Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Critique Me

By Amy

A lot of folks check in here each day, read what we have to say, some leave comments (thanks, we really do appreciate them), while others email their thoughts. All who stop by here have been unfailingly gracious, many have linked this blog and/or various posts.

One thing worries me, though: I’ve read the completed manuscripts of each of my writers’ group members, I’m certain of their abilities, but none of you know if I can write well. Yes, you’ve read my posts – none of which have been properly edited. Some of you may have Googled me and found a few of my op-eds available there. But fiction is something else altogether.

So today, I’m going to serve myself up for you to critique. This is a Writers' Group blog, after all. It’s a small excerpt from my manuscript, there are space constraints. The set-up is my protag , an undertaker, has arrived to remove a body. As you know, when giving feedback it’s almost more important to describe what doesn’t work than what does. Have at it, rip it apart. Go on, I’m strong. I can take it:

From the hearse, I remove two pairs of gloves, one small, the other large, along with the gurney, body bag, and my case. Walking back to the triple-decker, I see a middle-aged woman on the deck of her third floor apartment, her hair in curlers, her squat body encased in a bulky robe. Her mouth filled with clothespins. She’s hanging underthings from a makeshift line strung between her doorframe and the single dying oak in her postage-stamp yard. She sees me watching her and freezes, big white underpants billowing in her left hand. She yanks the pins from her mouth, spits twice off of the deck, and then crosses herself. When the breeze picks up, the oak’s forgotten leaves swirl around its trunk, and the woman turns her attention back to the laundry.

Steve-o keeps his back to me as I struggle up the stairs. His teeth nimbly work over his cuticles, reminding me of a man I once saw eating chicken wings; the way he splayed the tip from the drum, snapping them apart and then gnawing each bone until it gleamed white. This time Steve-o doesn’t hold the door for me.

Actually, I'm not feeling terribly strong right now, a little vulnerable if truth be told, so try not to be too harsh. Okay?


jennifergg said...

See, I'm a big chicken. I don't like my writing ripped apart (like the wings in your excerpt!); I know it's the construct of most writing workshops, and also most MFA programs. Too, editors, who have little time, will go right to the problems.

But I learn MORE from what people like. I pay attention to it, and try to replicate it. When NO ONE likes something I think is terrific, I pay attention to that, too...

So in this spirit, I loved the image of the woman's white underpants in the wind. I loved the leaves at the base of the tree, the combination of images made me feel a bit on edge, as if something were about to happen. I also loved the chicken wings image, terrificly clear in my mind.

Thank you for your bravery! You are correct: we can talk about writing all day, but it's not the same as sharing the actual WRITING.

Good luck with the ms.!

Therese said...

Amy, how brave of you, but what a treat!

I had no doubt that you are a fine writer, and you've confirmed my belief here.

Without more contextual info (e.g. is the narrator male or female?) here's my critique:

Imagery is a strength of this excerpt. The woman, the tree--very compelling. Your choice of details makes me trust this narrator, and seem in character for an undertaker.

Problem spots:
1. "triple-decker" This hung me up--I initially thought of a sandwich or burger.
2. The sentence fragment "Her mouth filled with clothespins." Even though the context tells me this is meant to be an artful fragment, the unintended effect is that "filled" can be read as a past-tense verb, which is a distraction you don't want.
3. It's hard to orient myself with the action of the second paragraph. I assume Steve-o is a partner or assistant, but why isn't he also "struggling" with the gurney? And how does the narrator see the the nailbiting if Steve-o's back is to him/her?

Small things, easily addressed. :)

Most importantly, though, I'm interested in this story. That, to me, is always the test.

So ratchet up your confidence!

Thank you for giving us this taste of your talents, which I'm now even more certain are considerable.

kristen spina said...

I know you want the "what doesn't work, what should be fixed" input, but when I read this, I thought...wow, there's nothing. Then I read Therese's comment and I thought, "oh, yeah, maybe...I see that." But as she says, small things. Easily fixed.

So, here's what I like: I like that I want to know more. The imagery and the voice pull me in. I would keep reading. I could see myself picking this up in the bookstore, randomly flipping over to this passage and deciding to take a closer look at the book as a whole.

I don't know if that helps, but that's what I've got.

Larramie said...

Imagery is everything for me as well, so I fell into this excerpt but kept my eyes wide open because you asked.

As Therese noted, "triple-decker" threw me off to wonder what?

And "...big white underpants billowing in her left hand. She yanks the pins from her mouth, spits twice off of the deck, and then crosses herself. When the breeze picks up, the oak’s forgotten leaves swirl around its trunk, and the woman turns her attention back to the laundry."

If the underpants are billowing, isn't there already a fairly good breeze?

Also, in one paragraph, the use of "decker" and "deck" are used. Neither are common words and tend to stand out.

Being a Virgo, Amy, I can have a very critical eye when need be; however, the bottom line is: I *liked* this, appreciated your trust in us, and applaud you!

Lisa said...

I was standing in the street, right there watching it all happen. I love everything about the old woman hanging laundry, especially that she crosses herself and spits. The only thing I paused at was the fragment, but I hope you keep the image. I looked hard to find anything at all to question and I have one -- this was not a distraction at all, but I wanted to ask about the first comma -- it indicated to me that the MC is working slowly and methodically and it serves to pace the action. Again, not a criticism, just an analytical question about craft. The image of nibbling cuticles like eating chicken wings was great! Steve-O didn't confuse me -- I assume he's a tenant and he held the door the first time the MC went inside. Even if I'm wrong, with such a short excerpt, I was not confused by it. Your prose is lovely and you are a beautiful, talented writer. I can't wait to read more. Thanks for being so brave and sharing.

Melissa Amateis said...

Imagery is great, Amy! Very, very good. I could "see" everything happening and that isn't easily accomplished.

I loved "postage-stamped" yard, loved the image of the lady spitting and making the sign of the cross. You've got great characterization there.

Thank you for sharing with us, Amy. Very brave!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Let me join the chorus of "yeas" here--I love the detail, the imagery, I definitely am pulled in and am glad to be. Here are the little things that tripped me up (but not fatally or anything. . . and you asked)

-she's on her 3rd floor deck--so is the yard with the oak in it really hers?
-I assume "triple-decker" is a three-sroty walk up apartment building, but I've never heard teh term before
-I love the image of how Steve-o bites his curticles. . . .but how does the narrator/coroner(?) see this if Steve-o's back is to him/her?

Lovely work, Amy.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you all SO much for your kindness. What a lovely extnded writers' group we have!


Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated that people haven't heard of a triple-decker before. Having lived in the Boston area for decades, I just take them for granted. Since this is just part of a bigger piece, an explanation is easy, then you can use the term freely. It says so much about a neighborhood and its socioeconomic class.

Great imagery. I definitely want to know more. Why two pairs of gloves? Why different sizes? That'll keep me reading.

"Walking" back to the triple-decker could use more imagery. S/he then struggles with the stairs. So how was it hauling all this gear to get there? Pushing the gurney?

As to the use of "-decker" and "deck," you could say porch. I think of a deck as a single structure, but a triple-decker will have three porches strung up the side like a ladder.

Not sure I like the woman's body being "encased" in the robe. Robes are soft. Cases seem hard to me. Casket-like if you will.

But this is lovely. Good luck with it.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks for the comment Kira and the critique. I appreciate your time.


Mia King said...

I like the way this reads, Amy! And in my experience, there will always be something that can be tweaked, but keep writing and don't spend too much time tweaking or over perfecting as you go ... just keep truckin' and then go back.

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