A USEFUL CRITIQUE
Susan Tuttle's wonderful 'What If' critique group. This SLO NightWriter's group has met happily for years and combines teaching and on-the-spot flash fiction sessions with a critique process.
Find Susan Tuttle at- susantuttlewrites.com
I have the privilege of serving as Critique Group Coordinator for SLO NightWriters. I’ve developed a starter package for folks new to the critique group process. I call it, A Useful Critique, and will share it here in two posts. Do copy and use it if you find it helpful!
Part 1 - Critique Group Guidelines & Etiquette
Part 2 - What Makes a Helpful Critique
And, do comment. I’m always looking for pointers on how to maximize the critique experience and would be grateful for your suggestions!
Part 2 - What Makes a Helpful Critique?
If you’re new to the critique process and are unsure about what to comment upon, here is just a partial list of elements you might consider. I, myself, am guilty of ALL of the below listed problems, and many more I'm sure. I continually kiss the feet of my mentors and critique group members who help me identify and repair them!
Points of confusion: More information or rephrasing may be needed for clarification.
Points of confusion: More information or rephrasing may be needed for clarification.
A Story Problem: A story problem or story questions (What is the book about - generally a good idea and often best established right up front,) may not be discernable at all or identified soon enough – so we don’t know why we’re reading the story. The identified story problem/questions may not be followed throughout, or may not be resolved in the end. (A favorite resource on this topic is Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise - storyisapromise.com)
Sub Plots: Story may read as thin, and benefit from subplot(s). Existing subplots may simply be diversions and not sufficiently tie into or adequately support the main plot.
Description: Inadequate or superfluous— Not enough and the scene can't be visualized, too much and the story drags.
Over or Under Writing: This is a tough call as it is often subjective. Is it literary skill or a matter of style? Sentences overflowing with adjectives and adverbs can suck tension from the writing. Though it might vary with genre, there may be a point of diminishing return with the flowery descriptions— Sometimes satisfying to write but NOT always satisfying to read.
Tension: Generally, tension needs to remain taught. Many misdiagnosed story problems are really sagging tension problems. Or, perhaps the tension is too intense or prolonged and a break is needed.
Conflict: A valuable, if not necessary, story component. Are the protagonist and antagonist identifiable? Does the author simply ‘claim’ the characters are in conflict and have to convince the reader with narrative protestations, or do they craft the personalities and situations so the conflict is inherent and organic, e.g., put a racist, a person of color, a homophobe and homosexual in a broken down elevator… and maybe throw in a time bomb. You’d have to work hard NOT to have conflict.
Point of View: 1st person, 3rd person, omniscient, etc. Who is telling the story? Through whose eyes are we looking? Is the POV established early on and used consistently? The choice of POV may not be the most powerful for the story. There may be unintended changes or inconsistencies in POV. Intended changes may not be clearly identified, causing confusion.
Narrative Tense: There may be unintended changes or inconsistencies in past/present/future tense.
Action: Long sections of descriptive narrative can drain tension. Scenes may need a higher proportion of action, or some action interspersed. Or, perhaps the action is too intense or prolonged and a break is needed.
Pacing: The story may drag or race too quickly in general or at particular points.
Character Development: We may not feel we know a character; their personality may not be discernible. We may not care about them or their situation. Characters may not be distinguishable from each other. They may be too stereotypical and not quirky or interesting enough. Motivation may be lacking for their actions. They may not have a function/goal/purpose in the story. They may not be learning, changing or growing if that is required of them.
Plausibility: Things may seem unlikely, e.g., this would never happen in the unique story world the author has crafted. Or a character, as the author has developed them, would never do or say such a thing.
Plotting: Events of the story may not flow logically, they may not offer an adequate structure to support subsequent events, or may stray too far from an established story problem. Depending on genre, the plot/story events may need an arc with ratcheting tension.
Beginnings & Endings: A more compelling hook at the introduction or a more satisfying conclusion may be required. A more discernable 3-act structure may be helpful.
Drama vs Melodrama: Does the drama feel real, deep and organic? Exaggerated emotions and stereotypical characters, dialogue & behavior can contribute to melodrama.
Emotional Impact: The author may describe the emotions of the character but you, as the reader, can’t experience or feel them. Show-Don’t-Tell may help. The author’s protestations that Roger is full of rage may not translate the experience as well as watching Roger shred his mattress with a hunting knife. Taking it out of narrative description and ‘putting it into a scene’ with action and dialogue can help. And, do say what emotions you feel as you critique. The author may not have intended to evoke those emotions.
Dialogue: May be too stilted, cliché, too obvious or ‘on-the-nose’, more subtext may be beneficial. There may be a distracting over-use of dialect, slang, or cursing. May not be adequately grounded in narrative context. And related.... Voice: All characters may sound the same and can’t be distinguished. Dialogue may not be unique enough to reveal character.
Setting / Environment: Is the story is set in an environment that maximizes the drama? Is the environment adequately described and used to best advantage in the plot?
The Big Picture: This point is beautifully made by Jane Friedman on her blog: janefriedman.com - "Can we glimpse enough of the Big Picture to have that all-important yardstick? It's the 'big picture' that gives readers perspective and conveys the point of each scene, enabling them to add things up. If we don't know where the story is going, how can we tell if it's moving at all?"
Forward Motion: Is the story continually moving forward along the plot line?
The Five Senses: The story's impact might be enhanced by mining the senses: sight, touch/feel, smell, taste, auditory sounds.
Archetypes / Universal Appeal: The work may not resonate as relevant to the reader. This may be purely subjective, a matter of personal taste— but it could also be a deeper problem of overall relevance; failure to identify and tap into issues that readers relate to. Or, the writing my not be appropriate for an identified audience.
Theme/Subject: The theme or subject may not be discernable, it may not be profound or compelling enough to carry a full story, or the story line may stray too far from the established theme/subject.
Mood & Tone: There may not be a discernable mood or tone to the work, or portions may seem out of alignment with the predominant mood and tone.
Command of the Language: General skill or quality of the writing or phrasing may be lacking.
Word Choice: Ineffective word choices, inaccurate word use, or repeated words may diminish the story. The work may benefit from expanded vocabulary, or perhaps, a more modest vocabulary. Tossing a million dollar word into a simply-told story can stand out as pretentious or incongruous.
To be, or not to be: Overuse of the verb, to be, may diminish the writing. Was, was, was… can plague a page, and while the word may be grammatically correct, it can be dramatically inept. More active verbs can usually replace ‘was’ and make for more powerful prose.
Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar:
Format: Readability on the page and professional presentation, Generally, flowery type fonts are discouraged, proper use of tabs/indentations are expected. If varying from ‘industry standard’, it is done so with purpose.
The above list is much abbreviated. Entire books have been written on some of these elements and I'm sure there are many more I haven't noted.
When critiquing, also mention things that you love about the piece or that seem to work very well.
- Portions that are phrased beautifully
- Characters you love to love, or love to hate
- Sections that held your attention or had you spell bound
Add your own criteria for comment as you read through the piece. Say what works for you and what does not.
- ANY thoughts or impressions you have as you review the material could be valuable to the author!
- Try not to second-guess your instincts and first impressions. Say what comes to mind.