Tag Archives: critique

Elements of Critique: Quotation Marks

There’s an arguably crude joke about the Oxford comma (the one that you may have been taught does or does not go before ‘and’ within a list of items).

Consider the difference:

“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party.”
“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK and Stalin to the party.”

Maybe JFK and Stalin have a more colorful history than I knew.

Punctuation matters. But so does point-of-view, which is why that got the ‘P’ slot in this A to Z list. So today, I’ll focus on Quotation Marks (and other punctuation).

It’s my blog. I can cheat.

Quotation mark rules are easy to follow, but the marks are easy to miss, judging by the critiques I’ve done thus far. I watch for marks at the start and end of the quote, and I check whether the marks enclose required punctuation such as a comma, period, or question mark at the end of a phrase or sentence. And if the quote includes the speaker reciting a quote, then single quotation marks surround that recited quote within the double quotation marks.

There is one case where a question mark might not be enclosed in the quotation marks. If the speaker is asking a question using a quote, the question mark belongs outside the quote. For example:

“Did God really say, ‘If you eat the fruit, you shall die’?”

The fact that the first example I can think of is from Satan might be a clue that it’s easier to simply avoid this structure if at all possible.

Another note, with quote marks, is that you don’t have to end a paragraph with a quotation mark if the next paragraph starts with the same speaker speaking. The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark, and a quotation mark goes at the end of the speech, however many paragraphs it lasts.

Also, I look for new paragraphs to start with each new speaker. Having multiple speakers in one paragraph, even with proper punctuation, is a nightmare to the reader.

Enough about quotation marks; on to commas!

I started with a comma joke, and mentioned the Oxford comma. This is an example where either way is considered correct depending on the style required by whoever the writing is for. If it’s being submitted to an editor or publisher who wants it a certain way, then of course follow that guidance. Otherwise, I look for clarity or lack thereof, and critique as needed.

Comma overuse is the most common issue. Some of us probably learned to include commas wherever there might be a verbal pause. This can lead to some clunky writing. For me, commas separate clauses in a sentence, identify amplifying phrases, and establish lists of related items.

“She went to the store, but it was closed.” Separated clauses (independent first, dependent second)

“When writing, as with many creative endeavors, originality is of paramount importance.” Amplifying information phrase

“When he saw her, he waved to get her attention, but, shocked by the frustration on her face, he cowered.” Stuff like this just needs to be split into two sentences.

Shorter sentences with less modifiers read clearer than long, winding structures full of elaborate phrases. Those are things I look for in critique.

One special case of punctuation peril is the semi-colon. Sometimes we try to use them because they are often neglected, and it’s a nice change from the mundane. Contrary to what I often see, semi-colons only join two related independent clauses. That means if the semi-colon is removed, two complete sentences remain.

Both the independence and the relationship of the clauses matter. Wrong use looks like this:

“I try to use semi-colons sometimes; a neglected form of punctuation. It makes my writing look flashy and trendy; not mundane or mainstream.” In this case the problem is the latter phrases are not independent clauses.

“Sometimes I try new things in order to be creative; the semi-colon is a neglected form of punctuation.” The relationship is off here. I see this problem in fiction where two unrelated bits of description are thrown together with a semi-colon, like pulling ingredients out of the cabinet and throwing two at random into the pot, hoping for a good meal.

Semi-colons are a special kind of punctuation. They are almost never a case of must; we only use these when we should.

Finally, there is the ellipsis, those three dots symbolizing an omission of words from a quote. This can be in the middle, showing skipped words, or at the end of the quote, showing that the original quote goes on further but is not reproduced in the writing at hand.

Right example: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Wrong example: “I was reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and… ugh, history is so boring.”
They aren’t designed or intended to be used as a symbol for lost train of thought, or walking into the middle of a conversation, or awkward pauses, or suggestive questions, and so on. Writers sometimes do this, and even get away with it. But that’s not the purpose of this punctuation mark, so I critique it. Misuse might draw unwanted attention (read: rejection) from prospective readers and editors.

You can quote me on it, so long as you use quotation marks properly.

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: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.

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: 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.”
“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: Ending

During our time on Okinawa, my wife and I had a favorite date-night restaurant. Palm Springs was situated in a large round ring on the seventh floor of a building overlooking a nearby Marine Corps camp. They served French cuisine, or at least said they did. We didn’t know any better. On our first visit, we weren’t sure what to expect.

The meal came out in courses. Tiny little plates with a sprinkle of food on them. My American desire for a giant pile of delicious food protested this obvious mockery they called a “meal.”

But the first course and second were both stunning. Perfect. My wife looked at me with eyes wide, reflecting the surprise I’m sure my face revealed. Subsequent courses did not disappoint, packing absolute satisfaction into each plate that seemed too small to hold such taste.

The meal ended. We sat back, and considered how we felt. No overstuffed “loosen the belt” sensation. No desire for another bite. The gas tank gauge in our stomachs hit right on the “F” with no need for more.

That’s what the ending of a piece of writing is designed to do. That’s what I’m looking for, if applicable, when I critique.

Now I know, some of you are probably saying, “No it’s not! Are you kidding? What about hooks? How do I get the reader to keep reading?”

Well, SPOILERS: hooks are for H, not E, so bear with me a moment while I make my case.

First, if an ending is appropriate for the piece of writing, then it had better be there. In a nonfiction article or a personal account, I want to know how the story of that event ended or what point the writer is making. In a fiction piece, the conflict has to be resolved. If it’s a chapter in a longer work, at least the conflict in the scene should be completed (before the hook that makes the reader start the next chapter to see what happens).

Maybe there’s a longer background battle taking place, which spans two or more chapters. That’s great.

But within that one chapter, I need to see the character make a decision, resolve an internal struggle, or accomplish an important goal. Otherwise, what’s the point of including the scene?

In works of fiction, we don’t include scenes and interactions to show how cool we can write or what mastery of dialogue we possess. We include them because they advance the overall story. They lead up to an ending of some kind, even if it’s part of a larger whole.

But with endings, the biggest danger is not failure to include one. That’s easily caught and corrected.

The biggest danger is that it falls flat. In a short story, or in a nonfiction article, no reader wants to get to the end and be shocked that it’s the end. I don’t mean shocking endings and surprise twists are bad. No, they’re great. I mean if I turn the page expecting more and find out “Oh, that was the last line” then I’m disappointed.

Not the kind we're going for in writing.
Not the kind we’re going for in writing.

After three pages of short story about the main character searching for a solution, once the problem is solved, the next line is not “And they lived happily ever after.”

Bam. Dead end. Brick wall out of nowhere.

Endings usually have some kind of impact. But not that kind.

A piece of writing, fiction or non, deserves a conclusion. This is something we build toward. When conflict is resolved (at least for the present), we know this scene, article, account, or story is coming to a close. We can take the time to let that sink in as we approach it.

Where abrupt or weak endings feel like a dead end, a proper conclusion feels like pulling into the driveway at home.

Conclusions often recap or summarize the main point. In a non-fiction piece or personal article, that might be the lesson learned, or the end result of the experience or event. In fiction, that might be a clever way of showing the moral of the story without preaching it to the reader.

If nothing else, they wind the piece down and offer a witty or memorable line to give closure. (You’ll note I’ve attempted to do this on each of these A to Z posts, with debatable success as far as wit is concerned.)

Now the reader knows the tale is finished, and they can move on. Or leave a comment. hint hint

Consider The Lord of the Rings. The Ring is destroyed, the Dark Lord defeated. The King sits on the throne of Gondor once again. And for a few chapters, the Hobbits still have to return home, reconnecting with old friends and saying their goodbyes. Then they have to fix the mess waiting in the Shire. And even then, they realize that the Shire is no longer home for Frodo. The heroic Hobbit departs for the West, and Sam makes the journey back to Bag End. He stands at the gate in a bittersweet scene, delighting in his children and wife while grieving the loss of his friend and Master. And almost with a sigh, he declares, “Well, I’m home.”

The gauge in the reader’s mind hits “F.” He or she sits back, sets the book down, and sighs with Sam.

The end.

Speaking of “F,” that’s what’s next on the A to Z of Elements of Critique, of course. It’s a fact. And that’s what I’m going to write about – including (and checking) the facts in a written work.

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.