Elements of Critique: Journey

I sometimes hear it said there’s a potential energy stored in a blank screen or sheet of paper. Like the biblical story of creation “ex nihilo,” we get the privilege of crafting something out of nothing. We arrange words like paint on canvas, like notes from an instrument, creating shared experiences.

But I disagree. The paper, on its own, remains blank. The screen, without input, shines for no purpose. The spark is in us, not the emptiness.

The writer of Penny Arcade, Jerry Hoskins, speaks of writing as inviting someone else into one’s own mind, allowing them to see the worlds imagined within. It is creativity, the power of a god – part of the image of God if your faith permits – contained in fragile, imperfect vessels.

Heady stuff.

Stephen King speaks of the magic in books as a form of telepathy, allowing near-direct transmission of thought between two human beings, crossing with ease the otherwise unyielding bounds of distance and time. (This is part of what he means by his quote that “books are a uniquely portable magic.”)

What an amazing power literally at our fingertips.

And yet consider every magical story on the silver screen or the pages of a book. Having power is not enough. Mastering it is what makes the difference, what sets the hero apart. And just like all of them, we writers find ourselves on a journey, developing this wonderful ability we’ve been granted in order to use it for its intended purpose.

Certainly the “journey” of a heroic character is an element of writing worthy of note. Joseph Campbell famously popularized the idea of the monomyth, the collection of similarities found in most hero stories. His work is worth a read. If not his, then at least someone’s writing who borrows from his conclusions liberally, since so many stories borrow the concepts from one another.

But that’s not the journey I’m thinking of. I mean the heroic tale of how mild-mannered average Janes and Joes sitting at their cubicle desks or kitchen tables develop into confident figures who have Something To Say To The World.

When critiquing, I have to keep this in mind. Everyone that submits a piece for review is with me on a universally similar but individually unique path to become their best as a writer. Some may be just starting out. Some might have walked this road for years. Others might be about as far along as me.

Some will have advice for me that I need to hear. Some advice I might take with a grain of salt. Sometimes I’m going to have an important tip to pass on to another writer. (I’m hoping I have 26 of them worth passing on… otherwise this A-Z is going to get boring really fast.)

There are two facets to that journey we share. The individual experience part is crucial to consider. It may color whose advice bears more weight when critiquing or editing my work.

The hostess of our critique group has been writing for years. She’s published books and had pieces included in very popular anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul. She writes articles with a Christian worldview and she has years of experience teaching the Bible.

But she doesn’t read sci-fi or fantasy. So when she makes suggestions or asks questions about my mainstream fantasy novel chapters, she freely admits this is not her area of expertise.

Even so, there are numerous elements of writing that are universal. And the thoughts and struggles new writers go through are common enough that she can speak with wisdom and experience on many aspects of writing that I might overlook. So I value her opinion greatly.

However, I have to remember that no one is perfect, even our crit group’s formidible hostess. I’d comment with delight when I could find a mistake in her work, because it was like a game of Where’s Waldo? I’ve had people pick on my grammar Nazi title when they catch me making errors. It’s friendly ribbing designed to help, not wound, because we’re all learning.

The best we can do is keep going, and keep reaching out to those around us on the path we all share.

After all, we can’t expect telepathy to come naturally.

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