I’ve spent the last few days drowning in full manuscripts and partials because I am a wonderful and generous person who likes to give critiques. I swap critiques occasionally, but not always. If I think something is going to be an interesting read, or that it has potential but needs a lot of work, I’ll generally offer or agree to look it over.
I’m lucky in that I get to read a range of writers, from high school students to published authors. I also critique for Crits 4 Water, and that’s nice because it’s for a good cause!
I’m on about thirty second of sleep, so I hope this is even remotely hopeful: There are, for me, three types of feedback. I tend to do all three, but I think everyone can do at least one and it’ll make them a valuable reader:
This is one of the more basic aspects of writing, and yet a lot of writers suck at it. The best critique partner is both good with The Technical Stuff and doesn’t mind taking the time get really detailed. They’re hard to find (I’m one of them, y’all.) but very valuable. Another thing to keep in mind when line editing for The Technical Stuff is that most people make the same mistakes over and over again. So you don’t need to go through and point out every dangling modifier and use of passive voice in the 80K word manuscript. Instead, go to the halfway point. That way you can get detailed and explain the mistakes, but the writer can’t use you to replace the knowledge he or she is going to need to learn eventually.
This stuff is easiest to point out if you do a lot of reading. You don’t necessarily need to be a writer to realize when a character is a Mary Sue. A lot of writers are very good with The Technical Stuff but their actual story will be lacking. So it’s really important to address the writing process as well as the physical words on the page. A great reader will have an eye for repetition not just on a basic level (you already used this word) but at every level (you overuse this sentence structure, this scene mirrors that one, was it on purpose?). This stuff is pretty easy to point out, but it can be a real headache to fix. Unlike fixing a typos or a squinting modifier, this takes revision. It takes cutting, rearranging plots, murdering our darlings, all that stuff we hate. This is where you improve on the actual story.
The Visceral Reaction: OMG, ARE YOU KIDDING, WHAT
A lot of people underestimate the value of their immediate reactions to events in the story. But these are super important, and obviously the easiest to give. When I critique, I always have a running commentary that details my reaction throughout the story. If a character annoys me, I say so. If I think what they just did is really stupid, I say so. If a joke was hilarious, I write HAHAHAHA. I also note here when the dialog feels forced or awkward (why are you talking like that, MC?). The key to doing these is not to address the writer too much. You’re a reader in the story. So talk to the MC (what are you doing?!?) and let yourself be fully immersed. Your initial impressions might be wrong later on, but that doesn’t matter. Why? Because communication is not just the message sent, it’s the message received.
That’s it! Remember not to sugar coat. It’s good if you can find nice things to say, but it’s more important that you note what needs work. A good critique is not equal parts good and bad. It reflects the quality of the piece and how much work it needs. Even if someone immediately dismisses your more harsh comments, I promise you they’ll consider it later when revising.
Weekend Links: Conflict
All stories, fiction or non-fiction, need conflict. Conflict propels the story. And if we can get a little grade school for a second, there are 3 basic types of conflict:
- man vs man
- man vs himself
- man vs nature
So as far as constructing character arcs and narrative goes, your largest conflict will be one of those. But when you hear someone say “there should be conflict on every page” they obviously don’t mean there should be a tornado, fist fight, or self-loathing monologue on every page. Here are a few types of conflict on the ‘page-level’
- dialogue vs interiority (a character thinks one thing and says another)
- a common event or activity set in an unlikely location (getting drunk on a saturday night…in a women’s department store)
- Description where tone of the descriptors contrast noticeably with what is being described (clouds shaped like… dismembered farm animals)
What Is Conflict?
On Conflict in Description
- Writing Powerful Description by John Gingerich
- The Devil in the Details by Craig Clevenger
- Effective Similes by Chuck Palahniuk*
Conflict in Dialogue and Maintaining Suspense
*the document linked to here is actually a group of about 40 essays from Chuck and other writers that teach on Lit Reactor. It covers tons of topics and they are all interesting to read. So don’t hesitate to download the entire file.
Weekend Links: Writing Dialogue
A lot of people assume dialogue is easy to write because ‘It’s just a conversation! I have those all the time.’
But real conversations are, for the most part, really boring:
- Lots of verbal tics (uh, um, like, well, I mean)
- Lack of conflict (How was your day? Great, yours? Pretty good!)
- Cliches and repetitive phrasing
Writing dialogue that too closely mirrors real conversation will give you lots of repetition on the page. You don’t want that. Repetition is bad. It’s boring. It sucks. It’s totally lame.
All that said, here are a few essential reads re: writing dialogue that is great and awesome.
On Saidisms and Dialogue Tags:
- He Said, She Shouted Loudly by Nathan Bransford
- Verbs and Dialogue Tags: Or, Stop Smiling Words by Annette Lyon
On Pacing and Creating Conflict:
- Am I Talking To Myself, Or Is This Guy Not Holding Up His End Of The Conversation? by Anne Mini
- Speak To Me, Protagonist. Or Blink Twice To Let Me Know That You’re Alive by Anne Mini
On Info-Dumping, Hollywood Narration and As You Know, Bob
Audio Described DVD’s and Writing Description
The other day Mr. brought home a Blu Ray copy of the film Real Steel. He was fumbling with the settings to make sure the subtitles weren’t on and accidentally stumbled across another feature: audio description for the blind or visually impaired.
While he figured out how to turn it off, I listened to a ‘narrator’ describe everything on screen in a way that clear and concise but still detailed. The words used were appropriate to the tone of what was going on, and since there is obviously dialog, the scenes were described in as few words as possible. Bits and pieces are described to suggest an idea, but not so much as to overwhelm the listener or detract from the story.
I did a bit of research, and widely available audio descriptions appear to be new(ish). It’s hard to find really good clips online, but I did find a few examples.
Here, for example, you’ll find a ten minute audio described scene from the 70’s movie about Helen Keller The Miracle Worker. The scene has very little dialog, so instead the narrator describes the movements on screen and the struggle between the two characters. I hate his voice, but it’s still worth checking out.
Another good one is this six minute clip from The Aviator, starring Leonardo Dicaprio. The description in this one is much more involved. The narrator paces herself with the cutting of the film and varies the vocabulary in a way that keeps it interesting.
And last but not least, a short trailer for Tron: Legacy. I like this one because it has a fantasy element and attempts to briefly describe things that don’t exist in the real world. The trailers are a little less descriptive and rely heavily on the listener’s imagination (very few colors, for example) but they’re still interesting.
So, if you ‘re able to get your hand on any of these DVD’s or netflix rentals, you should try watching it with the audio description on. It’s a great demonstration on how to convey an image with words.
Nine Steps For Longer Sentences
Because some things are easier to understand when you observe how not to do them. Did you know the federal government has a website dedicated to explaining “plain language”? Plain language usually refers to technical writing, but really, it’s all about clarity. If you’re unable to explain a concept or idea in simple terms, you probably don’t understand it as well as you could.
Original Sentence: More night jobs would keep youths off the streets.
Step 1: Begin to lengthen your statement by referring to studies, even if you’re not aware of any studies.
Studies have found that more night jobs would keep youths off the streets.
Step 2: Replace simple words with multiple syllable words of Latin or Greek origin.
Studies have found that additional nocturnal employment would keep adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 3: Use sophisticated verbs, the vaguer the better. The verb found is much too clear and simple, whereas indicate, develop, and identify are excellent multi-purpose verbs with so many meanings that you can use them in almost any context to mean almost anything.
Studies have identified the fact that additional nocturnal employment would keep adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 4: Rely on such adjectives as available, applicable, and appropriate to lengthen sentences without changing or adding any meaning. If possible, use various, one of the most meaningless of all the meaningless modifiers.
Various available applicable studies have identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment would keep adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 5: Use weasel words as often as possible. A number of is particularly useful because it can refer to any number at all: -9, 4.78, 0, 5 billion, you name it.
A number of various available applicable studies have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 6: Sprinkle your sentences with classic redundancies.
A number of various available applicable studies have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 7: Add meaningless “it is” and “there is/are” expressions, not only to lengthen your sentences but also to give them a scholarly ring.
There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a number of various available applicable studies have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares.
Step 8: For the precision that all good writing deserves, use legalisms, the more redundant the better.
There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a number of various available applicable studies have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares, including but not limited to the time prior to midnight on weeknights and/or 2 a.m. on weekends.
Step 9: Use foreign words and phrases to lengthen and enliven your sentences.
There is no escaping the fact that it is considered very important to note that a number of various available applicable studies studies ipso facto have generally identified the fact that additional appropriate nocturnal employment could usually keep juvenile adolescents off thoroughfares during the night hours, including but not limited to the time prior to midnight on weeknights and/or 2 a.m. on weekends.
6 Writing Tips From John Steinbeck
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
// Via: the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review
Weekend Links: Words and Grammar
I don’t like posting huge lists of links, because I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with information. Since Tuesdays are officially reserved for giving away books, Saturdays will be for helpful writing links—a few at a time. Excuse any typos, I’m on my way out the door!
Asserting that one must first know the rules to break them, this classic reference book is a must-have for any student and conscientious writer. Intended for use in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature, it gives in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style and concentrates attention on the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.
If you’ve ever googled for grammar rules, you’ve probably come across this site. But it’s an easy-to-read reference for basics. She covers grammar, punctuation, word choice and style.
I use this a lot more than I thought I would. Part of understanding a word is knowing its origins. Nuances totally matter. This is also good for when you’re worried a word could date your piece. Oh and it covers a good amount of slang and most common obscenities.
The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words. Its innovative display encourages exploration and learning. You’ll understand language in a powerful new way.