Mar 25 2019

Fish in Trees: Giving Good Critique

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Critiques can be scary. >.>

Critiques can be scary. >.>

Picture if you will, the valar and maiar gathered around discussing creation.

Reviewee: I have invented a new kind of animal! It lives in the water, has gills to breathe, and flippers that enable it to move. I call it a “fish.”

Critiquer: Yeah, that’s good, but… what if this “fish” lived in trees and had wings to fly with?

Reviewee: Well, the point was to make a thing that lived in the water…

Other Critiquer: Man, I really like this “lives in trees and has wings” idea! You should give your fish brightly-colored feathers and have them sing.

In the FurTheMore writing track, writing groups and critiques — and specifically, how to give good critiques — were a major focus. Having only recently gotten into the world of actually being in a writing group, this discussion was fresh in my mind as I watched and winced at a person in a recent group meeting having their perfectly good kid’s book being twisted into all kinds of weird pretzel shapes. Instead of critiquing the story that she had brought, the discussion kept turning to all sorts of different things the story could have been (or to some of the critiquers’ way of thinking, should have been).

The thing reached a head when one of the critiquers suggested that the entire story could be told in pictures, with none of the reviewee’s words at all, to which the reviewee replied, “So what’s the point of my even doing it?”

Please don’t do this to people.

Giving useful feedback can be difficult, and the thing about writers particularly is that we’re a creative lot. When we see an idea that sparks thoughts and possibilities, we want to spin new stories out of them. It’s as natural as breathing! But in the context of writing critique, it’s as useful as putting a fish in a tree and telling it to fly.

Unless the reviewee is specifically looking to brainstorm new ideas (which can also be a great exercise), your job as a critiquer is to address the text at hand: what works, what doesn’t, and specifically if the writer succeeds at making the text do what it’s supposed to do. “Maybe your fish should have its eyes on the side of its head to more easily spot predators” is useful feedback. “Your fish should be a bird” is not, and worse, it can be actively harmful. I don’t think anyone at the meeting intended to tell the reviewee that she had wasted her time and effort creating a useless story, but that was clearly the message she was receiving.

Giving Good Critique in Three Easy Steps

So, what should you do? Try this…

“Get” the Story. Look for what the writer was trying to accomplish, as well as fairly universal things like “Do the sentences make sense?” and “Are the characters engaging?”

Talk About What Worked, What Didn’t Work, and What Was Great. Using the famous “shit sandwich” model (the bad stuff surrounded by good things on either side), give feedback that’s as specific as possible. Remember that the point is to discuss the story that’s actually on the page, not the amazing story you came up with in your own head.

Suggest Changes. Here’s where you can toss in your own ideas, but keep in mind that the changes should be to address what didn’t work first and foremost. If the reviewee’s fish has given you a great idea for a bird, go ahead and mention it as a possibility for expansion or a new direction if you like. Or maybe go create your own bird. You’re a writer, after all! And the best part is that by doing that, you empower the reviewee to make an even better story, instead of tearing them down and making them wonder what the point of having written it was.

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Feb 06 2019

Shady and the Wizard

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A story fragment that popped into my head last night, starring my tabaxi rogue. Enjoy!

Shade-of-the-Candle slid the final stretch of the ramp in a low crouch, dropping forward onto one hand from her momentum when she hit the bottom. The torch she’d been carrying clattered across the floor, extinguished, but to her surprise, she didn’t need it.

She’d been deposited into a large, round chamber with concentric pillars that were covered with writhing hieroglyphs. The middle of the ceiling was dominated by a cluster of dimly-luminous indigo crystals; sitting cross-legged on a dais under the crystals, was the robed figure of a man.

Or… not? There were too many arms, for starters, and the skin visible on the man’s forearms and hands was a dusky blue-gray, but that may have been a trick of the light. The fact that each of the four hands had two thumbs, one on either side, also did not inspire confidence. The man’s face, if indeed he had one, was completely obscured by his cowl, but Shady had no doubt that he was aware of her.

Shady blinked at him. He didn’t move. The tomb was supposed to have been lost. It was definitely trapped. She’d had a tough scrabble to get this far, only to find this oddity sitting in what she had expected to be the treasure chamber. Either way, she wasn’t about to go home empty-handed now. Her tail flicked back and forth involuntarily, as she rose to a standing position and slowly drew her cutlasses.

The hood dipped slightly. A deep bass rumble assaulted Shady’s ears and crushed her skull, nearly knocking her back off her feet, but then it passed as quickly as it had come. Across from her, the figure gave a quiet and dismissive snort.

Shady blinked at it. “What kind of hellspawn are you?” she asked.

“I am no kind of hellspawn, you superstitious creature,” the figure replied. The voice was male, more of a deep buzzing than anything else, and spoke in the clipped tones of a noble.

“Then what are–“

“There’s no point in telling you what I am,” he said. “It wouldn’t mean anything to you. And even if I could explain it, it would just blast your already dangerously-limited mind into even smaller fragments.”

The corner of Shady’s mouth rose in a smirk. “So you’re a wizard,” she said, moving slowly into the ring of pillars.

“Fine. Yes. I’m a wizard. It’s less wrong than anything else you might come up with.”

“You’re pretty rude,” said Shady.

“I am intensely rude,” said the wizard. “And I intend to remain that way. What will you do, now that you’ve come to that brilliant conclusion?”

Shady stepped forward again, pointing at his cowl with the tip of one of her swords. “I’ve heard it said, that the best thing to do when you come upon a wizard, is to kill it.”

The creature didn’t move. “So why don’t you, then?”

She gave him a long, appraising look. “Because…” she finally said, “you don’t seem particularly afraid that I might.”

Two of the wizard’s four arms retreated under robes. He used the other two to shift into a more attentive position. “The creature has some sense after all!” he said. “This may turn out to be interesting.”

“What are you doing, squatting in an ancient tomb?”

“What are you doing, crawling around in it?”

“I’m a thief,” said Shady.

“Of course you are.”

“But you didn’t answer my question. The tomb was sealed. What are you doing here?”

“I am playing a game of strategy,” said the wizard. “A game that spans eons, made up of the most infinitesimally small moves imaginable.”

“A game?” said Shady. “There’s no board. There are no pieces.”

“I’m looking at one right now,” said the wizard.

Shady rolled her eyes. “Okay, this conversation is pointless,” she said. “Where’s the Red King’s treasure chamber? Where’s the Red King’s treasure?”

“Oh, it’s here,” said the wizard. “Right where he buried it. Every few hundred years another would-be robber comes blundering in, and not one has managed to take it way yet. One or two did manage to get away richer than they came, of course. You may be one of the lucky ones.”

“Any objections if I try my luck?” said Shady, gesturing with her sword again.

“None whatsoever,” said the wizard. “I have no interest in baubles. There’s another passage, behind me. You may find what you’re looking for that way.”

“Fine,” said Shady, sheathing her swords. “Go back to your game then, wizard, and stay out of my way.” She collected the torch from where she’d dropped it and reignited it.

“Another pawn moves into play,” said the wizard. Shady glared at the back of his cowl, and plunged down the passage.

Dec 20 2018

A Cinnamon Roll Who Wants to Kill You

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Catra practices her 'Take Down Shadow-Weaver' touch.

Last night, Multiclass Geek finished watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and, on completing it, asked, “So why do you like Catra so much? You said she was a cinnamon roll! But she’s the villain!”

Well, yes, she is. And by the end of the series, Catra does some very cruel stuff. But like Adora herself, I still love Catra and hold out hope for a redemption arc, and I think it’s worth talking about why. I’ve mentioned before the parallels between Catra and my own Leona Lioness, and honestly it wasn’t until I watched She-Ra that I understood why Leona resonated so strongly for so many of my readers.

Catra is all about the way pain twists you and leads you to make dumb mistakes– and then committing to them even when you realize what a dumb mistake it is.

Having lived her life in a never-ending series of no-win situations, Catra is a survivor of a very specific kind of gaslighting abuse. Shadow Weaver explicitly states that Catra’s only purpose growing up was to be “Adora’s pet,” and this is underscored later by the way Shadow Weaver treats Catra’s successes as Force Captain as being irrelevant. What Catra thinks is “I have to jump twice as high to get half the recognition” (which is already an injustice to begin with), is actually “You will never get recognition because you are not the favorite.”

Catra finally realizes this when she says to Shadow Weaver “After all I’ve done for you, it’s still Adora that you want?” This line is the beginning of her deciding to take her own power; it’s also the moment when she shifts from feeling mostly sad and betrayed at Adora’s defection, to being straight-up wrathful.

Catra is every minority dealing with the reality of privilege. Catra is every red-headed stepchild. Catra is every younger sibling who has to get out from the shadow of their superstar older sister/brother. Catra is every kid who got beat up by a bully, and then was sent to detention for fighting.

So to answer why I refer to Catra as a cinnamon roll, I can only point to the amount of time Catra spends crying. She is deeply unhappy throughout the entire series, and even when she does smile it’s a mean “How does it feel, bitch?” kind of smirk. Her only experience of power and agency have come through being the victim of cruelty and injustice. Even Adora’s attempts at kindness had to be filtered through that. Catra’s been indoctrinated that there is no good or bad, only strong or weak, and you can tell on some level she doesn’t really believe it (hence the little moment of heartbreak when Scorpia describes her as being a great friend).

This poison in her mind makes her see Adora’s love and support as patronizing. Catra believes herself to be weak, and assumes Adora believes that as well, and so it makes perfect (if misguided) sense to resent that. Catra is the darkest version of Entrapta’s kitchen staff believing that they can’t do anything because they’re not princesses.

The entire society of Eternia is built on this “Princess/Not-a-Princess” hierarchy, which is presumably why Shadow Weaver (having been raised in Eternia’s biases herself) is so fixated on Adora. She-Ra is at the absolute top of that hierarchical heap, being the one that even the other princesses answer to. The only way to be “as good as” Adora, for Catra, is to become her opposite.

As I say, this puts her in a no-win situation. And she knows it, and she hates it, and she doesn’t see a way out of it.

So, this is why I love Catra, because I’ve lived in that no-win situation. I know how it feels, and I know how it hurts, and I want her to escape, because on my dark days I have to escape it again myself over and over again.

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Nov 15 2017

Laconipedantism

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About 2/3 of the way through the opening sequence of Heathcliff/Cats and Company, Riff-Raff and Cleo randomly go zooming off in a bathtub.

It’s not a bathtub on wheels, there are no rockets or other means of propulsion. It’s just a friggin’ bathtub.

I mean, the cats living in a random James Bond-esque transforming Cadillac in a junkyard, didn’t bother me. But flying off in a random hover-bathtub? That bothered me.

Last night, I had a random dream in which I was watching a “behind the scenes” video about this series. I don’t know if this dream was based on a long-lost memory, or if it was my brain making stuff up, but it doesn’t really matter. In the dream, somebody my brain identified as one of the show-runners coined the term “laconipedantism.” “What that means,” he said, “is that our policy was to explain as little as possible, or with as few words as possible, or to just not explain things at all. ‘How does it work?’ We’re not going to tell you! What you see is what you get, deal with it.”

That struck me as a gutsy approach. I don’t know if I would always consider it a good approach, but it was a gutsy one. But as I started to think about it, I realized that lots of storytellers work this way. Sometimes, you even get Lampshaded Laconipedantism.

Even Kronk thinks it doesn't make sense!

Lampshaded Laconipedantism, or “We’re not gonna tell you! Neener-neener-neener!”

Obviously, cartoons have the most leeway for this kind of thing. Contemporary shows like The Amazing World of Gumball work entirely on this premise. But heck, the Marvel Cinematic Universe runs on this fuel, as does most fantasy literature. Star Trek and a lot of science fiction does a weird inverse, where it starts with “teleportation exists” and starts playing around with the ramifications of that, but it still can’t tell you how teleportation really works, just that it does.

Not every wild premise actually qualifies as laconipedantism, however. What makes it laconipedantism is the refusal of the artist to explain, address, or even acknowledge that there’s anything weird about it. Riff-Raff and Cleo go zooming off in a bathtub, man. Get over it. Done well, it creates a feeling of confidence in the work, even when it leads to headscratchy moments. Done poorly, it just becomes an incoherent mess, where the world makes no sense and the story falls apart.

Use with caution.

-The Gneech

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Jun 18 2016

Time For Something New

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Okay, now the moving is pretty much dealt with (again and hopefully for the last time any time soon) and my AnthroCon prep is about as far as it can go until it comes time to actually put stuff into the car, it’s time to get back into the writing groove.

And, I think, time to come up with something new. I’ve got chunks of Brigid and Greg, I’ve got a giant blorp of Michael Macbeth, but honestly my brain wants a break from those. I want something new and different to think about.

What that is, I’m not sure yet. I periodically consider writing a fairly standard genre fantasy book, i.e. elves and wizards and things, but I would like to find a way to put a fresh spin on the idea so it’s not just “Howard McTolkienface and the Etcetera of Ditto.” I also want whatever it is to be a project I can have fun with. One of the things that I relished about Sky Pirates of Calypsitania was that Verity and Tanya were fun characters to write about, because of the chemistry between them. The fun was a bit hampered by the harrowing circumstances they lived through, of course… those poor gals are going to have some PTSD to deal with in the next book I suspect, assuming there is one.

A new thing would also come without baggage, or at least with different baggage. B&G and Michael Macbeth both suffer a bit from having a “what they should be like” thing I’m trying to stick to… a new project I could just open up and let it be its own thing. A lot of the stuff that’s been bothering me about my older ideas, can inform the direction I go with new ideas right from the start. I can also outline with a view towards writing 100,000 words, instead of coming up with yet another 60,000 word idea and then being stuck for another half a book to tack onto it. 😛

So I think for the next week or so, depending on how long the process takes, I’m going to simply play around with new ideas and brainstorm, figuring out what I want out of a book, what I would enjoy writing, and what I think would suit the market, and find something that covers that part of the venn diagram that intersects all three. As much as I like Sky Pirates, my discussions with professionals on the topic all suggest that it’s going to be a hard sell for a first novel. So I might have to tuck it into a drawer to pull out later once I’m already a name, so to speak.

-The Gneech

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