Writing Excuses 9.30: Critiquing A Fire in the Heavens
Key points: Milford Method starts with comments by each critiquer for a fixed amount of time (2 minutes for this episode). Each person lists takeaways that the author should think about — problems, confusing points, unbelievable, don’t care, and cool stuff. Then the author asks questions. Be careful about cramming too much into one story. Readers want to know “What is this story about?” Be aware of what readers “add” to the story from their own ideas. Meta — having a group look at a story twice, in brainstorming and in critique, may mean that they are carrying over impressions from the earlier session and not commenting on the writing on the page as much as their idea of what the story would be. Focus on identifying issues, not necessarily fixing them. What’s at stake, and what kind of character is this, can sometimes help resolve an issue.
[Brandon] Okay. This is Brandon from the future cutting into this 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 an e-book forms in 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, reading through that story so that then you can follow along with this critique session and see what professional writers have to say about a story going from first draft to last draft.
[Mary] This episode is brought to you by Audible. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your free trial membership.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 30.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, workshopping Mary’s story.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] And I’m nervous.
[Howard] No, it’s okay, Mary, you’re allowed to be nervous.
[Brandon] So, Mary’s story is called A Fire in the Heavens, which may be a working title, may not be. Like Sixth of the Dusk might change for mine last week, but I don’t know. But it’s called A Fire in the Heavens right now, and we have in the liner notes how you can get ahold of it. We are, if you have not been paying attention the last couple weeks… We are going to workshop stories that we brainstormed last year. So we’ve given the podcasters a year to write their stories. Now we’re going to get around to workshopping them. Then we’ll do a revision. So when you… We’ll tell you how you can find Mary’s story. We’re hoping to do a collection of all of these together, but it may not be feasible, so we may just have Mary’s story linked on her website. Either way, the liner notes will tell you. You may want to pause this right now and go read the first draft of her story so that this all makes sense to you. Having done this with mine the last few weeks, in listening, I feel like if you haven’t read the story, it’s going to mean a lot less to you. If you have read the story, it’ll mean a lot more. Come back, listen to the podcast, and then read the final story so that you can see the final changes that Mary made.
[Howard] Seriously, guys. Homework. So now push pause.
[Howard] Okay, cool. We’re back. Thank you for reading.
[Brandon] Mary, you get to steer things as you do your writing group. So tell us the process.
[Mary] One of the things that we thought we would also do, since you all ask about writing groups and how to do these, is that we would show two different ways of critiquing. Brandon showed one way. This is sometimes called the Milford Method that we’re about to do. Which is that people go in… Take turns going around and usually set a timer, so that people have X amount of time to talk, while the person who wrote the story is not allowed to talk until the end. Then we can ask questions. So…
[Howard] How long do you usually set the timer?
[Mary] Usually we set for two minutes.
[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] The idea is that you list your… The takeaway things that you really want the author to think about. Things that they’ve done wrong are usually things that confused you, things that you did not believe, things that you didn’t care about, and also things that you thought were cool so that the author does not accidentally fix them.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] I’ll go first.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] You want me to use an actual timer?
[Brandon] We’ve got one.
[Howard] Well, I kind of have one. I’ll sort of look at this…
[Brandon] I’ll watch it.
[Howard] Awesome. Go ahead and make a big KRKKK noise when I need to be done. First of all, I really liked the story. Had a lot more polish on it than I expected based on the words raw, raw, raw when you emailed it to me. The things that I loved… The reveal of the moon coming up over the horizon. I liked the culture clash. I liked the treatment of languages. I did have a little bit of difficulty believing that the languages wouldn’t have drifted further, but since you didn’t give me a timeframe, I can handwave that. I’m okay with that. The places where I had the most trouble were the blocking of the action scenes. There was another thing that I’ve forgotten. I was trying to go in a hurry and I’m only a minute in, so I’ve got a little more time. But I ran out of things to say. So, Dan, go.
[Dan] Okay. I also liked this story, but I had more problems with it than Howard did, apparently. One of the things that you knew, that I remember we discussed in the original brainstorm, that I don’t think you solved was the conflict between the idea that these two cultures have no idea that the other one exists, like neither side can even fathom anything on the other side of the world, and yet they’re so recently related, yet they have any relationship at all. That felt very weird to me. Especially the constant references… Like between the captain and the main character going back and forth between “Well, these are your people” and “You came from here, so maybe you are more aligned with them than with us.” Things like that seem to push them very close together, and then on the other hand, everyone had these very cool yet very hard to believe attitudes about how they refused to even acknowledge that someone could even be from across the seas. I don’t feel like that paradox was solved in this draft. The other thing is, I loved the whole middle section, and Howard mentioned the languages, that really was for me the strongest part of the story. As they are trying to learn to communicate, and as you are seeing that their customs are different, and that their religions are different, and that their languages are different, and the constant harping on the oxtail because that’s exactly the kind of idiom that arises in a language that doesn’t make any sense to someone from outside that language. That took over the story for me and pulled all the focus away from the moon. The moon seemed like it was your excuse to write a story, and then you got really excited about the culture clash. The moon wasn’t as important as I felt it would be. It doesn’t need to be. Just because that’s the idea that started the story doesn’t mean it needs to rule over it. But if you want that to be a focus, it totally took the back seat.
[Howard] For Dan. It didn’t for me. I thought it was awesome, especially the cave quote unquote. That was great. I loved that.
[Dan] Well, the cave was cool, but…
[Brandon] That whole concept was awesome, that she’s like, “Oh, I’ll just sit down in the dark. Okay. This is fine.”
[Dan] I just had trouble believing that their problems could be solved by the fact that they don’t think it’s very dark.
[Brandon] All right. Howard, I need to see that stopwatch. So. Why don’t we do my two minutes, then we’ll do our break for the book of the week? I really did like the idea that just… Something so terrifying to them, the darkness, could be nothing for her. It was really fun for me to read. I liked how clever she was in getting out of it and the move into proactiveness. I liked when she got back to the sailors and they’re like, “No, we weren’t going to escape without you,” but then they really weren’t going to. But that whole fear and panic on her part was really strong for me. I also really enjoyed the image of the moon. I was prepared for it, but it was just described really well and it felt beautiful to me. My biggest problem with the story comes in that felt like it was… You were cramming so much into this that you had to jump from idea to idea to idea to idea to idea. I’m left at the end of the story saying, “But what was this about?” What was I supposed to feel? Is this an action adventure story with we’re escaping from the enemy? Is this a culture clash story where we come to understand them better? Is this about a dawning of awareness that my religion is not unique or… I didn’t understand at all what this story was about. That really bothered me through the whole story. The time jumps between section breaks, and there were so many section breaks, it felt like you were trying to cram a 30,000 word story into a thousand words. That’s not because this needs to be longer. It just felt like your like, “Well, we’ll do this idea and this idea and this idea.” I wanted to know… Coming out here, was this spiritually meaningful for her? That didn’t seem to have that much to do with it. I wanted to know… When they find out that there are people there, I wanted them to stop and be like, “Whoa! Okay, what do we do? Do they have three eyes? Are they monsters? What’s going to be the reaction?” I guess that’s moving into something else. I had a little bit of trouble with how they acted. Like if you’re going to sail into a new country on your own continent without any contacts, you would be frightened about the laws. You would want to know what the tariffs are. You would want to know all these things. They didn’t even think about that. They just sailed up and said, “Hi. We’re from the new world. You guys don’t have three eyes. That’s cool. Oh, wait, you’re shooting us.” That really bothered me at that point that they didn’t… They didn’t have any plan, they didn’t have any idea what they were doing. I’m out of my time, though, so I will stop.
[Brandon] let’s go ahead and do our book of the week. Mary? You actually have our book of the week for us.
[Mary] This is an audio anthology that was put out by audible.com in partnership with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s called Ripoff. The idea is that every story begins with a classic first… The first line of a classic novel.
[Brandon] Okay. Oh, that kind of ripoff.
[Mary] And then tells a completely different story. So I have a story in that called Lady Astronaut of Mars which starts with the first line from The Wizard Of Oz and then does kind of a punchcard punk take on life on Mars that’s in homage to Bradbury. It’s… One of the narrators for this is Wil Wheaton, so…
[Brandon] Another one is…
[Mary] I do not narrate this.
[Brandon] Oh, you don’t narrate this one. You’re just in it.
[Mary] No, no. I just have a story in this. It has authors like John Scalzi and kind of a nice selection of very different short stories all jumping off from the same idea of…
[Mary] Let’s take this first line and run with it.
[Howard] Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a free trial membership, and pick up a copy of… Okay, give me the name of the anthology again.
[Mary, Brandon] Ripoff.
[Howard] Ripoff. That… I should’ve been able to remember that. Ripoff by multiple authors, and have somebody else read you the first lines of books that you may or may not have read, followed by stories that are completely different.
[Brandon] All right, Mary. So I assume this is the part where the writing group turns back to you and you start asking us questions?
[Mary] Yes. So first of all, thank you. This was very helpful. Yes. I also felt like I had too many ideas crammed into this. The… One of the things that we had talked about when we were brainstorming was that this was a story where I had this idea of someone coming over the edge of the world and seeing the moon for the first time. That was really all I had. So I don’t actually need to focus on the moon. I just wanted a story in which I could have that moment happens. Thank you for the note about asking for more details. I originally had a scene in which they bargained with the trader that they first met and got a map and kind of had a little bit of an idea, but basically, they looked at the landmass on the map and were like, “Holy crap. This is not what we were expecting.” Dan. You said that you had trouble believing that these two cultures would have no idea that the other one existed, and then were less freaked… But everyone kept saying you came from here. My intention was that there were legends that referred to where she came from. If I punched that up a little bit more and made it a more concrete thing, that her people absolutely believe that there was an island on the other side of the world and that they were scoffed at by the rest of them… If I punched that up, would that solve that for you?
[Dan] Well, the fact that those legends existed came across strongly. Particularly through the religion of the sisters. Because I knew that that’s where they came from, that religious connection was there.
[Mary] I may not have understood what the problem was that you were citing.
[Dan] Well, I suppose part of the problem was, and maybe this was just her insecurity and I misread it, but… Her assumption that… And this came up a couple of different times… That the crew of the ship wouldn’t trust her because she came from here. I think the captain even said something about how… She… Why are you so weirded out? This is where you came from. Or something like that. Which just seemed to be at odds with the idea that nobody else believed it was even possible.
[Mary] Oh, I see.
[Dan] Does… Yeah. I hope you see. I don’t know if I’m expressing this correctly.
[Mary] Yeah. They need to…
[Dan] I suppose part of the idea is that once they finally get there, it is so alien and it is so hostile that those suggestions that just because she believes that this place exists… It’s like if I believe in Atlantis, and we get there and it’s full of jerks who hate us and throw us in jail. No one is going to assume that I will side with them over any issues just because I believe in Atlantis.
[Brandon] But the thing is… I don’t think… I think you’re overemphasizing that. Because I’m like… I got that she was worried they thought that, but then he’s like, “No. We wouldn’t leave you behind. You’re not one of them,” sort of thing.
[Dan] Yeah. That was just a part of the issue though. The language was another one. Maybe that secretly is what my issue is about.
[Howard] I hit a speed bump, and I don’t know if this will address either of these… I hit a speed bump early on which was I’m not sure exactly whether this is the story we brainstormed. Because we had these concepts in the brainstorming. Then I said, “You know what? I need to forget about what we were brainstorming, because what she’s writing… I just need to pay attention to what’s on the page.” Once I cleared that in my head, I was able to enjoy what’s on the page. That was… I had the same problem when I was reading Brandon’s, is that…
[Brandon] You brainstorm something, it becomes something, [garbled]
[Howard] I was… I have already told myself the story that you wrote… Well, the story that you were going to write, and then you write a different story, and I need to argue with you about… Argue with you. I don’t need to do that, I need to address the story you wrote, not the one I told myself after we brainstormed. That’s hard to do when the critique group has been through both phases.
[Mary] This is… Listeners, I will say that this is one that I often suggest, and other people will suggest, that you not run a story through the same group twice.
[Mary] Because they are pre-prejudiced… They come with a set of baggage to it. So I do recognize that some of that is going on.
[Brandon] Can I mention one other thing about the story…
[Brandon] That I had notes on that I just noticed scanning back through. This might get with my other point, but… I also was… The context of their trip bothered me a little bit. I think what it is is, she hired them to come out here, but… No, it was her whole order that hired, but there’s only one of her on there? That bothers me. If you’re going to rent out a ship, you don’t send one person, you send her and her guards, or her and a whole bunch of them. Part of me thought shouldn’t the sailors have more in this? Like it would be wonderful… This is getting prescriptive…
[Mary] No, no, no.
[Brandon] But if you have more skin in the game… If just they’ve been hired, part of the problem is once they see a fully populated Empire that’s… I don’t think any ship captain’s going to say, “Okay, let’s go sail there.” He’s going to be like, “My job was to bring you this far. We have an Empire. I don’t know anything about them.” But every seafaring Empire out there will take your ship away from you if they can get away with it, right? The reason they don’t is because of hostile nations and things like that. I think sailing into an unfamiliar port with no treaties is something that very few ship captains would ever do, just because they’re hired. That context was bothering me, I think, and that has to do with my other thing. If there were more of a reason that he’s going to try this thing and she gets on board and she’s like, “Well, take me because…” Or… I don’t know, I’m trying to fix your story and I shouldn’t do that. But that thing bothered me a lot.
[Mary] I see what you’re talking about there. I have to think about how to fix that because… That introduces… I mean…
[Dan] I was making the assumption, and this was admittedly not in your story, that the place that they came from had multiple nations, so it was normal for him to arrive in a strange seaport. That the anomaly here is that they were this kind of fascist religious group that was extremely suspicious of outsiders. Therefore, he had a good reason to show up, but… They took him by surprise.
[Brandon] Okay. I could buy that.
[Mary] It is there, or it was there, but not very heavily, and I can make that… [I can drum that up]
[Brandon] Like if this captain’s like, “I can get myself in any port in trade. I’ve sailed the most exotic places on our side of the island. I’ve never had any trouble. Maybe we get chased off, but I always get away with the goods.” If he’s that type… But… I don’t know, this doesn’t seem very safe to me. Maybe I’m just… Maybe you should actually talk…
[Brandon] Primary sources, but…
[Howard] If you make that… If you actually make that a flaw in the captain…
[Mary] If I make him Han Solo?
[Howard] If you turn him into a little bit of a Han Solo type, I’ll totally buy it. Because I was almost all the way there. I was enjoying the story, I was having a good time.
[Mary] What if part of what’s at stake, and I’m just…
[Mary] I was not going to use as polite a term. What if the deal is that he gets the rest of his money after they come back? The only way he’s going to get the rest of his money is if he actually finishes…
[Brandon] That could be it, but once again, I need to know his personality. Why he’s like… Again, why there’s only one of her, but also… It just seems so dangerous. With the… Normally, stories like this, and I’m glad you didn’t go this way, because it’s overdone. But normally stories like this go with the whole Columbus thing. There are riches to be had. If you go, you get to plunder the place and come back with them. Sailors seem a superstitious lot, in my expectation. The idea of “Now go sail to this foreign port where we don’t speak the language and then sail back…” I don’t know. That seems so dangerous to me, that a lot of captains I feel like would be like, “No… No. We’re turning around. This is… They’ve got a navy.” But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just totally wrong, and this is just something I’m adding to the story. It’s only one person’s… The other people didn’t seem to have this. So…
[Mary] I have to think about… I also have to look at some historical things. I think that this is an issue that is not an issue, but only…
[Brandon] It just felt so…
[Mary] Only I think… I shouldn’t say home, but I think that bumping up the fact that there are multiple countries so that he’s…
[Brandon] I guess I’m getting at the core idea of I felt it was so dumb the way they acted when they sailed up. Maybe it wasn’t. But I just felt like they were asking to get shot and things like that. That was my response. “Well, what do you expect? Unfamiliar port, you don’t speak the language, and you’re not obeying, you can’t obey, what they have…” This seems like a really dangerous place to be. But… Maybe I’ve read so many stories that I know that that’s a dangerous place to be in a story because that’s what happens. Maybe it’s… It happened all the time in our world, I guess.
[Howard] The captain totally went into the basement all by himself in the dark…
[Dan] [inaudible] I’ll be right back.
[Mary] I guess I’m thinking about… I have to… I will go and look at other first contact… Historical first contact…
[Brandon] First contact between West and East might be a good one, because both were advanced cultures and…
[Mary] All right. Cool. Thanks, guys.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to give you your writing prompt. Your writing prompt is write a story where a brainstorm comes alive. I don’t know what that means. You’ll have to decide it. A brainstorming session happens in the story and it comes to life. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.