What’s the best way to become a better writer? Get thee to a critique group, then roll up your sleeves and review everything you can get your hands on.
While I’ve learned a lot from the many astute reviews I’ve received from my critique partners, I’ve learned even more by reviewing them. There’s something about the process that forces you not only to analyze the work you’re reading, but also how it applies to the work you’re writing.
Here are the things I consider as I review:
This is more than physical description. I should be able to figure out what makes the character tick. Can I see the emotional layers to the character? Is he more than a cardboard caricature? Does he grow or change as the story moves forward?
A good yardstick for me is when I can relate to the character on a personal level. Good characterization will make me sit up and think: Hey, I know someone like that.
Where am I? I review a lot of science fiction and fantasy, which means I pay particular attention to the world building. Has the author described the setting in a way that I can visualize? Can I feel the knotty weave on a raw piece of canvas or the scent of smoke from a far off campfire on a damp night? As I read, I’m looking for clues that will place me in the moment.
Setting can be more than a physical place too. The mood or atmosphere where the story is set can be just as important. If the moment is supposed to be tense, frightening, happy or silly—has it manifested in the setting?
Experts are always extolling the virtues of good pacing. That doesn’t mean the novel needs to be nonstop action, but it should keep the story progressing toward its inevitable conclusion. If the scene or chapter doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t need to be there.
Elements of poor pacing show up in info dumps, long sections of introspection, backstory or flashbacks. Any time the reader has to be diverted from the real story, you run the risk of coming to a dead halt. It’s not that you can’t use these elements, just be aware that they are likely places for trouble.
A good test is to take every chapter or scene and reduce each to its bare components. If you can’t isolate an objective, an obstacle, and an outcome, then you probably didn’t have any movement in that section.
Does it sound natural for the speaker? Can I differentiate between the dialog of a child or adult, a woman from a man, or an alien from a human? As I read, do I always know who’s speaking or do I have to reread in order to keep track?
Unless you’re a fastidious outliner, it’s easy to miss something. A good reviewer will spot discrepancies and plot holes better than a bloodhound.
Review with the mindset that you want to give this person the best possible chance for publication. A good reviewer critiques the work and not the author. You are not there to change someone’s work, but rather to offer options when their attempts are not so successful, and reinforcements when they are.
You’ll find the more you review, the easier it is to spot weaknesses in your own writing.
And when your work is on the chopping block . . . check your ego at the door.
While a good critique partner will deliver a fair and honest assessment in easy to swallow lumps, remember that the reviewer is doing YOU a favor by critiquing your work. Whether you agree with his opinion or not, thank him for his time. If it’s a tough-love review that makes you wonder why you ever took up writing in the first place, put it away until you’re strong enough to read it without tears.
Remember that you are not your work. Your critique partner isn’t passing judgment on you. He is merely pointing out the parts that made him pause or question. If something wasn’t clear to him, chances are good it won’t be clear to other readers.
Treat your critique partners like gold and you’ll find yourself in a relationship that teaches you more than you’ll ever get out of a writing class.
Maria Zannini still has all her teeth (and friends) despite her tough-love reviews. Her latest short story appears in the humor anthology, More Sand in My Bra, available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. She blogs about writing tips, news, and markets regularly at www.mariazannini.blogspot.com.