Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My First Response!

You know how I was going to finish the draft of my next project before my Beta Readers got back to me? Yeah, well, I've received my first critique from a Beta Reader. Needless-to-say, I'm so on top of the world, I'm tap dancing on the the stratosphere. Eat your heart out Fred Astaire. NOT that there aren't tons of notes for Strong Enough--more than I'd hoped--but I'm still psyched. My fundamental structure is supple and strong!

Stories are like bodies. You begin with the outline or skeleton (sometimes assembling the skeleton like an archeologist--a bone from here, a bone from there, the wrong head as an experiment). Once you have a frame, you add tendons and ligaments, layering muscle to add movement to structure. For function add some organs--the mind for example. Once that's in place, motivation and emotion form the heart and other lusty parts. And then you dress the story with physical attributes, describing nuance and subtleties.

Work-shopping a novel--in a group or by email--is always interesting. There are a few schools of thought but I was trained thus: always lead with what you like; always offer criticism with respect; talk about the over-all project (big picture) and let the author read privately the little notations for word choice, grammar, syntax, etc. Discussing a comma at length tends to set a writer on edge. The moment you point it out, it's understood so don't torque the writer into a frenzy by repeatedly pounding the pinky finger of the novel with a hammer.

I briefly hosted a novel and short story workshop group in Oakland. When I laid out the logistics, explaining that the author was to remain silent while the reviewers discussed the story amongst themselves guided by the particulars above, one woman was adamant she'd never accept that method. It's hard not speaking during a review--sort of like being in a teaching hospital while residents discuss your ailments with wanna be doctors. But how often do authors get to listen to readers discuss their work? In everyday life, an author can't haunt book stores offering up explanations, defending their creation. Rule of thumb, Dr. Frankenstein--if you have to explain that she walks with a limp, then you failed to give her a limp! Plus, it's an amazing thing to listen to people argue over your work. To hear what they agree on or to watch one person defend your intention, understanding imperfectly, while another insists it fails. Sometimes you even find a birthmark you didn't know about.

Another rule of thumb--as a critic or Beta Reader, offer few suggestions. It's of greater importance to point out what distracted you, pulled your attention, disrupted your suspension of disbelief than trying to fix the issue by exchanging the left arm with the right leg. Now if an author asks you for a consultation, answer if you wish, but remember this--most likely they'll still do it their way. And they often should because they know their intentions better than the reader. They ought to understand the character motivation and how the body moves innately. By isolating a strained relationship or torn time-table, you help them mend the damage without a freakish outcome.

Here are remarks from the first Beta Reader.
What Works:
  1. Your characters are really strong.
  2. I wanted to dive back in and find out what was going to happen. That's part story, part pacing.
  3. It's tender...didn't expect that one. 
  4. The relationship between the characters and the town is really interesting (also needs a little work for it to really fly).
  5. I liked it.  Really.
What Needs Work:
  1. Time tracking needs to get better. I lose it too often, all of a sudden months have gone by and I'm lost.  I don't want to drop out of the story to wonder what's going on (that's really good news btw) so don't make me work too hard.
  2. Set the stage, where are we, when are we, what are the themes in music (were we in the same 80s? Your knowledge of music is amazing, I knew about 20% of the bands you write about, I think we were in different time zones). Tell me more about DJing, radio is dead now, I need to be pulled back into what it looked like then so I can slide back in time. Is radio DJing the same as club DJing? Give me a little narrator, like in a movie where the storyteller starts us off before zooming into the story and leaving us to find our way. 
  3. Sadi's transformation needs improvement, I get what you are doing but it needs a smoother and richer transition, more time steps along the way of her change.  Of all your characters she is the most complex but also needs the most work.  I actually think W is the most interesting. But with some work Sadi could match her. Right now her change isn't totally believable. 
  4. I think I get what you are trying to do with downtown Sundown being a character in its own right, this needs more work to really bring it to life. You are 60% of the way there, maybe 70%.  I have more concrete feedback in my notes (there are a lot of them). 
  5. And we must throw in a one, none, each, someone are all SINGULAR. If each of them makes a sandwich, he/she gets to use his/her favorite kind of bread.  The he/she agrees with each, not them.  Sorry. Can't help myself.
  6. There's a bunch of doubling/tripling up on words too close together, I've called those out. That's more in the first part.  You got much better at the end. 
  7. Much of the pacing really works but some of it needs tightening up. Threads drop for a really long time and I am dying to know what happened only to have to wait until my interest has faded because I've waited so long.  Best example of this is W/Gabe.  The distance between the first 'date' and the next follow up is waaaay too long and it interrupts the characters, we can't imagine W at work thinking about work and not thinking about Gabe in the time after their first datelette. There's some stuff with Sadi and Marc like that, too.  You have us on a thread, keep us dangling but not for too long. 
It may seem like there are more things not working than working, but I'm thrilled because my skeleton is sound, the organs function, and it's mostly appealing (except the profile and that grotesque gaping hole on the back left flank--how did I miss that?).

Ultimately, once a novel is whole, the muscles need to be massaged until perfectly relaxed, the meaning floating as light as air.

Time to book a spa retreat.