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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  • 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


    Welcome Back, Torgo. :-) Good to have you back.
    Anonymous David McAfee, at 3:53 am  
    Hi Torgo. Just need to echo David: good to have you back.
    Blogger McKoala, at 11:01 pm  
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 11:53 pm  
    Yes, welcome back. I hope Danielle sends her synopsis.

    BTW, are writers who submitted work last year still in the que? I read that all manuscripts were still intact on your hard drive, but it would be great to have you post a list of writers you think you might review, say this month or next, barring anymore interruptions.

    What do you think, Torgo?
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 11:57 pm  
    Glad to have you back...although I don't if that is premature...You said another one in a few minutes...that was at least 12 hours ago...LOL!

    Hey, come out, come out, wherever you are, (said to the Easter Island thingy that used to grace the sidebar, but went on vacation!)
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 3:36 am  
    Hi Stephen. I don't see why not. I know you've been waiting awhile.

    I'll post the next ten upcoming crits tonight.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:41 pm  
    I'm glad you asked that, Stephen.

    And thanks for responding, Torgo. Are you still trying to go in order for those of us who submitted on August 18, 2005? I, too, have been wondering how you decide which snippets to post. I thought perhaps mine was so good you just could not find anything to correct. Heh, heh.

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:09 pm  
    Torgo,I also sent my MS a long time ago.Never mind,I learn a lot from reading your comments on other material. Thanks.
    Anonymous Peggie, at 6:45 pm  

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