Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Shred or Not to Shred, That is the Question

Rowena's post this week started me thinking about critiquing and how little I knew when I first tippy-toed into the whole 'write like you're already professional' kind of thing. Basically, critique is a skill that all writers need to learn - among other things, learning to critique helps you sharpen your internal editor so when you need the editor-hat you can actually do a half-decent job of it.

Like everything else in this business, you never really finish learning to critique. You just widen the repertoire: my earliest crits were horribly lame (yes, to those of you who've 'enjoyed' a Kate-shredomatic critique, I had no idea at first).

First things first: never, ever crit with "This sucks" or worse, "You suck". It's insulting, and worse, it doesn't do anything to tell the author what they need to fix. The whole point here is to improve the story. If you absolutely loathe the concept, it's okay to bow out with a comment to the effect that you wouldn't be able to give the piece a fair critique. On the other hand, "It's wonderful!" is equally useless. If you really can't see anything that needs improvement, look at what worked really well in the piece and comment on how effective it was.

Next, for those on the receiving end: remember that the goal is to improve your story. Not everyone can manage to be tactful - I've been told that even my gentle critiques are pretty rough on the recipient, not because I'm nasty, but because I've learned to be thorough. Of course, I'm the woman whose idea of 'tact' is "Nail stuck through it to fasten it to the wall", and who's about as subtle as the blunt end of an axe. A good critique can hurt, especially if all you've had is how wonderful the piece is. If it does hurt, do not respond immediately. Wait a day or two, until you can look at it without getting steamed up, and then evaluate the critique against what you've written. Chances are you'll find that there's a problem you need to fix.

The third general piece of advice is this: try to say why you think something is a problem, and if you can offer alternatives, do so. If you can't, that's fine - the idea is to try to hit on the reason something doesn't work, and possibly get the author thinking about how to make it work. Even knowing something doesn't work and why is often enough.

Finally: Do not, under any circumstances, do everything that your critique group says you need to do. Evaluate the suggestions, look for common issues - if everyone has a problem with scene X, then chances are there's a problem - but it may not be the problem that was identified. It could be that the problem is quite different and everyone hit different symptoms. Also, it's quite common for a critiquer to have a different vision for a piece than yours, which means that their critiques are going to be somewhat off-base. This is particularly common when you're critiquing a novel chapter by chapter, or scene by scene.

Okay. With all of that out of the way, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to critique the scene below. I'll be commenting on the crits and suggesting better ways to make your point. Oh, and in case you're wondering, this is raw unedited draft (which I don't usually inflict on people) so there are plenty of issues with it. It's also the opening of the new thing.

// Start snippet //
Dowager's Square swarmed with activity in the perpetual half-light of the Great Eclipse. William Seraph, Lord Alvar, emerged from his dark stone townhouse, smoothing his gloves as he paused on the top step to survey the scene before him.

Across the square, the turreted silhouette of the Imperial Academy of Engineers appeared black against the dark outline of the sun: a fairytale castle outlined by a shadowed sun that occupied fully half the southern sky in perpetual midday.

Though Dowager's Square was a prestigious address, street vendors crowded the huge space, all calling their wares in such cacophony that Alvar often wondered how anyone with a front bedroom could sleep. The Academy students were frequent customers, seeking variety in diet - and, alas, other matters - when they had time to spare.

The comforting burr of countless mechanisms surrounded him, their tingling warmth as familiar to Alvar as his own body. Years of training at the Academy had honed his natural gift to a level where Alvar could distinguish the different kinds of mechanisms and even identify individual devices with which he was familiar. Unlike many of his royal cousins, Alvar's right to the title of Engineer was fully earned, no honorarium in recognition of their ancestry.
Something was wrong.

The faintest hint of a frown touched Alvar's brow as he strode forward. People parted for him, perhaps sensing his presence. He could sense nothing wrong in the 'canics around him, yet uneasiness persisted, a nagging suggestion that evaded his conscious awareness.

Heat rose through the soles of his boots, the heat of molten rock so close to the surface it might break through at any moment, but for the combination of a multitude of steam driven devices to draw off rising pressure and the immense multi-layered motion dampers with their springs thicker than a man's height. All seemed well to his senses.

Every step on the paved square heightened Alvar's disquiet, driving him to probe to the deepest extent of his gift. The first hints of rust in a household radiator to his left tasted faintly sour, and a poorly oiled flywheel in the student quarters of the Academy buzzed off-key. If Alvar recalled correctly, that was one of the devices used to test precisely how sensitive a prospective student's gift might be. Students unable to diagnose the problem were relegated to Mechanics, capable of building and repairing to specifications, but not sensitive enough for true Engineering.

The multi-layered alloys of the dampers beneath his feet jiggled as the springs adjusted to shifting lava beneath them, strengthening the thin crust of the busy square. The movements were too small to be detected by ordinary senses, so small that one could stand a penny edge-on and it would not tip - though here the likelihood that a penny would remain unclaimed more than a few heartbeats was small indeed.

The respectable stall-holders competed with whores and beggars, the Empire's waste chasing any means by which they might sustain themselves - or drown themselves in forgetfulness for a little longer. Though constables chased them from the square once the Palace bells tolled curfew, they returned with the waking bells, and remained through the day, using the crowded square to avoid any constabulary attention.

Alvar had no doubt those unfortunates lived a life far grimmer than anything he could imagine. Their stunted bodies and gaunt faces told their own stories.
Someone emerged from the crowd, running too quickly to stop. In the moment before they collided, Alvar glimpsed ragged gray clothing flapping from a skinny figure. Then he fought to both stay on his feet and hold his assailant. It was a common trick: bowl over an unsuspecting nobleman, then one’s colleagues relieved the gentleman of his valuables while the one responsible for the collision helped the victim to his feet and apologized profusely.

"Please, milord, yer an Engineer, ain't ya? Tell 'em to get away from 'ere! One o' them big springs is gonna go."

The desperate tone and the blazing strength of the boy's gift froze Alvar in place for a long moment. How had the Academy talent scouts missed him? Then the import of the boy's words sank in. "Where?"

The boy pointed to the ground almost directly beneath Alvar's feet.

He sent his gift that way, probing the spring. The sense of unease, the nagging certainty of something wrong, intensified.

Alvar followed the nausea, probing where it strengthened.

Another Engineer's presence beside his, strong but untutored, guiding him unerringly to a point on the spring where Alvar initially saw nothing wrong, nothing but his own gift's insistence that something was not right. He probed deeper, seeking the finer structure of the tempered alloy.

Ice flooded his stomach and he swallowed in a mouth gone dry. Metal fatigue: the one thing all Engineers dreaded. It was so cursed difficult to detect, and so lethal in its results. A fatigued part could go from apparently perfect condition to catastrophic failure in a heartbeat.

"I have it." He pursed his lips and gave the Empire-wide signal for impending disaster: three short whistles, three longer, then three short. The piercing tone cut through the din, bringing Alvar the attention of many of those present.

He raised his free hand above his head, signaling the crowd to move themselves away from where he stood, and marking out the expected direction of failure. Every child learned those signals, and knew to obey without question.

Frightened babble rose from the hush, and people rushed away, shopkeepers abandoning carts and pushing at those too far to have seen the signals. As always, fear generated its own momentum, infecting those beyond reach of Alvar's signals to send them fleeing with those who knew what approached.

The boy tackled him, knocking him off balance and sending them both skidding along heated paving stones.

A sharp crack of stone and metal breaking shattered any reproach Alvar might have considered. The sound seemed to echo without end, though as he hauled himself to his feet, one small part of his mind calculating the cost of a ruined suit, the sound modulated to a steady hiss of escaping steam.

The boy had saved his life. The newly opened gap was close to six feet in width, and already the edges were sagging. It would have swallowed him, if the escaping steam had not scalded him beyond healing.

Alvar caught the boy's shoulder. "Come. You should be in the Academy." Already the Academy's bells were signaling a breach in Dowager's Square and a summons to all Engineers to assist with repairs.

To his credit, the boy made no attempt to free himself from Alvar's grip. That was not reason enough for Alvar to trust him not to flee. The youngster's ragged clothing and dirt-crusted skin was clear evidence he was from the lowest classes, and could be expected to fear authority. Undoubtedly he had committed any number of crimes merely to stay alive: a reason the courts rarely gave any credence. If arrested, the best the lad could hope for was exile or virtual slave labor at one of the outer colonies. There were worse fates.
// End snippet //

Critique away - I'll be responding with commentary, and if you're really good, you may even get to see the final result. Eventually. Possibly a very long time from now, since I usually hammer through the first draft from beginning to end, then go back to clean up - but I do take notes.


Anonymous said...

Your first three paragraphs are basic sightseeing. Necessary, since the first action is going to happen there, but they aren't any sort of hook.

You need to start, I think, with your main character sensing something badly wrong, then a quick hint of the talent. That would hook the reader. Then Lord Alvar steps outside and you describe the square.

Kate said...


You got that one on the nail. It's all nice and leisurely and pretty and scenery.

Now to work out how to fit the "something wrong" and the gift into the scenery so it's not just a writer's travelogue.

Hm... Possibly describing the places as he uses his gift to search them for problems?

Anonymous said...

Your was brief enough, and different enough to leave mot of it as a chunk, IMO.

It just can't come first.

Question also about the Grand Eclipse. IIRC it lasts for years? Centuries? You may need to mention the bright lights of the square, lit at dawn and extinguished at dusk, esoteric words with ancient definitions that made no sense to anyone.

You may need to pick and choose what is essential, for this scene, and how much can be added in dribs and drabs later.

Personally, it's not something I'd worry about, right now. I tend to front load my starts with data, as I think it up. When I edit, I pick a good hook and move or remove the world building I was doing at the time.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Dealing with critique is always tricky, although I would have to say I have got a lot better at giving it. That kind of helps, as you can recognise when someone giving you a hard time is inexperienced.

Kudos for putting yourself out there!

Stephen Simmons said...

I find that I always have to do crits in two "layers". I do a cold read-through, making notes of my impressions as a reader as the story washes over me. Then I step back and look at the experience as a whole, trying to form a more complete taste of what just happened to me.

Second layer first: I tend to agree with matapam's initial observation that the reader would be better served if the "Something's wrong" were much nearer the beginning. Not necessarily change anything other than sequencing of what you have: bring the fourth paragraph - the one that introduces his gift - to the top, and end it with the Problem, just as it does now.

On to the more specific impressions:
The paragraph that describes the Academy: Unnecessary repetition in describing the eclipse. Powerful imagery, but the wording feels "not-finished-with-yet"-ish.

The paragraph that introduces his gift: Maybe a different word, to avoid repeating "mechanisms" so close together? Interesting questions raised here for the reader about promised character development.

a nagging suggestion that evaded his conscious awareness. The "something" clearly has intruded on his conscious awareness - he just hasn't identified it yet.

If Alvar recalled correctly, that was one of the devices used to test ...
Since he lives right across the Square, such a long-established vibration would be "an old friend", and wouldn't need any thought to identify.

... springs adjusted to shifting lava beneath them ...
While it's still underground, it's magma.

The paragraph about the beggars and whores in Dowager's Square: Perhaps some mention of the beggars limiting thievery in such prestigious environs to avoid official backlash against their presence? Also, "constable ... constabulary" repeat close enough together to jangle.

Alvar followed the nausea, probing where it strengthened.
No earlier mention of a physical reaction to the sensation. The image is very powerful, but it hits us without any supporting back-trail.

He raised his free hand above his head, ...
"Free hand"? It isn't clear what the other is doing.

... the Academy's bells were signaling a breach in Dowager's Square ...
Signaling the specific location seems awfully complex for a bell-message.

Kate said...


That's an excellent suggestion right there - shuffling things around so the hook's there up front but the scenery - particularly the things that are alien to us - is still enough for people to see the scene.

The idea for the opening is to hook, and to drop just enough hints of "this ain't Kansas" to keep readers going. I'm not there yet - and advice like this helps clarify the things I need to do to get it there.

As you say, not something to obsess on now, but something to take notes for when I start revising.

Kate said...

Chris M,

Yeah, critique isn't easy. I'm certainly not holding myself up as the be all and end all, but I figure the only way you learn to crit is by critting and being critted, so...

Lead by example, and all that.

(Of course the flip side of that is "if you're going to make a mistake, make it a doozy - something I have NO difficulty with!)

Kate said...


On all the points you've hit, yes, yes, yes and yes. And yes, if I missed any of them.

Word repetition is one of my bug-bears. I play with words, I alliterate, and worse, assonance (which, in case people are wondering, has nothing to do with gay donkeys). If I don't watch myself, I get way to self-consciously twee - especially when I'm still fumbling for voice, which is the case here.

Re: lava/magma - OY! Picture me kicking myself. I've got a flipping geology degree: you'd think I'd remember something as basic as that. Ye dogs.

Yeah, I definitely need to mention the low-lives keeping their depredations down so they don't lose access to such a lucrative spot. And figure a few alternatives for the constables that aren't either too modern or too overtly Victorian.

You're right about the use of nausea - I do need to slide that in somewhere earlier.

Free hand... There you've got a classic case of what's inside the head not getting out mixed with author getting confused. Silly me. He doesn't grab the kid until later.

The bell signaling system - I need a relatively easy to learn way to communicate across the city where the most important stuff is common knowledge (such as major districts, and various 'trouble' signals). I went for bell ringing because the things can be heard for a long distance and passed on quickly. What would you suggest for an alternative, given the tech levels and feel of the piece?

Stephen Simmons said...

Bells could actually work for the alarm system, I think. But give us a taste (just a taste, at this point, I think) of the mechanics, right away, to "sell" it to us. After all, Civil War-era generals gave fairly complex orders with nothing more than a bugle, right? And McCaffrey sold us on a remarkably convoluted continent-wide system of communications using only drums ...

Say, an "alert" trill, (like the "dah-DAH-dah-DAH" "Attention" bugle call), followed by a unique melodic flourish that says "lava-breakthrough", as opposed to the various other major types of disaster. Break. A sequence that identifies the quadrant/ sector/ whatever of the city (however you have the map taking shape in your head). Break. etc ...

I really do like the "followed the nausea" image. VERY evocative.

Stephen Simmons said...

Oh, and by the way ... being a nuke, and having spent far more hours than I care to remember both studying and teaching material failure mechanics ... you're singing my song ... lol

Stephen Simmons said...

To paraphrase the heroine of one of my favorite books ("Emergence", by David R. Palmer):

How did anyone this stupid manage to live forty-six whole years?

I'm an idiot. Forget the bells. You have steam. An inexhaustible supply thereof. Make it a massive pipe-organ.

Kate said...


Good points, all. And now that I know you've got background on materials failure, you just might find yourself getting asked really weird questions.

Possibly bells to signal "alarm: listen up" followed by something more complex for the detailed information would work.

I do like the steam-powered organ idea. A good sized one positioned properly could blast sound a good distance, and with a code system that mixed a basic pitch signal (three or four tone, for general use - military signaling would be way more complex, and probably use rotating code keys) with different tone lengths to get something rather like pitched Morse Code.

Not to mention military uses akin to the reason Ridcully reseals the B.S.J. "bathroom" after he had the misfortune to be in there when the Librarian was experimenting with the Unseen University's organ...

Chris McMahon said...

Great world, Kate. Unique setting and a good sense for the unfolding of a larger story.

Assuming this is the very beginning, I would cut the first few para and get straight to the problem - this is the main action.

I would be good to give a sense for what is at stake in the wider world up front - rather than purely descriptive material. Give a sense for what is different in this world and what the dangers are (no more than one short par), then introduce the problem.

The introduction of the boy immediately makes me think he is going to be a lead protoganist as the 'discovered' talent. This gives me a problem, since if he is then he needs the PoV, not Alvar. It is almost as if you have two separate stories going on here. You could tone down his role and have his 'discovery' later from his PoV.

I definitely like Alvar as a PoV character & could see him carrying the story.


Stephen Simmons said...

Kate - as long as you realize that my background comes with some of those weird "... and I have to stop talking now, because I can't point to an unclassified source for what I know on that subject, even though the information itself isn't classified ..." holes in what I "know". Other than that, by all means. :)

By all means, evolve a comm system that feels like it "evolved-in-place", not one that feels "all-one-piece-from-the-store". But you've got that incredible, pervasive natural heat/steam source, which would absolutely shape the evolution of their culture and the simplest day-to-day mechanics of their lives. (Stoves, for instance. Or, how the heck do they get/store water cold enough to drink, as opposed to our efforts to heat water for bathing?)

Synova said...

A thought... I still haven't read the passage carefully so I might have missed something important.

Why can't the "boy" whistle the warning? Most of those responding won't see who whistled anyhow.

I also thought that whistling with your mouth is sometimes really hard (making it an unnecessary point of failure) so maybe there should be a metal whistle, a badge of station perhaps, that an untrained engineer would not have.

Also, the declaration about the Academy seemed abrupt.

Synova said...

I think it's obvious that this is where the story needs to start. And I do think that there needs to be some establishment of the world in order for any of it to make sense, but I agree that there doesn't seem to be a hook.

And I wonder if it's not partly because as Lord Alvar steps onto his front step, he doesn't want anything. There is no urgency at all.

I suppose that's the sum total of my critique because what he *wants* at that moment could be anything. I just really think that, even if it's something that's only going to be an issue for the barest moment, it needs to be there. In our world it could be something as simple as being late for work, needing to escape the house, or jonesing for a Starbucks.

The rest isn't critique but suggestions because I can't help myself, bad form or not, and all of it should probably be ignored.

(Trying to keep the sort of lords and ladies feel to it), if he had a morning visitor he wanted to escape he'd have someone to talk to as he extricated himself and a reason to invent an urgent need to go somewhere if he didn't have an actual urgent need to go somewhere. Perhaps one of those cousins with honorary titles who could then fuss about something related to the scene... the dirty peasants or the grand address or the Academy or social functions... and Lord Alvar would have cause to muse about (or say outright) the fact that said cousin could no more detect a rusty radiator than the poor fellow hawking cabbages.

It would be sort of neat if the boy conspicuously ran right past the "engineer" without talent and tackled the true engineer.

In any case. Someone I once knew got a critique back on a romance that said *this* about the sister and then *that* about the sister and then said, "Oh, by the way, you need to add a sister." Obviously, if the problem was a missing sister or not, something was missing. But I still don't want to be that critiquer.

Anonymous said...

Another person or two around might save a bit of "talking to himself" syndrome, but I didn't notice a bad level of that.

The hook might be a comment to a butler, "No, I don't want breakfast. I feel hideously ill with an Engineer's headache from Hell. I'm going to stroll around and find the incompetent idiot who is abusing his mechanisms and behind on his maintenance. And then I'll eat him."

Brendan said...

You have created a very interesting world one that raises a lot of questions about it's nature.

When introducing the world the language to me seems a bit confused. There is "perpetual midday" but the sun fills the southern half of the sky and is in eclipse giving a (once again 'perpetual') half light. While in theory these conditions may all be possible, to introduce what to most is going to seem contradictions this early will be distracting.

The other part of the world you create I questioned is the lava underneath the city. Your hero sounds to be rich and important and I would have thought that people of the upper classes and important professions (and you make it clear he is both) are most likely to have their houses on the best real estate. Unless the whole town is built over the lava, the best real estate to my mind would include terra(or something) firma. Once again the reader is being asked to second your story's environment from the clues you provide and for something so seemingly radically different, to do this so early is quite a struggle.

Could you move the spiel about the students to the paragraph lower down where you speak of respectable stall holders and whores and beggars? You allude to the various 'diversions' students partake in so putting the two together would make sense.

The last bit I will comment on is the interaction between the Hero and the boy. You say earlier that people automatically get out of X's way but the boy is able to emerge from the crowd and knock him over. Also it seems the boy is looking for X so the way he would move through a crowd would be different tongue way a boy from a pickpocketing gang is going to. The gang boy is going to want to make the bump seem an accident of heedlessness but the boy in the story will be stopping, starting and looking around for the figure of authority. Concealment and deception is not his goal at this point.

As I said you have created a very interesting world with many aspects that will give people a pause to think and wonder; just try not to introduce everything in one hit and so soon;)

Stephen Simmons said...

More thoughts ... is the "perpetual eclipse" always fixed over the same point on the surface - in other words, is the planet tidally-locked to the primary? If so, are there places on the "back side" that aren't connected to whatever the culture uses for transportation, or haven't been in contact with the "front side" for more than a few generations?

What I'm getting at is the evolution of their myths. If the planet is tidally-locked, the myths and religions on the side with the "empty" sky would evolve much differently than the myths that develop on the opposite face of the same world.

Kate said...

Chris M,

Yes, it is the very beginning, and yeah, I do need to introduce the problems right up front. I'm puzzling over that at the moment.

Alvar is definitely the lead here, but the kid is... not exactly what Alvar expects. He's going to be a tad startled when he finds out that his talented boy is actually a girl :)

Kate said...


I'm perfectly willing to accept "trust me, this is how it works" - you don't need to add "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you".

So long as I can make it sound plausible, pretty much anything goes, up to and including steam powered fridges running off of flywheels or something equally bizarre (they aren't terribly efficient).

Kate said...


Good suggestions, all. Thinking about it, a whistle as a badge of office makes a lot of sense - and also explains why the kid doesn't give the warning :)

Kate said...


If you don't mind me filching that as an opening hook, I just might use it!

Kate said...


Good food for thought there. With regard to the city, there aren't many places in this world that aren't sitting on active volcanic zones. It's not something even the wealthy can escape.

The question of what to introduce when is a sticky one: I need to signal "this isn't Kansas" early, so I don't have people thinking I'm writing in Victorian England. At the same time, yes, I don't want to be introducing too much too soon.

Obviously I haven't got the balance right yet.

Kate said...


It's not quite tidally locked, but it's as close as makes no difference, in the practical sense. There are records tracking the progress of the eclipse and the sun's movement, and calculations based on the observations that predict when the full light of the sun will reach which locations - but the earliest for that is a few hundred years in the future (our years).

Yes, there are cultures that have grown up on the dark side of the planet. They're nothing like this society.