(picking up from where I left off in Writers’ Groups – Introduction…)
My core reason for all the socializing that’s part of any writers’ group is to learn, improve, increase.
Learning, improving and increasing comes from critiquing others’ work and having my own work critiqued, and critiquing is a learned skill (my opinion, that).
Critiques are not Reviews
Critiques are objective and about the work, reviews are personal opinions about the work. Consider my book reviews on Goodreads. My reviews are my reactions to what I’m reading; I liked it because… I didn’t like it because… Personal opinions, all. You can disagree with my opinion/review and it comes down to differences in tastes; what we both like, what we both dislike, what you like that I don’t, what I like that you don’t.
We learn about each other when we learn each other’s opinion. We may learn something about the book and really we’re learning about each other. Read my opinions/reviews and more often than not I talk about the author’s storycrafting and storytelling abilities. People tend to talk about what’s important to them so read my reviews and you learn what’s important to me at the time I’m writing the review – usually storytelling and storycrafting ability.
Critiques are different on lots of levels. I may totally dislike a story and my dislike of a story, like a review, tells you something about me, not the story, hence my like or dislike of a story must be irrelevant to my critique of the story. A critique is about the work, not my reaction to the work.
- “It’s written in fifteenth person maldictive” is a statement that can be true or false based on the work being critiqued.
- “It’s written in the fifteenth person maldictive and the story will work better in the twelfth person intramural” is an opinion.
- “It’s written in the fifteenth person maldictive and the story will work better in the twelfth person intramural because…” is a critique (albeit an unhelpful one in my opinion) because reasons are given that validate/invalidate the opinion that twelfth person intramural is better than fifteenth person maldictive for this piece.
- “It’s written in the fifteenth person maldictive and the story will work better in the twelfth person intramural because…and here’s some ideas for making it work/better” is a goldmine critique (again, my opinion) because reasons and solutions are given. Whoa! Someone wanting to help you improve your work purely for the joy of helping you succeed? Of learning the craft? Can you say “Priceless”?
That “reasons are given” is crucial to the difference between reviews and critiques. Not only are there reasons, the critiquer has to give those reasons and provide solutions in the form of suggestions. It’s okay if you think the work is incredible and perfect as it exists. Just offer some marketing suggestions in place of a critique (in all things, keep the work moving forward to some goal).
Let’s go over that again. A good critique has three pieces to it:
- A statement that some part of the work is flawed.
- An explanation of why that part is flawed.
- Suggestions for fixing/removing the flaw.
We can both agree something’s written in fifteenth person maldictive. I may love that literary device, you may hate it, but the point of the critique is “Does fifteenth person maldictive work in this story?” It doesn’t matter if the story does/doesn’t work for you, it matters if the storycrafting and storytelling work for the story.
And I’ll grant that the suggestions are often opinions but now the goal is improving the work. The author may like the suggestion, dislike the suggestion, act on it, modify it, discard it, use it as a stepping stone to another solution, it don’t matter because the work is still theirs, the critiquer is pointing out that Michaelangelo’s signing The David in purple ink across the statue’s penis wasn’t a good idea and he may want to remove it.
The signature, not the penis.
Ah, you’re still reading. Good.
Example: Here’s a critique I gave
The following fiction piece was submitted to a group I’m involved with by Mary Jeddore Blakney. It’s part of a novel-in-progress, something I didn’t know when I offered my analysis. Mary’s writing is in standard text, my analysis is in [[red]] and explanations are in —blue—. Note that I may be way off base in my analysis and suggestions, it don’t matter. Anything way off base can be ignored. What does matter is that I’m constantly working to improve the work.
(excerpted from The Genocide Lab)
Albert Donald sat at the conference table in his office, surrounded by his entire staff except for Carter and Navarre. “I take it everyone has seen the news by now. Needless to say, the termination was a smashing success.”
“See, Apollo?”[[as the only character introduced so far is Albert Donald and the rest are nameless, readers may mistake “See, Apollo?” as a statement Gomez is making to someone else at the table. This misconception may be reinforced by the use of the comma. As I read further, I think what you wanted was “See Apollo?”]] Gomez quipped, “o[[O]]ur security people are the best in the business.”
—This is a novel excerpt and these characters are introduced earlier in the narrative, hence the comment may not be relevant. The punctuation is still an issue.—
The table erupted in laughter.
“They really went all out this time,” Lazar remarked, nodding his approval. [[This line is weak. —told, not shown— Because it’s weak the reader has no idea of how to interpret the information presented; Is Lazar a lackey? A yes-man? An authority? Someone the others fear? Respect?
For example, show that he’s someone respected and/or feared: Lazar’s gaze lifted from the tabletop and rested, moment by moment like a heartbeat, on each of the people laughing, nodding as they quieted. “Yes. They are the best in the business.”
Or he’s a lackey: Lazar’s eyes went from person to person, seeking approval. “They really went out of their way this time.”
Also important: You usually don’t need an attribution if a character is the only one referenced in a paragraph (see the latter suggestion). The exception is when the attribution describes the character, not that they are saying it. Example and a rewrite of the former suggestion: Lazar’s gaze lifted from the tabletop and rested, moment by moment like a heartbeat, on each of the people laughing, nodding. “Yes,” he said quietly. “They are the best in the business.”
The first rewrite shows their response to him, hence you build tension and atmosphere in a single, short paragraph. The last rewrite shows that he doesn’t need to speak up to be heard, hence is a person of power/authority and you build character in a single, short paragraph.]]
Blake smiled and took a little bow. [[so Blake is standing? It’s tough to take a bow if you’re sitting. You may nod, wink, give a brief salute, … And how is he bowing? Is it an affectation like a tribute, something a liege does to their lord? Is he acknowledging their approval? Show me how he is bowing and I’m drawn into the story. Tell me he is bowing and I’m left to draw my own conclusions. If my conclusions aren’t ones that’ll move your story forward, you’ve lost a reader. But lead me, subtly give me conclusions that I (the reader) can accept as my own, and you’ve won me over.]] “I asked them to give it a little something extra to make an impression on Apollo.”
*** —page/scene break—
An out-of-order sign accompanied by yellow tape across the entire bank of elevators sent Apollo jogging down the ten flights of stairs to street level. He was meeting Gali for coffee again this morning, then having lunch with a sportswear rep to talk about a possible clothing sponsorship—all after his daily testing at the Kalagen lab, of course.
[[Here’s the information I have so far:
- Apollo is important enough for some group to target him for some purpose.
- He’s meeting with a sportswear rep to talk about a sponsorship.
- He is important enough (evidently a sports figure) that he gets tested daily for some reason.
- He’s in good enough shape to jog down ten flights of stairs.
Put these all together and he’s living somewhere where all the elevators are out of order? This seems like a logical inconsistency at present. Is he a financial threat to the group above? Then he must be in an environment that indicates financial privilege. Is he a physical threat? Then what follows doesn’t make sense as he demonstrates weakness (not a person of power).]]
The bottom level of the stairwell was dim and reeked with a stench he couldn’t identify, but which he had sometimes smelled coming from dumpsters in other neighborhoods.[[inadequate description. He couldn’t identify it, that’s fine, and it has to smell like something/remind him of something so that you can foreshadow for the reader.]]
The only working light was the emergency lamp near the door, so he wasn’t surprised when he walked up to the door and it didn’t open. But it was equipped with an old-fashioned mechanical crash bar, so he put his arm against it and pushed. The crash bar operated with a satisfying slide-click that he could both hear and feel, but the door remained shut.
“What the hell?” he said to the door. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” He put his hands near the jamb, keeping one on the crash bar to keep the door unlatched, and pushed again. The only result was a hand-shaped dent in the metal surface of the door.[[Now you’ve indicated that he’s unaware of his own abilities, therefore his abilities are new to him, he’s not aware of all of them, … You could develop the character by having him remember that he once dented a door and was now careful not to, pushing only until he felt the metal weakening under his palm.
Now we learn he doesn’t destroy things needlessly, that he has a sense of morality, responsibility for property, and we learn about him through his actions/inactions.]]
Getting out would have been easy; all he had to do was tear the door down. But if he had been in the habit of destroying everything that got in his way, he would have had a rap sheet a mile long by now.[[Again, a character development opportunity lost. He knows about rap sheets, possibly he had one before (whatever) happened to give him his current level of strength, perhaps part of his being given that strength was an agreement not to be destructive. Now the reader can infer that there’s some price for his ability and that his ability can be taken away/diminished if he fails to live up to his end of the agreement.
The fact that he still thinks in rap sheets says something about him and again, we’re told, not shown. For example:
“What the hell?” He stepped back from the door. [[we have his response to the door not opening]]
He put one hand near the jamb and kept the other on the crash bar to keep the door unlatched.[[I start his reaction to the situation in a new paragraph. I’ve shown the reader that the door won’t open. Next paragraph shows that he’s surprised by this. Now I show the reader that he’s preparing to do something.]]
He pushed. [[and here’s what he’s going to do. This is common city-dweller experience. Everybody who’s lived in an apartment building or public building has had a similar experience. Use this similarity of experience to show his uniqueness]] He felt the metal face of the door start to yield. “Oh, no. Not again.” His hands dropped by his sides. [[showing exasperation]] “They still want me to pay for that door I dented at (someplace that will build character, experience, atmosphere).
[[start a new paragraph to explore his reaction to his reaction, demonstrating how he balances his desires with frustrations – how mature is he?]] He remembered a time when he would have broken the door. But he would have needed a brick or a chair or an iron bar then. Now all he needed was [[what?]]. “No,” he reminded himself. “That’s who I was, not who I am.” He patted the door and walked away.
He dialed [[he has a phone?]] the building management office. No answer. He left a message—not that it would do him any good, but at least they could repair the door for the next person.
He accessed his cerebral interface [[some problems here. If he has a cerebral interface then why does he need a phone? Also, “He accessed his cerebral interface” is wordy and cliched. Unless that cerebral interface is an important plot point to the story, how about “He interfaced”? It seems you’re writing in the spec-fic genre and most spec-fic readers will accept the latter without needing the explanation offered in the former]] and ordered the computer to find the quickest alternate route to an exit. He was in luck: management had posted good maps of the building online. The computer directed him to a service door under the stairwell. He headed back into the shadows. [[These two lines can be combined, tension can be increased and future events foreshadowed with “The computer directed him to a service door in the dark under/behind the stairwell.” No need to separately tell us he’s heading there. You’re next paragraph demonstrates that well enough.]]
Feeling his way with his left hand along the concrete block wall, he came to the corner and turned right. He found fire equipment mounted on the wall: a glass-fronted box and a hose on a reel. He reached his right hand up to keep from hitting his head on the stairwell and proceeded forward. [[is this paragraph necessary? What purpose is it serving? What does it do for the reader?]]
He kicked something small and awkward and heavy for its size, and at the same time his left hand hit something sticky. He snatched it away from the wall and went straight for the emergency light.
His hand was bright red.
He accessed his cerebral interface and zoomed in. Composition and analysis, he ordered. Report summary findings only. [[This last line is unnecessary. Also, his interface is capable of this but not shifting his visual spectrum so he can see in the dark?]] —I’m questioning the author’s universe, an indication that willing suspension of disbelief isn’t engaging. For any fiction and especially for all forms of speculative fiction, the author needs to create a world that the reader believes in and is drawn into. (by the way, never end a sentence with a proposition, unless it’s in dialogue.) In this case, the author hasn’t convinced me 1) the story’s world is logically coherent (self-sustaining, self-actualizing) and 2) she’s in charge/control of her story. The latter is the real challenge because readers want to trust authors that the story will be satisfying emotionally, psychologically, et cetera. Basically the reader is putting themselves in the author’s hands for however long it takes to read the piece. Giving up control is an act of trust. Authors who haven’t fully realized their story’s world or conveyed that world’s internal integrity to the reader run the risk of losing readers because if you don’t trust me, you won’t respect me. Without respect, you won’t give me your time or attention and that’s what reading is; time and attention.—
BLOOD PLASMA, RED BLOOD CELLS, DURA MATTER, TRACE AMOUNTS OF SKIN AND NERVE TISSUE.
“FUCK!” Apollo yelled, although he doubted there was anyone around to hear him. To the computer he thought, Identify species.
“Fuck!” he said again, [[At this point I don’t have enough information on Apollo to understand his reaction, resulting in my not believing his reaction. His reaction could have been foreshadowed by more descriptions of his environment and his reactions to his environment.]] and called the police.
It took only four minutes and twenty-three seconds [[he knows that kind of detail because…?]] —Alternately, that level of precision is important to the story because…?— before the first cops showed up, but Apollo’s eyes adjusted to the darkness long before then[[normal night vision or computer enhanced?]]. He saw that what he had kicked was a left leg from the knee down. It still wore a sneaker[[??]] —whenever you have a chance to add detail do so. It doesn’t have to be a lot, only enough to keep the reader grounded. See Characters Part 5 – Stage Direction Characters for more on this.— and a bloody sock on one end. He tried not to look at the other end, where the exposed end of the victim’s tibia resembled an oversized piece of raw chicken.
Body parts littered the area under the stairs. Apollo tried not to count them, not to put the puzzle together in his mind. But the harder he tried, the more he found himself doing it anyway. He located both hands, but not all the fingers, both forearms and both shoulders, one upper arm and the chest area. He had just found a glistening skinless mass that he guessed was one of the thighs when the nausea became overwhelming. He put his head down and covered his mouth with his clean right hand.[[so he’s never been a gang member?]] —I’m questioning the character’s background because I don’t have enough of the character to believe him as a character yet. This type of questioning goes back to willing suspension of disbelief and can be the downfall of a story.—
Fuck! he thought. The cops can’t come and find me puking. Think! He turned and looked up at the fire equipment on the wall. The metal-and-glass box was sealed, and everything inside was still clean. He imagined his mind[[his mind or himself?]] going through the glass front, sitting on the handle of the fire extinguisher that hung inside and breathing the pure air, perfectly at peace. The nausea subsided.[[Is this ability to project natural to him, some kind of enhancement he’s been given, normal in his society, something he’s been taught to do in stressful situations, …?]]
The cops set up lights and worked on assembling the body puzzle while one of them asked Apollo questions. Apollo had been right about the thigh: it was the left one. By the time he had finished telling the detective how he had come across the grizzly scene, they had found everything but the lower torso, the head and three fingers.[[So his computer interface can identify dura matter but not the individual body parts? Dang selective system, don’t you think? Advanced tech can’t be stupid unless the reader is made aware of its limitations ahead of time.]]
“Who was this person?” Apollo asked. “Any idea why someone would want to do this … in this building, of all places? Nothing ever happens here.”[[Incongruent. If nothing ever happens then why are all the elevators offline? If all the elevators being offline at once is normal then this building is not well maintained, hence a statement is made about the people who live there, the neighborhood, the owners, …]]
“We just got here,” said the detective, an Italian American in her forties. “We’re just gathering information at this stage. It’s too early to start guessing at answers.”[[A nice way to move a story forward is to have dialogue that consists of the characters continually asking questions of each other, supplying answers by the questions they ask. This “ask-me-ask-you” method can increase tension and suspense. The exception would be when a character needs to present information to the reader and does so by “explaining” something to the other characters.
Also, how much of a personality is Apollo? Do police personnel recognize him?
Re the detective – this woman is in her forties and a detective. She asks questions, especially when she shows up at a brutal homicide. She doesn’t offer information because the UNSUB/perp may use what she’s revealed to fabricate a story. Example:
“Who was this person?” Apollo asked.
“Excuse me. I’m Detective Rose Giangregorio. You don’t know who this person is?”
Apollo looked at Detective Giangregorio. She was (attractive/frumpy/…) Noticing her (color eyes/hair, amount of makeup, how well her clothes fit. Does she notice his inspection? Does she respond to his inspection?) “Nothing ever happens here. Who would do this?”
“You didn’t see anybody else here when you found the body?”
Apollo shook his head. “You don’t know anything about who they are? Were?”
“Can you account for your movements over the past x hours? Anybody with you?”
“Mercy Park. She spent the night. You don’t think she could do this, do you?”]]
“You must know something, though. Gender, age, things like that.”
“We’re taking samples, taking them back to the lab. Was anyone with you last night?”
“Yeah, Mercy Park.”
“And who’s she?”
“Uh, my girlfriend, I guess. We’re getting to know each other. She spent the night.” Apollo opened his left hand and zoomed his vision in.[[:]] Identify gender and age of person this tissue sample was taken from.[[Okay, if his vision can do this then he could see in the dark, and if he couldn’t see in the dark, there has to be a reason why.]]
MALE, 27 YEARS.[[So whatever he’s using is capable of both DNA and RNA testing from a visual sample only? Or is there something about his skin that can perform a chem/bio analysis?]]
“Was she with you when you discovered the body?” asked the detective.
“No, it was just me.” Apollo turned to look at the leg piece that he had kicked. He focused on the end where the victim’s knee should have been and zoomed in again. Identify means of separation.
“Is she still in your apartment?” the detective asked.
“No, she left before I did.” [[You have a single individual communicating to two different entities, one human the other non-human, the human not part of the Apollo-non-human communication. You need to let the reader know when he’s switching, if he’s distracted, et cetera. Something as simple as “Computer, confirm that his leg was separated from the body by getting twisted off.” works. Basically show that he’s using his interface.]] Confirm that his leg was separated from the body by getting twisted off.
“What time did she leave?”
Apollo turned his hands up. “I don’t know; I was asleep. She likes to get to work early.” His eyes settled on a shoulder and he zoomed in again. Identify means of separation.
“Found the head!” a voice called.
“Hold on a second,” said the detective. “Just stand right where you are; don’t move. I’ll be right back.” She took three steps and joined the team of puzzle workers. [[I have difficulty that a professional detective will leave an UNSUB/perp/witness alone at a crime scene. How about “Officer x here will take your statement. Officer x, please stay with Mr. (Apollo) until I return.”]]
“It’s wedged under the last step,” one of the cops told the detective in a quiet voice Apollo clearly wasn’t meant to hear. “The front is turned inward toward the back of the stair, so we’re going to have to take it out before we’ll know if we have a face to work with or not.”
Apollo focused on a bloody hand. Identify means of separation of fingers.
TORSION. [[I suspect the repeated use is meant to build suspense, tension, et cetera and (to me) it comes off as amateurish. He can ask his interface to analyze what’s available and have the report blasted at him while he’s being interrogated, something like:
ARM – SEPARATION VIA TORSION
HEAD – SEPARATION VIA TORSION
LEFT NOSTRIL HAIR – SEPARATION VIA TORSION (just wanted to see if you were still paying attention)]]
[[The rest of this is taking way too long to get to the climax. There’s too much back and forth that seems to be you (the author) wanting to make sure everything’s in place or that some kind of proper form is followed. Don’t waste your or the reader’s time. Get to where you’re going with enough to make sure the reader gets there with you. No more, no less.]] The detective returned. “I’m going to need you stay just a few more minutes. Now that they’ve found the head, they’ll need to take pictures of it where it is, take samples and things like that before they move it.”
“And you want me to be here when they move the head,” Apollo said. “May I ask why?”
“I’m hoping you can help us identify the victim.”[[An experienced detective is going to let a civilian look at a decapitated head? Wow.]]
“With all due respect, Detective, I doubt it’s anyone I know.”
“For your sake I hope you’re right. But what are the chances of the entire bank of elevators being out and the stairwell exit door being stuck—at the same time? And then there just happens to be a murder? And it all just happens to coincide with the time you leave for the lab every morning?”
“Fuck!” said Apollo. “Now that you put it that way ….”
The detective nodded. “This body hasn’t been here long.”
“Right. The blood is still bright red.” [[That seems too sophisticated for Apollo as I understand him at present.]]
“You can tell by the smell, too. [[No clue what that means. Also not sure that a 40-something detective is going to be this conversational at a crime scene]] Like a clean slaughterhouse. [[I’ve worked in slaughterhouses and I have no clue what you mean by this. It doesn’t jive with my experience of what a slaughterhouse smells like after it’s been cleaned. It also assumes a small slaughterhouse and industrial slaughterhouses usually operate around the clock to maximize production and make use of automation.]] In a few hours, if you hadn’t called us, it would have really started to stink in here.”
Apollo looked at the fire-extinguisher box again and mentally climbed inside.
“Okay, they’ve got the head out,” the detective said after a few more minutes. “The face is intact, and I’m going to need to ask you take a look at it. Let me know when you’re ready.”
Apollo took a deep breath and regretted it, choking on the noxious air. “Let’s just get it over with.”
[[This is visually confusing to me and the language doesn’t add anything to the story. How about… The head was only a few steps away, concealed by the slanted bulk of the stairway and a host of forensics, plainclothes and uniforms.
(Detective) took his arm. “Let us through,” she said. People parted but he still bumped into people as she pulled him through. The air was thick with the smells of (blood, death, cigarette smoke, …). Somebody popped some bubblegum and Apollo jumped. (Detective)’s grip tightened slightly. “You going to be okay with this?”
“Let’s just get it over with,” he repeated.
They entered a funnel of darkness and two forensics rose, their scrubs separating like curtains at some music show except Apollo was the only one in the audience.
Suddenly a light shown over his shoulder and the face stared up at him, eyes open but milky, blood still dripping from the mouth which was set in some kind of hysterical grin as if asking Apollo, “Wow, how ’bout this shit, huh?”]]
He walked toward it, the detective following. Cops closed in so that even when he was squatting directly in front of the disembodied head of the dead man, all he could see was the intact bodies of the living ones.
“Are you ready?” asked the detective.
“I’m ready,” said Apollo.
The living bodies parted.
[[this paragraph is weak. You’re using capitals, an exclamation point and then tell us “Apollo heard his own voice scream.” Show us the energy of the situation by describing what his voice sounds like. Is it echoing in the stairwell?]] “FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” Apollo heard his own voice scream. It was an embarrassing eternity [[I have no idea what an “embarrassing eternity” is]] until he gained control of his speech again. “It’s the janitor from where I work,” he whispered. “His name is Jake. I don’t know his last name.” [[if a janitor is wearing sneakers then we’ve learned something about where Apollo works. If where Apollo works can pull off this kind of stunt then the janitors don’t wear sneakers. They may come to work in sneakers and they’ll put on steel-toed boots to work (my guess, based on experience). Or if they do wear sneakers, there’s a reason for it.]]
How long did my above critique take? About 4-6 hours from first read to final suggestion (not including things I thought of and mentioned at the meeting). That’s a serious investment of time, me thinks. 1) In my opinion, the work demonstrated enough potential to be worth it. I wouldn’t put that amount of time into something that didn’t demonstrate potential. Alternately, something can be incredibly rough and if it demonstrates potential, honor it. 2) I expect that same level of critique on my work.
This brings us to the next installment(s) – different writers’ groups.