A New Year’s Resolution Every Writer Must Make: Beyond the Handshake – The Necessary Third, Fourth and Even Fifth Read

In Little Debauches, Writer as Critic, Writer’s Rituals on December 28, 2010 at 8:26 am

So very important in constructing a writer’s own work is the deconstruction of another. For a writer to really know her craft backwards and forward, she is expected to read, read, and re-read. At some point in a writer’s maturation, she’ll have to understand the necessity and ritual practice of repeat reads. If she wants to study her craft structurally, track pacing, closely observe scene construction, and chart the constant shuffling between narration and exposition, she has to read a work more than once, and, for serious study, at least three times.

Our first read, generally, allows for a sweeping vista of the forest, when we read again, only then do we start to perceive the trees. Repeat reads are critical for surveying the machinations of a story. When we revisit a story, we’re able to really break down a text scene by scene and understand not what each scene, chapter, and part means but how they all work in concert.

Of course, re-reading for the novice may seem bothersome. There’s so many other books out there, and we have so little time on this watery globe, but the most seasoned writers are the most dedicated readers, and dedicated readers don’t fight or fuss. They love their favorites and will return to them like a good friend, a wise mentor, and a ray of light for what is most often a dark and lonely path.

While re-reading, we chase the following aims:

  • How do scenes and chapters build?
  • How many scenes are in a chapter?
  • Which chapters are short and why?
  • Which chapters are long and why?
  • How many  chapters in a novel?
  • Where does the plot climax?
  • Where is the character’s arc?
  • How do the scenes and chapters shift between slow action and fast action?
  • Note the word count and count pages, to follow the writer’s pacing. (Generally a manuscript page is 500-700 words, depending on dialogue)
  • How does the author release tension only to introduce a new form of tension or rekindle an old conflict that might have been abandoned five chapters ago?
  • Where are the minor transitions in the story? Why are they placed there? Do they work for the story as a whole?
  • Where are the major transitions in the story? Why are they placed there?
  • How and where do the characters evolve or devolve in the story? Make a time-line of word count and track the progress or digress.
  • What gets narrated? Why? How much narration?
  • Where does the author detract from the original story? How does the meandering work in context to the plot?
  • What’s left to exposition? Why? How long?
  • What details are added to the exposition? How do they work for the main action?

Surveying the careful scaffolding on the author’s part requires a completely different kind of reading than we’ve been taught in an undergraduate lit class. Usually we tend to focus on characterization, understanding text and author under a socio-economic and philosophical lens. Why did they write this? Under what context? What does this scene mean? On second and third reads,  we need to see a story as a film director would, implementing the means and ways of a story-boarder, a composer, and a surgeon. This kind of detection takes training as a reader, a lot of training. You have to know what you’re looking for, which means asking the right questions. The answers certainly won’t be discovered on the first read, and you’re probably just scratching the surface with the second read. A dedicated craft-worker will plow through her work dozens if not hundreds of time before sending out a manuscript. Why would we not apply the same practice to our most favorite novels? Rosemary Graham, in her fiction workshops at Saint Mary’s College of California requires that each student, before beginning their written critique, include a summary of the story, so that students learn to investigate the architecture of a text. So how do we begin to uncover the scaffolding of a work?

  • How does the author conceive their work structurally?
  • Is the structure sound enough to withstand the story and characters its trying to support and house?
  • Where does the story need more foundation?
  • More buttressing?
  • Is it too tight or not tight enough its construction?

Character and plot, that’s all our gray matter can manage on a first read. We’re basically shaking hands with the author and getting a preliminary glance at her universe, but looking at a text anatomically, seeing its skeletal makeup, getting under the skin to follow the framework, that’s a surgeon’s work, and surgery takes practice. Before we can even pick up a scalpel and cut into the skin, we have to know what we’re looking for.


Considering Your Critiques

In Little Debauches, Writer as Critic on July 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

An excellent rubric saved from graduate school at Saint Mary’s College of California’s Fiction, Creative Writing Program, originally distributed in either Julie Orringer or Rosemary Graham’s workshop. (Please forgive me dear mentors. It was at least five years ago when I received this. Any MFA’ers who are reading this who might remember, please correct me.)

  • Consider the author’s intentions (dramatic, thematic, etc.) for the piece. In what ways did the author succeed in fulfilling this project?
  • Specify which areas need to further developed or reconsidered in order to accomplish the author’s goals.
  • Discuss how the elements of craft function in the piece. Is point of view effectively used? Does the plot provide the drama necessary to sustain the story?
  • What are the external and internal dramas of the story? How do they work together in the story?
  • What were the strongest points/aspects of the story, the areas that helped you understand and appreciate the author’s project?
  • What questions does the draft raise–in terms of logic, drama, theme, etc.–that the author should be aware of?
  • Comment on how language operates in story. What are the identifiable trends, patterns, and qualities to the writing, and how do they lend themselves (or perhaps undermine) the project at hand?
  • What are the thematic possibilities of the story? Should elements of craft (point of view, plot, dialogue, etc.) be considered with respect to the possible themes of the work?
  • These are merely some questions to help you structure your critiques. Some of them you may address, others you may not. Regardless of how you approach your critique, keep in mind that the objective is to help the author accomplish what she has set out to do with their fiction, by identifying what is successful, under-developed, and questionable about the work-in-progress, and by addressing issues of craft, drama, theme, etc.
  • And of course, be respectful and courteous in your critiques. You’re not approaching these letters as reviewers, but as fellow writers working to fulfill a common goal–good fiction.

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