A Critique That Goes Straight to the Heart

Big thanks to the folks at Brain Harvest Magazine for their Fresh Eyes service!

A few posts back I mentioned that I was sending out my 2009 Clarion West Submissions for an external critique. I just received the results and I thought I would share it with you.

To me, a successful critique does three things:

  1. Tells me something I don’t know.
  2. Hammers me with examples of my failures over and over again
  3. Tells me something I know, but have tried desperately to ignore.

If you’re asking for (or paying for) an opinion, it would be nice if you received something back which told you something you didn’t already know about the piece. This may be something as simple as tone or even just plot thread that goes unanswered. It’s something you missed or didn’t think about, and it’s important to get that kind of feedback.

The second point is more a matter of preference. When I screw up, I generally repeat the mistake over and over again. This is often a matter of style, where I’m trying to achieve some sort of effect (and fail). If it rings false, I like to have it pointed out each and every time.

The final element of a successful critique is usually the most painful bit. This is the part that you tried to hide under the covers. The thing you knew was there but that you kept trying to avoid. In my experience, this is the first thing someone else will notice. It’s sort of like trying to hide a dead dog in your living room by putting it smack dab in the middle of the sofa and then crowding pillows around it. You may think you’ve done a good job hiding it, but in fact there’s still a dead dog on the sofa and everyone is going to see that when they walk into the room.

Brain Harvest Magazine’s Fresh Eyes

For my 2009 Clarion West stories, I chose Brain Harvest Magazine’s Fresh Eyes service. I picked this service because the editors at Brain Harvest are all graduates of Clarion West, and while that doesn’t necessarily affiliate them with CW I figured they’d be able to give me something a little different than the average critique.

The price for Fresh Eyes is just $25 per story, and the money goes right back into Brain Harvest so that they can pay real writers for their stories. So, not only do you receive some valuable feedback, but you also get a feel good about where the money’s going. In all, it was a great value and I would highly recommend the Brain Harvest crew. They did a great job hitting all of my points above and then going above and beyond with even more great advice.

In my case, Shane Hoversten and Eden Robins did the crits. The crits came back in two parts:

  1. In-line comments in the manuscript highlighting specific areas that needed attention.
  2. A detailed letter with impressions, advice, and encouragement.

I’m not going to share the full critique in this post, but I am going to hit a few of the high points because I think that they demonstrate the importance of having people outside your normal reading circle take a peek at your work.

Deepest Shade

Shane Hoversten reviewed of “Deepest Shade,” and I was really pleased with the depth of his evaluation. Not only did he hit all three points in my “successful critique” list, he also provided some great insight.

Shane began by dropping the hammer on my lack of attribution in the dialogue. This is something I did for effect, and Shane harped on it over and over and over again. At one point, he said he wasn’t going to do it anymore but then he couldn’t help himself and he did it again.

Now, I’ve been playing around lately with free indirect style, and I really like the effect in this particular story. However, it may just be that I’ve gone a hill to far. I may not heed this piece of advice but I certainly won’t forget it.

In the “Tells Me Something I Know But Am Trying Desperately to Ignore” Department, Shane said something exactly what I might say: needless exposition, no central thesis, and my all-time favorite “this is an illustration of ‘Hey, some weird shit happened.'” I knew this was going to come up. I felt it myself as I was going through the story again. There are entire swaths in the text where it feels… Well, did you read the 7th book in the Harry Potter series? Remember the hundred page march of Harry and Hermione where they never seemed to get out of the damn woods? Yeah, there are parts in this story that feel just like that… and I tried to hide it in plain sight.

This dovetails into the part I didn’t expect from the critique:

“Your story is certainly more polished than the one that got me into CW. It is structured better. It looks, from my perspective, like you knew what you were doing better than I did. But it bites off less. I think that matters. I think that matters because that’s also what matters to literature in general.”

The way I read this is that I’m not taking enough risks. I’ve put nothing at stake here. I’m not swinging for the fences. This cuts pretty deep, as it should, since there’s really no purpose to writing or creating art if you’re not going to take risks.

Good stuff.

In the Biddy’s Kitchen

Eden Robins reviewed “In the Biddy’s Kitchen”, the second chapter of The Fantastic Adventures of Kip Frazier. She also hit all three “successful critique” points. She pointed out two lines that made me cringe but that I left in because I wasn’t sure how much they’d make others cringe. She also beat the crap out of me for rushing through the funniest bits in the story. All true and all things I wish I’d caught myself.

In addition to those points, she asked some great questions about character motivation. Questions I should have asked myself but did not, or rather questions I asked in my notes but did not bring up in the chapter.

As most of you know, Kip is near and dear to my heart right now. This boy is telling me all about his strange and wonderful world and his adventures therein. I’m captivated by his words and his voice… and that was Eden’s biggest hang up with the chapter.

It wasn’t that she disliked Kip or what he had to say. Not at all. Like me, she enjoyed him so much that she’d “follow him anywhere,” which is exactly what I made her do.

“So basically what I’m saying is, I think you give too much air time and detail to things that don’t much matter, even though they do establish a mood. That mood is established early on – you do it very well – so more attention and detail needs to be spent on the things that matter more – the characters, the moments that are crucial to the story. These moments should illustrate the characters. Actions and reactions describe people much better than an outside observer’s detailed impressions.”

This led, quite naturally to the bit below…

“This piece is very polished. It seems like you’ve done many drafts, honing the voice, the mood, etc. You have that down pat. But there’s something missing from the heart of this. You’ll find it, I think, by listening closer to the characters… in their interactions, reactions to each other, the way they act when no one is looking.”

I’m a little slack-jawed over the idea that I’m not taking enough risks in my work. It makes me wonder just what kind of writer I’ve become. After all, I used to take enormous risks in my work. Where did that sense of adventure go?

Writing with Heart

After years of writing, I think I can say with confidence that I’ve developed some measure of skill. I can write. But, where fiction is concerned, am I writing about things that really matter? Am I getting to the heart of things?

When I look to my journal, I see a lot of questions like this. I see questions about the heart of my work, the heart of myself as a writer. I see myself asking that vital WHY about the work I do and the characters I create.

And I don’t have an answer…

When you stare at the pages piling up, it’s only natural to wonder whether you’re doing anything of value. There was a time some years ago, when my characters had lots to say. They had opinions on everything under the sun. They were angry, they were righteous. They were struggling against the whatever the hell they were struggling against and it was my job to give voice to those struggles.

Yes, I think I received good value from the kind folks at Brain Harvest. They’ve given me something really urgent and powerful to ponder…

How about you? Are you getting to the heart of things? Are you taking risks? If so, how do you do it?

11 thoughts on “A Critique That Goes Straight to the Heart

  1. Jaimie,

    I’m glad you got your $ worth. I have the same problem, writing stories that come to me with nothing to say. I sometimes try to find some aspect of human nature to write about only to discover the human nature part vanished.

    I try writing stories starting with the theme, but that seldom works for me. It works better when I start with two opposing opinions and have the characters (directly or indirectly) argue them out, usually to a stalemate. One idea lays out too much of the path and story seems false. Two ideas give me somewhere to go. I have quite a few of those stories lying unfinished.

    If you’re like me, you’re taking risks, they’re just the wrong risks. Maybe that gives us both someplace to focus.

    Keep it up. Seattle, 2010. You and me.

    Scott Baker´s last blog post..Glow Baby update

  2. Jamie, I found your blog because I’m writing a fiction novel.

    That’s taking a risk – for me.

    For 14 years, I’ve written about business and heart defects – both areas in which I’m an “expert”. But like your thoughts about your writing, I began feeling that the spark of excitement and daring that infused what I did early on was dimming – even disappearing.

    This ‘risk’ was to rekindle that fire of excitement, doing something different, trying something ‘new’.

    So far, it has been exciting – and the sense of adventure has revived a lot of the other work I do too.

    Thanks for sharing that experience, and for listening to mine 🙂

    All success

  3. Jamie, this is such an interesting, honest response to the critiques. Good on you.

    My guess is that there’s a dynamic that goes on between the risk-taking, raw, straight from the heart stuff… then learning more of the craft, the skill, the things you need to learn so that when you move into the next phase you bring them both together, and sock us between the eyes.

    Something about your post reminded me of this, which has haunted me all weekend. Something to do with the wounds we carry in our hearts.


    It’s all there Jamie, and come out it will.

    Joanna Young´s last blog post..Heroes, Ripple Effects and Community

  4. @Katie Well, I hope you get started! Thanks for stopping in!

    @Scott Oh my, doesn’t that sound like me, but you have a great point, my friend. Something to focus on. 2010 it is!!!

    @Dr. Mani Sometimes it’s also going back to something you did in the past. While I was working through this idea, I went back and rewrote my notes to the riskiest story I ever penned. I might share it here some day, but let me say that just the idea of the story got me fired up a bit. Thanks for dropping in. Hope you come back again!

    @Alex You’re welcome! Glad to be of assistance! 🙂

    @Joanna Aww, you picked one of my favorites there. I hope to be able to infuse that kind of energy into my writing again. There’s a deep purpose in an image like that. No one can say it lacks heart, can they? Well, the one guy clearly has a hole in his but you catch my meaning. 😉

  5. I have no idea if I’m getting to the heart of things. I don’t even know if I’m really taking risks. LOL! So there you have it, another client for Brain Harvest. Great post.

    Delighted Scribbler´s last blog post..Chatchphrase

  6. Jamie, I have never had a critique so reading these excerpts were a delight. It’s funny I am finally editing my NaNo novel and was pleasantly surprised that now that the rush of writing my first novel has waned I really do like the story. I happened on a few other pieces written during that time and found myself wondering where THAT writer has been hiding. The freedom and sense of play was so evident. I think the struggle is the more we learn and attempt to improve we may polish the playfulness away. I am once again trying to find that balance of blissful ignorance and structured composition.

    Karen Swim´s last blog post..It’s April and I am the Fool

  7. @Karen I tweeted a tiny bit of the quote below from W. Somerset Maugham. I think it is apt to include it here on this post.

    It is acknowledged that the technique of painting and of musical composition can only be acquired by assiduous labour, and the productions of dilettantes are rightly regarded with good-humoured or exasperated contempt. We all congratulate ourselves that the radio and the gramophone have driven from our drawing-rooms the amateur pianist and the amateur singer. The technique of writing is no less difficult than that of the other arts and yet, because he can read and write a letter, there is a notion that anyone can write well enough to write a book. Writing seems now the favourite relaxation of the human race. Whole families will take to it as in happier times they entered religious houses. Women will write novels to while away their pregnancies; bored noblemen, axed officers, retired civil servants, fly to the pen as one might fly to the bottle. There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write a book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false. It is true that the amateur may sometimes produce a work of merit. By a lucky chance he may have a natural facility for writing well, he may have had experiences that are in themselves interesting, or he may have a charming or quaint personality that his very inexpertness helps him to get down on the printed page. But let him remember that the saying asserts only that everyone has it in him to write one book; it says nothing about a second. The amateur is wise not to try his luck again. His next book is pretty sure to be worthless.

    ~ W. Somerset Maugham The Summing Up 1938

    Not exactly motivational quote for the first time writer, but an instructive bit of commentary for the would-be writer. The first book can be quite easy, just by the mere fact that one is unaware of mechanics. The second book is much harder.

    This popped into my head on reading your comment, mainly the last sentence: “I am once again trying to find that balance of blissful ignorance and structured composition.”

    I think that no matter how experienced the writer, one is always searching for this sense of blissful ignorance. Even Mr. Maugham.

    Keep searching!

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