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.
  • Click here to find out what this blog is all about.
  • Wednesday, September 21, 2005


    Chapter one.

    Gravitas, Wisconsin

    To call Gravitas a town would be doing it a favor it didn't deserve. It was barely a place in-between two places that were actually on the map, two places so important they needed a highway between them. That highway did what most highways do, it crossed another one, and that other road led to a bunch of farms in every direction. I grew up on one of them. It only made sense to put a feed store and a granary and a post office at that very intersection between those bigger towns. The granary at the intersection was called the Gravitas Granary because it was once owned by a Greek guy named Gravitas who went back to Greece. Soon there was the Gravitas General Store where you could buy clothes made for you by someone else, the Gravitas Barber Shop where you could get someone else to cut your hair or even shine your shoes, and the Gravitas Diner where you could get someone else to cook your food. My daddy thought these establishments were a waste of money because any damn fool who couldn't make their own clothes or cut their own hair or shine their own shoes or cook their own food didn't deserve to live.

    That's how daddy talked. There were a lot of people in his eyes didn't deserve to live, but his favorites were the local busybodies coming round our farm trying to tell him how he should do his business or raise his family. My main memory of my daddy is him chasing varmints away from our home with his shotgun. That's what he called them. Varmints. I wouldn't make this up.

    My mom and dad called me Joshua so that's what you can call me.

    Joshua is in town one day and comes across this

    For some reason there was a ruckus, a whole bunch of people gathered around the feed store where there was this funny, smooth talking guy in a fancy suit who was giving quite a speech about something he called the marvel of the century. Somebody mentioned the new century started only ten years ago and somebody else shouted out everywhere but here and everyone laughed because they was right. Looking around Gravitas, I couldn't see nothing or nobody that hadn't been there at least ten years. Didn't look like no new century to me.

    This guy in the suit wasn't like anyone I'd ever seen before. He sure wasn't from around here with his fancy clothes and strange way of talking. He stood in front of his wagon which he parked in the empty lot next to the feed store. He explained that he was actually on his way from one town to another when he broke a wheel in Gravitas. It was going to take a day to fix so since he was here anyway, he'd do us all the big favor of setting up his Kinematographic Theater. It was like one of them gospel shows where everyone got their souls saved only there weren't no preacher, just a big tent with some chairs and a machine he called a projector, which looked sort of like a lantern with a crank on the side. He set it up at the back of the tent and he said it was going to do something we wouldn't believe, it was going to make living pictures on the wall of that tent.

    ...and Joshua is thunderstruck.

    There was a light shining from the Kinematographic projector and you could stick your fingers in it and make a dog that looked like he was barking which I thought was pretty entertaining but everyone else didn't and asked me to stop. I sat right down front and suddenly it weren't no screen no more but a window into another world and in that world I was sitting somewhere in some other place, some town with a lot of people who were walking around. There were lots of carts and horses and them new Model T automobiles on the street. The buildings were real tall and the title said New York City and I could read it now because I was facing the right way. I sat there watching these people in the city and it's like I was there, just sitting somewhere, looking out at the real world, but a different real world, a world where things were not what they seemed, a strange and jerky world where something was missing. I know it sounds stupid but it took me a while to realize what it was. There weren't no color. Didn't matter. Color would have been too much.

    Then it changed to somewhere else, I think it was Paris cause there was this building in it called the Eiffel Tower and right away it felt like I was really there, sitting at a cafe with all these people walking around even though I knew I'd never been to France. Man, these moving pictures were something else. I was enjoying the tarnation out of them.


    He let me sit through three shows and I just kept watching and watching. Turned out the work he wanted me to do was turning the crank on the projecting device when his arm got tired. At first it was hard to get it to go at the 20 frames per second it was supposed to run at, but I couldn't help myself. I just kept speeding up and slowing down the cranking and it was the funniest thing I ever saw, people jerking around and walking fast, then I'd slow down the fast stuff and speed up the train, but never stopping, like Buck said, or the film would burn. I couldn't stop laughing and the audience liked it too, especially at this one part where they were showing a scene from some Shakespeare play, I think it was A Tale of Two Cities.

    It was a love scene that turned into a fight scene that turned into a love scene again. You were supposed to read all these titles to know what they was saying to each other but you didn't really have to because you could tell what they was saying just by the way they was looking at each other. This guy was dressed up and rich and clean shaven except for a little mustache that he must have spent a lot of time on. He was really angry-like and I didn't know why because the title went by too fast.

    The lady with him was so beautiful, her skin so white, her hair and nails and dress were the prettiest I'd ever seen. I could look at her forever if that guy weren't yelling at her. What was his problem? How could he treat her that way? Why wasn't he treating her like the princess she obviously was because when she started crying, actually crying, you just wanted to go up to her and say hey baby, it's all right, nothing's gonna get you, I'll protect you, let me hold you my precious and protect you from all harm forever and ever.

    It wasn't long before I realized I was feeling something I'd never felt before. Either I was getting sick or I was in love. I figure about four seconds was all it took. It was true love, I guarantee it, because after all it's only true love sets you on your way, like a cannon, straight from the heart, and I was on my way. I couldn't believe such beauty could exist. She was perfect, my heart's unknown desire come to life in a magic lantern show.

    Michael says:

    Chapter two changes to the third person, in which we meet the real Ashley Welles and find she's an egotistical dipshit, the exact opposite of Joshua's dreams. The rest of the chapters alternate between first and third person as Joshua, my Candide, works his way to Hollywood. It's an interesting device I've never seen anyone use before, and I do it so smoothly that most readers don't even notice.

    Yet I just got a rejection from an agent who told me to fix it. I'd hate to lose Joshua's first person voice, which I think is entertaining and very fun to write. But a lot of the story takes place when he isn't there, and I can't lose those parts either. Making those parts first person from a different character's perspective would be even more confusing.

    I know it's hard to tell without reading the whole thing, but don't you think my original concept is sound?

    I've seen that technique used before, successfully, although I can't bring to mind any examples at the moment - I think maybe Iain Banks does it? First person and third person alternating can certainly work. However, if one part of the book is weaker than the other, that can be a serious problem.

    I recently had an MS in that was set alternately in 15th-century Europe and modern-day Oxford. The 15th-century bits were terrifically good, and the modern ones rubbish. It was a shame, because there wasn't much more we could do than pass on it - by that time, we were already in an auction.

    Looking at this excerpt, I have to say that the first-person voice doesn't quite work. Michael's presumably going to spend quite a lot of time working out ironies between the narrative voice and the reader's understanding of the situation - here, we know much more than Joshua throughout - and it's laid on rather too thickly. To have Joshua leap out of his seat hollering at the sight of a projected train 'rushing towards him' is quite a familiar scene, almost the cliche situation of any book or film that deals with the early days of cinema. Equally, we know that Joshua is going to end up a mark for every huckster and mountebank in LA. If the book unfolds in pure Candide fashion, it might well be rather predictable, and in turn his naivete might become wearing (the reader has to do the whole job of being cynical.)

    And, indeed, how much does narrator-Joshua know at the time of telling? Sometimes the prose seems as naive as the character; sometimes it's more sophisticated and knowing, throwing terms like 'love scene' and 'fight scene' around which seem to belong to the lexicon of film. To resolve the uncertaincy that this creates, it's necessary to get to know exactly who Joshua is at the time of telling, not just at the time the novel is set.

    Joshua has to be funnier and more charming than he appears here, and to react in surprising ways. It's OK at this length, but I would feel apprehensive about it stretched into a novel, or even half of one. I would certainly get tired of phrases like 'I was enjoying the tarnation out of them'. (Professional mimics often have a key phrase they use to get into character, something they particularly associate with the person they're doing an impression of - is 'tarnation' a word used to get Joshua back when the voice is slipping?)

    I'd suggest that Michael shouldn't try shoehorning his third-person scenes into someone else's POV, but should maybe look at third-person throughout. Have a look at Roderick, by John Sladek, one of the very best modern Candides - third-person, but full of brilliant character voices, the essential ingredient of this kind of tale.

    If Michael can't bear to lose Joshua, well, tarnation, he needs to be more fun to be around.
    Torgo, 1:13 am


    Obvious example: Dickens' Bleak House. More recently: Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:52 pm  
    Shockingly, I've never read Dickens. I'll wait a moment for you all to pick yourselves up off the floor. On the other hand, Jonathan Coe is excellent.
    Blogger Torgo, at 10:55 pm  
    One of James Patterson's novels also switches between first and third person... can't recall which one. Personally I found it jarring, but that's just IMHO. :-)
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:32 am  
    We had "Great Expectorations" heaved at us in school. Haven't been able to abide Dickens since.
    Blogger Bernita, at 1:59 am  
    Another great author ruined by teaching.
    Blogger Torgo, at 4:50 pm  
    Torgo, Do editors care what font is used in manuscripts? I've heard one should use a fixed width font like Courier others claim they only want to read Times Roman. Can you shed some light on MS preparation?

    I enjoy reading your critiques and the many writing styles you feature. (Of course, I'm looking forward to my own critque...what a valuable service you're providing!)
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 2:12 pm  

    Add a comment