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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-04-08 18:49
Subject: Obsessively detailed critique
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
I had two fairly interesting stories to critique for the Norwescon Writers' Workshop. One was essentially publishable as-is, though we made some suggestions which will probably improve it. The other had some strong ideas and decent-to-good prose, but it just didn't hang together for me. They had a good concept with the makings of a strong pro sale, but something was wrong.

After having read it twice, I spent some time thinking about why the story kicked me out. I wound up rather extensively deconstructing the opening paragraph. With the very kind permission of the writer, I am copying both the paragraph in question and the critique here. I found the process of doing this critique quite interesting, and I learned some things from doing it. I hope it might help you the same way.




I sensed the hostility the instant I stepped onto the main deck. There were two people at the other end of the corridor. I'd say they were standing but they weren't. They had no feet. Instead, like a chimpanzee, they had four hands at the end of long thin limbs. Both had gray skin and large colorless eyes and both were wearing the same non-descript skin-tight body suit. The hostility wasn't coming from the male. It was coming from the breastless, hipless thing hanging next to him.

You suffer from a difficult opening. As an editorial reader, I probably wouldn't have turned the page, which is a shame, because there's some neat stuff going on further inside. The first paragraph or two is the invitation to the reader to proceed -- if they're put off or confused, they're not going to open the door and step into the story.

I'm going to deconstruct here a bit.

I sensed the hostility the instant I stepped onto the main deck. There were two people at the other end of the corridor.

Alright so far, more or less. I'm in fairly tight first person, on a ship, I know my blocking to some degree. Problems: can I be on the main deck and in a corridor at the same time? The first sentence implies open space, or a large area, the second sentence tightens it back down again. Also, in naval terminology a /corridor/ would usually be called a /passageway/. Since you used /deck/, you've invoked that vocabulary already.

I'd say they were standing but they weren't. They had no feet.

Don't say something they're not. Distracts the reader, undermines their trust in the narrative. Also, the issue of hands/feet is a red herring. This sets up an issue of morphology and posture, but the reason they're not standing is that they're in low or microgravity, as evinced a few sentences later. So you wind up contradicting yourself within the first paragraph, and again undermining trust in the narrative.

Instead, like a chimpanzee, they had four hands at the end of long thin limbs.

That one's kind of troublesome, too. It's not hard to read this sentence as meaning they have four hands at the end of each limb, which again is highly confusing. Also, I'm not certain it's accurate to say chimps have four hands and no feet, though I do take your meaning. For example, you could have said, "Instead they had a hand at the end of each limb, something like a chimpanzee."

Both had gray skin and large colorless eyes and both were wearing the same non-descript skin-tight body suit.

Now you're really losing me. How can anyone have colorless eyes? Albinos, who lack pigment, have eyes which appear pink due to the visibility of the bloodflow. Large eyes have a more obvious color as well. If the light conditions are low (quite possible on a spaceship), their pupils will be dilated, which will make their eyes appear largely black. It feels like a miscue, or as if they resemble characters from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip.

Also, the text as written states that the two people in the corridor are wearing one body suit between them. This is pretty amazing, given that it's skin-tight, as if they were conjoined twins, perhaps. You've stated the body suit is non-descript, yet you've immediately given a descriptive adjective, the selfsame /skin-tight/, so once again you've contradicted yourself and undermined reader trust in the text.

The hostility wasn't coming from the male. It was coming from the breastless, hipless thing hanging next to him.

The "hostility" sentence works just fine, though it's slightly odd to say /the male/ rather than /the man/. Given the way things work out in the story, I'm ok with that -- it's a distancing effect of the narrator being one variety of made thing interacting with the stationers, who are another variety of made thing. Though all are nominally human, none consider themselves human.

However, once you've established /male/ as a concept, to say "breastless, hipless thing" seems extremely misogynistic. If by contrast, she's female, call her that. The male gets no description at all in the text, but the female gets an offensive, challenging description which will set most female and some male readers ill at ease. If she's not female (and we don't know at this point in the story except by virtue of this description), then /breastless/ is a null characterization.

In effect, nine lines into the story I've been confused, challenged, annoyed, contradicted twice and generally rattled about. There's nothing in this passage which inherently makes for a bad opening, conceptually, just infelicitous language which deters the reader from entering the story in a frame of mind to trust the writer to carry them forward.

I'd love any thoughts you have, but please be respectful to the text under critique as it is not my own.
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Nayad Monroe
User: nayad
Date: 2007-04-09 02:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
thank you for posting this critique. it's useful to see a specific description of what went wrong in each bit of awkwardness in a piece of writing.

the only thing i would add to the critique is that the rhythm of the sentences in the paragraph seems choppy. i'd prefer a blend of longer and shorter sentences. it may be that the shorter sentences serve the purpose of establishing something about the narrator, but if that is not the writer's intention, the writing could draw the reader in more thoroughly with a more pleasant flow through the sentences.
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Coffee Shop Whore
User: skidspoppe
Date: 2007-04-09 02:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you're spot on. It sounds to me like a first draft, at least of the type I'm used to seeing in the program, where you're just getting stuff onto the page and after a workshop you go in and fix the bits and tighten the story. This just feels like someone working out the idea and then presenting it a little too soon, like serving a cake before the middle has cooked all the way through.

Your comments were well thought out and, if received well, could seriously help this writer.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
They took it in the appropriate spirit. So I hope that it does help.
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Michael Hiebert
User: erdnase2000
Date: 2007-04-09 02:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very nice critique, Jay.

Also, not sure I ever told you, but the last story of mine you critiqued ("Favio deMarco") ended up being published in a Tekno anthology after I made changes based on the notes you provided. So, I hope the writer of this piece takes your suggestions to heart :)
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User: ex_frankwu
Date: 2007-04-09 02:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, Jay, I totally agree with everything you said. Stuff you dissected in words bugged me as I read through the paragraph, but you did a great job articulating the problems.

The one additional thing that bugged me was this: How, in the first sentence, did he sense hostility? They seem like two beings hanging out in the corridor. They don't actually do anything that seems hostile to me - unless I'm missing it - not hissing at him, or looking at him all squinty-like, or baring their teeth.

Where's the hostility he's sensing?
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2007-04-09 09:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
[[ Where's the hostility he's sensing? ]]

In himself, perhaps? He certainly sounds hostile toward the other beings. Projection? I agree with everything Jay said about the passage, but I wonder if some of the problems might be smoothed out by making the whole thing more personal, more honestly the narrator's reaction, with less attempt at objectivity. Maybe something more like the depth of identification with which Browning opens some of his first person poems, eg "My first thought was, he lied in every word" (quoting from memory, as Google isn't coming up).
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Excellent, sir. I'm glad to have helped in some small way.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-04-09 03:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd go with the first draft comments above. Nice critique. I agree with it, but....

For me, there's more that just doesn't seem to work here. The first sentence throws me off for a reason I can't peg just this moment (damned asthma affects my brain--I've been writing more echoes as a result due to oxygen deprivation/medication effect). I want to see a more visceral reaction, I guess. Something more personal that draws me into the viewpoint character and their personality *before* I get thrown into this disconnect with these two other characters, one which is hostile for an unexplained reason. After all, perhaps the viewpoint character *is* presenting in a hostile fashion.

But...that may just be a stylistic issue from my point of view as someone who tends to be a more natural novel writer than a short story writer.

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cscole
User: carolecole
Date: 2007-04-09 04:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you! While I've read about de-constructing novels, I've yet to see it in reality without ensuing confusion. Now it makes complete sense.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-04-09 05:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I sensed the hostility the instant I stepped onto the main deck. There were two people at the other end of the corridor. I'd say they were standing but they weren't. They had no feet. Instead, like a chimpanzee, they had four hands at the end of long thin limbs. Both had gray skin and large colorless eyes and both were wearing the same non-descript skin-tight body suit. The hostility wasn't coming from the male. It was coming from the breastless, hipless thing hanging next to him.

It seems to me that the author might be picturing, essentially, a movie clip and is trying to convey what a viewer of the clip might see. But in a book with a narrator or other character whose head we're in, it doesn't work.

A movie watcher might see two beings. Background music and camera effects could convey hostility; visually, we would see that they are built differently than we are and we might wonder--what are they? Are they aliens, modified humans? Gendered? They're not standing; this didn't say "hanging" to me--are both hanging? What from? The second thing hanging from the male? In a movie clip, we'd know.

The narrator sees two "people"--so one assumes he knows what they are and knows that they can be classed as people. Why, then, the intense description? He'd know what they look like, he'd know that they hang. If the non-male is normally breastless and hipless, he'd know that too. If he hasn't seen such beings before, I'd expect more of an "Ack! What are these things? Are they a threat? Should I attack or run? Is there backup nearby?" than a "Wow! Hostile vibes from the bitch queen! Boy these folks are ugly."

Not sure what the author intended, but it feels like the paragraph is primarily infodump of things the narrator knows perfectly well. A couple of phrases would be enough so that the reader knows they're people but are not like us; looks can wait.

El
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, we talked a lot about context in the verbal discussion. There's an aspect of literality in genre fiction which is much less of an issue than it is in most other forms of fiction.
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kara_gnome
User: kara_gnome
Date: 2007-04-09 08:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, yes, letting you share this paragraph and critique is super--pass on thanks, if he/she isn't following along, too, please.

I was wondering if you meant, by learning a few things, that you learned something about critiquing or something about why this opening didn't work? What did you learn?

What did you give as suggestions to make it work better? Or, if not that, what do you think would make it work better? :)

Actually, reading frankwu's comment made me wonder if the focus were more on the hostility, and open the paragraph with that as the main idea, instead of how they look? Looks could be slipped in more with action (such as covert hostility)--the action would be the main, interesting thing, the looks the supporting details, in other words.

But it does sound like a good story! I agree, the opening isn't quite the grabber it should be, though, but it's got potential :)
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User: eljaydaly
Date: 2007-04-09 10:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I just wanted to drop a very loud thank-you to the writer. That's a brave thing, to allow us to peek at the critiqued piece.

Thank you so much! (And good luck with the story, too.)

(And thank you, Jay, for the deconstruction. That's extremely informative.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're welcome.
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russ: watchmen
User: goulo
Date: 2007-04-09 10:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:watchmen
I think your critique was useful and valid for the most part, and I agree with most of it. (And I agree it was cool of the author to consent with your posting this helpful example of critique for others to benefit.)

A minor wording thing you didn't mention, but which bugged me, was "Instead, like a chimpanzee, they had ..." - I got distracted when I read that, thinking "Should that be 'Instead, like chimpanzees, they had...'...?"

I did wonder about your complaint about the word "colorless"; that is possibly being too literal-minded (insofar as it seems the word "colorless" is one of those odd words which is generally used a bit metaphorically to create a sense of blandness, rather than literally, unless one is talking about a gas). I would be curious and grateful if you'd search for the word "colorless" in your own body of work, just to see if you ever use it in a way which one could similarly criticize as being not literally sensible, and if so, does it bother you in your own text.

That said, the opening seems to be striving for a sort of realism, so in such a context, perhaps you are right that a word like "colorless" is inappropriate.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, yeah, everybody's a critic. "Colorless" is a reasonable way to refer to pale or watery eyes. The issue isn't the use of the term per se, it's that such a metaphoric usage early in a genre story where anything could be literally true is potentially confusing.

Besides, since when have I been a consistency fetishist?
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Doctor Pipe
User: dr_pipe
Date: 2007-04-09 17:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Colorless seems to me to imply totally black. Black being the absence of color and all...
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russ: watchmen
User: goulo
Date: 2007-04-10 11:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:watchmen
Good luck using "colorless" to mean "black" in the real world and having people understand you! The raven is a colorless bird. Kyle MacLachlan has colorless hair. The picture was drawn with colorless ink. Etc. :)
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
kara_gnome
User: kara_gnome
Date: 2007-04-09 14:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Everyone else probably knows, but I'm one of those people who has to ask :)--is this your story that Jay's talking about? :) I would think so, or why would you possibly want to tape it to your wall, but juuuust in case....(ha!)
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I rarely have the patience myself. One of those discipline things which is far more often honored in the breach. But having gone to the trouble of doing it, I thought it interesting enough to share -- with the author's permission. (They were very gracious about it, too.) I'm glad you saw what I saw in it.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-09 16:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The author will remain safely anonymous unless they choose to out themselves here. :D
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Doctor Pipe
User: dr_pipe
Date: 2007-04-09 17:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The breastless, hipless thing bit is kind of strange, but it didn't strike me as misogynistic; it seems that the writer is trying to convey that the creature is deformed, or from the narrator's perspective, seems to be deformed (perhaps the narrator is unfamiliar with this subspecies, so he sees this thing that looks maybe kind of female in the face, but lacks the other usual cues for feminity, so he doesn't quite know what it is.
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Susan Paraventur
User: paraventur
Date: 2007-04-10 04:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This paragraph mostly tells the reader what is not happening and what the people are not: They aren't standing, they have no feet, their eyes are colorless, the body suit is non-descript, the male isn't hostile, and the thing is breastless and hipless.

I think the writer would be better served to say what is happening, what they are, and how they are hostile. And, there's an old adage, show - don't tell, which seems worthwhile to bring up. (For example, say they each have four hands holding onto something and skip the no feet or the upper hands were grasping *something* and the lower ones where clutching something else. OR the thing was hanging from its upper hands and the lower hands were balled into fists.)

I agree with the misogynistic comment. I doubt I'd read past that sentence.

And I wonder how something hanging, which is passive, is showing hostility. Unless he is an empath or psychic, the main character is going to be using body language and facial expression to sense the hostility, but I'm not seeing any of this (unless the person is projecting, which is possible considering the description of one of the people being a "thing" - which is a dehumanizing term).
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souderwan
User: souderwan
Date: 2007-04-10 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: Thanks for that!
rocketscientist pointed me here and I wasn't planning on responding. When I read your critique, however (I don't like the term "criticism"), I felt I had to say something.

Your deconstruction is brilliant and really does a fantastic job of giving the author something concrete (I've always like that con-crit and concrete are so closely related) to work with. It's very easy for someone to say "Hmmm...doesn't work for me." That doesn't help the author.

I think the objective of the author is to communicate what s/he "sees" to the reader. I doubt anyone writes anything with the intention of being obtuse. Even when the author is intentionally hiding details for a slow-reveal effect, I'm convinced that clarity is still important. What you did was provide the kind of feedback that identifies where the author missed his mark and I thought this was wonderful.

So to wrap it up, I dream of having someone like you look over my writing and provide that level of feedback. By using that single paragraph to deconstruct as you did, you've taught the author a great deal, conceptually and that will help him write a better story for the rest of his work(s).

Thanks for that!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-11 02:11 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Thanks for that!
You are welcome!
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User: timmulcahy
Date: 2007-05-22 15:05 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Thanks for that!
New Opening. After Jay's critique I went back to the drawing board on this story. I'm posting the first couple of paragraphs for your review. Once again, thanks to Jay and everyone else at Fairwood for their input.

I sensed confusion and mild revulsion the instant I stepped into the corridor. It was the weird, more projected than felt.
There were two people floating at the other end. The emotion was coming from the female and was directed toward my shoulder-length black hair.
The nausea I experienced in hyperspace returned as I entered the station's microgravity. The slippers they gave me attached to the floor but my hair floated around my face forcing me to push it out of the way.
"I come to serve," I said as I walked toward the two floating figures. They had gray, pasty skin and large eyes that were completely black, no doubt adapted to the low light conditions. The male reached out with his right leg. There was a hand where his foot should have been. I had to suppress my own revulsion as I took it. His fingers were long and thin, his grip, weak.
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