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|-- Table of Contents --
1. About this Newsletter
2. Letter from the Editor
3. Editor's Picks
4. Ask & Answer
5. Useful Links
-- About this Newsletter --
I'm Anne Light , and I'm your guest editor for the Reviewing Newsletter #35.
Emotions can be a valuable guide to reviewing. Let's find out which emotions to listen to and how to make them useful.
I brought some help for the newsletter. This is Logan. He's an actor, currently between jobs. Usually he is casted for the evil Russian in uniform, so he was glad for the variation. Say hi, Logan.
”Hi, and Happy Birthday, WdC!” Logan said.
-- Letter from the Editor --
Every writer strives to stir our emotions, and we read to be moved with compassion, satisfaction, joy, fear, disgust or anger.
The flipside of the coin are emotions the author caused unintentionally. No writer would want us to be bored or confused, but if we are we can take it as a hint to have a closer look at the text.
Now, let's get this clear up front. I'm not suggesting you should write comments like: “Your story made me yawn all the way through.” There's no need to be rude. Instead, these unwanted emotions should serve as clues where the writer went wrong, and in analyzing them we can suggest improvements for a story.
I'll concentrate on the emotions I find most telling. Let's call them the Four Horsemen of a Good Review: Confusion, Disbelief, Boredom, and Frustration.
You are enthralled in a story. Suddenly you stop. “What?” you ask and read again. It doesn't help; you still don't get it.
It pays off to look at the immediate surroundings. Is there a pronoun in the vicinity? One without a proper antecedent? Have a look:
Logan eased the rucksack off his back. It was way too heavy for him.
The rucksack or the back? In dialog, you become befuddled when the speaker is not clear,
especially when there are more than two persons involved. The author will have the speaker in his mind, but not the reader.
On a grander scale, you might feel confusion when there are many characters, and you
can't keep track of who did what. (Russian novels are notorious for that. Each character has three names, and a couple of nicknames, too.) The confusion might also be a sign that the characters aren't defined clearly enough, so you forget about them.
Settings may also cause confusion. Your sense of direction may differ from the author's.
The midday sun almost blinded Logan as he walked against it. There was the large
red rock, the old man had described. The village lay to the west. He turned left.
Who knows where Logan will end up, but it won't be the village, at least if we assume he's in the Northern Hemisphere. It may yank you out of the story if you find yourself continuously on the wrong side of things.
Confusion is a good indicator for points the writers take for granted. Momentarily they've forgotten the reader because they are so immersed in their works.
A confused reader may feel like she's walking in the dark, but she might still go on walking – that is reading. Disbelief is stronger; it makes you stop dead in your tracks. Your sense of reality is disturbed in a profound way. The reason may be as mundane as a funny typo.
Longing for a glass of water, Logan struggled through the dessert.
You might want to take a moment and look at the syntax.
Topped with mozzarella and pepperoni, Logan took a bite of the pizza.
Stop, did this example really cause disbelief? My bet is it made you laugh right out. But
what if it was hidden in a paragraph of gripping prose instead of being blunt and exposed?
Disbelief can be an inner guide to grammatical errors, like the false placement of an
attribute. Multiple attributes are often ambiguous, and may stir considerable disbelief
– the reason behind our mirth.
My first guess when I feel disbelief is usually that something is wrong with the characters. “Logan would never do that,” we think, reading that he hasn't opened his mailbox for a month. It should make us reconsider what we know about him. Let's say the author has portrayed him before as someone who files his bills neatly into several folders and always pays on time. Analyzing our incredulity might give an important information to the author to check Logan's background story and character motivation.
Superhuman abilities or actions that seem to defy the laws of physics can overstretch our
willingness to believe. Take a look.
Logan looked across the football field and found himself staring at a tall woman with hazel eyes and freckles.
Logan must have the eyes of an eagle. Language is seductive, and we'll follow an author gladly if he transports us with a few words millions of light years away, but it pays off to listen to that voice of disbelief if your sense of proportion for the world you live in is disturbed.
You might feel bored if you lost your sense of direction in a story and want to put it aside. In that case, the feeling stems from confusion. Here, I define boredom as the feeling of knowing already what's going to happen, as having seen it before.
On the level of style, boredom may point to overlong descriptions.
Logan entered the kitchen, and switched on the light. In the sink below the bluish built-in cupboards were still the dishes from breakfast. The refrigerator was humming lowly. Behind it, under the windowsill with the pots of parsley and basil, a man perched.
Again, syntax should be under scrutiny. The construction is awkward and slows down the
tempo. And besides, do you really need to have an inventory of Logan's kitchen when he's faced with a scary intruder?
Do you put the story down during a stretch of dialog? What exactly is the problem?
Logan looked up when he heard a knock at the door. He went to open it.
“Hello,” said the stranger, “the bell seemed not to work, so I knocked.”
Yes, people talk that way, all day long even. But the reader got the information the first time round, and in writing it looks like an overlong speech even though the speaker uttered only one sentence.
Do you keep wishing, the gorgeous blonde were buck teethed, or gobbled peanuts when
she's alone? At least that she did a headstand? Tell the author. Cardboard characters
are often a source for boredom, and the best prose cannot make up for that. Yes, I love
beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate people, but not necessarily in a story. I want quirks and faults, too.
If you feel like you're waiting for a late bus when you read a story, you're missing conflict. Go back to the story to look what is wrong. Doesn't the protagonist have a clear goal? Aren't there any obstacles to overcome? Does he ever doubt himself? When you've pinpointed it, you can give the author a valuable clue.
The last of the Four Horsemen of a Good Review relates to the structural level of a story and to our expectations as readers. Let's say you've followed a character through a number of adventures, cared for him, hoped with him, feared for him – and then he dies. It might leave you with a deep sense of frustration because there's an unwritten law about narration that the protagonist should reach a different level in his development. If he dies, how can he learn from the past? I think this narrative convention lies behind the many predictable happy-ends in Hollywood movies. As high as the stakes may be in the final showdown, our hero must live, so the story can fulfill its last requirement, that the hero has changed.
As readers we expect suspense, too. Suspense means that conflict is lingering while our
hero moves along. Let's say, Logan owes money to a neighbor who's in dire circumstances himself. Logan is already behind the deadline, but can't pay. He sneaks up the stairs, keys ready in hand to slip into his apartment unnoticed, and the wood under his feet creaks. The door opens, and his neighbor stands there, a baseball bat in his hand.
What do you think will happen? You don't know, of course, but the situation is pregnant with possibilities. Logan could try to be persuasive, he could invent a bunch of lies, he could offer his stereo to the neighbor. Or he could pretend to have forgotten the deadline, he could deny he'd taken any money. The neighbor could threaten him, argue, or use his baseball bat.
“Hi, Logan. You got the money?”
“Hi. I was going to tell you. The cheque's still in the mail,” Logan opened the door to his apartment as furtively as he could. “I'll have it next week, okay?”
“All right,” the neighbor said and shrugged.
What a disappointment. I get really frustrated when a conflict is solved too quickly, so much that I want to trample the manuscript (difficult when reading online). I want conflict to go on and on and on, and I tell the author.
When I review a story, I do it in two steps. The first read is for the right side of my brain. I let the emotions flow and note at which point in the story they are stirred. When I read again, I try to find out exactly what caused that feeling. I've come to enjoy Confusion, Disbelief, Boredom, and Frustration. They are good news. They tell me there's more to writing than meets the eye.
-- Editor's Picks --
I'm linking articles on reviewing and editing I found on
-- Ask & Answer --
Logan! What are you doing here? We don't have any questions to answer. And feedback
goes to Feedback Central.
”I've got a question.”
”All these examples I acted, did you take them from other WdC members?”
No, I made them up myself. Now, say bye.
”Bye,” said Logan.
-- Useful Links --
"Reviewing News and Views"