Hardcore Critique Guidelines

Written by Amy Sterling Casil

When we criticise work, we are commenting for the purposes of publishability, and our goal is to help authors to become publishable and published writers.

For prose pieces, the following issues are critically important:

  1. Plot – does the action make sense? Is what is written moving the story forward? Sometimes, the pieces are too short or are fragments, so a complete plot analysis isn’t possible. Most pieces can be judged within the first few sentences for effective plot beginnings, however. That’s what editors do.
    1. Does the story start at the right place (the beginning?) Most stories by beginning writers start far too early – way before the key action takes place. Some, however, may start too far forward. These writers have taken the advice of “start with the action at full steam” too literally.
    2. Is the pacing appropriate to the story? Too fast? Too slow? Just right?
    3. Is the plot a real plot (a character, in context, with a problem)? Are things happening which seem to have no discernable reason or purpose?
    4. Are there unconvincing coincidences passing for plot? “I saw Prunella at the A & P that afternoon. I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she had the other half of the key to the Ancient Peruvian Treasure Box which I had been seeking, the very one which had brought upon the murder of Uncle Henry by the ravening pirates.”
    5. The ending: is the payoff adequate to the buildup? Does the ending make sense? Is it satisfying? Does it arise from character and situation or is it “deus ex machina,” where the Cavalry suddenly comes riding in over the hill to save the hero and heroine? Most importantly: were the seeds of the ending sown in the beginning?
  2. Hook – Is the beginning adequate to catch the reader’s interest? Another key issue related to publishability. Is there the proper balance of action, dramatization, and narrative? Sometimes, more narrative is needed, as in the pieces where the author will begin with a lot of unattributed dialog. The dialog might be saying exciting things, like:

    “I’ll kill you, Jim!”

    “No you won’t, I’ll rip your arms out of their sockets first.”

    “Darn you, Jim! Just pass me that ketchup.”

    OK, here’s killing, anger, conflict . . . but who? Where? Who cares? Other beginning errors include hooks that are a bit too strong: and I’ve seen child abuse, rape, incest, this type of thing. The reader has to care about the story and characters first, not be thrown into a situation from which they will instinctively recoil.

  3. Characterization – are the people of the story believable? In the case of some of the work we’ve seen, one wonders if the characters which are being written about are people. Some beginning writers use genderless, nameless characters. While this might have been done in some avant-garde writing, this isn’t usually the type of writing which is accepted in the SF world.Urge the basics:
    1. Names – good ones – indicative of character, which make sense. “Tom, Dick and Harry” just don’t cut it. With all the great names in the world, let’s promote some creativity in character-naming.
    2. Dialog and action fits with and supports character. Meek, sensitive characters shouldn’t scream or suddenly pull out Ninja weapons unless it’s a comic piece.
    3. Gender, place, time, dress and manner of characters should all go together to support good characterization.
    4. Physical descriptions are appropriate to the piece. A viewpoint character should not be able to describe himself, unless it’s integral to the plot. The good ‘ol, “Susie sees herself in a mirror” trick should always be pointed out to the author. Physical description of viewpoint characters can be done indirectly, by the reactions of others to the character and the character’s own interaction with the world of the story.
  4. Point of View – whose story is being told and who is telling it?
    1. Omniscient narrators are pretty much on the outs in the current publishing world. The omniscient narrator hops from head to head, from scene to scene and place to place and there is no single point of view or voice, other than the author’s.
    2. First-person narrator. A difficult voice for the beginner, though many people often think it is “easy.” The first-person narrator can only tell what he experiences and knows. This can be a powerful, but also a limiting voice. It is often thought to bring the reader into the story, but poorly-done first person narration has the opposite effect. The reader becomes aggravated by the character, and generally quits reading. A good example of when first-person narration is inappropriate: stories told by people who are dead or in comas, unless it’s a horror or surrealistic story.Of course, Dalton Trumbo’s, “Johnny Got His Gun,” the famous World War I story, was told from the point of view of Johnny who had no arms, legs, eyes and was deaf from a war wound – a unique and effective story not likely to be repeated.
    3. Third-person narrator. Also called, “limited third-person point of view.” This is the most common narrative style used in novels and short stories. The technique uses limited authorial intrusion, and done properly, can bring the reader in as close to the story or closer to it than can first-person narration. A point-of-view character is selected and the story told from that character’s perspective.
    4. Common mistakes include:
      1. Head-hopping: switching back and forth between different characters’ thoughts and opinions.
      2. POV slipping: telling something that the POV character couldn’t possibly know.
      3. WRONG point-of-view character. Sometimes stories are told from the wrong character’s point of view. This is an error in plot, related to the point-of-view issue. If the author more fully understood the story’s plot, he or she would have automatically and easily chosen the appropriate character to “tell” the story.
  5. Style – is the writing appropriate to the story? Style is subjective, but true errors in style are glaringly obvious.
    1. Tone. Is a serious story being told in a flippant tone? Or a comical story told in a plodding, self-conscious style? Most common, especially with younger writers: inappropriate irony, otherwise known as “smarting off.”
    2. Anachronisms or Freudian slips. In historical stories, are characters using modern phrases? Or, do inappropriate comments slip into the narrative, for instance, in a tense scene of financial intrigue, does one character suddenly say to another, “I love your see-through blouse, Frieda?” Are characters acting appropriately for their age and stage in life?
    3. Usage/Confusion errors. The gerund problem is among these. “Pulling on his boots, he leapt to the door with his gun.” Gerunds used in this manner are usually associated with two unrelated clauses jammed together with a comma. The author needs to use separate sentences which portray clear and understandable action and narrative. This is lazy, confused writing.Psychologically, I think it signifies a confusion as to what the appropriate story and/or action is, because most often, I’ve seen very beginning writers do it when they are tired or bored and don’t know what to do with the story.Misplaced modifiers and split infinitives also fall into this category.

      Sentence fragments? Sometimes they are appropriate, if they seemed planned or intentional and are not excessively used.

    4. “Taking the reader for granted.” Otherwise known as “The urge to explain.” The great phrase, “RUE” or “Resist the Urge to Explain,” is used in the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King.

      “I’ll never darken your doorstep again, you thieving hussy!” Johnny slammed the door furiously. He was angry. He had never been so angry in his life. [Thank you, author, I got it the first time . . .]

      Simply put, authors make this error when they use dialog, narrative summary and action to accomplish the same purpose. Dialog and action can both be strong methods of communicating plot developments; narrative summary less-so, but it has its place.

      “Thirty years passed and Monica had never kissed another man.” That’s narrative summary – preferable to detailing Monica’s turn-downs of men over a 30-year period.

    5. Lack of variation in sentence length or sentence structure. Too many short sentences? Too many long, run-on sentences? A long sentence or two can be interesting, but not *every* sentence. An ungrammatical, confusing sentence is exactly that, and is never good writing.
    6. Excessive use of passive voice. Passive voice is often mistaken for the past-perfect tense. Passive voice refers to the reversal of the “normal” subject/verb order of a sentence. Tenses of verbs serve to indicate time and order of events. When writing about the past, or indicating various moods, past-perfect verbs are very useful, and they have nothing to do with “passive voice.””Bob hit the ball” is “active” voice, the normal sentence order in English.”The ball was hit by Bob” is passive voice. The subject, “the ball,” comes before the verb.

      You might see something like “The speech by Mayor Bob was given in his usual sarcastic tone.” Normal sentence order would be: “Mayor Bob gave the speech in his usual sarcastic tone.”

      Passive voice isn’t a major point in fiction writing: if it is used to excess, there are usually other severe problems in plot and style which are more harmful than passive voice alone.

    7. Internal dialog passing for emotions or plot. Many beginning writers do this. At its most extreme, the internal dialog is actually the author’s own thoughts as they ruminate along the page, not those of the character. “What would Mary do? Would she fire the gun at John, or would she turn it on herself? What would happen if she fired the gun at the floor? How could she ever decide?” Please, Mary, decide. Please, author, don’t tell us what happened until Mary decides. Sometimes, this sort of internal dialog can be unintentionally hilarious, like the authors who are going along with the story and suddenly say, “this is really boring. When is this going to be over?” Soon, I hope.
  6. Dialog: is it good? A good ear for dialog is something which is difficult to learn. It’s easy to spot when a writer is good at dialog. Conversations should be believable and serve to advance the plot. Good dialog is not realistic dialog, it is dialog which advances the story, shows character and echoes in the reader’s mind.
    1. “Maid and Butler dialog” is dialog where two characters tell each other things they already know. It is often used to attempt to tell backstory or to explain concepts the author thinks the reader won’t understand. In SF, we know this as the “infodump.”
    2. Flowery dialog: sometimes found in Romance writing, Historical writing or Fantasy writing, these are characters who speak language which never issued from a human mouth. High language can be appropriate in all of those genres, but dialog like this:

      “Margaret, your lips are as sweet as the nectar from a honeyed buttercup,” Lord Brockston Bragg ejaculated.

      “Oh, Brockston, I can feel your . . . it’s . . . it’s pulsating, Brockston,” Margaret exhaled.

      . . . is never appropriate.

    3. Bad tags. “Said” is fine, as well as the occasional whisper or shout, indicating volume (but even that’s not necessary). Bad tags include “exhaled,” “ejaculated,” “shrieked,” “sputtered,” “muttered,” “murmured,” and all other verbs attributed to a line of dialog instead of appropriate action, description and good dialog which speaks for itself.Marianne cupped her hand by my ear. “He’s going to try it now. Just watch,” she said. Whispering is pretty much understood.Bob sighed and opened his mouth, then sighed again. “Can’t,” he said at last. “Can’t do it.” (Beats “stuttered,” or “sputtered,” followed by “Bob stuttered. He had stuttered since he was seven and the Burnsey boys had whipped him behind Old Man Gruenpfluegel’s barn.”)
  7. Originality and creativity. The most important part! We should be encouraging people to use their imaginations and to think beyond the first ideas which pop into their heads. Cliched plots and characters and situations, like “Worldmaster Gray” and “the spacefaring couple who crash on a planet and turn out to be . . . Adam and Eve!” fall into this area. Originality in character, plot and setting is very important and goes a long way toward contributing to the quality of any kind of fiction writing.

— Amy Sterling Casil © 1996

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