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.

 

At the gun range, a cautionary tale

After hours of instruction, we file onto the gun range and prepare to shoot. Three officers have reviewed the standard-issue weapons of the Sarasota Police Department: a Glock 22 handgun, a Colt AR-15 rifle and a Remington 870 pump shotgun. Today we’re going to fire the Glock.

Dressed in our white shirts with the blue SPD Citizens Academy logo, about 15 of us line up at the gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis to receive eye and ear protection and more instruction. Some classmates have permits to carry guns, although personal weapons are outlawed today. Some have worked as firearms instructors. I shot a rifle in high school but it was a bolt-action .22. I’ve never handled a handgun and, until today, never had the desire.

SPD Training Officer Kim Stroud instructs us in how to hold and aim the Glock. The strong hand wraps around the grip, index finger pointing forward, never on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. The supporting hand wraps around the fingers on the grip with the thumb pointing forward. “That’s 60 percent of your control.”

As I listen, I remember the warning SPD Training Officer Jeff Dunn gave as soon as we walked into his classroom, the most important of all of the safety rules: Even if the weapon is disassembled or unloaded, “We are never going to point a gun at anything we aren’t willing to destroy.”

Safety first
Stroud repeats the message as she leads us downrange. The range is built with concrete strips like football field markers starting 50 yards from the targets. Stroud stops at the 3-yard marker, in front of a paper silhouette of a head and torso backed by a sandy hill. Dunn, a member of the SPD SWAT team, flanks her on the right and maintains control of the magazine. Officer Ken Goebel, the former leader of the department’s sniper team, stands where he can see us and the shooter.

I step up. Stroud hands the Glock to me and positions my hands. At no time does she let go of the weapon. She places her other hand on my back so the weapon doesn’t come up into the 180-degree position after firing.

The target has a red circle in the center of the chest and a smaller one in the middle of the head. As I line up the front and rear sights on the larger circle, the target seems to waver. It’s the slight motion of the hands. Stroud says that’s normal. She steadies the gun and inserts the magazine. I grip harder, inhale, hold my breath and squeeze the trigger.

Time stands still
I experience everything at once. I hear an explosion, loud but not as loud as a cherry bomb, and the gun kicks up but not far. There’s little recoil into the palm. With the ear protection, I don’t even hear the clink of the shell on concrete.

The bullet rips through the target and scuffs the bank, kicking up a small plume of sand. I see a small bright hole in the red dot, not dead center but close, slightly below where I’ve aimed. We take turns, each firing a single bullet, then Dunn and Goebel give a brief demonstration of the rifle and shotgun. I’m reminded of the use-of-force simulator, where you have a nanosecond to decide whether to fire on a suspect. Safety training takes 2½ hours. Our one shot takes 30 seconds.

SPD officers receive far more instruction—mandatory training twice a year for all sworn officers with additional rifle training for patrol officers. These are real-world scenarios that stress shooting while moving while minimizing collateral damage. Officers also practice fixing and reloading their weapon during combat.

Range practice over, the class breaks for lunch. It’s Goebel’s day off and Dunn has enlisted his help as cook. He grills hamburgers and hotdogs and we sit on picnic tables under a lean-to roof and listen to stories we rarely hear from police, stories about triumphs and mistakes, about devotion and misspent youth.

It is the best part of the day.

Next: drug deals and traffic stops.

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

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida