Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen

Do No Harm:
Low-Impact Story Critiquing

We're celebrating my mother's sixtieth birthday this weekend down in St. Augustine, and as always, I'm clueless about what to give her. See, I'm an idealist gifter: I buy you the thing you SHOULD want if you were a better person.

That's why I gave my capital-S Spiritualist mother a copy of James Randi's debunking book Flim Flam! a few years ago for Christmas.

This year, though, I've decided just to give her cash and trust her to buy her own heart's desire. I'll just try not to pry into what she buys.

It occurs to me, one year after writing a column about giving and taking critiques, that this is a better metaphor for that activity than the ones I offered then. So today I'm offering a follow-up with my new cardinal rule of direct "constructive" criticism, which now is:

Do no harm.

When you return from Clarion, one of your boons is a big cardboard box full of your stories, twenty copies of each with a kaleidoscope of different opinions and perspectives and insight. Like a kaleidoscope, the colors are pretty and mesmerizing; also like a kaleidoscope, though, they're ordered in patterns that will take you years to decipher.

Going through my box recently, I was stunned to discover just how many of those insights were totally insane or, worse, immaterial to my work. Sometimes a writer emerges from a workshop unable to sort these conflicting instructions into something usable; I almost became one of them.

Now, I was lucky to attend Clarion with a half dozen instructors who have mastered their craft and twenty other talented writers well on their way. These are names you have already seen or will see soon on the tables of contents of anthologies and magazines, not to mention along the spines of books. We had hard science fiction writers, epic fantasists, fairy tale spinners, surrealists, interstitialists, and me--known colloquially as the "Dark Heart of Clarion" for writing stories with that oft-neglected touch of depravity and evil.

Yet the fundamental uncomfortable truth about all perception is that we see what we are: our critiques tend to be less about making the story a better example of itself and more about making it a better example of us, however unconsciously. My critiques were largely admonitions to show the metaphorical underpinnings of our upsetting universe, which probably wasn't useful to all those folks who wanted to write about alien civilizations. Likewise, I got advice to be less mean, which is, alas, like asking a tree to be less wood-like.

In retrospect, the most useful critiques were the low impact ones--the circled passages with only the words "not right" along the side. The most useful advice came from Kelly Link who told me, "Why are you trying so hard to follow other people's rules? Just write your mean, funny little stories."

The biggest lesson of Clarion for me, then, was to trust my weird and follow it more purely. What most of my classmates discovered in their critiques, consciously or not, were the places in my stories that yanked them away from that pure impression or effect. As readers, they were like patients in a hospital who could point to where it hurt (and oh, my stories hurt a lot) but whose diagnoses weren't always accurate.

Then it was my job as the originating artist to do something with that insight, to filter the advice into two categories: that which made the story More, and that which made the story Something It Wasn't.

In other words, the hard lesson about critiquing is that much of it is useful only as an indicator that Something is wrong, not as specific or helpful advice to fix it. Following that advice, often contradictory, could well be the road to insanity--reconciling what other people want with what you want.

Only you know what you're trying to do with a story, and all another person can tell you authoritatively is that they're not receiving the message.

My low impact technique for criticizing unpublished work, then, involves trust. Just as I'm giving my mother a fistful of cash in the hopes that she doesn't buy cigarettes or dream catchers, so too does this model of criticism trust the author to take another shot at better expressing a story. It respects the integrity of an individual vision but also encourages the outside perspective every author needs to make that vision clearer.

It might be better suited to more experienced writers, but maybe it is worth trying if you find that every critique session just becomes a hurricane of conflicting and confusing advice.

The technique is simple: you take two highlighting markers of different colors. I trust you to choose the best ones.

(See? Isn't that empowering?)

Then, read through the manuscript and use each marker for one purpose, either:

  • To mark passages that deviate or distract from the overall dream of the story, OR

  • To mark passages that amplify or purify that overall dream.

You offer no advice. You smother your natural tendency to fix things. You think less about what you want in a story and more about what the story seems to want.

You measure a story in its best objective way: just how effectively and consistently it lulled you away from reality. Or toward it.

Maybe this seems extreme. Like most of the things I write, it probably is. To soften it for your own purposes, perhaps it would be best to carry away the insight that your advice on how to fix a story is probably less valuable than simply pointing out that something is wrong.

It is possible that you know just how to fix a broken story. Such people exist in the world, capable of distilling another person's vision to its purest form and helping him or her achieve it. They're rare, though, and you're probably not one of them yet. Even if you are, you'd do well to remember your responsibility to avoid contaminating someone else's work with your own until they're ready.

It's hard to do that, particularly in a workshop when you're thinking hard about your own work, too.

Consider it your first job to point mutely at the rough edges of a manuscript and shake your head, trusting the writer to make the tough choices on how to fix it in a way that is right for that story. If you're asked for more, provide it as carefully as you can.

Anything else is writing someone else's story, and God knows you have all too many of your own to work on.


Will's debut collection, Cthulhu Fhtagn Baby and Other Cosmic Insolence contains some of his best work. His story "Faraji" is available in the April/May 2007 issue of Weird Tales. You can learn more about him at his website, www.will-ludwigsen.com.

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