Up the critique creek this week


Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #39 — Doing four book critiques in a month – one a week – sounds quite do-able. That is, if you don’t have any social engagements, do no travelling, don’t need to pay your bills, are okay with dust bunnies, receive no unexpected visitors, have self-feeding pets, and never need to cook or eat a meal. Or sleep, or go to the bathroom.

Then, it’s an absolute snap.

Since I wasn’t able to duplicate those conditions, I still have a few miles to go. I’m in full critique immersion this week, and it’s an intense journey. Navigating the story streams of my four writing friends, I’m encountering just about everything a writer can throw at you: thrilling rapids, still waters, back eddies, tricky channels, stretches along the way where I’m totally lost and need a map, and fine passages that sweep me along effortlessly towards my destination. Oh, yeah. And a few rocks.

All to be expected. This whirlwind trip through four very different first drafts is a great adventure, even if it does leave my head spinning occasionally.

I jot (electronic) margin notes as I go, without looking ahead. This lets the writer know what I, as a “designated reader,” am thinking along the way. Sometimes this reads like that incredibly annoying person who always sits behind you in the movies and blabbers all through the show … “oh come on, KISS her already” … “okay, here comes the monster, right NOW” … “hey, don’t TRUST this guy” … “wha? why would she even SAY that?”

Other times I write an aside while I’m thinking about some deeper point. Maybe I’ll try to identify why something is bothering me. Or suggest a way to work past some plot or character problem. Or speculate on an upcoming “surprise” turn of events. These are, of course, always brilliant insights, which I often discover are either dead wrong or completely irrelevant by the next chapter. I leave them in anyway, footprints along the path to show the writer where the reader’s thoughts have gone, even if sometimes in circles.

All these are useful when doing the overall written critique, which must step much further back and make some sort of useful sense of such spontaneous reactions.

Since we’re big on the 5 theme, here are 5 things I’ve learned – and trends I’ve noticed – in the course of reading and critiquing early drafts (my own and others’) …

1.  Protagonist torture can get out of hand. Even the wisest of writing rules can lead one astray if taken to extremes. I mean, spinach is good for you, but if you eat it morning, noon and night for a month, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get some kind of spinach poisoning. We writers have it pounded into us that we must give our protagonists problems to solve, and troubles to cope with, and pain to endure, and challenges to overcome, and conflicts to resolve. But when a character is so dumped on that he or she is more or less constantly miserable, terrified, angry, in emotional or physical agony, or overwhelmed with self doubt and guilt, I’m not sure I really want to spend the next 400 pages in their company. At least not without some kind of happy pills.

2.  Every first draft has many “huh?” moments. Huh moments can be unintentionally  amusing. Or quite irritating. Here are a few common ones among a rich array of possibilities …

  • Huh? Would he really say/do that? – someone is stepping out of character, behaving in a way that conflicts with expectations, contradicting themselves, or speaking in language that doesn’t fit them.
  • Huh? Who the heck is Melvin Humperloopen? – a character last seen on page 7 has just made a surprise reappearance on page 382.
  • Huh? Where did Uncle Oscar disappear to? – a character last seen heading for the kitchen to make a cup of tea doesn’t return and is never mentioned again.
  • Huh? Did you really mean what that says? – the author misspoke, misremembered, misused a word, or otherwise unintentionally baffled the reader.
  • Huh? You expect me to swallow that? – the spell over readers known as “suspension of disbelief” has been broken.

3.  Every time the author is around, the book goes to hell. Authors tend to haunt their first drafts, making their presence known through inartful narrative, exhortations to the reader to notice important details, dialogue in which characters act as Charlie McCarthy to the author’s Edgar Bergen, and in a thousand other sneaky ways. It usually requires an editorial exorcism to purge a first draft of the demon of “author voice.” Hey, if we authors knew we were doing it, we wouldn’t. It just creeps in. And then it has to creep out.

4. Punctuation does matter. Okay, I know it’s a first (or second) draft, and boring, arcane details like punctuation and spelling can be cleaned up later. Fuss-budgeting and obsessive self-editing can stifle the process of getting the story out. I understand that. But when you’re reading a story for critiquing purposes, every one of those little errors is a stumbling block for the eye and an interruption to the flow of the story for the reader. Even though a critique is not a proofreading exercise or a copy edit, it’s just a little harder to read when the punctuation marks need a spanking.

5.  When you forget you’re critiquing, it’s all good. The best indicator that the writing is really working, the plot is moving along, and I’m being  transported as a reader in the stream of the story is a lack of margin notes. The reader is supposed to get sucked into the story – so sucked in she forgets to write margin notes, or get down to the post office before it closes, or fix dinner. That’s a great day of reading.

6 thoughts on “Up the critique creek this week

  1. Hello Silk
    Really a good, useful, and true set of observations. On the other hand, referring back to your complaint at the top of post #39, your problem of time is hardly mitigated by blogging.
    But don’t stop. 🙂

  2. Great thoughts you’ve shared; thanks. #1 contradicts what many writing gurus have said… that you have to keep heaping problems on the protagonist to maintain conflict. Personally, I have to develop a liking for him first, before I’m likely to care about all the misfortune befalling him. So I agree with you. It IS possible to overdo it. 🙂

  3. Too many trials and tribulations for the main character bother me, too. Yes, they’re needed, but when they pull me out of the story because I start thinking things like “there’s no way all of this happens to one person or she can survive that event.” It can be enough to make me give up on the book!

  4. 555 is the best creative writing course I’ve ever had (well, the only one, if the truth be known), but I’m grateful for all of your lectures. You. silk, have been particularly helpful.

    • Thanks Jerry. We’re up in Whistler now, on the eve of critique #1. And, of course, I’m still writing critiques! Lotta work, that.

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