In this entry I propose to tie together the elements explained in the previous posts on narrative arc and character arc:
The Elements of Short Story Structure
The Exterior Elements of Character
The Interior Elements of Character
You’ll also discover that I like checklists very much:
Why Doing Crits at ERA-Storytime is good for the Soul
Norman Mailer once said that for beginning writers, and that’s pretty much who we are for the most part, reading the great writers, the giants, won’t do you much good. They’re good to be aware of, but you won’t learn much from their technique because they’re over your head. He said you’ll learn the most from writers on your own level, because you’ll understand them and the good and klutzy moments in their work will be clear to you and you’ll be able to observe and absorb it in your work, and I have found this to be true. Studying the work of your peers, people who write better than you do, but not too much, and people who write worse than you do, but not too much, will help you see your own work more clearly and the elements of story craft better.
Rules are good for you, at least until you master them. Great artists and story tellers like Picasso and Alfred Hitchcock, were famous for destroying the rules but first they mastered them. They understood the rules intimately enough to break them artfully, not simply rebel against them. If you write poetry, reading Ashley’s presentations here of traditional verse form and rhyme is very valuable, because playing within a tight frame work makes you think harder. It’s cuts sloppiness which can lead to beauty. Story craft is that way too, and your peers are the ones who will show it to you when its working well or falling apart for them.
First Do No Harm
One of ERWA’s most prolific and respected contributors was a guy named Mike Kimera. His emails were always signed “What you read is not what I wrote.” I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean until I started posting stories and discovered that some people read better than others. Being a good reader is as demanding as being a good writer. Not all stories bear close reading, but part of being a competent critter is about reading what has been actually written and not skimming over it.
As a general thing in Storytime I only critique short stories, because short stories are what I write and what I cherish and know a little about. It’s my respect for local writers I don’t do crits on poems, or quickies, because I usually don’t write them and don’t feel competent to speak on them. I don’t crit gay erotica for the same reason. I wish I had a novel in me, because that’s where the money is, but short stories are what the story fairy gives me.
People advise against being intrusive, against saying how you would do the story if it were yours. I disagree, you can be intrusive if you have something useful to say. Just be respectful. Everybody’s story is their baby. If you’re reading:
- Show a helpful and respectful attitude.
- Read anything you intend to review in its entirety.
- Remember what Mike Kimera said. It will help you to begin the crit with a small bare bones synopsis of the story to help you understand it and to prove that you’ve made the effort of reading what was presented.
- Make notes on a notebook or the back of the envelope that capture your immediate responses , or highlight sentences to go back to. Usually a nit or clumsy sentence I highlight in yellow, a sentence of beauty that is a gift to read I highlight in enthusiastic purple. I comment on these sentences towards the end of my crit.
- Take your time with a crit, don’t rush. When you rush you read badly which is disrespectful to the story. Respect the story.
- If you can’t respect the story, if you think its truly awful, be kind and go crit something else. It’s not meant for you. Kindness and respect over all.
- Take your notes and impressions and shoot for a review of 250 – 800 words.
- If the author has a specific agenda, understand it and address your comments to it. A good author should know what they’re trying to do by this stage anyway.
My Little Yellow Notebook
There’s this little hard bound yellow notebook I’ve been keeping with me for years. I type stuff up and print it and paste it the pages. It includes a lot of lists, from how to do crits, to how to clean the toilet. These are lists written in a kind of verbal shorthand I wrote for myself without expecting to show them to anyone, but maybe you’ll find some of them useful. Here is the list I keep handy when I do a crit for something in ERA Storytime:
ERWA Standard Critique
- Write a synopsis, show how characters interact with the plot, not just events. Do this as a gesture of respect to prove you read and understand the story.
- Is there a unique premise and a designing principle? Could there be?
- First the lather, then the razor. What is good about the story? (If you can’t find anything, you’re not the one to review it)
- What is flawed but improvable?
- Plot / Story Arc
- POV chosen, and voice
- If first person present is there a personality behind the voice?
- Character Arc:
- What does deciding character want?
- Do we care?
- How does he/she go after it?
- What are the obstacles?
- Is there a moral change or revelation? Could there be?
- How is the description? The unpacking of details?
- Dialogue: a natural sound with beats. (a word about “beats”. People don’t just talk, they do things while they talk and this enables you to break up the dialogue. “I don’t get you,” he said. He lit a cigarette and waved it at her. “You keep changing your mind.”)
- When told in First person;
- Submerge the “I”
- Give the narrator a unique voice
- Does it begin at the strongest place?
- Does it end at the strongest place?
- Are there thought verbs or lazy descriptions of emotion or sensation?
- Minimize attribution adverbs
- Minimize expository dialogue and narrative.
One of the first things worth noticing after you’ve read it all the way through is if it begins at the right place. Does the opening scene introduce you to the action, setting and maybe the protagonist quickly enough to catch your interest? That’s why “hookers” or first lines are so important and often so memorable. Ray Bradbury, one of my heroes, once said that he would routinely peel off the first page (he used paper and typewriter) and throw it away and begin the story from the top of the second page. I’ve done that. It works.
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Deeper Critiques and the Treasure of a Good First (“Beta”) Reader
Stephen King’s first reader is his wife Tabby, a novelist also. She sees all of his stuff before anybody else does. He makes the case, which I think is true, that every writer writes for one person. Mark Twain claimed he wrote stories for his sister, even after she died. King writes stories to impress his wife Tabby. When he finished the first polished draft of the novel “From a Buick 8” he gave her the print out to read while they were driving cross country through Pennsylvania. He was driving and kept looking over at her while she read, watching anxiously, weaving around on the road, hungry for her every frown and chuckle. Finally she looked up and yelled at him “Watch the road before you get us all killed! Stop being so goddamned needy!”
We writers are a needy lot. But praise doesn’t always take you where you need to go. This is why reading well is so important, because it will give you credibility if you have to tell hard things.
My long suffering First Reader is and continues to be Lisabet Sarai, the George Martin to my erstwhile Paul McCartney. I was reading her stories long before I ever tried my hand at writing them. When I saw her name on ERWA I was writhing with shyness when I asked her privately if she could give me some pointers on something I’d written. She did and I made my very first sale. That’s what a good First Reader can do for you folks. But you have to be willing to listen and at least hear them out. That requires trust and a willingness to leave your ego at the door. That’s the part I was good at. When I send her something, I bite my nails waiting to hear back from her about what a fantastic literary genius I am, and how the world has been waiting breathlessly, if not thanklessly for this, my latest heartbreakingly gorgeous work. Is it a major or a minor masterpiece?
I keep thinking I’ve gotten over that stage, but I know I haven’t. I don’t know if anybody ever does. Then the response comes back from Lisabet, no, not quite at the minor masterpiece stage yet. Far from it in fact. The feeling for a needy writer can be a little bit like hearing a parent on your door step criticizing one of your kids, or maybe a cop. But it’s important. Wine and coffee tasters have a phrase “cleansing the palate”. After tasting something so much, your tongue loses its sensitivity and then you need some space or a second opinion. You don’t have to do everything your First Reader tells you, but you should definitely listen, especially if this is someone who understands what you’re trying to do.
Sometimes when I’m trying to understand a complex narrative arc, either my own or someone else’s, I make a “clothesline”, my invention. I make a clothesline by drawing a line across a piece of paper and start pinning the scenes in sequential order to get a high level view of how this beast is supposed to hang together.
If someone trusts you enough with their stuff to ask you to be an early test reader, you should feel honored and be ready to read like a lit student. Here is a general checklist that covers most points for a serious critique:
DEEP CRIT Standard:
- Does the scene pull you along with:
- Character development
- Increasing pressure on the hero
- Set up for the next scene
- Is it a scene and not narrative summary
- Does the scene start and end in the strongest places
- Would the story be any better or weaker without the scene?
- Is the hero behaving actively or passively?
Character Arc Critique
- The hero by definition is the deciding character
- Present the character’s unique governing characteristic
- We are interested in a character who wants something specific badly
- A hero must be active towards his situation, not passive
- His attack on obstacles should be associated with his governing characteristic
- A character arc presents moral change based on response to obstacles of increasing tension.
- Readers care about motives, not traits
- What is the hero’s weakness?
- Empathize, not sympathize
- Who is the opponent? How does the opponent mirror the hero?
- If more than one character, hero should be an integrated part of a character web.
- Does the hero connect to the world around him?
- Is the character complex, multi layered or contradictory?
- Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions
- Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions or sensations
- Resist the urge to explain
- Are the scene details the ones your characters would most notice?
- Are they in proportion to what is needed?
- Watch out for excessive – ing and – ly verbs, he said sagely.
- Break up large narrative passages when possible
Voice and Dialogue Critique
- At some point in your process read the dialogue out loud to yourself
- Break up the dialogue with beats
- Can you picture the conversation?
- Does the dialogue reveal character or move the story along?
- Can interior monologues be dropped into their own paragraphs without attributions?
- Be conservative about “verb thoughts” (Kenny wondered why nobody liked him)
- Be conservative about a lot of expository dialogue
Point of view and Description Critique
- Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions or sensations
- Does the POV reveal character?
- Does the first person point of view speak with a unique voice
- Does the POV match the correct level of intimacy with the reader?
- Is there excessive narrative summary that could be made into a scene?
- Avoid lazy descriptions (“Her orgasm felt wonderful.” No. Describe what a wonderful orgasm feels like right when it’s happening to you. If you’ve forgotten what a wonderful orgasm feels like, get your notebook and go find out. When ordinary people have a headache they take aspirin. When you have a headache – you take notes.)
- If using first person present POV “bury the I”, that is don’t let the speaker go on drawing attention to himself. “I drew on my cigarette and waved my left hand and then my right hand helplessly as I contemplated my aching heart.”