Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Saturday, March 25, 2006

    This week's assignment...

    Please go here and read Joyce's "Refugee"... I'm blogging about it tomorrow. Password is 'Vista' if you haven't been to AW's Share Your Work forum before.
    Torgo, 3:15 pm | link | 27 comments |

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    A Game of Chess

    Right, have you all had a look at "A Game of Chess"? Good!

    The first thing you'll notice is that it's highly observational; the method by which information is conveyed to the reader is the watchful narrator, who is capable of noticing fine detail. The narrative voice in any piece of work tends to imply a personality. I know people go on about first- or third- person or omniscient/unreliable/limited POVs, but I think it's initially easier just to think of a person telling a story, and what sort of person that is.

    In this case, the narrator is an excellent psychologist and reader of body language with a flair for pithy imagery. He looks on at the events in the story from a detached perspective; see how Ian continually stresses the distance between the narrator and his subjects. He's in the corner by the noisy coffee machine (sound becomes another barrier to observation); he reminds us often that he is 'watching', 'seeing' or failing to see. Ian does not allow the narrator to become a part of the story, by having him remain aloof, and by not allowing him to comment directly.

    The narrator is hypersensitive. We get all five senses from him. He can see fine golden hairs from the other side of the room. The cadence of his observations is simple, deliberate. Characters arrive trailing sharp, declarative images - crisp white shirts, green velvet ribbons. As you see, they're handled well and often compounded of one or more sense-impressions, which conduces to a feeling of keenness and clarity in the writing.

    As I say, he's also able to read people. This can be a desirable trait in a narrator as it provides a bridge between two different kinds of narrator - the person like you or I, or the omniscient narrator. Ian's narrator tells us that the man and the woman are both trying to lose, which feels like he's jumped into their heads; but he's carefully set up that class of observation, for example when he sees the man's eyes 'slide along the diagonal', thinking about a bishop move. Not only close observation, but also analysis; a fitting person to comment on a chess problem, a conundrum he is trying to work out.

    And he speaks in pleasant images. I like the fresh scrubbed air and the insolently stretched legs. There's a writerliness about him too.

    Some part of the narrator is Ian, and the rest Ian has constructed out of his own craft to enable him to present this vignette. It is a small carefully-constructed piece of work, with a straightforward gambit and a tricksy endgame, and he's had to give us a voice who can sort it all out for the reader with equal care and brevity.

    The story's very schematic, isn't it? That's the second thing you notice. He's had to stylise and maybe diminish all the characters to have them fit their chess-game roles. The narrator's aware: "The scene is unreal. It is like watching a play, or being a voyeur." That's the choice Ian has made, and he's executed it well, but it maybe leaves the reader a little uninvolved.

    The weakest section is the section of dialogue in the middle, which veers uncomfortably from the abstract - "we have nothing more to learn from one another" - to the mundane - "All my stuff is packed in the car." The latter rings hollow in the context. I can't quite believe any of the dialogue, actually. The narrator's voice is so austere and controlled, and these people strike the wrong note. Maybe if the narrator were less detached, all participants could become a little more human; and the story, which shows promise and skill, would pack more of a punch. As it is, it feels like a successful exercise in writing, not a successful story.

    I don't know enough about the short story market to say whether anyone would publish this. There's room for improvement, but maybe this is one of those things that a writer gets a lot out of writing, but maybe recycles into a longer a better work a little down the line.

    Thanks for all your comments recently. One of the many things that is enjoyable about operating this site is when people start to debate and discuss things on the comment threads.
    Torgo, 3:45 pm | link | 13 comments |

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    All the Fun of the Fair

    The London Book Fair's on at the moment. I went yesterday. I don't have much business to do there, other than wander about looking at what everybody else is publishing.

    One thing you do see quite a lot is that other publishers do pick up on books that you've rejected; happened to me twice yesterday, big posters plastered all over the stands advertising books I felt we couldn't publish for one reason or another. The lesson to draw from that is that being rejected (or accepted) by a publisher isn't necessarily about the quality of the book. It's about how many copies a publisher thinks they can sell, and one house might be better set up to market a book, or just feel more bullish about it. Quality feeds in to that, but there is another set of factors, enabling us to account for the success of Jeremy Clarkson. (My money's on an infernal Faustian pact.)

    Anyhow: the next crit I'm going to post, before the end of the week, is not in fact the top of the queue I gave you the other day. Ian submitted a short story to me just before the first one on the list, called A Game of Chess, which I didn't want to post in its entirety (only about 1K words) for fear of 'publishing' it. I didn't want to pull bits out of it either as it wouldn't really work. So Ian's posted it over at the forums on Absolute Write in the Share Your Work > Literary folder. Off you go and have a look. I'll tell you what I think soon...
    Torgo, 1:50 pm | link | 14 comments |

    Monday, February 27, 2006

    What Fresh Hell Is This?

    I am very bad at proofreading. Very, very bad. Such that I occasionally don't notice if there's a whole page missing from a book, or if a word is spelt wrong in sixteen-point type in the middle of a page. Added to this is my complete blind spot for several points of house style and grammar, such as the correct use of the restrictive relative pronoun or the distinction between -ise and -ize.

    Unfortunately, in a world where editorial service departments are a thing of the past, I have to do a lot of spotting these things myself, and then I get my work checked by people who proof professionally, and then my typescripts come back covered in post-it notes with tart little comments all over them. BAD editor. In extreme cases the competent person in this relationship will come and sit down with me and give me a little lecture, whereupon I thank my lucky stars I do not work for the Mob and therefore am not liable to be shot behind the ear and dumped into the Grand Union Canal.

    So the part of book-making that I particularly hate is when the creative part of it is over and it becomes a matter of getting the book ready to be printed. This is most of it. How much nicer it is when I am on the other side of the divide, just burbling away as author-on-staff, safe in the knowledge that my colleague with her editorial hat on will have to dot my undotted is and cross my uncrossed ts. Not to mention swap out all my whiches for thats and vice versa.

    With my author hat on, I have around 150,000 copies of my books in print (needless to say, not under my name) in the UK and Australia alone. Maybe it's time I got out of the office, chained myself to the word-processor and see if there's a more interesting way to make a living than checking very slowly for typos.

    Anyway, today I am freshly shamed by my proofreading rubbishness, so by way of blowing off steam, a few things that have come out of my reading of children's book manuscripts recently.

    1) Please would people stop titling their books "[PROTAGONIST'S WACKY FORENAME] [PROTAGONIST'S WACKY SURNAME] AND THE [SOMETHING] OF [SOMETHING]" E.g. "WIGGY FUMBLER AND THE SOAPDISH OF QZARD". No, it doesn't really make me think "Hey! It's the next Harry Potter!" It makes me think "I'm going to have to read 400pp about somebody called fucking Wiggy?"

    2) Please would people stop writing the book where the brainy awkward geek is oppressed by high school and shoved around by jocks but because he is sensitive and creative comes to a kind of triumph and inner strength and probably gets to kiss the prettiest girl in the school because he isn't like the other guys. Typical life-lessons / rites-of-passage learned in this novel include the shattering revelation that the pretty girl may not be so pretty on the inside, or that your parents aren't as bad as you think, or ... oh, you know the rest of the yadda yadda yadda. Here's a free novel idea for you: let's have a book called JOCK, in which one of the Neanderthal stereotypes usually found picking on our pale-and-interesting heroes in the above gets to tell their side of the story. Why exactly do they beat up on future authors? Now It Can Be Told.

    3) The prologue where a child is born and bystanders make cryptic/prophetic comments whose true meaning will not be understood until later. Yes, fantasy writers, I am talking to you. It's really hackneyed. Just leave the damn prologue out already.

    4) You open a kids' fantasy manuscript and you get faced with something like this:

    "The prophecy?" said Dangalf the Sage. "For many years, the sages warred over its meaning, until now only I remain as the last keeper of the words of Khobblers the Oracle. I now impart it to you, my young friends, shoeless, feisty ragamuffins though you may be.

    "Three shall come when times are dark.
    One has a distinctive mark:
    His head's the shape of English muffins
    With birthmarks in the shape of puffins.
    The second is a waspish girl
    Whose wisecracks make you want to hurl;
    And probably the plot will feature
    Some annoying talking creature.
    Inside they'll find the magic sword
    And slay the standard Evil Lord"

    "Like, that makes sense! Do you understand it, Cloppy?" asked Kourtnee, waspishly.
    "Naayyyy!" said the unicorn.
    "Wait a second, guys!" said Wiggy. "MY head's shaped like an English muffin!"


    Wow, what are the odds. In the end we reach a crisis because there's no magic sword, but it turns out the magic sword actually refers to the magic sword of friendship the protagonists carry around in their hearts, and they defeat the bad guy with a group hug. Ooh, didn't see that coming, did you! Having destroyed any tension by telling you what's going to happen in the end with stupid doggerel, the author desperately tries to claw back some sort of drama by playing on words. PLEASE STOP USING PROPHECY AS A PLOT DEVICE IN FANTASIES UNLESS YOU HAVE SOME KIND OF RATIONALE FOR IT, e.g. time travel or something. It just makes it much more difficult to create thrills.

    The only great fantasy I can think of in which a prophecy is a plot device is Jack Vance's unfeasibly brilliant Lyonesse, and that's only really because King Casmir's oracular magic mirror Persilian hates him and wants to fuck with his head. Actually, in the example above, if Wiggy and pals were to end up spitted on Axfang the Black's halberd by the end of chapter three, that'd be a fun use of prophecy.

    5) Please stop writing the post-apocalyptic SF thriller in which after the bomb/plague/enviro-meltdown the world is reduced to scrabbling around in little Hobotowns, disused quarries where everyone wears bits of old sackcloth and leather, and at some point someone will be discovered worshipping a burnt-out old TV set. Our hero/-ine will then go off on a quest and discover the forgotten history of Earth, probably including a secret enclave of people living at a 21st century level, yadda yadda yadda. Surely we are all bored of books and movies supposedly set in the future in which people have regressed to tribalism? You're writing SF for kids, give us some bloody robots and death rays.

    These dull SF-for-kids books are so often moralising and didactic (look what we're doing to the planet, how bad it is!) and usually display a decidedly un-SF-like poverty of imagination. (The reason film producers resort to Hobotown is usually that they've blown all their money on the SFX budget and there's nothing left over to dress the extras; but in a novel, exciting visuals cost you nothing.)

    If anyone out there is still reading after my long absence, please use the comment threads. I'd like people to contribute to the critique process a bit more. In fact I think I'd like to see at least one helpful or interesting comment from each person who has submitted an extract before I blog about their work - I'm going to start bumping lurkers down the list... (If anonymity is an issue, you can always comment anonymously, but email me separately to let me know who you are.)
    Torgo, 4:49 pm | link | 47 comments |

    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    Here you go: the top of the queue.

    1. "Refugee" - Joyce
    2. "Filling the Gap" - Richard
    3. "Insight" - Diana
    4. "The Blood of Queens" - Valerie
    5. "The Walmart Way" - Julie
    6. "Hippie Chick's Life Lessons Learned" - Rene
    7. "One for the Ages" - Leo
    8. "Osama's Dream" - Richard
    9. "Joffa" - Suzanne
    10. "An End to Longing" - Stephen

    Torgo, 11:43 pm | link | 9 comments |

    Short Stories

    Two new crits below.

    I've also been sitting on two short stories for a while - A Game at Chess and In a Dark Time. I can't really post them in full without that constituting 'publication' so I suggest the best thing for the authors is that they post them in Absolute Write's password-protected Share Your Work forum. Once they're up, I'll post thoughts about them here.

    I'm so bored with having to keep logging in to a file-hosting service every few weeks to keep the Easter Island statue from disappearing off their server. So, please consider the statue on holiday. Perhaps he is walking the earth, solving mysteries, reuniting families, and possibly competing in secret underground bare-knuckle kickboxing tourneys in order to save the life of his feckless kid brother. (I did have this idea once for a TV series in which the late lamented Ol' Dirty Bastard would drift from town to town doing good works but being pursued by the cops, inspired by the real-life incident in which he rescued a child from a burning car. It would've been called The Dirtiest Hobo. Sadly, it was not to be.)
    Torgo, 1:47 pm | link | 1 comments |

    Mini-post

    Er, not sure what this one's called. It's by Margaret and it's YA fiction.

    Gina Sarafino knew Eli Jenkins didn’t normally invite girls to his basement to play video games. He didn’t invite them one-on-one, nor to the big multiplayer games he often threw with a dozen friends and four networked television sets. It wasn’t that he didn’t like girls. In fact, he thought quite highly of them. Girls, he believed, just didn’t like video games. Gina, though, was welcome downstairs anytime. It wasn’t only that they’d known each other since he was in third grade and she in first, or that they used to be next-door-neighbors out in the country before his family moved to town, nor was it because they attended the same church. It was because she regularly smoked him at Halo, and if she beat him, she could certainly beat the other guys who weekly hung out in the Jenkins’ basement. When it came to video games, Eli wanted Gina on his team.

    Gina, on her part, felt honored to be there. She was a sophomore and not a big deal in Woodvale High School. Eli, on the other hand, was a senior and a very big deal. Since she’d known Eli so long, he seemed like a brother, and she hadn’t realized what an asset the association was until she started high school herself last year. As a result of Eli’s reflected glory, doors opened for Gina into places she would never have been on her own, like where she was tonight, playing games in Eli’s basement with a dozen senior jocks and a smattering of kids from the church youth group. She wasn’t the only girl present tonight, however. Her best friend, Amy Tsukada was included because the two were practically joined at the hip, and because most of the jocks thought Amy was hot: untouchable, but hot.

    It was a small place, Woodvale, Oregon, and there wasn’t a lot for kids to do in the rural, mountainous, logging and farming community. The Jenkins’ basement was a safe haven for many. At the moment, though, it was emptying fast.

    "Where’d everybody go?" Benito "Benny" Sanchez asked, returning from upstairs with a can of the soda Mrs. Jenkins kept stocked in a spare refrigerator on the back porch. The largest group of game-players, Eli’s jock classmates, had left en masse while Benny was raiding the soda stash. It was a week before school started and most had summer jobs.

    "Claimed they had to work in the morning," Eli said, yawning.

    "They just got tired of Gina beating them," Amy said.

    "Don’t we all?" Eli said, unplugging controllers from the game consoles. Gina began picking up pop cans and empty chip bags. Amy’s mother was on her way to take them home, but they had a few minutes and she didn’t want to leave Eli with a mess. Eli stopped suddenly and looked around the room. There were only four kids left, all from their church. Benny was helping clean up by finishing a bag of pretzels. Ian McNeel was still lost in a game on one of the sets. He could, Gina knew, easily play all night, then get up and ace an advanced chemistry quiz. Ian was a self-described "freakin’ genius."

    "Everybody’s here," Eli said, glancing around. Gina looked at Amy quizzically who shrugged.

    "You’re losing it, Eli," Amy said, continuing to stack pizza boxes to haul upstairs to the trash. "Everybody just left."

    "Caitlin!" Eli called, ignoring Amy. After a long moment, Caitlin, Eli’s younger sister, appeared at the top of the stairway, book in hand, with the slightly dazed look she always had when she’d been engrossed in a book. She was always engrossed in a book. Gina watched her make her way down the worn carpeted stairway, her limp, pale brown hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, a shapeless t-shirt over her grey sweat pants. She might be cute, Gina thought, giving her a quick smile, if she’d take the time. Standing next to the stunning Amy didn’t help any, but Caitlin seemed indifferent. For some reason she and Gina had never been close, although they were nearly the same age. It was Eli she’d spent time with when they were little, building forts together in the field that lay between their houses.

    "They’re all here," Eli said to Caitlin. "Shall we reveal The Plan?"

    "Sure," Caitlin said, closing the book in her hand and sitting primly on the edge of the couch. Benny nudged Ian who began the process of shutting down his game.

    When they were all seated on the floor or the worn brown velvet couch along the family room wall, Eli perched on the edge of a small piano stool and looked at them in that intense way he had, like the survival of all earthlings was at stake. He was medium height, not tall enough to be a basketball star nor hefty enough for football, although he had done both with some success. His hair, a shade lighter than his sister’s, curled down over his collar and around his ears. Eli’s hazel eyes turned green when he was upset, or when he was pumped about something. They were green now, Gina saw.

    "This is my senior year...," he began.

    "Go, seniors!" Ian said from his perch on the arm of the couch. Amy punched him.

    "We have to hurry," she said. "My mom will be here soon."

    "You heard her; hurry it up," Ian said to Eli.

    "...but before I leave for college, I want to start a band," Eli continued.

    Wahey! I think that’s the plot right there, isn’t it - the band - appearing an economical 900 words or so in, the characters sketched in. The prose is solid – not incredibly stylish, but unobtrusive and functional. I’d probably get bored with it, but then I’m not the target audience.

    The only reason I wouldn’t ask to see more of this for a UK children’s list is that it’s really very American, and that’s a difficulty in kids’ books. School’s quite different over here in some ways. Still, the basics are good, and I’d want to read on to see what happens.

    This is what I mean about the beginning of a book giving the editor the best chance to grasp what it’s all about. (Cue Margaret telling me the band has nothing to do with the plot…)
    Torgo, 1:35 pm | link | 8 comments |

    The City Council Murders

    Here's the beginning of Jim's The City Council Murders.

    The mayor was lying dead on the floor and I was sitting on top of the best story of my life.

    If there's one inviolate fact I've learned as a reporter for a small-city newspaper, it's that city council meetings can be pretty boring. [Inviolate fact and ‘can be, pretty much’ don’t match, nor does ‘usually’, next.] It's usually just a lot of bullshit. I'm a damned good reporter and I'd been searching for something exciting to write about. [You could cut this line – it’s a non sequitur, it makes me think Our Hero is up himself rather and of course he is naturally looking for something
    exciting.]


    I had a funny feeling before this meeting, though, and I'm not sure why. It might have been the way the city clerk's secretary batted her hot, blue eyes at me when she wiggled into City Hall.

    I admit I enjoyed the way she kept baby-bluing me from the front of the council chambers. She kept crossing and uncrossing her never-ending legs under the council table and, was it my imagination, or was that a flash of thigh peeking out from above a stocking top? Was I the first reporter to unearth the news that the heart-stopping Sheryl Lareaux wore, not pantyhose, but stockings and a garter belt? [This is pure Mickey Spillane.]

    I wasn't hallucinating; she actually WAS running her tongue slowly across her pouty lower lip every time she caught my eye. I wondered briefly why this knockout blonde was suddenly showing all this interest in me, the lowly reporter who sat through every one of these dry-as-dust council meetings. [Odd, isn’t it – Our Hero ricocheting between being hard-boiled Mike Hammer and the ‘lowly reporter’ with the city council beat. One starts to suspect satire. I hope so, or it’s bathos.]

    The session had started as usual, with the pledge of allegiance and a little prayer that no one really listened to. Me, I'd been at the back of the room, sucking on a smoke before I had to sit down and pay what passed for serious attention to the political hijinks going on up front.

    One of the perks of being a foot soldier in the journalism wars is that you get to meet some of the real people in government, the cops and the firemen and the building inspectors and the street superintendents and the clerks, the people who usually have the most interesting stories to tell, anyway. I always prefer to spend my time with them. It's like having the freedom to curse and scratch my balls without feeling like I farted in church. [Why is this paragraph here? It doesn’t seem to relate to those on either side.]

    I’d stubbed out my cigarette and ambled up to the front row of seats in the council chamber like I didn’t care who owned the place. I sat down next to the city solicitor, a high-dollar lawyer who was always pretty friendly. He usually kept me pretty well informed about the resolutions and ordinances that appeared on the council agenda. He could always be counted on to be helpful, as long as it didn’t interfere with his own agenda. [Jim, like me, needs to watch his ‘pretties’, and other qualifiers that can dilute the impact of a sentence. Also, I get a big wave of I-don’t-care regarding the city solicitor, who seems kind of pointless.]

    The council members were still discussing something earth-shatteringly important, like whether to approve the minutes of the last two sessions, when it happened.

    Glass shattered and the mayor spun around out of his padded leather chair at the far right end of the head table and crashed to the floor.

    For a lifetime-long second, nobody moved. Then one of the councilwomen screamed and everyone was up out of their chairs.

    I weigh a lot more than I should, but I can move fast when I have to, so I beat everyone to where the mayor lay crumpled like a used Kleenex on the floor. [Definite bathos, and seems an inappropriate image. I can imagine the victim of some mob hit being dumped at the side of the road described sardonically as being ‘like a used Kleenex’ because the image conveys the body being disposed of thoughtlessly in the first place to hand. Unless the council chambers are a real sty, it seems incongruous.] A big chunk of his face was gone. His last glance out the window by his desk had been his last glance at anything. Someone had shot him through the window. If the shooter had been trying for a between-the-eyes shot, he’d pretty much scored a bull’s eye. [Ha! Redundant, no? You could say that about any gunshot wound: If he’d being trying to hit what he hit, he hit it. You could say that about Dick Cheney.]

    I reached over for the mayor’s wrist to search for a pulse, knowing I wouldn’t find one. The police chief was beside me and he took over. He doesn’t carry a walkie talkie, so he shouted for someone to call for the cops and the ambulance. The look on the old cop’s face left me with no doubt that the ambulance wouldn’t be hurrying to the Emergency Room, though. [Our Hero didn’t really need to tell us about the cop’s expression, as it’s been fairly comprehensively established that the mayor is dead.] Those huddled around the mayor were in a noisy state of confused shock. but I couldn’t succumb to the temptation to join them. I was right in the middle of the biggest story to come down the pike in years and I had to stay alert, sucking up information like a nuke-powered Hoover [comic imagery. What tone’s Jim going for here? Funny, thrilling…?].

    It was immediately apparent that no one had seen or heard anything more than I had: the sound of the window breaking and the man being propelled backwards, spinning around and falling out of the chair onto the floor. [How could this possibly be 'immediately apparent'?]

    I glanced through the shattered window, wondering where in the hell the sniper could have been. It looked like the clearest line of fire was from a dilapidated, white-washed building across the street, the old County Welfare Office. At an angle, though, and several hundred feet away across a nearly empty county parking lot, was the high school. I tried to mentally fix the school window that had the clearest sight line to the broken window. And the mayor’s head. With a powerful rifle, and probably a scope, an expert marksman could certainly have lobbed the slug from the school. ['Lobbed the slug?']

    Still, none of it made much sense. An assassin killing a mayor who had absolutely no enemies anyone knew about? [We the audience know nothing of the Mayor so far, so I feel it’s an error to jump in with this piece of summary exposition – let’s have a little investigation from the journo before we conclude (even initially) that it doesn’t make sense.]

    More cops and EMTs arrived, so I slipped out of council chambers, down the back stairs and outside, where a small crowd was beginning to gather. The guys from the firehouse next door were milling around the front door of City Hall. [Why?] I quickly scanned the windows of the high school and the old white building again, from ground level. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I couldn’t spot a thing that spelled “murder.” [It'd be traditional, in this sort of situation, for the sleuth to pick up some clue that everyone else has missed... maybe later.]

    I slipped back inside before the cops could seal off the building and called the paper, telling the city editor what had gone down and asking for a photographer, tout suite. The office was only four blocks away, so the shutterbug could be here pronto. [What with the toot sweet, the shutterbug and the pronto I feel rather overwhelmed by slang/jargon! A little slang is good to maintain atmosphere and character, a bit of flavour in the text, but too much and it can sound silly.]

    The ambulance attendants were standing around with their hands in their pockets. The mayor was dead and they wouldn’t be taking him anywhere. The medical examiner, after he did his little rain dance, would have to move the body. [Rain dance?]

    By now, the place was crawling with uniforms and detectives. Even the county prosecutor showed up.

    Caveat: I’m posting this in my lunch break, and I can’t check back on my email inbox at home to see if Jim might have sent me an updated version; if so, I’ll replace this post when I get home.

    I’m not convinced by anything that happens in this passage. Our hero seems to want to be tough, funny, smart, streetwise and cynical all at once, with the result that the tone oscillates wildly from one sentence to the next. As a reader, you don’t know what to take seriously. I got irritated with the flip way the gory dead Mayor was being treated; our hero comes off like a jerk.


    To be fair, there are a number of local government employees over whose graves I would be hard pressed to shed a tear, but let’s at least establish who’s likeable and who isn’t before we start taking the reader’s sympathies for granted.

    The whole thing’s incredibly pulpy, with the knockout-dame-with-legs-that-don’t-quit on femme fatale duty, the drawling slanginess, the breezy pseudo-gumshoe… I wouldn’t expect, from this, a great read. I’d expect something clunky and predictable.

    I think this sort of thing is highly difficult to write. The basic models – Hammett and Chandler – were both fine writers, and Chandler IMHO was exceptionally fine. You can’t just throw together a sultry blonde, a bit of Sam Spade attitude and a dusting of flashy simile.
    Torgo, 1:21 pm | link | 5 comments |

    Wednesday, February 15, 2006

    Side Dish

    We now return you to your regularly-scheduled blathering. This is an excerpt from Danielle's Side Dish.

    I looked up to the ceiling lights over my desk and saw a bug trapped under the plastic. Exactly how long it had been there I couldn't recall. Every so often my boss would point to it and say, "Claire, can't you do something about that bug up there?"

    I'd then respond, "But we don't have a ladder."

    To which my boss would say, "Oh right. Well, I've got some other jobs that need to be done. I'll just call someone."

    But he never did. He never did do much of anything.

    And thus the bug would continue on in its insect limbo, suckered into its present state by the false hope of florescent. The poor bug had thought it was a way out but now he was worse off than when he started. He was stuck, he was screwed. He wasn't even granted a parting wish of being allowed to decompose properly like the other outdoor insects. All because he'd had the misfortune to fly in here. I felt exactly like that bug.

    Dr. Ogre approached and followed my eyes up to the light.

    "Claire, you haven't been able to get that bug out yet?"

    "Dr. Ogre you haven't been able to get me a ladder, yet?"

    "Oh, yes. Right. I'll call someone."

    Dr. Ogre was a nice enough man but his name was so befitting of his personage it sort of took your breath away. A large hulking man of 6'4 whose shoulders reached up to his baseball-glove-sized ears. He was hard not to notice.

    And then there were his lips. Fat and heavy, they made it hard for him to keep his mouth closed. Not so attractive. Not exactly the look of a scholar.

    Every new patient was greeted in precisely the same manner by the man.

    "Welcome. I'm Dr. Ogre."

    And every new patient reacted in exactly the same way.

    "Really? Oh yes, I mean, I see. I mean, nice to meet you."

    Dr. Ogre asked, "Do you have the medical history form for the new patient?"

    "Yes, it's right here," I handed him the paper.

    Let me note here that there are two things a dentist would be wise not to meddle with, stain and soil. Yet Dr. Ogre delved into both fearlessly. In his spare time he built bird houses, always stained brown, always done without gloves. Once the bird houses were erected he would then plant a lush garden surrounding the structure using rich top soil and lots of manure. Heaps of the stuff. A good portion of which usually ended up under his nails.

    Around the office there were many photos of these little shrines. Dr. Ogre was also an avid photographer. I thought it a shame that he used only a digital camera as I wondered if he developed the film himself that the chemicals might burn off at least some of the offensive stain and soil.

    As it was his hands were constantly in a gruesome state of neglect, scratched and scarred with tracks of brown running deep into his palms and cuticles. The surgical gloves (size extra large) masked the overall unpleasantness but the damage was usually done on that first day of introduction as Dr. Ogre extended his foul paw to the new patient, reaching out as if from a grave. The patient would take his hand reluctantly and afterwards no glove could successfully blank out the image.

    I watched as the doctor scanned the form, thinking, He grinds his teeth at night. No conditions of the heart and he flosses once a day.

    I peered over the counter out into the waiting room. And he chose the Entertainment Weekly over the Time, wears dress socks and a nicely pressed shirt. He is 27 and put his mother down as an emergency contact.

    All of this was mere observation and was evident to anyone by simply looking at him and reading his chart. But there was one more thing that I knew about this guy with a certainty that hurt. He would never notice me. When he leaves today he will not suddenly stop and say, "Hey, could I take you out sometime?"

    I knew this because he was a nice guy and in all of my 30 years I'd never been able to land one of those. Not because of my looks but simply because I was cursed. He'd smile politely at me when he paid and then he'd walk right out the door, leaving me and this stupid bug behind.

    "Fine," the doctor said as he handed me back the paper. Stepping out into the waiting room, he made his usual grand entrance by first bumping into the magazine rack and then swearing. I closed my eyes, Could he not work on his entrance?

    "Greg? Welcome. I'm Dr. Ogre."

    "Really? Oh yes, I mean, I see. I mean, nice to meet you."

    Once patient and doctor retreated back to the operatory I thought it safe to check my e-mails. There was rarely much to get excited about. The standards were- one supportive cheerleading type one from my mom telling me that although this wasn't the life I'd planned for myself it was not a total debacle- rah, rah! One chain e-mail from my college roommate urging me to forward it to seven other people and something magical will happen- seriously, this works was always noted at the bottom. Total crock and a scam to get your contacts. Honestly, this was from my college roommate who actually managed to graduate. One from CVS advertising deals of the week- usually everything I bought the week before. And roughly three to ten from my cousin Andrea complaining about her near perfect life.

    I looked at my mail inbox and saw 14 unread messages. Andrea must have sent an extra today. I guess the cleaning women missed a spot.

    Clicking on the inbox, I perused the list and stopped suddenly. His name jumped off the screen. The title read simply "Hi." After three years it somehow seemed enough.

    My hand shook as I dragged the mouse over and clicked.

    The message read-

    "Hi Claire. I know it's been awhile. I kept meaning to get in touch with you but I thought you wanted some time to yourself. I know you did actually. It's just funny how time flies, right?

    So how are you? I wanted to let you know that I'm engaged. Can you believe it? Weird, huh? Anyway, I'll be home soon. I'd love to see you. If you want. Love ya, Darren

    I pulled my hand off the mouse and let it slide down my leg slowly, feeling the thinness of my shin and then roll my ankle and listen for the crack. It was a habit I'd adopted over the last few years without even realizing. I'm sure I'd done it thousands of times before. But it was different for me now. It was in that brief but highly audible sound that I was most keenly aware of all I knew I'd lost.

    What, I wonder, is this? Are we in Bridget Jones territory?

    Inauspiciously for my first critique back in the saddle, I find it's hard to react to this piece of writing. The bit with the ladder and the insect at the beginning is perhaps overplayed, but it isn't horrible. Dr Ogre is mildly amusing, although again the stain and soil seems strung out a little longer in more detail than need be. I love him reaching out his paw as if from the grave, that's funny and says more than five paragraphs of description about his hobbies.

    The whole thing is written fairly confidently although it feels... deliberate. Lightness of touch is a difficult thing to achieve and this narrator requires it. Jokes have to be finessed into as little space as possible, or strung out through the book as running gags or plot points that pay off in unexpected ways. I think jokes of the latter kind work on a credit/debit model; the more you invest in setting something up, the bigger the payoff has to be, or the longer you need to wait for it to mature. A nice example here is the way Dr Ogre's patients react to his name, which just about works here; the setup is a little bit laboured, but Danielle waits just about long enough for the punchline and it gets a chuckle. I'm not saying it's the gag of the century, but structurally, it's a joke.

    Lightness of touch may be hard to achieve in the kind of text where the narrator has an unvaried tone of voice, even if that tone is ironic or sassy. It can lead to a plodding read, and reader disinterest.

    There are also a couple of moments where it seems like Danielle is shoe-horning 'material' in to the text. For example, the whole email inbox thing seems unnecessary and a way to keep the narrator continually carping about things she observes around her. By this point, the whole insect bit has done the work of establishing that Claire is bored, dissatisfied, and harassed, so no need to then illustrate her being bored, dissatisfied and harassed by her email. Unless it's really, really funny. This only raises a rueful smile. (If the ECOLIFE COMPANY is reading this, please piss off and die, by the way.)

    If we are indeed in Bridget Jones territory, I quite like the throwaway 'simply because I was cursed' as the narrator's explanation for Not Being Able to Find A Man. It's a good idea where a narrator's this chatty to keep some of the narrator's thought processes opaque to the reader (like a real person, not just a 'POV character'.) If the narrator feels they're cursed, you as author should know why they would say such a thing; then you can arrange their perceptions to fit that. Let the reader know that's how they see things once and then you don't have to refer to it again - show them, don't tell them.

    It's difficult to evaluate a fragment like this, which is why most publishers will ask for synopsis and first few chapters. I don't like getting chapters excerpted from the middle of the book. You can get a flavour of the writing from them but if you ask me it's the very first chapter that gives the best indication of a book's strengths and weaknesses. (Another reason I have a minor prejudice against prologues -- you can't tell much about the book from them, as they're usually so disconnected from the time and space of the main story.)

    Danielle, if you're still out there and you'd like to, drop a synopsis into the comments thread.

    I'm posting another screed in a minute...
    Torgo, 8:05 pm | link | 8 comments |

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    A Million Little Pieces of my PC

    And they fixed all the ones that were broken. Hello again!

    Stephen Newton said,

    When you're back online, I would be interested in hearing your perspective about the controversy surrounding James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces.

    OK. I haven't read the book. But what I can't particularly understand is why people feel so very betrayed by the fact that Frey has embellished and exaggerated the details of his life.

    Frey's book fits in to a recent trend for memoirs of personal ruin and redemption. We had Dave Pelzer a while back telling us about his horrible childhood for money; then Dave telling us about his horrible childhood again, for further money; then Dave again; then Dave's brother wanted to cash in; then everybody else who ever had an abusive or addictive background got a book contract and made Oprah cry. I find these books, on the whole, to be emotional pornography, and the publishing trend to be a somewhat distasteful bandwagon.

    It seems to matter to Frey's betrayed readers that these things Actually Happened. Why exactly is that? Do the events he recounts have no power to move us unless they occurred? They must feel that they were sold a ghoulish souvenir of somebody else's misery, and discovered that it was counterfeit. (Or, more charitably, a holy relic of a miraculous cure.)

    If A Million Little Pieces were a novel, and it was being evaluated on its literary merits, none of those concerns would have come out. So, I can only see this controversy as existing at all because this is a kind of book that has value to its readership for reasons other than its literary merits (whatever they may be.) Oprah's involvement is interesting: a TV show whose successful model is to feed its audience vicarious emotional highs and lows. If that's how you get your fix, you want it to be pure. You want the author, the victim, staked out in front of the cameras, truly confessing. Putting it another way, they are the goat. They take the sins of the congregation away into the world. James Frey says 'I am an alcoholic' and all the viewers and readers who drink alone feel purified, because they do not end up in rehab, in jail or on a tri-state crime-spree, or whatever.

    Anyhow, that's my theory. Frey's agent has been nicely dealt with by Miss Snark, so no need for me to rehearse that. The publisher should be trying to sell as many copies as possible, and I don't think they should have much trouble getting the book to stay on the shelves. As for Frey himself, without having read the book I can't blame him. He told a story and people loved it, then they attacked him because the story wasn't true. I simply wouldn't care, if it's a good yarn told well.

    The one similar book I would like to recommend is Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, which is beautifully written and very, very funny. You alternately giggle helplessly and gasp in horror the whole way through, a tough thing for Burroughs to pull off technically, and it would stand up just as well marketed as fiction.

    I've retrieved my emails and thank heavens have all your MSs intact, so we should be back on track this week. Meanwhile at work things have slowed down a little - my big ol' project went off to print the other day. The previous one I ghosted has sold 40K copies so far, which teaches me a valuable lesson: ALWAYS GET A ROYALTY. Tattoo that one on an easily-accessible part of your body, dear reader.
    Torgo, 7:03 pm | link | 18 comments |