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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  • Tuesday, September 27, 2005

    Instincts

    Kathy says:

    My main issue has always been the synopsis. It is so hard to put into a few pages a complete 85,000 word novel and make it sound good.
    But first let's look at the prologue...
    "Hear the sands singing to us, A-ki-ki?"

    Sammy looked over at Bold Eagle as he pulled his oar from the lake water and listened to the sounds coming from the shoreline just ahead of them. It didn't take him long to spot the source. On the beach was a young girl, and an older gentleman, dancing in slow, deliberate strides.

    Every step of their bare feet caused the grainy sand of the beach to emit a deep pitched resonance that the Lake Michigan natives dubbed "the singing sands". Sammy used the binoculars hanging around his neck to get a better look. Although their backs were turned to him, he could see that the man was Asian [how? T.] and the girl couldn't be much older than fifteen.

    She was slim, but firmly built, and stood a couple of inches taller than her companion, at least 5'4 or so. Her long, blonde hair hung down her back in a loose pony tail, and her delicate hands flowed through the air as she mimicked the man's movements flawlessly.

    "Is that a dance they're doing?" Sammy asked, turning to his grandfather who was also watching the scene with quiet appreciation written all over his deeply lined face.

    "They call that Tai-Chi," Bold Eagle replied and smiled at his 19-year-old grandson. Sammy shifted his full attention for a moment back to Bold Eagle, noting the melancholy tone in his voice. He knew that he was the apple of his grandfather's eye, and his best student. Bold Eagle never tired of answering his questions and Sammy felt a tug at his heart knowing that their lives would be parting soon, when he entered the Chicago Police Training Academy.

    [...]

    Sammy grinned as he watched the girl in motion through the binoculars. Strands of her hair flowed freely in the warm breeze, and as she slowly swayed around her face glistened with perspiration and intensity.

    She had not spotted them as they sat staring from their perch on the lake, but Sammy couldn't take his eyes off her. For a moment he felt as if he were swaying with her. Though both men were still, the canoe gently started rocking back and forth, as if it was also dancing; creating a lullaby that connected just the girl and Sammy as one with the universe.

    Sammy surprised himself with that thought. He was hardly the poetic type, but as he followed her graceful steps something he could not explain stirred inside him. Suddenly the world spun in slow motion. Everything else around him blurred and nothing else mattered but the charm and beauty he was experiencing in the simple movements of a complete stranger. It was as if he was in a trance and he had no control over the situation, which unsettled him.

    [...]

    When he looked back up the girl was staring back at him. His first reaction was to look away, the 'it's not polite to stare' lesson he had learned as a child instantly signaling his brain. But his heart won out and instead of avoiding her eyes, he lost himself in them.

    Hers were the bluest he had ever seen, and he could almost feel her gaze touch his inner being and search his soul. Once again, it was as if the world no longer existed outside the two of them and they both smiled, as if remembering some secret that they had shared since life began.

    [A conversation with Bold Eagle ensues]

    Sammy shook his head in reply, grinning and rolling his eyes the way he used to when he was a young boy. He was proud of his Miami Indian heritage, but the myths of his ancestors he had learned in his youth were just stories to him.

    He looked at his grandfather fondly. Throughout his whole childhood this man had taught him about tradition and the mystical connection between mankind and the spirit world. As a bright eyed kid it had all seemed magical, but as he grew the magic faded and the stories had become simple fairy tales to him.
    People often say: show, don't tell. I don't agree with this as a hard-and-fast rule - I think the author is often required to summarise and to use the narrative voice to make judgements on occasion, as dictated by the pace and texture of the book - but here you will have noticed an awful lot of information being palmed off on us. We're told, straight, about the relationship between Sammy and Bold Eagle, and about Sammy's pride in his heritage, while things like the Chicago Police Training Academy are smuggled in rather apologetically, clinging to some character work.

    The worst thing you can use a prologue for is info-dump and exposition. There are some weird ideas about prologues floating around, I find, including the notion that they are not often read (the unspoken corollary being that you can put unreadable stuff there.) If your prologue is a dark bolus of preparatory matter, it's like starting a five-course meal with a packet of dry cream crackers.

    Kathy's prologue is not nearly so bad as all that, but I suspect that it could easily be left out, or just cut to the bone. We don't have to have names; we don't need to know anything about the characters or the surroundings or the Police Training Academy or Bold Eagle's mystical maunderings. The important story point here is Sammy's eyes meeting the girl's, in some timeless moment, to the sound of the singing sands. It's a page, no more. Because at the beginning of the first (second) chapter we are with Sammy, now a cop, on assignment in LA. It's no great matter of technique to connect the cop to the boy in the boat, and then we know where we are.
    So Sammy's out on the street, laying in wait for a cop killer, when he spots a girl...
    Sammy frowned, trying to asses the situation logically. Ten years of police work had caused him to become overly paranoid sometimes and he told himself to relax. She was probably just waiting for someone to arrive.

    "Sid, this is hardly the time to be girl watching," he admonished his partner with a smile on his face. Still he positioned his rear view mirror to get one more glance at her. When she finished her call and turned towards the runway, he tried to get a peek at her face. She was wearing sunglasses and the hat she wore cast a shadow that masked most of her features, but something about her tugged at Sammy's gut.

    A sense of familiarity swept through him, which grew even stronger when she suddenly turned her attention to his mirrored reflection. She didn't move for a minute, as if she recognized him too.

    Sammy felt the customary stirring in his body and he could hear Bold Eagle's voice inside of his head telling him not to ignore this gift.
    Er ... a customary stirring?
    Some would call it a sixth sense, heightened awareness or intuitiveness. His grandparents called it instincts. Whatever it was, Sammy had learned to live with it, and even used it to help out in cases without any leads.
    Ah. Phew. Wouldn't you know it, it's the same girl from the lake. Now might be a good time to turn to the synopsis:
    Martial arts expert Jenna Richardson and Chicago Police Detective Sammy LaRue have a few things in common. They were born with intense instincts, they were raised to believe that the spirits have blessed them, and they were lovers who died together in another lifetime.

    Other than that, they are as different as east and west.

    The only thing Jenna has ever wanted to do since she was ten years old living in Okinawa, is to grow up, find the people responsible for her family's deaths and kick their ass. Fourteen years later she sits in a Chicago police station waiting to be interrogated on a bogus murder charge. The interrogation she can handle. It's the being whisked back to protective custody by U.S. Marshall Dan Janovich that upsets her. The Marshall is the only obstacle in her way to accomplishing her goals, but she is about to meet the second.

    Why Sammy volunteers to help protect the very person who just ruined his stake-out, he isn't certain. His partner, Sid, who also volunteers, thinks it is because she's a looker, but Sammy knows in his heart that it is much more than that.

    It isn't who she is that attracts him to her; it's who she once was.

    Sammy is a full blooded American Indian, raised by his grandparents on a farm in Indiana. For years, since a mysterious encounter just before he entered the police academy, he has been experiencing strange dreams, which abruptly turn into visions as he and Jenna draw closer to each other. When his grandfather suggests they take a spirit journey together, they reluctantly agree. Through this journey they are warned that their horrible fate in a past life is destined to repeat itself if Jenna continues on her path for vengeance.
    ...and it turns out that this path includes terrorist bombs, Interpol, the CIA, the FBI and a secret martial arts tournament, which I have to say kicks ass because I own Best of the Best II on DVD. (Eric Roberts fans: you owe it to yourselves.) There is also, to my taste, a slightly goofy subplot about being lovers in a previous life, and at one point Jenna regresses to her past where she finds the strength to defeat her enemies. But I bought Jean-Claude Van Damme winning a secret fighting tournament while blinded, in Bloodsport; I bought Jean-Claude Van Damme's budget lookalike winning a secret fighting tournament by doing the Dim Mak Touch of Death in Bloodsport II; I was prepared to accept that Scotland might have sent a useless kilt-wearing boxer to a secret fighting tournament in order to be punched in the balls by Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Quest. I suppose some past life regression is not so very much to ask.

    Kathy's tried to make it sound blurby, but sometimes it fights with the info: "The interrogation she can handle. It's the being whisked back to protective custody by U.S. Marshall Dan Janovich that upsets her." Again the information that Kathy's trying to tell us, that she needs us to know, is packed in to the sentence in an attempt to establish character. Try reading those two sentences out loud in the manner of that gravelly man who does the movie trailers, with the exaggerated emphasis. You will have trouble packing in that whole clause about being whisked back to protective custody. That means it is not an easily readable sentence, which in this context is undesirable. It might be better just to stick to a fairly representative precis of the book, trying to preserve its pacing, and leave out the fancy touches.

    Is it an enticing synopsis for a novel, rather than for the kind of chop-socky movies I dote on? Possibly, if Kathy can do action scenes really well, it might be a good thriller, aimed around about the Dan Brown readership. She'll have to be really good at the chop-socky, which seems to form a decent wodge of the book and which I have never seen put across well in prose. (I am happy to suspend my disbelief in goofy plots when there is the spectacle of Jacky Chan on stilts running away from a helicopter to divert me. If not... what are you left with?) But I still think it's a tough sell. The synopsis is a little clunky, but that isn't going to be the problem.

    The prose needs work. It does a lot of telling, not showing, and not in good ways. It is all of the same texture; the authorial voice rarely changes tone or pace, and when it does (Sammy's eyes meeting Jenna on the lake) it is not entirely successful. It lacks music. How can you work on those things? Read the book out. Every word. Record it, even, and listen back to it. As you read, you'll see where the music and rhythms of the paragraphs are interrupted, where the blockages are, where the Tai Chi dance is tripping over itself. Take all the commas out. Put them back in where you need a pause. Look at individual sentences. Are they boring? Redundant? Vague? Could a long sentence more profitably be two sentences? It's only ready when the whole thing sings.
    Torgo, 8:34 pm

    7 Comments:

    Torgo, This nugget from your critique of Instincts will be placed on my writing desk.

    "Read the book out. Every word. Record it, even, and listen back to it. As you read, you'll see where the music and rhythms of the paragraphs are interrupted, where the blockages are, where the Tai Chi dance is tripping over itself. Take all the commas out. Put them back in where you need a pause. Look at individual sentences. Are they boring? Redundant? Vague? Could a long sentence more profitably be two sentences? It's only ready when the whole thing sings."
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 3:14 am  
    Hello Torgo,
    I've also been reading this blog avidly, and have been learning a lot from it. Nothing teaches a writer more about writing than the form being critiqued over and over again. So, thanks for what you're doing.
    And like that woman from Wakefield, I wonder if you got the excerpt from my story "First Few Steps towards Tinayas?" I'm worried because I didn't send the story as an attachment.
    Thanks,
    Sarah Ferguson from Calgary, Alberta, Canada
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:28 am  
    We have a woman from Wakefield here? My name is Wakefield and I understand once my ancestors were from Wakefield, England. Smile, small world. I really enjoy the critiques and I, too, really appreciated your comments about reading every word - and that it must sing. I just finished "Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd. That book sang to me. I had to read it twice cause I was so fascinated with her wording and style.
    Thanks,
    Joyce Wakefield
    Anonymous Joyce A Wakefield, at 6:35 am  
    Yes, yes.
    Reading it aloud really works.
    That sentence one stumbles over is probably because it IS clunky, or sounds hackneyed or whatever. Reading aloud overrides that blindness one acquires when you've looked at your own work too long. And when you interrupt the rhythm, make sure it's for a good purpose, such as jolting/alerting the reader.
    I suppose a good writer can even create a sort of metric suspense.
    Thank you, Torgo. Again.
    Blogger Bernita, at 12:34 pm  
    Hi Sarah - yep, got it, will get to it soon.
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:35 pm  
    Somewhere in my family tree they claim is a guy named "Slipshod John the Mohawk". He was one of the frontier spies for the British during the American Revolution and I always doubted his effectiveness in that capacity for some reason.
    His name doesn't hold a candle to "Bold Eagle."
    But what are you gonna do? You're not going to name an integral character something like "Weeping Sparrow" or "Loose Feathers" if you want the wisdom to be taken seriously.It's a convention.And yes, I'm arguing with myself.
    Blogger Bernita, at 1:40 pm  
    Torgo,

    I am skulking around your archives. Great information. But Eric Roberts fans? Funniest damn sentence I have read in ages.

    Dave
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:33 pm  

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