To find a critique group that does critiques as I do them.
Jennifer, my editor (whom I mention in About Joseph) has told me many times I’m on a fool’s quest, my time would be better spent going to writers’ conferences/conventions where I’m more likely to meet a few like-minded individuals.
I yield to Jennifer the Wise.
While I’m waiting for that to happen and based on my workshopping experiences over the past few months, I gave myself an exercise: Critique one of my own pieces as if it were someone else’s piece.
Critiquing my own work seemed like a good and valid exercise for me. I reread/edit my work several times and, in retrospect, never with the same filters in place that I use when I read/edit other people’s work.
I chose one of my flash pieces, Sanctuary because it was (literally) on top of a pile of stuff on my desk.
So I had at it and share the exercise with you in the hopes that you, like me, will profit from it.
The actual story is in regular text. My comments/suggestions/edits are in red, explanations/responses are in blue. Here we go:
[[There is a planet on the scanners.: Great opening line. You know immediately that this is a science-fiction/speculative fiction piece. You’re either there or not, accept the story frame or not. If not, stop reading because you’re not going to like it. If yes, strap yourself in, it’s going to be a fun ride.]] [[It is large and round and red. The sun is yellow and warming, and the planet is in the sun’s life zone. The gravity is slightly stronger than Earth’s. The air is a bit richer, and there is abundant water under the surface.: This is excellent in two aspects; 1) I can see everything, feel and taste everything. Excellent sensory detail. All that’s missing is some kind of sound but the lack of auditory information makes me think of some kind of solitude. 2) It feels tired, as if the narrator is exhausted or close to. “It is…The sun is… the planet is…” all environmental details and stated with a DUH-duh, DUH-duh rhythm. Plodding. If that’s your intention, EXCELLENT! If not, fix it!]]
[[The red coloring comes from two things. The surface of the planet is covered with red vegetation and their spores are everywhere.: Excellent, keep the details coming, although I think we’re close enough now that no more are necessary, unless you’re about to invalidate the setting/scene somehow.]] The ground is also red, although not with spores but [[with clay and slate like so faraway Connecticut.: Okay, now we know the narrator is from Earth, probably from the US, definitely has had experience in Connecticut (possibly farming? Knows about the soil constituency). Also “so faraway” – again, that feeling of exhaustion, of wanting release. Not just “Connecticut” but “so faraway Connecticut”, a memory, long ago, on the verge of being forgotten?]]
[[The dog beside me raises his massive head and growls.: He’s not alone? Who else is with him on this ship?]] [[I scratch behind his ears and his hind legs start thumping the cabin floor.: Nice detail that anybody familiar with dogs will know and understand.]] [[I make him thump in time to songs I sing, switching legs as I go from chorus to lead and back.: Okay, he’s familiar with the dog, the dog with him and they’re on good terms with each other. Got it.]]
[[“We’ll go down, see if this is the one.”: Again, subtle hint of tiredness, exhaustion. Whatever’s going on (and we’re only 144 words in!) is something they’re prepared/preparing for, probably/possibly something they’ve done many times before? They’re doing something, part of the crew, not passengers. Again, who else is on the ship? What is their role?]]
[[His ears go up slightly. I wonder how many of the words he understands.: All that’s missing is the dog cocking his head, trying to understand]] [[I’ll add something along those lines in a rewrite.]]
[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Excellent, more detail about the narrator and a relationship he had/has.]] [[The cabin has room for me and one more.: So it’s just him and the dog?]] [[The taste of her lips is still on mine. The smell of her hair is here before me. I can delight in her touch and feel her sun-warmed and reddened skin.: Okay, he’s alone with the dog, his wife isn’t with him but he remembers her. In some ways this feels like a husband being told to take his dog for a ride but I know/sense there’s more. And again we’re having that DUH-duh, DUH-duh rhythm. You’re moving towards something, growing the story towards something but I don’t know/am not sure what it is.]]
[[The dog growls and I scratch. His legs thump. I sing.: We’re getting a repetitive line. A theme? Is this the chorus?]]
[[This is the third planet my scanners have shown.: In how long a time frame? Today? Since he started traveling?]] [[I’ll add something to clarify this in a rewrite.]] [[The first too cold, the second too hot; the third just right?: Nice touch of whimsy. The question mark at the end adds another hint of exhaustion, of seeking without reward.]]
[[Landing is hard. There isn’t much fuel left.: Again exhaustion. Does this guy ever find rest?]] [[Forty-seven years in the ship.: Ditto. Also, the dog is how old? What kind of dog is it? Or is this subtle foreshadowing?]] [[I was twenty-three when I left. : Tritto the exhaustion theme.]]
[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Okay, we have a second echo/repetitive line. I don’t think this is by accident. If correct, these are going to intersect before the end of the story as you’re building two separate choruses and they’ll either harmonize or clash at the crescendo. Not sure which. If incorrect, get rid of one or the other, or figure out how to use both.]]
[[I check the gauges and say, “This place will have to do. We don’t have enough fuel to take off again.”: Exhaustion]] [[The dog growls. I scratch.: We’re tightening the chorus. Because…?]]
[[There are mountains in the distance, behind a clough of trees beyond the field where we land.: “distance” and “beyond”. Not “here”. Not only exhaustion, now straining. A last gasp? Of or for something that can’t/won’t be obtained?]] [[The dog goes ahead, sniffing.: Nice anchoring to common experience.]] [[He is a big dog. Black and furry, about two-twenty-five on earth. Perhaps closer to two-fifty here. He adjusts well.: That’s a big dog. Are you sure about this? Or is this more foreshadowing?]] [[I’m glad my wife took that decision away.: There’s so much emotion in that statement. Relief, definitely. Melancholy? I don’t know what’s coming and I know it’ll be good. ]]
[[He stops and sits, silhouetted by the trees, mountains, and sky,: Good visual.]] [[and memory’s shutters click as if a slide has dropped into a stereocam.: Nice metaphor.]] [[The trees shift slightly, righting their angles between earth and sky, and a home — my home — slips down from the stars and comes to rest against the mountains and sky.: This is confusing. I think he’s remembering this, correct? If yes, make the fact that it’s a memory more obvious. I’m not sure if his home is actually coming down out of the sky and landing or he’s having a memory.]] [[I’ll fix in a rewrite.]]
[[I cock my head left, my eyes wide with wonder, and scratch behind my ear.: If this is the echo then we need the dog to cock its head earlier in the story.]] [[I’ll fix in a rewrite.]] [[My leg thumps. The dog sings.: Okay, these two lines are the echo, one of the repetitive lines in the chorus. Is the change re what the man does and what the dog does from earlier lines because of…? The memory shutter thing? Then make it more obvious. If not, lose it.]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[My wife comes out on the porch, her gasmask hiding her features, hiding her brilliant gold hair, as she checks the house for leaks against the burnt, reddened sky.: “gasmask”, “leaks”, “burnt, reddened sky”. I’m at the point of saying “F?ck you!” because I know this is heading somewhere and I don’t know where and it’s freaking me out (in a good way).]] “They’ve chosen you,” [[I hear over the radiophone,: They’re close enough to see and recognize each other but they’re talking over a radiophone? SO MANY CLUES WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH THIS? I’m exhausted with anticipation just reading this!]] and I wave acknowledgement. [[Her voice is sad and so is my wave. I’m happy to go, but it is not what I would have chosen.: Again with the exhaustion?!?!?!? Thank god this is only 900 words. I wouldn’t be able to stand this emotion level for something longer.]]
The dog comes closer, [[his big eyes lighting.: Okay, this isn’t a dog dog (a real dog), right?]]
[[“We’ll have children there,”: I had to check to see if this line/idea/concept shows up earlier in the piece because it feels like another chorus line.]] [[my wife says. We’re inside our home, safe from the sun, safe from the air, safe from the things which float on the sea and land.: Really? Or imagined? Remembered? Clarify. Is this a dream sequence? Some kind of hallucination/dementia? This needs to be clarified and I’m at a loss what to suggest because whatever you do, it’s got to be so-o-o freakin’ subtle…]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[Our masks are off and we make love: Nice.]] , [[knowing nothing will come, twisted seeds finding no purchase on desert soil.: Nice.]]
[[“When you get to a suitable world,” they tell me, “you’ll have a memory, a signal. An implant will trigger the reaction. You won’t be able to resist it. When the signal occurs, it will already have begun.”: Okay, this is the reveal. The BIG reveal because you’ve been laying hints/foreshadowing/laying down little reveals all along. Great. Excellent. It’s all coming together. It might help everything that comes before if, when he has that “shutter” moment earlier, he knows it’s the signal. He doesn’t have to tell us everything about it, but he does have to know what it is and what it means (more foreshadowing?).]] [[I’ll fix in the rewrite.]]
I nod. I agree.
[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Beautiful echo.]]
[[He scratches. We thump. We sing.: Okay, I’m getting it, the echos are getting ready to intersect. Beautiful.]]
He stops before me, [[facing where the house might be.: Clarify that he’s imagining/remember/hallucinating this.]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[The flanges on his sides open. His back shifts and parts slightly, along his spine, as a saddle forms.: HAH! He’s not a real dog! HAH!]] [[I’m glad my wife made the decision.: I KNEW THIS WAS ANOTHER ECHO! HA HA NEENER NEENER NEENER!]] I could not do this if they had fashioned the [[regenerator: Accelerating towards the ending and I’m loving it.]] after her. I mount the dog as if he were a horse. From the saddle and flanges I feel sweet needles enter my legs, pierce my femurals, enter my buttocks, lift my groin. [[“We’ll have children there.”: ECHO ECHO ECHO I’m wondering if readers will be panting at this point. I’m exhausted as if I’m finishing a race.]]
His legs go deep into the red, clean earth. A ground where things grow. A sky where stars shine. An earth where water brings life. [[My wife is before me. I feel her lips on mine, taste her tongue, smell her hair.: Okay, this is another echoed line and I know you want to keep that imagination/hallucination concept going. This is going to be tough because I feel this line needs a bit more clarification. How about “I see my wife…”? But that might mean he’s more aware and you want him already kind of gone, right? Tough one and your call (and not an easy one, me thinks).]] [[Something I’ll consider during the rewrite.]]
[[The dog is shaking, thumping, but I have no hands with which to scratch.: Okay, forget what I just wrote. Maybe. I don’t know. He has no hands left to scratch. Somehow signify that he’s already dissolving (if that’s what’s happening?).]] [[Something I’ll consider during a rewrite.]] [[Inside his computers, inside his organic cells, are the matrices for all those we left behind. All those who here are soon to be.: Oh, wow. F?ck me sideways. Forget what I wrote above. No, don’t. No, do. Don’t. I think this is a story that the reader is either going to get or not and there’s not much you can do to help them. All the clues are here and they’re in perfect order. I’m really not sure what to suggest and I desperately want to see this again should it go through a rewrite.]]
[[“We can have children there.”: ECHO ECHO ECHO! Tell me you did this intentionally. I want to have your children.]]
[[My body provides the map. “We can store the matrices and we can store the genetic codes, even correct the errors environmental pollutants have made. What we can’t store is the raw material. We don’t know how that might survive.”: All this needs is a “They told me…” before the statement. That would clarify this greatly. Me thinks.]]
[[My body dissolves as the dog’s computers tear me apart to see how sequences are made, his legs go deep into the earth to find the organics necessary to synthesize.: Oh, wow.]] [[This earth the materials of man, his computers the equations for a race, my body the templates of our salvation on a world with a warming sun, a sky still high, and waters you drink and do not breathe; a sanctuary from our own disgrace.: Poetry, man, poetry.]]
[[My wife reaches for me. “We’ll have children there,” but there’s nothing left to hold.: Oh, f?ck you! Sideways and six ways from Sunday. “We’ll have children there” is the intersection of the choruses. Oh, you evil prick bastard. Beautiful. Crazy Beautiful and Nicely Done!]]
[[I could tell you that this is brilliant and you already know that. Incredible writing, incredible imagery, this almost reads like a tone poem rather than a flash fiction piece.
There are some truly minor nits as noted. Unfortunately, those truly minor nits are going to make or break a piece this short.
I don’t want to see this get any longer through rewrites. Much of its power comes from its tightness, its brevity (it really is a palm of the hand story. Good work and congrats on that. Nicely done!) but I do think one more pass focusing on the truly few, truly minor nits is necessary.
And can I see it again when you’re done? I may have caught my breath by then.
This changes everything
That was one of most refreshing, enlightening and rewarding exercises I’ve ever given myself. I suggest it to others. Separate yourself from your work and analyze your work as if it’s a stranger’s. Most of you probably already do this. It’s something new for me and I’m going to go wild with it, a “drunk with power” kind of thing.
Example: I’ve read Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories about five times this year. Last night I started Xolotl again and, as I opened the book, I wondered if this new found superpower would make things different. My internal editor often kicks in when the writing, editing, storytelling, storycrafting, … is below par, substandard, sucks, … but what if I were to use this new found skill intentionally on something I recognize is good but (as yet) don’t understand what makes it good?
I reread the first paragraph and realized Cortazar gave you everything you needed to enjoy/understand/appreciate the story:
[[There was a time: We’re going to descend into the mythic]] when [[I thought a great deal: This story is going to take place in the narrator’s head]] about the [[axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes: and be about feeling out of place, trapped, not being part of society]] and [[stayed for hours watching them, observing: Ditto the narrator’s head]] [[their immobility, their faint movements: The story will be of subtleties.]] [[Now I am an axolotl.: The subtleties will deal with personal transformation.]]
It may not seem like much to you and it opens new worlds of understanding to me. Do I think people need to do this in order to enjoy what they’re reading?
But as someone practicing their craft, wanting to improve, learning from recognized masters? Priceless.
- I’ve been asked to do an audio version of the rewrite. Just shows to go ya, I guess…
- One of my first readers told me he had to read it twice to figure it out and when he did, he was blown away by it. I offered that the need for a second read bothered me. He said it wasn’t for lack of storytelling, it was because there’s so much in the 900 words he wanted to be sure he got it. It still bothers me and I’m open to suggestions for removing that “second read need”.
This same first reader asked if Sanctuary was the prologue to something else, the intro to a novel perhaps. I’ve been with this story for so long that it never occurred to me. Now I have the after-story running through my head.
- I started editing several weeks after I did the critique. It was hard, vexsome and pissed me off.
But it was worth it.