Friday, June 7, 2013

Avoiding "writing by committee"

Photo courtesy of Aaron Brown on Flickr, made
available under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license
One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:

Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

The other night, I came back from a critique session last night with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Carpenter Wyo, then and now

Carpenter, 1907. Photo from the J.E. Stimson Collection, Wyoming
State Archives, Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. 

Per Wyoming Places, Carpenter got its start in the first decade of the 20th century. It was named for J. Ross Carpenter, president of the Federal Land Company. Mr. Carpenter seemed to be in the business of selling a lot of Wyoming land to a lot of Iowans. The town, 25 miles southeast of Cheyenne and right along the now-vanished tracks of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, got its first post office late in 1907. It makes its first appearance in the Wyoming State Business Directory in the 1908-09 with a grand total population of 15, going up to 50 in the 1910-11 edition.

The primary livelihood listed in the Wyoming state business directories was farming. The Crow Creek runs through this area. Today a Google Maps satellite view shows irrigated land around the town. The Colorado, Burlington and Quincy Railroad ran up from Hereford, Colo. through Carpenter and the now ghost-towns of Arcola and Campstool before heading into the big city of Cheyenne. I'm not certain when the railroad shut down, but the rails disappear from the Official Wyoming Highway Map in 1992.

Main Ave. in Carpenter, looking east
Mrs. Glenn (Loretta Ellen Noyer) Jewell wrote the history of Carpenter in 1968 in Homesteading the Prairie, illustrated with drawings by Ruth Oliver. In her dedication, she said she wanted to "etch the names of the people who lived here into history -- other than a name engraved upon a tombstone."

She, in turn, quoted from the Cheyenne Trade Review for a portrait of Carpenter in 1910. What's amazing to me are the number of businesses you find in those early years with only 50 people total, although distances were a different thing then and self-sufficiency more important:

"The town of Carpenter has two well-stocked general stores, one drug store, two hotels, one livery, one hardware store and a lumber yard which draw trade from practically seven hundred and fifty people in the surrounding district." 

The Trade Review was a publication of unabashed boosterism for Laramie County. They made the point that, "The climate is healthful and bracing; the invigorating effects are noticeable by the healthy, sturdy people found here," and subsequently the stunning claim that "Many of these came here semi-invalids and are now enjoying perfect health." No word today on whether the National Institutes of Health will fund research into the miraculous curative benefits of southeastern Wyoming. It's a wonder we need a hospital at all.

The Trade Review made a pitch that Carpenter would be a great place for an attorney or a bank to locate, but the town never seems to have gotten its bank. From 1925 until at least 1955 (the last state business directory I could find), Hereford, Colo., eight miles south, was listed as the nearest banking point. Unless they took the CB&Q, it must have been quite the trip. I can't find anything but dirt roads on the Official Wyoming Highway Map until 1939, when the town was blessed with a stretch of crushed gravel straight north to U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway.

Hereford has no bank these days and is so small it doesn't show up in U.S. Census population listings. In fact, some websites classify it as a ghost town although it still hangs onto its post office and the Hereford Bar and Grill at the crossroads. I've often thought out West that all you seem to need for a town is a post office, bar and church -- church optional.

Playground at Carpenter Elementary
As mentioned earlier, distances were just a different thing then. In fact, the April 17, 1916 Carpenter News reported bitter opposition against a proposed school bond from the town of Campstool, a mere 10 miles down the road:

"Camp Stool people contend that they will not saddle a tax upon themselves, if possible, for the erection of a new school house at Carpenter at such a distance that they will not derive any benefit from it." 

The article goes on to say that Campstool residents were lobbying to split off into their own school district. I suspect children come from farther than 10 miles today, considering that Carpenter Elementary has new-looking school with an official K-6 enrollment of 83 in a town with a population just under 100. Either that, or the residents are fecund beyond belief.

St. Peter's Catholic Church.
The town still seems to have a heart, if not a business district. Here, the bar turned out to be optional, but two churches stand. St. Peter's Catholic Church seems to  be in slight need of a paint job, but the sign in front says Mass is celebrated twice monthly. The cemetery is neatly kept and, on Memorial Day, is decorated brightly in honor of those who have passed on.

I do not truly know that much about Carpenter from the outside looking in. I could have the place entirely wrong. Mrs. Jewell does know. She still lives in Carpenter, I am told. I would like to meet her and hear her tell the stories she shared in her book. In her dedication, she wrote: "The people who settled here and stood firm in the belief that it was their home possessed integrity, pride, honesty and persistency." She knew them; I did not, so I can only trust her assessment. Maybe every small place that hangs on needs people like that.

Cheyenne Trade Review. [Denver, Great Western Publishing Co., 190-?]
Jewell, Loretta. Homesteading the Prairie[Carpenter, Wyo. : Evans Implement Co., 1968- ].
Wyoming: Official Highway Map. Wyoming Dept. of Transportation.
Wyoming State Library, Wyoming Newspaper Project.
Wyoming State Library, Wyoming Places.
Wyoming state business directory : with live stock department, wool growers' department, classified department. Denver, Colo. : Gazetteer Pub. Co. 1908-1909 to 1941-42.
Wyoming State Directory of Business and Industry. Colorado Springs, Colo. : Rocky Mountain Directory Co. 1950; 1953/54; 1955