This last Saturday I woke up at 4:40 am to attend the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop Zoom meeting – a critique group I used to be a part of 6 years ago, when I lived in Tokyo. I was invited back by my friend Matt Finn, was psyched, and blearily got all set up for the 5am start time at the dining table.
Only to find out I’d got the wrong day. D’oh! It was on Sunday. I went back to bed.
Sunday morning at 4:40am I woke up, went to the dining table, and set up for the call. This time I was bang on. There were a few familiar faces: Matt, John, Karen, Greg and a couple others I knew a little. There were 9 pieces to get through (down from 12!) which I’d read over the previous few days.
I’d submitted Saint Justice’s first 7500 words. Basically, Wren goes into the biker bar, gets beaten up, goes to Eustace, deals with Eustace. Their comments on this, especially coming in light of my recent concerns about Wren being unlikeable, were massively informative, and made me think I should do a critique group, or shell out for a full edit, more often.
Here are the revelations:
- Wren comes across as stupid. Why does he go into the bar and get beat up, if his plan is to infiltrate the gang? There’s got to be a better way. Now – this is not his plan, but if it comes over that way at all, it’s my problem.
- If his plan is just to get beat up, what makes him think he can survive? I’d for a long time thought this was a charm/unique point. The bikers are maybe a bit ineffectual. Wren is just really good at dodging. But this in turn makes the bikers look weak, Wren all-powerful, and adds to the feeling that he is a BULLY.
- If the bikers are really evil, they first need to show it. They are, after all, hardened racists. They are also killers and slavers. Someone made a good point – just one person needs to hit Wren with a crowbar, and he’s basically dead. Definitely broken bones. You can’t wriggle around that. And if they’re really bad-asses, why wouldn’t they do this? Why would they let him survive?
- Next – Wren constantly judges everyone. It’s inescapable for the reader, and can come across as sanctimonious. I thought it just came over wise and pithy, but it is forcing people out of the narrative – they are not allowed to discover people and events for themselves. They have to have Wren’s worldview forced onto everything.
- Wren bullies Eustace, and Eustace rolls over easily. Someone said his advice is Dr. Phil-like. Too basic, not nuanced enough. Wren knows a few words won’t flip Eustace around, but it’s not coming over here.
- Some issues with overwriting. The approach to Eustace’s house in particular – overegging the message that, what, poor people suck? Are full of despair? It’s not necessary to overdo this.
- My use of semi-colons is not right. Ouch. I need to learn this again.
Now, I found all of this riveting. Every drop feels like wisdom and money. As people are telling me these things, I’m feeling casual readers drop off. It’s a big deal that he survives a beatdown basically unhurt. He’s either a superhero who is invulnerable, or the bikers are weak/timid and not that bad at all.
In both cases, Wren comes over as a BULLY. He goes into their chapter house and starts a ruck by insulting everyone. He really targets them. He’s not an underdog at all – he’s the overdog. I’m doing something very wrong when the readers start being sympathetic to neo-Nazis.
So. I set out to fix it. It didn’t take long. Here is what I did:
- Make the bikers badder. This starts early, by returning them to ‘meth and underage porn’ and assigning various murders to their case history. That’s pretty bad. Then when Wren goes in, he is less antagonistic to them, and lets them round on him. They are more racist (I don’t want to do too much here, as that can put people off too), and also more aggressive – trying to humiliate him, get him to kneel, give them donkey rides, etc.
- Wren doesn’t get beatdown. That’s not his intention. His goal is just to pick a fight, and give as good as he gets. As the scene ends, he is still standing and dishing violence back. Ultimately, he flees. This is why he doesn’t die. He held his own.
- Wren’s trip to Eustace has been heavily shortened – it was two chapters, now it’s one. I cut a lot of description, and overthinking and analysis. Let it just play out. Matt had the great idea that we don’t know what Wren is going there for. Maybe he means to kill Eustace? That keeps tension for the reader. Also, make it less so Eustace rolls over completely. He just snitches, basically.
- Trim various overwritten sections. I feel it’s only the beginning of book 1 that suffers from this, but maybe I will go to the TWW again and have them look at another book beginning. See if it’s also overegged.
So. I wanted to write this midweek while it’s fresh in my mind. I also decided to add the flashbacks back in. I wrote them, so why not? They’re fast, they inform Wren, they don’t spoil anything and they’re pretty funny and light. Makes for a nice break.
I wonder if this can lead to a big change in my readthrough. I’m confident people won’t give up as often or as fast as they might have been doing. I was geting comments like – this is not what Reacher would do. Reacher would never purposefully lose a fight. And that’s legit – even a semi-suicidal dark hero wouldn’t go straight in to die, unless he was really serious about dying, in which case we don’t want to read that.
We will see. Better readthrough rates and reviews would be wonderful. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.