Moving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.
Hi, Graham and Morten,
- Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
- The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
- Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
- I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.
All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.
It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)
The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.
Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.
One of the exercises I assign to many of my writing classes goes like this:
Imagine a popular film was actually a story or novel submitted to this workshop. Write a critique, using the guidelines I’ve set out for workshopping. This is your chance to say: “Dear Joss, I’ve had a chance to review your story ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and…”
It’s a fun exercise, and spawns lots of conversations about films and about critiquing.
Now I’m trying to generate a few examples to go with the exercise. I asked my social media followship to help me choose a film that would work well. I got great answers, but ended up deciding there wasn’t a single one-movie-fits-all answer that met all my teaching needs. Now I’m breaking the task into sections.
Critique in a lot of workshops, mine include, starts with the portion of the process where you say what is working with a particular piece. Here’s my handy sample for that:
…for example, if I wanted to write a critique of a novel called Die Hard, by a couple of guys named Steve and Jed, I might say:
-There’s no doubt that this is John McClane’s story–he’s the guy with both an internal conflict and a goal. The former is his struggle to accept his wife’s independence, and the fact that she has struck out on her own. The external struggle, of course, is the one which occupies most of the story–his fight with the thieves in Nakatomi Plaza.
-The tone you set in this piece is nicely balanced. The action moves along and we’re never bored. The bad guys seem genuinely dangerous, especially Hans Gruber, and yet the humorous moments play well.
-John’s very much a guy of the Eighties and his uneasy and incomplete concessions to feminism reflect that attitude. Held to the standards of the present day, he doesn’t seem that enlightened; it may be that this story doesn’t score perfectly on that front either. But we are looking at something that’s set about thirty years ago. And I think it’s praiseworthy that Holly Gennaro isn’t there merely to motivate John in his fight against Gruber and company. She stands up to Gruber, and works hard to keep a lid on a terrifying situation, thereby protecting the other hostages while hiding her true identity from the thieves.
-Your use of Holly’s last name as a plot device is especially brilliant. It’s a bone of contention between John and Holly. Because they’re fighting about it, it’s already on our radar as Gruber tries to figure out who is causing him such problems and whether he might have any leverage on John. This is a classic example of a story element that works on more than one level.
What you should all notice about this is that I’m not just saying what I like–I’m going into as much detail as I can about why it works.
I’ll be doing this for other elements of critique, including things that don’t work in some other movie.
Caitlin Sweet has tagged me and Kelly in the Writer Process Blog Tour, and posted her answers to the questions in that meme here. (She was tagged by Peter Watts, incidentally).
I will provide answers, but being tagged reminded me that 1) I’m trying to channel my inner Gomez Addams by finishing old business before jumping into new;
and 2) I’ve been working up a post about the things we writers post to the Internet about writing.
These essays tend to fall into a number of categories.
Write, Sell, Lather, Rinse, Repeat
– How to write more.
– How to write better.
– How to get your more better writing published.
– What traditional publishing is like.
– What self-publishing is like.
– Whether to go traditional, Indy, or hybrid.
– Stuff happening in publishing and how it benefits or harms writers.
– How to promote your work: how to sell it to people.
Writing lifestyle stuff
– To have a day job or not.
– To write in a cafe or not.
– Just plain finding the time.
– Also in this category is all the material about the emotional journey. That means things like coping with rejection, coping with success or failure, supportive versus unsupportive spouses (children, parents, gerbils, etc.), your first fan letter, good bad and ugly reviews, writers’ block. Anything you have feelings about.
– My genre is like this, your genre is like that.
– This particular story is categorized as one thing, but is actually another.
– These genres are basically the same but are marketed to different people.
– Actual academic analysis of the work.
– Books, shows, games, gadgets and other media that we think is cool. Sometimes we even talk about how well-written the stuff is.
History of writing
– How Leon de Tocqueville got it done and the Marquis de Sade’s editorial relationship with his… never mind.
Politics of writing
– Sexism, Racism, ablism, and other issues: on the page, in the community, and within fandom.
– Writing that promotes a political agenda in some way.
– Writers who are politically active and whether/how/when/why that’s appropriate.
Health safety and wellness
– Writing desks short and tall.
– Food or exercise issues.
– Writing through illness.
– Technological assists.
– Why we should all have kittens.
The reason I’m thinking about all of the above is that it makes me wonder I am wondering what we don’t talk about. Are there uncomfortable and difficult topics we should be addressing online? Would our readers and/or new writers be interested?
If so, what are those topics?
It is often hard for me to guess which of my various social media posts will end up garnering much in the way of response. Friday, I decided to to check a minor detail about beard shaving while I was writing. I status updated a query to the webs: Do you shower first or shave? Does that change in a crisis?
On Twitter, I got some pretty quick, straightforward answers. It was clear that this is a matter of preference and sometimes of technology (whether you use an electric razor affects the before/after equation. I assume that at least half of you know this from experience, but some of it was news to me, so I share anyway.
Over on Facebook, on the other hand, there was some whimsical imagining among my female relatives, fantasies involving a big shower full of shaving dudes. Then people showed up–most of them guys–to debate the fine points. What kind of crisis? They wanted to know. Would you even bother shaving if things were going pear-shaped? Someone even asked if it might be the kind of crisis where you wanted to be especially manly, by which he meant unwashed and a bit smelly and unkempt.
Now there’s something I hadn’t considered at all.
The thread ran to a hundred or so comments, all for a slightly odd and very short project that I am working on while I wait on some notes on the second Hidden Sea book. It was a fun thread, and it drove home a general principle about writing and research: a lot of the tiny details you include in your work might only pass if they go by fast, if readers don’t have a chance to examine them.
Case in point: I probably could’ve dropped the reference to shaving into the piece without another thought, and had a 99% chance nobody would say boo. But when you put the detail under the microscope, questions emerge. Tom, the guy in the scene, is fifteen, not necessarily an age where a man will have to shave every day unless he’s especially hirsute. There’s a girl in the mix, and a small part of Tom’s mind is attuned to the possibility of impressing her. The idea that a girl might like him is a far more appealing thing to contemplate than the family member he’s been visiting in hospital.
If we thought about every tiny detail in our work to this degree, it’s a fair bet that most novels would take ten years to write. But it’s also important, especially if you are at a remove or two from your characters, to occasionally poke into our assumptions about how it all works. These are the small things we can sometimes get wrong. When we do, we can render our work unconvincing to a significant chunk of our readership.
I’m not saying launch a 100-post thread on Facebook every time your characters make a minor decision.
Back when I begged you all to throw me some blog topics, the ever-hilarious Lorraine Valestuk said: “Why does practically every lead in a fantasy novel have to have green eyes?”
The query was a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously, and since the question originated on Facebook, it generated chatter in a similar vein. Some laid the blame at Marion Zimmer Bradley’s doormat; I assume that means Mists of Avalon is overrun with green-eyed girls, boys and dragons, but I’m not about to reread it to confirm this guess.
This is the kind of question that showcases how completely I am not a doctor of literature, fantastic or otherwise. But the conversation did spark some thoughts.
First, and perhaps uncharitably: at least it’s not frickin’ violet. As a teacher who works with a lot of new writers, I’m here to tell you that it hasn’t been that long since every quarter brought me a manuscript whose heroine had violet eyes and, sometimes, sparkly diamond eyelashes. Maybe a memo went out, though, because this particular means of making the hero tres exotique seems to have died down.
Second: Describing your characters in an interesting and vivid fashion can be deceptively tough. A lot of writers look for that quick shot, the combo of words that will sketch body size, hair/eye color, and skin tone onto the reader’s imagination. Looks aren’t important, right, as long as we know she’s not only a super-amazing nuclear physicist (slash ninja) but also hot? And so we figure we’re done.
A problem with giving a mug shot is that it can get repetitive in a novel with a dozen or more characters.
We have eyes everywhere! Compounding this challenge is the fact that we want to drag the eyes into the narrative a lot… especially during character interaction.
Tears clustered at the ends of Mary’s diamond lashes, framing her violet irises magnificently. “How can you say that?”
“Try me!” Joey’s emerald eyes flashed a challenge.
Burt gave them both a sidewise glance, rolled his eyes, and then looked skyward, beseeching the author to stop with the cheesy examples already.
Pro tip: try using a metaphor. Even “Harry was a rhinocerous of a man,” will give us something specific to imagine, far more easily than, “Harry was tan, burly, blue-eyed and had a truly epic nose.”
Thought four: our default assumptions about beauty are, among other things, racist.
One of those leaps of logic we make without thinking about it, when writing, tends to be that our main characters are physically attractive, especially if they’re women. If you’ve already already decided that your good guys are pretty–even though there is, perhaps, no good reason to drag a person’s looks into the story–it’s easy, so terribly easy, to not even question whether they might be a person of pallor.
Green and blue eyes, unless you specify otherwise, are going to default in a reader’s mind to white-skinned and possibly blonde, just as surely as the phrase ‘my moustache’ is going to lead us to think ‘dude’ or ‘itchy fangs’ is gonna take us to ‘creepy, diseased vampire in need of a dentist’.
Do an image search for green-eyed actresses and you get people like Drew Barrymore. They’re white, their yellow hair is straight, they tend to be tall and–lest we forget–they’re also thin.
This isn’t a new insight, I know. And I’m not saying every writer who pops a pair of sparkling emerald orbs in their protagonist’s skull, rounding out the chiseled cheekbones and flawless complexion–no, make that a light dusting of freckles!–is being racist. But writers should at least examine where these impulses are coming from. Why is your resourceful, brilliant and downright saintly hero also naturally gorgeous? Is that necessary?
If it is, how narrowly are you defining gorgeous?
When you cast your mind ahead to the blockbuster film that will be made from your book–when you imagine casting the cinematic extravaganza that will win you an Oscar and make you richer than… well, richer than at least twelve other people… how diverse is the actor palette you’re imagining? This may be a question worth examining.
If the answer makes you uneasy, maybe you should take a breath, go read James Alan Gardner’s Expendable, and rethink those green eyes.