The concept of these critiques is two fold:
1. To offer high-level specific critiques to people who are starting out and honing their writing.
2. To use these critiques as a platform for others to learn things about their own writing.
I am specifically picking pieces of writing that have something to learn from them - that might be something that they are doing well, or something that they are not. These critiques are going to be completely honest and constructive. I may be blown away by the writing, but if you aren't ready to be told that your writing needs a lot of work, don't send it to me.
This is an extract from a work entitled 'Failure to Thrive'.
Jonathan arrived on time for his morning appointment at the local hospital. He had been here many, many times before. Eliza accompanied her fifty-five-year-old husband. Her face was flushed with apprehension. Jonathan wore a hat because he was losing his blonde-grey locks of hair. His Germanic face was waning as he continued treatments. Jonathan’s legs were useless because of a pestilent noninfectious disease. It was deteriorating his once robust condition. Jonathan sat upright in the wheelchair in which he was condemned. His once miraculous medications now worked like placebo pills. His knuckles whitened, his body stiffened, he grimaced and whined in great agony. Jonathan’s swift pains felt like incendiary rounds torching the cells, boiling the blood, ripping the muscles, obliterating the organs inside his body. The fiendish pains were dwindling his willpower. He had expected more radiation today, but instead the couple was waiting for Dr. Reynolds in his office.
Okay, so there are elements of this opening I like. The first three or four sentences are nice and set up character well. I particularly like "Jonathon wore a hat because he was losing his blonde-grey locks of hair." That being said, this paragraph has two problems:
1. Please take a moment to look up Gary Provost's famous piece of writing advice on sentence length. Your first 10 sentences are all a very similar sentence length and sentence construction. This becomes monotonous very quickly. Change it up. Compound sentences, complex sentences, super-short sentences. Express the same ideas, but give us variation.
2. For an opening paragraph (I'm assuming its an opening), it's a bit boring. The first few lines are interesting, but I would cut the latter few. Get us into the office. Get things moving.
Dr. Reynolds opened the door like an intruder. (I like this simile a lot.) He greeted them cordially. Eliza stared questioningly into his sorrowful eyes. (you give me three contradictory descriptions here. He entered like an intruder, he is cordial (not very intruder-like) and he is sorrowful. It is jarring. I have no picture of the Dr at all now). He sat at his neat desk, opened Jonathan’s mountainous medical folder, and then shuffled through it for a long time. Jonathan smacked his lips incessantly. Eliza gave him a bottle of water she kept in her purse. Dr. Reynolds deftly stacked the many, many pages of text, charts, and graphs back into the folder; then with a gaze of knowledge, humility, and compassion, he made direct eye contact with his feeble patient. (these descriptions are better. They are engaging.)
“I regret to tell you this unfortunate news, but you have less than four months to live… Any more treatment is idle,” Dr. Reynolds’ eyes twitched between the couples aching faces. (Ouch! That was abrupt. That might be what you are going for, but Dr. Reynolds comes off as heartless and insensitive.)
The news was palpable. The words ricocheted off the pale walls, and then rattled around their dense skulls. The words hit Jonathan like a powerful punch to the gut. He saw a bright light, left his invalid body for a moment, and then after a deep breath was back on earth. It was the first time his mind proceeded without his body. Eliza wept passively as she rubbed her defeated husbands back. Dr. Reynolds offered Jonathan a box of tissues, but he was calm, so he passed the box of tissues to Eliza. Her cheeks were redder than velvet cake, her nose was draining like a busted pipe, and limpid tears fell from her bloodshot eyes.
(There is a deep sense of distance to your writing. The narration is commenting very passively and emotionlessly on what is a very emotion-filled situation. This may be what you want, but it comes across strange. Most similar works would get more into Jonathon or Eliza's head and close in the POV. This doesn't do that. It stays distant and cold. The result of this is I'm finding it hard to empathise with either character for the time being.)
“I am going to double the dosage of your medications. Do you have any questions?” and then Dr. Reynolds followed up with, “Don’t worry if you cannot think of any at this very moment. Hospice can also answer any questions you may have.”
Jonathan was unable to speak and fiddled with the fabric of his worn-out blue jeans. Eliza’s mind flooded with so many, many questions and concerns she was stupefied, too. They were under the naïve impression Jonathan had years left to live, not months, not mere days. No medical professionals had alluded to the end of Jonathan’s life being near. (Then this is very abrupt news. How are the doctors so incompetent?) They knew the one hundred twenty-three days of living (where are they getting 123 exactly from? That's a very very specific number to get from 'four months') was an optimistic forecast of their remaining time together. (how?) Jonathan swallowed his woes, and then cleared phlegm from his throat before he spoke.
“I thought chemo was the next step? Will it not help?”
“At best, chemotherapy might give you a week more of miserable living or you can stop all treatment, lose a little less time, and live the final stage of life in comfort. What you want to do is your decision.”
“How often will Hospice come by the house? I don’t want to burden my wife any more than I already have.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Eliza held her husbands bruised hand. “You are not a burden in the least bit.”
“They will probably come once a week, but they can send someone out anytime you may need assistance.”
“Will I lose my mind? Will it happen to me?”
“It’s possible towards the very end, but you never know because everyone is different. People who are on their deathbed may see deceased relatives, or cobwebs, or hear voices, or any number of things that will not make any sense.”
“How will we know I’m closest to moving on?”
“In the final days your heart rate will rise, your blood pressure will drop, and you will develop marbles on your feet, knees, or ears.”
Eliza prayed he would stop probing Dr. Reynolds like a curious child. She wanted to sulk in the privacy of her own home. She wetted her lips, “Honey are you ready?”
Jonathan noticed a familiar tone in her distressed voice. He nodded his head. Dr. Reynolds rose from his desk,—Jonathan attempted to stand, too, but his legs were useless—and then he gave them an exultant farewell.
“We very much appreciate everything you’ve done for us, Dr. Reynolds,” Eliza pushed the wheelchair out of the office.
“You are welcome,” Dr. Reynolds closed the door to his office behind them.
(This is well written and I can sense the emotion coming from them - the panic from Jonathon particularly. I think the issue with before was the complete lack of dialogue in the first couple of scenes. It rendered the couple a bit faceless and emotionless. Once you let them talk, they come to life.)
The hectic hallways of the hospital were hell to Jonathan. She pushed him passed sullen coughers, limping men, and lifeless faces. The sanitized odor made him queasy. A grisly fear rose in the pit of his stomach as he looked at them listlessly. Jonathan had spent many, many hours at the hospital in the last year. Never having to return was unfathomable. He would never have to fret over medical bills, never feel like a lab rat again, and no longer waste valuable time in waiting rooms. He rejoiced in the fact he could eat and drink and die at home; he told his wife how happy it made him. (Oh this is interesting. I really want them to have this conversation. Don't keep it from us. Put us in the moment.)
They continued the tumultuous journey through the halls, down the elevator, through the parking garage, and then they reached the car. He saw red, he became warm, and his body tingled numbly. It had been raining outside, but now the immortal sun shined high in the sky; it would rise until the end of time. He would not. He tried to comprehend this notion. He could not. Jonathan never returned to the hospital. (Good. Nice sentence structure variation. Good use of symbolism. I hope it comes back.)
Jonathan would awake early every day and Eliza would help him from their bed to the wheelchair each morning. Jonathan’s pill organizer was filled with medications for each day of the seven-day week. He sat at the kitchen table with a plate of runny eggs, fat pieces of bacon, a fluffy biscuit, and a mug of bitter black coffee. The food teased his bilious stomach. Jonathan sensed light footsteps approaching from behind, and Eliza clung to her lover. (Lover feels very out of place here. It almost always implies a sexual relationship, and I can't imagine that they are doing much of that in this situation). Jonathan thanked her for making his favorite breakfast, though he was uncertain if he could eat a bite of it.
Over breakfast, they discussed the options Dr. Reynolds had presented yesterday. His eyes dilated, and he could not look at Eliza’s benevolent face. She struggled to keep positive and fought tears as they spoke. Jonathan agreed with Eliza, the horror and trauma of chemotherapy would not merit an extra week or so of life. He would die regardless, so he declined chemotherapy. They discussed funeral arrangements, phone calls to family and friends, and paperwork to sign before he was unable to write Jonathan M. King. He ate very little of the food on his plate. Eliza held her husband’s bruised hands.
“Would you like to have anyone over? I could call George and Maureen. We could have dinner with them tonight.”
Jonathan frowned, “I’d like to be left alone right now.”
“That’s perfectly fine. You just let me know when you’d like company.”
Eliza retrieved their plates, took them to the sink, and cleaned them. Her worn out hands tingled under the scolding water, but it did not affect her.
Jonathan stared solemnly out of the window in the dining room. He watched birds sail elegantly through the wind, squirrels nimbly skitter up trees, and then he saw the neighbor’s unruly German Shepard intruding on his property. He remembered the unpleasant, but comforting smell of his longtime canine companion, Hobo the Mutt, (he comes out of the blue, and if I'm honest the name Hobo the Mutt totally takes me out of the serious contemplative tone of the situation. This feels something more belonging in a satirical Vonnegut novel or a black comedy, which this piece is not.) who died a month before his Uncle Wayne passed. His mind flashed the gruesome sight of Hobo’s infestation of fleas that consumed his festering belly. Jonathan imagined inhaling Hobo the Mutts filthy coat, but the smell escaped him. Jonathan wanted to weep. He could not. Eliza watched her husband gaze at the wilderness through the window. (A lot of gazing at each other, which stops being interesting very quickly.) To her dismay, Jonathan had lost his condescending witticism, his buoyant laughter, and worst of all an ability to continue living a full life. (Very telling and not showing. It lacks the emotional impact it deserves.) Why must the innocent suffer? (You have POV issues here. Most of this is in omniscient POV, you jump from head to head and give perspectives. While this is a fine style to use if you choose it - although quite archaic - it means that lines like this lack a voice behind them. Who is thinking this? The narrator? As we don't have a strict POV it is hard to tell.)
It was raining outside, and the morning paper arrived wrapped in a plastic bag. Eliza gave it to Jonathan. The cool beads of water transported him to his grandparent’s horse farm. A golden age of his youth. Jonathan, his little brother, and his cousins spent summer breaks from school together on their grandparent’s farm. When it would rain, his grandparents would encourage them to go outside and they would run barefoot and splash in puddles and play in mud and croon like wild animals while ingesting water falling from the grey sky. Their grandparents would smile exultantly at them from the porch. The memories he was exiled from participating in now as a crippled adult lacerated his fatigued mind.
Jonathan read the newspaper, which caused him greater despair because for the first time he realized there was books, movies, and music he had anticipated enjoying that would be released after his death; they shall be for the enjoyment of the living. The Universe was apathetic to his tragic demise. He tried to comprehend this notion. He could not. He put down the newspaper. Eliza helped him lay on the couch, turned the TV on for him, and then she left the room. Jonathan fell asleep watching a cowboy ride off into a sunset after saving the day. (Okay. You have quite a few paragraphs here where nothing happens. Jonathan looks at things. Eliza looks at him. Jonathan thinks a lot. This kind of navel-gazing is okay for perhaps one paragraph, but it is quickly becoming tiresome to read. Your reader knows that Jonathan is depressed, upset, confused. Get on with the story.)
Jonathan was constantly drowsy from the medication. He was as useless as a baby freshly cut from an umbilical cord. Eliza asked Jonathon if he would like to go anywhere; he shrugged his benign shoulders. She searched her husband’s hollow face for a way to cheer him.
“Would you like to speak to pastor Williams?”
“Would you like to see your friends from work?”
“Would you like me to invite George and Maureen over for dinner?”
“No… no.” (The exact repetition works the second time, not the third. Change it slightly. It doesn't feel authentic.)
“Are you sure?”
“What is today?”
“It’s Monday, Jonathan.” (This! This is how you show that Jonathon is dejected and depressed. This is much better than when you tell it to me earlier.)
He saw a box sitting on a shelf, “Why were you looking through that box? Let me see it.”
She brought the box to Jonathan, and he scooped a handful of photos out of it. The building blocks of their life visually presented in unchronological order. It was like a history book without text; everything that happened between these images would soon be mythology. In the future, these candid photos would shape stranger’s perceptions of him.
Jonathan stared at a picture of his deceased little brother. Edward had sent the photo a month before he had died in a car crash. He resented his little brother because their parents constantly forgave Edward’s hellish ways no matter their consequences. However, Jonathan received their scrupulous scorn whenever he had faltered. Edward’s time on earth was like the protagonist of a Great American Novel, and Jonathan was a passive reader. Jonathan now admired his brother’s audacity. His eyes burned with anguished as he stared at Edward’s youthful face.
The couple looked through photos with great nostalgia, and then Eliza put the photos back in their box. A blitzkrieg of pain ravaged through his body like Germany’s invasion of Poland during WW2. (This simile is too much. It's getting silly.) She helped Jonathan to bed, tucked him in, and her lips touched his wrinkled forehead.
Jonathan drank his bitter coffee at the kitchen table. Eliza asked him if he wanted anyone over today. Jonathan snapped at Eliza and went on a lengthy tirade about his necessary isolation. She was patient and understanding and agreed with everything he said. Jonathan crossed his arms at the table. Eliza was generous during and after his petulant tantrum. The hospice nurse came and left, and then Eliza left to run errands around town. Jonathan was alone on the couch.
The bones of his chest protruded through his skin. He meditated in tranquil silence. He tried to imagine his mind living without his body. He could not. He searched for a reason to his sickness. No doctor could explain what had caused the mass of cells killing him. What destructive habit in his past had caused this suffering? Was it predestined from birth? Was it caused by the most stressful and trying time of his life? (Bloody hell. This is so bleak. I get it's meant to be bleak, but I mean it is just really unenjoyable at this point.)
Jonathan cringed and gnashed his teeth as his pervious infertility, which had caused Eliza’s tremendous depression. She was more devastated then than he was about dying now. She had cried a lifetime worth of tears during that turbulent time. Eliza recovered from her depression, but it took years of counseling, confessions, and love. George and Maureen had made them godparents to their two children, which helped save their marriage. (These random tidbits of information are taking me out of the story. In fact, I'm not even sure what the story is.) Eliza had built character from their past suffering, and Jonathan found solace from her continued strength.
Jonathan introspective of his misery made him lonelier. His rudimentary understanding of existence made him feel foolish. The search for a reason to his suffering was futile; he had no wisdom. Eliza came home and embraced her husband. He ran his ugly hand through her beautiful hair.
“I’m sorry about earlier. It’s the pain and the medicine I promise.”
“I completely understand, Jonathan. I wouldn’t take all of this any better. Don’t worry about me.”
“Let’s have George and Maureen over for dinner tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. I’ve had all the alone time I need. I want to see my friends.”
“I’ll call them tonight.”
Jonathan sat at the kitchen table with an empty plate in front of him. George and Maureen had been guests to dinner many, many times before. Eliza face was flushed with stress as she prepared the food. The doorbell rang. She welcomed their guests inside. Jonathan heard George’s deep voice travel to the dining room. George and Maureen saw Jonathan sitting at the table ready to eat and smiled sorrowfully at him. George towered his lanky body over Jonathan as they shook hands; Maureen knelt and hugged him.
They were exultant to see him sitting upright, cheerful, and alive. The chatter at the table was light as Eliza served food. George and Maureen were reserved and respectful with their tongues. They discussed the job George and Jonathan worked at together, their grown children, and retirement. Eliza slabbed a tender pork chop, lumpy mash potato, and a heap of macaroni and cheese on each plate. This was Jonathan’s favorite meal for dinner.
Jonathan held a fork, ready to eat, and then a burning pain consumed him. His fist clenched, his face contorted, his toes curled, and he cried a bloodcurdling whine. Eliza rubbed his bruised hand as a hundred thousand white blood cells were decimated. George and Maureen stared in unspeakable awe. The suffering passed through Jonathan, and then he relaxed.
The light chatter of earlier at the dinner table was now tense. Jonathan was reticent; so was George. Maureen spoke condolences and used euphemisms as her and Eliza discussed topics. Jonathan could not regain his appetite. Eliza asked if they were ready for desert.
Eliza brought out a red velvet cake, which surprised Jonathan. His dry mouth was now moist. He stood upright as Eliza sat a piece of cake on a plate in front of him. The cake awakened a ravenous appetite in his belly. He shoveled cake in his mouth with gusto. Georges stiff shoulders relaxed, and he smiled in delight at his best friend’s savage display. George cleared the phlegm from his throat, and then spoke for the first time since Jonathan’s spasm of pain.
“Jonathan it is unfortunate you’re not going to retire from work, but death is like the ultimate retirement if you think about it. Am I right?” (Ouch. I like this. This is interesting. I want to know how Jonathan will react. But it should have come a hell of a lot earlier.)
The pale joke was palpable. The sardonic comment ricocheted off the walls, and then rattled around their dense skulls. The words hit Jonathan like a powerful punch to the gut. He saw a bright light, left his invalid body for a moment, and then after a deep breath was back on earth. It was the second time his mind proceeded without his body. The third time he experienced this phenomenon it would last an eternity. Eliza and Maureen were flabbergasted. George’s eyes twitched between each aching face. Jonathan placed his bruised hands over his face. Then he erupted into a rapture of laughter; it was a jolly laughter, a joyful laughter, a jovial laughter. The other three could not help but laugh too.
Okay. Nice ending. That was surprise and I thought it was interesting for your character, but there are some glaring issues with this piece.
1. It is unremittingly bleak. Everyone's dying, upset or previously dead. The dog's dead. Other family have recently died. This is coupled with the fact that very little happens. The beginning I read quickly as it there was emotional conflict and there seemed to be some conflict between the couple too. I was interested to see how it would play out, but then it just... didn't. Jonathan spends a good 5 pages just being depressed, thinking about how he's depressed and then being more depressed. Eliza just watches him helplessly. It doesn't pick up again until George and Maureen come round.
Have more happen. The key to showing and not telling Jonathan's emotional state is to show how he reacts to situations now. This works well when Eliza mentions that someone should come round. But you don't really give him many situations to react to. Staring out a window is not a situation. I would cut all the tidbits of him thinking about things and have more happen in the present of your story, or the reader will get bored quickly.
2. If this is the beginning of your story, you have not done enough work for me to care about Jonathan to justify me empathising with 5+ pages of emotional pain. I do not empathise with him currently. Why do I care about him?
3. More dialogue please, less telling me about dialogue that has happened off page. This is a great way to develop relationships, don't hide it from me!
4. POV. Your narrator is omniscient and very distant. This makes it hard for me to relate to the characters. Your sentence structures are also lacking in variation quite a bit - change up your sentence starters, sentence length, etc.
5. Pacing. The pace is very slow throughout. This is caused by the fact that nothing really happens past the opening conversation.
6. Some of your similes and your descriptions are so over the top they come across as comedic, which is jarring in such a bleak piece.
You have interesting ideas and you can write, but a lot of this needs to be cut. Show me how Jonathan deals with new situations. Put conflict in. He's depressed and dejected, sure. What happens if he suddenly needs to do something? What if Eliza suddenly needs to be taken to the hospital and carer role is reversed?
Don't be discouraged. You can write and you have some good ideas. But please, please, please make more happen than just staring at people and at things. Get me some pacing!
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