The mystery of the critique

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says the secret to his success as a detective is simple: “Order and method.” We writers could use a bit of that ourselves.

Elizabeth George, author of the Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries, has two criteria for evaluating fiction: strengths and inconsistencies. In other words, what did the writer do right, and are there any inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, tone, or language.

At the risk of second-guessing the author of 28 books, many of which have made it to TV, I’d like to add one more metric to the list: clarity.

Why is clarity important? Because what’s in the author’s head doesn’t always make it onto the page. Finding the holes in our story is like using a single mirror to see the back of our heads. We need a second opinion.

What about George’s criteria? I believe they are essential to good critiquing. Simple, but not widely practiced.

Consistency means the characters behave in a manner that is congruent with the personalities we’ve created for them. The language and tone should do the same.

The idea of strengths is simple but its application is often misunderstood. If we focus on the good parts of a manuscript, the writer will, too; hopefully the better work will crowd out some of the lesser stuff. That runs counter to some people’s philosophy—I’ve been stopped after class by those who want to know why I encourage a tiny piece of good writing in a sea of struggle—but that’s the exception to the rule.

What should writers avoid when critiquing a manuscript? In her work of nonfiction, Write Away, George urges us to forget about our own tastes. After reading or hearing a piece, many writers will say they liked or disliked the writing, characters, language, or plot. A typical response from even the most educated is, “I couldn’t get into it.”

That kind of critique doesn’t give the writer enough detail to improve, and might discourage an emerging talent. As George points out, it’s not our story. We’re not there to rewrite the work but to call out the strengths and flag the confusion. Did the writer mean to change point of view in mid-chapter? Is she experimenting with time by switching tense in mid-sentence? Those inconsistencies are concrete, measurable, and susceptible to improvement.

All of this boils down to a single question: are we critiquing the construction of the work or the content? If we develop a system that relies on order and method, we’ll know. And so will the reader.

 

Celebrating openness with the SPD

We gather on the second floor of the Sarasota Police Department to celebrate our graduation. There’s a cake, a couple of proud parents and about 20 members of the SPD Citizens Academy. We’re a collection of real estate agents and financial advisers, retirees and writers. We have come to peek into the guarded world of law enforcement and over the past 12 week’s we’ve learned about the hazards of policing on both sides of the badge.

Members of the SPD command staff are here, acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and the captain of patrol operations, Kevin Stiff, as are those who organized the academy, Training Officer Jeff Dunn and the volunteers who lugged coolers of soda and water and boxes of pastries and name cards every week.

They have certificates, photos and a parting message for us: we’ve helped them as much as they’ve helped us.

“We are grateful for people who want to live through our eyes,” Capt. Robinson says. “Officers are put under an immense amount of stress. The more folks we can educate on why we do things, the better our interaction with the citizens.”

Jeff Dunn says officers also benefit from the class by getting feedback from some of those citizens.

Robinson echoes that, adding that police can become jaded because they deal with a small but difficult portion of the population. “Sometimes you lose perspective.” (You can download an application for the next citizens’ academy here.)

For our part, we’ve learned about legal rights and wrongs, equipment and procedures, prostitution and traffic stops, court cases and crowd control. We’ve heard from the victim advocate, the public information officer, the state attorney, the coordinator of volunteers. We’ve watched K-9 dogs attack and officers defend themselves. We’ve investigated a crime scene, toughed it out in the use-of-force simulator and fired weapons at the gun range.

In between, we’ve listened to officers describe their background and their passion for the job.

In 12 weeks we’ve learned things aren’t simple. Most officers play by the rules. Some don’t. During traffic stops, most people are polite. Some shoot cops. When we watch video of situations where police use force, the solution looks simple. Hindsight will do that. But we weren’t in that battle, with bullets and adrenalin flying, with limited time and information and options. People make decisions that aren’t rational. The second-guessing, the labels good and bad . . . those come later.

After riding with officers, sharing a meal and listening to their stories, many of us are convinced the most important part of the course isn’t about guns or self-defense or crime scenes or SWAT. The most interesting aspect of police work are the officers themselves.

Getting them to open up might be the biggest cause for celebration.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

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