Rush of Wren critiques – 2020 Writing Week 33

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing 1 Comment

In the last week a number of Wren critiques have come in, kind of reaching critical mass for me. At the same time, I’ve had a couple of fantastic reviews.

Let’s go with fantastic first. A review on one of my Facebook ads. Usually all I get on these is people arguing about whether Tom Cruise makes a good Jack Reacher. I actually deleted all of those.

But the good review said this person loved Christopher Wren. Honestly, this may be the first person to say this. In the early days, a lot of people said he was impressive, but they wouldn’t want to hang out with him – whereas they would hang out with Jack Reacher.

I didn’t get it.

Well, now I’ve had more feedback.

  • Last Saturday – Ever since my wife Su tried to read Saint Justice, she’s been asking ‘Who is Christopher Wren?’. I never understood this. There’s info. I tried adding an info dump here or there to further explain his backstory, faster than before, but that doesn’t help. I provide flashbacks. Still, nothing. I am left totally puzzled. A few days ago, she says maybe Wren can’t ever go mainstream, because of his personality, the focus on cults, and the ‘real’ social issues that play out in the story. A little crushing, actually.
  • Last Sunday – In the morning I got a beta read back from a paid reviewer. She said it was very fast-paced, very action-packed, but she was left cold. Said the writing was dry. I had no idea what this meant. It could have meant it’s not colorful enough. I don’t think this is true. There’s plenty of metaphor, simile. If anything, I veer too purple at times. So what?
  • Last Sunday afternoon – I go visit my Dad and Ailz, and we have a chat about Wren. They’ve both read all the books, and Su has read half of book 1. I asked about the dry comment. They interpret it as not about the prose, but about Wren. He’d fundamentaly unlikeable. He’s a machine. He’s not human. He’s totally unrelatable. I try and take this on board. I get it, but it’s not easy to reckon with.
  • Mon-Wed last week – I start reworking Wren book 1. I see places where he can show more emotion. I pump up his first encounter with slavers at the warehouse. Make it visceral, not assumed. Make him nicer to Eustace, make him happy with a job well done. Make him also way more urgent and crashing at the start. The old ‘fog’ doesn’t cut it. Wren should be falling apart at the start of the book. He’s near suicidal, which is why he walks into the bar. Maybe this is off-putting, but it’s the only way his actions make sense.
  • Thursday – The beta reader comes back to me and explains what she means by ‘dry’ – which is ‘literary’. So this means we see too much that we don’t need to see. Not emotional enough. Not connecting with people enough.
  • Friday, today, got comments from my writer friend Matt – Matt has been on at me for some time to trim my overwriting. This doesn’t mean purple writing necessarily. It just means more words than we need to tell the story. Basically he and the beta reader feel the same way. We don’t need to see everything. He says if there’s something we the reader already know, we don’t want to spend some time reading it. He says my descriptions of scenes is great, but he’s sometimes left wondering why I spent the time describing, and why he as the reader had to see it.
  • Su gives more comments right after – Su doubles down on Wren being emotionless after this. Who is he? She raises the question of foibles/habits/mannerisms/hobbies which really challenges me. Wren doesn’t have any. I guess, hmm, he’s not human in that sense? Ouch. I think others raised this before. Holmes plays violin. Bond is very particular about his drink and looking smart. This can humanize Wren, alongside a lot of other changes. Also – why is he even chasing the slavers? Su wants it to be to retrieve his family, and if not his family, then someone he really cares for. But he basically forgets about Henry and Abdul. So what’s his purpose?

This week, some things start to really click for me. Not entirely new, but in new ways.

As ever, I have gone too original. Wren’s background is bizarre. Nobody had life experience like that. Wren’s reactions to everything happening now are flat or very muted. Nothing touches him.

Maybe it makes all these action-packed scenes feel flat. Mechanical. It makes it worse that Wren doesn’t get too hurt by things. We know he’s going to plough his way through. So maybe it’s not genuinely exciting. Like a boring action movie. Like Sucker Punch.

OMG. I hate that movie.

So what is the dryness? It’s a lack of emotional resonance, and genuine stakes for Wren. What does any of this mean to him? The events of this book? Nothing personal at stake, or so it seems. He gets shouty and angry, but so what if he just walks away?

Ugh.

Of course, none of this is my intention. It’s my poor execution. I love Wren. I have massive sympathy for him. I get him. He’s also a little anti-heroic. I know he’s good, and I know that when he cuts corners, it hurts. But readers don’t get that from the page.

Everything is easy for him. No real people are at stake. He doesn’t feel real.

So. We need to make Wren likeable. Humanize him more. Make his stakes and investment real.

How to fix this? Here are my initial changes/ideas:

  • Open on Wren in a real awful state. None of this ‘fog’ of guilt BS. The shame/guilt of his recent backstory is agonzing, crushing and urgent. Make it feel urgent. Make it a weakness. Like a junkie. He’s not OK, when we meet him. Part of him going into the biker bar is hoping he might just die. When he’s in there, have him more hungry for the fight. Go hot on his internal life/emotions. Desperate to escape the guilt.
  • Give him a mannerism. Got an idea for this, can resonate through books. Def. relatable.
  • Have him address surviving when he wakes on the roadside. Consider what it means to stil be alive.
  • Have him be nicer to the kid in the gas station. He’s pretty nice now, but yeah. Being nice to randoms is important.
  • At Eustace, Wren part wants his Jeep, part wants to do something good. Have him try to help Eustace more. No hint of bullying. Tough love, yeah. After Eustace, Wren can feel a little happy. We never see him happy.
  • Then send him to warehouse. Now shit needs to get real. We need to see one of the human slaves. That slave probably needs to stare right into Wren’s eyes. Terror. Horror. Throw Wren right back into his own childhood. Make this all-consuming. Tries to give chase, leads back to Brazen Hussy. No dice, can’t raid them alone.
  • Warehouse scene is more intense. Bigger fight. Afterward, Wren chastise himself he didn’t see it coming. He’s not perfect.
  • Get more upset that Henry and Abdul are missing. This becomes his driving mission.
  • After this, we need more moments of painful reflection. After seeing dead cops in Price. After Teddy and Cheryl. Just honest moments of worry, guilt, fear.
  • Wren haunted by the eyes of the woman he saw.
  • Also some happy/light moments. Find something.
  • Make Wren less invulnerable. Feel his aches and pains more.
  • I was thinking to cut Mason’s storyline, for a couple of reasons. One is that he pulls focus off Wren. Everyone has sympathy for Mason. They’re waiting to see him again. Su actually suggests we have his chapters alternating with Wren. But he is a one-book character, so all that focus on him wrecks the chance of book 2. Also, because we always see behind the scenes with Mason, we see them first with him, then second with Wren. This could make Wren’s story feel dry and repetitive. It is.
  • I was thinking to add the Wren wife flashbacks, but I don’t think I will. If I humanize him properly in the present, I just need hints of the past, not a whole backstory.

I did a google for how to make a story less ‘boring’. Here’s the highlights:

  • Spending too much time on things that don’t matter. This is pretty relevant to me. When I go off on a tangent about Chicago’s vampire clubs, this is what’s happening. It doesn’t matter. I remember first writing Chicago, and feeling really strongly that I needed some more background, some world-building. I guess that urge is the wrong urge. Need to learn to shut it up.
  • Slowing down things that should be fast. Actually Su said this. I often use Wren’s driving time to have him make phone calls and check in on stuff. Probably it would be better that he just arrive somewhere. Driving is boring. We don’t need to be there in it with him for the whole time. Skip ahead.

I also google how to make a character likeable:

  • Have them be nice to a dog/kid/people generally. Wren hardly ever does this. He’s brusque and bullying to everyone, even decent people, when they don’t move fast enough. People don’t like him.
  • Vulnerability. People think Wren is invulnerable. I thought I was saying all the time that he gets injured, he gets emotionally wounded, but I guess saying is not enough. We need to feel it. I watched a movie last night where the hero got shot in the shoulder, had some stitches, then was back in full fighting mode. I’m not nearly as bad as that. But, yeah… Also emotionally – when his people die/get hurt, he doesn’t seem to care. It’s awful. He should.
  • Other people like them. I have this at times. But many characters seem to dislike Wren. Alli, Teddy, Cheryl, they all dislike him or seem to.
  • Have worthy goals. I think Wren’s motivation is not always wholly clear. Why is he doing all this?

I believe I can fix all this. I’ll do it, then submit for another beta reader, and relaunch and we’ll see. If it goes better, and people start saying they love Wren, I need to give this treatment to all 4 existing books.

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