An old critique dissected (Part 3)

First, an explanation for those who are joining us mid-rant:

Once upon a time (last year, I think), I posted a short story on a peer-review site for writers. One of the reviews I got (not to be confused with a review from a literary critic – this kind of review would be called a critique if not for the fact that too many people think “critique” means “find fault with literally everything,” and administrators of peer-review sites have generally found that the change in terminology greatly improves the helpfulness of feedback to authors, although I’m mostly calling it a critique here because some people will not have read this explanation) ran more than 2000 words longer than my story and was, to say the least, not helpful.

Eventually, I ended up sending her a rather lengthy private message showing exactly what about that review/critique I’d found unhelpful, because the critiquer asked – or rather sent me a message saying, ‘Why’d you give my review a Not Helpful rating? I gave you a really long review!’ So on top of everything else, I had to explain that quantity is not synonymous with quality, although most site members – about 90 percent – seemed to prefer both. (On that and other peer-review sites, I had a really bad reputation with around ten percent of the members as ‘the guy who proofreads like a fiend and comments on everything.’ I also had a really good reputation with the other ninety percent as ‘the guy who proofreads like a fiend and comments on everything.’ The ten percent tended to send me hate mail full of atrocious grammar, wonky punctuation, and spelling that would make a blind chimpanzee ashamed. Go figure.)

Anyway. This bloggish rant in four parts is my reply to that critique (I didn’t quote the entire thing for obvious reasons), plus additional comments from me that are my thoughts as I’ve been typing these blog posts. The quotes from the critique are in normal type, my original replies are in bold-face, and my new comments are inside double parentheses – just to keep everything clear.

(I strongly recommend that you read parts 1 and 2 before going on. My frustration – and thus, my impatience and resulting sarcasm – will make a lot more sense that way.)

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(Part 3 – collect ‘em all!)

“I didn’t see what happened next, because I was facing the other way – but suddenly Devin grabbed me and pulled me back from the street (?) ( We) stumbled, and we both fell (both falling) into a leafless thorn bush that probably looked real nice with flowers on it in summer. As it was, Devin got his hair tangled on the thorns and a couple of scratches on his face.” Maybe make mention of the where they are in relation to the street before now.

((Mention it when, exactly? Not as if there’s a lot of room to insert that detail, nor is it necessary to say anything before it comes up.))

What kind of thorn bush?

((It’s some kind of bush that grows in Anglin several centuries from now, when the Earth is still not entirely recovered from the smallish ice age that came in the aftermath of a really big and ugly world war. Can YOU identify a plant when it has no leaves to distinguish it from others of similar type? Better yet, can you explain why it matters to say what kind of bush this is?))

We know it looks good in summer so we can assume it’s not looking good now?

((What do roses look like in winter?))

Some ugly type of thorn bush… what are the thorns like? Similar to those found on roses? Are these just types of plants common along the sides of streets where they are or is this just a random one?

((If it mattered, the information would be in the story. Forget the damn thorn bush and move on.))

“I (We) stumbled, and we both fell” – Correct as originally written. Alandra stumbles; Devin does not. However, he is holding onto her arm, and so they both fall.

You keep demanding extraneous details. An example comes to mind of why a lot of detail is not always a good or desirable thing: Take the famous “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” expression. What if the guy in Casablanca had instead said that it “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, garbanzo, the small round ones that are called, by some, chick peas”? It would have ruined the scene, that’s for certain. Under any circumstances, if the protagonist wouldn’t say something, it is not appropriate to use such language in a first-person story.

“As it was, Devin go this hair tangled on the thorns (big, shapr thorns?) and a couple of scratches on his face.” (what kind of scratches? Big, bleeding ones? Superficial surface scratches? Does he have some kind of freaky skin that can heal remarkably quickly that would make this piece of information relevant?

((Ah, I see – the type of bush they fall into matters so very, very much, but the fact that one of the characters is scratched by the thorns is irrelevant. Gotcha.))

why ‘as it was’? What was Devin’s hair like? How did Alandra compare?

((I cannot help but think – again – that this person is the victim of a semi-competent high school English teacher who taught his/her students the Absolute Importance of Giving Every Detail, whether it moves the story or not… Much like a certain teacher I had in high school, who was for some reason extremely impressed that I mentioned in passing the color of the rocking chair in the characters’ living room. This is the sort of habit that results in lots of ‘literary’ fiction – you know, the kind in which nothing at all happens.))

“Some people like to oversimplify and call them ‘elf-hater, but most wouldn’t be upset over hurting any Threnendaran, elf, human, or ‘kin. They wear iron and it can’t be legally counted as a weapon, even though everyone knows what iron does to us. Not our world, y’see.” the voice seems to change here, with the use of slang which isn’t too evident before now.

((Really? Alandra never uses slang/informal speech before this paragraph? The critiquer must think that Alandra’s dropping of some words – “time to time” rather than “from time to time” – is a mistake on the part of the author rather than a deliberate choice of character voice, which is again a sign of not paying attention. That aside, this kind of complaint reminds me of what one reviewer years ago said about Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber: ‘Sometimes the narrator talks like a regular guy from mid-20th century America, and sometimes he talks like a prince from some medieval-ish fantasy world.’ Well, d’uh!))

Based on that, I’d be more inclined to not use it, unless you can incorporate it earlier, so we the reader know it as the voice of the narrative. (‘em… y’see)

“And Devin had seen them approach, and pulled me out of the way” pulled? thrown/tossed/protected… I don’t know about pulled, maybe put emphasis on the sacrifice – how Devin had been physically hurt protecting her, and how she felt now going from the assumption he was maybe going to attack her

((At what point did I EVER imply that Alandra thought Devin was attacking her?))

to the knowledge that he was in fact looking out for her best interest.

((First, “pulled” is the accurate verb here; he didn’t throw or toss her, and neither of those verbs is inherently ‘more active’ than the one used, either, so that’s no justification for the suggested change. And I did say that he was physically hurt in helping her.))

“Like I said, it (this?) was a bad neighborhood.” (I don’t remember reading this! This implies that – (from earlier) “Now, Johansen’s is not the kind of place where I’d usually go. The lighting’s too dim, and the music is good enough to be distracting (note – music good enough to be distracting needs work – distracting from what?! Something worse than the music?!). And even in Anglin, there are places that aren’t safe for people like me.” That’s more saying the venue is bad, not the neighborhood. Reference to Anglin could be it – but there in so mention that they ARE in Anglin, just that Anglin is assumable safe.

((*shakes head* Have you ever found yourself paying attention to something pleasant – a tune on the radio, an attractive view outside a window, a good book – rather than paying attention to something you needed to pay attention to? It’s sort of like how if you’re spying on someone while sitting on a park bench and pretending to read a book, you don’t choose a book that you’d actually be interested in reading, because you’d be distracted… And no reader who paid attention while reading this story ever had a problem with the phrase “music good enough to be distracting.” Guess what that suggests? And… “I’d walked to Johansen’s, despite the cold of an Anglin November, to meet with a potential client” does say rather clearly that this happens in Anglin. Did the reviewer perhaps not read the first half a page of the story?))

“I started to thank him, but he said (interrupted?), “I could hardly let them harm my finder, could I? Good hunting,” he said to me, and was gone before I could recover enough for an angry.” ‘Good hunting’ make this clear it was sarcastic

((It isn’t.))

before we get to learning about ‘angry reply’ (instead of relying on the mention of ‘angry reply’ to show the tone he had used).

((See previous comment from me. Also, what is wrong with showing something indirectly?))

“but he said(interrupted)” – “Said” ALWAYS works in a dialogue tag. If it’s clear that he is interrupting, would it not be excessive to also state that fact?

“It was that last comment that got to me.” We already know this from mention of ‘angry reply’

((But you wanted more emotional reaction from the narrator before… Make up your mind, please.))

Maybe instead of ‘telling’ us again, show us how it makes her feel

((You assume that this character would talk in detail about her emotions. Of course, you’re assuming that because she’s female, and you believe that all women are ruled by their emotions and cannot help but tell everyone all about how they feel about everything… First person, remember? If the protagonist doesn’t know about something, it doesn’t get mentioned. If the protagonist wouldn’t talk or think about something, it doesn’t get mentioned. And I am certain that you wouldn’t be demanding all this ‘tell us how the character feels all the time’ if the protagonist was male. I find the stereotyping offensive. And so does Alandra. So there! ))

why it got to her.

((THAT gets explained shortly. Did you read the story before deciding that information was left out?))

I am surprised by her angry outburst, the ‘itch’ to hit something.

((‘Cause women don’t ever have violent impulses or overreact, right? Idiot…))

I think there needs to be more clarification around when he made the statement, a hint of sarcasm

((Arrrghhh! Not sarcasm, damnit!))

of the last part of what he said, but let us know of his sarcasm before he says it (if that makes sense!)

((Unless it is only a matter of placing the tag before the dialogue in the sentence, it doesn’t make sense to tell how someone said something before they said it.))

“Good hunting” was NOT said sarcastically – perhaps sardonically, but only directed at himself, and Alandra wouldn’t know that.

The “show, don’t tell” rule (which is not an absolute rule) CANNOT be applied rigidly in first-person narration, because the protagonist is TELLING the entire story.

“That had better have been all it was.” Or what? Is this line necessary?

((Is it necessary to give the species name of the damn thorn bush? The “or what?” – which is often only implied when people use such expressions – is that she’d drop the job if it turned out that he was too annoying to work for. Actually says so soon, if you bother to read before jumping to conclusions. And yes, the line is necessary.))

I think the last line sums it up nicely, and this is more of an afterthought, doesn’t really seem to ‘add’ anything new.

“The word ‘hunter’ has some bad connotations for us, and calling a person that is considered (a) deadly insult in some places.” A deadly insult? A death wish? Could calling a person that be social suicide?

((*rolls eyes*))

Can people die if you call them that?(yeah, I know, just making a point lol) (OR ‘…calling a person that (insulting a person in that way is considered deadly in some places?)

((What does “deadly insult” usually mean…? It means that a person is likely to kill you for saying it.))

“I thought about dropping the job then (why just ‘then’? why not before?), just for what he’d said

((There’s your “or what?” that you were so sure wasn’t in the story. Those two paragraphs too much of a wait for you to find out?))

this is bordering on telling

((Please explain to me how, in first-person narration, the main character’s feelings or thoughts – or actions, for that matter – could be conveyed to the reader in any way that isn’t telling.))

and I think the purpose of your telling is to further make the point about Alandra’s bruised ego (?)

((I don’t know what you mean about her having a bruised ego. I suppose it isn’t entirely your fault that you don’t know exactly why that word is an insult – not as if I’ve gone into excruciating detail – and yes, that adjective is accurate for the topic – as to how it came to be so. However, it isn’t Alandra’s pride that has been offended.))

Maybe mention how she’s annoyed enough that she half considered dropping the case out of spite.

((Spite? Would it be spite if a Jewish person refused to work for someone who called her a Nazi? Closest analogy that would mean anything to the general populace…))

Is this further information necessary? Can it be mentioned earlier, closer to when the ‘insult’ happened?

((I dislike your single quotes – they suggest that it should not be considered an insult and that Alandra is just overly sensitive… That may not be what you intend to imply, but that’s what your punctuation says. This is why proper use of punctuation matters – keeps people from writing things they don’t mean. And again, I find it odd for someone who keeps demanding more and more detail to also keep saying that the details are unnecessary.))

“But Devin had gotten my curiosity up before my anger, and I’d discovered that I, too, wanted to know what had become of Stephan Dragonborn, ancestor of all the ‘kin.” Perhaps make mention of the motivation behind the curiousity?

((Um… Because it would be a challenge? Because ‘half the Worlds’ wanted to know, and she’d be famous if she was the one who found him?))

“So much, and so little, is known about his disappearance.” Use of ‘his’ a little ambigious – make it clear we are no longer referring to Devin by including Stephan/Dragonborn’s name (whether first or last, just stick to one from here on in)

((This is my turn to “lol”… or at least giggle at the irony. Again. Anyway, I do think it should be clear from the context who is referred to by that pronoun. I can also think of many, many instances where a character in a story was called by a different name depending on who was speaking.))

“Gone (He disappeared?) the morning of his son’s twentieth birthday – like everyone knew would happen – leaving the poor kid the new king of a city but also effectively an orphan.” this is confusing. Stephan was the one that disappeared, yes? To clarify, maybe instead of “poor kid” use ‘his son as the new king…’

((Why? Because “poor kid” is Alandra’s opinion and shouldn’t be mentioned? Oh, wait…))

Everyone knew it would happen – maybe mention instead it came as no surprise, this implies the same thing without expressing it as such.

((Actually, it doesn’t imply the same thing. It’s one thing for people not to be surprised at an event, and quite another for them to know in advance that it was going to occur.))

“went Up (capitalization?),

((Yes, capitalization. What makes you think that was an error?))

like Jasper Greyphoenix before him,

((The author wishes to express thanks that this critiquer didn’t squawk over the spelling of that character’s surname. Far too many people have told me that it’s incorrect – as if they would have any way of knowing. So for anyone else who is inclined to say I’ve spelled it wrong – don’t.))

took a ship and went Up-and-Out (capitalization? I’m assuming there’s a reason for this?)

((I really can’t say whether or not you’re assuming that. Sorry, but these days I try to limit my mindreading to people I’m close friends with, and I don’t even know you. *weird grin* And yes, there is a reason for the capitalization. Remember when one of your teachers – you know, those people you like to parrot so much – told you that a common noun can be a proper noun in certain circumstances?))

to the places beyond Terra’s sky. Some (Others?) say he never left Threnendar at all, but only returned to Windtower where he’d lived before the changing magic took him. I (personally, myself, strongly, a slight inclination…)don’t believe either of those (these?) theories. Call it finder’s instinct.” Maybe capital F for Finder in this case? So we know Alandra’s finder’s instinct doesn’t site right with the two mentioned theories. Why? What does she think happened?

“Maybe capital F for Finder in this case?” After everyone and their dog told me not to capitalize it in an earlier version… And they were right. It isn’t wrong if capitalized, but it works better if it isn’t, and there’s no reason for it to be.

((So tell me, if I had used either “personally” or “strongly” in the above bit of writing, would you have thrown the “Never Use Adverbs!!!” pseudo-rule at me? I find it probable…))

“I just sat back and listened to them. So far nothing that I felt was a read lead, the start point of a reliable trail” ‘real lead, the start point…” seems to be saying the same thing.

“real lead, the start point…” seems to be saying the same thing.” Have you never heard of repetition for emphasis?

“Like I said, I started as a data-chaser, and that (this?) was (is?) still my favorite way of tracking.”

((Um… No. Present-tense is both incorrect and inappropriate.))

“I wondered if Dragonborn had actually covered his tracks so well, or if this was just the random chatter that fills any empty space.” If Dragonborn had actually covered his tracks so well what?! So well that he was untraceable?

((*sigh* Yes, so well that well that Alandra was unable to trace him. The fact that you are able to figure that out immediately should indicate that it isn’t unclear. Oh, wait, are we now back to ‘state everything outright and leave nothing to implication no matter how obvious it is’?))

I love the ‘random chatter that fills any empty space’ but it doesn’t seem to fit the sentence.

((Why not? In what way does it ‘not fit’?))

Try to fit it closer to the theories above, offering the theories perhaps as possible explanations or the fruits of random chatter filling empty space…

((Huh?? Are you thinking that Alandra only knows about the common theories – technically hypotheses, but let’s not quibble – concerning Dragonborn’s whereabouts after she does this bit of research?))

“And you know something else? I started to admire the guy who’d hidden himself so completely that even a good finder didn’t know where he was.” When did she start to admire Dragonborn? It reads as though it’s at this moment

((Um, yeah. Not a precise moment, exactly, but during the time when she’s doing this research “in the nets” – which is setting-appropriate slang for “online,” for anyone who didn’t find that glaringly obvious.))

maybe instead have her continue to admire

((…which would imply that she’d done so before this job began – not correct))

or have her admiration growing

((…which would imply that it existed already – also not correct))

Maybe make mention of Alandra’s theory he had hidden himself before now, somewhere near the mention of the two mainstream theories?

((OHG!!!! You just used the term “mainstream” in relation to my science-fantasy story!!! I’m so, like, y’know, shocked and horrified and stuff that I’m using txt abbreviations and too much punctuation!!! And faux valley-girl diction from the, like, y’know, early 1980s lol cos sometimes I have to use humor/sharp-edged sarcasm just to keep from throwing something out of sheer frustration……… And that aside, I think that there is something to be said for not telling every frakkin’ bit of a story in perfectly linear fashion. If you can’t wait through eight – count ‘em – lines of text to get more information, perhaps you lack the patience to read short stories and ought to stick to “tweets” for your reading entertainment from now on.))

“It was also the hardest bit of tracking I’d ever done. I tried everything. Every rumor, every chance sighting already part of the urban legends of two worlds. And Devin was right… What I was doing was a lot like that those hunters had done in the long past, when they were searching for Greyphoenix. I wasn’t at all like them, though.”

((Pay attention, Loyal Reader and others who may stumble upon more of my writing at times, and remember the old saying: “It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.” – And yes, I am working on that flashback scene I promised. This bloggish rant stuff is just warm-up.))

It didn’t take long before it became apparent, this was going to be the hardest… (?)

((Aside from the suggested rewrite having even more passive verb usage that the original, it doesn’t accurately describe what happens or what the character thinks. Why bog down the narration with “It didn’t take long before it became apparent…” when, for one thing, how quickly Alandra decides that this job is the hardest she’s ever had doesn’t matter. The suggested rewrite puts emphasis in the wrong place – and it implies the wrong thing, too.))

How was Devin right?

((Remember the “Good hunting” comment from Devin that made Alandra so angry? Now, reread this sentence: “What I was doing was a lot like what those hunters had done…” Make sense yet? No? Try once more, then. – And for the record, that sentence also has some small clue as to why ‘hunter’ is considered a serious insult by some people, should the reader care to think about it for a few seconds.))

Maybe go back and review the dialogue to make what Devin was right about more immediately apparent to the reader.

((…Even though it isn’t immediately apparent to the narrating character, and without her view on it, the reader cannot and should not know, either.))

“What I was doing was a lot like what those hunters had done in the long past, when they were searching for Greyphoenix. I wasn’t at all like them, though. (Or?) Was I? (/At least I didn’t think so?)

((Yeah. All that is strongly implied in what IS written, and the suggested rewrites would dilute the idea with too much wordiness. Weaken the impact. Not fit the narrating character’s voice. You know – things to be avoided.))

(just remembered this bit

((…and was too lazy to go back and place it in the relevant spot in a written critique…))

this might be before/after the surrounding suggestions “I just sat back and listened to them So far nothing that I felt was a real lead, the start point of a reliable trail.” ‘ I just sat back and listened.’ ‘to them??’ I don’t know if that’s necessary

((It’s necessary. The critiquer would have said ‘listened to what?? This is confusing’ if those words hadn’t been there. Trust me.))

Perhaps instead explain what was being heard?

((You’re assuming that ‘listened’ is literal. Given that she’s talking about searching “on the nets,” that may not be a correct assumption…))

Were they audible sounds or some kind of psychic phenomena?

((Aside from a sentence at the beginning of the story – sentence number 5, to be precise – that mentions that a few people are clairvoyants or others with ‘a talent for locating things’ – the critiquer has seen nothing to actually tell her that ‘psychic phenomena’ would even be an option. However, I am pleased that she does see it as a possibility, all things considered.))

Were they tortured, noisy creams, or whispers?)

((Dunno. What kinds of voices do YOUhear while lurking on internet forums?))

“Stephan Dragonborn didn’t want to be found – that was certain, (otherwise/or else) else he’d not have gone missing to begin with (/in the first place).

((I ought to point out to you that “else” instead of “or else” or “otherwise” is a valid choice, and it fits better with the character’s voice. Remember character voice? That thing that is important in all fiction and essential in any first-person story? I can see no reason for “in the first place” rather than “to begin with,” and no clarification was ever given.))

If I did locate him, what then? (Would I have to) Tell Devin where he was, as I’d been paid to do? Tell everyone?

((It isn’t a question of “Would I have to?” but rather “Should I?” Quite a difference.))

At least tell Jonathan, king of Haefenspoint, who hadn’t seen his father is centuries?” Alandra to my knowledge was not getting paid to tell Devin where Dragonborn was. This seems to contradict the earlier – ‘”I didn’t say you have to find him,” he said slowly, while the flicker of the lantern did strange things with the shadows of his face, and the recorded voice of Hannah Stonewell sang about waiting for someone who never arrives. “Only look for him, and tell me what trails you follow. I will pay you well, he added.”

((That, by the way, is one form of what we called “credit fraud” back on the Urbis peer-review site: quoting a lot more of the text than is necessary – or relevant – when referring back to it in the critique, for the purpose of driving up the critique’s word count and thus getting more credits for it/trying to look like you’ve actually said more about the writing than you have. It would have been sufficient to quote the first bit of Devin’s dialogue, since that is all that matters here… And no, it doesn’t contradict what was said, because she’s wondering if she should tell anyone, not if she must.))

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You’ll notice as you read this last installment of my little rant that there are no original responses from me until the end. The explanation is simple: I became so frustrated with the critique itself that at times I was actually nonverbal and unable to respond. I also became tired of attempting to get clarification/explanation from the critiquer when it was obvious that none was forthcoming – ever. So the vast majority of what I have to say here is being added as I type the blog post…

(Warning: In this final installment, some of my responses to the critique get rude.)

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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2 Responses to An old critique dissected (Part 3)

  1. Sheron says:

    I just read this blog series and it struck a chord. I also get critiques who want irrelevant detail and shout “show don’t tell” when it would slow or be inconsequential to the story. Usually, my critiques are great and it’s nice, but just recently an idiot critiqued my latest and favorite book. He /she (Chris) obviously hadn’t paid attention when reading. He /she wanted details on survivors of damaged ships when such details would take the story off into the weeds. I only said they searched through the damaged ships and found few survivors. (All that was needed to say) other points were made that I wanted to shout, “Did you not read the book?”

    But we are told not to engage when there is a critical review. We are counseled to let the erroneous comments stand as if they were truth.

    The final comment was, “I get the impression the author hasn’t read many science fiction books.”
    If he /she only knew! Over the years I have read hundreds. I write a blog (scifibookreview.com) every week that talks about a science fiction or fantasy book…for over three years now.

    I just now went to check his other reviews and all of them are one or two stars. I wonder if he is deliberately trying to provoke a response from an author.

    Authors work hard on their writing. I don’t mind a valid criticism and will immediately fix it. (And have) But I wanted to scream at the unjust comments…and couldn’t.

    So, I enjoyed your blog instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect that person is a troll — as you say, just trying to cause trouble and provoke a response. Maybe eventually all the internet trolls will get caught out in full daylight and turn to stone. Unlikely, but it’s a nice thought.

      Like

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