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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Critique of Tin Foil

Through the class, I'm supposed to be writing my opinion and critique of other people's work. Yeah, like that's not going to get me into trouble.

Well, you read the two stories from last week. Here's the critique I posted. Let me know if you agree, and particularly if you don't.

Critique of Tin Foil by Erin Evans
By Cass Van Gelder
I find that people listen more liberally to what I write in a critique if I first convey the things I enjoyed about their stories or what worked in them. I’m the same way. I want the candy first, then I’ll eat my dinner, Mom.
That said, here are some of the things (notice I said “some”, meaning there are more than what I listed here) that I like or that I think worked:
  1. Alex and Tyler have a good contrast in their characters. It's obvious that Tyler is an easy going and likely a popular boy (what age he is, I'd have to guess. I think about 17 or 18.) Alex is an uptight young man who likes things just so and abhors small interruptions to his surroundings, even sound.
  1. There are good instances of light flashbacks (referring back to conversations about the dad’s old guns, etc.) and then transitioning back to the current time.
  1. The choice of topic is engaging and topical. This can be the best one of the ones I list here. I’ve seen a ton of writers struggle when given an assignment, especially an impromptu one, to create something relevant that isn’t already dated.
  1. There seems to be a great potential for backstory for both of these characters.
Here are some of the things I thought might help to sharpen the story:
  1. One of the things I noticed about the style of writing, or at least this version of this particular short story, is that you could probably get rid of some of the “extra” words. Generally, these are words that don’t add real value. A great editor of mine one time pointed out that I was using “almost” in front of my descriptors and it took away the real value of what I was trying to say, almost like I was cushioning the blow of what I was writing. (see, I used it there… :) )
So, I would write, “It was almost like he wanted to go with her,” when really I should have written, “It was like he wanted to go with her”, or “There was almost a glow of yellow around the edge of the mountains” when really ”There was a glow of yellow around the edge of the mountains” would have been clearer and more direct (that one could have been more concise by writing “There was a yellow glow around the mountain’s edge.)
I’ve found that words like some, almost, slightly, etc. tend to be gray words that take the edge and punch away from what you want to say. If you’re using that a lot, you might want to explore why you’re shying away from just writing what it is you want to say.
I say this, but it could be argued that you were trying to subconsciously convey the same hesitation that Alex is feeling by making the writing seem hesitant.
  1. I had difficulty with this sentence, “Tyler’s manipulation of what they had, so far, only been able to loosely define as “minerals” got much weaker when an object wasn’t natural.” It felt clunky and, even though I reread it several times, I never quite got what Alex was saying about this.
  1. While the story was written by a third party omniscient writer, I would suggest changing it to Alex’s POV instead. You could focus on the underlying feelings more, no matter how off-the-beaten track they might be. It already feels two steps away from it being all about Alex’s view anyway. Take those two steps in and you might be able to get more into the head of the character and the reader might find it more engaging.
  1. Find another word for “practicing”. It became my tin foil. …along with the multiple ellipses. I’m a huge fan of ellipsis; however, I didn’t see the need here in most of the story. If, however, you switch to it being from Alex’s POV, you could justify it as his thought process, the pauses that come between the little islands in his brain.
  1. The whole thing read more like an anecdote or first chapter rather than a short story. There are clues to this. For instance:
    1. Mentioning Alexander Clark’s full name, yet never mentioning Tyler’s full name
    2. Details that would normally be provided aren’t there. I hear six people mentioned and named quickly (by the way, you have named two girls Rebecca and Rina. Unless later in the book/story you continue to refer to Rebecca as Becs/Bex, it could be very confusing for the reader. We usually read by grabbing the first few letters and the last 1-2 letters of a word. Both start with “R” and end with “a”.
                                     i. Why six people that are never used other than as obstacles to all of them practicing?
                                    ii. Why give one a nickname that is only used once and then she’s never referred to again?
    1. Obviously, something is up with a rock in Tyler and Alex’s past, but it’s never explained. Please explain it or delete it. It doesn’t add much to the story without the explanation. (I went back and reread the paragraph where this is. I think you attempted to say why it was great for him to not use a rock, but it was convoluted – to me. Remember, pretty much everything I write here you should tack on the words “to me” on the end. They are this reader’s humble opinion.)
  1. There seems to be a lot of repetition that could be deleted or different words/phrases could be used to convey similar feelings or events from a different angle. One of the tricks I use when I have a word I’ve written a lot but can’t think of another one to use right in that moment (and yes, in the past, I’ve used that as a way to completely quit writing for the day – just focus on finding the most perfect replacement word. It’s a great way to stumble right up against writer’s block), I put XXX in place of the word. It helps in two ways – 1) I can easily run a search for XXX and find it without getting a bunch of words I didn’t want (because, seriously, are there any words in the entire world that contain XXX? – no fair using that quest as a way of getting away from writing for the day either!) and 2) when I come back to the XXXs, they often appear to me like the blanks in the Mad Libs I used to do as a kid, making it more fun to find the most perfect word in the world and stay focused on my current writing project.
  1. Give the tin foil more reason to be there, even if it is a first chapter. Maybe you end it by Alex remarking that he’s surprised Tyler could bring himself to play with the ball of foil since it was the same ball of tin foil that killed his mother last week (dum, dum, dum..!) Keep this as a short story and you really need to find a way for either of the boys – or maybe both of them – to change in some way. Another suggestion might be if you changed the set up of the story to be the first time the boys meet. Alex is annoyed by the tin foil, Tyler is oblivious. Alex usually is unable to express himself and desperately wants Tyler to quit it, but can’t bring himself. Through some small exchanges, Alex feels himself able to open up and finally asks Tyler to stop, resulting in Tyler stopping and then surprising Alex by giving him the tin foil. Eh, …it’s an idea.
I can kind of see where you’re going with this, if in fact you’re developing it into a book. You have the requisite 6 compatriots, as established by Friends; you have the extraordinary traits (superpowers) portrayed as something fairly normal; and you have unrequited love, which is always fun to play with the back-and-forth of the relationship (again, see Friends, Cheers, and other famous one-word-titled hit shows.)
My advice is to go in and cut about half the dialogue out. A lot of it is unnecessary and doesn’t take you anywhere, certainly not forward. Also, add more details, especially ones that convey how the person is feeling or what they are thinking (Alex’s details of the treehouse will likely change as his mood does. He’s feeling happy, he describes the leaves as bright and green; he’s unhappy, he describes the, as wilted and the trunk is now too long for him to even consider climbing.)
Also, ask yourself, “Why today?” Why are you writing about this particular day, this particular event? What makes it special enough to record and convey?
You have a good start. I’m very interested to see what you do with this.


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