The following is a group critique I did for my Small Group during the course of my MFA. I've excised names, but looking back over this I think the advice could resonate for any writer. Myself included. And remember, I've got just enough experience and expensive whiskey to be a danger to myself and those around me. Heh.
Each of you will be receiving your marked up pages with my indecipherable line notes and suggestions. I keep a copy, so if you ever feel the need for clarification I’ll be able to refer to the gibberish that graces your stories.
Something I’ve noticed after reading these submissions, and perhaps it’s been true for most of the previous submissions as well, and that is there’s a dearth of camera movement. Emotionally, as well as technically. It’s as though the writer’s mind’s eye is stuck at eye level twenty feet away, in a medium shot. Everything is described as you would see on a safe TV show. Every action, description or emotional reaction seems to have the same weight. A line or two, a few well chosen adverbs. We never seem to zoom in on an object, let alone an emotion. (And by “every”, I mean in a general, but dominant sense.)
A great technical example would be the opening to THE LOVE OF A WOMAN and the examination of the deceased opthamologist’s tool. It’s a bit more akin to Eastern filmmaking where one opens a movie or a scene on an object that resonates thematically. Western filmmakers have a tendency to open on the dreaded establishing shot. (A cityscape, the Brady house, the Seinfeld diner). Nothing is ominous, devastating, ornate or intricate. Everything seems to be given the same perfunctory muted weight. And this applies to emotions as well. And sometimes this is fine, as in a muted stabbing to death with a bagel knife (XXXXX, you gotta make that a bagel knife, not a bacon knife-- set-up, pay-off). That distancing has a chilling effect, but when the whole piece has that weight it tends to read cold. I feel like the stories are just going through their paces and I don’t mean that as hack pieces, because clearly there is some strong talent here-- please understand that.
What I don’t sense is an intention in the writing. A driving force. Or an emotional investment. It’s more of a so, that happened. Not the work of a writer with something to say, let alone an exploration of themes or meditation on larger issues. We seem to be for the most part plot/vignette driven. I for one would like to see some abstractness or dirty laundry hung on these plotlines. No one seems to be putting themselves out there. I don’t see any blood on the page. And like a shark, if I don’t sense blood, I’m not interested.
One of the first assignments I give in my playwriting and screenwriting classes and were I to teach fiction writing, I would do so as well, and that is to make a list of your deepest personal beliefs. It can be pages and pages or a list of sound bites. A list of human traits you admire, a list of traits you despise. What are some of the greatest things a human can do? The worst? Give examples. What were some of your darkest moments, your brightest. Your life motto. Now that they have that down on paper, they can mine it for their stories, characters, and structure to enhance and enrich their initial concepts. I mean, aren’t stories supposed to be vehicles for this? I’ve seen your math, pod-mates, I’d love to see your jazz.
And maybe these are pieces that are leading to something greater, maybe it’s the pressure of having adult lives and deadlines. And perhaps, I’m projecting. Perhaps, I could be guilty of the same thing in the early stages of The Fountain. Satire does retain a certain distance, but going forward I’m trying to be more cognizant of the emotional gravity of the piece. Something I confided to Pinckney back at Queens that this was my greatest fear for this project. I want the story to resonate emotionally. To have a heart. Some gravitas, as he suggested in my last critique. Not just, as XXXXXX put it, making fun of art and artists. I’m trying BJN, there’s a lot of blood and fear hidden in those pages.
Your friend of the Text,
David Scott Hay is the author of the postmodern literary novel FOUNTAIN* as well as two genre books Cloning Christ and FALL: The Last Testament of Lucifer Morningstar as DS Hay (clever, huh?).
He is also a Contributing Editor for Digital Americana Magazine.