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Marissa Lingen

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Critiques and completion [Oct. 6th, 2013|03:52 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Before I get back to my Farthing Party panel notes, I wanted to talk about why I prefer to critique completed works rather than excerpts or partially finished drafts. Recently I did a crit as a Kickstarter reward for Daily SF, and the promised crit had been on “a short story,” but the person sent me the first few chapters of their novel instead. I want to hasten to add that I am not upset with them about this–I just feel they got less value for their dollar.*

Here’s the thing: there is hardly ever such a thing as good writing in a vacuum.** You can show me, say, a really beautiful sestina about a moth.*** But you can also show me a hard-boiled detective story for which plunking the sestina down in the middle would not improve the story in the slightest. Context is all.****

So I can tell someone what is or is not working for me about the first few chapters of a book. I bounce off the first few pages of a great many books (two just this morning!), so it’s a lot easier to hit the “this is bad writing in a vacuum” buttons. There are plenty of those. But–for example, if my thought at the end of Chapter 3 is, “I really want to know what happened to Maud,” that doesn’t mean that you screwed up by not putting Maud’s fate in Chapter 2. It will depend on what comes after. If Chapter 4 starts, “Maud wiped the blood from her sword and considered her options,”***** then wanting to know about Maud at the end of Chapter 3 is a feature, not a bug. If you wait for Chapter 27, when I have long since ceased caring, or worse, Book 3, then it’s important that I was wondering what happened to Maud from the end of Chapter 3 on.

Everything ramifies forward, but it also ramifies backward. You can say that you want to read onward, or that something is bothering you, or that the whole thing smells of unwashed socks. But a wonderful beginning can be completely undone by an ending that does not follow its implications and ramifications. This is even true at the series length. This is why series that don’t have midpoint endings are so problematic: you are cantilevering a greater and greater weight of story, and eventually it all goes crashing into the river.

And we are once again reminded of what we have said about me and metaphors when I’m tired. But still: the more complete, the more I can turn over the ramifications and see how they fit together, and this is a good thing for me as a reader, but it’s an even better thing for you as a writer, because one of the best things about being a writer is that you can get help from the smart people you know to make your stuff even better. It is not a live-action art form. It can be fixed later. Hurrah for that.

*I get that not everybody has short stories in the first place, so the person may have gotten the most possible value for their dollar. Let’s say, then, that they got less value compared to a hypothetical other person who was giving me the same number of words to critique but in a finished short story instead of a novel partial.

**When Alec said this on Twitter earlier this week, I agreed that there are not at all enough stories with speculative science set in hard vacuum. Pls to be getting on this; kthx.

***Please do.

****If you write me a hard-boiled detective story in which a really beautiful sestina about a moth is crucial, I will love it forEVAR.


Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: zelda888
2013-10-06 09:09 pm (UTC)
Now I am thinking about what would go into a story about a moth, set in a vacuum. This is the fate of so many moths, and it's high time someone spoke out about it.
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[User Picture]From: tiger_spot
2013-10-06 09:27 pm (UTC)
Once, we discovered moths breeding in our vacuum cleaner. It was very disturbing.
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[User Picture]From: elisem
2013-10-06 11:35 pm (UTC)

:waves at the busy, busy brain:
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-07 02:02 am (UTC)
Still. So. Busy.
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[User Picture]From: desperance
2013-10-06 11:36 pm (UTC)
****If you write me a hard-boiled detective story in which a really beautiful sestina about a moth is crucial, I will love it forEVAR.

Oh, damnable Mris!

I now have an open document in another window, filed under "Sestina". It begins:

The chewing of gum is an aspect of blondishness. The more methodical the jaw, the more pallid the hair, in a range from strawberry to platinum. Discuss.

Not too heatedly.

I have no intention of going anywhere with this. None.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-07 02:02 am (UTC)
Well, as long as you have no intention, that ought to work out all right.
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[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2013-10-07 12:03 am (UTC)
I really want to know what happens to Maud!
I do think there's a place for the early-chapters-in-isolation critique as an antidote to, "But it all makes sense and/ becomes interesting if you just read another thousand pages!" Which is not to disagree with anything above, because I don't.

PS Acquired company chicken fixings at grocery today. Think fondly of you every time.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-07 02:03 am (UTC)
Well, but I think a good critique of those thousand pages will still include, "This starts out SO SLOW. Pacing pacing pacing!"

Yay company chicken!
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2013-10-07 03:24 am (UTC)
Mothstery (after Conrad Aiken, with apologies to Hammett and Chandler, for Marissa Lingen)

And it was then, surprised,
He touched a chair, and laughed, and twitched the curtain,—
And the moth flew out.
Conrad Aiken, "King Boborigmi"

To see all and to know all is to rot;
At least that's what King Borborigmi thought.
And yet, like moths, we flitter toward the light—
Enlightenment, as though if we were bright
And full of learning, we could find the plot
And sleep in peace, all sure of what is right.

How can we really hope to learn what's right
Or wrong from outside our own selves? What rot!
Our teachers—though they're wise—have lost the plot.
What's needed is some independent thought.
Beware of learning's lantern. Though it's bright,
You'll immolate your self inside that light.

The muddy orange glow of the streetlight
Illuminated little. I turned right
Into the graveyard. Jones was not too bright
But he didn't deserve to die and rot.
Could I track down the killer? His wife thought
I could. I said I'd try to solve the plot.

They'd put him in a plain and simple plot.
I lit a cigarette. The match's light
Attracted moths—a swarm of them! I thought
They'd circle round the flame, but they flew right
Into it, and the stench of smoke and rot
Assailed my nostrils as the match flared bright.

Why had I bothered coming here? A bright
Detective would investigate the plot
From in a cozy office with some rot-
gut as a study aid. And yet the light
Reminded me of something. Was I right?
Could this be solved as quickly as I thought?

It could indeed. I soon learned Jones had thought
He'd found the key to being wise and bright:
A guru's teachings. But he stumbled right
Into the middle of the "wise" man's plot
To scam some hapless seekers of the light.
The murder covered up the guru's rot.

So think your unique thought, and shine your light,
And don't let others' rot corrupt your right
To craft your own plot, be it dull or bright.

Edited at 2013-10-07 03:25 am (UTC)
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From: swan_tower
2013-10-07 07:53 am (UTC)
You win one (1) Internet. Where would you like it delivered to?
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2013-10-07 04:30 pm (UTC)
My work address, please; delivery to my home is unreliable.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-07 12:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2013-10-07 04:31 pm (UTC)

I mean that more or less literally. You say "sestina" or "pantoum" and my fingers start itching to type.

Edited at 2013-10-07 04:32 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2013-10-07 03:32 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2013-10-08 08:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you. My brain, like yours, cannot pass a sestina challenge without twitching busily, but (possibly since I actually happen to be editing a hard-boiled detective novel at this time) it didn't go well, and I'm pleased to see someone else has done the job with finesse.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2013-10-07 09:52 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-07 12:25 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2013-10-07 02:05 pm (UTC)
*gets popcorn*
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2013-10-07 05:34 pm (UTC)
Yes, this. And in my case, also that if I don't have where you're going with it then I go off on tangents of trying to fill in the blanks of what happens next and my hypothesized whole may be completely different from where it actually goes thus making any commentary not particularly helpful.
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