When I was still a boy wrapped in a mansized body I had an opportunity to spend the best part of a summer in Prague. Having grown up on the US/Mexico border, and then gone to school in Tucson, this was my first stay of length in a city of girth, and depth. Not to disparage the Old Pueblo, but Tucson is very much a town that just kept swelling without growing. Prague, well, Prague is something else.
What can I say about my summer in Prague? Too much, and not enough. I fell in love with architecture and food. I got introduced to cheap coffee and cheaper beer. I spent a morning at the Cathedral of Life marveling at the soaring arches and meticulous glass, and then spent the afternoon watching tourists take selfies laying on the blood stained blocks where the executions were held at Terezin.
The man I am today was born there on the side of the Charles River, beneath a twilight that stretched until midnight, as I asked someone I respected what ten books he would choose if stranded in isolation for eternity.
This person was a youth pastor, getting a doctorate, and spoke with the kind of insight and conviction I could only emulate, not embody. The hypothetical was one of my favorites, because books were always easier for me than people, and this was a way to turn the conversation somewhere that I could contribute. As it happens, I had also just finished 1,000 book reading list given to me by the Librarians of Congress, and I was looking for new works to add to the list.
Most of the time, this game didn't produce new books for my list. Much of that might be due to social echoes, feedback loops from people so similar to one's self as to sound nearly the same, but some of it was also due to so many of the books mentioned having been on the fantastic list with which I began. The youth pastor in question mentioned two books I hadn't read, and the shape of my future twisted in the wake of his relevation.
The first book was written by Freidrich Nietzsche. Here, I am trying to write about my writing, not my relationship with the church, but Nietzsche crippled my belief in both. Of all that is written, he wrote, I love only that which is written in the writer's own blood. I couldn't write, in part, because I hadn't yet bled in way that really mattered, and had nothing to spill onto the page.
The second book was Joseph Campbell's Hero with Ten Thousand Faces.
Of the thousands of books I have read, a staggering majority have been fiction, maybe as many as nine out of every ten. I have always been comfortable with the shape of a story, the flirtatious opening scenes where you and the narrative get a feel for what the other is all about turning to plunge into waters deeper and faster before the twist sets your expectations on their ear, dailing up the excitement before the reveal clarifies the picture to frame the resoltion.
A good read is what I always hope my relationships will be like: enlightening, evocative, enthralling, and moving to closure from the very beginning.
Campbell opened my eyes to a thread of commonality running through the fabric of stories I loved, the common course of a hero's journey. Campbell also served as a bridge to Carl Jung, one of the many stones paving my way to the study of developmental psychology. Stories are characters in context, and psychology is the science of characterization.
I have spent my entire conscious life enraptured by story. I mean, everyone in my family grew up attached to books, a consequence of our parents' staunch stance against video games and television, which I appreciate more than I could say, in a literal sense, because I cannot even imagine a life where my first and greatest love was other than story. Story, though, is different from literature.
A book is often a story, sometimes a collection of stories, sometimes a part of a larger story. While pursuing my degree in psychology, I got an opportunity to get a little work as a contributing editor for a literary journal, which helped refine some of the ways that I thought about the cohesion between craft and concept that transforms a string of scenes into a work of literature.
I am still trying to find that balance in my own writing, as evidenced by my once posting on a community for authors providing feedback to other authors. Of course, as my luck would have it, this site closed shortly after I find it. I enjoyed it. In any event writing for that site helped refresh my critical reading skills, which I know offer upon application.
Part of the way the site worked is that my critical review of other author's works was be the currency by which I purchased a review of my own work. In addition to finally getting some feedback on my own work, I got the kind of editorial perspective from which I'd refined my writing in the first place, the idea feeling comfortable and familiar, if a little daunting. The feedback helped.
The short stories and plays I reviewed for the journal were constrained by a very modest word count range, allowing me to power through a half dozen in a sitting. A novel is a beast of a different order, as I discovered again and again in the order of writing one, and the critical consideration of a novel a further notable departure from reading for simple enjoyment. Enjoying a book is a different kind of reading than evaluating a book.
Thinking about my book over the last few years, I have realized that the hero's story, is not the story. The story includes the hero's story, but it needs more to become a story. I am going to outline four parts of story that I look to improve in my own work, and which I offer to look for opportunities to improve in the work of others. If you are considering reading my book and offering feedback, these four conceptual lenses might serve to help shift your focus from leisurely reading to critical reading. I am just going to give a brief description of the different aspects.
Where, when, and why does the story happen? Scifi and fantasy are often the product of just positing a context, and reducing it to the most absurd eventuality [reductio_ad_absurdum(posit(context))] where the absurdity of the reduction IS the why of the context.
Hugh Howey's Silo series is a fantastic recent example of this:
Swapping out contexts is also the easiest way to change the flavor of a story while leaving the character and conflict much the same, as the way Nicholas Sparks writes the same story over and over while just changing where/when for the romantic interests and cycling through every terminal illness as the why. A clear context involves a background for each significant character, a common foreground, and ties from each background into the conflict taking place in the shared foreground.
Who is the story about, and how do they change over the narrative? Change is the hero's journey, what Campbell emphasized and Ayn Rand ignored. This is about mistakes, and making different mistakes as the character learns from past failures. Much in the way individuation is the process by which we become the people we are going to be, character development is the process by which characters become who they are going to be. This means that they cannot START as a finished product, and cannot END as the clueless tyro that began the journey.
Quirk isn't character. Character is about decision making processes. Why does the character act they way they do? Is the action something they know they shouldn't do, but they lack the willpower? Does the character not know what they should be doing? Are they unaware of the consequences of their actions? A large part of developing characters is showing us the limits of the character's skill/knowledge early, and then allowing us to watch the character learn and then apply that knowledge.
Against whom/what are the characters thrust by their context? This is the story, and the narrative conflict, whatever conflict it might be, has own developmental arc, tangentially related to the character arc:
Craft is the technique of writing: pace, clarity, voice, word choices, themes, subtext, punctuation...
This is the least important part of story, but it is the part that we think about most often when considering 'criticism'. Craft is the difference between Tolkien and George RR Martin. One of them is canon, and writes with such power and grace that readers are compelled to grab someone to share a line or a phrase. I'll give you a hint, it isn't the one who got booted from his HBO series for an inability to craft a resolution to his sprawling meander of a narrative.
Many craft choices are stylistic: the voice for a children's novel is distinct from the voice of a literary adult fiction; Faulkner disregarded punctuation whenever he felt like it; shifting voice can change perspective and even context by shifting into retrospective; subtext transforms a story about chasing a whale into commentary on industrialization; pace can carry a reader into deeper waters before they realize that they don't know what is going on, allowing a more powerful reveal...
Craft is the artistry, the brushstrokes that make the painting. There are only so many characters and conflicts, it is the language that breathes life into a familiar narrative or setting.
Those are the four conceptual lenses by which I shift my focus from leisurely to critical reading, and I invite you to practice using them on novels on occasion. In general, I prefer to let stories take me with them on an adventure, which is why I will only turn my critical eye on works I've been hired to try to improve. If you know anyone who is looking for feedback on a literary work in progress, please feel free to point them in my direction, as I offer developmental and copy and line edits. Email me for my rates, which are hourly by word count of the manuscript.