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Friday, October 22, 2010

Are You Talking to Me? Are YOU talking to ME? Thoughts On Peer Review and Editing

'Ow do,  blogfans.

This has been a fabulously productive week here at Hubris House- KMS wise anyway. Now, I'm not anyone's idea of an exercise fanatic but I have that adrenaline high (I've heard) that runners get when they catch their second wind. 

My last outstanding -significant- peer review came back this week. This reviewer is a professor of English at an esteemed American university. I was very nervous about her feedback but guess what? She was really excited about KMS! How fabulous is that? Her enthusiasm more than made up for some of the, uhum, harsh (and useless as it turns out) critique I've received from others.

However, and this is the point of this post, even this esteemed reviewer needs to be subjected to the same filter I use for all critique.

I, your friend S.H., have a confession to make. It pains me to admit this but I'm going to try.

I listen to, and think about, all criticism (either stated or implied) about my writing. I absorb it, try to apply it, question it, question myself (like do I disagree because I'm being defensive or because I'm right) freak out (less so now than at first,) then try to use the good stuff to make KMS better.

Literature (subtle though it may be I have enough hubris to call KMS literature) is one of those funny things. It's, like, totally subjective. A reviewer may react viscerally (enthusiasm- hatred) or not at all. 

When your MS sucks (ie is not ready for review) guess what? You get a lot of "yeah I tried to read it but I didn't have time. I'll get to it." Or "I don't really read that genre so I can't really tell you if it's good or not (they can they just don't want to.") That, friends, falls under the category of  not reacting at all. It's a big ole blinking sign that you're not ready to submit your MS.

Sometimes, though, the way you react to criticism hits a nerve and you get some real feeling ("I can't talk to you! If you didn't want to hear what I had to say why did you even bother to ask me to read your stupid book?") but it still doesn't count as a visceral reaction to your book. It just means you behaved like an unprofessional dingbat and you overreacted- in other words you're a normal newbie writer.

Grammar, spelling and adherence to the conventions of the genre- those seem like opportunities for objective criticism because (we're only talking about grammar today) grammar is grammar- right? Actually not so much.

I've done a LOT of technical writing (for law, Science, business, etc.) and that has to be clear, concise and properly punctuated. There's *very* little room for individual style or complicated/ questionable grammar (the exception is Law but that's its own thing.) The point of this kind of writing is to say the stuff the reader needs to know without confusing him or her. No one reads a disclaimer for fun (except for weird regulatory people like NSSH) or takes a lab report to the beach for recreational reading.

But here's the thing: when you write a narrative using these strict "laws" of grammar (comma splices- oy!) you end up sounding like you've got a really long stick up your ass. There's just no flow. -There are comma splices and then there are comma splices though. I love writing, writing is fun. That's just awful- horrible. Glaring and wrong. Believe me, some splices can really sound just right, that's the gray area of which I speak.

My English prof friend said that I "have comma splice issues and use more words than I need to" She was spot on with the excess word thing. Really- how many adjectives does a person need before a noun? Apparently I need about 3. Removing them is time consuming but it makes a huge difference.

Comma splices sent me over the edge. 

I panicked and removed every single splice, potential splice or grammatically  questionable sentence. Then I freaked out for real.  It sounded like a, super simple, robot wrote my book. It was awful. I could have gone all out and used any number of semicolons, parentheses or dashes but it was distracting (I'm trying to keep the reading level of my book at about the 8th grade even though it's a novel for adults.) A good novel does not draw attention to punctuation. A comma is a little breath, the most subtle (we know how much I admire subtlety)  form of punctuation.(Was *that* a comma splice blogfans? Welcome to my hell.)

I went to the library and pulled ten random (okay they were books I was taking out anyway) books off the shelves. Every. Single. Book. had multiple comma splices (or very grammatically questionable sentences) within the first couple paragraphs. Dude! Then I went home and researched comma splices more thoroughly  (research is my thing- I can't help it) and realized that sometimes they are not only acceptable but necessary.  You heard me.

Grammar Girl does not agree (see "You, Sir, Are No Cormac McCarthy...") I think grammar girl can be a pedantic bitch. I'm sorry- when it comes to commas, and the use thereof, she really is. And her writing sounds like she has a giant stick up her ass so WTF*? Who wants to write like that? Oh yeah- ENGLISH teachers. It's their JOB to make sure their students know how to use grammar properly.

I took out many of these hideous suckers but I left a couple as they were (upon further reading I did the right thing- please see the first and third links at the bottom of the page.). After a great deal of consideration I felt like I had to. (Just as I ended the previous sentence with a preposition- it's not right but, honey, that's how I speak and I want you to hear my voice.) 

If my agent or publisher wants me to remove them- well no probs. I'll take 'em out. At this point I think I need my "voice" to be clear and my grammar to be acceptable but not obnoxious. I could be wrong- I'm not a published writer yet. I'm definitely not a grammar pedant. But I'm going with my gut here.

Learning how to take (giving is another post) criticism is a vital skill. A writer needs to sort the crap from the good stuff. She needs to understand that people have their own views and, sometimes, agendas. A writer needs to be open minded about criticism but firm when it comes to the integrity of her work.  If we were robots this would be easy but let's face it- robots make rotten writers. 

We writers are artists and we work with a medium that every single English speaking person uses every single day. It sucks because just about everyone thinks they know what they're talking about- and sometimes they do so you can't write 'em off- but if you take their advice to heart when they're wrong (with regard to your MS, anyhow) you're in for a world of hurt. {That sentence was a disaster- the kind of thing that needs to be removed from KMS- but this is a blog so I'm going to keep it.}

Writers with mucho hubris don't have this problem but they usually suck and are just awful to be around. Don't be like that blogfans. I know you better than that. Have confidence. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. Understand that, no matter how great you are, other people are great too. Many are better than you and don't you forget it.

And lots of people couldn't write their way out of a paper bag *but* they can read and could, potentially, buy your books. Don't piss them off. Yeesh. Unless you're writing for fun- then go nuts. Try to be constructive and compassionate though; Karma can be quite the bitch herself.

Whew. And that's my rant for the week.  

Until next week blogfans. 


*Apologies to grammar Girl- she is the uber English teacher for the masses. She really has to take a stand about things like comma splices and I admire her for it.

Want to learn more about comma splices?The last link has a useful quiz feature.

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