Bewildering Stories

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The Darker Side of Writing

by Rick Combs

Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy stories. The list of authors that I enjoy reads like a who’s who of SF&F, from Heinlein and Asimov to Donaldson and King. Obviously, if I knew what I liked, what was there to prevent me from doing the same? I’ve always written stories ever since I was a small child and liked what I had done in the past. Then, in August of 2003, things changed.

I found Bewildering Stories on the web when the site was listed as a Link of the Day. Here was a writer’s site that seemed to be asking me, personally, to submit some of my writing. When I received that e-mail from Don and Jerry saying they had decided to present my stories on the web site, I was smitten with the bug. Someone else liked my stories! In a fury, I quickly submitted four different stories, which are now part of the Bewildering Stories archives.

But something happened during that period of a few short months. If Don and Jerry liked my stuff, why wouldn’t everyone else? Needless to say, after several (read twenty plus), of “Thank you but no thanks” type e-mails and form letters, I began to question myself. However, there was one ray of hope: one of the rejections mentioned a web site where budding writers, such as myself, could get some free assistance. Now, two things immediately caught my eye, free and on the web. With this small nugget of information I began my quest for ways to improve my writing and thus I entered the Darker Side Of Writing.

I firmly believe that to be a writer, you must have some really thick skin. As you write, what seems obvious to you can become a confusing quagmire for your readers. (If I have to explain “The Leader” to one more person I’m going to pull out my hair!) It’s the little details and nuances — and nuisances — that can trip up an otherwise excellent story. But how do you know what those are? The easiest way is to ask someone else to critique your story for you and to be brutally honest with you! So, you really need to ask someone you don’t know, a complete stranger. (Yes, my mother still tells me they’re the best stories she’s ever read.)

On the web, there are several sites that are free, (and quite a few that charge a fee), and provide just this type of service. Submit your story and complete strangers will tear it down for you in minute detail. The site that I joined is The Critter’s Workshop ( The basic premise is to submit your story and it is added to the bottom of the queue. Every week, stories are send out, normally three to each person. You have that week in which to read, and critique, the stories you received. If you don’t critique, your stories are not sent out for critiquing. This site using a formula to compute your participation level, and if your level falls below a certain point, your stories stop moving towards the top of the queue. To help ensure that everyone gets a chance, they also limit the number of stories you have in the queue to two. After one is sent out for critiques, you can then have another one join the queue.

It took a month for my first submission to reach the top of the queue, during which time I worked, ate, slept and critiqued. The following week, I began receiving critiques back from fellow critters. In total, my first submission returned 15 critiques. This was a real eye-opener for me. Half of the people liked the story and the other half hated it. Well, to each their own, I say. The great part was the information and different points of view each of the critique’s brought to the table. You have to spend the time to weed through each of the critiques to find those nuggets of good information, but they were there. I think that as long as I keep those comments in my head as I write, the quality of my writing will only get better. A month later, my second story returned even more critiques!

So, why do I call this the Darker Side of Writing? Simple. I have a full-time job and normally work 55+ hours a week. Each story (I received 3 per week), averaged 5,000+ words. My critiques averaged 1,500+ each. As you can see, I quickly ran out of hours! If you figure out the amount of time and effort you go through to read, critique and stay above the participation level, there’s not a lot of time left for actually writing. Eventually, I left Critter’s but I’ve kept each and every critique I received.

As I look back at those first stories I submitted to Bewildering Stories, I wonder, “Who wrote these things?” With my eye more attuned to critiquing stories, I’m able to really appreciate the chance Don and Jerry took by accepting those stories! Thanks guys, I do appreciate it!

For those of you interested in critiques, Critters lists several sites as does the SWFA . It’s something everyone should experience at least once!


Copyright © 2004 by Rick Combs

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