Monday, June 21, 2010

Progress Report: 6/21/2010

A report on the Critters Experience so far.

I am currently a member of the Critters website, which is a kind of large online critique group for fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Every week, people contribute, on average, 10-20 stories. These are chapters of novels or short stories. As a member, you're required to critique at least one submission per week (and very short submissions count as only half a credit). If you decide to critique someone's whole novel, you will get a large number of critique credits based on the length of the book.

There are two other basic features of Critters that it's best to know about.

The first is that it uses a very archaic formatting standard -- pure simple text. This can be a little frustrating. You have to filter out any special characters (smart quotes, accents, stuff like that) for anything you submit. You also can't use italics or other advanced formatting, though there are various ways to indicate formatting in pure text. All commentary is done in old-school email style, like this.

>Fred noticed the bat circling his head had suddenly
>begun to fly counterclockwise. He wondered what that
>could possibly mean.

You might consider using "widdershins" instead of "counterclockwise."

The other thing about Critters is that you are required by the rules to be very, very, very polite. Now, I'm all for being polite and considerate. I've known a number of people who seem to think there's a virtue in being harsh with their criticism, and relish "tearing into" another writer. This kind of criticism is usually accompanied with something like, "Hey, I'm just calling it as I see it," or "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I find there's generally a way to phrase any sort of reasonable criticism in a way that isn't deliberately savage.

But in Critters, it goes to a pretty serious extreme. The rules state that you need to be ultra-polite even when correcting basic grammar. So instead of this:

>"Don't feed cinnamon to the lungfish" he shouted.

"lungfish," shouted

... where you just indicate the placement of the missing comma, you have to go with something like this:

>"Don't feed cinnamon to the lungfish" he shouted.

I believe there should be a comma after "lungfish" here, as in "lungfish," he shouted.

Because, after all, everything is just your opinion, even basic grammar, apparently. And you have to make it clear that you're just offering you opinion every time.

So that gets a little tedious. I suppose erring on the side of politeness is not the worst policy to have on the Internet, but still. Sheesh.

Anyway, there have been some good stories and some pretty rough stories that I've critiqued so far, as one might expect. I think it's a good place, and I'll keep with it until I find a more intimate critique group that I can be a part of, either in person or online. We'll see what happens when I submit something for critique, though.


Jeremy said...

Because grammar, like everything else these days, is relative and not an absolute?
I suppose that discouraging flaming and trolls is worth erring that way, though.

Grayson Towler said...

The reasoning seems to be that because there are some grey areas of grammar, and because people seem to get didactic and overbearing when they talk about the "Rules of Writing," the Critters policy is to err on the side of caution.

I was kind of surprised to find some of those grey areas myself when I started working for a publishing house. We use the Chicago Manual of Style as our guide, which has some different conventions than the Strunk & White rules I learned in school and always assumed were "the" rules. So yeah, they have a point at Critters.

It's just tiring as hell to have to couch everything as opinion every time.

Anonymous said...

I guess it makes sense - sometimes people will use incorrect grammar for stylistic reasons, so that even basic grammar might not be "correct" in this particular context (although if the reader can't see the reason for the incorrect grammar then there's a problem, unless it comes up later). However, I can completely see it getting irritating.

I think this a pretty cool idea, because whenever I edit my friends' papers I always want to preface all my comments with "I don't know if this is convention, or just something that I stylistically disagree with." Having that assumption there already isn't a bad idea, particularly if you're not a professional editor and don't necessarily know the preferences of a publisher.