Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Learning Through Critiquing

In this week's primaries there were eight stories, seventy-three critiques, one hundred and ninety-eight posts, but what did we learn?

In Boot Camp we stress that the purpose of critiques is NOT to 'fix" stories, not to help the author spots faults, edit, rewrite and submit. The more of that activity there is, the more the original author's voice is diluted.

So what you find in Boot Camp is criticism, but only rarely discussion of how to fix the problem. If that kind of input is given it's most usually by me, but less for the author than as a teaching exercise which benefits the whole group.

But one week, what was there? Well. In all probability, every story can place, three or four could do very well. But believe it or not that is secondary, what matters is is there anything to learm from critiquing and discussing these stories?

Blue (these are not the exact titles), was a story of a bad car accident. The general opinion was that the narrator was a mother, but the voice seemed male. Learning Point 1 (LP1) what constitutes a male voice, a female voice; can we control it even if we want to? Does putting an obvious female cue up front stop people presuming the wrong gender? Discussion also brought up how infuriating stories are where we feel the narrator is female only to discover two pages left he's actually male.

The story dealt with a sort of stream-of-consciousness confusion (the family are in a near-fatal crash) but the confusion, most thought was too much. Perhaps not too much if reflecting reality, but too much to be a story. At least two readers wondered if the mother was raped and the rapist chased and caught. A lesson there, I think, make sure the reader can't wander too far off!

"Longer" was straightforward, a story that didn't score that highly but nevertheless might place. It appeared deeply textured (about an old man, a mystery, and ultimately an OAP romance) but the argument from some was that behind the thicker language, what was actually there? That is, it was a VERY simple story with a twist ending of a sort (but not a cheating one) but made to look more than it was by richer language and back-story stuff. Conclusion? You might place this but to do well you need a richer plot. I think the phrase was "womag plot but better language." That, sadly, means no womag would take the story (too well-written) and the places that like language might think the plot a bit thin.

Herz was unusual and generally got good marks. The main criticisms of this were to do with pacing and weighting, and that the surreal start at first just appears silly and some editors or judges might dismiss it before realising there was a strong moralistic story to follow. Message? Make sure that your opening tells the editor you are serious and not an idiot.

Beast is difficult to discuss here without posting the story, but the main problem was that we had a very unusual, slightly surreal idea, preceding quite nicely but then it suddenly morphed into a cheap revenge finish that looked rushed, tacked on. Tip here was be brave, continue the weirdness, don't give in to reader/editor expectations.

"God" seemed to please most people (I scored it 109). This was another surreal story, an animal suddenly possessed with human-style consciousness to fatal results. Like another surreal story the biggest issue for readers was that it could be seen as "silly" before the meaning accumulates. It needs "Napalm" (an AK term) something right up front that forces the reader into one mode of reading so everything which follows is shaped by the start, the mode and mood.

"Tesco" had a female protagonist but many felt the voice began as male before it softened. (That gender sound issue again, something to watch for). Most liked the various looks at society the story suggested (but our resident expert on the genre said most of these things had been done before)… a lot felt the ending diluted the story (I thought the ending MADE the story) so a debate ensued. 9 critiques suggested this was a story already publishable in print (110). One radically disagreed (93). The learning here is for the critter calling it a 93 (presuming the 9 people are right). What did he miss? How could he be so wrong (if he is)? By arguing with the others, either he persuades everybody else they've fallen for Emperor's Clothes (or something) or he realises he misread, was double-penalising, whatever.

The idea is that by NOT agreeing to differ, people learn.

I should say that we do NOT change the given marks. That's not the purpose of post-crit argument. But extreme highs or extreme lows are challenged and the scorer is expected to argue his case.

"Bug" (again not the title) had a number of issues. Some did not understand why the first paragraph was quite "poetic" nor how it related to the rest of the story. Most saw a love triangle but had it wrong (author's fault or reader's fault and would napalm help?) Many did not like all the flashback scenes and most felt that the author had strived too hard to incorporate all the prompts from one day's offerings. Some felt the voice wavered badly.

The voice DID waver, the shoe-horning of prompts was silly. (I know - I was the author)… but it was nice to simply pass-through, cut the shoehorned bits (which cured the voice issues)… also it made me realise I have a conceit issue, I like to include all the prompts "for the sake of it". This can be OK to get the raw material but why, once the story is drafted, not sweep through and remove the most glaring placements, smooth, and polish the art?

This story had an obvious trap for the lazy reader. Two men and a woman, a love-triangle. Most presumed the two men were competing for the woman and yet the story was littered with clues that this was not the case. Reader or Writer at fault? I would say mainly the reader (we all presume too easily)… at the end was a line (probably missed) which should have made it very, very clear to those who read carefully. But then could the writer make things a bit more directing up front? Answer, yes, in a cheaper, cruder story. So here there's another learning point. Greater subtlety often makes a story better, but harder to place. What do you want to do?

"Zero" caused the biggest ruckus, the subtlety thing again. One critter got VERY frustrated. Why couldn't the author just be straight?

This story did a few interesting things. It managed to use a blokey voice and yet still reach publishable standard. (We've argued in BC that such voices are a handicap because the moment you see the voice you think "slight", like when a book is chick-lit).

The story used an unreliable narrator. He THINKS (but says) the woman is pregnant, yet almost all the critiquers read the pregnancy as fact. This was a lesson in reading more carefully!! Some argued that "it was reasonable" to believe the woman wanted to get pregnant, but they all forgot that the person telling the story was a drunken, gambling, pot-smoking waster who was blind to just about everything in the world around him. It was funny to watch careful "quoting of text" that omitted the rather important point that ALL the text was written by an incorrigible liar who was also drunk and deluded. Learning for critters? Take care with what you believe! For the writer? Again, the obvious problem is that the subtlety is too easily missed. Does the writer stick with the extra quality and get mis-read hundreds of times, or make it simpler just to get a kick in publication?

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