Reviewing the Writing of Others…

As some of you already know by now, I have rediscovered my love of writing.  I really didn’t begin to write horror stories until sometime within the last few months, but I can tell you right now that the journey has already been replete with excitement and challenges.  The honing of one’s skill within their own craft, no matter what it may be, is always going to be this way.

 

Even when one absolutely adores what they do, they may still be faced with the choice of expanding the influence that their work has on this world; a chance to leave a mark on the fabric of the universe.  Never let anyone tell you that it’s easy to show someone else your artwork, your writing, martial arts, or anything else that you can do.  Shows like American Idol and “The X factor” seem to make light of the fact that people have to swallow back a lot of nervous energy to show off their skills to the rest of the world.  Does anyone really believe that Kelli Clarkson, Phillip Phillips, or any other vocalist hasn’t had a bout with stage fright?

 

And should we really believe that it’s okay to make fun of William Hung and countless other wannabe singers because nobody had the balls to tell them that they’re just not good enough to elicit more than the ridicule of their audiences?

 

 

 

The same thing happens within the realm of writing.  When I first joined http://www.writing.com, I had virtually no interest in showing my work to anyone.  Part of that was fear, pure and simple.  I hadn’t written anything for almost a decade, and I was not certain that my skills would hold up.  That’s changed, in part, because I took a leap of faith and began to enter a certain horror writing contest called the Daily Slice.  For anyone who wants a taste of what it’s like to write horror in a thousand words or less and to have it scrutinized by me or by any of the other capable writers and judges of such a contest, I recommend trying it once.  It will open your eyes to one universal truth.

 

Putting yourself out there is kind of like walking naked down the street.  You don’t want people to see all your flaws, but if you’re like me, you don’t mind the possibility that SOMEONE might find SOMETHING beautiful about you.

 

So what happens when you begin to do reviews for the written work of others?

 

As someone who writes almost every day, I have to tell you that one of the greatest of learning experiences for me has been the reading and the reviewing of other people’s work.  The reason why I say this is very simple.  No matter what anyone tells you about style, finesse, technique, etc, the power of the written word is that it can be taken and utilized in so many different ways to elicit so many different kinds of emotions, that it’s potential is virtually limitless.  The judges of Horror Inc. (the group that I joined after a few months on http://www.writing.com) all read, write, and explore the inner workings of horror among other things.  But no two of us will ever be said to write the same subject in the same way.  All the work that I have read and reviewed has been different.  No two writers have ever written something identically, even when they write about the exact same topic.  The varying styles and techniques have made me aware of the quirks and stylistic elements that I bring to my own writing, and in that way, I’ve begun to understand the individuality of my own voice.  I’ve been reviewed as well, and not always with the favor that I would like for my work.  But I believe that I’ve grown in terms of being able handle such criticisms, to pick and chose which ones seem valid, and to move forward, learning from my mistakes as well as my triumphs.  Nobody is perfect.  J.K. Rowling has made millions with her work, but I can’t see her telling me that she always KNEW she would be a rousing success.

 

The power of reviewing such works as a writer can only really manifest, however, with pure and simple honesty.  There is nothing more annoying to me as a writer than receiving a review that reads like this:

 

“Wow.  You’re good.  I want to read more!”

 

I don’t dislike the compliment, but I want to know WHY you think I’m good, just like I would want to know WHAT about my work disappointed, confused, or otherwise did not please you in some way.  If I’m going to be an exhibitionist with my writing, I’m going to want to know how I can possibly improve my work.  It isn’t enough now for someone to say “awesome writing.”  Nobody is perfect.  I’ll be the first to say that I am not.  But I am always willing to work hard and improve my technique.  It is, I believe, the difference between one who masters a craft, like martial arts, and one who simply practices the moves that they love over and over again because they KNOW they can do it already.  How does one grow as a human being without going outside their comfort zones?

 

A review that I am likely to give someone who’s asked me for some feedback will read a little something like this one that I wrote for a contest entrant not too long ago:

 

‘Hola! Thank you for entering the Daily Slice!

I will start by saying that I can tell that you have a vivid imagination, and this is one of the foundations of writing a solid short story for horror. I was anticipating what the nature of this deal was for this character. I was intrigued at the fact that you started your piece with invisible creatures with paws that wander past the character into a strange cabin. This makes for the potential setup for a great story.

But I would be remiss as both a reviewer and a judge if I did not tell you what did not work for me in this piece.

The first thing that didn’t work for me was a visual formatting issue. On this website, authors do their audiences a huge favor when they separate paragraphs as they are writing or editing their work. When I first started to write for WDC, I had to learn that formatting differences definitely existed between MS Word on my computer and the way the text would appear on the WDC site. Please remember to separate paragraphs and quoted statements from one another in the future as this will give your narrative a smoother and easier visual flow, and your audience will appreciate it very much.

The second place where your piece gets a little confusing for me has to do with an area of your story where you switch the tense of your writing. You start your writing off in present tense, taking the audience with you as though events are unfolding this very second. But as I read the following, I could hear the screaming of car tires (and then I remembered I live in the middle of New York City):

Are they out there?” Her hair is wet, and her clothes are covered in dirt. “I don’t know… I can’t see them.” I take my jacket off and put it on her shoulders. “Of course not. Their hellhounds. No one can see them!” She starts crying then. I swallow hard, just to think that could have been me if I had finished the deal. “Did you try to make a…deal?” I asked her.
“Yes! I didn’t think that they would come for me! I mean I thought I had longer. But once they chase you there’s no way to escape them.”
“Then how come they haven’t gotten into the cabin yet?”
“I don’t know!” A howl wrenched through the stillness of the basement. The walls shook as they threw themselves against the walls.

I was with you up until the part that’s bold in this passage. It was confusing to me that you went from the present tense to the past tense, and then switched back to the present tense with the following sentences:

We start walking, then I notice that there following us. Side by side. I pretend like I don’t see and continue. The car comes into view, I don’t know what’s going to happen but I have a feeling that there not going to let us escape. So close….

If I was confused, it is very likely that your audience will be as well. Switching tenses alters the time frame in which a set of actions can take place. Sticking with one tense allows a reader to read through a narrative without having to stop and redraw the action map that they started in their brains.

The third factor that takes away from the potential of your piece has to do with my sense that it is incomplete, which ultimately depletes its scare factor. I would love to know, for instance, how the main character seems to know that she is dealing with hell hounds. You’ve established that she has somehow made a deal with a malevolent force or spirit, but this alone does not lend itself to the notion that she has “dealt with” hell hounds or any other denizens of hell before now. Just as importantly, revealing what the creatures are with a sentence sort of takes away from their frightening mystery, and that can be a setback for your fright factor as well.

To complete the effect of a short story like this one, a writer needs to show their audience what they are afraid of rather than simply tell us. The better horror stories, in my opinion, are those that evoke emotion with the use of the five senses. There are a couple of sentences that you’ve written here that could be expanded upon with this idea in mind :

We start walking, then I notice that there following us. Side by side. I pretend like I don’t see and continue. The car comes into view, I don’t know what’s going to happen but I have a feeling that there not going to let us escape. So close….

Leaving aside a few minor grammatical errors, the more important problem with this set of sentences to ME is that they are ultimately telling us rather than showing us the meaning of fear. When “I notice that they’re following us,” that might not seem as frightening to an audience as something like “The snarls and growls of unseen creatures pursued us as we ran pell-mell through the snags and tangles of the woods, the jagged bark of branches lashing into us as we ran for our lives.” I only wrote that last part as just one example of a myriad of ways that your first sentence could have expanded into an actual part of a vignette. That vignette should lead your audience on a sensory journey that will potentially give them goose flesh. That is part of the essence of writing good horror.

The car comes into view, I don’t know what’s going to happen but I have a feeling that there not going to let us escape. So close…. can be rewritten like this:

The car came into view just a short distance away. As invisible claws slashed at our bodies and unseen, ferocious jaws snapped at our feet, my hope for escape threatened to hurl itself out through my open mouth with one final scream. The source of our escape loomed so close. Yet the distance between us and the vehicle seemed to elongate. Our final moments closed in upon us like the creatures that surrounded us and sought to rend the flesh from our bones with jagged teeth.

I will not sit here and say that these are the only words that could have been chosen, but using YOUR own words, you should seek to have your audience essentially take the horrifying ride with your characters. Grab your reader by his or her hand and have them run with you as you make a mad dash for freedom, surrounded by invisible creatures that seek to destroy you, knowing that any moment in time could be your last. With a snap of the fingers, one of you could be dead! Your potential to live and be a part of this world is snuffed out in the blink of an eye. THAT is another part of the essence of true horror, especially with a piece that is written from a first-person perspective such as yours.

It is difficult for me to read a piece like yours, knowing the potential that existed with the set up and not offer some helpful hints as to what could turn an okay piece into a potentially magnificent work of horror fiction. A thousand words really isn’t much to work with, but in this case, you’ve got much more wiggle room to bring your piece to a satisfying sense of completion. Consistency with the tense of your sentences will also smooth out your narrative, which will ultimately make the journey that much more enjoyable. Be careful of grammatical errors, and make sure your formatting does not make your readers go cross-eyed. The bottom line is audiences want to enjoy your work. We’re cheering for every author we read in this contest because we want to be scared. Don’t be afraid to go for the gusto when you write for us at Horror Inc. I, for one, feel that you can do much better. So show us. I dare you!’

 

I’m not going to sit here and say that I know all the answers.  But reviews such as these are painful to write (some can take as much as four hours to come up with), and yet the writers on http://www.writing.com all seem to covet them.  I don’t hold back when I review someone’s work, and I would hope to goodness that someone who looked at my work didn’t hold back with me.  True improvement can only come with the honesty that someone like me would offer a potential author.

 

Reviews as a judge for a horror writing contest kill me sometimes.  I have watched several of the writers that I’ve repeatedly reviewed on writing.com grow and change.  They’ve honed their craft so well that they have won the contest I judge.  That is truly gratifying to me. Other times, I’ve hit the same author five times running with the same advice and critiques.  I’ve held their hands and even rewritten portions of their story for them in order to demonstrate what I mean by something like “SHOW US THE SCARY, DON’T TELL US WHAT TO BE AFRAID OF,” and other such advice.

 

But more than one of my fellow judges has told me that I have the potential to be a “dream killer.” I say, “fine.”

 

The dream for the other writer only dies if they let my critiques and opinions kill it.  I am not going to start pulling my punches and shortening my own strides in order to pretend that someone is better than they are.  Aikido has taught me that much.  The idea behind Aikido as a martial art is to essentially “honor the direction that someone else is taking in their lives.”  If their momentum is leading them somewhere, I may simply be assisting them on that journey.  A life path can be viewed in the same way, and so can the effort that one puts into their own writing.  If I don’t tell you as a writer what I think is wrong with your piece, than I have not honored your life direction.  If I am asked to respect someone’s wish to become an author, I will not dishonor that person’s efforts by blowing sunshine up their ass.  And I would expect the same courtesy.

 

So if you’re a friend of mine and you’re asking for me to review your work, be warned.  I won’t be softening my critiques just to appease what our friendship offers me.  In fact, if you truly respect me as a writer, a reviewer and as your friend, you will at least take my advice into consideration.  I am no guru, but I’m not going to piss on your leg and tell you it’s raining.

 

 

 

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One Response to “Reviewing the Writing of Others…”

  1. Hey guy–
    Great post here. Very honest and very true. It’s hard to write a good, critical review without hurting an ego. Certainly it can be hard to take, mainly because writing is soooo emotional. But in order to be helpful to a writer seeking a good critique, it has to be done.

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