By Lisabet Sarai
Okay, I've endured it long enough. It's payback time. This is the week that I'm going to make Garce blush, the way he's always doing to me!
Our topic this week is “Constructive Criticism”, and I have to say, I don't know anyone whose critiques could be more aptly called constructive. When I pass a story to Garce for comments or consult him about some question of character or plot, I really never know what I'll get back. However, it's almost always something I didn't expect. He reads what I've written and then takes off, making wild suggestions that almost always shake up my view of the tale. Garce's critiques are “constructive” in the sense that they construct new conflicts, problems, scenarios, possibilities, even worlds.
I have other crit partners, people who will let me know when they find an awkward transition or a poorly motivated action or even (heaven forfend!) a bit of unruly grammar. I appreciate their time and effort, and I always find their commentary useful. They help me polish the story as I wrote it. When I ask Garce for a critique, I'm always a little worried, because his reply may force me to massively rethink what I've written.
Here's an example, from his crit of my story “Chemisty” (which was eventually published in Coming Together With Pride).
I'm used to thinking in really weird terms. So I was looking for something weird.
Take your description of Frank. I was thinking - Frank is this jolly old, kind of sloppy ‘60s guy, right out of a Cheech and Chong gag. He sounds like what? A mythical being! Frank is a satyr! She's going to be riding him wildly, baffled at her own sluttiness and infidelity – what in the world has gotten into her beside Frank? - and she sees his lower half turn into the lower half of a goat or something.
I was thinking Rosemary's Baby. Mia Farrow crying out when she sees the devil's eyes "This is NOT a dream! This is really happening!" I thought she had walked into some curio shop on a side street and been seduced by Zeus or a lusty goat-man. Bacchus! That was why she was unable to resist him. Why is she unable to resist his advances? No convincing explanation is given. So now’s your chance to come up with one.
Here’s another: I saw the little lab in the back of the third floor and I thought "Son of a Witch! This guy has discovered that which mankind, in all civilizations in all of history has universally sought and never really found - a genuine aphrodisiac." Damn, he’s going to be rich.
Think about it. No one in any culture has ever discovered a magic substance that if you take it you become irresistibly, recklessly horny. But what if an obscure chemist really discovered it? I mean it as in “IT”. The Godzilla of pheromones?
When Garce does a crit, he uses the story as a springboard for his own imagination. Sometimes, though, he sees what the tale really needs. In the case of this one, he was right on. I had this young, beautiful, career-obsessed pharmaceutical chemist falling into instant lust with a guy decades older, a guy whose cultural roots are completely alien to her. Why? In the end, I did introduce the notion of a super-aphrodisiac (it turns out the guy's a famous chemist, too) – though I never made a commitment as to whether the attraction is really chemical or not.
One of Garce's favorite comments in his crits is “Let's muddle this a bit.” He doesn't accept anything I write a face value. He always looks deeper. He wants to complicate things. And because he knows me fairly well at this point (anyone who reads my erotic stories knows me rather personally, after all), he can get away with making connections between what I write and what I feel (as opposed to what my characters feel). For instance, he wrote the following about my story “The Antidote”.
[Lena] might be a more complex character if she were not satisfied to be in tepid resignation or compatibility with Jeff, or saw herself that way, and was rebelling against not only the restrictions being imposed on a naturally passionate nature by an authoritarian society, but also against her marriage. Her marriage was engineered by society, not by her own search for love after all. Going to the club is her moral rebellion against everything in her life. She reminds me a little of Henry Jekyll in the “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Jekyll wants to go on being the respected Victorian gentleman, but as Mr. Hyde he gets to party down. She is Jekyll, not by choice but to stay out of trouble, and taking her drug is her way of busting out as Miss Hyde. As presented, she’s rebelling against society, but what if she were also rebelling against her husband?
In this context when she gets bailed out by Jeff, she might think he’s going to punish her harshly or even violently, and at the least divorce her sorry ass, and maybe this is what society expects of him. But instead of a beating or worse, they break out in passion having been liberated by their sexual escapades, and discovering an excitingly dark side of each other unknown to the other before. He might even make a big show of indignation in the presence of the authorities, and then when they’re alone bring out the leather and handcuffs and a sheepish confession. They can discover things in their relationship with each other they never knew were there. After all, what obsession are you exploring here? Your own rebellion against romance genre convention.
In my opinion Lena is you. Let her be you even more.
Not what one normally expects in a critique. But I value his opinions and his insights, and once again, he put his finger on the reason that the story's original ending was weak.
I've learned a great deal from our discussions (of his work as well as of my own). Now I seem to have internalized some of his critical style. When I write, I sometimes hear his metaphorical voice (we've never actually spoken) whispering in my ear, making suggestions (often outrageous), asking questions (always difficult), forcing me to dig deeper and not be satisfied with my first inclinations.
I have a tendency to be lazy when I write. It's relatively easy for me to pen a tale that will titillate without really saying anything. You know, a potato chip story, tasty but with no substance. Garce makes me work. When I dare to ask him for a crit, I know that he won't let me off the hook until my story does more than just turn the reader on.
And for that, I'm seriously grateful.