Critique Meat

The critique goal is to improve your writing and editing skills; the fall-out is helping another writer do the same.

As writers, we understand noun and pronoun usage, plot movement, character arc, overstating, under-explaining, but they are at times hard to gauge in our own stories. Am I telling the reader what they need to know, or too much? Enough description or does the particular paragraph border on purple prose? How and when should I emphasize an important point to make sure readers do not miss it?

These are the more difficult things to know. Readers will pick up on different nuances depending on their skill (and yours), and some will be missed. So be it—I do not recommend writing to the lowest common denominator. Still, we writers must be cognizant of the reader with each word choice, every sentence, and the order delivered.

James’s critique of my novel surprised me in what he noticed, and alternatively, a couple items he missed . . . or did he? Will a foreshadowing seed hinted in the early part of the book bear fruit when he arrives at the fulfillment? Some items remain to be seen. Just because he did not mention a particular hint does not mean the seed did not get filed away to sprout at a future time in the novel. I wait to see if I succeeded or vagueness undermined me.

Critiquing involves a slew of issues (contextual, logistical, rational), but the most helpful is the sentence and phrasing missteps a fellow writer will see that the creator missed—the “Meat” of improving your writing.

The following items from his critique point to the common things we know as writers but still miss when editing our own writing. I will comment as necessary. James pointing out the flaws magnifies the need for me to improve my editing skills—again, one of the main reasons for finding an honest critique partner.

Readers can and do put aside some logistical issues demonstrated by readers who have “studied” the Harry Potter books—what they won’t forgive is poor writing.

What follows are examples of poor writing James found in my manuscript: some work as originally written, others need improvement, and others are just bad.

Examples

Set-up: Aban is my protagonist’s mount. At this point my MC is taking a seriously injured comrade to a healer.

Example: Aban dashed, smooth and sure through the narrow pass, across the bridge to Nychelle’s Gate where sentries yelled for him to stop, closed gates forcing him to do so.

James’ comment: This would carry a little more urgency broken up. eg., “Aban dashed through the narrow pass and across the bridge. The gates were closed. Sentries yelled for them to stop.”

Urgency is an important ingredient.

Next sentence: The gate swung outward.

James’ comment: Needs a small beat there. “There was a pause (tension), then the gate swung outward.”

Tension is good.

Example: “Tristyn’s allegiance is critical to any success of defeating the King.”

James’ comment: omit “any success of.”

Yes, cut unnecessary words.

Example: “Winter will be upon us, and we need to get a base camp to work from.”

James’ comment: Omit “to get.”

Again, cut unnecessary words. I might even shorten it further and remove to work from.

Example: Her face grew hopeful, he thought. “We should travel together.”

James’ comment: Filtering. Just “her face grew hopeful” tells us that he is thinking it.

Overwriting, check; one of my flaws where special attention is needed. This is a good reminder.

Example: The trainer turned when he rode up, and Aban slowed to a gentle stop beside her. He nodded in greeting.

James’ comment: Name who nodded (the MC). The last “he” was Aban.

My take: Actually, the last “he” referenced my MC, but there remains ambiguity as to who nodded.

Correct noun-pronoun mix-up.

The listed examples involve inferior phraseology, items that can and should—for the most part—be corrected. There are more. Some are embarrassing.

Letting others read your writing opens a chest of concerns and fears. These are normal emotions, ones you can use in your own writing to enliven characters into the minds and hearts of your reader. Study the feelings, the how’s and why’s, the circumstances causing the emotions to better understand yourself and others—and just as important, the people living in your stories.

Writing is growing, and as creators we must continue to learn and improve. Critiquing is a good tool to help on the path of becoming a better writer. I encourage you to find a critique partner, and together, both of you can evolve into the writers you are meant to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Art of Critique: Foundation

Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.

Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.

Expectations

A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:

You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:

1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.

That’s the review—general and vague.

The critique may go something like this, with pictures:

1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.

In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.

The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.

A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.

The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.

Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.

Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.

James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.

Approach

Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.

When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.

Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.

It is time well spent.

The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.

Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.

When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.

Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.

A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.

You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.

A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.

Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.

See you on the next page,

Rick

As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com
http://www.fantasy-writers.org/
http://www.critiquecircle.com/
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

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