Critique Technique Table of Contents

Here’s a Table of Contents of all of the Critique Technique posts to make it easier to go directly to the post you want to read.

Introductory Posts

Part 1: Critique, Technique, and Procedure

Part 2: Series Overview

 

Reader Response

Part 3: How Do You Feel?

Part 4: Authorial Intentions and Tracking Your Own Responses Updated!

 

Beginnings and Endings

Part 5: Weak or Missing Hook Updated!

Part 6: The Wrong Beginning Updated!

Part 7: Scene and Chapter Endings Updated!

Part 8: Story Endings Updated!

 

Characterization

Part 9: Characters and Conflict Updated!

Part 10: Poor Characterization Updated!

Part 11: Lack of Character Development Updated!

Part 12: Showing and Telling in Character Development Updated!

Part 13: Timing the Reveal Updated!

Part 14: Out-of-Character Behavior

Part 15: Unclear Character Goals

Part 16: Unclear or Insufficient Obstacles

Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

 

Setting

Part 18: Lost In Space

Part 19: Vague Setting

Part 20: Too Much Setting Detail

 

Plot

Part 21: Unclear Plot

Part 22: Overly Complex Plot

Part 23: Confused Storyline

 

Flashbacks, Flash-Forwards, and Backstory

Part 24: Unclear Transitions

Part 25: Misused Story or Flashback

Part 26: Tangents

 

Narrative and Dialogue

Part 23.5: Read-Out-Loud Tools

Part 27: Narrative and Dialog

Part 28: Awkward Dialog

Part 29: Writers’ Tics

Part 30: Too Many Words, or Too Few

Part 31: The Wrong Words

Part 32: %*@!$#^!!!! (Swearing)

Part 33: Contradictions

Part 34: Imbalance Between Narrative and Dialog

Part 36: Name-Calling

Part 37: As You Know, Bob

 

Pace

Part 38: The Pieces of Pace

Part 39: Pace: Speed It Up, Whoa It Up, or Change It Up

 

Description

Part 40: The Gray Haze

Part 41: What Was That Again?

Part 42: The Dreaded Expository Lump

Part 43: Too Many Notes

Part 44: Telling, Not Showing

 

General Story-Telling Problems

Part 45: Pop Goes the Reader!

Part 46: No Story Arc

Part 47: Padding

Part 48: Danglers

Part 49: Stating the Obvious

Part 50: Head-Hopping

Part 51: Point of View Shifts

 

Mechanical Errors

Part 52: Spelling

Part 53: Punctuation

Part 54: Grammar Errors

Part 55: Manuscript Format

 

Positive Reinforcement

Part 56: Good Job!

Part 57: Great Start!

Part 58: Magic Middles

Part 59: Ending a Scene or Chapter Well:

 

Other Topics

Part 35: The Critiquer’s Mind

Part 60: The End

Bonus Material: Life on the Other Side of the Critique

 

 

Critique Technique, Part 3: How Do You Feel?

New members of a critique or writers’ group will often say, “I don’t know how to critique.” The tendency, I suspect, is to think they have to do what they did in high school or college English classes: identify and explain the symbolism in a passage, say, or compare and contrast the use of metaphor with onomatopoeia.

Nope! Nope, nope, nope. That’s not what critique or writers’ group feedback is about. It’s about helping the author get better by identifying what worked, what didn’t, and why.

How Do You Feel?

Let’s start with the easiest thing: how did the piece make you feel? Did it:

  • excite you
  • anger you
  • make you happy
  • make you sad
  • confuse you
  • fascinate you
  • annoy you
  • thrill you
  • bore you
  • make you giggle
  • make you swear
  • make you stay up all night thinking about it
  • make you throw it across the room
  • make you want to bang your head against the wall
  • something else entirely
  • all of the above
  • some of the above
  • none of the above?

Note that it could have done many of these things. Even a four line poem can do this—and a really good one will.

Whatever it might have done, capture that emotion—write it down in your comments: “This piece made me feel X” (and maybe Y and Z and A and…).

A Two-Track Mind

This requires a bit of self-awareness, a kind of second track running in your mind as you’re reading that’s taking note of your responses to the story. It can take some practice to develop, but doing so will pay big dividends because everything else in this series will also depend on that second train of thought running on that parallel track, taking notes, as it were.

So, once you’ve noticed those emotional responses to the piece, the next question to ask is, “Why did it make me feel that way?”

Ah, now the fun begins. Now you get to start really analyzing the work.

WAIT! Come back! This isn’t scary! Really it’s not. But to let your heart rate get back down to normal, we’ll save that topic for next time.

Your Thoughts

Meanwhile, do have any suggestions on how a new critiquer can develop or improve their awareness of their response to a piece while they’re reading it? If so, please put them in the Comments box at the end of the post.

Critique Technique, Part 8: Story Endings

To quote from Ogden Nash’s puckish poetry accompanying Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, “Now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale….”

The story you’ve been reviewing has reached and passed its climax, its moment of greatest tension and conflict. The good guys have won… or not. The protagonist has survived, achieved whatever she set out to achieve (or maybe something different), or gained some new understanding… or not. Now it’s time for the author to tie everything up in a shiny bow, or leather straps, or bands of steel… or not, so you, the reader feel that satisfying sense of completion… or not.

Or not?

Or not. We’ll get to that shortly.

What Makes a Great Ending?

Way back in 2011, award-winning thriller writer Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on The Kill Zone blog in which he talked about the makings of a great ending. I won’t try to reproduce the whole piece here—you should go read it for yourself—but he says a great ending should:

  1.   Resolve anything that wasn’t taken care of in the climax. Tie up the loose ends, in other words.
  2.   Answer the “story question”—that is, what the story was about, what changes the protagonist went through as a result of the situation he faced, and whether, as noted above, he achieved his objectives… or not.
  3.   Establish a new sense of normalcy. Things have been topsy-turvy for the protagonist throughout the story. Now she can get on with her life, even if that life is totally different from what it was at the beginning.
  4.   Reinforce the story’s message, theme, or moral, if there was one.

That third point deserves a bit more discussion. The “new normal” doesn’t have to be a good state of affairs. The protagonist might be dead… which could be bad for him, or good. Or enslaved. Or wealthy. Or married. Or divorced. Or back at home (except, of course, that you can never go home again). There may be hints that there’s more chaos or turmoil yet to come, but at least the chaos and turmoil of this story are over… or not.

Exceptions

There are several exceptions to this “rule,” of course. First, some genres tolerate unhappy or ambiguous endings that leave things unsettled. They’re acceptable in “literary” or science fiction but anathema in romance. For example, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ends with a scene of amazing humanity and giving, yet we never know the result of Rose of Sharon’s act or what happens to the entire Joad family.

Woman reading a book
Image courtesy of Marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Second, if the piece is part of a continuing-story series—and this is true for non-fiction as well as fiction—there needs to be something left unresolved. In this case, just as with the end of a scene or chapter, this is where the writer leaves the reader with that, “But wait, what about…?” itch, that hint of something left undone, unfinished, or still to come that makes him want to read the next installment, even if it’ll be a year or more before it appears. This incompleteness can appear in the form of just a word, a phrase, or a sentence, or even in something left not said or not done.

Third, there’s the series in which the protagonist and some of his or her associated secondary characters continue from book to book, but each story more or less stands alone. Many mystery series fall into this category. In this case, the resolution of one book may not necessarily lead the reader to the next one. Character is critical in these kinds of books: if the reader isn’t interested enough in the protagonist, she won’t seek out another book in that series. In each book, while the story (such as the murder to be solved) is different, what carries the series is the nature of the protagonist and the personal problem (what Les Edgerton calls “the story-worthy problem”) he or she must face because of the story problem. J. A. Konrath’s Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels mystery thriller series is an example of this. The conclusion of one book may or may not suggest what the protagonist’s next challenge will be, although there might be hints of it buried in the text. For you as a reviewer, this is going to be hard, if not impossible, to ferret out, so in this respect, this kind of book is similar to a stand-alone one.

Fourth, a variation of this latter series is one in which the environment, setting, or wider story remains more or less constant but different characters become the protagonist in subsequent books. Think The Hobbit followed by The Lord of the Rings (setting aside the arguments about whether Lord of the Rings is one book or three). In this case, the author has a couple of choices: they can elevate a previously secondary character to protagonist, while demoting the protagonist of a previous book to a secondary role, or they can introduce a totally new protagonist in each book. For the purpose of evaluating the ending, in the first case, you’ll want to see if that secondary character was interesting enough and had a large enough role to make you want to read more about them. In the second case, the environment, setting, or story has to be interesting enough to make you want to return to it.

Note that in both of these last two cases, the author has to be up-front with you about their intentions. In a critique group setting, writers will tend to want to not reveal future elements of the story (that is, “spoilers”), but writers should be discouraged from doing this because it hinders the group’s ability to fully evaluate the work and how well it will function as part of a series.

In the end (pun fully intended), no matter how a piece concludes, your job as the reviewer is to decide whether it succeeded in its mission to complete the story… or not.

Questions You Can Use

Here are questions for you to ask as you make your evaluation:

  • If the piece ends a series or is meant to stand alone:
    • Have all the threads of the story been tied up?
      • Do I know what happened to all the major characters and why?
      • Has a new state of normalcy been established?
    • If the author meant the piece to have a message, moral, or theme, is there a concluding restatement of it? Note that this statement can be implicit or explicit. The Grapes of Wrath has one: the human spirit will triumph, no matter how many degrading and demoralizing obstacles are put in the way. Rose of Sharon’s action says it better than any blunt statement even Steinbeck could have ever made.
    • Do I feel the story is complete, or is something still lacking? If something is lacking, what is it?
    • If the piece ends ambiguously:
      • Is the piece written in a genre that accepts or allows this kind of ending?
      • Is this what the author intended (as best you can tell)?
      • Did she prepare me for this?
      • Is it a fitting ending for the story?
      • If the piece is any part of a series except the last, add:
    • Do I have an idea of where the larger story is headed next, what’s in store for the protagonist (and possibly the antagonist)?
      • Is the “new normal” still unsettled?
      • Does the protagonist know there’s still something more to do or resolve? He may not, but you, the reader, have to sense it.
    • Am I excited by the possibility of spending more time with these characters? Do I want to know more about them? Do I want to find out how they deal with their next adventure, or the danger I see lurking around the corner?
  • If the book is a part of a continuing-character series, add:
    • Is the protagonist compelling enough that I would want to read more about him or her?
  • If the book is part of a continuing-setting series, add:
    • Are there secondary characters who are interesting enough that I would like to know more about them, or see one of them become the protagonist of their own story within this world?
    • Does the story-world provide enough opportunities for new stories and new characters that I would be interested in reading more books set in it?

Your Thoughts

What else do you look for in the end of a piece to decide whether that ending is successful or not? Add your suggestions or ideas in the Comments box below.

 

And with that, we’ve reached the conclusion of this series on beginnings and endings. Next time we’ll begin looking at characters and characterization.

The End on dice
Photo by hisks via RGBStock.com

 

Critique Technique, Part 60 — The End

 

The End on dice
Photo by hisks via RGBStock.com

By Ross B. Lampert

I’m not sure whether I should be hearing Jim Morrison’s dark, “this is the end, my friend,” or Ogden Nash’s, “And now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale.” Somehow, neither Morrison’s song “The End” nor Nash’s verse for Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals” seems right.

This post does mark the end of the Critique Technique series, at least for now. But like a good ending to a short story or novel, it should feel like it wraps up the series well.

Or maybe not!

You see, endings can take many forms—happy or sad, satisfying or unsatisfying, completing or dangling—as the author chooses. There’s no single “right” kind of ending except the one that’s right (appropriate) for its story. A romance is likely to end up happy, satisfying, and complete—the lovers fall into each other’s arms and all is right in their world. A tragedy can end up sad, dangling, and unsatisfying (yet perhaps in some strangely satisfying way). Take Shakespeare’s King Lear: at the end Lear has returned to madness and died, his beloved and only true daughter Cordelia has been murdered, and none of the survivors wants to take the English throne. And yet, if you’ve read or seen that final scene, you know: wow, what an ending.

So if there is no single kind of right ending, are there some general characteristics we can look for to determine whether an ending has done its job or not—and what that job was supposed to be? I think there are. Let’s try these on for size. A good ending should:

  • Be consistent with the rest of the story in tone and style. An essentially happy story shouldn’t end on a down note. Conversely, and tragic story shouldn’t be forced into a happy ending, á la P.D.Q. Bach’s “half-act” opera, “The Stoned Guest,” in which the entire cast sings, “Happy ending, happy ending, happy ending…” after they’d all died in the previous scene.
  • Wrap up only what needs to be wrapped up and leave dangling what needs to be left dangling.

A former member of my writers’ group took too much to heart the ideas that a story needed to end on an up-note with all loose ends tied up, so every one of his characters, from the hapless British ex-pat who’d gotten himself wrapped up in a gold theft and smuggling scheme to the down-on-their-luck Nigerian family who’d hatched the plot to the ruthless Mafia boss who wanted the gold for himself all ended up living happily ever after, with their storylines tied up in pretty bows. Um, no. The ex-pat, sure. He was the hero of the story and managed by pluck and luck to get himself out of a bad bind. The family, maybe. At least their story as the antagonists needed to be completed, although not necessarily with unicorns and rainbows. And the Mafia boss’s story didn’t even need to be wrapped up. His part wasn’t major enough to deserve it.

Conversely, my novel The Eternity Plague ends with some serious dangling threads (no spoilers here) because it’s the first book of a series and the dangling threads are what carry the reader into the sequel.

A good ending should also:

  • NOT resort to desperate, deus ex machina kinds of devices to wrap up story lines and achieve an undeserved happy ending. The story should reach its end naturally, not be forced into one.
  • Leave the reader satisfied. Now what the heck does that mean? Let’s try this. Say you’ve got a story that’s about a search for justice, an attempt to right a wrong. If the story ends with justice done, that’s likely to be satisfying. But if it ends with justice not done, but it’s clear why it wasn’t, and why the ending was understandable, even inevitable, then while the reader might not be happy about the ending, she can still be satisfied by it. In other words, the ending needs to make sense, to be fitting, in the context of the overall story.
  • Stays with the reader after he has closed the book or turned the page. Not every short story or novel will reach this level, nor should they. Not every piece is meant to do that, and whether it does or not depends in large part on the reader. But if the reader is still thinking about the story, the issues it raised, and the conclusions it came to days after he finished it, if he’s telling his friends about it, that’s a story with a good ending.

So as a critiquer, these are the kinds of things you’re looking for: consistency, the right degree of completion, naturalness, satisfaction, and resonance. If you find them, be sure to congratulate the author on them.

For writers, there are only three parts of a story that are hard to write: the beginning, the middle, and the end. A successful ending is something worth celebrating.

All right, then. Here’s your last chance: What do you look for to call the ending of a book or story a success? Add your suggestions in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

 

The Beatles' The End lyrics
photo credit: B Rosen via photopin cc

 

Critique Technique, Part 59 — Ending a Scene or Chapter Well

 

saying on shirt
photo credit: Harpersbizarre via photopin cc

By Ross B. Lampert

When a writer ends a scene or chapter, he wants to do two things. He wants to leave the scene’s or chapter’s protagonist worse off than they were before. (Except at the very end of the book. More on that next time.) And because of that, he wants to leave the reader wanting to read more. Needing to read more.

The end of every scene or chapter should in some way launch the reader into the next one. That launch doesn’t have to be the equivalent of a giant rocket blasting off for deep space. It could be a gentle shove. But gentle or gigantic, it needs to be undeniable: the reader can’t say no to it.

There are lots of ways to do this, of course. The writer can:

  • Employ the classic “cliffhanger,” in which the protagonist or another key character is left dangling over some kind of abyss: physical, emotional, psychological, or personal. The term, of course, comes from the book and movie serial that ended each episode with the hero hanging by his or her fingernails from a rock ledge or tree root above a long drop to certain death.
  • Leave the scene or chapter before the action is complete. This can be dramatic or not, but the incompleteness will drive the reader onward.
  • Switch point of view, time, or location. Especially when combined with ending the scene before the action ends, this technique pulls the reader onward.

In my book The Eternity Plague, there’s a chapter in which a riot takes place. In order to show the chaos and confusion of the riot, I switched from POV to POV and place to place very quickly—it’s called “jump-cutting” in television and the movies—once the riot was underway. No one character’s actions were done before I moved on to the next one… and the next… and the next. The result was that the reader raced through the chapter, which ended with this next technique.

  • Complete the action but leave the characters in a worse position than they were before. The cliffhanger is the extreme example of this, but this technique can be used very quietly, too, particularly if the text leaves the reader to figure out that things have just gotten worse. When the reader realizes that, they just have to turn the page.
  • Complete the action, leaving the characters seemingly in a better place, but having left hints that that peace and tranquility isn’t going to last for long. Those hints will push the reader onward: they have to know what’s going to happen when that other shoe drops.

As a reviewer, these are the kinds of things you’re looking for as you finish each chapter or scene. If you find them, that’s great news, and it’s something you want to point out to the author. Specifically, you want to note what she did that kept you reading and why it worked. Even better, if she used different techniques at the ends of different scenes or chapters, that’s worth calling special attention to because that’s a sign of even more skill at work.

As always, I’m interested in what you look for to identify a scene or chapter that ends well. Please leave your suggestions and ideas in the comments below.

And here’s my cliffhanger ending: this post is the next to last one in this series. What do you think the last one will be about?

 

Critique Technique, Part 58 — Magic Middles

Woman reading a book
Image courtesy of Marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Ross B. Lampert

Once a writer has convinced their reader with a great, or at least good, beginning that this is a story she wants to read, his next task is to keep her reading. That means the middle of each scene or chapter has to keep holding the reader’s interest. She has to want to keep reading.

There are lots of writing books that discuss the techniques for creating rising tension: plot twists, character revelations, obstacles revealed and overcome or worked around (or not), turning points, and so on. The purpose of this article isn’t to repeat them—there isn’t space!—but to remind you, the reviewer, that when a writer does this well, especially when they’d been struggling with this, it’s your job to point it out.

As I noted last time, successes need to be celebrated… when they’re earned.

Many authors have discussed how a scene (or chapter) needs to create a new obstacle for that scene’s or chapter’s protagonist—Jack Bickham (Scene and Structure), James Scott Bell (Plot and Structure), K. M. (Katie) Weiland (a series of blog posts about a year ago on “scene and sequel”)—to name just three. Even if an old obstacle is overcome, a new one has to be revealed.

Or as a friend of mine and I say often in our writers’ group meetings, “Things always get worse.” That’s what keeps the reader reading.

So what should a reviewer celebrate in a writer’s work? There’s no way to provide a comprehensive list, because every story and every author will be different, but I can identify a few broad categories of things.

  • When a writer, after lots of struggling, finally understands the scene and sequel concept and starts building conflict and tension through the course of a scene or chapter.
  • When a writer stops being too nice to his characters and starts putting them in difficult situations.
  • When a writer stops tidying up each scene, chapter, or situation with a happy ending. Maybe she doesn’t even give the situation an ending for the moment, but leaves the reader and the characters hanging.
  • When he raises the stakes in a new, interest-catching way.
  • When she surprises the reader with something that’s unexpected yet completely consistent with what’s happened in the story so far.
  • When whatever he does reveals a step forward in his ability to manage his middles and keep his readers engaged.

Whenever and however that happens, be sure to give it the positive critique it has earned: point it out, identify what worked or is a significant improvement, and why and how that’s true. Earned praise can be the motivator that keeps a writer—especially a new one—working, producing, and growing.

What do you look for in the middle of a piece that will cause you to congratulate the author for their good work? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

Critique Technique, Part 57 — Great Start!

 

Young woman reding a book on a lawn
Photo by lusi/RGBstock photos.

By Ross B. Lampert

Experienced writers understand that the most important chapter of a book isn’t the last one, but the first one. And that the first paragraph is the most important paragraph. And that the first sentence is the most important sentence. And that the first word… well, let’s not get carried away here.

But that understanding about the first sentence, paragraph, and chapter makes sense. The purpose, after all, of each of these firsts is to get the reader to read the one that follows: the second sentence, the second paragraph, the second chapter. Why? Because the writer wants the reader to keep reading, to keep going, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter. In other words, to get lost in the fictive dream, to forget they’re reading a book or a short story—or even a non-fiction article.

That means a well-turned opening is something to celebrate.

What makes for a good, if not great, opening? Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked, which I highly recommend, says the first 30 pages of a book need to have three things:

  • The inciting incident: The event that launches the story by changing the characters’ worlds irrevocably.
  • The surface problem: This is likely the inciting incident, or something related to it, but notice the word “surface.” It’s the first thing the characters, especially the protagonist will have to deal with, but it sure won’t be the last. Or the most important.
  • Hints of the “story-worthy problem”: This is the problem—often psychological, Edgerton says—that will drive the protagonist through the story. Notice the word “hints.” Edgerton says the whole problem likely won’t be revealed until late in the book, maybe at the end.

Now, Edgerton says those elements have to be present within the first 30 pages. I think it’s more like the first 10. Readers can be such sadists: they want to see the protagonist in trouble right away, and the bigger the trouble, the better. In a fantasy novel a friend of mine is working on, her little girl protagonist finds herself in a city in ruins with dragons fighting in the air above her. They’re likely to destroy the entire world in the process and when they do, it’ll be all her fault. One of the bodies she stumbles over as she tries to escape is that of her former torturer. And then she finds a just-hatched baby dragon. All of that in the first five pages!

It’s got everything Edgerton asked for:

  • Inciting incident: The destruction of the city.
  • Surface problem: The world’s about to be destroyed.
  • Story-worthy problem: Little Trina is clearly more than she seems—and she must have a BIG secret she needs to keep hidden. Somebody was torturing her, after all. What is it? Can she keep it hidden? Will she?

Now, not every opening needs to be that big and dramatic but what it has to do is draw the reader in so they can’t stop reading. They HAVE to find out what’s next, and what happens after that, and after that, and….

Whether we like it or not, the days of the long slow build, full of back-story and character development are over. That material can—and should!—come later. It may be part of those first 10 or 30 pages but it can’t be all there is to them.

So when you as a reviewer find a story opening that draws you inexorably forward, be sure to let the author know that he’s succeeded and how and why he did.

How can you do that? For starters, you can identify what you felt were the three elements Edgerton describes. Then, you can describe:

  • What the first thing was that caught your attention in a positive way and made you curious to find out more.
  • What was it about that thing that drew your attention, and why.
  • What the next thing was. Did it build on the first one, or was it something new? Why did it draw your interest?
  • What other elements continued to draw you forward into the story.

One final note: beginnings are important throughout the story, not just on page one. Each chapter—indeed, each scene—needs to begin in a way that pulls the reader onward. Not every chapter or scene beginning will be dramatic, but each one needs to plant another hook that keeps the reader from putting the story down.

So, what do you look for that serves as a marker of a strong beginning to a story or novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Critique Technique, Part 56—Good Job!

Image courtesy of Chaiwat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Chaiwat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Ross B. Lampert

One of the real pleasures of being a critiquer, especially if you’re part of a writers’ group, is seeing new writers develop, watching their work get better and better with each revision or new chapter or story. When and as that happens, it’s important to not only acknowledge those improvements, but reinforce them by telling the writer what they did well and how it’s better than their previous work. This final series of Critique Technique posts is going to address that requirement, starting with specific details and growing to larger-scale successes.

There are many, many things a writer can succeed at that deserve attention and praise, especially when they’re things that the writer struggled with before. Here’s just a partial list:

  • A character description, whether a specific trait or the broader drawing of him or her.
  • Dialogue that is crisp and clear—or intentionally vague as one character tries to deceive another, hides their true intentions, or doesn’t know what they want.
  • The description of a place, setting, or scene. This can range from a moment or a very localized place—a room—to an entire city, swath of country side, or even a historical period.
  • The description of an action, from a single, telling gesture, placed at just the right moment, all the way up to an entire scene, be it an act of caring—a love scene, say—or an act of violence—a fight scene, for example.
  • The description of an emotion, particularly when it’s done in such a way that the reader’s own emotions are engaged in an empathetic way: they feel what the character is feeling. This often happens through subtle descriptions of the character’s behaviors as they experience those emotions, rather than through simplistic “telling.” For example, in my book The Eternity Plague I show one of my character’s uncertainty by having her run her fingertips back and forth along the edge of her desk. Between the dialogue surrounding this action and the action itself, it’s clear that Janet is uncertain about what she’s supposed to do next.
  • A particular word choice, turn of phrase, or passage that shines. A poet friend of mine once used the phrase “tincture of time” to describe the healing properties of allowing time to pass after a sad event. Cappy captured the droplet-by-droplet pace of healing in the uncommon word tincture and tied it into a nice bit of alliteration with the repeated ts and the hard-soft-soft-hard rhythm of the phrase.
  • When work has improved overall. If you’re a part of a critique group, you may well see the same chapter or piece several times as the writer works to make it better. When it does get better, say so, but be sure to explain what has improved.

Of course, there are many other things that might catch your attention and cause you to say “wow!” or “very nice!” or “that’s so much better.” Whatever the positive reaction, it’s important to not just feel it yourself, but to share that feeling with the author. Mark the phrase or passage in the manuscript and add a comment.

While a simple “Well done!” is good, a more detailed comment is better, even if you’re going to deliver the critique verbally as well as in writing. Using the example from my book above, a reviewer might have said, “I like the way you showed us Janet’s uncertainty here. We could tell that she wasn’t sure what she should do without you coming out and saying so.” Telling the writer why and how they succeeded helps them solidify their understanding so they’ll be able to repeat that success.

A few final words about praise. First, a vague, generic, “Well, I liked it…” doesn’t do the job. It doesn’t help the author because it doesn’t tell them anything they can build from. That’s why I keep mentioning being specific.

Second, praise should be given only when it’s deserved. While most writers, especially new ones, can use a boost to their self-esteem every now and then, that’s not the purpose of critique. There’s no place in good critique for empty fawning. No one should get a trophy and a parade down Main Street simply for submitting their work. Praise needs to be legitimately earned.

What are your thoughts about when, why, and how to praise a writer’s work? Share your ideas in the comments.

Critique Technique, Part 55 — Manuscript Format

By Ross B. Lampert

Almost since this series began, I’ve been writing about things that writers, especially new ones, have trouble with. This post is the last of that string. Next time I’ll begin a short series on how critiquers should respond to things a writer did well. Positive critiques are at least as important as corrective ones, so that’s a set of subjects we can’t and shouldn’t avoid.

MS Word's paragraph format controlsFormatting a manuscript is a simple and almost purely mechanical process, yet it’s one new writers may not have had any training on, or they were trained on formats that aren’t appropriate for fiction manuscripts.

This might seem like a minor point, yet if an author intends to follow the traditional publishing route and submit their work to literary agents or directly to publishing house editors, an improperly formatted manuscript is almost sure to garner an immediate rejection, unread. Agents make no bones about this: If a manuscript isn’t formatted to industry standards, they immediately question whether the author really knows what he or she is doing. The work already has 2½ strikes against it, even before the agent or editor reads a single word—if they do.

So, here are the standards for the US (and, I presume, Canada, even though they use metric measures). European and Asian standards are different and I don’t have any idea what they are.

  • Page size: 8½” by 11”
  • Margins: 1” all around
  • Justification: Use a “ragged” right margin, that is, one in which the last letters of each line do NOT align vertically, except by coincidence.
  • Line spacing: Double
  • Paragraph format:
    • Fiction and memoir: First line indented by 0.25” to 0.3”, with NO additional spacing after the last line of the paragraph. DO NOT use tabs for these indents. Word processors have controls in their paragraph formatting function that will set this indent automatically every time a new paragraph starts.
    • Non-fiction: First line NOT indented, with 6 points of spacing after the last line of the paragraph. (This blog post is formatted this way, except for the bulleted text.)
    • Exceptions: At a scene break, insert one blank (double-spaced) line. At a chapter break, start a new page or insert about three blank lines.
  • Page numbering: In the header of every page, include the work’s title or a shortened version of it, the author’s last name, and the page number. For example, the header for the manuscript of my WIP Chrysalis looks like this: Chrysalis / Lampert / 137.
  • Font (type face): Twelve point Times New Roman (or its Apple counterpart) is the industry standard. “Sans serif” fonts like Arial, Calibri, or Verdana can be acceptable as well but scientists have found that fonts with serifs (those little angular tips at the ends and corners of letters) are actually easier to read. This post is in Times New Roman.
  • Widow and Orphan control: Turned off. “Widows” and “orphans” are the first or last line of a paragraph left by themselves at the bottom or top of a page. A word processor’s “widows and orphans” control keeps these from happening. This is fine for book or article typesetting but unnecessary for a manuscript.
  • Automatic hyphenation: Turned on. While automatic hyphenation software sometimes produces odd breaks in words, like the word scene being broken as sce-ne, this function prevents blanks at the ends of lines where a long last word was too big to fit.

Every word processing program has its own methods for controlling all of these settings, and trying to give instructions on how to set them is beyond the scope of this article. Writers need to learn how to set their manuscript up to follow these guidelines. Many, if not all, word processors allow users to create a default or standard collection of these settings—Microsoft calls them “styles”—which lets the writer set them and forget them. Knowing how to use “styles” or their equivalents can be extremely helpful if a writer wants to do their own formatting for ebooks or print-on-demand publishing.

Why should a reviewer even bother with this? Several reasons. First, it’s a matter of instilling a sense of professionalism in the writer. If the writer learns to do this right, it’ll become natural for them to do other things right as well. Second, it’s really easy to do right. Set it up once and it’s done from then on. Third, once it’s fixed, it’s a distraction that neither you nor the writer will have to deal with again.

Any thoughts on manuscript formatting? Share them in the comments below.

 

Critique Technique, Part 54 — Grammar Errors

Four professors in cap and gown
photo credit: peyri via photopin cc

By Ross B. Lampert

Like the rules of spelling and punctuation, the rules of grammar are meant to help make a writer’s meaning clear to the reader. Unfortunately, there are probably even more grammar rules than there are spelling and punctuation rules, which means that many more opportunities for a writer to mess things up.

Whole books, college classes, and web sites are devoted to these rules, so there’s no way I’m going to try to replicate even a tiny fraction of that material here. Instead, visit Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips web site. It will tell you everything you wanted to know about English grammar, and more besides.

The thing is, as a reviewer, you don’t need to know down to the micro-level detail every single rule, corollary, and exception. Nor do you need to know all the technical terminology that a college professor might. (I might wish I knew what the subjunctive mood was… or I might not. Oh, wait. That’s an example of it.) What critiquers need to know is the practical side of grammar: does the writing communicate effectively and make sense, and if it doesn’t, what needs to be fixed.

Novice writers often have trouble with the basic stuff, like putting a plural form of a verb with the singular form of a noun (“she talk” rather than “she talks,” for example), or not being clear on who (or whom) a pronoun is referring to. Or worse, not knowing how to construct a basic sentence: one containing a subject, a verb, and an object. My own writers’ group had to tell a sweet little old lady that we couldn’t help her for just that reason: she’d never learned how to build a basic sentence. As a result, punctuation marks appeared in her text at random, “sentences” started and stopped for no discernible reason, and so on. She had a story to tell but we were spending so much time figuring out her pseudo-sentences that we couldn’t focus on helping her tell her story.

So as far as I’m concerned, what a critiquer really needs is a practical working knowledge of the language. If you can’t name the differences between a subjunctive mood and a gerund and a comma splice, that’s not such a big deal, so long as you can identify when a manuscript isn’t communicating effectively and what needs to be done to change that.

Am I wrong? Share your thoughts in the comments below.