Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Notes on Critique

Notes on Critique.

Before I begin, I want to say that I've been critiquing at the Wordos table for ten years.  So, yeah; I've got experience, but what I'm going to say is just my opinion, and while my methods and observations work for me, you may have a different method or focus that works for you.

What I want to say tonight boils down to "Stay focused, be helpful, and play nice."

Stay focused on critiquing words.  Focus on the words, not a story's worth as "art."  Focus on the manuscript, not on the author.

Be helpful, and by helpful I mean use specific examples from the text when praising a manuscript or pointing out its flaws.  Also, don't repeat yourself too much.

Play nice, remember that we all have stories to tell, and the manuscript before you represents the best version of the story the author had at the time of submission.

The primary goal of critiquing stories is not to give a writer feedback, although that's a nice side-effect.  The primary goal of critique is to get folks thinking about writing and engaged with what works and what doesn't.  After critiquing a while, the patterns of good (and bad) stories become more visible in seed form, and that in turn helps with the writing process.

One of the dangers of a critique group like the Wordos is to come to the table thinking the critique process is going to provide a magic bullet that will fix your manuscripts' problems.  Sorry.  Nobody loves your manuscript more than you do, and it's your job as a writer to make it the best that you can.

I think another of the dangers of participating in The Wordos is that writers can lose track of their individual voice and begin to fall back on the Wordos Default Story -- which is sort of the Default Writers of the Future Story -- which is the five point stasis, try-fail cycle, crisis, conclusion story.  This danger is harder to address, and all I can do is remind folks that the table has and will savage Hugo and Nebula Award Winning Stories that were outside the Wordos Default Story.

So, when critiquing, here's what I do:

As I read the manuscript, I make notes and ask questions in the margins and mark up any mechanical problems.

When I find myself getting grumpy over a manuscript, I moan and groan and channel mean French language instructors from David Sedaris books.  And then I try to remind myself that the story on the page is the best story that the author knows how to tell.  I remind myself that editors like Ellen Datlow want storytellers to succeed and are silently cheering for their manuscripts.  The author has a story they're trying to share, and it's not my job as a critiquer to take out an editorial machine gun and fill the manuscript with holes.  Saying where I'm confused or the manuscript isn't working for me is valid, but so also is saying what works and doing a little bit of cheer-leading over the parts that work.

On the back of the last page, I write down my critique.  I do this because it helps me stay organized and allows me to mark points that have been said during others' oral critique so I can focus on what hasn't been said when it's my turn to speak.

I divide my last-page critique into several sections.  General remarks, Mechanics, Setting, Staging, Character, Plot, & Heart.


In the opening general remarks of my critique, I try to say if I think the manuscript is ready to send to markets or if I think it needs more work.  I try to cheer-lead here if I can, and be honest about what is not working for me.


In the Mechanics section I might say something like "Great language," or I might note where I had problems.  I might talk about the story's title or hook.  I might not go through the mechanical section during oral critique other than to say "I've marked some things down."

I think it's really easy when there's an experience imbalance to fall back on the nuts-and-bolts critique.  This is the sort of critique that goes something like, "Well, I mostly liked this," and then launches into a detailed review of commas.  It's safe and it answers the question, "Oh my god, how do I critique this without pissing the author off?"


Setting and Staging are two different things.  In setting I gather together any notes on sensory details:  the smells, the sounds, and the sights.  A well-done setting will act as an additional character.


In staging I'd note any problems with how the characters move or hold things.  Good description of character movement can be great alternative to having a character stand in front of a mirror or shop window.

I think it's easier to generate critique on mechanics, setting and staging.  But I also think that the critiques we give have to go farther, because a critique which is only addressing these things is only saying that a manuscript is clear and pretty.


Characters should be interesting and it's helpful if they're sympathetic and complex.

Specific character points I'm looking for are, what does the main character want,  what actions they take to get what they want, and how are they changed by the end of the manuscript?

I think it's fine to say that one doesn't like a character, but I try to be very specific, saying that I lost sympathy for a character, or I no longer trust a character, or that I'm bored by the character because they're too stereotypical.  I cite page numbers.


Prose should reveal character or move the plot forward.

When critiquing plot, one filter I've recently been taught is to try to figure out if the story is a milieu story, an idea story, a character story, or an event story.

A milieu story starts and ends when you enter and leave a location.  An idea story starts with a question and ends when you answer the question.  Character stories start when the main character is unhappy with themselves, and end when they either become satisfied or reconciled.  An event story starts when something upsets the status quo and ends when it is restored or everyone dies.

No matter what the story type, one way of thinking of plot is that it is a series of power reversals.  Another way of looking at plot is Action-Response-Reaction.  If there's no responses to changes in status, then the plot isn't working or has become a wish-fulfillment story.

As I said earlier, new folks tend to fall back on "safe" critiques and focus on manuscript mechanics: syntax, formatting, and grammar. These are fine things to focus on, especially if critiquing manuscripts is a new pastime or you don't want to offend an older author.  Folks with more experience will look at and focus on plot mechanics and plot logic holes. This works well for stories that follow the seven-point plot form, less so for stories breaking out of that mold.

This brings us to the story's heart.


A story works well when the reader discovers an Ah-ha! moment or when one of the characters (and by extension the reader) makes a discovery. A story's heart is bound up with the moral or message the story brings to a reader. Yes:  moral -- a tricky word to navigate.

A story's heart, as Jane Yolen puts it in "Touch Magic", is a truth the storyteller tells about themselves disguised as a story about the world which resonates with the reader.  For me, a story's heart shows how a particular character, and by extension the reader, find their place in the world through the choices they make.

If I can't find the story's meaning, I might try to identify a theme or themes.  I think critiquing heart can be tricky.  Sometimes I think a story's heart can get away from the author, which means as a critiquer I have to say something like, "There's a lot of themes in this manuscript, and the story might be better served by either increasing the word count or focusing on just one theme."  Usually when I critique heart, I try to summarize what I think the story's meaning is in about ten words -- and I have to remind myself that this can be devastating because sometimes what I think might be a light-hearted tone can be interpreted as mockery.

Once I've got my last-page critique written down, I'm set for the oral critique.  I listen to other oral critiques and write down dittos and dissents underneath my written critique.  I sometimes will say, "Ditto Nina" and then draw an arrow to one of my earlier written critique points.

SO...  It's our job as writers to provide the best manuscripts we can to the table, and as critiquers, we should treat manuscripts that way.  The best way to do that is to stay focused  about a manuscript's readability and saleability.    Be helpful by providing specific, concrete comments on a story's structure, and by playing nice.

Some closing comments, goals and challenges:

I'd like to challenge the table to eschew the word "you" in critique.  There used to be a ban on using "you" in critique, but we've relaxed that rule.  You in critique usually takes the form, "what you should have done," or "what you should do."  Using you tends to move the focus away from the manuscript and toward the author.

I think it's important to remember that while we are critiquing words on paper that there's a difference between critiquing craft and critiquing art.  It's somewhat helpful for an author to hear, "This didn't work for me" especially if it is followed up by specific examples.  It's less helpful to hear, variations of "I don't like this art or I don't like hard-military-bodice-rippers."  As an an analogy, I don't care for Mahler's (or is that Mauler's) music, so while I might say, "I thought the horns were too loud in the second movement," I wouldn't say, "this style of music is crap."

I do think it's OK to say, "I don't normally read hard-military-bodice-rippers, so my critique might not be that useful."  And I think it's less helpful to say, "Hard-military-bodice-rippers aren't my thing, so I stopped reading at page two."  Everyone has their own taboo subject; some people can't read gore, some can't read sex, and some can't read religious satire.  If a particular genre is repugnant to you and you really can't read it, just say "pass."

We have a "the author doesn't speak" rule.  But there's  an exception that people should know:  if the first critique completely derails the table.  For example, Gra Linnaea had a story on the table an the first critiquer spent their turn talking about how the story was about Ladybugs on Mars (disclaimer: made-up example).  It wasn't, but that didn't stop the second and third critiquers from beginning, "Oh, I thought this was about robots; but now that I see that this is about Ladybugs on Mars..."  To prevent a domino critique fail, it's polite to raise your hand and say, "Excuse me, but this is about robots, not Ladybugs."  and then let the critique continue.

[Mary pointed out that that one should try to remain true to one's original critique when confronted with a Ladybugs on Mars (mis-)interpretation of a story.]

So, remember: "When in doubt -- Stay focused, be helpful, and play nice."