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Chapter 3: Macro/Micro Critting

July 15, 2011

What you may have missed:

The preface, “How This Critter Crits,” was a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory.  Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.  The second installment, “Why This Critter Crits,”explored the reason why I chose “crit” and “critter” over “review” and “reviewer”.  The answer may surprise you.

There is a chuckle or two in each.  Combined, you’d be looking at only 5 minutes reading time.  Personally, I’ve found them to be abundantly entertaining bathroom reading.  But then, you may not have your computer in your bathroom.  So, that should be your first priority – unless you want to print them out.

So … with crits held high, let’s proceed.

MACRO/MICRO CRITTING

(The Nuts and Bolts in the Road Where the Rubber Meets)

One of the weekend activities my wife and I enjoy is going to open houses.  I can almost hear some of you, out there, saying, “Get a life, Jay!”  Well, despite your sarcasm, we do find it entertaining.  I have my ever-present mug of Starbucks in the cup holder, and next to it sits Roseana’s 44-ouncer of diet Coke we picked up from McDonalds along the way.  You can’t drive two miles without coming across a Starbucks or a McDonalds, so our containers are never empty.  And, those establishments always have restrooms, so our bladders are never entirely full.  Add to that an air conditioner blasting out frigid air during Bakersfield, California’s blistering summers, and a heater that keeps our feet toasty during the winters, when the temperature dips way down into the thirties or even the twenties (which is rare because, well, this is California), and you have the recipe for a perfect Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Could life be any sweeter when you have with you the woman you’ve loved for forty years, your beverage of choice at hand, a controlled environment inside, and outside a city of two hundred and fifty thousand, with a labyrinth of streets to explore for that elusive one-in-a-million home you can’t live without?

Of course, we will live without it.  You see, we have no intention of buying.  We are anathema to realtors.  We stand proud, thumbing our noses at them.  We are lookey-loos.  Understand us, Critters, and love us … in spite of it.

According to our newspaper, there’s an open house over on the next block.

As we pull up to the curb, I notice the drapes pull apart just a little, then settle back.  Behind those drapes, feet would be now scurrying about, a blur of hands, picking up clutter, tidying countertops; parents telling the kids to stay in their rooms and be quiet.

The homeowners might well be wasting their time.  See, we don’t know, yet, whether we’ll even go in.  There are other important considerations.

“Look at those.”  I am referring – with an inclination of my head first right, then left — to the houses on either side.  The one on the right is in obvious disrepair.  Plywood covers one window, like a patch over an eye.  The stucco is leprous.  The grass is uncut, weedy; trees are untrimmed, with their branches hanging over onto the roof.  An engine-gutted pick-up is hunkered in the dirt, off to the side.

“Behold, my love, the Bakersfield hillbillies before striking the bubbling crude.”  I am thinking out loud.

“Now, Mr. Drysdale … aren’t you being a bit of a snob?”

I frown.  No one wants to be called a snob.  I direct my attention to the house on the other side.  It is exquisitely cared for, but has been painted a gaudy pink with powder-blue fascia and shutters.  The window coverings are white and lacey and corseted to the window frames.  A miniature pink picket fence, not more than a foot tall, lines the walkway to the door.  A two-foot-wide strip of blooming groundcover is on either side.  Okay, this is a gal house.  No poker night here.  No Monday Night Football.  I don’t voice this prejudice, though.  I dare not voice it.  In fact, I don’t say anything at all.  I just glance at Roseana, then away — but not until I see her grin start.

“You could always ask her if she’ll let her husband come over and watch the game with you.”  It’s uncanny how she follows my thought processes.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I say.  But, then I have to smile.

She finishes the last of her diet Coke and sets the cup in the holder.  “Let’s go for it.”

“Let’s,” I answer, and I push open the car door.

Ascending the steps to the long sidewalk leading to the front door, I turn my attention to the house itself.  It sits far back on a large expanse of lawn.  It would require a lot of upkeep.  Rose bushes have been cropped down below the huge picture window.  But the rosebushes won’t stay below the window.  And thorns prick, even through gloves, when you cart the cut stems to the trash.

Still and all, the house, itself, has good structure, good bones.  Its stucco finish has been painted a pale yellow, with a brighter yellow framing the windows and the eaves.  Nothing screams out, “Look at me!  Look at me!”

Before we get to the front door, allow me to issue a challenge:

Take me away from Roseana, the beverages, the car with all its comfort features and remove me entirely from that neighborhood, (knowing I’ll be back to join my lovely wife before the front door opens).  Further, allow me to preserve not only the memory of this house, but also all aspects of the houses on either side, including all my prejudicial baggage, then plop me down in front of my computer, cranked up to the “Start Reviewing” screen on FanStory.  What do we have?

We kind of have — I say, kind of have — my personal model for macro critting (and, I trust that if you didn’t make careful note that “my,” back there, was italicized, you’ll go back now and check it out.  We’ll wait….)

When I double click on “Start Reviewing,” it means I’ve already answered in my mind a critical question: “Do I have enough time to do a decent job critting a piece of writing that is very important to one of my colleagues?  Am I rested enough and in the right frame of mind? 

These are important considerations.  Roseana and I choose weekends to house hunt, so we’ll be relaxed.  And, we wouldn’t think of beginning at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the signs start coming down at 5:00.  And, why would we go hunting at all if we weren’t in the mood for it?  It would be too much like work, like a job, wouldn’t it?  Likewise, we critters wouldn’t click on a story or poem after we’d had a run-in with our boss (or spouse) earlier today, and risk the replaying of our acrimonious conversation being superimposed on the lines we are reading.  We wouldn’t, would we?  Well, would we?

But wait!  You only have two “member cent pumps” and $3.42 in member dollars in your stash, and the story you promoted yesterday is already starting to make that greased descent.  You need to pump some life in it, and you need to do it now.  You need to pump … it … up ….  I guess it’s up to each of us, individually, to deal with that dilemma.

So the first consideration is: do I have enough time and am I in the right mindset to do justice to another’s pride and joy?

            Assuming I can answer “yes” to both, I do a double click on “Start Reviewing,” and check out what’s next on the queue.  It happens to be “Spiritual Poetry,” and with it, the next consideration I have to face.

I bring back to mind the Clampets’ hovel and Barbie’s precious domicile.  And, I ask myself, do I have similar Spiritual prejudices, as well, on the surface, or lurking beneath it?  More basically, do I have poetry prejudices?  And, more basically, still, do I have the skills to adequately crit poetry, particularly the more formalized, rhymed and metered variety?

In reality, I won’t have to dredge for an answer to each of those questions.  Rather, from my emotional center the answer will come of itself with a resounding “Yes!  Yes!”  Or it will be a “Yuk!”  If it is a “Yuk,” now is not the time, nor is this the place, to begin a program of poetry appreciation — not at the expense of the poem in question.  Save education for another day.  Okay, Jay, double click on “Next.”

“But, wait,” I might stall.  “Poems are usually short.  There’s a twenty-five percent chance I’ll get a member pump.  I can read and crit three or four poems in the time it would take for one prose piece — and give me better odds at getting my prize.  And, simply by reading them, I’ll even get better at understanding.  I’ll learn, and while I learn, I’ll be generous with my crits … and in the meantime, five or six additional pumps could be mine.”

Don’t you even consider that brand of logic, Jay!  Double friggin click on “Next.”

I do.  And, of course I’ll do it again and again, as long as I’m being honest with myself, as long as I ask myself the tough questions about each choice that pops up.  Do I have a bias against romance stories?  How about a predisposition against children’s literature?  Or, this: am I prejudiced against a particular short story which warns me that my ears are about to be scorched by the language the writer promises to use, and that he will provide, free of charge, a bevy of sweaty, naked bodies writhing on the floor emitting animal sounds?  I may even have to admit to an unseen judge that I am over eighteen.  Oh, my!

But you get the idea…

As a critter, don’t we need to stand outside the story or the poem, the script or the essay for a spell?  We’ve got the time.  We’re in the right frame of mind.  So, now, don’t we need to sit at the curb for a moment, as it were, to scan the environment, to look left and right at the surroundings?  Shouldn’t each one of us seek for the answer to the question: “What will my comfort level be in this neighborhood?  And, if I’m not comfortable here – yet choose to stay here — am I liable to treat my neighbors unfairly?”

Let’s assume I’ve found the neighborhood I can be comfortable in.  I make my selection of what I want to crit.  It’s a crime novel.  What’s next?  I start reading, right?

Well … not quite.  Not when I’m in the Macro part of the Macro/Micro critting system.  I’ll have plenty of time for reading it.  In fact, by taking not much more than a minute now, I should be able to make the reading go more rapidly and enjoyably — and, more importantly, I might do a better job of helping the writer strengthen his piece.  And bonus time!  By focusing on the elements of effective writing, how can I help but improve my own writing skills?

As a fellow critter, let me ask you a question.  If I were to hand you a Tom Robbins novel to read, after thanking me profusely, would you sit down, grab a beverage, open the novel up to chapter fifteen and start reading?  Of course not.  But, why not?  That’s what many writers on FanStory expect you to do when you select a chapter of their novel to read.

So, let’s say the selection I have chosen to look at (to decide whether or not I’ll crit) is chapter seventeen of a crime/thriller novel.  By now, most characters are well developed, a few are killed off, and the story line has taken many twists and turns.  What, then, should the writer expect of me as a critter?  And what expectations should I — what expectations should we, fellow critters — have of the writer?

This is a good place to ask you to hold that question in mind.  The next segment is just around the corner.  In it I’ll be wrapping up macro critting.  We’ll explore together the overall structure of the selection, we’ll weigh it, measure it, check out it’s thickness – still trying to decide whether it’s something we want to devote our time to.

So, until then, keep writing, keep critting.

And, if you happen to see Roseana, tell her I love her and I’ll see her before long.  She’ll be the one on the walkway between the front door and our car — the one with the bewildered look on her face.  Alas!  She seems to have lost her husband!  He was there just a moment before ….

Pssst!  You made it this far so why not pop over to the right-hand side bar and subscribe to my FREE newsletter?  Until I get other people to voluntarily rave about it, I’m gonna have to be the first one you’ll read as saying: “Jay’s newsletter’s a hoot!” and “Chock-full of writing tips, it’s information rich, while entertaining and funny!” and “You’re gonna wanna jump aboard before Jay discovers how great it truly is and starts charging a huge subscription fee!”

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