The perils of extremes in critiquing

So many people in creative writing clubs, critique groups, etc., make the mistake of either tearing down everything and demanding radical rewrites, or mindlessly praising and validating everything. That’s not how anyone learns how to improve one’s craft, esp. if one is a younger and/or newer writer.

Writers, artists, fashion designers, bakers, cooks, musicians, singers, etc., are being set up for a HARD fall when they hear nothing but praise for a very long time. It can feel like the rug is being yanked from under them when they finally hear criticism, even respectful criticism that still mentions strong points. Whereas if they’d received constructive critique from the jump, they’d have developed stronger skills sooner, known how to learn from mistakes and self-edit, and not had such big egos.

Likewise, those who hear nothing but cruel words or insistent demands to change almost everything no matter what can be made to feel nothing they ever do will be good enough, and stop pursuing their passion for a long time, maybe forever. Or, out of hurt pride at being constantly attacked, they’ll become very stubborn and spitefully feel they don’t need to change anything.

When I still entered critique contests, someone tore into the first 250 words of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. When I mentioned her objections to my crit group a few years later, they thought she was full of crap and didn’t have an issue or confusion with anything she bashed. Seems obvious she’s from the modern school that believes everything MUST be ripped apart no matter what.

E.g., she claimed she broke her Google looking for the meaning of the first word, Fünffürreihe (a row of five used for marching and roll calls during the Shoah). My friends understood the beyond-obvious, that it was defined in the very next line! How the bloody hell are you so dense you can’t grasp that!

She also had no idea what was going on and where these people were, why it was important to say how fast someone ran. My friends understood from the date given at the start, 30 March 1945, and other really obvious context clues, that my characters are escaping a death march. Again, are some people that dense or historically ignorant?

A failed crit partner who was a lot younger than I am bashed everything in the then-current first 5 pages of The Very First, even my lack of a title page with my name, the title, and the wordcount, how my first line was in large, bold italics, and my usage of Palatino instead of that arse-ugly Times New Roman.

It’s one thing if multiple people take issue with the same things, but when only one person, or a handful of people out of countless others, take(s) issue, it’s safe to say you’re not the one with the problem.

It did hurt when a few people point-blank said they didn’t like my Cinnimin, but I have to keep in mind everyone else who’s ever met her over the years has loved her and thought she’s an awesome, fun character full of personality. Not all characters and stories will click with everyone. While Cinni has been significantly toned down over the years, she’ll never be an annoying goody-goody who sings “Kumbaya.”

The best, least judgmental way to broach an issue in critique is asking what the writer’s intention was in, e.g., choosing a certain age for the characters, depicting violent fights as a normal solution to petty disagreements, alternating POV chapters between three characters instead of using third-person omni, a scene that feels rather over the top, starting in 1863 but then having a long, detailed flashback in the next few chapters.

That way, the onus is on the writer to explain and deeply think about decisions, not to defend the story from harsh criticism, feel compelled to make every single change suggested, or develop an ego and think no editing is required.

It’s also good to specify the kind of critique one wants. E.g., only big picture instead of surface stuff like grammar, a scene or section that doesn’t feel right, what works and what doesn’t. Writers who ask for everything to be brutally ripped apart need more confidence in their own vision and talent.

Crit groups and creative writing clubs aren’t supposed to be support groups. They’re places to learn how to grow as a writer and self-editor. Hearing nothing but fawning praise, nit-picking, or nasty comments has very negative consequences in the long run.

The need for radical gut renovation

While I continue to struggle back and forth with the idea of keeping the age of the first generation of my Atlantic City characters as-is or changing it by 2-3 years, and have long been hard at work significantly toning down the age-inappropriate content (if not outright excising it), there’s a much bigger reason radical gut renovations are/were needed for much of the material till about 1963.

It’s absolute garbage!

Garbage with great bones, but garbage nonetheless. A house with rotting floors, walls, doors, and stairs, irreparably broken machinery like washers and stoves, burst pipes, fraying and broken wires, and smashed windows can still be saved with a very strong foundation and beautiful exterior.

Since I decided to shelve the original eight-book series running from late 1941–September 1950, and with it much of the contained material, there’s an obvious huge gap to be filled with entirely new storylines and radical revisions of the ones with enough potential to be saved. Even within that series, there was a gap between September 1945–April 1947.

I deliberately underwrote a lot of Cinnimin, esp. Sagas I–IV, knowing I’d have all the space in the world to significantly flesh it out and add new material once I transcribed it into a computer. Saga I also ends with a few pages rushing through what happened after V-J Day till the eve of Cinni and her friends starting college in 1950. I long knew I’d have to transform that into an actual narrative of normal length.

The Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of, #1, #3, #7, and #8, plus the long-unfinished computer-generated #2 (which caught some kind of bug and became unable to open, though I did print a number of pages), are by far most in need of radical rewriting. Though I gave #1 two much-needed reworkings, they still didn’t go nearly far enough.

And why are they so terrible?

They were written by someone aged 11–15!

lot of the school-related storylines, even the fourth through sixth and ninth through twelfth Max’s House books I wrote from ages 19–about 24, were based around the gang hating school, doing horribly in most classes, frequently skipping school, sassing off teachers, caring more about social life at school than studying and getting ready for college. Despite being the cardinal opposite of that, I was too wedded to ideas from fluffy teen shows, and then felt afraid to radically change course.

Implausible storylines and events. E.g., Cinni, her sitting charges, and her friends are hanging out in some submarine-like boat at the pool and get stuck there after closing time. It’s sucked down the apparently giant drain, pulled into the Atlantic, and winds up in a Rhode Island pool. Now-axed ex-smoker Rachel Simmins gets several surgeries to suck all the tar out of her lungs.

Too much mean-spiritedness. It’s one thing to show characters as typical young people who’ve got a lot of growing up to do and aren’t always 100% respectful to everyone (esp. people they dislike). Entirely another for them to constantly say nasty stuff, mistreat people, arrange for them to be publicly humiliated, beat them up, steal from them, etc.

Ridiculous storylines and events. Like, why would Max’s stepmother Bambi have a summer home in freaking Paterson, NJ instead of a resort town?! Why does Mrs. Hitchcock move full-time to her French summer home and leave baby Scarlett in Violet’s full-time care, esp. when she tried so many years for a third child and much of France was in shambles after the war?

Cinni and Sparky have babies during college without missing a beat!

No unique storylines, as aforementioned. I cared more about making a teen and preteen soap than crafting original stories and characters.

So many cluttery scenes accomplishing nothing. Until Levon shows up in Saga I of Cinnimin, the story consists of little more than Cinni and Violet’s babysitting misadventures, constantly skipping school, and just acting like ill-mannered, mean-spirited brats who think they’re such bad-asses.

Even with the caveat that Eopolis isn’t supposed to be a normal neighborhood, and that these kids aren’t supposed to be like normal kids their age, there are limits. E.g., why would fifth grade Violet enter a contest to win a purported naked photo of Frank Sinatra and proudly carry it everywhere she goes?! Why would anyone of any age watch their own parents having sex, film it, and show that to their friends regularly?!

Poor historical grounding. It’s particularly bad during WWII. There are a couple of scrap metal drives, mentions of war bonds, and ration coupons, but the gang acts like the war is a huge annoyance and inconvenience. None of their older brothers serve in the war either.

The most important things I’m left with are my characters and their general storylines. I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story about a large group of friends in Atlantic City, having a lot of funny adventures along the way, and I mostly succeeded. Many of the details and circumstances might change, but the core elements remain the same.

 

Edgy vs. satirical vs. age-inappropriate

Note: Though the book formerly known as The Very First officially released yesterday, I’m saving my special post about it for till the print version (with a different cover) also releases.

I’ll never forget how my buddy Bruce got in trouble with our eighth grade music teacher (the inspiration for Busload in my Atlantic City books) for the song he wrote in the style of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. Our assignment was to do just that, but Busload was so displeased with Bruce’s song, she pulled him aside after class.

After Busload’s bemused lecture, Bruce responded, “Yeah, I was being satirical.” Busload, in an unintentionally hilarious voice, shot back, “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!”

For a long time, I’ve known much of the material in the original drafts of my Atlantic City books is way too over the top, esp. for books intended for teens and mature preteens, even within the context of satire, edgy content, and deliberately over the top humour not meant to be taken seriously.

It started out as my attempt at “a preteen soap,” heavily influenced by the issue books and fluffy, neverending series of my generation, combined with TV shows like Saved by the Bell (still a guilty pleasure) and Nickelodeon’s Fifteen. Before long, I was deliberately gut-loading them with the most controversial content possible to goad my imagined future censors.

Some of this controversial for its own sake content included:

Seven-year-old Kit sexually harassing a crush, including lying on top of him and unrolling a condom as she talks dirty. At the same age, Kit knifes a kid during show-and-tell. WHAT!?

A party where the gang burns Bibles and flags.

Almost everyone starting to have sex between ages 10–12. Ariania and Dan wait till they’re 16; Adeline and Henry wait till they’re married (probably age 18–22); and Cinnimin and Levon don’t officially go all the way till their twenties.

Kit’s frightening vendetta against her mother. I’ve since substantially reworked this very important storyline to give strong, understandable, plausible context to why they have such a dysfunctional relationship, including making it clear Mrs. Green started it and kept making it worse.

Wild, unchaperoned parties, including one where Max crashes his dad’s new car with most of his friends inside. Oh, and Max is way under the legal driving age.

Recreational drug use, including goofball D.J.’s drug habit and drug-dealing constantly being played for laughs.

Violet holding up a liquor store at age ten, after Cinnimin ordered her to get more alcohol. Once she finally produces the goods, Violet is enraged when Cinni says, “I just wanted to see how dumb you were by running your spoilt ass halfway around the world for me.”

Max’s youngest full brother Gene’s pervertedness is constantly played for laughs. At age six, his room is full of pornographic filth!

Everyone “swears fluently,” as I used to say.

People get beaten up, punched, attacked with baseball bats, etc., at the drop of a hat!

Kit and her first beau Jerry draw and photograph themselves acting out weird scenes from Victorian erotica, though they never go all the way. Kit is NINE, and Jerry is fifteen!

Dave buys Playkid at seven years old, and wants to visit a flesh merchant based on an article he reads. His room is also full of pornographic filth, including multiple photo albums of naked pictures he secretly took of Violet.

So much of this, and far more, isn’t satirical, edgy, or controversial towards a purpose. Even in a satire or deliberately over the top show like Family Guy or American Dad, there’s a limit. In fact, a lot of FG’s content seems to have gone way too far in recent years.

I’ve worked really hard to significantly tone down this age-inappropriate content. A lot of it has been excised outright, while other things went from R-rated to PG-13 or PG. You know there’s a serious problem when the actual author thinks it’s going way too far!

Think of it like having too many accessories or pieces of jewelry. They might all be awesome, but after a certain point, you’re just mindlessly piling them on, and people only see a whole bunch of jewelry instead of having their eyes drawn to a few carefully-selected pieces.

So too it is with eyebrow-raising content. It’s best to include many five issues or events, and focus on two or three. E.g., I’ll keep the storylines about Sparky’s live-in affair gone horribly wrong with her teacher, Kit’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Kit’s extremely precocious sexual début and resulting highly sexual character, and a couple of unchaperoned parties here and there.

As wild and rebellious as adolescence often is, teens rarely tick every single box on the soap opera and after school special list.

Should their age stay or go?

I’ve been thinking about slightly aging up the original generation of my Atlantic City characters since at least late 2013 (and possibly even early 2012), but never went through with it because I was so emotionally attached to their 1929–31 birth. I had a headache thinking about such radical frogging and reconstruction.

The more I think about it now, the more sense it makes to age them up 2-3 years, but I’ve kept their age ambiguous in the book formerly known as The Very First. I need that door to remain open for either choice.

Pros:

1. Storylines aren’t set in stone. Many times they improve by leaps and bounds when garbage is excised, like healthy new skin replacing rotted flesh. Only a complete amateur or narcissist thinks there should never be any real editing.

2. I have so many new storylines in mind, particularly for about 1945–63. I’ve long known those years need a near-complete overhaul. E.g., Cinni and her most intelligent friends could attend Bryn Mawr while Sparky and Lazarus attend nearby Gratz College. Max and Al could be divorced, not just broken up, before their emotional reunion when Max finally realizes just how much he loves Al and regrets taking her for granted.

3. They don’t feel their age until about ninth grade, which is right when they start settling down. A lot of their adventures in fifth and sixth grades were based on my life in junior high and high school. Ditto for their junior high and my underclass high school years. It wouldn’t be that hard to synch their mental and actual ages.

4. Even for satire, deliberately over the top humor, and an era where kids matured earlier by default, their cognitive development is all wet. I knew jack about child development. Even after significantly toning down the age-inappropriateness, there’s still a disconnect between how old they truly are and how old they act, look, think, and speak.

5. Though age-based categories aren’t set in stone, it’ll be easier to market and classify the prequel series as mature upper MG, and Saga I of Cinnimin and most of the Max’s House books as YA, if they truly are preteens and teens during those respective books.

6. One of Cinni’s most formative early memories is writing a letter to Pres. Hoover with her big brother’s help in 1932, and being crushed to get a form letter from a secretary saying Pres. Hoover can’t respond to everyone. She was barely two! That would be like me wanting to write Reagan a letter at that age! At most, I might’ve been excited to wave at his car or plane if it came through the area.

7. When Cinni says Sparky’s haircut makes her look like Shirley Temple, Sparky says she likes Shirley’s movies and thinks she’s about their age. Except she’s three years older, and I only put that in as part of making their age ambiguous. Their ages would truly match if I aged them up.

8. Cinni already knows Santa isn’t real, and almost all her friends do too. Most kids figure it out around 8–9 instead of already knowing for a few years, though some knew early on because Santa doesn’t visit poor kids.

9. They’ve essentially had all their major coming-of-age experiences by 1945.

10. I always intended shock value, but not that much!

11. It’s very telling that I never gave their age in excerpts shared here, and felt the need to make it ambiguous in the first two books. They won’t suddenly be 12–13 instead of 9 when their age is finally revealed!

Cons:

1. It’s supposed to be shocking and over the top! A running thread is how people are always scandalized at what passes for normal there, along with comments like, “You’ve been sexually active since age ten?!” The shock value is emphasized due to being set in an era most people don’t associate with things like premarital sex.

2. Age-gap dynamics between siblings and friends would radically change if they were, e.g., suddenly closer to Irish twins than four years apart, or same-age peers instead of like a surrogate big and little brother.

3. Advanced maternal age! This by far holds me back most. While it’s unusual to become pregnant (naturally or through fertility treatments) at 45–51, at least it’s not unheard-of. By 53, it’s high-near impossible.

4. Cinni is stunned to snoop in her mother’s old journal and learn she was almost aborted due to her family’s slide into poverty after the Stock Market crash. What would the incentive be if she were born in 1927–28, just not wanting a fourth child?

5. It’s just more convenient to leave it as-is, instead of frogging and reconstructing so much. I also like how each Saga of Cinnimin depicts a full decade of her life; e.g., the Fifties are her twenties, the Seventies are her forties.

6. Emotional attachment. Enough said.

7. I’d be selling out after all these years of justifying the most over the top elements as intentional, meant to show real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting for most people.

8. Since that age is established in my already-published books about Jakob and Rachel, it’d automatically be a retcon.

9. Age-based categories are NOT set in stone! Some preteens might not mind reading about younger kids so long as it’s not written at that level.

Redirecting an aborted storyline

Though I had to abandon the storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952, creating it wasn’t a complete waste. It helped me to discover the real reasons they settled in rural Minnesota and were so adamant about their kids always living on their isolated, compound-like property. After their traumatic childhoods and the additional trauma of the Civil War, could they really be blamed?

It also brought my attention to a lot of compelling themes, like making peace with letting go of a daydream, establishing independent adult lives in a place of one’s own choosing instead of feeling duty-bound to stay close to family, life being customized instead of standard-issue, letting life take us where it’s meant to instead of adhering to set in stone items on an arbitrary checklist, never being too late to take another fork in the road.

From the ruins of this storyline arose much stronger replacements which truly work with who these characters are:

1. Stefania Wolicka Academy’s radical pedagogy will be significantly toned down. It’ll still use a lot of hands-on, non-traditional learning methods, and students will still be able to choose many of their own classes and assignments, but it won’t be 99% self-teaching and doing whatever they want.

2. Towards that end, Lyuba will be offered a position teaching Russian history and literature to the high school girls.

3. Lyuba will also use her history degree to start an interview archive (both written and recorded) with everyday people.

4. Ivan will take more art classes at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). He unfortunately began the University of Minnesota right when its art program switched focus to the business side of art instead of the fine arts aspect, so his formal art education is a bit lacking.

5. The Konevs will move into an abandoned Victorian estate on St. Paul’s Summit Ave., near the intersection with Mississippi River Blvd. They get the big house of their dreams, with a yard large enough for their horse Branimir, and a gorgeous view of the river.

6. On the same block will be several families of fellow black sheep artists and intellectuals from Greece, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. They also have daughters Sonyechka and Tamara’s ages. It’s high time the Konevs became friends with people outside their immediate family and longtime best friends.

7. The Konevs will meet the Hungarian family on the train back to Minnesota after Igor and Ilya’s New York weddings, and they’ll help Sonyechka to understand not all artists and intellectuals want to live in NYC.

8. Andrey’s psychology Ph.D. residency will be in San Francisco, which absorbed a large population of Shoah survivors. That solves the problem of Katya and her son Rodik being all alone while Dmitriy’s deployed. Who better for her to live with than her favorite sister Darya?

9. Since Fedya is likewise very close to Darya, he and Novomira will also start their new lives in San Francisco. Fedya will study at the San Francisco Art Institute.

10. Tatyana and Nikolay will scale back their farm and join forces with other farmers to start a grocery store like Amherst’s Atkins or Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op.

11. On the initiative of their firstborn Kira, they’ll also become a farm sanctuary by any other name.

12. A suburb will be created near the then-largely rural, undeveloped neighborhood of Duluth Heights, providing a much-needed source of new friends for Tatyana and Nikolay’s family and a financial lifeline for Firebird Fields. The new neighbors will be mostly fellow Russian–Americans, with some Serbians, Ukrainians, and Finns.

13. Aleksey will go full-time with his woodworking business and sell his creations in the arts and crafts section of the new grocery store.

14. Eliisabet will attend Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

15. Igor and Violetta will fall in love with Denver and eventually move there. It’s such a beautiful city, with so many wonderful things to paint, and a thriving arts scene. Equally-lovely Boulder and Colorado Springs are also nearby.

16. Firebird Fields will transition away from an agricultural focus.

17. I’ll also develop the town in much greater detail. Apart from a scene at the skating rink in Dark Forest, a few graduation scenes at the school, and mentions of local businesses, it never really came alive as a living, breathing, thriving small town.

18. Nikolas will stay in NYC to open a law practice with Andrey Zyuganov and Anahita Sadeghi.

19. His wife Kat will attend Brooklyn College for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

20. Prof. Novak will join the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department, which was fairly small in this era.