Monthly Archives: March 2018

Dystopia, and Other Maladies

The genesis of Novel Number One, The Butterfly & The Bull, involved a sandy shore on the Chesapeake Bay, a beach hut, and a man running down a ravine. The story grew from that image, extending backwards in time to a beginning and forwards to an end. Early on in the process, it developed a dystopian tinge. I needed a backdrop to explain why the man was on the run. The dissolution of democratic, financial and social structures worked well.

In Novel Number Two, I used the same cast of characters, and employed stage 2 dystopia (on a ten point scale). It seemed like a logical progression.

When I began Novel Number Three, I started with a clean slate (or so I thought). Dystopia begone, I thought. The plot gestated in my head for months. A young man sets out on a perilous journey, driven by his sense of curiosity, and his genetic tendencies. A young woman does the same.

In the beginning, the story was set in the Scottish West Coast, in the present day. Try as I might, I could not make it work. The world as it exists provided too many distractions, too many potential rescue and support structures, too little opportunity for challenge. Eventually, I gave in and set the story in a dark future, after the collapse of world societies, after the chaos, warfare, disease and destruction have reduced the human population to groups of people who have managed to survive. I imagined groups of people beginning to reconnect with others and come to terms with a world which contains little or nothing of what modern society has come to take for granted.

Compared with novels and short stories I have read in this genre, my story has one major difference. The darkness has passed, and the future is not as bleak as it might once have been. In addition, the human population left on the planet behaves in much the same way as people always have, the good and the not so good.

On he other hand, the contrasts with our present-day world are stark. There are no billionaires or millionaires, no corporations, no governments, no utilities, no telecommunications. The list of things that are not there is almost endless. One outcome of all this absence is a natural world which is beginning to emerge from one of the worst eras in its long history. With the real possibility of a return to natural abundance, the survival of the human race rests on the ability of individuals, groups and communities to carve out a new way of living, to work together for a common good, and to relearn the art of survival.

In that context, the malady becomes the cure.


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The Arcane Art of the Critique

Critique (noun): an act of criticizing; especially: a critical (see critical) estimate or discussion (a critique of the poet’s work; an honest critique of her art).

There is a body of thought that considers the act of submitting your work for a critique to be akin to requesting that you be flogged in public. That seems like a harsh judgement, but I understand the sentiment behind it. After all, the very essence of the critique is that it should involve your precious work being poured over, dissected in fine detail, and commented on. Faint of heart, please do not submit.

Many writers do, though. Submit, I mean. The reason for this apparent masochism is that having your work critiqued is one of the finest ways to gain the insight and inspiration needed to improve your writing. Assuming, of course, that you don’t instantly tear the critique into tiny pieces, and then resort to rending your garment in despair.

What follows is a personal and random collection of thoughts on the art of the critique. Health warning: these should not be relied upon as a blueprint for critiquing the work of others. Though I am sure that will become obvious as you read on.

Never critique someone’s work if they have not asked you to do so. This is especially the case in the US, where you always have to bear in mind that many citizens have access to guns.

Always try to provide at least one positive comment in your critique, which will allow the author to cling to the last vestiges of her or his self-respect. However, you should be aware that following this by three hundred negative comments will almost certainly undo any good you might have done.

Detailed comments in the margin of the MS should never start with phrases like “You must… ,” or “You need to ..,” or anything else which could be interpreted as an order barked in a strident voice. A gentler approach is more likely to evince a positive response. Use phrases like “I would … ,” “You might consider … ,” or “Have you thought of … .” It is also appropriate to rewrite a phrase, sentence or paragraph to illustrate your point. Do not, however, even consider rewriting the entire piece. This is the writing equivalent of eating peas with your knife in polite company.

Never be tempted to comment “LOL” when you see a spelling mistake or a word used wrongly. Also resist the desire to say “FFS Edit your damned work before you submit it,” or anything in a similar vein. If you find yourself in this frame of mind, I can recommend the application of a fine Scots malt whisky as a remedy.

Always be specific and constructive in your comments. Phrases like “This is rubbish,” “Get yourself a thesaurus before we all die of boredom,” and “If I see another dangling participle, I shall have to pay a visit to Mr Shredder, and we don’t want that, do we?” should be avoided wherever possible. In the same way, describing the author’s plot as “puerile,” or remarking that his main character “Lacks substance to the extent of being invisible to the reader,” is bound to lead to heartache.

If your critique is related to the activities of a writers’ group, then you may also have to provide verbal feedback. It is preferable that this follows the general thrust of your written feedback. However, do not be tempted to go through your detailed comments line by line. This will almost certainly have the effect of inducing terminal somnolence in the rest of the group.

Finally, if the author has requested specific feedback on some aspect or aspects of the piece, do not be tempted to do anything but ignore her or him. Everyone else will, and you do not want to be responsible for breaking this fine tradition, do you?

Happy critiquing!

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