Critiques and completion

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.


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