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


    Hmmm, interesting read. I liked it. The whole piece made me both sad and a little angry. I think that was probably the purpose, in which case, it succeeded.

    The only thing I would wonder about is some of the vocabulary. I have an 11 year old girl and I doubt she'd know a clapboard house from a Victorian. It's just a nitpucky little thing, I know, but it's the only thing I could find about this piece that struck me as odd. Very nice.
    Anonymous David McAfee, at 3:57 pm  
    Fascinating story. It engaged me after the first couple sentences. The first paragraph did seem to jump all over the place, but that may have been the girl's state of mine. Of course I didn't know her state of mind at first, so it did throw me off a bit at first.
    Background details were told in an interesting way, and there weren't too many details. However, I did feel a lack of information about when the father got out of prison. I'm going to reread this story to see if I missed that somehow.
    The girl seems a little mature for her age, but her life experiences justifies that.
    This is my second attempt at a Comment; I hope the first one doesn't come through too.
    Anonymous Judith McFerren, at 5:24 pm  
    Just a quick read, but I really liked it. Is it a story or the start of a novel, though? For example, a brother is mentioned, but doesn't feature, which made me wonder if this was just the start of something.

    I think that the writing is lovely, even with some of the paragraph problems you noted that you were having. My only comment would be that at times the beautiful narrative voice slips a little into adulthood - for example, the sentence 'The Murrays have always buried...' didn't ring true as coming from an 11-year old - it had an adult tone.

    I also wondered...is a centipede significant enough for the reaction that it gets?
    Blogger McKoala, at 6:43 am  
    The adult tone - I realize slips in a bit strong some places ... I reread this and found several things I would change. I used tiny in several places, close together even, sheez. I actually did talk pretty much this way at eleven - I was reading Beowulf at age seven. The plan is a series of vignettes of my childhood. The brother is the next piece - I was the one never physically abused, just mentally. He got all the physical abuse. Maybe it's too cathartic to have any value to anyone else, I don't know ... and the centipede? To this day, and I am fifty two, it is my most dreaded phobia.
    Thanks for the kind and helpful comments.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:00 am  
    The previous comment appeared as anonymous by my won mistake. I will attempt to correct this.
    Blogger j53wakefield, at 7:16 pm  
    It may be a personal taste, but I'm more comfortable with understatement in these stories of pathos in childhood. The story has so much inherent sadness, and the protagoist remains largely powerless, that the language does not have to hammer things home.

    For example "in exactly two months and three days" - the "exactly" is already impled in the "three days." "Nameless, faceless" is loaded, but does not seem exactly what an eleven year old would believe the next birthday would alleviate. "stone fingers" is effective - but the simple "fear what God has done this time" has more punch if you skip it straight from the father's voice sounding funny to the fear "of what God has done this time."

    In the same way the last paragraph can lose the first two sentences entirely - the loss and the evil are already implied, and the concrete is stronger. If you expand on that moment earlier of first spotting the centipede, readers would understand why it struck the protagonist so hard that it was of a piece with a day where her sister was born and died.
    Blogger Paul, at 2:46 pm  
    I'm not entirely sure about this story. I felt it was well written and a solid, moving idea (in fact, even with the problems, it WAS moving) but the piece as a whole suffered from...something...perhaps lack of focus.

    The first thing that jarred was that often the poignancy which was *inherant* in the situation was hammered a bit by over-emphasis. This is easily fixed - it's a matter of leaving the story to sit for a little while and then coming back to it and seeing clearly where the real emotional punch is (simple statements like: 'that was the first time I hated God') and trimming around those points to let them shine.

    The other (and more difficult) problem for me was the way that tone and voice jumped around. I found it a little hard to get a grip on the protagonist, because the tale is obviously being told from the POV of the child, yet the voice seemed more that of an older, wiser person looking back on childhood and drawing conclusions. I'm not quite sure how to fix this - it depends what the author was actually aiming for with the piece. I found the childish and simple parts of the story more affecting personally, but it might be hard for the author to let herself get that close to her young self and the real thoughts and feelings her young self had at that painful point in her life.

    Overall, I thought the story showed a lot of potential and raw talent. Well done to the writer, and keep going!
    Anonymous Zolah, at 6:37 pm  
    I wonder if the adult tone could be fixed by switching from the present to the past tense. I happen to like (though rarely use anymore) the present tense, and I thought it worked well here. That being said, I liked the story and the writing, but the adult tone did throw me. I was never completely immersed in the story because of it.

    I have a feeling this wouldn't bother me as much if read as part of a larger narrative, where the maturity of the narrator has already been established and accepted.
    Anonymous Anthony P. Steerpike, at 8:22 pm  
    I can't seem to get into HC's dashboard - any other bloggers having problems?
    Blogger Torgo, at 8:28 pm  
    What's HC?
    Anonymous David McAfee, at 9:54 pm  
    To be honest, I wasn't moved by this story. I just felt like story was trying to evoke my pity and compassion too quickly and without earning it. While I know that horrible events like this happen to people in real life all the time, I felt like the scope and focus of the story was too broad, that it tried to accomplish too much. I would be more interested in a story about someone's fear of centipedes with the heavier, tragic material as the subtext. (Obviously, this is just my opinion, and people tell me I'm not at all empathetic.)
    Blogger Will, at 11:35 pm  
    I think this was well done, Joyce, and the older tone didn't bother me. It's possible there is a bit too much narrative, the character thinking for long stretches without anything to break up the text. Still, I like the piece. Expanding on the centipede fear could offer an opportunity for a common thread if you were to tie the vingettes together to make a whole. I don't know how you'd feel about turning this into YA fiction but it has that potential. I did feel I needed the prison details and more about dad. I think I just wanted more which is a good sign.

    Nice work. Let us know how you move forward.

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:39 pm  
    Diana - thanks for your helpful comments. I also wanted to thank Paul - everyone really - lots of helpful, thoughtful advice. I even appreciated the comments from those not particularily thrilled with the piece. I have several of these small pieces and no, I had never thought of young adult fiction. That could be a very good option. My only fear there would be that my story would turn out to be too much like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?". That movie hit a little close to home. I did sell two poems this week. Happy me!! Course, not enough money to replace my stolen car yet, smile. Take care all,
    Anonymous Joyce Wakefield, at 3:50 am  
    I think I am on overload - I have a novel I am working on and have a group critiquing it ... a book of poetry that my mentor and toughest critic is critiquing - and I am waiting oh so patiently for Torgo to do this one. At long last I am a writer. I started when I was seven! I read Beowulf and was hooked. Now, on disability against my stubborn will, I have time to write. No matter if I am published, no matter who or how many like or dislike my work - I am a writer. I have just never been happier - or more dippy! Life is good. I also have another novel that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month - boy, even I can see how much work that one needs. Fifty thousand words in thirty days does not a masterpiece make, smile. Does anyone know anything about the greeting card industry? I hear they pay $100 to $300 for each verse?? Ten or twelve of those and I could replace my stolen car! No Pulitzer there - but hey, the bus system sucks here in California, smile. I may even apply to Moondance to be an editor again - Iloved that. Long one this, but I can't find my journal ... went to the annual library sale this week - books everywhere in my room, smile. Happy evening ... Joyce
    Anonymous Joyce Wakefield, at 7:39 am  
    It’s taken me a while to crit this because I had to think about what I wanted to say. I’m not a big fan of first-person-present-tense stories because they often feel manipulative to me, like the author is saying they don’t trust me to notice the character’s feelings and react to them. (So keep that in mind, Joyce! I’m not your ideal reader.)

    Technically, this seems well done to me. The first-person, present-tense POV is carried through well with only two exceptions. The little girl can’t see her own ‘green’ eyes, so mentioning them violates POV. I also thought there was a tense problem in this sentence: “She’d put her hand on my shoulder...” Because you’re writing in present tense, you need only simple past tense, not past perfect.

    The story contains some nice details that show us the little girl trying to figure out the world. For instance, I liked the repetition of ‘never drew a breath.’ She sounds as if she’s trying out the phrase, seeing if she can penetrate its meaning.

    I also like the way everything is shown, not told. We learn about Jimmy, for example, in a natural way as she thinks about him.

    I think if I were offering suggestions for revision, I’d say work on the emotional unity of the piece. As a short story, this doesn’t have a long term plot to work with. It’s mostly a mood piece, I think. The little girl is figuring out her place vis a vis her neighbors and her god. By the end, she seems kind of beaten down by life and takes refuge in stoicism.

    I’m told she’s angry at God and angry at Mrs. Murray, but don’t see that acted out. It seems to me that anger and being beaten down are at two ends of a continuum, and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. I see a glimpse of her fear at the end when she overreacts to the centipede. Where does that fear come from? What’s she afraid of?

    I hope some of this is useful, Joyce.

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:40 pm  
    ot: password has a small 'v', as in 'vista' ?
    I'm pretty tired and it took me quite a few tries to get in . . .

    1.) I thought the POV char was a boy. But then I'm male.
    The tree house led me to that. And the climbing the stone wall.
    It isn't until the 2nd large block that hints are given that it's a girl.
    2.) Perhaps describe that 8 inch ugly-looking poisonous centipede? ( with its sickly colors )
    3.) Having her, "For some reason, I look before I grab the branch . . ." seems to be the easy way out.
    Perhaps have her actually accidentally touch part of the strange-feeling, fuzzy part of the centipede; then have her react?

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:29 am  
    I cannot believe all the really good comments and suggestions - not to mention the encouragement this gives me. All suggestions makes sense, those I don't think would work for me are few but never discounted. I believe in trying other ways before I discard anything. Thank you for your help. I want to go back to this piece and expand and make it both less and more!
    Anonymous Joyce Wakefield, at 6:36 pm  
    He he, this is turning into Joyce's blog. Where's Torgo gone?!
    Blogger McKoala, at 1:18 am  
    Joyce, if this is your blog now, could you get to mine? Heh, heh.

    Torgo, did you go to Bologna, or Spam, or whatever lunch meat? How was it? Do tell. One of the PW buzzes I heard was about my friend Melissa Marr, major deal, Harper Collins. Is that what you guys do there? Talk about who paid what for what? Would love the ins and outs.

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:19 am  
    I swear, guys and gals - I did not kidnap Torgo. I do not have him chained in my office to edit ALL my prose and poetry. That little room with the blacked out windows, it's, uh, it's nothing. Nothing. I swear! Perhaps our collective minds gave birth to one who would guide and nurture our words. Torgo, the Magnificent ... Or - and this is just a theory - a group of renegade writers. jealous of our association with Torgo, has kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. Oh, worry, worry. Torgo, please phone home!!!
    Your Loyal Subjects
    Anonymous Joyce Wakefield, at 4:55 pm  
    I was not surprised to return here and find Torgo non-responsive. As I mentioned back in January, he never returned. Torgo should be dubbed Tor-gone and forgotten. For a better writer's resource I suggest a more honest blog: http://www.evileditor.blogspot.com./
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 11:55 pm  
    I miss him, though. I still check in regularly to see if he's popped up again.

    But, while we're sharing links: http://www.crapometer.blogspot.com/ It's not Torgo, but it's something.
    Blogger McKoala, at 4:16 am  
    I know Torgo. There are a couple of reasons why Torgo has gone. Firstly, by a bizzare form of literary osmosis, he has begun to write his first novel. Secondly, people like stephen newton. Torgo did come back in January but a labour of love as this blog was, has no room for attacks from literary lunatics and profiteers. He has gone, and he was largely pushed. It is a shame but it is true.

    Good luck to everybody, keep writing!

    (No, this isn't Torgo :) )
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:20 am  
    Literary lunatics and profiteers? Give me a break, please. We're all adults as well as writers who would have applauded Torgo taking time off to write a novel.

    I had no intention of encouraging Torgo's martyrdom and I did nothing more than to point out the obvious, that Torgo was somehow preoccupied and now, at last we know the reason that his blog was suffering.

    Wherever you are, Torgo, best of luck with your novel. Next time, let your audience know what you're up to and don't blame them for your choices.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 12:15 am  
    Oh, good for you, Torgo. I just stumbled across this blog tonight and I really enjoyed the kid's fantasy manuscript parody. Ironically, I've been working sporadically on a prophecy-story. The unicorn doesn't "neigh" though. Prolly a good thing you're not currently critiquing. *wink*
    Anonymous Crystal, at 5:02 am  
    I don't believe for one minute that Torgo is writing a novel.
    Let's face it. He bit off more than he could chew and finally got tired of showing us poor wannabees where we are going wrong.
    It was just a whim and he didn't have the good manners to tell us he wanted to quit. Keep writing everybody
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 am  
    How are the critiques coming?
    Anonymous Jarvis, at 3:16 pm  

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