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Nuts And Bolts of Critiquing
by Tina Morgan

In a previous article, Making Your Workshop Work for You, I discussed being diplomatic in your critiques. In Attack of the Killer Critique I covered how to handle a less than tactful critique. Now let's cover the nuts and bolts of writing a critique.

You know you should be polite and not attack the writer. Most workshops give you an option on which stories to critique. Exercise that option and the golden rule: If you can't say some thing nice, don't say anything at all.

When you read a story for critique, here are the things you should look at:

PLOT

1. Is there a clear, believable main plot?

2. Did the story start too soon and give you too much background information or did it throw you into the middle of the conflict where you're scrambling to catch up?

3. Did the main character resolve the problem in the end or merely resolve to live with it?

4. Do the subplots advance the story or are they simply window dressing to stall on ending the piece?

PACING

1. Did the plot move fast enough to maintain the reader's attention?

2. Did the plot move so fast you're still trying to catch your breath?

3. Does the pacing match the style and genre of the story? i.e.: A melodrama should not be moving at the same pace an action/adventure story.

SETTING

1. Did the description of the setting transport you to 'that time and place' or are you still sitting in your chair/on the bus bored to tears?

2. Do the descriptions run on for pages or are they interspersed throughout the story?

3. Do the characters, their actions and the time period agree/conflict? A millennium American attitude won't work for a Chinese woman in the Ming dynasty. Nor will current slang work for an 1800's western.

4. Does the order of events remain consistent throughout the story? Was the main character's hair dyed blue the night before only to have her wake up in the morning with her brown hair miraculously restored? Did the action hero cut his arm to the bone only to be using it the next day without any pain or loss of motion?

CHARACTERIZATION

1. Are the characters 'real'? Do they feel like stereotypes of all the books you've read? Are they complex enough to hold your interest or are you yawning by page two?

2. Were the characters consistent? This is where research can be so critical. A character that has a disability cannot suddenly 'lose' that disability half way through the story or perform feats of strength/intelligence that are beyond the character's innate abilities. Small details matter as well. Having a character's eye/hair color change half way through the story can be very distracting.

3. Does the protagonist undergo some sort of change in the story? If not, what is the purpose of the story? The change does not have to be a good one. If the story is dark, it is acceptable for the character to undergo a negative change.

4. Is the character's background given in one large lump or small manageable piece? Was there too much information?


DIALOGUE

1. Did the dialogue match the time frame?

2. Did the dialogue include unnecessary profanity, too many sentence fragments, clichés, or too heavy of a dialect?

3. Does each character have their own manner of speaking, like real people do?

4. The dialogue should match the conflict that is happening between the characters, where it's sexual, social, physical or political

POINT OF VIEW

1. Did the short story stay in one character's point of view? Did each chapter of a longer work stay with one character or did it jump around, causing confusion?

2. The story should stay in one POV (point of view). If it starts in first person (I), or third person (he/she) it should stay that way throughout.

3. POV shifts should identify the character leading the scene quickly and easily.

4. In a third person POV the story should stay with either omniscient point of view (all knowing) or limited point of view (no head jumping, all clues to other character's motives are through their actions and dialogue). If the writer does change the switch should be seamless and natural. If it's jarring, that is something that should be noted.


A story should grab your interest from the very first paragraph. Not all stories need to be spine-tinglers that have you clutching the pages with a white-knuckle death grip. If you prefer something more sedate, admit that up front in your critique. If you prefer more action, make sure you note that as well. Tell the writer, 'This is my opinion'. Don't assume that you know how to write the story better.

Keep in mind that writing a short story is far different than a full novel. If you are critiquing a novel chapter, you will not be able to see the entire conflict in those few pages. A novel gives the writer time to create more complex plots and characters. Each chapter does not have to resolve even one minor conflict in the story. A short story does not have time for more than 1 or 2 subplots or pov's. Every word in a short story should count.

Some writers have a stronger grasp of grammar than others. Some create vivid worlds, while others create characters that have you wishing they were real people you could know in life. Every writer has his or her own unique style. The objective is to try and help each individual find ways of strengthening their style and prose.

Also keep in mind that if you go on the attack with your critiques you are likely to receive the same in return. The same goes for short meaningless critiques. If you never write more than a paragraph for other workshop members, don't expect them to spend their precious spare time helping you with your writing. Not everyone is going to return the favor of a critique. That's all right. By critiquing other stories, you learn how to spot the problems in your own writing.

Remember that on the other side of the computer screen is a person who has put a lot of personal effort into the story you're reading. Treat them as you wish to be treated. The purpose of a critique is to find fault in a story, but it is not to destroy the person behind the writing. Be kind, be professional and have fun.


© Copyright 2001 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved

 

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