Tell Me What You Really Think: Evolving Critiques

Years ago, I was a member of an ongoing writer’s group and co-founder of another. When I joined, I had no idea how to give or receive a critique. I learned by listening and by doing, and occasionally by having one of my critiques blow up in my face. Over time, I’ve come to see that the quality of my critiques says as much about my own understanding of the craft of writing as about the stories under consideration. I’ve removed identifying information from a few examples to share with you. In reading these over, I ask myself how much my perceptions were influenced by conventional notions about writing, whether my attempts at humor were helpful or off-putting, how successful I was at speaking from my own experience and not as either the royal “we” or an omniscient arbiter of literary reality.

What do you think? If these had been your stories, would my critiques have been helpful? Or infuriating? Or incitement for you to turn around and critique the critiquer?

If you’re a member of a writers’ group, have your own critiques changed over time?

CRITIQUE A (1992)
There’s a rich, luscious texture that permeates this story. Many moments of wonderful imagery and phrases that were so beautiful I stopped and reread them. But somehow, the prose created a sense of floating, a lotus-eater indolence rather than forward momentum. I know it’s not a plot-driven story, but I think it still needs shaping in terms of the emotional and thematic elements, the levels of tension building to a resolution. The ending is really a punch line and in order for it to work, all the components need to be ready to fall into place.  As it is, there’s a kind of “huh?” of not quite fitting. Yes, the imagery of the final paragraph isn’t previously established, but I think it’s more the case that the elements you already have — such as the theme of emotional starvation — don’t move and build so that a single phrase can tie everything to a striking emotional finish.

I found much of the adult dialog to be superficially meaningless but resonant with connections I didn’t have any referents for. I quickly met my tolerance for not knowing what was going on, and I think this detracted from the inner, emotional story.

By the way, the stars (p. 13) are much closer than billions of light years.  Most of the night sky visible to the naked eye is within the order of a thousand light years. Galaxies such as Andromeda are millions of light years away.

CRITIQUE B (1995):
Hello and welcome to the hot seat. I hope the experience is helpful and not too intimidating.

In “StoryName,” you have presented us with a laudable intention, how two people work together to end a feud. As an official graduate of the Topanga Canyon School of Niceness, I’m a sucker for stories about nonviolence, universal brotherhood, and stuff like that. But message is not the same thing as story. For the story to be effective, you must take the reader through a series of experiences that change the reader’s understanding or insight.  One of the best ways to accomplish this is by inviting the reader to journey along with the central character, to experience that character’s hopes, struggles, failures, growth, and eventual triumph. Even a circular plot, which ends where it begins, contains story movement.

So, in order to construct a story from an idea, we need a character with whom we can in some way identify, and who has a goal or problem. The character must attempt by her own efforts to achieve her goal or solve her problem, meeting with failure and escalation of risk, marshaling successively more resources until she succeeds. All of this is conveyed by means of emotionally immediate scenes. Good stories often show us both interior and exterior conflict, that is, the character must struggle and overcome something within herself as well as an outer adversary.  Complex characters, who are subject to conflicting motivations and emotions, are much more appealing than characters who are simply good or simply bad.

In your story, you present us with two characters with no conflict either between or within themselves. The “troubles” are all offstage. There is no emotional immediacy to the “problem” because the feud is told in a distant, detached way, as if it has all happened to someone else, which it has. T. has not herself suffered, nor been moved to action by others’ suffering. In fact, the conflict is so pastel that I’m not sure it amounts to anything more than the people of one group thinking bad thoughts about the other people. Even the kidnapping which supposedly started the feud is dismissed as something which happens all the time. There has to be a real problem — such as a vivid, direct, transformative experience of the cost of violent conflict — in order to motivate our character.

Next, she must take action. T. doesn’t see the need for reconciliation herself, she merely inherits the cause from her deceased teacher. So what does she bring to this story if she only does what she is told and how she is told to do it?

T.’s actions, such as they are, are not met with any opposition.  There is no discernible buildup of tension or recognizable climax, no point at which either success or the most abysmal failure hinges on the actions of our characters. Everything flows smoothly and goes right the first time. This left me as a reader constantly wondering when something was going to happen. It seemed to me that T. might meet with obstacles from a number of sources — the resistance of the tribes, perhaps a command from her own chief not to mess with the enemy or accusations of betrayal, her own conflicted feelings, perhaps stemming from a personal loss. All of these might make an interesting story as she works to overcome them.

In effective fiction, the reader must understand what’s at risk.  Often the character’s efforts to solve a problem either make the situation more critical or up the stakes, increasing the tension.  In this story, there’s no sense of what will happen if T. fails.  Not only is there no emotional sense of how bad things were before, but nothing to let us know how they will be worse if she doesn’t succeed.

The story as a whole needs a rhythm, both in terms of the balance of length and detail to its parts and its overall tension/climax/release. Here, you spend a disproportionate amount of writing space on introductory scenes in comparison with the “meat” of the story, which is how the characters overcome internal and external obstacles to accomplish their goal.

I’ve marked other comments about setting, logical questions, and other matters on the manuscript itself. These problems pale by comparison to the overall lack of structure. The most moving, tranformative message in the world won’t get through to the reader unless there’s a compelling story to carry it. Before you worry about clothing, get the skeleton strong enough to support it.

CRITIQUE C (2006):You have all the elements of a compelling story here, different enough from the usual in refreshing and interesting ways.

One of the fundamental questions in any story is, “Whose story is this?” This is usually the viewpoint character, but not always (viz, THE GREAT GATSBY). Another way of saying this is, “Whose problem is this?” If a story begins with one character begging another character for help, as in, “Help us, Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope,” then the question arises, who has the problem? Princess Leia or Luke. Luke, sensibly, says, “Not my problem,” and he’s right. (Then it becomes his problem, and he’s off to save the galaxy.) In heroic sagas and fairy tales, Luke would say yes because he is a hero and his problem is that he needs a quest thankyouverymuch to fulfill his nature.

The story took too long to engage me. I found the opening passive, vague and generic. There was far too little real description of anything. The first few pages read like a blurry copy of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. I was never clear exactly what was normal and what was not, and whether J. was on drugs, ill, or the sidewalk itself had developed elastic qualities for some bizarre science-fiction reason. The general wordiness, imprecise control of language, and lack of vivid descriptive details also generated a feeling of mistrust in me as a reader.

The interview scene is full of people being deliberately mystifying, not making sense, awkward pauses. Now, if what you mean is that these people are indeed out of phase with normal human conversation, that’s delightfully wacky, but I need a little more evidence. More importantly, the prose has to be so clear and the other interactions so solid that I understand this is part of their weirdness and not just a badly designed scene.

Don’t be discouraged by all the red ink and comments on the manuscript. This story is well worth working on, and I believe you will come out of it with stronger prose craft and a much better story.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online. Read my essays on the writing life and how to survive reviews in Brewing Fine Fiction.

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Tell Me What You Really Think: Evolving Critiques — 6 Comments

  1. This is a great discussion topic, though it’s kind of hard, at least for me, to discuss critiques when I haven’t seen the original. I don’t see anything mean here, or anything that seems to be exhorting the writer in how to rewrite their story to fit your tastes, which are two obvious red flags.

    The first critique is more generic–it’s also shorter, without example. Each one gets longer, and more specific. I happen to like specifics when someone critiques my stuff, otherwise my sorry image-oriented brain is left going duh? duh? so I’d find the last one most useful. But I guess styles of critiques vary as much as styles of narration do!

  2. Sherwood, that’s one of the things I saw, too. I started out with vague generalizations that read like a cross between an attempt at something mystical and “creative writing”-ish and just flopping around trying to find the words to express what I meant. I knew something in the story didn’t work, but had no diagnostic tools or vocabulary. With time and practice, I got better at identifying and articulating the story problems. I also shifted away from “us” readers to me, specifically, acknowledging that I may not understand what the writer is trying to accomplish, and also that another reader might feel differently.

  3. It can be fun. . . a great rule in reading crits is that if everyone complains about a certain stretch, there’s a problem there, even if they are all over the place in identifying the problem.

  4. There is a power in the groupmind. I run a writing workshop with the Writers Center in MD. Once we worked on a story that had a confusing ending. EITHER the hero and the heroine were having sex on the beach, OR he murdered her and threw her body into the surf. It was written so elliptically and euphemistically that it was hard to parse out what was actually going on. We argued the case for both options, citing the text to support both. Finally I put it to a vote. The class split, 50-50, sex versus murder. Finally we consulted the writer. She was horrified at our lurid imaginations, and assured us it was sex on the sand. But she also fully grasped that she had NOT COMMUNICATED CLEARLY to her readers, and that a fix was called for.

  5. I agree with Sherwood about them getting more specific as you go, and about specifics being helpful. When I critique (which I don’t do often, because even a short story or a chapter can take hours) I do in-line comments in the file, each comment right there underneath the lines I’m talking about so it’s very clear what I’m referring to, then I do however many paragraphs (or pages) of general comments below.

    I don’t see anything objectionable in any of your critiques. I can’t say whether or not you’re right, since I don’t know what the stories looked like, but assuming your observations were accurate, the write-ups look helpful, especially B and C where you’re a bit more focused. If these were critiques of my stories, and if the observations are accurate, I’d be happy to get this kind of commentary.

    Angie

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