Come now, children. Gather about the fire. Heed these words well, for I have a tale to tell—a tale of gender transformation and dark forces at large in the world. In the isolated New England town of Arkhade, Mass., a centuries-old agreement between two families obliges a young man to choose between the gender of his birth, and the dutiful daughter his mother wants him to be. Or to put it another way, between door #1: the freedom to choose the path of his life, and door #2: servitude as the wife of a man able to call upon awesome dark powers from another world. Some choice, huh? This novella may well be the only story ever written to combine these three mighty pillars of Western culture: cross-dressing, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and the good old gang from Riverdale. (Caveat: The novel doesn’t actually feature good ole Archie and his friends. Rather, the hero of this story, one Archer Anders, has the same sort of relationships within his own peer group.) This sort of world-wide-first is not to be missed!
Critique: I received a rather negative 3-stars-out-of-5 review for this story at TG Storytime, from a user named “930310“. In the interest of full disclosure, and to see what we can learn from this, here it is:
I read your entire story in one go and it simply felt rushed. There wasn’t that much plot and instead you filled the gaps with vivid descriptions of Arlene crossdressing. It felt repetitive at times and it wouldn’t have hurt if you’d given more information about the different spirits and more background on the supporting characters.
To coin a phrase, Ouch! Well, there is of course no such thing as a perfect story. So I’m willing to take any criticism on board, and negative feedback is valuable because that’s how we writers improve our skills. But by the same token, no critique is perfect either. So it’s important to be able to pick and choose; some comments represent useful observations, while others could be described as personal taste. No story is ever going to please everyone. All an author can do is take what seems to be useful and ignore the rest.
First off, I see that 930310 did in fact read the entire 65-page novella in one sitting. That’s impressive! Assuming he isn’t a masochist, the story must have been engrossing enough to keep his attention. I’ll take that as a positive sign. I put a lot of effort into readability and ensuring that the narrative flows along nicely, and it would seem I succeeded there.
Okay, the story felt “rushed” and there wasn’t “that much plot”. These are actually the same thing. A reader may feel as if he is zipping too quickly through a story if there aren’t enough plot points along the way; if the hero speeds from one action to the next without time to reflect on what’s happening. It’s all about pacing. I can understand how that could be an issue with this story. It’s hard for the author to get a feel for the pace of a story when we’re living it from the inside; that’s why feedback like this is useful. It’s amazing that a 65-page story can feel rushed, but it isn’t about length; it’s about how the words feel as they flow through the reader’s mind. Point taken!
I think this happened because of the way the story grew. After reading a book of Lovecraft stories, I had the idea of a young man slowly transformed into a woman by an evil-doer using the power of the Old Ones. Next came an idea for the opening scene. After that, I grew the plot one scene at a time—organically (which is a term some writers use). In other words, I didn’t outline the story point-by-point. In retrospect, that would have helped with the pacing. Some stories don’t require an outline, but others do, and learning when to use that particular authorial tool (either before the story is written, or afterward to analyze what you wrote) is part of growing up as an author. Perhaps I grew up a little just by writing that last sentence!
The story did get a little repetitive in the cross-dressing scenes; I do admit that. But at least the descriptions were “vivid”, which most readers should appreciate. There’s a fine line in stories like this, between too much cross-dressing (which can turn into same-old pretty quickly) and too little (like, is this a TG story or not?). I think the cross-dressing scenes in this story could have been better differentiated, to as to better tell them apart and make each contribute something slightly different to the plot. Point taken!
Was more information needed, about various spirits and the other characters? I’ll respectively disagree there, although I admit that it comes down to a matter of taste. Heinlein always said that a story should only include whatever information is necessary; everything else is superfluous and should be trimmed. Many authors ignore that advice (as today’s well-padded and overblown novels demonstrate), but it’s advice that resonates with me. Only Archer’s background pertains to the events of the story; detailing the others’ background would only clutter up the text. It’s the same for Ithaqua; he’s the only Old One who appears in the story, so detailing the others is needless clutter. I suppose one could argue that more clutter would slow the story down and make it feel less rushed, but that isn’t the right way to fix the problem (restructure the scenes instead).
Another reader at TG Storytime appreciated the tone of the story and its dark atmosphere. In its own way, that was just as revealing as the negative review. I wrote the story with tone and atmosphere in mind, which was one reason I neglected the pacing. Point taken! Of course, if a story is written for publication then I can justify putting more work into analysis and fixing whatever problems emerge. As it is, my time is better served by putting the story out there and moving on to the next. What I learn in the process will go toward improving what I write in the future.
To close, I’d like to thank 930310 for holding me to a higher standard. Most TG fiction on the Internet doesn’t get critiqued like this, for the simple reason that there’s too much to criticize. Where do you start when every aspect of a story has problems? It’s better to accept such stories for what they are, focus on its positive aspects, and move on. Novice authors simply need to write and keep writing, because it’s through experience that we improve. It’s only when a story is “almost there” that criticism becomes useful.
And now, for yours truly it’s back to the drawing/writing board…