Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FAQ - Tips for Critique

Q: I hang my head because I tend to cheerlead too much, I think. . .  Do you suppose you could give us some things to start with if we are recovering cheerleaders and want to be better crit partners?
A: If you do cheerlead, at least be specific. 'I love the way you described the sound of his gargling'  or 'The way you show your ninja hero's weakness by having him insist on a night light makes him much more interesting to me' is a lot more useful than 'Oh, you're such a good writer.'

Here are a few place to start in critiquing a novel.

Setting: Is there a strong sense of place? Do we know when and where the action of each scene is taking place? Are most of the senses engaged -- do we know what this place smells, sounds, feels like? Is the woolen coat the girl wears rough under the hero's fingers? 

And, this is the big question, are the characters acting against the backdrop of setting? 'Harold always ate his dinner at the table in the center of the room. It was covered by a red tablecloth with a small burn spot.


Or are they interacting with the setting? (much better)  "Harold carried his microwaved TV dinner to the table in the center of the room. As always, he positioned the plastic dish to cover the burn Matilda's cigar had left in the red tablecloth."

Characters: Are the main characters real, fully developed people with a past? What do they want to achieve? What stands in their way? Are they likable or at least interesting so that readers will want to know what is going to happen to them?
Dialogue: Does the dialogue sound like real people talking? (Hint -- most folks in speaking use contractions - "I  (would not) wouldn't pick up that ferret if I were you, Cyril.") Do the main characters have distinctive voices? Can the reader keep track of who's speaking?

Show, Don't Tell: Is the author telling the reader things that the characters should be showing the reader?

'Horace was really angry.'  That's Tell and it's boring. 

'The knuckles on Horace's clenched fist were white but his face was a deep red. Without warning, he smashed his fist through the dry wall.' That's Show. See the difference?

Odds and Ends :In my classes, I generally suggest that we not focus on typos, misspellings, punctuation, or grammar. I make these corrections on the hard copy but don't take up time in class with the basics.

I do, however,  address the all too common misuse of its/it's and the difference between lie and lay. Just as I did in this post a few years ago.

And one last tip. I think it's a mistake to critique work on the basis of the author reading aloud. Unless, of course, you're critiquing performance. The thing is, a good reader can make mediocre writing sound better than it is and a bad reader can make great writing sound like . . . that stuff you step in.
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15 comments:

Martin H. said...

Good post, Vicki. And, I love these photographs. You've got such a good eye for what makes an interesting picture.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

Great snow photos Vicki.

And more great advice about critique groups. The two groups I've attended emphasized show not tell as well as the importance of using contractions.

We have a cheerleader in our group and she always starts off by pointing out exactly what she likes. Then she goes on to say where she sees the need for improvement.
Sam

Kristen Haskell said...

As always this was incredibly helpful. Thank you for sharing this. Having a lot of trouble writing lately. The most I am able to do is a blog entry.

Brian Miller said...

this is good stuff not just for crit but on writing in general...thanks vicki

GrandmaK said...

I welcome these insights! Thank you! Cathy

Kath said...

Thank you not only for the gorgeous photos, but the great critiquing advice.

I believe I'll be a more effective cheerleader with these guidelines. I think I'll print out a checklist.
Thank you

Louise said...

Very interesting. And, useful when you're not doing a critique, also, I think. Specifics are important in so many things, in order to really get your point across.

Beth said...

Thank you for another very helpful FAQ. I've always wanted to either take a writing class or find a critique group, but have been reluctant in part because I worried about being an effective critiquer. I can always say whether I like someone's writing, but am often unable to articulate why. I'm going to bookmark this post---it will help me not only in critiquing other's work, but my own, as well. Thanks again.

Vicki Lane said...

Re the photos -- those holes just appeared in the snow on the railing. I have no idea what caused them.

Sam -- in my classes I always ask that people begin by talking about what IS working in a piece before moving on to what ISN'T.

Kirsten - I think blogging helps us be better writers. I know in my poss of the past few days I've had to think about how to tell a story concisely -- leaving out irrelevant details.

Beth -- I think that a lot of cheerleaders are that because they DON'T know what to look for. I'm so glad if these tips are helpful!

Vicki Lane said...

My POSTS of the past few days, that is.

Darla said...

Fantastic photos -- my fave is the one of the little shed through a hole in the snow ... Nature may have created the holes, but it was *your* eye that captured that wonderful image! :-)

Great tips ... focus, brevity ... definitely areas in which I need to keep working... Thanks!

Deanna said...

Very interesting. Reading your Faq posts has helped me realize why I enjoy reading some authors more than others.

J_on_tour@jayzspaze said...

You are too modest about the holes in the snow, this set shows excellent framing and lighting conditions with the icicle shot.

Brenda said...

What beautiful and clever photos - this is a terrific early morning treat with my coffee! It strikes me that you do in these photos what you do with words. You have a remarkable ability to take something ordinary (icicles for instance, or the phrase "Ted was angry"), and present it in a unique and creative way that stirs the viewer/reader.

Tipper said...

Great information-but amazing pictures!!