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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  • Thursday, August 25, 2005

    Patty and Jamie

    Jane has sent the first page of her novel:

    That was the summer I lost everything. Passport, car keys, wallet, birth certificate, watch, sunglasses. One by one, as the weeks passed, I surrendered the trinkets of my adult identity, dropping them out of my life like a mermaid stripping the artifacts of her terrestrial visit, preparing for her return to the sea.

    The driver's license was the hardest . There's not a lot you can do without a license. I had to drive just over the speed limit at all times, because I couldn't risk getting hauled off to jail (do they actually arrest you for driving without a license, and if so, why haven't we citizens risen up in protest?). I thought about applying for a new one, but as the weeks passed and the old, lost one silently expired in some thief's drawer or perhaps under one of my own couch cushions, the task began to seem impossibly complicated. I called the town where I'd been born to request a birth certificate. "Just send us a check for $5 and a copy of a photo i.d.," said the clerk on the phone, a kindly sounding sort, no doubt the mother of two school-aged kids, a boy and a girl. "Thank you," I said brightly, and hung up the phone.

    Oh, I managed, all right. I had no bank card, of course, but there was a teller who would cash a check without i.d.. Better yet, she worked at the drive-thru, so I never had to risk rejection in front of the other customers, women, mostly, with bulging purses full of clipped coupons and tickets and photos of Campbell’s soup type children. Keys and emery boards and business cards from the plumber and the electrician and the man who'd refinished the hardwood floors. Mints and cell phones and antibacterial hand gel. These women had whole worlds at their fingertips, portable universes, and they didn’t even know it.

    That was the summer that Jamie went away. I still don’t know who is to blame, and I don't know what I'll do when I find out.

    The narrator is Patty, and her son Jamie goes away because she is falsely accused of abuse. He's taken into foster care. In her job, Patty "translates buzzwords and corporate jargon into real language, fending off attempts by her colleagues to foist terms like 'bucketing' (bizspeak for categorizing) and 'evolve impactful action points' onto the public." So it's appropriate that in her quest to win back her son, she has to learn to speak the language of the social services and game the system that way. There's a mystery involved, too, as to who in her life had made the false complaint.

    It sounds like a pretty interesting idea, with the main theme being Patty's need to interpret the world around her in ways that make sense. There's much scope for satire there, and with tight plotting it could be a satisfying story of a woman using her skill with words to reorder her life.

    As to the extract: it's a bit confusing. I love some of the writing here. The portable universes - great image. I like the way Patty sees the world, assigning properties to the people around her, the kids, the emery boards, the mints. It's a good technique for characterising a first-person narrator - getting the way they observe things across to the reader. However, I couldn't quite follow some of the threads here.

    The first paragraph seems to imply that Patty is intentionally divesting herself of 'the trinkets of her adult identity'; that they are no longer important to her. But then it seems she's trying to get them back. Then, I don't get the driver's license bit (why does she have to drive just over the limit? Mind you, I can't drive, so what do I know.) The drive-thru scene is great, as discussed.

    Then suddenly it jumps across to Jamie. I like the way it's been set up - the trivial problems in juxtaposition with the main crisis of the book. The trouble is that, because Jane's done it in the three slightly confusing paragraphs, it doesn't have the impact it might do. I'd suggest rewriting them to make it more focused. Change the mermaid image, perhaps. It's nice, but it implies a voluntary process. The slightly poetic feel of the mermaid image should stay, though.

    Then Jane could use the second paragraph to narrate a few of the losses - driver's license, wallet, birth cert, maybe. A more prosaic feel here, maybe a touch of comedy, which she can get away with after the first para. We should by now know that she's had a string of mishaps and setbacks that she is trying to manage.

    The third paragraph should stay. Those mishaps, which seemed like annoyances, now appear to be serious problems. A touch of character for Patty, and good writing. Then we're all set up for the fourth paragraph's emotional punch.

    If this voice can be sustained and there's a compelling and witty story to be told, it's looking good to me.
    Torgo, 9:02 pm


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