Okay, a couple more critiques have rolled in, which I will share with you now.
First, from New York Times bestelling urban fantasy author Carrie Vaughn:
I read your blogs posts, but not the story as you were posting it, any more than a skim-through. I also skimmed the two critiques that went up, but only after I read the story myself. So I know what you said you were doing with this, and the overall project and such. I have a feeling my reading might have been different if I hadn’t known — the metaphor was foregrounded for me because I knew about it, but I imagine it’s like Christianity in Narnia. If you don’t know to look for it, it’s not as clear. That’s where I’m at.
In the meantime, I find myself as I often do giving a purely mechanical critique. Nitpicky details rather than a profound analysis. A lot of the mechanics tripped me up, the logistics of the story throwing me out. I often felt that the worldbuilding was perhaps subservient to the metaphor, and that did the metaphor a disservice.
First: Charlie and Dickens — is that on purpose?
What kind of dog is Dickens? What breed? What’s he look like?
Where was Dickens while Charlie was in the hospital? Who was taking care of him? Where is that person now, and can they help? This is maybe my biggest critique, that Charlie’s life seems so isolated and truncated after the attack — but his life before doesn’t seem to have been much bigger. He has no friends, no family. His mother never calls, nor do any siblings. He’s got one guy from work who’s interested, but other than that, and one cute little dog, there’s not a living soul in his life. He’s not having to pretend to be normal to anyone but Dickens, and I kept wondering where all the other people in his life are. If there were no others…no family, no friends, no neighbors, no apartment-dwellers (is he in a house or apartment? His economic situation made me think apartment, but the place felt like a house) — that kind of life is unusual and needs an explanation, and I think that would be getting away from your point of the story. Charlie needs to have more of a real life.
See what I mean about mechanics? <g> Basically, while emotionally powerful and disturbing and creepy, the story didn’t work for me because Charlie doesn’t feel like a real person.
Likewise, the attacking dogs didn’t come across as real attacking dogs to me. I know in one sense they’re metaphor made flesh and aren’t supposed to be real. But it threw me out. I know part of the point of the attack is illogic and purposelessness, that nothing about it makes sense. The attack itself didn’t make sense and I’m fine with that — but I needed a reason for it to stop, because real vicious dogs wouldn’t have stopped without outside motivation. A noise, a siren, something. At some level, they need to act like real dogs, even if they’re a metaphor. Maybe someone called the police and they’re on the way, with sirens, and Charlie doesn’t have to call. But I think something should scare the dogs off.
I wondered why Charlie wasn’t in therapy, or give me a reason why not. Someone along the line would have recommended therapy.
Speaking as a dog person, I think Dickens gives up too easy. One disappointment with the dog park and it’s over? Dogs have so much devotion, and this made me think Dickens never really liked Charlie. Which I’m not supposed to think, I suspect. A real dog like Dickens would assume he’d done something wrong and grovel for weeks trying to get Charlie back to normal, and become very stressed out and start acting out for attention. *Then* he’d shut down and split. Because Dickens’ groveling would probably freak Charlie the hell out.
Adam’s talks are too expository and on the nose, and long. The story felt long overall, and Adam’s speeches are most of the reason why. The one about the number of good v. bad dogs, and the one about how many other people had been attacked. He’s lecturing, and it doesn’t feel like a real friendship.
Adam’s last speech about how many others had been mauled didn’t ring true because severe dog mauling isn’t actually that common, is it? If it’s just Adam, that’s powerful, but everyone else, too? I started thinking that this is an alternate reality where everyone worries about all these roaming packs of vicious dogs filling the streets.
I had this thought that after Dickens runs away he joins a dog pack that goes around attacking people out of despair and revenge. That’s a different story, though.
I wonder if the story’s theme should be more generalized, to make it less on the nose. This isn’t just about the aftermath of rape, but about the birth of a severe phobia and post traumatic stress. The powerful point in *that* is to link a severe phobia born of PTSD with the aftermath of rape, which is something I’m not sure a lot of people have thought about.
And those are my notes! I hope it’s useful. Let me know if you have any questions!
And then from New York Times bestselling author Walter Jon Williams (who, by the way runs this utterly brilliant writing workshop, Taos Toolbox, at which I will be guest lecturer this summer):
Hey, I managed this in less than a month!
Good story. Compact, well-defined situation, no extraneous matter.
I found the ending just a bit abrupt. I think you may have ended one sentence too early.
You might want to offer a little more about how Charlie’s life has changed. From all evidence his life was pretty bleak before the attack: he has a meaningless job, no girlfriend, one person he can talk to, and only a dog for company. Has he ever had any joy at all? It wouldn’t take a lot to contrast a more fulfilled life with his post-attack life, just by walking him past familiar objects and places that have happier associations from earlier days.
The fact that the attacking dog pack were never caught seem like a big Chekov’s gun that never goes off. I was prepared for their reappearance and it never happened, and I think my energies would have better been spent elsewhere.
Odd that neither Charlie nor his friend think of defending themselves against attack. This is, after all, America— why no thought of carrying a gun? Or pepper spray? Adam carried one, but gave it up because he couldn’t go on the bus or to a restaurant, and then I thought why not conceal it? I realize that you want to emphasize Charlie’s helplessness, but it’s odd that nobody thinks about it.
If you’ve got one character named Charlie, and another named Dickens, you are conjuring associations with a Victorian novelist that you may desire. And in me, my late cat.
And finally, I got a note from Shawn Speakman with the press release for the anthology in which the final version will appear:
GRIM OAK PRESS TO PUBLISH UNFETTERED FANTASY ANTHOLOGY Genre’s Best Writers to Contribute Against Fellow Writer’s Cancer Debt
SEATTLE, WA — Grim Oak Press, a new publishing company formed by webmaster and freelance writer Shawn Speakman, will be producing Unfettered, a fantasy short story anthology by some of the best writers in the genre, for a very good cause.
In 2011, Speakman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He completed the recommended chemotherapy, but lacking health insurance, the treatment left him with almost $200,000 of financial debt. At the suggestion of New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks, and with the help of nearly two dozen authors who call Speakman a friend, Grim Oak Press will publish the short story anthology Unfettered, with the proceeds helping to alleviate the medical bills.
Authors contributing include: Terry Brooks, Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, RA Salvatore, Tad Williams, Jacqueline Carey, Daniel Abraham, Peter V. Brett, Robert VS Redick, Peter Orullian, Todd Lockwood, Carrie Vaughn, Blake Charlton, Kevin Hearne, Mark Lawrence, David Anthony Durham, Jennifer Bosworth, Lev Grossman, Steven Erikson, and Shawn Speakman
Some of the authors will be writing short stories set in the fantasy worlds that made them famous. Other writers will be creating entirely new tales. The contribution by so many noteworthy authors of bestselling titles speaks to the generosity found within the science fiction and fantasy communities.
Unfettered will be published as a trade hardcover as well as a leather-bound, signed and numbered edition limited to 500 copies and autographed by all contributors. Speakman will also publish his full-length urban/high fantasy novel, The Dark Thorn, through Grim Oak Press to further offset treatment expenses.
Orders are currently being accepted for The Dark Thorn, which is tentatively scheduled to publish in August 2012. Unfettered will be released by early 2013.
So, in the words of Buffy Season 6, where do we go from here?
I may have one more critique. I had one more person agree to look at it, but the world is a busy place, and stuff happens. I’ll check in, and if there’s one more crit, I’ll post it for y’all. If not, I think it’s time to move on to the last phase of the project. I’ll reread the story, look over the critiques, and give you the synthesis of what I’ve taken from what these folks told me, and my blueprint for fixing the story in the next draft.
The actual final version — as our man Shawn says — will be out early next year, and I’ll post a reminder for y’all when we get there.