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The Cordon of Mediocrity

(Note: This isn’t an open letter to the writing circle I left. I did not and do not expect that the gentleman that has so graciously been willing to take over as moderator of the group act as he thought I would in his stead. And if he and those persons who have elected to remain with that group find the recent change in the group’s operations to their liking, then more power to them. While much of what I have been posting to this blog is in response to my leaving the circle, this is about my gathering and organizing my thoughts and making myself, my aesthetics and my literary theories understood to those interested who might wish to work with me in the future. And by all means, if you disagree with me, please leave a comment, so long as your comment includes an argument and not just an ‘I disagree’ statement.)

The New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Circle recently moved from an open conversation critique format to a round-robin, each person gives their criticism in turn, format. I’ve seen other groups where this style of conversation has been employed. I think it should be avoided in a writing workshop. It throttles the conversation. It prevents the worst and the best discussions from occurring. The each person speaking in turn style allows each person to speak so that no one is ignored or shouted down, no one keeps quiet for fear of some louder person shouting down their comments. But it also eliminates a terribly vital conversation, that best conversation that can occur in a writers’ circle.

There’s a rare moment, where one person makes an observation regarding the story in question and a light bulb goes on over another critic’s head and they see new possibilities. There can be this amazing occurrence where the light bulb goes on over several heads all at once and a vital and vibrant conversation occurs about the possibilities inherent in the story being reviewed. The members of the circle dive deeply into the tale, dissecting it to its component pieces, analysing on the fly how its parts function and hypothesizing how those pieces might be modified, replaced or re-purposed to function better. Put simply, it is a joy to behold. It is also the writers’ circle functioning at its best and finest.

Comments from my fellow writers in the circle caused me to completely throw aside every single word I’d written of my flash fiction story “Xaija” and start all over, retelling the tale as “Cold” and the second version of this story was much better received by my fellows, one of my comrades remarking on how she was amazed to see that I hadn’t even tried to salvage any of the existing text. Several times we’ve had energizing discussions where we’ve taken a fantastic core idea from one of the authors in the circle and turned it this way and that, suggesting this or that alteration or this or that expansion. And I believe that most people find that sort of thing incredibly useful. To be told that your work resonated with your fellow writers, to be told that they loved the core idea so much that they think you should run with it and turn what you meant to be a single short story into a series of stories or even a novel, is an amazing and rewarding feeling.

However, some people aren’t interested in that.

I feel honour bound to say, at this point, I do honestly think if you have a problem with this sort of conversation, you shouldn’t be in a writing circle. We’ve had some people even go so far as to say, “This is what I’m looking for in terms of criticism. Please confine yourself to discussing these points.” That’s not workshop criticism. We aren’t here to discuss just the particular problem you yourself think you’re having with the piece. We can especially look at that but it’s just plain asking too much that we should confine ourselves to it.

If you’re so certain about what you’ve got on the page, that hearing people discuss alternatives and other ways you might have taken the story is completely uninteresting to you, you really shouldn’t be in a writers’ circle. You’re always free to ignore any criticism made. But as I’ve said before, you do the group a great disservice when you try to shut down that conversation. You’re doing a disservice to yourself especially. If you’ve decided that, no matter what, you’re not going to start your story earlier or provide needed background for your main characters that the members of the circle are telling it’s vital for them to have to feel sympathetic towards your character and/or continue wanting to read your story, you aren’t doing yourself any favours by silencing them. Sticking your fingers in your ears to block out complaints won’t make you a better writer and again, I have to ask, what is the point of your being in the circle if you don’t want to hear criticism?

I think this is why it’s important for the writer being critiqued to keep quiet. I never enforced that as an absolute during my tenure and I regret it now. You aren’t there to defend your work. If ten people all have the same criticism of your story, take note of it and move on, even if you decide not to change one word because of it. But you should hear them out, otherwise you’re literally just wasting everyone’s time.

Turning over story elements and story ideas, looking at them from this angle or that, discussing to what use they could have been put to instead of just how they were, that is a vital part of writers becoming better at their craft. To cut short that glorious possibility, by having each person required to just rattle off the critique they came up with on their own and not address the greater tide of ideas that can flow when people interact with each other and build off of each other, seems like a terrible disservice to everyone involved. I firmly believe that it is in that interaction, in that build off of each other, that the foundation for greatness is laid.

I can see the utility of this style of conversation. The circle only meets for two hours once every two weeks. The basic reason I left the circle was that it seemed that in a room of fifteen people no one shared my passion or my aesthetics and that the points I felt compelled to argue to my last breath were of little or no interest to anyone else in the room. That’s when it’s time to go. It’s just that simple. I was not going to selfishly consume the group’s time by sparring with the same adversaries over the same fundamental disagreements over and over again.

I think another crucial mistake I made was in assuming everyone was there for the same reason. I assumed everyone was in the circle to work towards being published professionally and I was rudely awakened when one of the most fastidious and hard working members of the circle told me that wasn’t her goal. She simply wished to write. It was not a goal of hers to be published professionally.

This is a key point.

Not everyone in the group sees professional publication as their goal. Some have entered the circle as hobbyists, people who like to write and enjoy the company of those who do. I should have stated clearly that the group was being formed for the purposes of moving people’s work towards professional publication and for no other goal. I should have made that clear each and every time a new person came into the circle. But I didn’t, I assumed. And from the perspective of someone who is treating writing as a hobby, I totally see their perspective. They’re free to say, “I want to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it,” and that’s that. And so it doesn’t sound ridiculous to them when they say it or when they get upset that the conversation has strayed into other ways the story might have gone or other ways the core concept might have been used.

The round robin style might be of use of them. Each person can just say whether they liked the story or not and why and move on. There’s a great deal of utility in that. We’ve had nights where we’ve had five stories to cover and someone went on about some point that they themselves admitted was nitpicking and minor. That fault should be laid at my door as well. I should have quickly stated, “If you feel your point is minor, then just put your comment on the page. We’ve only got two hours and five stories to get through.” Again, when some people treat the circle as more of a social event than a means to a professional end, they want to talk just because they enjoy talking. This style of criticism may be useful in organizing a group to insure everyone gets a chance to speak up, but I think it comes at the expense of killing off the more useful things a writing circle has to say.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
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