Writing Excuses 9.28: Part 1 of 2, Critiquing Sixth of the Dusk
Critique points: What’s working, large-scale problems and issues, and medium-level issues. What’s good? The world building, the journey and geography, and the characters. The details and terminology. The plot structure and emotional arc, the reveals, and the subverting of the noble savage trope. A unique world — a fantasy set in a jungle. Big issues? The dude’s name — Sixth? It’s hard to say! Your ending. Triple ending, spread out. May need to fix the beginning to balance the ending. New workshoppers — describe the problems, not the fixes.
[Brandon] Okay. This is Brandon from the future, cutting into the episode to say, “Yes, indeed, the Writing Excuses anthology is available! It’s called Shadows Beneath. We have it in a gorgeous hardcover, as well as in e-book forms on all of your favorite e-book platforms. If you buy the hardcover, we send you the e-book for free. So if you haven’t read the story we’re doing this week, you’ll want to stop right now, pick up a copy of the anthology, read through that story so that then you can follow along with this critiquing session and see what professional writers have to say about a story going from first draft to last draft.”
[Mary] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Audible. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your free trial membership.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, critiquing Brandon’s story.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And Brandon’s not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m excited that Brandon got to say, “I’m Brandon,” after what Dan said.
[Howard] That was like… That was perfect. Well played, guys.
[Brandon] So if you missed the announcement last week, this week we’re going to be doing a critique of my story, Sixth of the Dusk, which is the psychic bird story that we brainstormed about a year ago. So if you haven’t read that story, we will have a link up for where you can get it. You can get it on Amazon. You can get it on any of your favorite reading devices and that sort of thing. Then you can read the story… You may want to pause this… And then follow along as we do the critique session. I have, in that thing you can buy, both the unedited version and the edited version. What they have read here is the unedited version, because as of right now, I haven’t done the edited version. I’m just assuming I’m going to, and it’s going to be awesome. The other thing that I’m going to do is we’re going to run this like I run my writing group. A lot of people ask us questions about “How do you guys workshop? What’s your process?” Well, we’re going to do this week the way my process works with my writing group. Next week when we do Mary’s story, which will also be linked and you should go read so that you can be aware of what’s going on in her story for next week, we will use her writing group’s process. This way, you’re learning two things. You’re seeing what our critique groups work like and you’re also seeing how we go about revision. So in my writing group, the thing we do is we start off talking just briefly about what’s working in the story. So that the author doesn’t accidentally take that out, doesn’t screw it up. We talk about what’s good, what’s fun, what we enjoyed. Then we go on to large-scale problems and talk about big issues that we think the story just… That are big problems. Then from there, if we have time left over, we talk about some more medium level issues. So let’s start off, Sixth of the Dusk, what did you guys like?
[Mary] Well, I thought the world building was a lot of fun. It made sense, it was compelling, the journey across the island was tense and you managed the geography I thought quite well. The characters were distinct and consistent. The prose was serviceable.
[Mary] Which I wouldn’t say to anyone normally but…
[Brandon] This is one of my first drafts. If my first drafts have a weakness, it is the prose. The prose is… Anyway.
[Mary] Actually, you… The way you had described the prose, I was expecting it to be awful. It’s fine.
[Brandon] No, it’s just wordy, and each sentence could be a little tighter, but… Yeah.
[Dan] I like the details in it. In particular about not just… You don’t just tell us the main character’s a trapper, but you actually show us and have invented all of this terminology for the animals and plants and the tricks that he uses and the culture that he’s from. It’s very well-developed and really pulls you into the story.
[Howard] I liked the… Well, first of all, I enjoyed the whole story, beginning, middle, end. I thought that the plot structure worked. The shape… The emotional arc of things shaped right… Was shaped right. The reveals felt like they were for the most part in the right places. The thing that struck me the most, that I think I like the most, was the subverting of the noble savage trope. Your trapper recognizes that metal tools and pants are superior to what his people has been using… Have been using for a long time, so he’s just fine with metal tools and trousers and boots and these things. I like that.
[Brandon] Now what I did here is I wrote all of this down with the name of the person who said it, for those who are listening. Because usually, when I’m going to do a revision, I’m going to set this aside for a while. I’ll come back and I want to know kind of the context, who said what, just because I know my writing group and I know sometimes to pay a better attention if someone I know is specialized in a certain thing, they do a really good job with it. Like if Howard talks about this is where your humor was working, I’m like, “Okay. I need to look at that and see what was I doing that actually made Howard laugh.” Something like that.
[Brandon] Now we’ll move on to the large scale problems.
[Dan] I have one more thing that I wanted to say before we leave the good stuff is just that I was… And this is a minor note and I know this was your intention the whole time, but it’s worth pointing out that you successfully wrote a very unique world. Fantasies set in jungles are few and far between. So this stands out just because of that.
[Mary] And you did manage to make psychic birds make sense. So kudos for that.
[Brandon] All right. Big issues. In my writing group, it’s not person taking a turn, just throw out and then…
[Dan] Throw them out.
[Brandon] I encourage everyone to have a conversation about what they felt about that.
[Dan] Does the dude’s name count as a big issue?
[Brandon] It sure can. If it’s big to you, it counts.
[Dan] It was not, by any means, the biggest problem in this story, but Sixth? That is a really hard one to say, and it was really getting on my nerves by the end. I was wishing he had an older brother so he could be seventh, just because it’s easier to say.
[Mary] No. Because then he’s seventh of nine. Which was the thing that triggered for me at the beginning.
[Howard] You see the problem I had is that…
[Mary] Fifth, though.
[Dan] Fifth or fourth, because then you don’t have a… Sorry.
[Howard] You are going to have…
[Howard] You’re going to have a whole pile of just… Statistically speaking, you’re going to have… Every other child is going to be named either First or Second, which just seemed weird.
[Dan] But that was cool. I’m willing to accept a weird naming convention.
[Mary] But that’s not unusual. I mean, that’s…
[Dan] How many Jasons do we have at this retreat?
[Mary] It’s not even that. It’s like that’s the way they were doing things in Rome. That’s the way they do things in China, that people go by their birth order.
[Howard] That’s a fair cop, the first name is more like a surname. They don’t have surnames. So many of you are going to be First, Second, or Third that it seems to me that what would actually be differentiating you is what comes later, which for him is Dusk, which turns out to not be time of day.
[Mary] It’s the combination.
[Dan] I apologize for starting the [rants?] on a relatively minor thing. I just wanted to… Three cons… A triple consonant cluster, when it gets possessive is a quadruple consonant cluster, was just hard for me to say every time.
[Brandon] Got it.
[Dan] But we’ll move on.
[Mary] So, your ending.
[Brandon] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] I will say, it’s unfair to you guys. I did warn them that my ending had issues. So…
[Mary] Yes, but I would flag that anyway. Basically, what I feel like it’s going on, is that you’ve got… And you did ask about it specifically. But you’ve basically got a triple ending going on. The reason I think that’s happening… So you’ve got the thing where they defeat the monster, which is not really the ending because that’s an internal event. The bigger event that they have to solve is the stopping of the…
[Dan] The machine. The mapping machine.
[Mary] The machine. Which they do, and then he leaves and goes off to sea and then he comes back, and they go away. So the leaving and going off to sea was a second ending. And then the going off into space is your third ending. I think… So I think there’s a couple of things going on besides that. One is that you need to combine all of these so that you only end once. Because…
[Dan] I’m not sure I agree with that, but… Keep going.
[Mary] I think he needs to wrap up all of the problems, but I think the going away and coming back is currently not working.
[Brandon] So you’re saying not the defeat the monster, but the other endings?
[Mary] No, the defeat the monster I don’t count as an ending. That’s…
[Brandon] But the ones you’re saying combine is stop the machine, go away, then come back?
[Dan] Well, the going away worked in a sense. It’s obviously in there because you knew that you needed to separate those two endings in some way. So, yeah combining them is one solution, or just giving him a reason to come back, which is absent in this story.
[Howard] I don’t have a…
[Dan] I think if he leaves… I liked having a breather go out and look at the island, look at his father, and then come back. But there wasn’t anything bringing him back, in my opinion.
[Mary] Yeah. I agree with that. But I think the… And this is where I was going to head with the… At the very, very end with his decision to come back and then go into space, is that at the beginning of the story, he is not dissatisfied with his life. There’s… He has a life that he likes, he feels like he’s good at his job, and yes, the job is changing, but he has… There’s nothing about his life that indicates that he’s lonely or that he wants to leave. You end with him taking her hand, which symbolizes a connection with someone else. There’s nothing about the way his life is structured that indicates that the fact that he is not connected with other people is a problem. There’s… None of that seems to be an issue for him. So I think if you want to keep that part of it, that you have to go back to the beginning and insert something so that he is somewhat dissatisfied. I mean, if we’re using the classic MICE structure, right now you have, basically, you have a milieu story, and then you have an event, and then you wrap up the event, and then you wrap up the milieu, and then you suddenly have this character ending. It’s like, “Hello, where did this come from?” Then he goes away, which resolves the I am not satisfied with my status or my position in life. Also, you have introduced… I mean, there’s two disruptions to the status quo. One is the… What is happening to the birds, which represents the larger disruptions. So there’s that, and then there’s also the we have space aliens coming down to visit us. Those are both unrelated things right now. You have them as two separate things with the way the ending is structured. So that’s, I think… I think that you would have a stronger emotional punch if you could find a way to either… Like to either have him come to that decision at the end after they defeat… I also like him going back out to sea, but I don’t think it’s working.
[Dan] It’s not. So he either needs to go… Like I said, he needs to go out to sea and then have a compelling reason, something that drives him back or there needs to be… We need to remove the need for him to go out to sea.
[Mary] I think that you could remove the need for him to go back to sea. I mean, if we’re looking at the classic milieu structure, the story starts when a character enters a place… Or leaves the place and… We could count the entrance into the fortress as the exiting from the island. He arrives on the island with… On his boat, but he is leaving via another door. That could count if you go back to the beginning and add in some character stuff.
[Dan] Or just having him get onto their other boat, their big iron boat.
[Mary] Yeah. And [wata?]
[Dan] Coming on a little canoe and leaving on the big iron boat.
[Mary] Oh, that’s good.
[Dan] Solves that very subtle problem. But… We keep interrupting Howard.
[Mary] I just wanted to say one thing about that, and then we can let Howard talk.
[Dan] You’re just going to continue interrupting Howard.
[Mary] Yes, I am, because that’s my job.
[Brandon] This is Mary’s expertise, so I’m kind of willing to just let Mary talk.
[Mary] That’s hilarious. I just wanted to second what Dan said, in particular because putting him on the iron boat allows you to have that looking back at the island, and that is a really strong image. [Pause] Do we want to finish…
[Howard] Oh. Yeah.
[Brandon] Oh, wait.
[Howard] I actually had a process question [garbled]. I had a process question. The… I’ll be blunt. Dan and Mary are fixing it. Is that the sort of critique that you’re accustomed to getting?
[Brandon] That’s a good question. In… From my writing group, and particularly from Dan, I always want Dan to fix my story…
[Brandon] Now this is… Here’s the thing. This may be a bad example for you all, because I’m sitting with two of the authors I respect most of all the authors in the world and with Howard.
[Howard] Well played. Well played.
[Brandon] That’s for the thing you did in between the sessions, by the way.
[Howard] That’s just fine. That’s just fine.
[Brandon] So I’m… Dan and I know each other really well. We have been work shopping together for forever, and we know each other’s stories. In some cases, this can be a bad thing and that since we know what the other’s trying for, sometimes you get into trouble were… Since Dan knows my writing so well, he’ll miss things that are wrong because he just assumes I knew… He knows what I was trying for, and he’s right. But a really good critiquer can dig into this is the problem and here are ways to fix it. Now, you may not take those ways. I am an experienced critiquee. It’s okay. I’m an experienced critiquee and I know when to not… You’re snickering at that. I know when to not take advice and when to take it. So allowing two really good writers to go back and forth on what’s wrong with my writing and what to fix it, I’m perfectly willing to let happen. In fact, I’m excited by it. But a lot of new workshoppers, I suggest them not do this. They describe their emotions and not give you fixes.
[Mary] I’m going to second you on that. If I were critiquing someone else, I would not be offering the prescription.
[Brandon] But I… I actually went… This is one of the reasons it’s… You should know that I said it. “I think my ending’s broken. Do you guys have suggestions?” Because I’m actively soliciting help, which is a different thing also.
[Howard] Should we do a book of the week?
[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week.
[Dan] Than I’ve got another big problem.
[Brandon] The book of the week this week is I, Robot, which since we were doing short fiction, I thought I would pick one of my very favorite short fiction collections. Which almost all of them are by Asimov. But one of my favorites is I, Robot. I mean, it’s kind of… I don’t know, overplayed, now for people who love I, Robot, but I just do. The stories are so awesome. The mind reading robot, the robot that the little girl falls in love with, there’s just such cool stuff going on. If you haven’t ever read I, Robot, you’re missing out on one of the primary foundational… That’s a pun…
[Brandon] Story collections that helped science fiction be what it is today. It’s informed… One of the reasons I write magic systems like I do is because of Asimov’s Three Laws. So if you want to understand modern science fiction and fantasy, you should really be reading some Asimov. So I, Robot is a fantastic collection, and you should give it a try.
[Howard] Or you could have somebody read it to you instead of reading it yourself. Go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a free membership, 30 days long for free…
[Brandon] With a free book.
[Howard] With a free book, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. I don’t know who the narrator is, but I’m sure it’s awesome.
[Brandon] Now, my question to you guys is, do you have another 15 minutes worth of stuff to pile on me?
[Dan] Oh, baby.
[Howard] I actually have a little bit. Your names…
[Brandon] Okay. Wait, wait, wait. Let’s end then.
[Howard] Oh, we’re going to stop.
[Brandon] Let’s break it to a second podcast. Because I… This hands-on sort of stuff…
[Howard] And do me next time. Whew.
[Brandon] That we do, I think the listeners really are going to like. It’s the sort of thing that they can’t get very often listening to. Being a fly on the wall in our critique group. So I’m going to pause it.
[Dan] Tune in next time, when Howard…
[Howard] Hang on just a second. No, no, no. That’s not what we’re going to do at all. What we’re going to do is take a quick survey of our listening audience. Okay? If you’re sitting in front of your computer right now listening to this, and you want to do this again next time, I need you to shout “Yes!”
[Howard] Okay. Perfect. It’s unanimous.
[Brandon] Well, that’s your writing prompt, by the way, is a story where you can vote through time for things. All right?
[Howard] You’re out of excuses, now go have written.