupations require licenses, while fiction is an art form. That response, of course, completely misses the point, but the guy had already demonstrated that he was going to miss the point.

He is apparently convinced that the only actual skill he needs to know in order to write novels is how to construct grammatical sentences. Among the things that won’t be taught in high-school English, I suggested, are characterization, plot, conflict, rising action, theme, the effective use of flashbacks, world-building, metaphor, and the efficient way to use dialog tags.

To be fair, I did read both Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye in high-school English. The teacher must have said a few things that went beyond constructing grammatical sentences. By now I can recall only one such item: I first learned about symbolism from reading Lord of the Flies. So okay, high-school English is not useless. But neither are how-to-write books.

The person with whom I was having this conversation then said something like, “I guess you won’t want to read any of my published books, then.” At which point I pointed out to him that if his books are self-published (they are) or published by a vanity press, the word “published” in his response is nothing but empty puffery. It’s meaningless.

I went and glanced at his work on Amazon. I would dearly love to draw some diagrams for the three or four of you who read this blog in which I display his ineptitude by analyzing the first few pages of his most recent novel. But I dare not. He might be litigiously inclined. If he sued me for libel I would win, because reviewers are allowed some latitude, even when they deploy snarky rhetoric — but being sued would be an annoying and protracted process, so I’m not going to go there.

Would he be able to apply the lessons in a how-to-write book if he did condescend to read one? Well, it’s nice to be optimistic. Maybe he would.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll spend three bucks on his latest flatulent opus, change a bunch of details, and write up a critique. It would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, and probably more fun.

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Worlds While U Wait

There’s a scene in the 2nd or 3rd Star Trek movie, I forget which one, where some sort of high-tech projectile is launched at a barren planet. In a burst of light, the planetary surface springs to life. A fully functioning biosphere arises in the twinkling of an eye.

The technical term for this transformation is “terraforming.” A planet is made to resemble the Earth (Latin terra). The advantages of terraforming for human interstellar travelers are obvious: If you can turn any old rocky planet into a Garden of Eden, the galaxy is your oyster. (And we’re going to sidle away from that image without examining it too closely.)

For that reason, terraforming is a popular topic in science fiction novels. Kim Stanley Robinson had, I believe, a success with his trilogy on the terraforming of Mars. I dropped out halfway through the first book when I hit a scene where it became painfully obvious that Robinson didn’t understand the mechanics of lighter-than-air travel using a balloon or dirigible. If he didn’t know how balloons work, I figured, he wasn’t going to be much use on the science of terraforming Mars. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the subject of terraforming is a rich source of story ideas.

Unfortunately for authors, terraforming is about three orders of magnitude more difficult than you think it is. And that’s probably true no matter how difficult you think it is.

Finding a planet of suitable size whose orbit is at the right distance from its primary to provide a surface between the freezing and boiling points of water isn’t even the start of the difficulties. The planet is going to need an iron core that’s rotating in relation to the surface. Why? Because the magnetic field generated by the core is what keeps life on the surface from being toasted by cosmic rays. If the planet doesn’t already have a rotating iron core, there is no conceivable technology that could create one, so your terraformers may have to hunt for a while to find a planet that’s a good candidate.

Nor are cosmic rays the only source of toasting. Your planet is going to need an ozone layer high in the atmosphere to screen out the ultraviolet light.

But let’s not worry about that yet. Ozone is made of oxygen, and you haven’t got any oxygen. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis. In order to put free oxygen in the atmosphere, you’re going to need plants — or, at the very least, cyanobacteria. But let’s not worry about that yet. First you need water. Billions of tons of water.

Our best theory about where the water on Earth came from is that there’s water in comets, and early in Earth’s history (like, four billion years ago), the surface was being bombarded by comets. This is a very reasonable theory. Science fiction writers may therefore want to imagine that terraforming a world (either Mars or one in another solar system) will involve steering a whole bunch of comets in from the outer edges of the solar system and crash-landing them on the planet. Computing the proper trajectory so as to get a comet to hit a planet is fairly trivial, even for a 21st century computer. But first you have to find the comets, and then you have to propel them.

The amount of rocket propellant required would be non-trivial. If your shipload of intrepid explorers is in some other solar system, they definitely won’t have brought along the amount of rocket propellant required. Whether it’s even possible to travel by rocket to another solar system is very doubtful, so your novel is going to have to propose some form of magic physics, both to move your explorers’ ship and to then move the comets.

The comets, even after you find them and aim them in toward the inner part of the solar system, won’t arrive for some years. Until they arrive, the terraforming can’t even begin.

Once you have a planetary surface swimming in fresh ocean, what are you going to do? Our current technology is not able to build even a single living cell from scratch. To design an entire ecosystem, which will of necessity contain millions upon millions of species (many of them microbes), is not something that contemporary science can even imagine. And to drop the entire ecosystem down on the planet at once, trillions of tons of living organisms — living earthworms, living insects to pollinate the living plants, living bacteria to fix the nitrogen in the plants’ roots — oh, wait. We forgot the part about the oxygen. Your plants and earthworms are about to be toasted by the ultraviolet radiation. You have to make gazillions of tons of oxygen before you initiate the cycle of seeding living organisms. How are you going to do that?

If you can wait a couple of billion years, this stuff gets a lot easier. Life on Earth has been around for at least 3.5 billion years. But for the first 2 billion years and more, it was all single-celled life. There weren’t even any jellyfish yet. Multicelled life appeared on Earth only around 500 million years ago. And even then, the evolution of vertebrates who could live on land proceeded very, very slowly.

I’m not saying that terraforming is impossible. I’m saying merely that it would require Godlike powers. If your interstellar travelers bear even the faintest resemblance culturally or technologically to the familiar humans you meet on the street, forget it. There is no conceivable technology with which any alien species, much less humans, could produce a livable planet in less than a thousand years or so, and even that vastly accelerated process would be so filled with pitfalls that your Godlike aliens would surely have to work the kinks out by trying and failing multiple times.

This is why I write fantasy rather than science fiction. Science fiction is too hard.

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R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

It’s a curious and depressing fact that while religious people very generally expect that their beliefs will be respected, they seldom show much inclination to respect the views of others.

It sometimes happens that someone makes a statement about “God.” This happens from time to time on Facebook, for example. After making such a statement, the person who made it may become quite upset if anyone expresses disagreement. They feel they should be entitled to make statements about “God” in a public forum, and they also feel that no one should disagree — or that if one disagrees, one ought politely to remain silent, out of respect.

The notion that atheists are entitled to the same respect seems not to occur to them.

Let’s be clear about this: If you so much as mention “God” in a way that indicates you believe in such a thing, you are guilty of the same faux pas that you’re happy to accuse others of. You are directly disputing the understanding of the universe that is held (with, I might add, a great deal more supporting evidence than you can marshal) by atheists. Merely by mentioning “God” as anything more than a ridiculous and unsupported hypothesis, you are stating categorically that atheists are wrong.

Now, either it is disrespectful to suggest that someone’s understanding of the world is wrong, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to do that, then you have no business whatever whining when I point out that your statements about “God” are entirely unsupported by a shred of evidence, and on that basis are not to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, it is wrong to make such a suggestion, then you simply cannot mention “God” or your notions about “God” in any public forum, because to do so would violate your own standard of conduct.

In general, I approve of the idea that when one sees or hears somebody making a possibly dangerous mistake in their thinking about the world, one ought to correct them. That’s the friendly thing to do. If your friend thinks that the way to back a car out of the garage is to put it in low rather than reverse, you need to explain to them that they’re about to put a hole in the wall of the garage. If your friend thinks that children shouldn’t be vaccinated because vaccines cause autism, the friendly thing is to explain to them that they’re entirely wrong, that they’re putting their children at risk. If your friend thinks they can safely handle a pistol without checking to see whether it’s loaded — well, in that case, you need new friends, because the ones you have are dangerous and probably won’t last long.

But when your friend has a wrong idea not about automobiles, vaccines, or firearms, but about the whole entire universe, somehow you’re expected to remain silent, because that’s the polite, friendly thing to do.

I don’t get it.

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You Just Don’t Understand…

It is a curious fact how often those who are most in need of insight into how they might improve their fiction writing are also among the most reluctant to accept suggestions. In the past I’ve suggested that this is because the craft of fiction is largely invisible. My words on a page will look very much like your words on a page. To discern the differences, you need already to have a grasp of both the technical elements of prose and the felicities of prose style.

Beyond that, I think we can point the finger of blame at the dumbing down of the United States. Abroad in the land is a widespread and pernicious view that expertise is not only unnecessary but suspect — that, as the phrase goes, my ignorance is just as valid as your knowledge.

A third factor, and one that I’m sure I ought to pay more attention to, is the depth at which aspiring writers are emotionally committed to — we might almost say ennobled by — their scribblings. A bizarre and garbled story concept that has no hope whatever of being commercially viable or even of passing interest to more than a few readers may embody the working out of some deeply felt emotional need on the part of the writer. Beyond that, an inept writer who has been emotionally abused (quite possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with his writing) may need not only to put words onto paper as a raw outpouring in order to demonstrate to himself his own unimpaired competence; but may need also, and more imperatively, to see that outpouring validated, as unlikely as the prospect may be, through the unstinting admiration of others. In such a case, the writer is bound to take criticism of the writing very badly — to experience it as a personal attack.

If one participates, as I do, in an occasional public forum whose ostensible purpose is for writers to discuss their work and their struggles with it, how is one to work out whether a given writer is really seeking comments that will improve her work, or whether she is actually seeking unqualified approval and emotional support using the presentation to others of her dismal writing as a springboard or game marker?

One might also ask whether, in the latter case, one ought to tiptoe quietly away, or whether one ought to suggest ever so gently that she might better achieve her emotional goal by improving her writing rather than by defending it in its decrepitude.

For my own part, I’m quite aware (or I hope I am) when I do things in a paragraph or chapter that may be frowned on by other knowledgeable writers. I’m not always willing to change! I’m trying neither to maximize the commercial potential of my work nor to live up to some rigid and exalted standard of “good” writing. Sometimes I write a passage in a certain way just because I’m having fun. I’m satisfying my own emotional need or my own peculiar taste, and that’s all I aspire to do.

My longstanding motto is, “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.” If the novel you’re writing isn’t your favorite toy, you’re probably writing the wrong novel.

Yet at the same time, I try not to invalidate whatever criticism I receive (unless it’s plainly just wrong-headed). Sometimes other people have good ideas. Sometimes they notice things I have missed.

None of us is so smart that we don’t need a second opinion from another story doctor. If you think you’re a misunderstood genius, you’re wrong. As the Firesign Theatre once put it, we’re all bozos on this bus.

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