Search This Blog

Friday, March 25, 2011

4th In Series.... How This Critter Crits

What you may have missed:

My first three months with FanStory I critted without method, by the seat of my pants, as it were.  The preface of How This Critter Crits, explained that and pointed me in the direction of how I wanted to crit.  Chapter one, entitled Why this Critter Crits, explained the emotionally tinged meaning that "review" and "reviewing" held for me.  In chapter two, Macro/Micro Critting, I introduced the reader to the hobby my wife and I have of house hunting and drew parallels between standing in front of the "open house" and standing in front of a selection to crit.


            For those of you who were with me last time, and are now waiting to join me once again with my wife ... I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you.  I must leave Roseana on the sidewalk, in mid-stride between our car and the front door of the open house we were to visit.  I have other, more pressing concerns that won't leave me enough time to squander away an afternoon.  I need to spend some serious hours in front of my computer.
            Don't worry about the love of my life, though.  She has the car, and she'll find her way home.
            After living with me for forty years, Roseana understands -- or, even if she doesn't understand -- she has learned to accept my propensity for occasionally wandering off.  It is at all times honorable.  I don't do it often.  I always come home.  I'm never gone long ... and, it's almost always not a physical sojourn.
            I don't just wander from Roseana, it appears.  I seem to have become pretty adept, of late, at wandering from the subject.  Some brothers and sisters of the critter persuasion, whose opinions I respect, have suggested that they appreciate my humor, my honesty, my occasional self-effacement ... and then they say, almost in passing, that they can't wait until I actually get into the subject of critting.  Then there were the others who were immensely relieved that, following my lead, they were able to come out of the house-hunter's closet.  But, then, rather obliquely, they asked when they could expect me to get into the subject of critting.  One critter was more direct, bless him.  He simply suggested I quit with my similes, metaphors, and analogies and get with the program.
            So, with just a little thumb of my nose at his request for me to dispense with my metaphors, allow me to introduce the pure vanilla brand of macro/micro critting:

            However (and even at the risk of having more than one of you sighing, "Here he goes again,") short of dropping down, now, to a single-spaced, 8-point-font-footnote at the end of this piece, I need to take a minute to draw a big circle around everything macro/micro critting is and leave outside the circle everything it isn't
            First of all, I inject myself right in the middle of the circle.  I am developing macro/micro critting to help me work through the maze of considerations and choices I have to make every time I face a new piece of writing.
            When I use the terms "we" and "us" it is because I'd like to believe there is a degree of mutuality in the critting process just as there were with some of the preconditions we discussed last time.  Also ... it can be pretty lonely in the circle all by myself.  So, if you want to jump in with me at any time feel free -- and just as freely jump out when inclination or mood strikes you.
            Secondly (and, why do I have the feeling that some of you critters who were comfortably inside the circle during the first three segments, will soon be leaping out?) the subject matter inside the circle must be genre selective.  It will encompass: short fiction; the novel; and non-fiction, including biography.  It will be easier to list what will be left outside:  they are poetry and scripts.
            I adore poetry.  I love its grandeur and its economy.  And, how I admire the scriptwriter, who can do so much with the dramatic power of the spoken word.  Personally, though, I am not up to the task of helping any of these writers advance their craft one iota through my suggestions.  And, yes, I have critted poetry and scripts here.  And, yes, I may offer my comments on some of them in the future.  But, for the time being, I have not sketched out for myself a methodology for either. 
*   *   *
            With that circle behind us, we need to carry on where we left off last time with the problems inherent in critting an isolated chapter of a novel when the writer is well into the body of the work.  We'll take a look at the options the writer has.
            You know, it's significant to me that the first adverse comment I received as a result of my well-intentioned but less-than-tactful crit, came during my first week with FanStory.  Her comment began with (and, here I'm paraphrasing from memory and altering everything but the truth of it), "Of course you don't understand why Harvey acted the way he did.  You'd have found that out in chapter 2.  That was the chapter where I explained the reasons why he has absolutely no self-esteem, now, because of the incident in the third grade when his dad came into his classroom, pulled down Harvey's drawers and spanked him in front of all his classmates.  And, jay Squires, you'd have known if you'd had just taken the time to read the chapter just before this one, that Heloise did not throw up all over Harvey and his car because of the desperately clumsy and overly wet kiss he planted on her lips, but rather because of the slice of bad pizza she ate while she was waiting for him to pick her up."  That's how her comments began.  They ended with, "So, Jay Squires, if you come across anything else I've posted here, please feel free to pass it by.
            It would lead to a nice, tidy conclusion if I could stab a self-righteous finger at the fact that her chapter did not include a summary of preceding chapters.  The fact is I don't remember.  I suppose I could go back and check the archives.  I'd rather not.  I choose to leave that crit in my past.  One of you might argue that the lady hurt Jay Squires’ feelings.  To that Jay Squires would counter with ...  "Why, you son-of-a-bitch!"  Yes, I want to close the door on that crit, if you don't mind.
            The critter doesn't have to go far on FanStory to find any number of examples of other novels-in-progress.  Some will have summaries.  Most won't.  From the writer's standpoint, I must say I am mystified at the latter.  Why would anyone go through the agony that each of us goes through to finish a piece -- to change it, to polish it, to change and polish it again, until it says just about what he wants it to say, then box up and send out to the publisher or agent pages 125 to 132 without any explanation?
            The other night, (Remember, this was written years ago) Roseana and I watched Studio 60, Sunset Strip.  It was the third episode.  We had seen it from the beginning, so we got to know the characters and the developing plot and the theme right from the start.  But it wouldn't have mattered much if it had been our first time, because as we sat waiting, diet Coke and mug of coffee at our elbows, we were greeted with the words: "Previously on Studio 60, Sunset Strip," and there followed a one minute collage of scenes that would have brought a chimpanzee up to speed.  Can you imagine NBC offering the weekly chapter of its mega-multi-million-dollar product any differently?
            Why should the novelist on FanStory treat his or her own creation with less respect?  Yet some do.  And, I'm sorry, but that just flat mystifies me.
            These are the choices I find that the writer has:
            He can ignore the problem.  That way the problem simply doesn't exist.  There are no requests.  No injunctions.  The chapter is just "out there" for you to shoot at.  And, it's sad -- to me, it's very sad.
            He can ask the critter not to read the chapter until he has read all the preceding chapters.  If ignoring the problem is sad, expecting someone to do this is laughable, particularly if the writer is well into the story.  He would be just as successful garnering readership by structuring his novel and posting it as one 350-page chapter.
            He can invite the critter to have a go at the present chapter, but only crit for SPAG.  Now this is precious!  The writer might just as well mandate, while he is at it, that we read it from end to beginning, using the logic that we'll pick out more nits if we don't contaminate our SPAG-quest by following the pesky plot.
            And that leaves us with the following strategy: The writer can do a brush-stroke summary of everything that led up to the present chapter, providing a more detailed summary in the chapter just before.  The way I see it, this last method is the only one that makes sense -- it's the only method that gives the writer a fighting chance at finding an enthusiastic audience for his novel.
            If you agree with me, but can't imagine how to begin doing this, or you're staggered by the potential enormity of it, may I suggest a resource to study?  We have, right here at FanStory, a novelist who used this method with imagination and flair in his novel, Concentric Circles.  You'll find it under the *********** portfolio.  Study a dozen or so chapters carefully.  They are an education, not just in filling the reader in on what happened previously, but also in chapter salesmanship.
*   *   *
            While the writer has one of those four options from which to choose to introduce the best of what remains of his novel, the critter has only one responsibility in the face of whatever choice the novelist makes for his present chapter:  His responsibility is to bring into the novel the very best that's in him of his attention, his experience, and his caring.
            Would you agree with me that we're all built pretty much the same regarding our attentiveness to something we are interested in?  Leaving aside the Zen master with 20 years meditation experience, on the one end, and the scatter-brained Gilliganesque twit on the other, aren't we left with you and me and 95 percent of everyone else huddling in the middle with our similar abilities to focus on what interests us?
            How about caring?  Am I naïve in thinking that because we all know how wrenchingly difficult this job of writing well can be, we should have more than a small amount of empathy for our fellow writers?  If I don't care about the quality and accuracy of what I am critting -- well, shame on me!
            There is one variable, though, and that is experience.  Some of us have a fair number of writing years under our belts, and about as many years spent critically reading huge numbers of successful and unsuccessful writers within our specialty.  Others have only recently been bitten by the writing bug.  Some have taken a few creative classes.  (There are even a few people I've come across on FanStory who have taught some creative writing classes.)  There are some others -- and I'm talking about good writers -- who haven't taken a class of any kind since they dropped out of school in the seventh grade.  There are some of us who are walking encyclopedias of grammar.  And, then there's me (and a few others I'll bet), who is ecstatic over this curtain of cyber-privacy between the writer and me that allows me to thumb through my dog-eared copy of Woe Is I and The Elements of Style, and toss out corrections and suggestions, (even choosing the word "ellipse," for example, over "three dots"), as though they just now rolled off my tongue.
            So, how can we reconcile effective critting with such wide ranges of experience? 
            Some of the best advice I ever got on my first novel, a mystery thriller, a year before it was ready for publication, came from a young man after I assured him I wanted his unvarnished opinion of it.  I really wanted the varnished and glittery stuff of unbridled praise.  But, that was irrelevant -- and, it certainly wasn't to be the case!  He sat across the table from me in a coffee shop, rubbing the back of his hands, nervously, trying to figure how to begin.  Finally, he said, "It was really long."
            "Yeah -- I -- okay," I said.  "Long."
            "I liked the beginning.  I really got into it.  (Translation:  Good opening paragraph, compelling first couple of pages.)  "And, the ending ... I, um, I really liked that."  (Translation:  He made it to the end.  Good.  And, he found it satisfying.  Good plot resolution.)  "But ... but somewhere near - near the middle ... "  Here he started tracing the imaginary contour of a swayback horse.  (Translation:  Uh-oh!)  "Near the middle I, um, really started losing interest in Noah.  You know?"
            It was some of the best advice I ever got; and, from someone who was not a writer, but someone who liked to read.  He knew intuitively what worked and what didn't.  And this didn't work.  He knew that it sagged in the middle, but didn't know enough about the writer's techniques to explain precisely how.  No writer, or book on creative writing, ever explained to him how the plot has to have an ever increasing number of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome on his way to a major, seemingly impossible obstacle, the overcoming of which will result in the climax and the denouement (which -- dare I mention again? -- he liked in my novel).
            What he did, though, was make me look back into the belly of my novel.  It made me seek the answer to the hard (unasked) question:  Can I have Noah, who was fast on the trail of the Indian Cult leader who had kidnapped Noah's nephew, stop in mid-chase to preside over a success seminar?  Never mind that the cult leader had Noah's nephew and other novices in a hilly hideaway that Noah wouldn't be able to get to anyway, until dawn of the next day.  Never mind that the seminar showed a side of Noah that could scarcely have been revealed in any other setting.  The hard fact was that the seminar took three hours of fictional time, and fifty pages, and about an hour of actual time to conclude, during which time the reader was hankering for the showdown between Noah and the Indian cult leader.
            At that point, only two people had read the story.  One thought it had all the makings of a best-seller -- if not the Great American Novel.  The other, who was not me, thought it suffered through excess saggage.
            The point is, the critter doesn't have to have the word saggage in his arcane literary vocabulary to be helpful.  It was plenty effective for my friend to say, "Somewhere near the middle I started losing interest in Noah."
            Regardless of the level of experience, with honesty, caring and patience anyone can deliver a helpful crit.
*   *   *
            In the next segment of How This Critter Crits we will finish Macro Critting with ways to preview (read that, pre-view) and size up what we've chosen to crit.  It will be a short chapter, but it will take us to, and through, the doorway into micro critting.


 NOTE:  I thought seriously of abandoning this part of the series since it relies much, much more heavily on the FanStory experience of critting where the author would submit one chapter at a time for the reader to crit.  Obviously, under usual reading circumstances, one has the entire novel in front of him and there would be no reason for the author to have summarized what went before.  The reason I left this segment in, though, is more to preserve the continuity of the entirety.

No comments:

Post a Comment