Herding Cats - Hardcore Critique Guidelines

A few weeks back I posted something about how I needed to get an RT group together. I still need to do that. I need to find the right people and manipulate schedules to make this happen. Unfortunately if I am the only one who is serious about doing the RT, then I will be sitting alone in my apartment with portions of a manuscript printed out that no one else has laid eyes on but me. So, central Texas writers, email me, Aim me, Facebook me, text me, call me, I don’t friggin’ CARE. If you want to share manuscripts LET ME KNOW! Because I want to, as well!!!

Speaking of serious critiques, I found this online a while back and only recently rediscovered it. I thought it would be appropriate considering I’m trying to get a group together—which seems to be like herding cats.

Original Author: Amy Sterling Casil

Found on: http://www.sfwa.org

When we criticize 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    1. “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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

    1. 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.
  1. 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.

    1. 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.”)
  1. 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.




I Got Nothin'

Here I sit, watching my fingers tap away at the keyboard as if there is some magick behind the clicks and clacks. There isn’t really, all of it is just sort of there. Creating words and watching strands of structure being combed out into sentences that make partial sense—at least to me.

I wish there was a magick there, a gift. Or maybe, just maybe, some motivation to write. After three months of work outlining, writing, deleting, re-writing and deleting some more, the hope that I had it pegged is once again beginning to slip away from my grasp. I have so much that I want to pour into Gestalt that I am beginning to have doubts about settling on writing in First Person. Enzeru and Seishi’s stories can’t be completely told from that perspective, and neither can a few other characters. I also can’t get into the minds of some characters that I really would like to, and I can only go into action that Aimee and Kay are a part of.

Jesus this is hard! I need to stick to my guns, though, I know that. I need to get this draft hammered out and send it to my focus group of editors (i.e. my friends) to see if they like it in first person or if they feel, like I do, that there’s a huge chunk of story missing from it that way. I don’t intend to leave out huge chunks of story just to get a consensus one way or the other. I will write to the best of my abilities in any facet to make certain I tell the story the way the characters want it to be told. I just hope that my muse won’t come back and bite me in the ass.

More outlining got completed tonight, but not much in the way of tender, juicy story.

There need to be more hours in the day. Just sayin’.




Just Because I Have the Attention Span of a Goldfish . . .

does not mean you can feed me fish flakes.

Since the word go I have always wanted to be a writer. Well, ok, I wanted to be a garbage (wo)man when I was three, a paleontologist when I was six (thank you Jurassic Park) and a Storm Chaser when I was ten (Thank you Twister). . . but after that, it was all about the written word. It was at that young age that I realized I COULD do all of those things and more if I created the worlds, if I wrote the stories. And so began my quest to tell stories. Just don’t ask about the garbage man thing, I still don’t know where the devil that one came from. The problem is that I have such a short attention span—ooooh! Shiny!!

Sorry, where was I? Oh, right. I have such a short attention span that it’s hard for me to sit down and focus on any one story for very long. I have no less than twenty different novel or series concepts floating around my head that it has proven to be a full time job in and of itself just to sift through them all to focus on any one thing. For example, Gestalt is a concept I thought up for some little writing exercise my 5th grade teacher told us to do. Thirteen years later it has gone through a dozen re-imaginings, added characters, dropped characters, name changes both in title and in characters and so on. In that time I started working on Shadows Fade, the concept that spawned Ethereal Heart (unintentionally). I’ve also had ideas for a couple of Sci-fi novels and so on.

My point, I guess, is that in the three months that I have back at it on Gestalt for its fourth re-imagining I have only written about 170 pages. That’s double-spaced. I was psyched about my progress at the end of December but since then I have only been able to do a few chapters every couple weeks and it gets really discouraging. I am trying my damndest not to make it spiral downward into a never ending maelstrom of doubt, but it’s proving to be difficult. To combat this I’ve even gone so far as to almost always have the word document up on my screen when I am at the computer—which is most of the time. It’s helped a bit, but I wonder if I need more help. I’ve never been tested for ADD at all, but I’m beginning to think that I may need to be, and to get onto some kind of regiment that will help me to focus on things. All of my thoughts and all of my ideas are clear as day and I know what I want to write, it’s just finding how and to actually get myself to do it.

The good news is that I found a way of introducing another of the main cast tonight. Hurray for small victories!



PS. Yes, my parents took me to see Jurassic Park when I was six years old. My best friend at the time tried to hide under her seat and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I’m twisted.

Ooh! Fish flakes!


I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Argh! My computer decided to crash right before I finished typing out this Blog entry so I lost a good portion of it. I’m so far gone that I don’t think I can remember my stream of consciousness thoughts right now. So instead you get the shorter version.

Been awake roughly 24 hours as of now. When I got home from work last night I was finally able to capture Fannin and tie him to a chair long enough to flush out about ten more pages or so. Damn muse won’t sit still for the life of me.

I think that I am beginning to get into the groove of things for Kay’s side of the story. I’m very pleased with the newest chapter that I’ve written for her. A huge chunk of me wants to share it but I really can’t because it’s got a few major plot points in it that need to stay hidden for now. I actually sat down tonight with the intention of re-writing a big section of one of Aimee’s chapters, but when all I could do was tap my fingers against the keyboard for fifteen minutes only to write the word “the” I decided it was time to let go of those scenes for the moment. The good news is that Tessell is now introduced fully and Kay’s posse is starting to take shape. Between Tess’ introduction and another important scene, however, I need to add something extra because there is such a sharp gear shift that, while I want to bring out Kay’s Bi-polar tendencies and passive-aggressive attitude, are a little too halting to keep with the flow of the storytelling.

Just to share, I have a brief dream-like sequence from Kay’s first chapter.

Memories that didn’t fully belong to me slithered surreptitiously into my dream-state. The knowledge that I was, and yet wasn’t, alone reared itself. There were others with me, weren’t there? A vague blip of her presence tugged at me, but there was someone else. Names I couldn’t visualize paired with blurred faces. At least one of them had to still be alive. Or else, what would I be running back for? Surely my legs wouldn’t throw me into the turmoil of utter destruction; but I feared deep down in the pit of my stomach. A knot of disconcerting anguish tightened itself.

The scene shifted. I entered a scorched battle ground and slowed to a steady walk. Barefoot though I was, the embers greeted my footfalls with an oddly cool touch. The stone floor was still smoldering and the pungent stench of rotten flesh and char-broiled innards filled the air.

Sulfur; the unmistakable stream of rotten eggs and burning.

My eyes shimmered with water, unable to stand much of the aroma. I coughed and covered my face with the back of my hand. Immediately those same eyes focused on the outline of two figures through the waves of heat. As I moved closer, I could see the crystalline construct of a woman’s form, motion frozen in time. A Daemon’s neck was in her tight grip, head blackened with ash and tilted back in an eternal war-cry of torment. His wings were twisted, so broken that they almost looked natural. His arms had been low and extended out towards his side, his axe still clasped firm in his hand, his muscles still visibly taut. The woman herself was no more than the glass construct that held her together. I began to reach out my quivering hand to touch the woman’s cheek, though the intense heat radiating from her forced me to retract.