I hope you all enjoyed the last Improve & Encourage feature, because it's time for another one. These features are meant to both provide feedback to authors and, similar to story reviews, point out stories that readers might not otherwise have found. It's similar to a review, in that the person doing the critique tells you what they liked about the story, but it differs in that they also provide constructive criticism. Each author signed up to participate, and sign up's are still open! These will post once a month until we no longer have content. Once that happens, I will critique the last author that posted. If you'd like to provide a critique for the blog, sign up in the thread. I'm hoping to have a lot more authors sign up, and just remember, by signing up, you are also volunteering to have your story critiqued and featured.
W.A.R. Part 1 & 2
Critique By: Cole Matthews
Please give us a short summary of the story you chose.
W.A.R. is a teenage story about friends and their maturing. Billy is a somewhat naïve, precocious thirteen-year-old, who helps care for his grandmother. She is suffering from a stroke and is now mute. Billy’s family is burdened with helping her cope, and his best friend Brett is also there to help.
Brett is his most constant companion. Brett’s mother moved them from New York City and he’s not happy being away from there. Billy seems to be the only thing that makes his life in southwestern Pennsylvania manageable. This is a vignette style story, in these first couple of sections. It gives you a slice of these boys’ lives during a time of growth and trial. It’s realistic and set in present day.
What do you see as the strengths of the story/poem?
Definitely the characters. Brett and Billy have very distinctive voices and their own personalities, so different you can miss the name tags and still know who is speaking. These characters have personality, history, and most of all humor. In a hilarious exchange, Billy admitted his mother walked in on him changing clothes and saw him naked. He’s mortified by it and his best friend Brett doesn’t hesitate to tease him about his shyness. Later when Billy’s mom arrives to relieve the boys from the task of watching her stroke-impaired mother, Brett takes a dig at his friend.
“I don’t know,” Brett replied. “So, Mrs. Roberts. You’re a nurse, right?”
“Of course, Brett. You know that.”
“So how many penises do you see in a day?”
“Oh my god, Brett, shut the fuck up!” I exclaimed. Brett laughed his butt off. I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing in front of my mother!
“Billy! Language!” She scolded. “So he told you about our little incident this morning,” mom said. “I don’t see as many naked people as you might think, Brett. But if a certain thirteen-year-old boy was worried about what his mother saw this morning he doesn’t need to worry. I didn’t see anything I haven’t seen before. The only thing he needs to be embarrassed about is the way he swears in front of his grandmother.”
“Sorry mom,” I apologized. “Sorry grandma.”
There is a kind of loving, yet brutal, endearing quality to these boys. Throughout the first couple of sections, they vacillate between love and truly hating the other. Their emotions aren’t limited to those expressions. Brett has a learning disability and he struggles with the implications of it. Billy is in the throes of puberty, and the writer has him growing and realizing things have changed. There is portrayal of the physical manifestations of sexual maturity, but more importantly, he realizes his parents aren’t empty vessels. Other people have different ideas, and he needs to accept it. Billy discovers his father had a past. This is a revelation to the teen.
Billy is learning something about himself and his place in the world. His father cares for him, but he has to work a lot, and that gets in the way. There is a kind of ‘turning on’ the parts of the brain which acknowledges this in these first two segments. The characters are genuine, have heart, and develop naturally.
It’s the maturation of the characters along with endearing and infuriating attributes, and humor, which make you want to know more about them and keep reading. Keep laughing. It’s okay, we are really funny at this transitional period.
What do you see as the weaknesses of the story? How do you think the story could be improved?
There is a reliance on melodrama. While the characters have dilemmas, which make for interesting reading, they fall into constant, and relentless, emotional outbreaks. This is more telling later in the ongoing story, but the seeds of the problem are in the first two segments as well.
Developing character, carefully structuring plot, and cultivating the reader’s investment, are keys to good writing. In WAR. the characters are well developed in these first parts, the plot has a kind of outline, but it starts to veer into some rather doubtful territory with extreme yelling and terrible arguing, which isn’t necessary. This tends to interrupt the suspension of disbelief for the reader.
Yes, there are situations which make us crazy. Most of the time, it’s overblown in our own minds and starts to divert the attention to the overall story. Drama needs to build and engage, not assault the reader.
While discussing this with another writer friend, I realized it was a symptom of pacing and flow. Consider this, there is some great literature which builds upon the character, setting, and situation of a story without being overly dramatic. In ‘The Piano’, the touch of a finger in a hole in a garment is erotic and provocative. In ‘Dune’ a person places a hand in a box and we experience terror, pain, and fear of what is to come. Sometimes building the scene means editing the melodrama from a story and crafting it to work as a complete story. In this story, Billy and Brett don’t need more, they are complete without the drama.
What was your favorite part? (scene/sentence/etc)
Billy and Brett found a porn videotape hidden in Billy’s dad’s things. The boys watched it, as teenaged boys would, and after a series of physical antics, Billy fell and gave himself a black eye. (For context, this is done rather well. More of it in the story would be hilarious). Brett is feeling guilty because he realizes if they didn’t steal and watch the tape, the whole situation could have been avoided. That’s when this scene happens.
Brett groaned as if he was feeling my pain himself. He gently touched my face. “I can’t believe how swelled up it is.” He looked closely at me, so close I could feel his breath on me. He stared into my eyes. He smiled. “I wish my eyes were green like yours.” He sighed.
“Why?” I asked. I hadn’t ever really thought about my eyes being anything special.
“I just think they’re cool,” Brett replied. “You have really nice eyes. They’re unique. Not a lot of people have green eyes like yours. Mine are just boring old blue.”
“I like your eyes,” I said. “You have pretty eyes.”
“Pretty?” Brett laughed. “My eyes are pretty? So now you think I’m pretty?”
“You know what I mean!” I said. “Boy pretty, not pretty pretty.”
“Is my dick pretty, too?” Brett laughed.
“Why do you always twist whatever I say and make it into something perverted?”
“Because I’m a pervert!” Brett exclaimed, “and you’ll be as sick and twisted as me by the time I’m done with you!”
“You’re crazy!” I laughed. Brett was a goofball. If he had to go five minutes without making a joke I think he’d explode.
Teenagers, especially boys, don’t know how to express affection. They are too old to say it plainly without nuance and too young to speak their truth. This story shows boys being boys, caring for each other, and discovering the intricacies of human interactions. Billy and Brett are struggling with the percolated emotions that bubble within us, and they are learning what those feelings mean.
This snippet demonstrates how this story portrays these challenges in an engaging and thoughtful way. It’s not the outbursts which define characters, but the discussions and heartfelt worries that can create the outlines we desire. The writer does this quite well, as I hope I’ve shown. Please check out this story. It’s worth a read.
Billy, Brett, and Dustin deserve it. They are interesting characters you don’t want to miss!!!