the Effing Book

Everyone’s a critic, they say. We all have opinions, and all of them stink! Critics are failed creatives who can’t, who speak cant because they can, who pan the sweat and efforts of creatives in every field to make them pay because – they can’t create themselves.

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that someone created a snowman of – a boxer dog, or Batman, I’m not entirely sure which. But let’s just say it’s a boxer. A boxer with a very low opinion – so it looks from the human side of the fence perspective – of that snowman. Whoever knew that art critics had four legs?

But we all know what we like, which might or might not be what the rest of the world likes. Opinions are powerful entities. When it comes to books, or writing, there’s no end of them. Some writers I love for their stories, despite the fact that they’re considered mass-market, simply because they sell books by the truckload. Some others I can’t even read, even if they’re on the NY Times bestseller list.

I have my own opinions (by the truckloads), and my own gut instincts when it comes to good or bad writing. It follows, therefore, that when I got to where I thought I wasn’t too terrible, after two drafts of the Effing Book, I had to find out my own limits for literary masochism. In other words, it was time to – get spanked, before an editor or an agent did it for me.

Unlike in S&M, however, there would be no warm-ups first. No ping-pong paddles or feather dusters, and the writer even supplies his or her own handcuffs. Not only that, the writer would voluntarily line up the cases of rotten eggs and tomatoes, tie him or herself to the stake and – beg to be slammed.

I joined an online writing community. Hit me, I can take it!

This particular version works quite simply. You review other people, and they, in turn, review you. You get credits for the reviews you complete, and those credits are used to open up the reviews you get from others. Even teenagers can figure that out.

With a free membership, and a great deal of exposure, this was – and still is – a popular site. You can find – and review – nearly every literary genre you can think of, and quite a few you never would.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is the inordinate amount of truly horrible writing you often have to plow through to earn your credits. Writers who can’t spell, who could care less about grammar or punctuation – and that’s just for starters. Copper Canyon-sized plotholes, cartoon characterizations, outrageous premises – and that’s just the beginning.

I began, a few months in, to almost pity the poor junior editors who have to make their way through the slush piles every month.

What nearly did me in, however, was having to be constructive. Well, that’s fair enough. I would ask the same. But as a fiction writer, I was taxing even my rather spectacular abilities at bs in trying to come up with new and excruciatingly polite ways to say: “You suck!”

Luckily for my sanity, not everyone did. There were many pearls to be found if you dug for them in the pigsty of aspiring writers, and I’m happy to say that I learned a lot from the ones who rearranged my own mental furniture and expanded my horizons. I read some truly great stories, and I’ve made some great online friends along the way. I’m grateful. Really I am.

But – not everyone can take constructive criticism, be it ever so eloquently stated. Writing is a personal matter, and no matter how hard you try not to, aspects of yourself, your life and your soul with inevitably creep in like so much silent fog before you know it. So, when a reviewer states “you need to correct some grammatical issues”, there will always, but always be that one hypersensitive soul who feels hit right in their solar plexus of self – “whaddaya meen, I dunno spelin an grammer? Well then, fuck YOU an the horse you rode in on”. or words to that effect.

Here we are, all we would-be literary critics, reviewers and writers, begging to be abused in a safe and monitored forum. Which means that when we get it, we can either shrug it off, take it to heart and try to learn from it, or react as if our person were being attacked instead of our prose.

What makes no sense at all is that some of us, those of us who are arrogant enough and presumptuous enough, really do believe we’re good enough writers to get published with only a slight spit and polish. We’re well aware that all this critique will be nothing compared to what we’ll be feeling once the rejection letters start pouring in, or, if we jump that hurdle, just how hard an editor will lay into us if they think we’re not up to certain standards.

Yes, I’m one of the arrogant ones. I’m also a member who gets specific requests for reviews because I do try to be both polite and constructive, and my rating as a reviewer is likewise very high. So I guess I must be doing something right.

There I was, Sunday morning, just bored enough to log in to my masochistic thrill. I had a new review, and I wanted to read it. Give, and you shall receive.

So, I reviewed someone, someone I don’t know from Adam, and along the way, I pointed out spelling errors, grammatical whoppers and a few unintentional content whoppers. I never knew there were such things as Civil War recreator Calvary boots. That made me want to ask if these were what Jesus was wearing when he was nailed to the cross. I refrained by the skin of my teeth.

I also pointed out things like potential, added what I liked and why, and suggested – simply because not everyone knows – a style manual and a dictionary, as well as a spell checker. I did not mean to be arrogant or to come across as flippant, but that was precisely how my review was interpreted.

That would-be writer felt attacked where it hurt the most, I guess, even if that wasn’t my intention. She promptly chewed me a new one with titanium teeth, by reviewing me.

I wrote a birthday pastiche in January to celebrate one of my favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. It was written one boring night when the Muse decided to call while I was wrestling with the idea, and I was maybe a bit too proud of it, so I posted it for critique. You’ll find it here, if you’re curious.

See? I told you I was a masochist!

This was what that poster chose to review. Did she, ever! I quote:

You, the shadow, address the readers as if no one ever got Edgar Allen Poe, if this is who you are writing about, you might refrain from speaking for the masses. You could fix this by saying that some failed to undersand. This work is presumptious and not a good picture of Mr. Poe if this is who you are writing about.I have read his autobiography and he only went downhill near the end of his life. Funny, how people only concentrate in the worst side of someone. You have some nice images in this work. It is very poetic in places. However, the bad news is that You have made many grammatical errors. I suggest you take those books you insisted i read on grammar and read them yourself.


Now, if I know any writer and his works like the back of my hand, it’s Poe. When I get obsessive, it’s total OCD. He never did write an autobiography. He struggled to make a decent living as a writer all his short life. He was lauded as a critic, but otherwise – at least in the US and in his own day – ridiculed and belittled. It took the Europeans – and especially the French – to restore his literary standing in his own country, and that didn’t happen until after his premature and mysterious death, all of it reflected in my little pastiche.

It took me – the Hit Me I Can Take It writer – the better part of an afternoon to simmer down. Not because I couldn’t handle being shown the errors of my prose, but because this reviewer claimed I got my facts wrong, my grammar wrong, and that I overused the passive voice, a literary device much used by Victorian-era writers, and even by Poe, and therefore by me in my little pastiche.

Well, not everyone likes 19th-century prose, or is even familiar with the phrasing and grammar that was used then. Fair enough. But there’s no need to get all – personal about it, is there?

The fact is – everyone can learn to communicate. Everyone can learn to write. I do believe, though, that not everyone can tell stories other people might want to immerse themselves in, and I also believe that good writing – however you do it – will out, sooner or later. Finally, I believe that I am one of those with a certain minimum of talent and a minuscule style I can call my own.

I know as well that not everyone will agree!

Different strokes, different folks.

I saved her review. I intend to frame it and hang it up in all its glory, right where it deserves: my bathroom. It’s always nice, to be humbled with your pants down around your ankles.

It puts everything I write into a whole new perspective.

Because anyone can see here that I totally – suck! 😉

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