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Old 12-10-2013, 03:59 PM View Post #1 (Link) 8 Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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I've been critiquing short stories and chapters for a long time, now. I've had a few good and bad experiences. I have, at least in real life, a reputationf for being brutally honest; I think that's fine, because I also have a reputation for being helpful, thoughtful, and constructive. Sometimes, though, people mistake my brutal honesty for an attack, or harshness with no purpose other than to offend. This means I've also had a handful of people challenge my criticisms.

I've already talked about what I think the proper etiquette for responding to criticism you don't agree with is (hint: the answer is "don't") but not everyone shares this view. Some people just can't get by in their day without pointing out why they disagree with me. They could just smile, and nod, and ignore my advice, and everyone's a winner--I think I've helped someone think about their writing, and the writer remains confident in their abilities--but instead they have to answer that incessant, nagging feeling that tells them they have to be right about everything at the end of the day.

And sometimes it's okay. Sometimes I agree with what people say when they defend themselves. Once an author pointed out to me that I misread a single word and it literally changed how I read the rest of the story, and I admit to that mistake. But more often than not, like nine times out of ten, it just seems like these people are making excuses, trying to explain away why they don't have to improve their writing, and why they can just keep doing what they're doing. Most of the time, their logic is terrible.

So, rather than explain it to them every single time they argue against me, I wanted to compile a list of the worst excuses I've ever seen, and explain why the logic is poor. This way, if it happens again, I can point that author here and be on my merry way.

Note: I'm not saying the critic is always right, just that, if you use one of the following arguments, you're probably not thinking critically about your own writing. So, without any more hesitation, here's a guide/rant about 8 Poor Excuses for Poorer Writing:

1. "There Are All Kinds of Different Styles"

Recently I read a short story that was nothing but telling, and explained to the author why telling does not make for an interesting story. One of the author's excuses was that writing everywhere is different, and there are all kinds of different writing styles. This author then told me I would be "baffled" if I read more, and then suggested books to compare how different styles can be. And if you are reading this and know who you are, you basically lost any right to not be called out when you rudely suggested I'm not well-read enough to understand that, gee golly, books are different.

Aside from the rudeness, this author is absolutely right. There are millions of authors writing even more books each with their own voice and style and quirks and whatnot. Most of them are pretty good, too.

Why the author was silly to point this out was that none of that has anything to do with what I criticized. What I said was "this story has a lot of telling, and it made it boring to read, because telling in general isn't very immersive." What the author heard was "You can't write like this. You can only write like this." To the author, my criticism--and, let's be real, Showing VS. Telling is one of the most basic pieces of advice that, if you've never heard, you've not been taking your craft seriously enough--was trying to take over her voice, to manipulate her style, to take away what was writing to her. But, really, what I was doing was responding to her individual piece. If she had written an engaging, immersive story that had telling in it, I probably wouldn't have noticed. That's because the advice goes in this direction: "I find this story boring, it must be because there's so much telling." and not "there's so much telling in this story, therefore this story is boring."

This anecdote represents every author who uses style as a catch-all to excuse sloppy or amateurish writing. Authors mistake the fact that there's lots of different styles to mean instead that every style is good. Not only is this not true, but it's the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming until people stop criticizing you. The fact is, there are some ultimate standards to what makes good writing; it varies, and there are no hard and fast rules, but something that shows us a scene rather than just sums up a series of events is more likely going to be entertaining based on the way we as an audience engage with written material. And if you're still going to argue that anything can work, imagine if I handed you a story full of spelling errors so bad you couldn't even understand what I was saying. Am I allowed to say it's good because there are a lot of styles in the world? Because it's the same logic.

Ultimately, you are free to do anything you want in your writing, as long as you do it well. How do you know if you do it well? If someone reads it and likes it. If someone reads it and finds it boring, or can explain to you other reasons they didn't like it, then obviously what you were going for didn't work for them. You can either be a mature author and say "yes, I should try this again, but in a different way that might actually be good to read," or you can be a special snowflake and say "no, it's the reader's fault my story isn't good, I'm never changing."

Note: This isn't to say that you should always take a critic's opinion as absolute rule. Please see the guide I linked to at the beginning to read more about that.

2. "This Classic Author Did It!"

We've all been there: you've been talking about what makes an effective opening to a story, pointing out how most agents/publishers find opening with the weather boring/cliche when someone comes in with "it was a dark and stormy night."

The argument, if you've never encountered it, is that a famous author wrote a classic that every school has to read, that kept the author's name in canon for centuries, and basically redefined literature, and they did whatever you're telling the writer to not do. If X can do it, why can't they?

There are three fundamental problems with this argument.

1) If you can write like X author, what are you doing here?

2) That author is decades/centuries/possibly millenia old. Things change. Things change within a year. The contemporary publishing industry is a quickly changing beast that looks for something new all the time, and to base your concept of what "good writing" is on something that was popular 200 years ago is just a recipe for failure. It's important, I believe, to be aware of classic authors, how they wrote, and what made/makes them popular, but if you're going to emulate writers you should be emulating recent ones who represent what a modern reader is looking for.

3) The point of a cliche is that it's been done to death. Pointing out other authors who have done the same thing as you is just cementing the fact that what you're writing is cliche and should be avoided. Sure, the "dark and stormy night" opening is good, but it was one of the first to work with that (not to mention that it also sets tone and atmosphere, but that's a different guide).

Again, it comes down to this: if you can make it work in your story, then do it. But since you're hypothetically defending yourself against a reader who pointed it out as having a negative effect on your writing, it obviously isn't working and instead of defending your writing like a one-armed boxer with no depth-perception you should be examining your own writing and questioning how you can improve it.

3. "This Modern Literary Author Did It!"

This defense is the exact same as the previous one, only it makes a bit more sense for the author to compare themselves to a modern author. That's fine. The key word, here, is "Literary."

But, first off, I just have to reiterate: If you can write like "Insert Modern Literary Author" then we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Where this defense falls apart is that Literary Fiction is kind of its own monster. The focus in Literary Fiction isn't so much on compelling narrative, but on the writing itself. This would, theoretically, lend itself more to the kind of "everyone's got their own style" argument that some people defend themself with, and in a lot of ways it does, but at the same time if the point of literary fiction is to be interesting and new in your style, why are you comparing yourself to someone else? If Example Modern Literary Author already did it, why did you?

Plus, the experimentation with literary style still has to be something good, and readable. How do you know if something is good and readable? Easy: You have people read it. And if they come back to you and say "this wasn't readable" you don't get to say "but X did it!" You get to say "clearly I didn't achieve what I was trying to accomplish, and need to try again."

REDUX: Not to mention, just because it's published it's not automatically good. Published authors make mistakes all the time, or have people who don't like their books. Or maybe that writer is the exception; sure, s/he got away with a chapter of passive telling, but that's out of the thousands of unpublished authors who tried the same thing and failed. Just because one person did it doesn't mean it's good.

By now, you should have realized that "if it works, do it; if it doesn't, accept it" is the main theme of this guide.

4. "This Isn't Really Traditional/Complete"

These are really several defenses, but they follow the same logic and have the same problems. Basically, after you've given the author a detailed Line-by-Line and an hour or two of your time, they turn around and say something along the lines of "well, this isn't really the final copy" or "this isn't your traditional kind of story."

First off, refer to #1 to see why "this isn't your traditional story" is a stupid argument. Also, if you post your "non-traditional" writing in the "Short Stories" or "Novels" section of the forum, and not the "Experimental/Other" section, then you're the only one to blame. If you wanted us to critique your work like you were experimenting with something, you should have put it in the right section.

But anyway, this defense is a bit different from the previous ones because it's not about arguing your writing is actually really good and the reader is stupid, but instead about excusing the writing because it's not finished.

To which I say: Why did you upload it, then?

Why are you sharing a draft/outline/summary of your story? We don't want to see that. We want to see what you consider a finished product. We're not here to critique your ability to poop out a draft in half an hour, your skill at outlining events in a story, or your talent at summing up ideas. We're here to help you improve your writing. The only one of those that actually shows off your writing is the early draft, and even then that's like judging a violin solo by how well the violinist tunes his instrument.

Remember: YWO is a forum for sharing the best of your work and getting critical feedback so you can improve. The more effort you put into your work, the harder you work at it, the more useful and therefore valuable the feedback will be. YWO is not a journal where you get to keep your literary ideas and practice attempts. Keep that to yourself, and when you have something worth showing, show it.

I honestly think that everyone who says "oh, this is just a first draft" or "this is just an outline, that's why there's so much telling and it skips over events really quickly" is lying, that they're backpeddling just so they don't have to admit that their writing is not that great. And if that's the case, you don't have to make excuses. We're here to improve; everyone has to start somewhere.

5. "You Obviously Missed The Point"

Imagine I'm telling you a joke. I'm stuttering, and pausing a lot, and I'm a bit quiet so you miss an important set-up; at one point I accidentally jump forward to the punchline, and then spend ten minutes trying to remember how I was supposed to get there. When I finish, I look at you and you're stone-faced, and looking for the nearest exit. You definitely aren't laughing.

Now imagine I said, "you obviously didn't get the joke, stupid."

Suddenly it's your fault that the joke wasn't funny. It's unfair, right? Clearly it wasn't funny because I did a terrible job telling the joke.

It's the same thing when an author tells a critic that they missed the point of their story.

Now, obviously, sometimes it is the reader who just misses the point. Sometimes they just don't get the joke no matter how well it was delivered. But "you obviously missed the point" is probably one of the rudest responses to a critique I've ever seen, even if the author is right.

The problem is that, again, it becomes the reader's fault that the story is bad when that just doesn't make sense. If I didn't get the point, that's probably your failing. Look at your story. Imagine it like a joke. Do you set up the punchline effectively? Is the punchline clear? Is the joke punchy enough that it doesn't take forever to get to the punchline? Is the timing perfect? If the answer to all of those questions is an honest yes, then I probably just missed what you were going for. You have to at least consider the possibility you did something wrong before you start blaming the reader.

The point is, it's not my job to search for the "point" of your story; it's your job, as the writer, to direct the reader to your "point."

6. "I'm Only Writing For Myself Anyway"

That stopped being true the second you posted your work on a public forum.

7. "I Did That On Purpose."

One time, in real life, I told an older man in a writing class I was in that I thought his story had a lot of extraneous detail that distracted from the advancement of the narrative. It took him a page and a half to describe the main character coming home because he described everything from the trolley the character took, the contents of his backpack, and the history of his neighbours. After I told him this, he smiled, laughed a little, and said, "Well, see, I did that on purpose."

Let's get this straight right now: Just because you do it on purpose doesn't meant it's good.

This excuse gets to the core of the issue behind many of these defenses. The author believes that because they've put an ounce of thought into their writing it's okay, as if all writing is some accidental smear of words on paper (I don't know about you guys, but everything I do in my writing is on purpose). But, again, it only works if it works, and you only know it works when other people read it and respond. That older man should have realized, after I made my comment and half the class agreed to feeling the same way, that maybe he should reconsider what he did on purpose. If everyone else in the class had said they actually like the extraneous detail, then, sure, it probably worked the way he intended, but then that's getting pretty close to another excuse...

8. "But So-And-So Liked It!"

This, I think, is the hardest one to convince anyone of. I mean, if you have ten readers, and nine like something and one person dislikes it, surely you should side with those nine people, right?

Right?

But here's the thing: Who, exactly, is telling you they liked it?

One time I received a lengthy response from a writer who said that they had people on Wattpad who had also read their chapters and were asking for even more, and that she was basically going to disregard my opinions (I really don't understand why people tell critics this, and why they don't just keep it to themselves). "Sure," I thought, "If she's getting that good of a response then I can see why she'd side with them."

Then I looked up her story on Wattpad and read the comments she'd receieved (if this guide isn't evidence enough that I hold a grudge, then this proves it). Basically, she was getting a bunch of one-line responses along the lines of "So good! Can't wait to read more!" One or two made an attempt at criticism, but all their criticisms were about lines from the start of the story. If this writer had bothered to look into who was giving her this feedback, she'd have seen that most of them posted several critiques in a five or ten minute span, so they couldn't possibly be reading the stories with as critical an eye, or even at all. What was happening was that people were looking to get her to read their stories as well, so that their view counts could go up.

This is called bias. These people wanted something from her--maybe positive feedback on their own writing, maybe just a +1 on their story's views--so they wrote nice things to entice her. You catch more flies with honey than spice, or however that proverb goes, after all.

Other people reading your stories might be biased too. You shouldn't put any stock into the opinions of your friends or family unless you're absolutely sure of their objectivity. They want to help you, but they also don't want to hurt your feelings, to make things awkward between the two of you, so they sugarcoat it and tell you that you're a great writer.

Or maybe they're here on YWO, and they give you a line or two that shows they've read it, but all they have to say about it is "great job! Loved it!" You could listen to those people, sure, and maybe they really did love it, but how much are you improving if you just accept that your stories right now are perfect? And if someone can come in and point out areas where your writing is weak, and explain to you why your writing is weak, do you not think that deserves some, if not more, attention? Or would you rather just surround yourself with Yes Men?

Don't listen to these people. Listen to the person who spent an hour commenting on every line or paragraph of your story. Listen to the person who explained to you what the problem was with what they didn't like. Listen to the person who has nothing to lose or gain from giving you a critique.

Now, of course, I have no way of knowing what kind of comments you're receiving outside of YWO. You could be getting great advice, in which case by all means ignore what I have to say. The question is: how do you determine good advice?

It's really up to you. You're the writer, you get to decide what's good for your story and what's not important. Of course, that means there's a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. Are you going to be the kind of writer who uses any of these excuses to defend their writing? Or are you going to be the writer who parses each criticism given to them and decides whether it applies or not? The trick is to not have a knee jerk reaction against negative criticism. Don't assume, just because someone doesn't like your story, that they're attacking you. Their comments are probably going to be the most helpful because, while positive feedback is a good indicator of what you're doing well, negative criticism is the only way you'll improve in areas you're weak (And I promise you, you have weaknesses in your writing. Everyone does).

And, ultimately, I don't even understand the point of this defense. Why should I care if other people liked it? I didn't like it. Just because they liked it doesn't mean I have to. It's not going to change my mind, so why did you bother telling me?


Conclusion: Why Defending Your Writing Is An Exercise in Futility

"If it works, do it" is pretty much the only rule in writing that is a steadfast rule. It translates better to "if you can get away with it, try it." But the point of this guide is to get across that if someone notices you doing it, you aren't getting away with it. That doesn't mean you have to cut something completely, it just means you have to go back to the drawing board and see how you can try and do it better.

The problem comes when writers don't want to admit that maybe their writing isn't as good as they think it is, and decide to defend their writing. You can explain to me all you want why your story is all telling, or why you didn't follow the basic conventions of grammar, or whatever. I'm not going to listen. I read your story, and I didn't like your story, and if I was just reading it in my spare time that would be the end of story; instead, I'm spending even more time giving you constructive criticism and my reward is to be ignored on the point of being insulted.

But at the end of the day: It's not my job to like your story, it's your job to make me like your story. You make me like your story with good writing, not by trying to validate it after I've decided I already don't like it.

If you ever do become a published author, you're not going to be able to explain to every single reader that you did something on purpose, or that you're a special snowflake. When you get bad reviews that prevent you from ever making a sale to a publisher again, you won't be able to tell them how much your mother liked your book or how you're emulating Tolkien. You'll be able to post blogs and comments on online reviews, maybe, but that just makes you look worse (just google "Authors Behaving Badly" to understand)

That's assuming you can ever get published. Because if your attitude is "my style is unique" you probably won't get far. Literary agents and editors won't even have time to laugh at you, because they'll take one look at your writing, toss it into the form rejection pile with the hundreds of other authors who think they're unique, and move on. If you're not willing to think critically about your own writing and how to improve it, then you're never going to improve.

So please, if you receive harsh criticism, at the very least don't respond to it. If you don't agree with it, you don't have to take it, but you're just being rude if you turn this into an open battle against someone's opinions, an open battle that, at the end of the day, you will lose because a reader didn't like what they read and no amount of argument is going to change that.

But what you should really do is stop making excuses and accept that maybe you actually have room to improve.

(Disclaimer: I acknowledge that this is on a case by case basis. Sometimes people just don't know what they're talking about in a critique and, like I said, it's your job to figure out who to listen to. That still doesn't give you the right to openly disregard that person, because they probably meant well. If you are harassed, or receive such criticisms as "this is stupid, you're a terrible writer" i.e things that are harsh without being constructive, pay no attention to these comments and report them to a moderator. You're still allowed to feel safe on this forum.)


P.S I'm thinking of writing a guide on either Setting or Dialogue. Which would you guys rather see?
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Old 12-10-2013, 05:08 PM View Post #2 (Link)
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Thank God, we needed this. I hate hearing that it's the reader's job to interpret-- or that any interpretation works, so it's not the author's burden to be clear. (Mostly in poetry.)

I'd be more interested in dialogue.
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Old 12-10-2013, 06:20 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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I'm just going to call everyone in my seminar who tries to explain their story to me and why it's actually brilliant, poor and futile.

And also Dialogue please.
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Old 12-10-2013, 07:54 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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We should note that there is a difference between defending your piece and trying to clarify it. If someone doesn't understand something about your writing, you are allowed to tell them what you were going for. You're likely to get some more useful advice that way instead of just, "I don't know why you did this/what you were going for." Knowledge is power. The more the critter knows about your piece the better their advice will be. This is why I like to put down some things I worry over and things I want people to focus on as a kind of prefix to the story. However, you should not be using a prefix to explain concepts/ideas/scenes/etc. that you didn't feel like fleshing out in the body of your story. That's lazy!

I'd prefer to see dialog, though I think both could be useful. Also, if you don't mind, I'd like to have some input with the dialog section since dialog is often my favorite part of writing and is pretty high up there with reading. And apparently I'm not too shabby at it.
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Old 12-10-2013, 09:59 PM View Post #5 (Link)
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Ah, some criticism of criticism of criticism. And the replies are hence criticism of criticism of criticism of criticism!

When someone says something about my work and I disagree with it, I know that either they must be right or they're trying to write the thing for me (at which point I ignore what's being said).

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” - Neil Gaiman
  
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Old 12-11-2013, 09:19 AM View Post #6 (Link)
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This is really very useful. It's made me change my outlook on critiques now.

And, yes, I'd be interested in hearing about dialogue, though even setting would be useful.
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Old 12-24-2013, 04:59 PM View Post #7 (Link)
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YES! Yehehes! I am referring all of those You-know-what-you're-just-being-mean-and-my-mommy-liked-it newbies HERE!

Very good points. Of course, i do acknowledge that brutality avails nothing if it's not helpful.

I would say Setting just to be different but that wouldnt change anything, so dialogue. And Setting. i hope you plan on doing both.
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Old 01-01-2014, 12:12 PM View Post #8 (Link)
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Hmm. I agree with the excuses. I find it so annoying when that happens, but I noticed that you think that if the writer disagrees with the critique, they should just say nothing. That's ridiculous. I'm new to this site so I don't know if writers here cry often and respond badly to critiques, ill respond based on my experience at university, at a literary agency and in other online writing communities. I literally made this account just to reply to this thread and explain why you're wrong.

I like having a discussion about the pieces with the writer. I don't mind if they say they disagree with me as long as they're not disrespectful about it. Sometimes through discussion we resolve the problem. For example I might say something doesn't work and suggest something but they disagree with my suggestion but are prompted to do something else. I actually prefer interaction rather than "yes you're right thanks." The most promising writers want to engage in discussion of the craft (in my experience)

I think if someone isn't being like "no it's perfect, you're wrong" and are actually saying something along the lines of "I get that it doesn't work but I don't like your suggestion/disagree with your reason why because...", that's absolutely reasonable. It sounds like you're just upset because you don't like to be disagreed with.
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Old 01-01-2014, 02:42 PM View Post #9 (Link)
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Originally Posted by YorkshireTea View Post
Hmm. I agree with the excuses. I find it so annoying when that happens, but I noticed that you think that if the writer disagrees with the critique, they should just say nothing. That's ridiculous. I'm new to this site so I don't know if writers here cry often and respond badly to critiques, ill respond based on my experience at university, at a literary agency and in other online writing communities. I literally made this account just to reply to this thread and explain why you're wrong.

I like having a discussion about the pieces with the writer. I don't mind if they say they disagree with me as long as they're not disrespectful about it. Sometimes through discussion we resolve the problem. For example I might say something doesn't work and suggest something but they disagree with my suggestion but are prompted to do something else. I actually prefer interaction rather than "yes you're right thanks." The most promising writers want to engage in discussion of the craft (in my experience)

I think if someone isn't being like "no it's perfect, you're wrong" and are actually saying something along the lines of "I get that it doesn't work but I don't like your suggestion/disagree with your reason why because...", that's absolutely reasonable. It sounds like you're just upset because you don't like to be disagreed with.
First off, YorkshireTea, welcome to the forum!

I think you're right, that working with someone who has given you a negative criticism is the best way to improve your writing, and perhaps I am just tired of having people use one of these eight excuses on me (well, yes, that's exactly why I made this thread, obviously). I love getting messages from people I have given a negative criticism wanting to know how I think they could improve points I was especially critical of. However, what I think you are suggesting isn't quite what this thread is criticizing.

You bring up an example of someone who disagrees with a specific suggestion you make but is prompted to do something else about it. That's great that you can have that interaction. That person may have disagreed with you about how you suggested they should write their story, but it doesn't sound like they disagreed with you about your whole critique, otherwise they wouldn't have recognized that something didn't work.

"I get that it doesn't work but I don't like your suggestion/disagree with your reason why because..."
That's the writer agreeing with the critique right there. They may not agree with your specific suggestion, but they have agreed far enough to recognize that there's maybe an issue they should address. They have agreed with you enough that they're looking for more of your advice.

Imagine if that person hadn't said "I get that it doesn't work." What if they had just said "You're wrong" (thereby becoming the subject of this guide). Maybe they offer an explanation, but, like I said in the guide, an author won't be there to defend his work all the time, and I don't know about you but it takes a good explanation to make me decide I liked a piece I didn't like at first. That person, in my opinion, has responded when they didn't need to respond and the only thing they've achieved is to reveal how immature at dealing with criticism they are.

So I get what you're saying, and I agree with you, but I think we're talking about two different monsters here. You think it's okay to disagree with suggestions to fix a criticism, and I'm saying it's not okay to openly disagree with someone's general criticism, because nothing good can come from it.
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Old 01-03-2014, 01:04 AM View Post #10 (Link)
Pony123 (Offline)
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Originally Posted by Demon Hunter View Post
YES! Yehehes! I am referring all of those You-know-what-you're-just-being-mean-and-my-mommy-liked-it newbies HERE!

Very good points. Of course, i do acknowledge that brutality avails nothing if it's not helpful.

I would say Setting just to be different but that wouldnt change anything, so dialogue. And Setting. i hope you plan on doing both.
Soo true! I felt that way when I started here, but I learned the difference between, "OMG SOOOOOOOO GOOOD Keep writing. U R the Best!" and helpful criticism. I almost cried the first time someone critiqued my work.
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