Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Tomorrow night marks the midpoint for my writing class. Manuscripts for discussion trickled through the wires yesterday with the last one arriving in my inbox just before Tuesday turned into Wednesday. It was a good 36 hours late but this isn’t a class for credit. There isn’t a midterm, an attendance list or a single consequence for rule breaking. I printed them all out and made a tidy pile of literary wonders I needed to read.
When we started the critique last week, the professor had a hard time finding someone to follow his initial commentary of praise and criticism. I’m the first to admit it’s tough to hear people, especially complete strangers, pick apart your creativity. As the writer, you can go down one of two paths. The first one is defensiveness. You pull a shell around you and either aloud to the group or silently to yourself defend the words chosen, the direction of the plot and the characteristics of the narrator. You blame the reader for being too dense as opposed to blaming yourself for being too unclear. The second response is appreciation. You welcome the commentary because there’s a point being made. A point that you couldn’t see because you were too invested in the piece and some person who had nothing to personally gain from it all took the time to help you see it.
Mr. Metro’s story, the one with the aliens, was well received by the class. I incredulously thumbed through my print out to make sure we were all talking about the same manuscript. There were suggestions of clarity, verb tense and point of view consistency. I’ll admit that some good dialogue was buried deep in the story but there were so many confusing things about the piece, including the minor issue of an absent plot. Not wanting to challenge the general consensus, I quietly questioned if it was even worth salvaging. It’s like a sinking boat. At a certain point, you have to decide whether the buckets tossing water over the side are working. If you’re taking on more water than you’re getting rid of, well, good chance you should just swim for shore. Once you dry off, you can grab a catalog and buy a new boat.
At the end of his critique, Mr. Metro thanked the group for being honest. He said his wife hated the piece and questioned why he would ever want to submit it for the class. I think his wife and I would get along great. Regardless of her opinion, he just loved the story and wanted to develop it further. Maybe from where he’s standing, there’s less water to bail. More power to him.
The second manuscript for critique was submitted by the retired flutist with that weird hole on her face. All you need to know is that the story had a queen and some people traveling to “the other side.” I’m pretty sure the writer owns a cape. She might even wear it when she plays Dungeons & Dragons.
As much as I disliked the fantasy premise of the story, I had to give Ms. D&D some credit for beautiful prose. She had a way of blending words together so that they flowed like music. I’m not sure if it had something to do with her flute talents but there was truly a rhythm to her writing. The problem was that the rhythm flat lined. It reminded me of that tedious house music where the same five bars are repeated over and over and over for twenty minutes. The story lacked conflict, there was inconsistency with the characters and some immediate confusion when “the other side” entered the story. The professor thought perhaps it was a character tripping because mushrooms were mentioned, shedding more light on the teacher's habits than the actual story being discussed.
Flaws and all, I still saw potential for the fantasy fiction. Unlike Mr. Metro’s piece, I immediately thought Ms. D&D had a shot at keeping her boat afloat. She might even be able to patch it entirely. After all, she was innately a better writer.
Any hope was dashed when she opened her mouth. “I don’t understand what you’re saying” and “you just need to read the next few chapters to fully comprehend” were the two lines she recycled in response to some solidly constructive criticism. What Ms. D&D doesn’t understand is that if you can’t hold the reader’s interest in the first 20 pages, no one is reading the later chapters. No one. My test for whether I want to buy an unknown book is to read the first few paragraphs. If it isn’t grabbing me one way or another, it goes back on the shelf and I wander down the aisle in search of something that will grab me. A book or short story is just like a blind date; you have only a short period of time to make a first impression. Wear the wrong skirt or say the wrong thing and there’s a chance date number two is off the table.
I feel badly for Ms. D&D. She clearly has a stronger linguistic talent than Mr. Metro. In the end, it may not matter. The best way to get from good to great, no matter what it is you’re looking to improve, is to be able to digest and apply the suggestions made by your audience, your peers. I have a strong feeling Ms. D&D will be a writer who pens a lengthy manuscript for an audience of one, herself. At least she’ll have her cape to keep her warm.