An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Monday, March 24, 2008

Critics and democracy

I've been using a new website recently - one sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain - that is supposed to be resource for unsigned and budding writers. I was drawn to it by the chance to have a professional review of my work but that would only be possible if my work was highly rated by other users of the site. The idea is that you do a bunch of reviews of other people's work in order to be able to upload your own work and have it reviewed by some of those other users. If those users rank your work as one of the best of the month you get a professional review! Simple huh?

OK - the first impressions were not great - it's a plug ugly site to start with. Second up how do I find out what I can upload? Well that is far from clear and after a lot of trial and error it turns out you can upload short stories and opening chapters of novels. So what about novellas? Nope. Experimental forms? Seems not. Poetry? Nope. Right - not perfect but  I decide to try it anyway but then can't discover what formats you can upload - and until I've done 5 reviews I am not allowed to upload anything so I can't find out that way. I join the site and request my first piece to review. Surprise, surprise, the first thing I get is not matched to my reading profile - children's fiction - what do I know about children's fiction? Not a lot since it is a form of which I do not approve.

I plough through these chapters - an arduous process and get to the review process - wow. I get a set of categories to rank on a 1 to 5 scale - multiple choice - wow. Use of Language? Plot? Pace? and so it goes on. Once I've done that I get to write a review - not less than 100 words and try to keep it "balanced" - interesting idea. OK - so I do all that and then I get a real surprise - a reading test - 5 questions that the author sets to ensure that I've actually read the piece! Do they think I'd review something I hadn't read? Clearly they do.

The second reading assignment comes and this one is romantic fiction - WTF? Am I Barbra bloody Cartland? It's atrocious - balanced?  And so it goes on through 5 pieces - I bear it all and play my part, wondering all the while who he hell is going to review my stuff. Worse still I get to wondering what the hell I'm going to upload. I finally plump for a very straightforward short story about a donkey (you may have read it) that has a somewhat novel first person plural narrator - it's about as traditional as my stuff gets and until I know what formats the upload accepts I'll play it safe.

And so, eventually, I rack up the necessary 5 reading credits, being as positive and constructive as I can be. I even do a couple of voluntary reviews of highly ranked pieces to see what else is on offer - to be honest I could hardly credit the quality of the stuff I was being assigned. Much better but hardly bleeding edge.

Now I'm ready to upload my simple little short story. I've even worked out 5 really silly question for the reading quiz that mandatory reviewers have to complete. I go into the upload process and suddenly I find that I have to cut and paste the text of my story into a form on the site! Hyperlink lookasides?  Nope. Parallel textual threads? Nope. Good job I chose something really simple. None of the rest could I ever do justice to using this method. Up it goes and I sit back and wait for the reviews to come in.

Here's what I've had so far - I've done a couple of more mandatory reviews to qualify for a few extra reviews of my own work:

 Review By: Sapper

I love stories like this, Papalazarou, so easy to review. The descriptions of the old men, cafe and dusty Crete were superb - so hot I fancied a glass of Gazoza myself (I take it that Gazoza is alcholic - I wound'nt want to find I was ordering lemonade!) The writing was a joy to read and like only one other I've read on YWO in that it was more like painting a picture. For the technical criticism how could I not give straight fives. A couple of points which in no way detract from the tale '3 men' would be better written as 'three' after all it's not an inventory of the cafe's clients! Also "...away from the bones or thick,..." did'nt scan too well.
Very good tale.

Review By: adrian-dunsterville

Some very decent evocative prose, tinged with purple at the edges no doubt, but pleasantly poetic to read on the whole.

Telling this tale though, the author has taken a few liberties of POV and omniscience. For example, the POV change that allows us to witness in detail the donkey dismemberment. And the omniscience that allows us or the narrator to know everything beyond "This man is of the land" about our donkey devotee. This wouldn't be a problem perhaps but for it then undermines the sense of having the narrator narrate this. Clearly it's the author's choice but one could argue that in pure story terms, it's not the most direct or honest way of telling it.

I do appreciate the hazy heated atmosphere and a certain dusty timeliness, don't get me wrong.

A few more paragraph breaks and shorter sentences would I think make it easier for the reader.

I didn't at all times buy into the cafe proprietors superb grasp of English. But what do I know?

Review By: marlathome

This is a very unusual story well written. The characterisation and settings are evocative and authentic - I am very familiar with Greece: not the tourist Greece but the Greece beloved of Greeks and can attest to the accuracy of this portrayal. Familiarity, however, is unnecessary since you bring the landscape and its people to life with such astonishing attention to detail. In many ways, you paint a picture with your words. Well done for that.
The story itself is secondary to its characters - there is no real plot as such, in my opinion, but simply the gentle and sometimes dramatic passage of life. This may not be to everyone's taste on this site, I'm afraid, but I found your work to be thougthful, poignant and uplifting.
There are a number of punctuation problems that you might want to take a look at - no capitals after full stops etc. A niggling point but one which breaks of the flow of the narrative and also something that will be pointed out time and again in your reviews if you don't fix it (very tedious!).
I liked this story and look forward with interest to reading more of your work.

Review By: sls

Hello - I enjoyed the story. It's well written and the characters are engaging. The description sets the scene nicely.

I found the narrative memorable - I have been thinking about it since I read it. It has been thought provoking, which is a sign of good writing.

Being an animal lover I did find it hard to come to terms with the fact Pavlo dismembered his donkey - but there you go I'm squeamish about such things.

I did notice a few typos - Georgos appears once without an s on the end.

There were one or two uncapitalised h's at the beginning of sentences. And I noticed two disappears in one sentence.

I also thought one or two of the sentences were quite long. One appears in para 4 - A cheap blue bic ... I wondered if there should be a full stop after ashtray.

In parts of the narrative with dots I noticed five when there's usually no more than three.

I got a bit lost in the paragraph that describes the old lady's dress. I got the headscarf confused with the frock and wondered if She dressed in black. Her wispy white hair covered by a headscarf clearly of a newer vintage etc - might be clearer - just a thought.

I also noticed where the para begins "Exactly ... came back here ass fat as. (I think it's meant to read as fast as) He said that he owed Dimitri that - I felt the word that might work better after Dimitri, rather than in front of it.

I hope my observations don't sound too negative - they're not meant to be -

Review By: Paula


I enjoyed the sensitive way these characters were observed, and I particularly liked the way they were described in their setting. I felt as if I too had sat in that cafe and watched the old men and felt the heat of the sun. There are issues with pace here, I think. Personally I liked the slow burn, attention to detail, and the care taken over building atmosphere and authenticity. I felt the langorous pace of the story matched the pace of life in the village.
The contrast between the simple, nothing-ever-happens-here feel of the first half of the story and the tragedy and drama of the second half worked very well. I would have liked a little more at the end pointing out that life then would continue as it always had (except for the donkey, of course), and as if nothing so sad and violent had taken place. This would have given a nice balance to the piece, I think. I also felt that some of the language use could be tightened a little - you might want to double check for repetitions and weak descriptions here and there. On the whole the writing is clear and vivid, so it's a pity to let phrases and sentences slip through that might detract from this.
An interesting piece, a refreshing change from so much that is all hooks and grabbing and shocking at the start just to gain attention. Let's hear it for the slow but powerful build up!

Review By: dleighton

Needs work

I thought the writing was a curious mixture. There are some really descriptive passages, which evoke a Greek Island feel but on the other hand, the spelling, grammar and punctuation especially (almost a complete lack of commas in a lot of long sentences), totally distracted me from the story.

The premise of an old man, distraught at the death of his companion donkey and determined to protect its carcass from the vultures circling overhead is a worthy one for a short story. However, I was very unsure about the way in which the story is untold and found myself irritated by the narrative voice, referring to 'we' all the way through. I was more intrigued to find out who 'we' might be than I was interested in events at the top of the mountain.

I think this is a good idea but needs to be executed better.

Review By: ShorhamShambles

A long way to the mountain

Papalazarou can obviously write and there are some wonderful sentences dotted around this short story, but they just didn’t quite add up for me.

Almost all the descriptions are too wordy, and almost everything it seems must be described.

I didn’t get a feel for the characters – nothing made me believe they were real, or want to care for them in any way.

I like meandering stories but this one made me beg for something to happen. After the first page, to be honest, I didn’t really want to read on. The description must be absolutely first-rate for this kind of thing to work.

Thankfully the ending was interesting and well-written. Unfortunately I had the distinct feeling that everything was merely a pre-amble to the final two paragraphs, as though the real story was summarised here in 300 words and everything before was just padding. This final section was fluent and evocative but under normal circumstances I just wouldn’t have got this far.

I appreciate that this was perhaps intentional – reflecting the slow pace of life in a dusty Greek cafĂ© – but it didn’t quite work.

There are the seeds of something here. Papalazarou can write, but will need a stronger narrative around which to frame his skills.

Did I misjudge this site?

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  1. Ciao Derek,

    Sounds like a scheme for keeping unemployed writers busy. I recall a website like this for wannabe screenwriters. Of course it was mostly unbearable crap. Nowadays I only write reviews for pleasure; life is too short as it is.

    Buona fortuna,

  2. Papalazarou,

    There is a lot of truth in what Wayne says.

    Most of the sites of this type I have visited are for screenplays, but the sort of person who habituates them is similar to the site you submitted your work to. Whilst some contributors are undoubtedly well-meaning and sincere, many simply spend more of their time posting crap and playing at 'wannabees' than actually producing the goods.

    After all, anyone who has actually finished a novel or a screenplay would be wasting their time posting it on a website for other amateurs to critique in the off chance that it might be brought to the attention of an industry professional, when one can do one's own research and submit the work directly to a professional of one's own choice.

    Admittedly, one may collect a lot of rejection slips that way - or even be met with a lengthy and resounding silence - but there's more likelihood of success than via the website you used, even if the ACGB does sponsor it.

    Apart from saying that, you have to ask yourself what you were really hoping to achieve by submitting to that site - and be truthful to yourself with your answer.

    Given, there's literally not much of a market for an individual short story or novella- and the market for collections of them is also limited, BTW - so what most publishers are looking for is a full-length novel that has the promise of being commercially viable. Furthermore, if the work indicates that the author has the ability to produce more commercial work, then that is an added incentive to the industry professional.

    In conclusion, you might have been better served submitting your work to a suitable English-language publication in Greece -or even one of the UK mags which write about Greece. However, before you do submit to any of those, please make sure that you proof first, as many of the critiques you received complained about poor grammar, punctuation and typographical errors.

    All the best.