It's once more time for a guest post, one which is sure to
distract you for a couple more days while I finish reading Eternal delight and enthrall. Today's installment comes courtesy of Pascoite: a talented author in his own right, and a regular fanfic reviewer/editor on Ponychan. Click below the break to see what he has to say about the differences between writer-centric reviews (what he does over there) and reader-centric ones (what I do over here), and a little bit of literary self-analysis as well.
Greetings, fellow blog readers! I'm probably more of a latecomer to Chris's musings than most here. I recognize some names from the regular commenters, but I suspect there's a silent majority here. So, not really knowing my audience, I may be going off on an irrelevant tangent here. But now I've snared you, and you dare not click away, lest you miss the carnage.
I've really enjoyed the discussions that take place here, and just by the nature of the blog, it's a reader-centric discussion. Many times, I've seen semantic arguments about what the proper term to use might be, but I'm happy leaving it as such. This is more of a place to get recommendations, and it's only occasionally that the writer in question participates. Most often, then, the reviews are structured as "here is my impression of what I read, and here is what I felt the author did right and wrong."
Several of the regular commenters come from the same background as I: writer-centric reviewing. As such, we take it a step further. Not only must we identify what an author does wrong, but explain why it is wrong, show him how to detect instances of it on his own, and demonstrate how to fix it. The process can be very labor-intensive and frustrating. Being an anal-retentive control freak, I find myself marking every comma splice I find and giving a lengthy explanation for the first one, while a more laid-back reviewer may be happy to say, "I found a lot of comma splices. Here's a link to some information on them." Of course, even a writer-centric review must wander into the domain of readers. Authors can also use advice on whether we think readers in general or a specific audience will enjoy the story.
So is one better than the other? Well, no. It all depends on your audience. An audience of readers has no interest in hearing why that particular dangling participle is grating, while the author gets little use out of knowing what other stories a reader who likes his fic might also enjoy.
What also makes working with authors more frustrating is that many don't want to hear that they are less than perfect, or weren't prepared for how much work writing can be. You volunteer hours of your time to help an author, and he disappears, or worse yet, gets angry. Even when authors are responsive and appreciative, I still often get the question, "Why do you do this? It's a lot of work. What do you get out of it?"
There certainly are some writers who come through Ponychan and volunteer to do a couple of reviews to achieve a karmic balance for having their own stories critiqued. But for the ones who stay around to do twenty, thirty, even forty reviews or more? Seeing an author you helped get accepted to Equestria Daily, for example, is nice. The few that may show some real improvement are worth the majority that never return.
But man, does it do wonders for your writing.
Problems are so much more apparent in someone else's work than your own. And by seeing those same easier-to-spot mistakes over and over again, you really gain an eye for finding them in your writing, as well as a motivation to avoid provoking the same reaction in your readers that you had. I've heard it said that you have to know something really well to be able to teach it to someone else. That's certainly true. I have learned the most about writing from reviewing.
So let me draw a couple of examples. Recently, Chris reviewed my story, The Promises We Keep. And he rightly called me out for being telly throughout and saccharine in places. To refresh my memory, I read over the story for the first time in months. And what I saw made me think about trying to sneak in a quick revision before Chris could get to it. How many other writers here have done this: looked back at something you wrote a while ago and thought, "Why didn't I see all this stuff back then? [*raises hand* -Chris]" You get caught in an infinite loop. You wish you'd had that great idea later on, when you could have written it better, but without the success you had with it, you'd lack an important stepping stone to where you are. Oh, well.
At the time this story was finalized, I'd been reviewing for about a month, and had only absorbed a small amount of what Ponychan had to offer. I'm going to look at a few excerpts to address the two main points that Chris made, as well as a third one that I'm surprised he didn't.
Back then, my understanding of show-versus-tell amounted to "communicate as much through actions as possible instead of relying on abstract narration." That's certainly an element of it, but it misses the core concept.
"Feigning surprise at his worst-kept secret, she offered a confession as well."
The opening participle is an action, so mission accomplished, right? In a word: no. The key to showing is to create a scene that the reader can see in his mind's eye and deduce as much emotion as possible from that mental picture. If an actor strolls out on stage and declares, "I'm sad," you have the information you need, but it's boring and does nothing to connect you with him. Instead, he hangs his head, won't make eye contact, gets preoccupied easily, slumps his shoulders, may be fidgety... In short, place yourself as an observer and give the reader the clues that you would use to determine how the character feels. We're wired to perceive others' emotions that way, so it makes you identify with the character more than being told the emotion as a factoid. So, what would an improvement look like?
"Derpy held a hoof up to her cheek as she gasped, fighting to keep the corners of her mouth from twitching upward. Her eyes flicked downward momentarily before she offered a confession of her own."
Here, the emotion comes across much more subtly, and through the type of details you'd notice if you were present: facial expression, body language, reactions. The original version gives you the vital information, but doesn't do much to help you picture it. In the revision, it's much easier to visualize what's happening, and by having you figure out the emotion, it's made you think and identify with the character. The biggest things to watch for are outright naming of emotions, excessive use of "-ly" adverbs, and "in/with emotion/attitude" phrases.
The second thing is something I'll just touch on briefly: overdoing it. From sappiness on the low end to melodrama in the middle to emotional manipulation at the high end, it can get cheap reactions from your readers, but those that can see through it will often be resentful of the attempt. Again, subtlety is the writer's friend. Instead of having a character bawl, simply having her stand there, mouth agape, with words caught in her throat will convey an equal emotional intensity without the obvious grab for the reader's heartstrings. To be sure, there are times when bawling is realistic, but more often, people are too shocked or try to control themselves.
Lastly, I thought Chris would call me out for my hyperactive narrator. Not for being a motor-mouth, but for skipping from character to character on a whim.
"[Applejack] noticed that [Big Macintosh] had skipped breakfast again, something that had been happening all too often lately."
"[Big Macintosh] could see the fear in [Derpy's] eyes, and it was all he could do to keep up a façade of assured confidence for her."
"Leaning against [Big Macintosh] during the entire trip, Derpy sought strength in his warm, muscular frame and his apple-scented mane."
"'You’re doing great,' the nurse said to comfort [Derpy]."
"In [the doctor's] profession, the relieved patients greatly outnumbered the devastated ones, but it did him no good to keep score. This hurt. It always did."
All of these excerpts come from one scene. And all speak to thoughts or attitudes that wouldn't be evident or obvious to an external observer, so require the narrator to be in that character's perspective. In the case of the doctor and nurse, what you see here is really the entirety of when they hold the perspective. So the narrator is jumping around to five characters, sometimes within a single paragraph, and spending a mere few lines in two of them. It can be very disorienting and jarring. Most of the scene is shown through Big Mac's perception.
"Big Macintosh squeezed [Derpy] tightly, and could feel her shaking. He had never seen her wings droop before, but they hung limply, the feathered tips trailing over the edge of her chair and onto the floor."
You can get much of the same information about Derpy's emotions as you could if that had been written from her perspective, but by fixing it in Big Mac's head, the narration feels more stable, giving the reader time to settle in and identify with him. Perspective shifts are certainly allowable, but if they're done too quickly or often, it just jerks the reader around and doesn't allow him to get to know the character as well. How often is too often? Well, my personal rules of thumb now are to keep a third-person omniscient narrator (which is what I used for this story, though there are a couple of lapses into a limited feel) in place for at least a few paragraphs at a time, and a third-person limited or first-person narrator for at least a scene. Your mileage may vary.
So, there are a few samples of the kinds of things you can learn to spot by reviewing, either in a baptism by fire, or by seeing what your fellow reviewers note.
For those of you that enjoy writing, I really would recommend doing a writer-centric review. Maybe not in a formal sense in which you give the author feedback. But when you're reading, see what trips you up. Figure out the underlying cause and understand why you stumbled over that passage. Your writing will benefit from than mix of reading, writing, and critiquing. Unfortunately, it can have the nasty side effect of ruining your ability to read simply for pleasure. I can no longer turn off the voice in my head that points these things out. As a result, I rarely read fanfiction anymore outside of my capacity as a reviewer, but it's been the single biggest contributor to my writing.
Thanks for the commentary, Pascoite! For any readers who are interesting in writing a formal "writer-centric review," Ponychan's /fic/ board is a great place to begin (though by no means is it the only source of authors seeking detailed reviews). I used to occasionally do reviews in the Training Grounds thread over there, and I can personally attest to how much pouring over another person's writing can help your own.