An Honest Critique

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On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.

The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.

No Sideplots)

The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.

Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.

But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.

I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.

Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.

In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.

The Duel)

But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.

Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.

Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.

In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.

Easier to Critique Than Write)

As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?

I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.

Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.

And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Doing the Hard, Hard Work

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Do you ever have that experience where you sit down at your table and churn out thousands of words of pure gold that require no polishing whatsoever? Yeah, me either. I suppose there are times where I can get into a writing “groove” and the thoughts flow more easily, but even these sessions are going to need extensive refactoring later down the road. The fact is, actual pure gold is only found through long refinement and never in a flash of alchemy.

Certainly when masters sit at their craft they can make their work appear easy, but that is only by the quiet accumulation of skill through years of hard labor. People are not simply born with the “creative” chromosome that magically makes artistic expression effortless to them. To suggest otherwise is one of the worst insults you can give to a creator, as it suggests they did nothing more notable than win some genetic lottery. Original, quality work does not come about by luck or accident, it only comes about in one way, and that is through doing the hard, hard work.

Of course, that hard work often isn’t very glamorous. It’s slogging and frustrating and dirty. At first that might seem like a depressing outlook, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll agree that it is actually much better this way. If we could effortlessly flick out perfect creative expressions with every turn of the wrist then there wouldn’t be much value in a masterpiece anymore, now would there? The value is derived entirely because of the long, torturous effort that we know went into it. Being able to say that the work was crushing but we did it anyhow means we persevered where others gave up, and now we have something to show for it that they never will.

That doesn’t mean we have to make that work more difficult than necessary. As I suggested at the end of my last post, there are a few rules of thumb that can take the gargantuan task of correcting all of the errors in your story, and break it into more manageable pieces. I’d like to share them with you.

First off, I always like to simply read through my story over and over, fixing any glaring issues that I come across on the way. If I find a grammar error I fix it, if a sentence feels clunky I reword it, if I slipped from first-person to third I correct it. In short, anything that stands out like a sore thumb and can be quickly corrected, I take care of it. Of course some plot-holes and weak scenes are more complex and resist any sort of quick-fix. For any of these I just make a note of them and move on, I’ll be circling back to them at a later point. To me this process is a lot like sanding a rough piece of wood. Each pass leaves those snarls and knots a little bit smoother until they feel comfortable enough to handle for a more in-depth inspection. I know that I’ve reached the end of this stage when I have a read through that goes from start to finish without any new problems discovered.

If I feel like continuing on to the next step of clean-up I will, but it’s important to note that this is a process best not rushed. If you are editing your work while burned out, you are going to be sloppy and miss things. As much as possible you want to write with a clear mind, so if at any point it’s buzzing with all the minutia of your work, go and get a breath of fresh air. That principle works the other way, too. If at any point you think your story is complete, the absolute best it can ever be, take a break and come back to it later with a fresh pair of eyes for a second opinion. Most times you’ll probably realize you were too close to the grain to acknowledge the errors it still held.

Back to the polishing process, though. After I’ve completed all of my general corrections in my story I’ll move on to more targeted ones. I’ll do an entire read-through where I only resolve those complex plot-holes and weak scenes I mentioned above. I’ll cut and paste sections around and brainstorm ideas until I can unfold all of the wrinkles in my story.

Then I’ll do an in-depth dive into grammar. For this I recommend putting together a cheat-sheet of core principles that each sentence can be tested against. Don’t move on from sentence until you are convinced it either satisfies every rule or else is a justified exception to it.

I also strongly recommend one set of read-throughs just for evaluating the cadence of the story. When you have spent so much time focusing on individual words and sentences you’ve probably lost sight of the bigger picture. Each phrase may flow wonderfully now, but do the themes still do so as well?

As with before, it is of utmost importance to maintain that fresh perspective while you are working. If you haven’t already, try reading your work out loud for a change. Sentences that seemed fine in your head may sound clunky when you have to speak them. If there’s a friend or family member willing to read through it, offer it to them for a their opinion. Bring your work to a writing group to get feedback as well. Just be sure that you aren’t asking for opinions on a piece that is still laden with misspellings and narrative faux pas. If you do, that’s all your readers will be able to comment on. It’s just too rough for them to see anything else.

One other tip I would offer is that you use some sort of version controlled software to write your story in. If you’re not familiar with that term an example would be Google Docs where at any time you can look back at all the edits you have made and examine previous iterations of the same document. There are two benefits to this. The first is that it allows you to make changes without the fear of losing any previous iterations. Sometimes we go back and forth on how a scene should play out and its nice to be able to swap between options as needed. Another neat feature is that you can provide a boost to your motivation when you’re feeling low. With a few clicks of a button you can see the journey of your work from its rough genesis to the quality novel that stands before you today. If you were able to make it this far, surely you can make it to the next level, too.

Now it would disingenuous of me to suggest that I hold myself to this regime for each of my blog posts. For these I have a deadline I must meet, and while I try to follow these steps for as long as I can, sooner or later I have to just accept that my craft is good enough and move forward with it. I think there is a value to learning how to work with deadlines, but for my longer, more personal writings I absolutely do strive give them the thorough treatment. I think that they deserve my best, and it really is amazing to see how much better a story becomes once all of the clutter gets out of its way.

Next time you pick up your favorite novel, remind yourself that you do not see all the hours of labor and crumpled early drafts that went into its creation. It was not always the polished, final product that you hold today, at one point it looked much like your own flawed and error-riddled manuscript. The difference between great authors and amateurs is simply their willingness to persist in the hard labor of improving their story. Thus all that stands between you and your masterpiece is a simple decision, the decision to roll up your  sleeves, and get to work.

 

Over these next three days I am going to write up a short story for Thursday’s blog post. At the end of that story I am going to let you peek behind the curtain at its earliest form and each iteration that followed, leading up to the finished product. Obviously I will be using the processes and tips that I have just illustrated to bring my work through those varied iterations. Given the short time constraint, I am sure there will yet remain a great deal of correction to be done on my story, but hopefully it’ll be enough to convince you of the value of my approach. I’ll see you then!