Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

Obsessively detailed critique

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.
Tags: process, writing
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