Critique Practice

I believe I mentioned last week that I was going to post the second Nita scene for critique practice to go with the critique post over on Writing/Romance. The post over there goes into more detail about how to critique, but here’s the quick-start version (answer any or all of the questions):

1. Who’s the protagonist and what’s her/his goal?
2. Who’s the antagonist and what’s his/her goal?
3. What’s the conflict and who wins?
4. What needs work (the part where you were bored, the parts you didn’t understand, the parts you didn’t believe, etc.)?
5. What must be kept (when I rewrite this, what parts must I refrain from cutting)?
6. What do you expect/hope will happen after this?

Since it’s important to wait at least twenty-four hours before responding to a critique, and because sometimes it takes people a couple of days to respond to a post, I’ll do a response post to your critiques next Wednesday, but I won’t put anything in the comments here. Feel free to ask questions, I’ll just answer them in the follow-up post.

And here’s scene two:


When Nick Borgia came out of the hellhole Vinnie Smith called his office, carrying the fiction that Vinnie called his ledgers, Vinnie was behind the bar at the back of the room, a glass in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, the picture of thuggish misery.

Nick went around to the front of the bar and dumped the ledgers. “Vinnie, your bookkeeping is worse than your housekeeping.” He looked around the ugly, empty bar. “And your decorating.”

Vinnie raised his bald head, ruddy in the reflection of the many neon flames he’d slathered over the matte black walls of Hell Bar. “Joey’s dead.”

“I know.” Nick pointed to himself, showcasing the bullet holes in his jacket and shirt. “I was there. Now about your suppliers. This Mr. Lemon–”

“Joey’s dead,” Vinnie said.

Nick frowned at him. “He’s fine. He’s just moved on to another world. Now about Mr. Lemon–”

“Don’t give me that religious crap,” Vinnie said. “He’s dead and it’s my fault.”

“Really,” Nick said, interested now. “How is that?”

Vinnie shook his head and poured another drink, so Nick reached over the bar, took a glass, and poured himself one, too.

He took one sip, winced, and put the glass down. “Your liquor is terrible.”

“I rented you the apartment upstairs,” Vinnie said. “Not this bar.” He focused on the ledgers. “Were you in my office? Get out.”

“Your books have many entries referring to a Mr. Lemon.”

“I said, Get out!

Nick sat down at the bar. “If you really want me out, tell me about Mr. Lemon. If he’s the key to my problem, I can fix it and leave you forever.”

“And if I don’t?”

Nick shook his head. “Vinnie, somebody just put seventeen bullets through me to shoot Joey. Shouldn’t that tell you something?”

“Tells me that you’re bad news, you tricky bastard. Get out of here.”

“I’ve been on this island for two days looking for answers, and everything leads me back here. Tell me about Mr. Lemon.”

“No,” Vinnie said, and the ten-foot run of neon flames next to the street door fell and shattered on the sticky black floor. “Hey!”

“Tell me about Mr. Lemon, Vinnie.”

No. You get out–”

Three more runs of flame fell and smashed, leaving that side wall empty of neon.

“So much better.” Nick sipped his drink again and winced. “So much worse.” He shoved the glass toward Vinnie, who picked it up and drained it. “Now about Mr. Lemon.”

“I can’t,” Vinnie said, and all the neon on the other side of the bar fell, too, leaving Vinnie with only the three-foot run of flames behind him.

He looked at it in a panic and said, “Don’t.”

“Then talk to me, Vinnie,” Nick said, his voice gentle.

“It’s gonna cost me to replace that,” Vinnie said and poured another drink.

“It’s so much better without it,” Nick said, looking around. “Still vile, of course, but so much better. Some new paint, refinish the floor, get some drinkable liquor, you’d have yourself . . .” His voice trailed off as a thought struck.

“Takes money,” Vinnie said. “You’re gonna pay for that neon.”

“You know, I might.” Nick looked back at him. “Aren’t you curious as to how I knocked it off the wall?’

Vinnie opened his mouth and then stopped. “Hey, how did you do that?”

So tonight Vinnie was not one of the world’s faster thinkers. He hadn’t been exactly sharp in the two days Nick had been in the apartment over the bar, but he hadn’t been this slow.

“How much have you had to drink?”

“Not enough,” Vinnie said morosely. “Not enough to make up for Joey. Not enough to tell you about Mr. Lemon, neither.”

Nick nodded. “Okay. As I have told you several times, I’m the Devil, so knocking neon off a wall is not a problem. I do have a problem, however, and I believe it involves your Mr. Lemon.”

“I’m not telling you anything about Lemon.”

“But if I was your partner, you’d have to tell me everything.”

Vinnie snorted. “You ain’t never gonna be my partner.”

One of the blackened, splintered tables by the front door caught fire.

“Hey!” Vinnie said, and then the next table went up, and the next until all thirty tables were aflame. And then they weren’t, they were just thirty pieces of fragile table-shaped ash.

Nick smiled at Vinnie, and the ash tables collapsed into ash piles.

“Vinnie,” he said. “This bar is an insult to a very fine, very old institution. I’m going to fix that.”

“People like it,” Vinnie said sullenly.

“You’ve had maybe half a dozen people in here in the past two nights.”

“It’s the off-season.”

All the chairs burst into flame and became ash-chairs.

Vinnie froze, his drink halfway to his mouth, and a moment later the chairs collapsed into piles of ash.

“You bastard,” Vinnie said, without heat, and took another drink.

“So here’s the deal, Vinnie,” Nick said, also without heat. “You’re taking me on as a partner. I’ll pay to get this place–” He looked around in contempt. “—fixed.” He looked at the bottle on the bar. “And I’ll order the liquor. And I will also straighten out your books, Belia help me. And in return you will tell me everything.”

Vinnie glowered at him. “I don’t think–”

The last of the neon flames behind him creaked on the wall.

Okay,” Vinnie said.


Vinnie sagged against the bar a little. “Partners.”

“Who’s Mr. Lemon?” Nick asked.

The street door opened, and Vinnie looked past him and said, “Oh, fuck.”

“What?” Nick said.

“Spooky Dodd.”

“What?” Nick turned around and saw three people coming toward him, a dark-haired woman, a taller dark-haired man who looked like her, and a shorter, prettier blonde in glasses who didn’t look anything at all like her.

The woman in front wasn’t anything special to look at– medium height, medium weight, medium attractiveness, dark hair, dark jacket, dark jeans–until she got close enough for Nick to see her eyes. Darker than dark, her irises were almost the same black as her pupils. And when she reached him, he could feel the cold coming off her, not a lot, but it was there: she lowered the temperature around her.

“Hi, Spooky,” Vinnie said to her.

“Call me that again, I’ll shoot you,” she said, her voice flat and low, and then she turned to look at Nick, the full force of those cold black eyes meeting his.

“I’m Detective Dodd,” she said to him. “And you are?”

“Hello, Detective Dodd,” Nick said to her, holding out his hand. “I’m the Devil.”

“So I’ve heard,” she said and turned back to Vinnie.

She was cold and sharp, and there was something else, lurking beneath the surface.

You’re not entirely human, are you, Detective Dodd?

Mr. Lemon could wait. Nick sat down to watch.

14 thoughts on “Critique Practice

  1. Read it. I’ll wait for my sinus meds to wear off before I attempt anything. If I attempt anything.

  2. Here’s what I got:

    1. Who’s the protagonist and what’s her/his goal? Nick – find out who Mr. Lemon is; shifts to “become Vinnie’s partner so I can learn who Mr. Lemon is”

    2. Who’s the antagonist and what’s his/her goal? Vinnie – get rid of Nick so he can mourn Joey and get his life back

    3. What’s the conflict and who wins? Vinnie completely loses, but Nick only becomes his partner (secondary goal to get to the first) but didn’t find out who Mr. Lemon is. A step forward but not a total win.

    4. What needs work (the part where you were bored, the parts you didn’t understand, the parts you didn’t believe, etc.)? Vinnie believes Nick broke the neon and burned the tables but not that he’s the Devil so how is Nick doing it? The liquor must be making him very apathetic. You do point out he’s dimmer than normal in this scene. I trust you’re trying to convene that Mr. Lemon is scarier than a man claiming to be the Devil who has started destroying your furnishings and could easily do that to you too.

    5. What must be kept (when I rewrite this, what parts must I refrain from cutting)? “who didn’t look anything like her” – it really emphasizes that the focus is on the average looking woman – “Spooky Dodd” aka Nita. I also really like Nick and Nita’s exchange

    6. What do you expect/hope will happen after this? I’m interested in the interrogation that Nick is about to watch. I’m anticipating a snarky, fun conversation where Nita is going to be horribly frustrated by a dimwitted Vinnie but will end up sparring with Nick. She’ll be intelligent. However, given that you’ve told us it is her world that breaks first, I expect she’ll lose the next round.

  3. 1. Protag – Nick. He’s got a problem and he’s pretty sure Vinnie has got a piece of the answer. He wants that piece.

    2. Antag – Vinnie. He does not want to give Nick the puzzle piece because he’s scared of Mr. Lemon and he’s not scared of Nick, even though Nick is trashing his bar without moving.

    3. Conflict – There’s really no clear winner. Nick gets to be partner but he doesn’t get the information out of Vinnie because they are interrupted by Nita and company, so he’s only half way there.

    4. Something about Vinnie’s reaction to Nick seems off. Why is he scared of Mr. Lemon and not Nick, who is trashing his bar while not moving off his bar stool? He’s not even batting an eye. (Not part of the critique: Has Mr. Lemon convinced people he’s the big boss and all of Nick’s antics are less than impressive?) This bit is hard because I have some ideas based on what you’ve said but if this were my first time in this universe, I’d be confused because, drunk and grieving or not, falling neon and flaming tables would get my attention.

    5. Loved the 30 pieces of ash, the Spooky Dodd, love, love, love how Nick changes his focus because it’s not based on Nita being a woman, it’s based on her being not 100% human. Love how Nita dismisses him out of hand. Love how competent Nita is, which you can see from Vinnie’s reaction and how she ignores Nick.

    6. I’m not exactly sure what I’m expecting, but I know it’s going to be good. There’s a bunch of mysteries to be solved: How did Nick survive? Is he the Devil? Is he a bad guy?(He’s a POV character so probably not, but stranger things have happened. Raymond Reddington is not exactly pure as the driven snow and he always has an agenda and I lurv him.) If Nita’s not all human, what is she? (and from scene 1, is Morte human or not??) What’s the deal with Mr. Lemon? On a purely gleeful level, I’m expecting Nita to shoot Nick down at every opportunity and that there will be banter. And, eventually, sex.

  4. I haven’t read the other scene so discard anything that I suggest that was covered in the other scene.
    1. Who’s the protag and what is his goal? Nick and he wants info. Don’t know what is at stake and he hardly seems desperate to get the info so it feels low-key and informational. Vinnie doesn’t seem to be in danger, defying Nick.
    2. Antag and goal. Vinnie. Wants to be left alone to get drunk. Static – ‘leave me as I am.’
    3. Nick wins but it seems contrived. Now sure why the Devil has to become a partner to get info out of a human.
    4. Doesn’t seem believable that the Devil would have to put all this razzmataz into frightening a human. Would have to understand why he can’t just pop Vinnie’s eyeball in and out until he gives up the info. Nick seems to be constrained by rules that we don’t understand yet, that limit his powers. Also, if he is supernatural, then why doesn’t he just know the information? So maybe we need more insight into the rules of this story world, via Nick’s thoughts. You’d get great inner conflict if he wants to flame-roast the insolent barkeep but can’t.
    5. Like Spooky’s entrance and Nick’s interest in her. I like her hidden depths and her air of competence.
    6. I hope Nick finds Spooky attractive and it’s the start of a flirtation even if it’s destined to be one-sided. (I’m imprinting on a possible couple like a romance junky.)
    GENERAL: Vinnie is static – his constant response is ‘no’ until it’s finally ‘yes’. I think it’s because Vinnie doesn’t have an agenda/goal he is actively pursuing. So there isn’t an escalation in the scene – the ‘yes’ seems abrupt. I also question why the Devil has to tear stuff off the walls and set fire to things – seem like tricks for an all-powerful creature. Why wouldn’t he just slam the bartender up against the ceiling and peel his skin off, for example? Why does he have to contrive to become a partner in the business to get info – that doesn’t seem like the behaviour of a powerful creature? Is he constrained by rules that prevent him just wringing the info out of the human – if so, that would be really interesting to know more about because he’d be pretty frustrated at having to set fire to a table instead of the bartender. Also, doesn’t he mind the disrespect from the human? Nothing worse than being all-powerful and nobody takes you seriously. Would expect him to have a larger ego – would have comedic potential.

  5. I kept tripping over the word neon because I kept expecting it to be an adjective. Neon what? Paint? (I don’t see neon lights much these days.)

  6. 1. Protag of the scene: Vinnie (because he’s not shaping any of the action) Goal: To Forget
    2. Antag: Ol’ Nick. Goal: To get info about Mr. Lemon out of Vinnie. (But aren’t there easier ways, as the Devil? Proximity is good, too.)

    3. Partial victory for Nick; he gets into a partnership (which is kind of like the metagoal — team these guys up together). He doesn’t get the info he’s seeking, but he’s a step closer — almost there before our Detective Dodd shows up with her posse.

    4. What needs work: I feel that Vinnie could back out of the partnership when he’s sober. What would make it more permanent? Also, there’s a lot of no-ing. I know there “should” be three refusals, but this doesn’t feel quite right. When the neon starts falling down, I’m not quite sure why it’s doing that. But attacking the light (and the bad decor) seems really right. Cultural memes for “magic going on here” are twitching noses, waving wands, waving hands/fingers, a blink, etc. Cheesy? Not cheesy?

    I’m not fully engaged until Detective Dodd comes in for the mini-scene at the end. This has nothing to do with the previous scene, but it’s great, snappy and full of promise. Looking at it, it’s actually three scenes. Vinnie vs. Nick; Vinnie vs. Dodd (for two paragraphs?), and then Nick vs. Dodd. Dodd is shaping that mini-scene at the end; Nick changes from mild interest to Wowza! (or demonic equivalent).

    5. What to keep: Well, you are going to have to get Vinnie and Nick together somehow. Keep that. I love the tables and chairs turning to ash, like the march of time has suddenly accelerated. And that last bit? Dodd’s smart mouth? Oh, yes, yes, yes! Keep that!

    6. I hope for interrogation of both Vinnie and Nick by Our Detective Dodd — sharp and stabby and I hope they give up more than they really wanted to. I expect Nick to gain a great deal of respect for Dodd in the process, and find that respect is a quite sexy emotion.

    I really love this story!

  7. 2. Antag: Ol’ Nick. Goal: To get info about Mr. Lemon out of Vinnie. (But aren’t there easier ways, as the Devil? Proximity is good, too.)

    Read the comments, then re-read this and realized the subtext is all in my head. As the Devil, what can he do? Can he pop in and out of places automatically? Can he pop in and out of time? If so, he could instantly be in contact with other informants. Or even spy on Vinnie during the last time he was in touch with Mr. Lemon when Mr. Lemon was in the bar. (I suspect Mr. Lemon may be associated with the cleaning staff, and goes by the code-name “Lemon” when doing his evil deeds.)

    Or, as Devil, can he cast runes? Read tea leaves? Burn whiskey and read the future or the past in the flames? With any kind of accuracy?

    I didn’t even think of popping Vinnie on a spit and roasting him over some flames until I read the other comments. That absolutely isn’t right for the story. That would be a huge mistake for this story. But, something needs to clarify why Nick can’t do that. But this problem will be easy to fix — Hell is such a bureaucracy. In ALL the stories, the Devil really is so confined in his dealings with living mortals.

    For some reason, it reminds me of my cell-phone contract. Surely, some sort of devils were involved in the devising of that renewal system.

  8. 1. Who’s the protagonist and what’s her/his goal? Nick wants to get information from Vinnie.
    2. Who’s the antagonist and what’s his/her goal? Vinnie doesn’t want to give said information to Nick.
    3. What’s the conflict and who wins? The goal is the information but I’m not really sure what the stakes are. For either of them actually. Neither wins but a partnership is formed.
    4. What needs work (the part where you were bored, the parts you didn’t understand, the parts you didn’t believe, etc.)? I’m probably just stupid but I didn’t get the reason for the neon lights falling at first, even though I knew going in that Nick was the Devil. The whole interaction between Nick and Vinnie is promising, so please, please, please don’t cut it, but right now it feels a bit cold. I don’t feel like I’m in Nick’s POV mostly because I have no idea how he feels about the interaction. Is he annoyed at Vinnie? Vaguely amused? Frustrated he can’t get the info on Mr. Lemon? Does Nick enjoy his powers? Or is he irritated that he can’t just snap his fingers and make Vinnie’s head pop and get the info he wants? Or maybe Nick is bored with his powers/abilities to scare Vinnie (same old, same old) and that’s why, when Nita enters, he perks up in interest? Because he senses she’s immune to his power? Hmm, this thought made me go back and read these lines again:

    “She was cold and sharp, and there was something else, lurking beneath the surface.

    You’re not entirely human, are you, Detective Dodd?”

    Okay, maybe THAT’S why Nick perks up when Nita enters? Because he finally feels challenged because his power are limited when it comes to Nita?

    5. What must be kept (when I rewrite this, what parts must I refrain from cutting)? I vote to keep it all – I like all the action, I just need more reaction on Nick’s part so I can connect with him better.
    6. What do you expect/hope will happen after this? I would love for Nick, who has been bored up to this point (because getting shot 15 times and trashing Vinnie’s bar without lifting a finger is Just Another Day In The Life Of The Devil) to be supremely amused by Nita’s interrogation of Vinnie.

    1. I feel compelled to note that when I read Nick, I found him to be laid back and amused. He didn’t seem overly bothered, put out, put upon or anything. Like he knew he’d get what he wanted eventually. Time wasn’t a thing for him even though I read he’d been there 2 days and had a reason to pursue Mr. Lemon that implied some urgency.

  9. Protag: Nick. Goal: starts at get info from Vinnie. Seems to be patiently determined about it. Goal morphed halfway through to include setting the bar right, not sure why. For the challenge?

    Antag: Vinnie. Goal: peace

    Nick wins

    Agree that Vinnie was taking lack of reaction to an extreme. Need a little more context about why, though not a lot more. I also didn’t expect Nick to physically torture Vinnie, Nick just doesn’t feel evil like that. Extremely self-centred, yes. Evil, no. Also the name Lemon grated on me. It just felt fake.

    Loved the dialog between Nick and Vinnie. Loved the way Nick thought death wasn’t a big deal and Vinnie thought that was religious crap. Please keep that line! Love Nita’s instant dismissal of Nick.

    I expect Nita to get nowhere with Vinnie while Nick gets steadily more amused and eventually pisses her off no end. Then I hope she’ll turn the tables on him and start sneaking info out of him instead.

  10. Did Vinnie witness the shooting? He’s very calm to be speaking with someone he saw shot multiple times. He’s very calm to be talking to someone who is casually destroying his surroundings.

    I kept thinking neon colored paint, not light fixtures

    Loved the introduction of Spooky Dodd. Loved the description of the furniture turning to ash and holding it’s shape for moment before collapsing.


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