On Reviews, the Purpose of Writing, and "Street"

8 years ago | G.S. Williams (Member)

So a few months ago I set out to read and review "Street" by Ryan Span. I haven't had a lot of time to devote to online reading lately, and I wanted to invest in a long-term project by a long-term community member because my previous paradigm was to try to work through the unreviewed new stories on the premise that "every story deserves at least one review." When I had less time, the goal of "every" became unattainable and so I shifted my focus.

Well, I haven't written a review of "Street" because basically I would consider it redundant. Like many previous reviewers, I would give it a 4 star rating because it is fast-paced, an interesting world, action-packed and well-written. The bulk of the review would become about why it's not 5 star and that honestly seems overly-critical for a highly enjoyable story.

I think Ryan's story deserves better than a critical review that's nit-picking about that last star. However, I think my thoughts on why it wasn't a five star story are valid and worth discussing in this community, because the reasoning that occurred to me is consistent with my other reviews and hopefully pertinent to the legitimization and critique of web fiction. This post will stand as an introduction to this thread, my next post will be a continuation of what I mean.

Read responses...


  1. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Here's the paradigm I've been working with in regards to a 5 star story: is this story the best online example of its genre, or achieving things in its genre that I haven't encountered before?

    So for example, Legion of Nothing and Worm are both superhero web fiction. I have rated both of them as 5 star. Legion became 5 star over time as the length of the story grew and the world-building expanded, because Jim built a rich universe with lots of tones - humour, sci-fi, adventure, suspense, etc. It's five star because of the depth. Worm, on the other hand, was a five star story from the moment I read it -- each chapter is considerably longer than most web fiction, creating an immersive experience. The story has a different world built, but is just as rich and deep. It's a darker story, sometimes bordering on horror elements. Because they are both accomplishing different things with excellent grammar, style and detail, they are both five star as different examples of "the best" in their genre.

    The styles are different, but both technically sound and skillful. One is lengthy over time, while the other is lengthy per post. So the main difference between them is of tone and theme. Legion is a more traditional coming of age superhero adventure, with some throw-outs to the history of comics -- it's a friendlier story with some dark edges. Worm on the other hand is a dark story about the compromises of living in a grey world, and is dark with some slight bright edges.

    What makes them 5 star then has to do with theme, originality and tone, far more than technical expertise. If anyone goes back through all of my reviews, the ones that are 4 star like "Street" would be have technical skill. They're enjoyable stories. They don't make it to 5 star because something about the premise and execution doesn't come across as "the best" in their genre, because of either a lack of depth, originality, emotional resonance or theme.

    I like "Street." It is written as if the world continued forward from our era and actually developed some of the things we see in sci-fi movies. It has a very Matrix, BladeRunner, Dune blend going on, but it's self-aware of its ancestry and pokes fun of it. But I don't "love" Street because of a few little nitpicky things. The protagonist seems to get "exactly" the help or resource she needs "exactly" when she needs it -- there's a deus ex machina tone that makes the story less organic. So it's a great thrill-ride, like a Transformers summer movie, but it doesn't achieve a lasting resonance with me. Figuring out why in a way I could articulate took me awhile but it comes down to the lack of organic development and convenience of the plot at some points made me lose immersion in the story world.

    I don't want that personal response to detract from Ryan's writing, because it's a highly enjoyable work. I just can't love it, and I wanted to analyze why. The works I love emotionally resonate with me, beyond entertaining me, they make a lasting impression. And that lasting impression has to do with theme and the immersive quality.

    Theme comes down to "what is this story about?" but could also be phrased as "what are we to remember when it's over?" When I was a kid it was "what's the moral of the story?" the "lesson it teaches?" If a story is just entertainment, then there's no lasting memory except "fun." In Legion of Nothing, the theme is of growing up -- the choices get harder, the enemies get more dangerous, and what started out as an adventure becomes a responsibility. In Worm it's about heroism in the face of systematic evil -- the government, villains, and monsters all create a disastrous environment, and the protagonist has to learn how to hold to her morals in grey areas without becoming completely black. In essence, it's a story about self-responsibility for virtue in a world of sin, (in a very different form) so it ties in with a rich tradition.

    There are any number of stories I've reviewed in the last few years that are 4 star or less. I would propose that a lot of them are for stories that don't have a resonating theme. Stories that are for "fun" because someone had a good idea and then ran with it, but that don't have the heart that 5 star stories do. The stories I love most have themes, symbolism, and greater meaning that applies to life. They make me think, feel, react, and learn. I think it's fair to assign that to the highest level of review on this site, and anything that lacks one of those elements is by definition going to get a lesser rating.

    I think that's fair. But it causes some interesting questions: Do you write thinking of the theme? Does your story have a greater meaning beyond enjoyment? Does this matter to anyone else? How do you start a story? What's in your mind as you do so?

  2. AGreyWorld (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    As a reader (and even watching films etc) I get either really invested & into whatever I read or I put it down/walk away and never bother with it again.

    Technical ability don't really bother me, I can overlook grammar glitches and I won't even notice spelling mistakes. I read fast and messily. (I suppose this might be reflected in my writing, which I try keep a little messy) I can admire well constructed prose, but I hate it if it gets in the way of the story. I love the 5 star stories that you describe, with big themes. The kind you finish and then sit there thinking 'wow' afterwards.

    However, because I get so emotionally invested in them... it's kind of stressful! Seriously, they can kind of ruin my day. I like the less 'heavy' stories, where you can just join in for the ride. Given my preferences I can read pretty much anything - some things people say are three stars I'll just absorb and enjoy, it's less exhausting. Trashy novels are success because of people like me...

    I'm not one for symbolism. I'm more in it for the plot - the story, the events, the characters. The whole symbolism thing I'm likely just to ignore. If its so obvious that I do notice it, then it will probably stick out and just seem a bit out of place and contrived unless its pulled off really well...

    Writing wise, I'm happy to be a 4* story. I didn't start out with anything other than an idea for a character. I didn't set out with a theme, or even a plot in mind (Still trying to come up with one of those, they are tricky beasts). Any meaning it has to anyone hasn't been planned or purposefully implemented, it's just an organic result of me running along thinking "damn, what the hell is going to happen next?". Like you, I certainly wouldn't consider it with the best because I value a clever plot that ties everything together. Something I struggle with as a writer.

    I started the story with a jump, I decided after writing the first paragraph to change it to first person because it seemed more natural, and I've gone with what felt more natural since.

    That turned out as a bit of a ramble.

  3. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    On Reviews

    I read an article:
    that sheds some light on the idea of talented vs. good writing. The former is, as a general rule, not technically perfect.

    Mechanical issues are forgivable, particularly if it's in the cause of some other ends.

    At the same time, though, persistent, pervasive issues in spelling or grammar indicate some other things. This is big for me - I studied Applied Language and Discourse, and analyzed any number of works in terms of what the mechanics of the work imply about the process, the writer, the context the writer is crafting the work in, and what the writer's communicating to the audience. I could go into a great deal of depth on the subject, but the long and short of it is that it indicates a kind of laziness. If an author can't be bothered to do a spellcheck, why should a reader be bothered to invest in their work?

    Okay, that's a bit hypocritical - I can't always spellcheck, or I forget in a rush - but I do think I have less errors per 1000 words than most.

    Nobody's perfect, we're all learning, but an author who's taken the time to polish their chapter is also telling me that what they're doing has a degree of deliberateness. Whether the person who's reading the review is looking at things like that or not, I point out the existence of pervasive errors where I see them so they can make an informed decision. The mechanics of the writing are one of the most fundamental things to a serial, and that expresses a lot.

    Maybe it sounds mean, but I look to Sturgeon's Law when I think about reviews. '90% of everything is bad', to paraphrase. Serials are accessible. Starting a serial is easy (and so is the act of abandoning one). It stands to reason, then, that there's going to be a good number out there that aren't stellar, and it's going to be a rare one where the author truly invests something into it. I don't start out thinking 'this is going to be bad', and I think carefully about the parts of a serial that work and that don't work before making a judgement call. When it comes down to it, though, I don't want WFG's reviews to span 3.5 to 5 stars (like how video games will rate even a terrible, nigh-unplayable game 65%). A 1.5 star work is unreadable, and I've rated stories that low. A 2 star work crosses the threshhold to 'I could finish it but I didn't enjoy it', and a 3 star work is where you've got that glimmer of quality. By the time you're up to 4.5 stars, you've got something which is just misisng a little element, a rewrite here and there to tie things together and make it top notch.

    But a 5 star work... that's something that would have to capture me. A work where I'd have to reach to find something wrong with it, which infuses me with excitement for the story and the writing. That's a high bar to set, I know, but I think we have the ability to achieve it. I'm hoping people will achieve it, because I think serials need a few breakaway hits to appear one after another to really break into the public consciousness.

    I know I might come across as harsh, but I'm just trying to call it as I see it - I think it's the only honest way to handle it.

    On writing:

    I don't write with a theme in mind. I think the key thing to do is to tell an engaging story, to give it dimension and characters and direction. Provided you're being fair and being consistent, it'll develop its own themes. I started writing Worm to tell the kind of story I'd want to read, and because I'm a particular person with particular tastes, it wound up reflecting those tastes and ideas and became something unto itself.

    I took a long time trying to figure out where to start Worm. For those who've read the story, I had drafts that started in the midst of the bank robbery, in the middle of the Extermination arc (for serious) and waaaaay back when she first got her powers. I think the key thing is to start as close to the heart of the story as possible. Gavin, I recall you gave me a hard time for not starting Worm at an earlier point, but I think the essential thing is to get things moving.

    As far as starting a story, I'm a seat-of-my-pants writer. The key elements to have in mind are the beginning and end. I need to have a general sense of how everything works. The rest will sort itself out.

  4. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I come from the punk rock school of just about everything, so there are times when I prefer seeing the rough edges in a work. Something that is raw can at times be closer to the writer's original intent, and the polishing can occasionally lose that. Not always. But sometimes you can look at a rough draft, then look at a final copy, and wonder why it doesn't have that crazy manic energy that sucked you in on your first read.

    Of course, raw energy is easier to capture in a 2 minute song or a three panel cartoon than it is in a 2,000 word post or a 100,000 word novel. There are varying degrees of what is tolerable in terms of rawness. My tolerance for it is higher than others, but it still varies by medium. A two minute song that breaks apart in the end and dissolves into all the musicians just grinding out noise because they've completely lost the beat and decided "fuck it, we're just going to play" is something that will make me grin from ear to ear, but a similar tactic in a story will be deeply unsatisfying to me.

    I tried reviewing stuff on here for a while but I don't like giving out grades so I stopped. Now I only review things if there's something in the story I specifically want to mull over.

    As to writing, I'm with Wildbow -- I think the key thing is to tell a good story. You can do this with a theme in a mind. You can also do it without one, and people can find themes for it. Or you'll put one in without being directly aware of it.

    I'm definitely a pantser. Mostly. The only outlines I have are in my head.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  5. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    @Wildbow -- I would take any initial "criticism" I had about wanting Worm to start further in the past with a grain of salt at this point -- I totally forgot I ever said that. My personal "preference" might have been to see the trigger and the powers emerge and develop because I find "process" interesting, but I totally "get" the Vonnegut-like move to start things closest to the time of crisis in the plot, and being mean to your characters.

    But with Worm being my favourite story, yeah, that "criticism" doesn't really apply in light of the whole work. I think it's funny that you claim not to think about theme as you write, because your characters are all thematically designed -- you know as soon as you hear Clockblocker's name that he's going to be a sarcastic character that pushes the limit of what's appropriate, but at the same time has some standards of decency because he wasn't as rude as he could have been. I think with the seeds planted as well as they are they work systematically to give the whole story themes, and maybe that's not as deliberate as planting the seeds in the design themselves, but the themes are a direct result of that intentionality.

    @ubersoft and agreyworld - flying by the seat of your pants is fun sometimes, whether it's good jazz, punk rock, improv comedy, abstract art or writing -- I can get enjoyment out of such things for sure. Sometimes "junk" writing like paperback romance novels is what someone needs to turn their brain off and relax and have fun - my mother-in-law calls Danielle Steele-style books "beach reading" for vacations. No one wants to take Dostoyevsky on vacation. But I also find that stuff doesn't resonate with me long term, so I can't rate it five star.

    A good example comes from film -- I would rate Schindler's List as 5 star because of the artistry -- performances, cinematography, emotion, writing -- it's evocative. I would rate Billy Madison as maybe 3 star, because its production values are low, it's goofy and crass, and just for fun. But I quote Billy Madison almost daily and have watched it dozens of times, whereas I will hopefully never watch Schindler's List more than once because of the emotional wringer its subject matter puts me through. Billy is a favourite in a different way than Schindler, but I can't rate it the same despite it being my more natural preferential viewing material.

  6. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I intended to reply to this earlier, but didn't.

    1. Do you write thinking of the theme?

    Yes, and no. There's a degree to which I do put in some themes intentionally. I tend to let others emerge, but try to recognize them as they happen, and bring them to the fore when appropriate.

    2. Does your story have a greater meaning beyond enjoyment? Does this matter to anyone else?

    I feel like Legion has multiple meanings. I tend not to have one well defined theme. Instead I've got a number of themes which tend to grow in importance and then fade from view for a bit. Similarly, I don't really attempt to answer questions in stories. I tend to pose them and leave the rest to the reader--though I'm sure my own perspective can be seen to a degree.

    I don't feel like people have to put a specific meaning into a story, but it is nice when there's more going on than just the story itself. It can make the story richer and more interesting.

    That said, I don't go into a story hoping that a writer has something deep to say. That's a good thing if it's there. I tend to prioritize story and interesting world-building over meaning when I'm reading for fun. Sometimes though I am in the mood for deeper things.

    3. How do you start a story? What's in your mind as you do so?

    It ranges. Sometimes I've got an initial scene that I can see in my mind and that's all. By the time that scene's over, I've got a general sense of where the story's going.

    At other times, I've got good sense of the general plot, and deliberately attempt to start the story as close as possible to the "spot where things change" for the character. For example, in Legion of Nothing, I start when Nick's just about to go out in costume for the first time. A lot of things happened before that that were important, but nothing that was important enough to explore.

    That said, I've seldom plotted out anything the entire way, so while I've got a general sense of where things are going, I seldom know all the details before I start writing.

  7. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I'm a weird duck. I can be very erudite in my choices. I find Sagan's novels to be fun delights to read. But I also get enjoyment out of a lot of schlock. I'll read just about anything, given the time, and at least kinda enjoy it.

    For a five star? The author has to care. So much of the serial and writing out there is done for fun, or to get a story out, or various reasons. You can tell when the author CARES about the story, the characters, the things they are writing. It shows. And yes, bad typos look sloppy, but that doesn't mean they don't care. Now, when those typos are pointed out, if they get pissy, or don't CORRECT them, that would be bad.

    I will admit to liking cliches, and things that break them. I like the Matrix trilogy because it followed the Myth of the Hero PERFECTLY, and I liked that. I like Worm because it seems obvious to me that Wildbow has read their Campbell, and is thinking, hmm, what can I do to NOT do that as we go through. And I love that. (btw, Wildbow, starting where you did was perfect, to me. You started with the CHOICE. When Taylor decided, enough waiting, enough planning, I am a hero starting..................NOW! To me, story is about choice, what choices we make, why, and the consequences of that choice.... and in saying that, I just figured out how to fix a short story of mine ive been stuck on. WOOT!)


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