Sunday, October 9, 2011

His Grumpiness Gets Critiqued: Part I (The Critiques and My Nonskillful Reaction)


This Post Is Laden With Heavy ME ME ME ME ME ME ME Content. Those Looking For General Grumpy Brilliance About Stuff and Things Should Go Elsewhere, Like Here or Here and especially Here.


Over the last six months or so, his Grumpiness has been writing a little somethin'-somethin' involving a certain goblin detective named Axiom. While this was clearly a bad decision, it's something he's committed to, at least for as long as he's not uncommitted to it.

After months of regular writing, and helpful critiques on a number of chapters by a Tipper and a Jeff, I figured it was time to see if I could build a larger critiquing group, not to mention see whether my writing would fly with people who didn't know from the beginning what I was trying to do ... and so, I submitted my prologue and first chapter to Critters.

The critiques are in, and while on the whole they've been positive and helpful, there have been some annoying negative consequences to fight through. I thought I'd take some time to summarize the comments I got, and discuss what common themes there are (or aren't), and then figure out why I'm reacting the way I am. 

A little backstory: When I wrote the Prologue/Chapter 1, I (and Tipper and Jeff) had a very good idea of exactly what the world was, and so did my original readers, because of all the (later) chapters that had been written before.  The new critiquers, though ... well, you'll see.

Below I've cut-and-pasted some representative comments about various elements of the writing; below the comments I discuss my reactions.

On the Prologue:
Overall the intro was intriguing. I liked the card game as a way to introduce the character and drop him into an uncomfortable situation. --SM

I thought the opening line was a fantastic way to draw me in ... -- RB

You see, the opening hooked me ... I nodded after I finished the prologue. You've done a very good job and you deserve a pat on the back. --CM

... the down on his luck gambler's been done to death and your game feels way too close to Texas Hold 'Em.  Based on the prologue alone I have put this one back on the shelf. --DR
It’s not obvious why the prologue is there in the first place.  It doesn’t do anything to spike the interest of the reader. --DS

I thought your prologue did not go well with the rest of your story.  Sure he may want money and this is how you kick off your first chapter about him being late to work, but it really does not add to the story besides that. --YL
I'm not sure of the point of the prologue unless it is to set the stage for the fact that Axiom is broke and bored. --CB
 On the Setting:
After reading the prologue and chapter 1, I don’t know what kind of world I’m in.  I get that it’s not Earth, but is it a dark-future kind of setting, a sword and sorcery realm, or other?  I have a sneaky suspicion that it’s a sword and sorcery kind of realm, but really don’t know for certain. There’s reference to a cop carrying a broadsword, but the reference to cops, gangs and the like seems somewhat contemporary.  Perhaps you could lay a few more clues so I know what kind of world to be imagining. --BA

The setting was very confusing for me ... Assuming a typical fantasy setting, rush hour wouldn’t exist. Fantasy worlds are going to be agrarian based ... Carrying a cup of coffee as you walk to work, again more 21st century than medieval fantasy.  No paper cups, so he’s likely using a clay mug which would require a kiln capable of hitting 600C. These things are more difficult to procure than people like to think. --DS

 [O]verall I'm not seeing enough of the place ... the description is insufficiently present --RS

The scenes seemed out of focus and I could not tell where our main character is exactly.  It is as if he is magically placed in a new situation and I felt that you rushed your first chapter.  --YS

Unfortunately, you did not provide much orientation to the reader through the Prologue and first chapter, so I was left with many questions about what this or that meant, and what was the setting ... I had difficulty getting a handle on what world we're in. --AL
As a reader I have NO idea as to what the physical appearance of any of the characters are in broad strokes. Human, hybrid, alien, non-human. There are no
clues to indicate otherwise, but when Axiom refers to the thugs as "grubs" it could conceivably be a race of fly people. --CB
Even the person who liked it the best was a little iffy about the whole "setting" thing:
With setting, I couldn't tell whether the story was exploring concepts of urban fantasy. You mentioned cops, so I was expecting a gun, but then you mentioned sword. I got a little confused. I however resisted the temptation to read again, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the reader -- I wanted to crit from a reader's point of view. But if setting was clarified and I didn't see it, no need to touch that part on setting. --CM
you do a remarkable job of resisting the temptation of spontaneous exposition to explain setting and place. Definitely showing as opposed to telling. Harder to do but better in the end. --CB
 On Axiom:
I like your main character – quick thinking yet jaded. --BA

The voice and humor stands out as a strength --RS 

You give Axiom a very distinct internal voice for his first person observations. --CB
though as usual AL is a whiny little ... *ahem*, I mean:
I'm a little undecided on how he came across to me. --AL
 On the Encounters with the Toughs/Structure (e.g., not getting to the murder scene immediately)
I think the final interaction with the ruffians did the most to generate empathy for me. He clearly didn’t feel entirely in control.  But he took a risk to prevent something bad happening to someone he only had a general positive feeling for.... This was the most effective aspect of the story so far in generating and keeping my interest. --DS

I suspect the body of the story is going to involve the narrator's efforts to solve the crime of the multiple murders, but I didn't think that the fact that the main thrust of the novel wasn't overly identified was of concern. --RB
The chapter seemed to suggest that the murders up near the roof would eventually be Axiom's primary case.  So, I came away from Chapter 1 wondering what role the chapter would play in the overall plot of the novel, and would we see Slab, Shifty, and friends again. --AL
Then we get to the meat of the chapter. But then we move on into  another lengthy encounter, which at this point doesn't seem to have anything to do with the murder investigation. --SM
The interaction between Axiom and the thugs was okay as well. I had a slightly hard time believing that some thugs would shakedown a cop on the way to work, though, no matter how tough they are. --CB (Editor's note: I can rationalize this, build in some backstory to defend it, but generally speaking, oops.)
You do a great job of sharing more of Axiom's character when he opts to confront the goons risking his job for tardiness. Provided insight to the character without telling again. Deft touch there. --CB
The recurring thugs are a good character reveal.  I guess the important question is are they weight bearing?  Unless they become important you should probably find a more salient way to make that character reveal. --DR
Overall I don't think there's much I can contribute to improving the structure or narrative ... I think the key question to be answered when looking at the opening chapters of a novel is 'would you read any further?' And the answer in this case is a resounding yes. --RB

I enjoyed every word in your story. Characterization was perfect. Dialogue and exposition too were done well. POV was constant and the POV character saw only what he can see. The last is style. You've got it. Go you. --CM

I have no clue about such as what in the world just happened. --YS

This was a great piece of story-telling. --RB

Your writing style was smooth to read, but the questions that kept popping into my head kept disrupting the reading experience. --AL

My Reaction, Stage I: Ego BOOST!

Non-Attachment Shmon-Attachment -- Reading stuff like "I enjoyed every word in your story" and "The last is style. You've got it. Go you" was like injecting heroin into my eyeballs. I dismissed (mostly) the more negative comments as coming from folks who were looking for something more plot-drive than character-driven, and just not getting the point. Some of the more positive feedback was from someone who has actually published a few short stories, which of course makes him better than other people. Go me, indeed! 

My Reaction, Stage II: Confusion/Frustration
Dude, he only wanted a little earth and water.
After digging a little deeper into the comments, there were some odd contradictions, like 
And I have to say how much I loved the following line about the blood beetles in hard boots. --RF

"though the metaphor only worked if you gave the blood  beetles hard boots" – the metaphor only works if the reader knows what a blood beetle is. --DS
Well, that's annoying.

And even some folks who gave it a general thumbs up thought the prologue was kind of pointless, with the exception of those that thought it was great.

And the encounter with the toughs was a great character reveal for Axiom, except for those that that it seems like a tangent because it's delaying us from getting to the murders.

And the fact is that in almost all detective fiction I've read, the detective is noted to be such on the first page (if not the first paragraph), and is On The Scene or Getting The Job within the first 1-3 pages. I'm not doing that. H'm.

My Reaction, Stage III: Inspiration!
Seriously, it was a very reasonable deal.
Sure, there were contradictions in the feedback, but I was getting three very consistent messages:
  1. Axiom is an interesting character and the style works (my attempt to be a 5th rate Raymond Chandler is a success! Now to climb the rung to 4th rate ...)
  2. The setting description is sorely lacking
  3. Some folks liked it enough that they were willing to read further chapters
So I put aside writing New Stuff, wordsmithed Chapter 2 a bit, and sent it along to some folks. And then, to one person, Chapter 3. Thus leading to the next stage ...

My Reaction, Stage IV: Paralyzation

I just want a hug.
(Yeah, I know, 2006 emailed, they want their images back.)

And here's the problem with submitting material for a writing critique when you are only a quarter of the way (at best) through a first draft. You polish polish polish a couple of chapters, send them out, and while they're flawed, you find some folks that really like what you've done. You respect them, they respect you and give good feedback -- what could go wrong?

This: you decide that you need to hold onto these people, and so you send them Chapter 2. Except, you know, they loved Chapter 1, but that's partially because you edited it to death. And it's one of the most recent things you've written. Chapter 2, well, it's good, but it probably needs some work. I mean, you don't want to disappoint these people, right?

Did monkeys write this? Monkeys on heroin?

Imagine the look on their faces if they open up the next chapter and it has all the flaws of the early stuff, but none of the tasty stylistic goodness! That's the thing about writing something that is more character-based/voice-based/atmosphere-based than plot-based -- that shit takes time. 

And so you enter a cycle of working and reworking and re-re-working your early stuff when you haven't even made it a quarter of the way through your novel -- even though you don't even know if, by the time you finish, it'll even make sense to start where you started. Ack!

Plus, after tweaking and trimming and polishing the early chapters, reviewing something new that you've just written ... well, it reads like you just started flinging poo at the computer screen, hoping something would stick.
And you call yourself a writer ...
Spending all that time tweaking old stuff so it's Good seems to have lowered my intolerance for generating new stuff, which will decidedly Kinda Suck. Meaning I've fallen off the track that's been working for me -- tweak only occasionally, while concentrating on writing new material. Bleah!

Still, being cognizant of all of this should be helpful. My current goal is not to worry about the old chapters, get some new stuff down on the page, and put off getting critiques of later chapters for a month or two. While trying to put in a little more description, of course. (Argh.)

As far as whether those very first chapters will make it to the final cut -- i.e., whether I'll decide I need to start At The Scene, and delete or move Chapters 0 and 1 ... well, I'm going to try not to think about that right now ...

Summing up, I think reviewer DS really nailed it:
"Fancy-pants" – not a term I associate with a standard fantasy setting.


  1. When having my work critiqued on Critters, I've found I always love the reviews that loved my work, but got the best feedback from those that hate it (assuming they tell me why they hated it).

    I've also found, as it sounds like you are finding, I can't have work in progress edited as it distracts me from ever finishing what I'm working on. I need to plow on through to the end, and then look back and try to clean the mess I made.

  2. Of the two most critical reviews, one was extraordinarily helpful, and one was just about useless. However, even the almost useless one echoed some complaints of those who liked it a lot. So I can't exactly dismiss him entirely, even though his review was one big block paragraph ...

  3. Hey,
    When my editor wrote in blue: "C, I think it's better for me to stay out of your novel for now and allow you to concentrate on the writing," I almost went mad. Imagine the trauma I would have subjected her to, working on a novel that changes with every submission...
    Yes,because I had not finished the whole novel and the main focus/plot/structure/setting were not composed yet.
    Believe me, I'm on the fifth draft and I only saw big potholes in the first novel, when I had finished writing about half of the second novel--a sequel to the first novel -- a first novel I had called "a finished work ready for editing,"

    It's important to resist the temptation of sending your work out to be crit. when you're still writing. If you don't have a strong heart, you would never be able to rise.

    I'd tell you're just like Axiom. lol.

  4. Hmm, do women REALLY have that hard of a time figuring it out? It took me all of 5 seconds. ;)