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 | link | 27 comments |

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    A Game of Chess

    Right, have you all had a look at "A Game of Chess"? Good!

    The first thing you'll notice is that it's highly observational; the method by which information is conveyed to the reader is the watchful narrator, who is capable of noticing fine detail. The narrative voice in any piece of work tends to imply a personality. I know people go on about first- or third- person or omniscient/unreliable/limited POVs, but I think it's initially easier just to think of a person telling a story, and what sort of person that is.

    In this case, the narrator is an excellent psychologist and reader of body language with a flair for pithy imagery. He looks on at the events in the story from a detached perspective; see how Ian continually stresses the distance between the narrator and his subjects. He's in the corner by the noisy coffee machine (sound becomes another barrier to observation); he reminds us often that he is 'watching', 'seeing' or failing to see. Ian does not allow the narrator to become a part of the story, by having him remain aloof, and by not allowing him to comment directly.

    The narrator is hypersensitive. We get all five senses from him. He can see fine golden hairs from the other side of the room. The cadence of his observations is simple, deliberate. Characters arrive trailing sharp, declarative images - crisp white shirts, green velvet ribbons. As you see, they're handled well and often compounded of one or more sense-impressions, which conduces to a feeling of keenness and clarity in the writing.

    As I say, he's also able to read people. This can be a desirable trait in a narrator as it provides a bridge between two different kinds of narrator - the person like you or I, or the omniscient narrator. Ian's narrator tells us that the man and the woman are both trying to lose, which feels like he's jumped into their heads; but he's carefully set up that class of observation, for example when he sees the man's eyes 'slide along the diagonal', thinking about a bishop move. Not only close observation, but also analysis; a fitting person to comment on a chess problem, a conundrum he is trying to work out.

    And he speaks in pleasant images. I like the fresh scrubbed air and the insolently stretched legs. There's a writerliness about him too.

    Some part of the narrator is Ian, and the rest Ian has constructed out of his own craft to enable him to present this vignette. It is a small carefully-constructed piece of work, with a straightforward gambit and a tricksy endgame, and he's had to give us a voice who can sort it all out for the reader with equal care and brevity.

    The story's very schematic, isn't it? That's the second thing you notice. He's had to stylise and maybe diminish all the characters to have them fit their chess-game roles. The narrator's aware: "The scene is unreal. It is like watching a play, or being a voyeur." That's the choice Ian has made, and he's executed it well, but it maybe leaves the reader a little uninvolved.

    The weakest section is the section of dialogue in the middle, which veers uncomfortably from the abstract - "we have nothing more to learn from one another" - to the mundane - "All my stuff is packed in the car." The latter rings hollow in the context. I can't quite believe any of the dialogue, actually. The narrator's voice is so austere and controlled, and these people strike the wrong note. Maybe if the narrator were less detached, all participants could become a little more human; and the story, which shows promise and skill, would pack more of a punch. As it is, it feels like a successful exercise in writing, not a successful story.

    I don't know enough about the short story market to say whether anyone would publish this. There's room for improvement, but maybe this is one of those things that a writer gets a lot out of writing, but maybe recycles into a longer a better work a little down the line.

    Thanks for all your comments recently. One of the many things that is enjoyable about operating this site is when people start to debate and discuss things on the comment threads.
    Torgo, 3:45 pm | link | 13 comments |

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    All the Fun of the Fair

    The London Book Fair's on at the moment. I went yesterday. I don't have much business to do there, other than wander about looking at what everybody else is publishing.

    One thing you do see quite a lot is that other publishers do pick up on books that you've rejected; happened to me twice yesterday, big posters plastered all over the stands advertising books I felt we couldn't publish for one reason or another. The lesson to draw from that is that being rejected (or accepted) by a publisher isn't necessarily about the quality of the book. It's about how many copies a publisher thinks they can sell, and one house might be better set up to market a book, or just feel more bullish about it. Quality feeds in to that, but there is another set of factors, enabling us to account for the success of Jeremy Clarkson. (My money's on an infernal Faustian pact.)

    Anyhow: the next crit I'm going to post, before the end of the week, is not in fact the top of the queue I gave you the other day. Ian submitted a short story to me just before the first one on the list, called A Game of Chess, which I didn't want to post in its entirety (only about 1K words) for fear of 'publishing' it. I didn't want to pull bits out of it either as it wouldn't really work. So Ian's posted it over at the forums on Absolute Write in the Share Your Work > Literary folder. Off you go and have a look. I'll tell you what I think soon...
    Torgo, 1:50 pm | link | 14 comments |