I had lunch with an out-of-town friend recently, and while we were doing the ‘So, what have you been up to?’ part of the conversation, I said I’d recently done a manuscript analysis on a novel, and described it as something like ‘critical design review’ in software design (the friend has a Silicon Valley engineering background).
He said — part interest, part skepticism — “How do you do a critical design review on a novel?”
I said, “Well, remember I used to be a geek,” (more formally, a NASA tech). And like the elephant, I haven’t forgotten. So when I sat down to read the draft of a novel and comment on it, my report wasn’t quite a PowerPoint presentation, but it did use more headings and subheadings than someone without tech reflexes might have used.
A more flattering way to describe what I did is to say I automatically tried to be comprehensive, and objective.
Comprehensive led to headings, and to trying to cover all the ground: character, voice, setting, story; the story arc, intention, beginning, middle, end; etc.. I drafted 60 pages of notes and cut it down to 18.
Objective led to remembering, it’s not my book. I’m trying to find all the critical issues as well as all the deepest strengths in another writer’s story, and help it become the best they can make it, not think about it as I would if it was mine. (Remembering the useful and not useful manuscript analyses I’d received on my own work did a lot to support this idea!)
In IT land, I also learned to bless people who are clearheaded, and straightforward. And so the final ‘voice’ I tried for in my report can be described as ‘blunt but also encouraging’.
So that’s what I told my friend. I don’t know whether he was convinced; but I’ve since heard back from the client, and the report is apparently of some use. So geek-style literary analysis is not such a bad way to go.