Tag Archives: A to Z challenge

Elements of Critique: Point of View

What I wouldn’t give to be able to jump into her head and know what she’s thinking…

Married couples can relate easily to that thought, I’m sure.

But all of us at one time or another have looked at the inscrutable expression of someone whose opinion we value, and wondered what was taking place in those dark recesses of their mind. Or we’ve made assumptions about their thoughts, only to find out later that our guesses were way off.

If only telepathy was possible.

Well, surprise, it is.*

With some routine training, we can jump into the heads of other people and read their thoughts as if they were words written on a page.

*Offer void outside of works of fiction

Yes, today is P on the A to Z Blog challenge, and for my series that means looking at critiquing Point of View.

Once I know the point of view characters, or POV characters, and the overall style, I look for anything that disrupts the selected point of view. Maybe it’s a thought the POV character can’t know, or access to information they can’t have.

So that means knowing the basic options available to choose:

First person: Written as if someone is telling the story personally. The reader is in the head of one character and sees only what that character sees. They can hear that character’s thoughts only. The POV character’s eyes are the “movie camera” showing the story to the reader.

I stepped into the office and saw Mr. Smith waiting for me, back turned, staring out the window. What could this be about? I hope he doesn’t know I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

‘Hello, Mr. Anderson,’ he said in that slow, dragging monotone as he turned to face me. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person limited: Written from one or a few characters’ points of view, but only one at a time. The reader hears the selected POV character’s thoughts, and no others. They see what takes place around the selected character and are aware of only what that character might know or witness. The “camera” can only see what the POV character sees, though there are likely a few POV characters to choose from throughout the course of the work.

Even though the summons seemed urgent, Anderson strolled down the hall. What does Smith want now?

He turned the corner and saw the office at the end of the hall. Sudden panic twisted up his insides. I hope the company hasn’t figured out I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

With a deep breath, Anderson rapped the doorframe once and stepped into the office.

Mr. Smith stood at the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at the hazy city. His lanky figure and balding head made a silhouette in the bright sunlight.

“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” he said as he turned toward the door, his mouth in that perpetual almost-snarl. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person omniscient: Written with as many POV characters as the writer desires. The writer can jump into anyone’s head and show any scene desired to tell the story. The “camera” can go anywhere.

Haze settled over the city like every other morning. The streets filled with bodies plodding to and fro, eyes glued to their cellphones, hands desperately gripping cups of coffee. The corporate headquarters of Neodyne Information Systems loomed over the skyscrapers surrounding it, and swarms of workers rushed in the main doors to start the day.

Inside a sea of cubicles, Anderson got a message from the manager’s secretary. “Smith wants you. Urgent.” Great. What now?

He sipped his coffee, set the cup down on the desk, and strolled down the long aisle to reach the hall. What does Smith want now?

* * *

In the large office, Mr. Smith looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight filtered through the haze, and Mr. Smith almost reached for his nondescript black sunglasses.

He paused.

No need to look like an Agent. I don’t want to give Mr. Anderson any ideas.
A rap sounded at the door. Mr. Smith checked his watch and turned toward the new arrival. “Hello, Mr. Anderson. You’re late. Again.”

Mr. Smith thought of what he’d seen in Anderson’s file. He shows a callous disregard for authority and a problematic lack of discipline. The records showed several letters of counseling over the last two years of employment.

This one matches the profile of a trouble-maker. And I really hate his face.

There are other points of view but they go beyond the scope of this blog post.

Hopefully those scenes give a rough idea of the differences. So, what do we watch out for when we critique a piece?

Does the POV character ever know something from a scene where they were not present? Does jamming the POV character into a scene in order to give us access to that moment feel forced, unnecessary, or awkward?

Similarly, does the writer show us something the POV character can’t see? In first person and third person limited POV, that character’s eyes are the movie camera from which the story is told. Anything that character can’t see is “off camera” and thus doesn’t belong in the story.

Does the writer ever give us insight into the thoughts of someone other than this POV character? The POV character can only assume the thoughts of another. This distinction has to be made clear, or it might appear the writer is telling us thoughts we shouldn’t have access to.

Also, sudden shifts in POV should be corrected. A piece of writing can’t start in first and jump to omniscient.

And if there’s more than one POV character, shifts between those characters should at the very least come as a new paragraph. Better yet, wait for a new scene to shift the “camera” view. Books often use some centered squiggles or symbols to show the break between POV characters. The three asterisks in my last example are meant to mimic that.

What about non-fiction? If the piece contains a story or anecdote, the rules of point of view still apply. If the piece is more academic or factual, then the only possible breach of point of view is the writer injecting opinion or a personal voice into the writing. Whether that is acceptable will depend on the purpose of the writing. A blog post on a historical event might be fine with the writer sharing thoughts on how that event mattered. A research paper not so much.

Whatever style we use, the purpose of writing is to communicate thought. Understanding the rules of that special form of telepathy helps us write clearer and avoid pitfalls that distract. This will better ensure the reader sees the topic from our point of view.

And that’s the whole point.

Elements of Critique: Keep

When my daughter was about 3, she came up with a phrase she’d say whenever she hugged me tight and refused to let go:

“You are my keep!”

It’s a special memory. Sure, I might not remember the day of the week, or what I was wearing, or when the last time was that she said it. (Our wily teenage daughter refuses to let me know that I am still her ‘keep,’ at least not overtly.)

But I cherish those moments forever.

Where critiquing another writer’s work is concerned, proposing cuts or changes is fairly easy. “That sounds weak.” “Fix the spelling.” “Why would the villain do that?”

But in order to improve, writers also need to know what hits home. We have to remember to point out what to keep.

When an analogy paints the perfect picture, or a scene tugs at my heart just so… when I learn something unexpected and interesting, or when a character’s reaction shocks me… when the chapter ends and I absolutely must know whether the hero survives…

That’s when I need to highlight, insert comment, and find a way to tell the writer, “This is my keep!”

I have to remember: To be as useful as possible, critique must be constructive.

The end result may look like a failed exam in grade school, red ink or yellow word-processor highlight all over the place. That can be overwhelming, especially if someone’s new to receiving real critique on their pet projects.

A “keep” here or there with an encouraging comment about why that part works well can be a positive form of teaching or guiding a fellow writer. “Man, that phrase was inspired.” “That’s an awesome word picture; I can see that like a movie in my head.” “Ouch, her words were harsh! Great job with that argument.”

In other words, Keep on doing that. You’re doing well. That’s a memory that will stay with me as a reader.

Even more than the positive reinforcement of good writing habits, there’s another reason to include “keeps” in a critique.

Just like my teenage daughter is not very obvious or communicative about her affection, a writer may not be very obvious about the powerful internal struggle battering their wavering confidence. A well-timed “You are my keep” might make a big difference between them giving it up and them giving it another shot.

Speaking of which…

To my readers, thank you so much for coming back for more. To those who commented or shared these A to Z posts, you spur me on to keep going. I’ve received more positive feedback on this series than I ever expected possible.

And most of all, my deepest thanks to the members of my critique group, who have taught me so much by word and example. Though obligation forces me to move away soon, you all are truly my keeps, and I’ll cherish those moments always.

Elements of Critique: Journey

I sometimes hear it said there’s a potential energy stored in a blank screen or sheet of paper. Like the biblical story of creation “ex nihilo,” we get the privilege of crafting something out of nothing. We arrange words like paint on canvas, like notes from an instrument, creating shared experiences.

But I disagree. The paper, on its own, remains blank. The screen, without input, shines for no purpose. The spark is in us, not the emptiness.

The writer of Penny Arcade, Jerry Hoskins, speaks of writing as inviting someone else into one’s own mind, allowing them to see the worlds imagined within. It is creativity, the power of a god – part of the image of God if your faith permits – contained in fragile, imperfect vessels.

Heady stuff.

Stephen King speaks of the magic in books as a form of telepathy, allowing near-direct transmission of thought between two human beings, crossing with ease the otherwise unyielding bounds of distance and time. (This is part of what he means by his quote that “books are a uniquely portable magic.”)

What an amazing power literally at our fingertips.

And yet consider every magical story on the silver screen or the pages of a book. Having power is not enough. Mastering it is what makes the difference, what sets the hero apart. And just like all of them, we writers find ourselves on a journey, developing this wonderful ability we’ve been granted in order to use it for its intended purpose.

Certainly the “journey” of a heroic character is an element of writing worthy of note. Joseph Campbell famously popularized the idea of the monomyth, the collection of similarities found in most hero stories. His work is worth a read. If not his, then at least someone’s writing who borrows from his conclusions liberally, since so many stories borrow the concepts from one another.

But that’s not the journey I’m thinking of. I mean the heroic tale of how mild-mannered average Janes and Joes sitting at their cubicle desks or kitchen tables develop into confident figures who have Something To Say To The World.

When critiquing, I have to keep this in mind. Everyone that submits a piece for review is with me on a universally similar but individually unique path to become their best as a writer. Some may be just starting out. Some might have walked this road for years. Others might be about as far along as me.

Some will have advice for me that I need to hear. Some advice I might take with a grain of salt. Sometimes I’m going to have an important tip to pass on to another writer. (I’m hoping I have 26 of them worth passing on… otherwise this A-Z is going to get boring really fast.)

There are two facets to that journey we share. The individual experience part is crucial to consider. It may color whose advice bears more weight when critiquing or editing my work.

The hostess of our critique group has been writing for years. She’s published books and had pieces included in very popular anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul. She writes articles with a Christian worldview and she has years of experience teaching the Bible.

But she doesn’t read sci-fi or fantasy. So when she makes suggestions or asks questions about my mainstream fantasy novel chapters, she freely admits this is not her area of expertise.

Even so, there are numerous elements of writing that are universal. And the thoughts and struggles new writers go through are common enough that she can speak with wisdom and experience on many aspects of writing that I might overlook. So I value her opinion greatly.

However, I have to remember that no one is perfect, even our crit group’s formidible hostess. I’d comment with delight when I could find a mistake in her work, because it was like a game of Where’s Waldo? I’ve had people pick on my grammar Nazi title when they catch me making errors. It’s friendly ribbing designed to help, not wound, because we’re all learning.

The best we can do is keep going, and keep reaching out to those around us on the path we all share.

After all, we can’t expect telepathy to come naturally.

Elements of Critique: Intensity

Yesterday’s post on critiquing hooks talked about looking for a device that creates reader interest and pressing questions at the beginning and end of a piece.

Today, I’m considering what to look for in the middle. Hooks might get me started, but something has to keep me going. There has to be some level of intensity in the piece.

Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

When critiquing a fiction piece or personal account, I’ll look for the conflict between characters and their circumstances. (I could have used that as my ‘c’ post, but constructive criticism is so essential to get right, it trumped conflict for that position.)

A character may struggle with internal conflict due to mutually exclusive values. “I know what I should do… but I know what I want to do to that conniving, rotten scoundrel…”

Interpersonal conflict should be present especially in dialogue. Otherwise, why pit those two characters against each other in a scene? If Bob and Jim are chatting and agreeing about everything, who wants to read that? They should have differing viewpoints on the subject in question, leading to a verbal clash, which keeps intensity high. If they don’t disagree, I suggest using different characters who do.

There’s also environmental conflict, where some circumstance or outside force is creating trouble for the characters in a piece. Maybe that’s an army invading their nation; maybe it’s an impending natural disaster. Something needs to create a constant pressure in order to sustain that intensity. If the reader is breathing easy for a batch of characters, then something should change fast to put them back into peril.

Finally, there might be thematic conflict where the characters and events serve to compare and contrast two ideas or positions. “Justice versus mercy” might be such an example, and for that I’ll point to Les Miserables. Societal ideals or even competing societies might clash to create that intense conflict the reader needs to keep interested.

Truthfully, in a long-length work, all of these can coexist. In a shorter piece, perhaps only one or two, done well, will fit.

The key with intense conflict is ensuring stakes are high. The character’s internal decision must have a profound impact on her life. The arguments between characters should have consequences beyond just a potential loss of friendship. The outside forces creating environmental conflict must matter. There must be a true threat to life as these characters know it.

That’s what I look for in a fiction piece.

In non-fiction writing, it’s more difficult to maintain intensity. Melodrama should be avoided, so everything can’t be the end of the world. “If I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, the bomb would explode, destroying the United Nations headquarters and plunging the world into war!”

No, not so much.

In order to consider the intensity of a non-fiction piece, I look for the above conflicts where applicable. Some writing might include true stories where those conflicts can shine and maintain interest.

But more often, I look for the “So what?” to the subject. What is the reader going to get out of this? Does this piece convince me as a hypothetical reader that it has something to say to me, something I need to hear?

If it’s a personal account of overcoming adversity, was the obstacle challenging enough that I can relate my struggles to the writer’s? If it’s an article about health or lifestyle, am I compelled by what the writer says on the subject? Would I even consider changing my ways?

Conflict comes into play here too, but it’s not quite like anything previously mentioned. The conflict for non-fiction is between a writer’s passion and a reader’s apathy. The writing has to make whatever points are necessary to persuade someone to care. It’s like a dialogue in a way, where the writer may have to assume and counter some of the arguments the disinterested reader might make.

No writing is going to be all things to all people, of course. Hoping so would be foolish.

But the biggest facet to intensity in writing is that the piece must mean a lot to the writer, so their passion shines through. Without that, to paraphrase Leonard, we might as well leave out the whole thing.

We’re a third of the way through the A to Z challenge. Thanks for joining me on what started for me as a spontaneous journey. Once I considered how passionate I am about critique group, it became easy to write the series – further proof of the point I’m trying to make in this post.

I’ve hit on several potential problems thus far. So the next two posts will take a turn toward the positive, starting with consideration of the journey we’re all on as writers.

Elements of Critique: Hooks

“It’s only 3 AM. Just one more chapter…”

I can’t count how many times I’ve looked at my watch or the clock in the middle of the night and justified reading the next chapter of a good book. What is it that sucks me in, holding me captive to the storyline?

Or how about the books I pick up at the store? I flip through the first few pages to check them out. What moves me from “Hmm, interesting” to a purchase?

The powerful concept that manages both these experiences is the Hook. And since most of us hope to do more with our writing than file it away in a desk drawer or folder on the computer’s drive, the hook is something I look for when I critique other writing.

A piece should start with a hook. “Why should I read this thing? Why should I care? Get my attention.” I say that, because that’s what an editor is going to be wondering. So if a fiction scene starts off with a long peaceful account of John and Mary’s mundane dinner conversation, or a description of the magnificent table and the sweetness of Grandma Myrtle’s special meatloaf recipe, no one cares.

Ok, the writer obviously cares, and maybe the critique group cares, because we’re friends helping each other out. So I might read that thing.

When daughter Sarah bursts into the dinner screaming “Help! Timmy’s bleeding all over the place. The neighbor’s dog did it!” – well, now it has my attention.

A hook creates questions that demand answers.

How bad is Timmy bleeding?
Was it his fault?
What’s the deal with the neighbor’s dog?
Do these families get along?

Better yet, consider the difference between “It was the neighbor’s dog” and “It was the neighbor’s dog again.” One added word tells some interesting backstory right at the start, creating more questions.

Conflict arises. Curiosity follows.

So the hook belongs as close to the beginning as possible. Depending on the length of a piece, it might go right at the start. A personal story would begin with Sarah’s outburst, then describe the disruption to a peaceful dinner as John and Mary scramble to Timmy’s aid.

The principle is still true even if the subject is nonfiction. A nonfiction article might pose a question or make a statement about the importance of the subject–better yet, suggest what life would be like if things were different. “Were it not for the heroic actions of the 82nd Airborne leading up to Normandy, D-Day might have been the greatest Allied loss of World War II.”

What did the 82nd do?
How did they impact the success of the Normandy invasion?
What might have happened if the Allies failed at Normandy?

Hooks are all about creating and keeping reader interest from the start. The work has to stand out in a heap of other submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts in someone’s inbox. So I look for something that grabs my attention near the beginning. Because if I’m not that interested when I’m reading something for a friend, no one will pay attention when it’s merely a matter of impersonal business.

In my post on “endings” I mentioned chapters in a novel needing some resolution to the scene they present. Sometimes a break from the urgency of events in the story might be nice, so there are certainly places where a calm ending is appropriate.

However, chapters should rarely end with a sense of satisfaction that lets a reader put in a bookmark for later. When dealing with longer works, a hook usually belongs at the end, in addition to the resolution of that scene.

The hook serves the same function here: it creates questions that have to be answered. But in this case, the answer is in the next chapter, and the reader dutifully turns the page, ignoring the clock.

When the hero develops an unspecified plan to defeat the villain, or when a third mysterious party arrives in the middle of a pitched battle, that’s a hook. When a character makes a decision to interfere in an upcoming event, or someone receives tragic news that makes them scream or clutch at the letter, that creates questions. The hero leaps into the fray even though he knows he cannot possibly win the battle. The heroine torn between two mutually exclusive choices realizes which one means the most to her, and moves into action to save that part of her life, at the cost of the other.

These questions have to remain largely unanswered at the end of a chapter, to create a demand for “What’s going to happen next?”

If I’m critiquing a chapter of someone’s project, if I don’t feel that drive, then I’ve identified a potential problem they’ll want to address before their work gets to the hands of an editor.

Otherwise what happens next is potentially a rejection slip.

What happens next on this A to Z? I’ll describe looking for writing that creates and maintains intensity. The first page and the last page matter, but so do the pages in the middle.

Elements of Critique: Grammar

I play piano by ear.

When I took 8 years of lessons, I learned to read the notes but never really grasped how all the marks worked to interpret tempo. So I’d hit right notes with wrong timing. My teacher would say, “Let me show you how that’s supposed to sound.” He’d play the song, but instead of understanding the notation, I simply duplicated what he did.

I’m amazed at musicians who can sit down with an unfamiliar piece of sheet music and produce the song in question. I cannot. They can, because they’ve taken the time to learn the rules of notation: such a mark means a note of this length, those symbols mean a delay of a certain duration between notes, and so on.

This universal method of notation means musicians have a common language. Even if they’ve never heard a piece of music, they can read the notes on the sheet and duplicate the song.

So it is with grammar. Outside of English lessons in school, which many of us brain-dumped as soon as we passed those courses, we all learn to communicate “by ear.” We read something with poor grammar and say, “That sounds weird.” We hear someone speak and cock our heads. “That’s not how anyone says it…”

But this is vague and occasionally unreliable. Learning the rules lets us communicate clear and precise thoughts. Like the old tale about bankers identifying counterfeit money, perhaps the best way to learn to pick out what’s wrong is to study what’s correct, especially in any case where one feels uncertain. Grammar rules are facts (bonus points for a reference to yesterday’s post) worthy of a writer’s research.

However, English is notorious for its abundance of rules and exceptions, so there’s no room in this post for a thorough list. Staying true to verb tense is a frequent enough problem that it will get its own post, even though it falls into this category. Punctuation misuse or lack thereof will also be covered later.

So here are a few other examples of what catches my critical eye:

Misplaced modifiers – Word order can create or prevent confusion in the reader. In my second paragraph I originally wrote “delay between notes of a certain duration.” The delay is between the notes. It is a delay of a certain duration. But as written, this may raise the question, “Duration of notes? Or duration of delay?” I had to move the modifier.

Singular/plural verb matching – What’s the actual subject of the sentence? Many times we look at the noun immediately preceeding the verb. “The fireworks excite me” and “The display of fireworks excites me” are correct, even though “…fireworks excites me” sounds wrong since a plural noun precedes a verb ending in -s.

Sentence fragments – Every sentence consists of a subject and a verb phrase. Sometimes in description, in argument, or in haste, writers forget to include both.
“John turned at the low growl and saw a huge dog. Black and hairy, teeth bared, eyes fixed on the intruder in its home.”
Or
“When you argue using circular logic, you have no case. Because the points you make depend on each other to prove.”
The second “sentence” is the sort I see often. In the first case, words are missing. I know the dog is the subject, but grammar demands the writer say so. In the second case, the problem is an extra word. The unnecessary “because” needs a phrase preceeding it in the same sentence. Taking it out fixes the problem.

When MS Word gives warning of a grammar mistake, wisdom pays attention. And if there’s any doubt, a web search will find numerous resources. Grammar Girl and any Oatmeal lessons are favorites of mine, as they take the time to explain the rules in a sharp and witty delivery. (The Oatmeal pictures and language sometimes get pretty coarse. You have been warned.)

Learning grammar to critique writing improves my own efforts. While I happily accept the title of “Grammar Nazi” at times, I make mistakes too. That’s part of why I go to critique group. No one is perfect.

Also, I use my understanding of grammar to my advantage. Sometimes that sentence fragment with bad grammar communicates exactly what I need in a scene, and I need to feel liberated enough to ignore the judgmental green squiggle of MS Word. (Besides, Word and Apple’s auto-correct love to suggest “it’s” for a non-gender possessive, so what do they know?)

There’s a quote attributed (perhaps in error) to Pablo Picasso that sums up this final point: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Speaking of artistry, tomorrow on this A-Z is all about looking in someone’s writing for the art of fishing. Answering “Will this piece of writing get readers to turn the page?” and explaining why.

(Did you catch the grammar mistake there?)

Elements of Critique: Facts

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier just released, perhaps it is no coincidence that “Everything Wrong with Captain America” popped up in my YouTube feed the other day.

If you haven’t seen an “Everything Wrong with…” video, it’s a recap of a movie, counting up movie sins like cliches and plot holes. There’s usually strong language.

One of the “sins” committed in the original Captain America movie is an ad on the wall of an alley, showing a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the some-team-I-don’t-care-about. The makers of the video point out that such a game never happened, or at least not on the date shown.

Steve Rogers is standing up to a jerk, getting beaten up (this is prior to him getting super strength), and viewers take the time to look at the print ad on the wall?

This is an example of why Facts matter when critiquing writing: because there’s always going to be someone wanting to prove the writer wrong. The flip side is, by including accurate factual information, the writer gains the trust of the reader.

So I look at anything factual that is included in the piece. For example, I recently read a manuscript that refered to PTSD as a diagnosis for someone in the mid ’80s. That triggered a flag in my mind, so I looked up when was PTSD first used in psychiatric care. (It was in use in official American Psychiatric Association documents in 1980. I learned something new.)

As another example, I just looked up the abbreviation APA because I wanted to type “Psychiatry” above instead of the correct “Psychiatric.” It would be pretty bad to abuse factual information in a post about facts, right?

A close cousin to factual information, I also look for anything that feels anachronistic – in the wrong time – when I critique someone’s writing. In a fantasy novel I’m reading to my kids, the writer said the magic power was like lightning “injected into his veins.” That gets the point across, but the term made me think modern medicine, not epic fantasy.

Sometimes what I note isn’t a fact but a lack thereof. It’s easy to gloss over something unfamiliar, to hand-wave it away or dodge the subject with a quick description. If the subject isn’t important to the story, then perhaps a writer can get away with this. But if it feels like something’s missing, that catches my attention away from the story and puts it on the writing itself.

For example, the manuscript I mentioned above had a scene with a victim of a car accident trapped in her vehicle. Rescuers used a hydraulic cutting device called “the jaws of life” to get her out. In the middle of the engaging scene, the rescuer said, “This is going to be loud.” The next sentence said, “A few long moments later, she could breathe fresh air again.”

That left me wanting more. This is a spot where factual information and description can put us there at the scene of the accident. I suggested describing shearing metal and shattering glass. Then I found a video of the tool in action and sent it to her.

Remember the point of critique is not to pick on flaws or weaknesses, but to build up the piece, to make it better.

That said, I also suggest writers don’t get caught up in being absolutely 100% accurate, unless they’re writing non-fiction with scientific, historical, or technical details. If I’m writing and I don’t know a specific thing (and it’s not worth a bit of research), I can be vague enough to tell the story without drawing the ire of fact-checker readers.

In an account of a conversation that happened 30 years ago as a child, I’ll trust a writer who says they were five. I’ll trust it was 2 PM, even if it could have been between 1 and 4 PM. There’s no need to offer caveats and explanations to cover each possibility.

To sum up, facts matter, unless the subject doesn’t.

Tomorrow, I’ll don my armband and jackboots to write about Grammar.

Elements of Critique: Dialogue

My teenage son is constantly getting into trouble with Mom. It’s because of his mouth.

“The problem’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

With dialogue the problem can be both.

First, I need to know who’s talking. That means attribution tags are important to include as early into the speech as possible. I read books to my kids, and I do voices for certain characters. You’d be surprised how often I have to double back after reading two or three lines of speech, because the author did not let the reader know who was talking until the very end.

If I’m critiquing a piece and I come to a point where I don’t know who’s talking, I’ve identified a problem for the writer to fix.

Second, I need to know how something is said, but this can be tricky. I used to try descriptive speech verbs. He muttered, she bellowed, he shrieked, she replied, he shot back, she wondered aloud. However, conventional wisdom considers that a form of “telling” instead of “showing.” Therefore I avoid it. Here’s why:

If a question is asked and another character responds, the words they speak will make that relationship clear. If a character complains about a situation, my mind will imagine them muttering without having to be told. How about the difference between:
“Get away from her, or I’ll kill you,” Ashton shouted. He aimed the gun at the robber.
as opposed to:
Ashton leveled the pistol at the robber. The hammer clicked back. “Get away from her, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Which reads stronger?

She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. “What is this,” she yelled. “What does it mean?”
as opposed to:
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. Her eyes wide, her face ashen, she gasped and gripped her sister’s arm. “What is this? What does it mean?”

Which one merely tells the reader she’s panicked? Which one helps the reader hear it in her “voice” on their own?

I use “said” and “asked” almost exclusively. They become almost invisible. For my taste, I use something special only if there’s a chance a reader might think it was said in a different way. For example, “whispered” might be useful if it is the next line of dialogue in the middle of an argument, to note the sudden change in tone.

Insert speech here.
Insert speech here.

Third, dialogue has to sound natural. When I write out a conversation, I read it out loud to see if I would stumble over any of the words. If a sentence is hard for me to spit out when I’m calm, then it’s probably impossible for my character to say when she’s in a crisis or heated argument.

There’s a special consideration for fiction: accents. Sometimes we want to show that a character has a certain ethnic background by typing dialogue to show the accent. This can be done well, but must be done with consistency and can’t be such a heavy ‘accent’ that the reader has to try to figure out what’s being said. As usual, less is more. Describe the accent, then go for clarity.

A stereotypical fantasy example is that Dwarves all have a Scottish brogue. “Aye, laddie, me an’ my kin are headin’ out to th’ Castle o’ th’ Dark Elves ta crush th’ snot outta those wee dirty cavedwellers.” Painful.

Patterns of speech might be preferable to attempts at accent. Describe the unique qualities of the sound – a lilting voice, a thick rumble, rolling consonants, slurring words. Then write the character with a special order of words, such as, “I will speak to my cousin, yes? My cousin, he knows these things you seek. This is good thing. He and I, we help you.”

That way the character sticks out with an identifiable voice, without forcing the reader to figure out what you’re trying to say through “accented” dialogue.

Finally, dialogue is best in short bursts. I write a few words first, then show some action taking place or include the character’s thought, then place the next spoken sentence.

“When I write,” David said, “I try to time the breaks in speech to create a rhythm.” He stroked his chin and stifled a yawn. Man, I’ve been talking about dialogue too long. “By including action and thought in between snippets of dialogue, I show the reader a more complete picture of what’s going on.”

Obviously there’s more to it than those points. Whole books are written on the subject of crafting dialogue. But these are some of the things I look for when critiquing a piece.

And I think I’ve said enough.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow, even though we’re nowhere near finished with the A to Z challenge, I will be looking at critiquing endings.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined¬†Scribophile¬†recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.

Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.

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