Thursday, April 28, 2011

3 Critiquing Points for Beginners

(Or, Newbie Tricks for Crits with Bling)

Critiquing when you’re a new-ish writer/critiquer can be intimidating, and I’ll be the first one to admit: I had no idea where to start. I began to write a bit later in life, and although I can’t see my life without writing at this point, I didn’t start with the traditional MFA upbringing. When these traditional writers, who had known how they’d had the calling from their first story they wrote in kindergarten to write beautiful, lyrical, literary work, well, I can't help that these guys are better than me. And they know what they’re doing because it’s in their blood.

I could have used a few pointers, especially when I first began critiquing. I feared I’d look as stupid as I felt. How could I tell someone to improve their art?

First of all, know that if a writer asks for a critique, s/he not only wants someone to point out his/her blind spots, s/he is sincerely appreciative when someone does. Still, it’s tough to know what to say after you’ve read something for the first time. After looking over the sampling of critiquers in my earlier post, I’ve come up with three points to make even the newest of critiquers review like a pro.

1.    Characters: As a writer, I want each character to breathe life into every passage, and to have an authentic and interesting point of view. When critiquing, focus on a few questions for each character:
~Does the character pop off the page (come to life and feel authentic)?
~Is the character interesting (quirky, mysterious, likeable/unlikeable)?
~Are the character’s actions guided by their goals/desires?
~Does the character have a specific and necessary role they fulfill within the story?

2.    Plot: You can look up a variety of typical plot arcs such as the chart below. Short/flash fiction may work differently, but if you review a story with a full plot, ask yourself these questions:
~Does the story stick follow a logical plot, or digress into too many subplots?
~Does the tension rise along the plot arch? How does it accomplish this?
~Are there any scenes that are not necessary to the plot arch?
~Is the resolution valid/meaningful compared to the rest of the story?

3.    Sensory Details: Writers want readers to see the world through the main character’s eyes. Therefore:
~Is each description necessary for understanding the character or the scene?
~Does the writer focus on each of the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste)?
~Does the description pull the reader into the story or pull the reader out of the story?
~Is the description/sensory detail something the character would likely focus on?
~(BONUS!) Do the sensory details, overall, help support the theme of the story?

When a critiquer watches for the above points, the writer will see the feedback as helpful no matter how new the critiquer happens to be. There are many more things that can be critiqued, so I’ll touch upon additional points in future posts.

Critiques are all about one person's reaction to the story. It’s great to point out when something works, as long as the critiquer explains why it works (see any of the above points as a discussion point). The critiquer also needs to balance the review with things that didn’t work, or things that almost worked but missed the target. It’s the writer’s job to then take the critique and figure out what changes, if any, are required to accomplish what they want within their story.

The critique belongs to the critiquer, the story belongs to the writer.


Coming up: A critiquerly interview with historical romance author Courtney Milan.


Kirby Reed said...

This post came at the perfect time! I am beginning to get my feet wet with a new critique partner and now I know just what to look for. I'll admit that I was a little intimidated at first, but you've given me such a clear set of guidelines that now I feel empowered to give the best possible feedback. Thanks!

Marybk said...

Kirby, thanks for stopping in!! Glad you found it useful. Let me know how the critiques go.

Marewolf said...

Great! I am SO adding this link to my favorites! I think this list might also come in handy while revising... :)

Marybk said...

Thanks, Marewolf. Yet, you look so sad in your profile pic. ;)

Kierah Jane Reilly said...

I love it when my critique partners lay it on thick with the red marks! I definitely don't want anyone to sugarcoat anything, because I want my ms to be as polished as it could be before sending it to an agent. I've discovered that I'm not very good at reading just a chapter, or even a few chapters at a time. I need to sit down with the whole book and play devil's advocate. Pointing out things that I could've let slip through if I were reading a published book, but as a critiquer, I point out the littlest plot holes, character inconsistencies, etc. Great post, as always!

Huntress said...

Great pointers!
Since I am starting a crit group, this info is priceless. Thankx!

Anita said...

Love these tips! Especially the plot diagram; I'm very visual so stuff like that ALWAYS helps me better my craft. Thank you, Mary!

Marybk said...

Thanks, Kierah. Your critiques rock, BTW.

Hi Huntress--welcome to NAE!! Check back soon for more pointers.

Anita: I know what you mean. I'm a visualizer, too.

Marewolf said...

Hello there Mary, I have given you a blogger award :). You can pick it up here:

Terry Odell said...

While my crit partners and I are very comfortable (and brutal, since we want to know more about what's not working, and 'silence' in a crit means it IS working), I'm judging contest entries and these tips are helpful reminders that the folks who entered don't know me or my critique style.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Marybk said...

Terry - Thanks for stopping by. What a great point to keep in mind for veteran critiquers: remember when we crit people who don't know us, we need to go back to the basics.


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