Writing changed the way I read. It must be like being a musician. When they listen to songs, they probably divide it into lots of components–lyrics, melodies, rhythm, background instruments–things I’d never even know to look for. Same for writers. We find an author and can’t help but notice how she fine tunes all of the elements of story telling.
I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaimann last week, and that book made me think about all kinds of things. The writing? The craftsmanship and language were enough to make me drool. I should have worn a bib and drunk water so that I wouldn’t dehydrate. The characters? Wow, that’s a tough one. Gaimann did what I’ve tried to do over and over again–on my part, not very successfully. On his part? I’d give it mixed reviews. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s one of those things that even when a writer does it right, makes it challenging to work with. Gaimann peopled the book with unsympathetic characters. They were so odd, so out-there, so flawed, I kept turning pages to see what they’d do next. But for the most part, I didn’t like many of them. And I didn’t wish them well. I liked Shadow, his protagonist, but he made such odd choices, I had trouble following him, too. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care about himself…or much of anything. Of course, I say this, and then I think of Les Edgerton’s noir–and that’s part of the appeal of that genre, isn’t it? So maybe it’s just me and what I’m used to.
The plot? Meandered all over the place. Left loose ends here and there to tie up. Which he did, but in no particular hurry. If I took some of those chapters to my writers’ group, I’d get an earful. “What is the book’s big question?” “Who are we rooting for? To do what?” Now, obviously, a writer as big and as talented as Neil Gaimann can write a book any way he wants to and make it good. Better than good. It won lots of awards. But an unknown author like me? I’m grateful I have my writers’ group and reading buddies to keep me on the right path. And that made me think, what do I consider a good critique?
First and foremost, in my mind, is that a critiquer says what he likes about your story, what confused him, and anything that might make it better. It’s NOT trying to change your voice or style into sounding like his or some other author’s he likes. My good friends/readers catch awkward wording, weak verbs, and other picky things along with big ones–“The story bogs down here, needs more tension” or “This would be better if you cut out a subplot and got rid of soft scenes to add more action” and worse, “Can get you rid of Floyd? I can’t stand him, and I’m supposed to like him, I can tell.” Honest opinions. Which are fine. I’m grateful for them. What’s not fine is bashing, and our group never does that. What good does it serve? Critiques are to make a person’s writing better, not make him go home and cry or worse, give up. “This stinks,” is not a critique. And it’s not helpful.
One more thing to keep in mind when we critique is what genre the writer is aiming for. Before I could critique a friend’s manuscript who wrote historic, inspirational romance, I had to read a couple of them. What works for one genre might be taboo in another. For instance, in Regencies, there’s LOTS of description–description of the lounge the ladies are sewing in, the gloves they choose to wear to the ball, the carriage they ride in. They drive my friend who reads suspense nuts, but these descriptions are part of the fun. Even the language is lush and formal. In urban fantasy and fantasy, there’s a certain amount of world building. If a reader doesn’t know the genre, he’ll miss it’s particular essentials. My group keeps asking me, “So what are the rules for vampires again? What’s a succubus? Did you make that up?” I think readers have to be fair and tell an author, “This is a genre I don’t know anything about.” But then give a critique and realize some of their comments might be off target. And last, but not least, we need to expect a writer to do what feels right to him. After all, it’s his book.
I’m moving on to read another book now, so soon, I’ll quit noodling over elements of writing and just enjoy a good, historical romance. But I’m glad I read a book that challenged me and made me sit up and take notice of the many layers of writing skills. I’ve been writing for so long, a reminder or two is good for me. Hope you find a book that sparks your inner critic too. Got any that have inspired you to sharpen your writing skills?
P.S. Just wanted to mention that author Elizabeth McKenna was kind enough to interview me on her blog. If you’re interested: http://elizabethmckenna.com/my-blog/