Good Critic, Bad Critic
Last time I talked about dealing with the destructive inner critic, so I thought that today it might be worth mentioning that it’s not really a good idea to silence or ignore all the criticisms that float through your head. Some of them come from the useful critic, the one you definitely want to listen to. It’s not hard to distinguish them. The Bad Critic makes statements that are usually personal attacks, and are always designed to silence you. The Good Critic asks questions that spark ideas and help you improve the story.
There are lots of checklists of questions to ask yourself, but I don’t find these terribly useful. I prefer to take a step back from the story and see what floats into my head when I try to read it as a stranger might; when I sense a weakness in what I’ve written or recognize an old stumbling-block. A lot of them are things you might expect to hear from beta readers, but I don’t believe in counting on beta readers to fix problems I can catch for myself. Here, then, are some things I might hear from the Good Critic during the journey from initial idea to finished draft.
What’s the protagonist’s main problem? Uh-huh. Think you could let the reader know about it on the first page, before all the atmosphere and description and snappy dialogue?
I know this is a weak point for me, so the GC starts whispering in my ear even before the first draft, while I’m still playing around with the plot ideas. I tend to start with the protagonist in a state of equilibrium, have something happen that knocks him off his perch, and make his main problem be the scramble to regain his previous life. That’s not necessarily terrible, but it’s a whole lot easier to write opening paragraphs – not to mention blurbs – if I can start with the protagonist already in trouble. At a minimum, I want him to start in unstable equilibrium.
At least you could foreshadow the problem!
Yeah, yeah, all right already. I’ll work on that when I clean up the first draft, okay?
That’s a beautiful chapter ending, but I’m afraid you’ll lose your reader here. The immediate problem has been resolved and you haven’t clearly signaled that the deeper problem remains. Is there anything you can do to keep up the tension?
That’s something I’m constantly asking myself, both in the plotting stage and while writing; frequently it helps me to place chapter breaks. My go-to solutions are: close the chapter on a cliff-hanger, foreshadow a problem or conflict that the readers – but not the protagonist- can see coming, promise the solution to a minor mystery they’ve been wondering about, or (in emergency) do a variation on “Had I But Known.” And the GC thinks I overuse that last one.
That’s a snappy bit of dialogue, but don’t you think the characters sound too much alike? Isn’t the protagonist’s BFF copying too many of the protagonist’s mannerisms? Maybe you need to spend more time thinking out the characters – if they’re not real to you, how real will they be to your readers?
This isn’t always a problem, but when it is, I like to catch it early. The major characters need to have their own voices and personal styles, and the sooner I get that clear, the less rewriting I’ll need to do. Sometimes the GC suggests that I take a break from writing the first draft to write a paragraph or a page of free association about a character. Again, I don’t find canned character check lists helpful here; what works best for me is to pretend I’m writing a letter introducing this character to a friend, and just see what comes up. Usually there’s a lot I “know” about the character that I hadn’t yet verbalized, and seeing that knowledge written out helps me to keep subsequent dialogue and actions appropriate.
Does this bit of exposition really have to be in the first chapter, or can it be dropped in later?
While I’ve touched on the desirability of getting a problem out front as early as possible, this particular question is one I don’t even worry about until I’ve finished the first draft. I tend to write very long first chapters, throwing in all sorts of things I know about my protagonist, his backstory, his interests, his current situation, other characters, the setting – you name it. After the first draft is finished I generally have a much clearer idea of what the reader needs to know when, and that’s when I go back and perform major surgery on the opening chapters, either cutting out parts and pasting them into later chapters, or deleting them entirely. And if I forget to do that… well, the GC helpfully reminds me.
Isn’t the pace here a bit too leisurely? This is a beautiful description of a luxurious resort, and your protagonist deserves the break. But how can you make sure the readers don’t get so relaxed that they close the book and wander off to do something more exciting? Do you think maybe some of that lovely, evocative description could be cut?
This is the kind of question that comes up while I’m reading through the first draft. Unlike the Bad Critic, the Good Critic can be exquisitely tactful about suggesting changes. Sometimes I think she learned from the editors I had in my traditional publishing career, some of whom were so tender of authors’ sensitive feelings that I used to pray they would quit lavishing praise on the bits they liked and get to what they wanted me to change.
You’ve certainly stepped up the pace. Bravo! But you know, there’s such a thing as writing too fast. We’re going from crisis to crisis so quickly that there’s no time to relax and enjoy one episode before we’re plunged into the next one!
When this comment surfaces right after the previous one, I do tend to get sulky and mutter, “What, you want me to be perfect?”
“Yes, of course,” says the Good Critic, smirking slightly.