“I suppose now is a better time than ever to tell you about my anomalous medical condition.” – Maxwell, in The Altered Consciousness of Maxwell Silverhammer
“Ultimately, the criticism that’s leveled at it that it’s terribly written, is true.” – @litopia “The Porn Supremacy”, regarding Shades of Grey
Maxwell is an interesting fellow. Mystique and controversy surrounded his birth, and from his first breath he’s plagued by a mysterious, incurable illness that will preclude his having a “normal” life, and in fact alter his whole relationship with reality. Tragedy pierces the bubble of his existence, transforming his already wonky life, and still he presses on toward his goals with unfaltering, fairly unmerited, confidence to the end. His life is one of unfulfilled potential, and in that, serves as an adequate comparison to the story itself.
The Altered Consciousness of Maxwell Silverhammer is an ambitious novelette (Is that a new term, or a smaller novella? Can we just call this a short story? 20 pages is actually a short story). It introduces characters that could have such depth but never get there, too many unfulfilled plot possibilities, and some decidedly-poor word choices.
Am I being harsh?
Maybe I should lighten up, but here’s why I won’t: if we want to grab hold of the slipping standards of modern literature, we must start with critical thinking and honest opinions. We must stop shrugging everything off as passably good enough, or entertaining enough, or our literary landscape will soon reflect all the artistic quality of network TV.
I understand that the author, Daniel Bartlett, is an “emerging” artist, and rock-on in that regard. It’s an impressive feat to even get to that stage, statistically speaking. I fear this is an instance of immature writing though, and I don’t want the terms to become synonymous, nor do I feel one is an excuse for the other. This piece could’ve used some honest reads and serious re-writes before getting this far.
Well, it made it this far, and I’m an honest reader who thinks constructive criticism trumps complaining, so I offer a few universal tips that are specifically relevant:
1) Keep it simple. Yup. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Authors can see an infinite web of possibilities for their characters to embark on; a grand tangle of plot-lines stemming from a universe of factors unseen to the reader. For instance, the reader may or may not know why a character has a certain tattoo, whereas the author surely (I hope) knows. The craft is in knowing whether or not it’s pertinent for us to understand. Create or Die’s podcast episode entitled ‘Simplicity’ eloquently delves into the semantics of showing vs. telling, and the poignancy of “She smiled” over “She smiled because she was happy right then.” If your characters aren’t fleshing themselves out, their independent voices aren’t strong enough.
2) If I don’t care about your characters, I don’t care about your story. Plenty of people will take story over character, but I am not one. If characters are merely pronouns with a string of circumstances, I lose inter — oh look! A bird! Characters should have feelings and should be written about in a way that highlights their humanity. It makes them real. It makes me care.
3) A whole whack of people prefer stories to characters, so plots ought be kept tight. Don’t open so many options that none can be sufficiently seen through. It leaves danglies, (and it also leaves me musing over the more interesting turns we didn’t, but could’ve easily taken).
4) People seldom write how they speak, so writing dialogue is tricky by definition. Read it out loud as you write it, and don’t quit till it’s realistic. As a reader, if I can’t believe it, it never happened, hence your characters don’t exist, and your whole universe flashes out and turns into mere paper in my hand.
5) Run that bad boy through a spell check AND a human check. The cover page, the one with the title, should be especially flawless, slick graphics notwithstanding. Also, always number the pages when sending it out into the real world. Someone writing a review may want to print it up and read it at their convenience, and sans page numbers, they can only hope they’ve stapled it all into the right order.
The long and short of this short story is that I went into it hoping to be blown away, but found myself literally face-palming. It’s on sale on Amazon for 99 cents, and available on Kindle, which led to further face-palming. I started thinking that perhaps there’s a whole sect of skilled, probably discouraged, creative writers who aren’t sending their work out. Or that maybe as Litopia pointed out recently—and that statistics consistently prove—quality and popularity simply have nothing to do with one another.
On the other hand: beauty, beholder, eye, or something like that. It’ll cost you vastly less than a cup of decent coffee to see what I’m complaining about and whether or not you agree.
Having been adequately motivated, I’ve dubbed my bestie as my Lit Agent, and she’s Googling what that entails. In the meantime, I hope to read more emerging artists, and I pray to the Muses that the next thing that crosses my desk is so good it makes me wild with artistic envy.