A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 4: Revisions
One of the most surprising things, for me, about becoming a working writer, has been the discovery of how social a profession it is.
Back in adolescence, dreaming about someday Publishing Great Things, I imagined a solitary struggle. The writer forges Art in the fire of her own consciousness, then releases it fully formed upon the world.
Now it is true that writing, most days, is a lonely occupation. We face the page alone. But the reverse, it turns out, is also true. Writing is intensely social, a sea of conversations -- in print, on the screen, in person -- writers reacting to writers, works quarreling with each other, writers seeking each other's advice, solace, company, and critique. Writers write each other fan mail, see each other at workshops and conventions and critique groups, debate endlessly online, and trade critiques of works in progress.
This part of the writing process is generally invisible to readers. So for these blog posts -- this autobiography-of-a-story, this "The Making of The Guy Who Worked For Money" -- I thought it might be interesting to offer a window into this raucous, rambunctious, fervid backstage world.
It is also -- relevantly -- a gift economy. Generally speaking, critiques are gifts(1). As gifts, they bind givers and receivers together: exchanging critiques is one of the ways that friendships between writers are formed. A good critiquing relationship is precious.
Critiquing binds you to the work as well as the person. I am almost as delighted (and less conflictedly delighted) when a work that I critiqued -- like "Pride and Prometheus", or "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", or "Little Brother" -- gets on an award ballot, as when one of my own does. If my stories are my children, then stories I've critiqued are my godchildren.
So I asked five of the writers who critiqued this story -- Haddayr Copley-Woods, David Moles, Jackie Monkiewicz, Shoshana Rosenbaum (who is also my sister), and Meghan McCarron -- if I could post here their emailed critiques (as well as my sometimes argumentative responses). Note that all of these are hasty unedited emails in response to my pleas for before-deadline help; I didn't have the idea of posting them until afterwards.
(This isn't even everyone who critiqued the story! Among others, Mary Robinette Kowal took time in the middle of Readercon to read the penultimate draft and spend a last-minute lunchtime insisting on an ending with emotional impact.)
Here is the original ready-for-critique draft (actually the fourth or fifth draft of the story, since I generally look for critiques only when I've taken the story as far as I can alone).
Here are the critiques...
What a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful story. I found a few typos. If you can edit later I might shorten the bit about her parents slightly.... I also didn't get his eyes "hooding slightly" and it felt weird and racial. When he was talking about money. But that is all. I read too slowly; was making too many "zomg great" comments. Dumb of me.Ben:
thx. have a better word for "unfirewalled"?Haddayr:
I'm so sorry; I don't. I think unfirewalled is good. but I do understand why that feels awkward.Ben:
k. is all the hUBBUB, Clamor stuff clear? confusing?Haddayr:
totally, totally clear. I didn't even feel confused for one tiny minute, which is sort of amazing.David:
Short version: The world and atmosphere are well-sketched and plausible, but I find Nera's character insufficiently well-developed and from a gender standpoint borderline squicky.
Also there are too many infodumps and the ending is a bit abrupt, but this is what happens when one's in a hurry. :)Ben:
How/why borderline squicky?David:
For much of the story Nera doesn't seem to have any purpose but to receive lectures from men while thinking about getting laid. The only concrete thing she has going on in her life -- this music space project -- doesn't come up except when she needs to make some party talk; her involvement in it is apparently totally passive, and it also has a man at the center of it (the music historian). Her only relationship with a woman (Malka) appears dysfunctional and jealously competitive, and Malka ends up betraying her so that Malka can continue to hang out with the cute guys. At the end, Nera can't have a man, or friends, but at least she can pretend for a little while to have the consolation of a baby.
Now in a certain sense I find all that totally plausible, and if Nera was a secondary character in a novel set in this world, with more room for psychological development, illustrating that freeing us from capitalism isn't going to magically free us from all the other internalized / externally imposed bullshit (especially in a socially conservative country like Germany), I might be fine with it. But at this length I find it a little squicky.
I should say that you probably don't need to rewrite the whole thing to fix it -- some sort of significant adjustment early on to prevent this impression settling in (and coloring the rest of the story), plus some minor ones further down, should do it.
Unless you meant all that and your point was to show how social media turns us all into fifteen-year-olds, in which case I think you're either being too subtle or too heavy-handed, I'm not sure which. :)Ben:
ah, got it, thanks.
I see some minor fixes as easy here: no reason Heuspross can't be a woman, or Nera can't have occasion to think of the project earlier, or her role there be a little more proactive. With slightly more work maybe the relationship with Malka can be less of a total loss, or at least we can see some of the positive sides of it.
But those are somewhat superficial fixes. The fundamental problem is that the story doesn't work unless Nera is somewhat of a nebbish: making her a fundamentally stronger person, or in less of a socially vulnerable position, defeats the purpose. And I think that sexism being a lot of the mechanism of her social vulnerability works for precisely the reason you suggest: it's a harder nut to crack than capitalism, notoriously flexible and resurgent, and in some sense worsened by, yes, an elongated adolesence stretching into middle age -- not just as a result of social media, but demographics, reduced social strictures, individualism, etc., continuing a trend that's been going on since Victorian times (being 40 in 2010 is a good deal more like being 15 than it was in 1960 -- the "15" that was invented around 1960, that is, not the 1880 version of 15 which was more like being 40, instead of the other way around, if you see what I mean).
I say Nera is a nebbish, but she is also meant to be courageous. But the consequences of her being courageous can't be made less severe -- either externally in terms of reputation, or internally in terms of her being unable to shrug off or easily defy the strictures of reputation -- without losing the story's essence. It's a story about a reputation economy whose character is generated by the question "who suffers?" A stronger, more proactive character with better friends would not be the person who suffers in a reputation economy, and I'm also not sure that the choice to make the ways in which Nera is not a stronger, more proactive character with better friends to be gendered ways is the wrong choice.
Do you see a better solution here -- other than the superficial fixes noted above?David:
I think there are two separate questions: one, is the way in which the post-'33 society oppresses Nera gendered, and two, is the way in which Nera's character is weak and at-risk in the post-'33 society gender-stereotypical. I think you can keep the first without having to keep the second. She could have serious social anxiety, or be fundamentally undependable (bipolar, ADD, etc.), or be stubbornly interested in things that don't interest other people, or have any of the other flaws you might give a male character in the same situation, without necessarily being clingy and catty and prone to batting her eyelashes ineffectively at any good-looking guy who gives her a dull lecture. Likewise her friends could like her and support her and be exasperated with her and still not be willing to give her reputation points, because they know she can't be counted on. I'm just sayin'.Ben:
OK. I think the story would certainly work if the ways Nera was socially vulnerable were non-gendered ways -- if she was a flake or an unreliable geek as opposed to being emotionally needy and destabilized in the specific ways that women are specifically rendered socially vulnerable by sexism -- e.g., trying to attain self-worth by seeking to be attractive to men who are more interested in the men's own lectures than in the women in question, or being unable to effectively trust other women, or generally seeking emotional sustenance from outside because they cannot trust themselves within.
But I have the sense that that would declaw the story somewhat -- let post-'33 society off the hook, like, "in the future sexism will only be overt and external, but women will have thrown off their internal shackles and thus recognize it and oppose it resolutely circumstances otherwise permitting" or something.
I'm not saying your reaction is off, I'm very interested in the squick. But the answer cannot be to write only strong women -- never needy women who define their self-worth through men. The depiction of the existence of such women is not inevitably an attack on women; done right, it can be a depiction of the world's ongoing attack on women. So the question becomes, how have I done it wrong? You see what I mean? Simply turning aside from the task by making Nera weak in general ways, rather than results-of-sexism-ways, seems like a cop-out.
Here's one relevant question: do you think the problem here is one of worldbuilding (one has to justify the continuance of such effects of sexism in a 2060 story the way you once argued one had to justify or explain the absence of the singularity...) or of character (the problem would be the same if this were a contemporary story about a woman courting asshole guys, getting ditched by her friend, and ending up lonely and self-blaming)?
Grateful for your time as always. Pending further thoughts I am doing my writing-the-other homework and soliciting feedback from women smart and articulate about sexism -- grilled Haddayr on the issue and sent it out with pleas to Meghan and Jackie for a crit -- now don't bias my sample by talking with them about it until they do their first read :-)Haddayr:
I missed it completely, or I just thought her aimlessness was supposed to be a product of this reality. I found her interesting, funny, vital, and lovable.
I love that David had this critique, because he's such a good ally. But I also find myself somewhat annoyed by it. Part of her problem is that she has no focus, has never really stood up for herself. That's part of the arc of the story.
It's okay for women to be weak, sometimes -- especially with an ending like that. We are just people.David:
I see it as a character problem rather than a worldbuilding problem. I have no doubt that Neras of this type would exist in the post-'33 world, but if the story has to stand on its own -- i.e., if you don't get to incorporate feminist ally cred from your other work and public identity by reference -- then the decision to write such a short story so tightly focused on such a Nera looks sketchy. It's not obvious that it's a deliberate choice. There's nothing in the story to tell us that Nera is contingent rather than necessary. It would be quite easy for a more unreconstructed writer to write such a character by happenstance, because it seems natural to that writer that the Everywoman (of whatever era) would be a boy-crazy neurotic. (Malka could easily be one, too, just more successful at it at this particular moment.)
Jackie mentioned that you'd asked her for a critique, and I told her it might have something to do with me complaining about the story, but that if she shouldn't worry if she couldn't figure out whatmy complaint was. :)Jackie:
Well, my main issue with it is that it basically boils down to a 22-page infodump. It's a little bit of a nice epiphany story at the end, so I'm reluctant to complain that there's no plot, or that nothing happens. But for the first 9 pages it's really a thinly-disguised infodump--when Joerg starts lecturing, even though Nera's reacting to his every sentence? There's no tension yet for me as a reader about how Nera feels about Joerg, I don't care, and it's clearly covering a big boring lecture.
(In fact, every time Nera says Joerg is about to say something boring? Consider the possibility that that is your writerly subconscious speaking to you, trying to tell you that you're about to write something boring.)
I care more once Sergei starts talking about money. Still infodumpy to be sure, but this is admittedly an infodumpy idea story, and it is more legitimately interesting and involving to me at that point. Even more so when Nera talks about her background--though the transition of her back to the party is weird a touch awkward and sudden.
The Fugazi comment seems, I don't know. Dated, dating, awkward.
I hate "crunchy Hell". Yes, I do.
pg. 14: "She used to look at her like that-- the little bubblehead girlfriend the tide had washed up against his crotch" I think that should be "He" at the start.
And that's a cute little sentence, but it does underscore a mild gender stereotyping issue: Nera the bubblehead babysitter; Sergei the banker; Joerg the patronizing social mastermind. I don't know, I'd be seriously tempted to consider flipping everybody's gender.
And that's all I got! I'm not sure if you can use any of it, sorry.Shoshana:
I read it. I like it. Nera's character and situation works for me but I think it might work even better if the backstory of Nera's parents was integrated somehow throughout instead of being a separate story within a story -- the transitions in and out seem a little abrupt.
Also, I didn't totally understand Nera's project -- what does RFC stand for?
Thanks for sending it to me -- I think the whole idea is very interesting!Jackie:
Having discussed this with both Haddayr and David, yes, I can see what you're trying to do with the gender thing. But it's totally unclear without knowing in advance that that's what you're trying to do, except to Haddayr? Remember that David and Haddayr and I are basically gender issue canaries--I doubt most readers would even pick up on the fact that Nera's being stereotyped. Nevermind realizing how it's happening to her, or understanding the argument you are trying to make... Because at the end, it feels like our sympathy should be with her, not Sergei, and therefore, are you as the writer trying to support Nera's position over Sergei's? ... epiphany stories are by their nature subtle, and most readers will be paying much more attention to all the world-building.
I still think the first 14 pages are a giant infodump. Most readers will actually enjoy it, and I think it's a fine and fascinating world your building... but as far as supporting the Nera's crisis at the end, well. I'd prefer you spent more time exploiting my interest in the world, and less time sating a curiosity I've yet to pique. I'd prefer to see Nera arguing with Sergei, and Nera's background, and then see the world of the party through that lens.
I think I do believe in this story, even as it stands--I think people will find the world and the market arguments fascinating, even if they don't understand what Nera is or has done. But I also believe it could be the story Haddayr thinks she reading. I realize it's probably in no way practical for any suggestions I make to be considered, let alone implemented by tomorrow! So I apologize for not seeing what you were trying to do sooner, or providing feedback that could be of use on the relevant timescale.Ben:
No, you did wonderfully. It's my own fault for doing this on such a squeezed deadline. I appreciate your very precise critique (in particular your giving me, e.g., specific page numbers where interest waned or flagged). The goal would precisely be to tighten things up, saturate the whole story with the stuff I figured out at the end, change the order of things as you describe, and to make manifest what's under the surface in such a way that Haddayr's very generous reading becomes the reading available (even if not consciously articulated) to the majority of readers ... without hitting them over the head.
I do fear I don't have time to do all this. So my plan is to do two passes, a superficial tightening and reordering, and then a more ambitious attempt to get at the harder, and esp. gender, stuff. Of course I so don't have time to do two passes between now and (or during) readercon. But I'm sure it can be at least slightly improved by your comments...
The story is Nera's, but I hope some readers -- a minority -- might take Sergei's side.David:
Jackie cc'd me her critique... I find it amusing that the problems I saw as superficial she saw as fundamental and vice versa
I don't suppose you went with her suggestion of gender-flipping all the characters?Ben:
Not on this timeframe, though it's an interesting suggestion and maybe worth a try.
But I would probably then want to have the character oppressed in some stereotypically male way anyway then.David:
Stereotypically stereotypical-male way. Stereotypical oppression of stereotypical malesBen:
Yeah, and actually that story is "Falling". No, I think the issue is what you said: to expose the contingency.
Haddayr got it the way I meant it. Very often I think the way to deal with critiques is to make what the readers who liked it saw visible to the rest of the readers. I don't think I should do something different; I think I should make it clear I'm doing what I'm doing on purposeMeghan:
Social network tyranny is really interesting. Love the phrase "porky Jesus." I liked the descriptions of the switch, from money to people, in the description of the revolution -- it was a really damning assessment of money, and a really beautiful evocation of the good things about the internet.
My problem with the story is mostly structural. The party scene goes on way long, and the backfill of backstory comes in big, unfortunate chunks. At the very least, I would consider interspersing them throughout, and having the party frame them. Would love to see more of her and Malka in the past, for instance, as well as Jorg. Also, I'm not entirely sure why a child is her redemption at the end. We're talking about human connection, sure, and how the amount of connectedness in this world amounts to disconnection. But retreating to a mother role, which is a total disconnection, seems problematic, and also not what the story was pointing towards. Nera should do something to really kill her ratings, something terrible, not just hiccup them. Also, what she says to Sergei doesn't get to the heart of her problem -- she shores up the current order by saying it, so it seems unclear what it's such a faux pas. Much more interesting to say that they're all slaves, but at least Sergei is honest, or something like that. And that's the thing about retreating to the child. She's either becoming 15 again -- a babysitter, after all -- or she's believing in the future? And neither of those seem resonant to a story that starts on money.
A brief note about the commenting -- we never see them comment on anyone else. Or on each other. It seems like there would be more of an exchange. And I'm not sure what her eyes being broken adds to the story, other than a way of not having to transcribe much of the comments or footnotes.
This is a story potentially about the tyranny of the internet, but right now it comes across as a story about being unpopular on the internet. It's a shallower subject, and I think it feels that way in part because we focus on this party scene, which is an ultimately not-so-important moment in Nera's life. There's a fulcrum there, but you just have to push on it for the reader.
Sorry I took so long! I wonder about the tyranny of the internet a lot, especially in the light of things like the cultural revolution, which was all about snitching on your family, friends, and closest bonds. It's cool to read something about it.Ben:
Meghan, thank you for your excellent critique. God, I only hope I have time to actually do something with this story, which the publisher wants to post Monday. I wrote it on way too tight a schedule, and fear it will be seriously flawed. Ergh.
I agree with you about structure, pacing, and that the story should be about the tyranny of the internet -- in part, because it's also hopeful about getting past money, even if only to something that sucks differently. I think the reason that I wanted to make her do something minor, rather than a total break, is that that makes it more that you have to be constantly on your guard, the grueling work of husbanding your reputation -- and not about an unsual, radical act of dissent. And I kind of like the irony of her losing reputation *not* by boldly defying the new order, but by being uncool and defending it too hotly.
I was thinking consciously about "WE HEART VAMPIRES!!!!!!" at times -- like the irony of Bob's being officially bisexual, using it like a fashion accessory to further cement the straight privilege with which she ultimately humiliates George. Here in 2010, a generation past Stonewall, the sexual politics of high school haven't changed that much despite a revolution in the rhetoric. One can imagine Bob and George's essential situation in 1960 (I was thinking a lot about 1960 since my story's set in 2060, and we are at the midpoint, right?) playing out in the same way -- the difference is just that in 2010 we have the irony of Bob's superficial allegiance to fashion-bisexuality, which doesn't make George any less of a freak in their social system (even if Stonewall *does* allow her that little bit of room in which she imagines, in the coda, an escape into adulthood and a life alone in which she would be right). So I wanted it like that -- Jorg and Sergei get all the privilege of the reputation economy, including the privilege of scorning Nera's too-passionate defense of the reputation economy.
The thing I wish I could make it clearer about Torsten (which you are not alone in not getting; I think only Haddayr read it this way) is that in a sense, despite Torsten being six, it is kind of a real contact of equals. Torsten, being truly of this post-money, reputation world, actually sees Nera clearly and has a bravery unavailable to his seniors, something like that? Or can afford to have it? It is a retreat, she is hanging on to a scrap of social world at this point, but Torsten isn't meant to read as a blank sign of humiliation, "reduced to caring for a mere child". He is that, externally -- Jorg and the commenters might see it that way -- but internally it is meant to be also a sign of ironic hope -- that Torsten, the real inheritor of this future (despite being disempowered currently, as a child), is another human creature who sees Nera for who she is...?
So, any ideas how to quickly pull that off in between panels at Readercon by Sunday, I'll be grateful. Ha ha. Thanks though for your crit, seriously, you are right on.
And here, of course, is the final version.
[Crossposted to shareable.net]