Category Archives: Critiquing

Cheese Puffs, Part 4

(Parts One, Two, & Three)

My impressions of these two excerpts…

TROE:

Lux was coming. It’s such a simple first sentence. And it uses “was.” Break every rule, and all that. But I think it’s quite powerful. So, why? Partly, the unusual name. Who would be named something like that? But I also think the flat declaration carries with it a sense of foreboding, i.e. Lux was coming (subtext: oh no). Because I think if it was an unadulterated good thing that Lux was coming the sentence would be constructed differently, maybe as an “I” statement, i.e. overtly stating the narrator’s feelings toward Lux.

I like the opening paragraph because it introduces us to this character, Lux, and then it sets her aside, and lets us consider who she is and why her presence is unsettling to the narrator on our own. The author respects us enough not to bash us over the head with who Lux is right away.

As mentioned above, I like the use of “Northern Line” because I think it adds just the right amount of authenticity. I also like the set up: the protagonist is on her way home to meet someone who is coming to visit, but right now she’s on a train, with time to kill. This gives us some time to get to know her before we launch into the story. The narrator’s reflection here feels real, because it’s exactly the sort of thing one does when biding one’s time on public transit.

I’ll interrupt myself here to say there’s nothing in this excerpt that indicates the narrator’s gender, though it’s given away in the cover blurb (of course). I think a good part of my positive first impression of this book is that I wasn’t confronted with some female stereotype in the first page.

Okay. So I think the strength of this opening is that it tells us a lot about the narrator without having her tell us about herself directly. We learn about her via her observations of others. She singles out three fellow passengers—presumably there are more—two men and a woman. Why these three? Each of them has something about them that makes them stand out of the crowd. Would wearing sunglasses make it easier to draw under fluorescent light? Why is the other man sweating? Is he hot or having a heart attack? Why is the woman wearing not an ordinary sari, but a golden one—which seems like something special, not an everyday thing. Do her grocery bags hold ingredients for an exotic meal?

But then— the narrator considers how these people would look “transformed by anger.” Now this is interesting, because it’s unexpected. Why is she contemplating anger? Is she angry about something? She first considers their faces, then focuses in on their hands. Why is she thinking about violence, about what others are capable of, about punching, about blood?

You get the impression that their answers would probably not be what you would expect. And that neither would the narrator’s. That she has done, or considered doing, something terrible. That the question really is: How does she explain her actions to herself?

I like this beginning a lot, because basically it poses a lot of questions and doesn’t give out any answers. I don’t want the ending to be telegraphed on page 1. I do not read the last page of books before I read the first. I want to be intrigued enough to keep reading, and I want to feel that the author trusts me enough to get information that isn’t spelled out and to have patience to wait for answers / resolution and to know that not all questions have answers.

Overall impression: I like the narrator. She has depth. I can relate to sitting on public transport, contemplating my fellow passengers. I can relate to that interlude of knowing you have this amount of time to yourself before whatever’s at the other end. I like her thoughtfulness, the questions she asks.

She is essentially the only character so far. Lux is a mystery and the other three people are just reflections. This is fine. In 200+ words, I don’t need the narrator to have interacted with six other people. Plot development is essentially non-existent. But again, I don’t mind an author taking some time to introduce the protagonist, because I think relating to the protagonist is key. If I like the protagonist, I will keep reading. (I am much less likely to continue if the plot is entertaining, but I don’t care what happens to the protagonist.)

Thinking: So maybe the character-driven vs. plot-driven distinctions are correct, then?

To be continued…

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Cheese Puffs, Part 3

Part 1 & Part 2

The first thing (after the punching) that struck me was the huge difference in the quantity of proper nouns between these two pieces, even in just a couple paragraphs. (And I will say, this probably jumped out at me because it’s something I’m guilty of doing myself.)

TROE: Lux, London, Northern Line

TOFGB: Friday, Hastings Channel 8, Friday, Hyundai, 7-Eleven, Mother Teresa, Hastings Gas & Electric, Whittle Advertising, Mother Teresa, Pencil Face, HG&E

Obviously some proper nouns are necessary. If it’s something/someone that’s going to come up again, you need to be able to refer to it w/o launching into a sentence-long description every time. Others are necessary to establish certain facts (like where the story takes place). But others are just noise. It seems to me that if you’re using proper nouns as shorthand, then maybe an actual description would be a better choice. In some cases, a generic would do just as well and be less distracting. (It would definitely wear better over the long-term.)

TROE:

  • Lux. Raises questions. Who is Lux and why is her presence unsettling? Probably the most important of the three words.
  • London. Establishes setting. Even if you’ve never been there, the word “London” is very evocative. That one word contains a whole bundle of images/sounds/textures/etc.
  • Northern Line. Adds authenticity to setting. I’ve never been to London, so I couldn’t tell you if there actually is a Northern Line, but it sounds real, and that makes the author and, in turn her narrator, sound like she knows what she’s talking about.

TOFGB:

  • Friday. Establishes that it’s the end of a long, hard week.
  • Hastings Channel 8. Establishes that the narrator works for a TV station in “Hastings”. The problem I have with “Hastings” is that it’s meaningless. Unlike London, I don’t get an immediate picture when I hear the word, and, in fact, I assume that it’s fictional. Just “Channel 8” or the “local TV station” would have worked here.
  • Friday. —
  • Hyundai. Establishes that the narrator drives an economy car that she doesn’t maintain, but is the brand of the car important? My “crappy car” or my “crappy hatchback” would probably work just as well.
  • 7-Eleven. Establishes that the narrator purchases her morning coffee at a convenience store, despite the fact she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Probably means she gets up too late to make her own coffee (or that she doesn’t know how). Probably also means that she’s too broke to purchase a better cup of coffee at a coffeeshop. All good. But again, brand-name isn’t really important. “Cheap convenience store coffee” would have worked as well.
  • Mother Teresa. Pop culture reference, used as shorthand to mean a good person.
  • Hastings Gas & Electric. Establishes the little guy / Big Guy dynamic. Meant to ally the reader with the narrator. A proper name makes it easier to refer to later on. But it also implies that the town has its own independent electric utility—which makes me wonder how big a “Big Guy” it can be.
  • Whittle Advertising. Establishes that narrator lost her advertising job (and now has a job she hates) because of someone else’s mistake. The name of the agency doesn’t really add anything (it is the name of the narrator’s former boss), but it makes it easier to refer to later.
  • Mother Teresa. —
  • Pencil Face. A nickname the narrator has given the defense lawyer. Meant to further ally the reader with the narrator. This can be effective in moderation.
  • HG&E. —

These two excerpts have approximately the same number of words, but the TROE excerpt consists of 16 sentences (longest sentence: 28 words), while the TOFGB excerpt consists of just 8 sentences (longest sentence: 51 words). I don’t know if that’s typical of the literary/mainstream divide–obviously I’d have to look at more examples to say for sure–but I thought it was striking.

To be continued…

Cheese Puffs, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

I had been opening The Rules of Engagement and reading random passages. Writing this post got me thinking about the concrete differences between litfic and fluff. I usually chalk it up to intangibles and had never really sat down and analyzed what it is that sets them apart. But as I sat there, I realized I had a self-described (by the author) chick lit book that I could look at. (I picked it up this summer because of a six-degrees thing w/ the author–she once paid my writing a compliment that I’ve never forgotten.)

So. This is the opening of The Rules of Engagement:

Lux was coming. Already she was somewhere in the wide expanse of London. My awareness of her presence unsettled me vaguely. Sometimes, before she flew into visit, I dreamed strange dreams. Like a breeze, she stirred up things.

Midafternoon, I rode the Northern Line home to meet her and stared at the people scrunched on the surrounding banks of seats. Across the aisle, a man in aviator shades sat sketching in a notebook–I wondered if wearing dark glasses in the underground made the world easier to draw. Another man, sweating profusely, clutched a tabloid paper without reading it. Beside him, a woman in a golden sari clamped two polythene bags of groceries between her feet. Out of curiosity, I tried to imagine how each would look transformed by anger. How would the soft, relaxed line of the first man’s lips contort, or the sad-eyed desolation of the second man’s face, or the woman’s dreamy distraction? I studied the first man’s hands, dark fingers grasping a pencil, the thick wales of ruddy skin over the other man’s knuckles. The woman’s fingers were laced and folded over the pleats of cloth in her lap. I wondered what violence each was capable of and what was the worst act of violence they had committed in their lives so far. Had any of them ever punched someone, or drawn blood? If so, how did they explain their actions to themselves?

Okay, so the interesting (fortuitous?) thing is that the story opens with Catherine Bush’s narrator contemplating whether any of her seatmates have ever punched someone.

Well. Lani Diane Rich’s Time Off For Good Behavior starts with her narrator actually punching someone. At least, she tries. (Could I have picked a better comparison if I had done it on purpose? Ha!) The swing-and-miss actually comes a few pages in, so I skip a bit after the opening paragraphs:

The court date fell on the Friday of what had been a very bad week for me as an account executive at Hastings Channel 8. Any week in which you take people’s money and give them airtime is a bad week, but that week had been unusually degrading, seeing as I’d dropped my card off at more than thirty businesses and had, in no particular order, been screamed at, spit on, and called a bloodsucking leech.

On that Friday morning, I put runs in two separate pairs of panty hose, was forced to wake up my landlady so she could get her nephew in 2B to give my crappy Hyundai a jump, and stained my favorite skirt with cheap, 7-Eleven coffee. By the time the bailiff escorted me to the witness stand, I was already in a bad mood and would have been snippy with Mother Teresa. As it was, the defense lawyer representing the sleazeballs at Hastings Gas & Electric, who were responsible for the explosion three years ago that destroyed Whittle Advertising and nearly killed me, was definitely not Mother Teresa.

I almost heard it, the pop and hiss as my fury erupted. I pulled my arm back and swung at Pencil Face [the defense lawyer]. He’d turned to glance at his sleazy HG&E guys, so he didn’t see me coming.

To be continued…

Sometimes I want to chow down on a sack of Cheese Puffs…

…but that doesn’t mean they have nutritional value (Part 1)

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I was a bad feminist for pointing out that chick lit treats women like they’re stupid. (Bookslut)

Women’s studies, my ass (Maud Newton)

On the one hand, I respect a person’s right to write and read fluff. It sells. People enjoy reading it. Cool. I used to read Judith Krantz. What of it?

But on the other hand, the implication that it’s anything more than what it is bugs. It might be an entertaining story, a good yarn, as they used to say. But it’s not literature. Literature isn’t obsessed with shoes.

I was having a hard time getting started on my NaNo and I remembered a book I read earlier this year (The Rules of Engagement by Catherine Bush). I thought reading a page or two might inspire me because, as I recalled, it had a style/tone similar to what I was trying to achieve. Anyhow, one of the back cover review quotes says, in part: “As any fine novel should, it raises more questions than it answers…”

Yes.

A literary work is contemplative. The writer thinks about things, which means the narrator/protagonist thinks about things, which in turn makes the reader think about things. It’s a dialogue, a conversation, because it requires the reader to actively work to fill in what the writer has left unsaid. Because of this, two people who read the same book might be left with very different impressions of what it means.

A fluffy book doesn’t require thinking. In fact, thinking too much spoils the effect of the fluffy book, because it usually exposes inconsistencies or flaws in the narrative. With a fluffy book, the writer tells the reader a story. There is no ambiguity as to what it is about. It’s meant to be entertaining, fun, “an escape,” just like a summer movie or a cheesy soap.

Not-thinking is the entire point of fluffy books! Thus, it’s oxymoronic to claim that they are substantial works that actually make a statement about something.

To be continued…