Tonight [edit: last night] I received a peer review on one of my stories. Nothing unusual about that; I have a couple of peer review systems working, with reviews flowing both ways. But this one was a little different.
Sometimes when I get a review, the reviewer tends to concentrate more on abstract concepts than on feedback specific to the story. I prefer the latter but I as I am normally too lazy to ask for specific feedback, that’s what I get. Anyway, this particular reviewer gave me the definition of a story and proceeded to tell me why my story was not a story. I also received some stirring advice ("Remember, conflict= drama" and "Things "happen," they are not described by a narrator.")
Now, I promptly thanked the reviewer, whom I sure was acting out of a sincere desire to help. And I do appreciate their time and effort. Whenever I get a review that turns into a lecture, my first inclination is to discount it immediately. But I always go back and glean out what is behind the words.
Anyway, I went off on a tangent there. Here’s the rub. The reviewer threw this definition at me:
Let me give you the ‘definition’ of a story I found on ‘Baens’. "There is a protag that the reader has a strong reaction to. The protag has a problem to solve. No matter what he/she does, the problem gets worse. But then through his/her *own efforts*, the protag overcomes all obstacles and solves the problem, growing a bit in the process."
I read that a few times. Let’s break it down.
– "There is a protag that the reader has a strong reaction to." So far, so good. The reader should empathize with the main character(s) … though I read plenty of published fiction featuring characters with whom I share zero empathy, or even give-a-damn factor (don’t get me started on that literary stuff again ….)
– "The protag has a problem to solve." Conflict = drama, or so I am told.
– "No matter what he/she does, the problem gets worse." Here is where I start to differ. Maybe the character is already dead and the story is about his chess game in heaven. In the greater scheme of things, the worst has already happened. I happen to like stories where the character starts on one problem but it diversifies into multiple problems. Okay, so I am nitpicking. The character’s "situation" needs to be stressed. Got it.
– "But then through his/her *own efforts*-" Yep, the character needs to be active, a pitfall I occasionally hit.
– "-the protag overcomes all obstacles and solves the problem, growing a bit in the process." Nope. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not all problems are overcome, not all characters continue to grow. Sometimes, their problems are terminal. Sometimes, their problems retard their growth. To me, this is the nexus of the entire definition on Baen’s and the punch line is wrong. I think a better way to say it is, "The character reaches a conclusion, where they are rewarded by tackling their problems correctly or punished for not." Even that isn’t right, really. Not all stories end well – but they do end. The conclusion isn’t always about growth … sometimes, it is quite the opposite, and it is hard to define well.
Some might read this and say I had a bad reaction to a critique of my work. Not really. I do hate being lectured but that is more because I lost a critique opportunity to discuss what I wrote, versus what the reviewer thinks I should be writing. It’s more that I think that rules about writing – or even trying to define specific elements of writing – are like trying to grab a greased frog with butter-covered fingers. We thrash around trying to label these elusive things, when we should just take the Justice Potter approach: you’ll know good writing when you see it.
In the end, good writing is about conveying something – in my case, entertainment. I want to my readers to feel entertained. If they get that, I don’t care about the rest. At the same time I received this review, I received a different critique; in this case, the individual said they enjoyed it and it was the best of four stories they’d read that day.