Friday, June 10, 2011

Can You Give as Good as You Get? Part Four

What should one see and comment on in a critique? The short answer is everything, but I expect you’re looking for specifics. Let’s start with the reactions you had to the story, the characters, and the writing. Did you dislike a character you thought you were supposed to like? Did you find the writing style dull instead of bright and sparkling (unless the piece was meant as a kind of dirge). Did you understand what was going on? Did the opening invite you in or did you struggle with it? Did the story go somewhere and have a logical ending, or did the plot seem undirected?

Other aspects of fiction affect these reactions. Was dialogue natural and lifelike or was it stilted and perhaps used as info-dump? (Sometimes the dreaded ‘as-you-know-Bob’ where someone provides a guided tour to something they’ve lived with for years to a partner who already knows, but it’s supposed to be a clever way to give the reader the info.)

Was the description needlessly over-embellished? (I went into the bright room and sat in the red chair beside the green glass topped table. Not needed unless someone smashes said chair onto said table.) Of course, setting is important, and most writing advice says the opening para of every chapter should reveal where the author has taken everyone and who is there. Not always possible, of course, but some attention should be given to this or future reviewers will complain that ‘everything seemed to happen in a vacuum’.

What about the writer’s style? Did the words flow smoothly or grate on the reader’s nerves? This might be a biggie to correct but there is often one or two bugs to advise the author to work on. In my case, those drifts into passive and the interminable ‘hads’. (George had woken early this morning to go fishing. What’s wrong with ‘George woke early...’?) Poor spelling and typos in a draft sent out for critique are inconsiderate, but some latitude must be given for writers who have other busy lives.

Then there is the reaction to the chapter itself. Was this the chapter you expected next? Poor Pauline is tied to the railroad tracks and the express is coming, but the next chapter is all about George fishing. To heck with George—this isn’t raising tension, except with the reader’s patience. This gets books thrown across the room. Did the chapter actually have a reason for its existence? It may have been a beautiful description of George’s fishing trip, but a few words in the chapter that reader wanted to see—like ‘George went fishing’ would have done just as well.

Pace is always a concern. Did the events rush past so fast that the story loses substance, or was so much attention given to the work involved in building the spaceship that reader forgot about the approaching asteroid? I hate books where the pace dashes along like Dan Brown on speed. Really dramatic chapters gain significance and excitement by the very contrast with the slower paced chapters leading up to them. Pace in fiction should be dealt with as a plot device.

There are lots more aspects of fiction critiquing in a peer group, but this was intended to be about critiquing and receiving critiques, not the writing craft itself. There are many books on writing that list all the elements and not just the ones I’ve touched on. If you want to become a good critiquer and, consequently, receive good critiques, it’s a good idea to have a list of things to watch for as you do a critique. After a year or so, the things to watch for will be in your head (they usually fall out of mine) and you’ll no longer need the checklist. At that point, send me a note—a smart writer is always on the lookout for good crit partners.

I notice that most commenters have crit groups, but not everyone does. I doubt that Lea has time to work with her original Muse crit groups, and I haven’t visited for awhile, but perhaps we should have a Muse author contact page where we can swap critiques for a pre-submission polish. That’s it for today, but I by no means covered all the aspects of crit groups worth considering.


Anonymous said...

You have a lot of good stuff in these four posts. I really enjoyed reading it. And it's always good to be reminded on how a crit should be approached. I tend to be a lazy reviewer when I encounted something I like. LOL. I so need a crit check list.


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Excellent points, Chris. These are a great example of what a good critiquer needs to do. If they follow this, guaranteed their own writing will improve.

Christopher Hoare said...

Thanks to everyone who visited and commented. Thanks to those who just visited; I hope you read something useful, either in my workshop posts or the responses.

Wendy said...

Thank you Chris!

It isn't easy being part of a crit group, but it is necessary. Finding a variety of crit partners was the best way for me to go but, when you receive nine critiques you have to reciprocate 9 times. And they were quicker writers than me so I was doing their extra chapters instead of mine. (I left when I realized I was critiquing 21and subbing 3)

I need them, bigtime, but when i go back it will be with a complete 1st draft so I can keep up.

Like you I used to preface my sub with what I expected to find out, but that limited the critter too much. What I found most helpful were the questions they asked. If this happened why didn't that happen? So? or Wouldn't he ... here? We can't read your mind! lol.
But the most important question I wanted the answer to was 'When does your eye wander back to the scroll bar? That's the point when I've lost them and I really need to rev things up.

Following on from your point about not being too dogmatic, as a critiquer of many novels at a time, I give my all to the chapter in question, remembering the story as well as I can But I don't believe we must immerse ourselves in the story to the point of becoming co-writers, as I used to do. We need to keep a distance so as not to lose our own story or worse our own voice.

I miss my crit groups so much, but I haven't got that new 1st draft down, so have to get a move on and get back in the swing.

Thanks for your workshop. You motivated me. :)