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Grief Tattoo by Rick Berry
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SUGGESTIONS FOR CRITIQUE

These are general guidelines concerning what to think about when looking at a story for critique. Many of the suggestions were originally drawn from Amy Sterling Casil and D.G. McLean of the Science Fiction Writers Workshop on America Online.

Remember -- there are no rules. A critique is an opinion about a story -- hopefully an educated opinion, but an opinion nevertheless -- and everybody has one.

Stories are written by people and people have feelings. That doesn't mean you should be complimentary when a story clearly needs work. The worst thing you can do in a critique is to tell someone how great their story is when, in fact, it isn't. Your job is to use fresh eyes to spot problems the author can't see because he or she is too close to the story -- Critique the story and not the author.

Read the story at least twice. Reading it aloud is a good idea, too. An editor might be able to decide to buy or reject a story based on a single reading, but you can't spot specific flaws and offer real help with a single reading. In fact, the better the writer, the harder it is to spot problems on the first reading. Reading it out loud gives you a good feeling for the "word music" and identifies unwanted resonances.

Describe the plot to yourself in a few sentences. Does it make sense? If you accept the opening premise, do events follow logically and consistently? If you can't describe the plot or what happens in the story -- then the story doesn't work.

Is the payoff proportional to the buildup? Long stories should have more expansive endings than shorter ones. Is the ending satisfying? Does it seem like the characters continue to have a life (or undeath) after the story closes?

Is the story internally consistent? In dark fiction and horror the reader must often be supplied with rules that govern the world the author creates. The author must be consistent when establishing them.

Do the characters seem like real people? Do they have conflicting desires? Do they change over the course of the story? Does their behavior change based on their experiences in the story? Or are they simply talking heads against a colorful (or worse, bland background)? Are they like TV characters? Because of time constraints, most TV characters are caricatures...not true characters. They don't belong in stories.

Does the author use "info-dumps" to tell you important information, rather than letting you and the other characters discover it as needed during the course of the story?

Does it seem to take forever to read the story? Stories that seem longer than their pages usually need editing to clear out extraneous information. When in doubt, eliminate everything that is not essential to the story. Remember Chekhov: "Don't bring a gun onstage unless you intend to use it."

Has the idea been done before? If it's already been done and done well, why should anyone want to read this rendition of it? Editors want to buy one of three kinds of stories: a) completely new ideas, b) old ideas taken where no one else has gone, c) fusions of several old ideas into something radically new.

Does the story have a defined beginning, middle, and end? Does the story start well, make a promise, develop that promise, then, at the end, provide an appropriate payoff? Commercially saleable stories must have clear, understandable beginnings, middles and ends. Depending upon the story's length and form, these things can merge with one another, especially in a very short story, but the basic form still should be there. (Yes, of COURSE, there are exceptions, but if you are Harlan Ellison, then what are you doing here?)

Did the story move you? If the author did anything or everything you liked, then tell him/her and us what it was so that we can all learn. It's very important to have people tell you when you did something right, not just when you've done something wrong.

Grammar, spelling, and stylistic errors: Grammar and spelling are very important in making a professional presentation to editors. A writer should always send perfect copy to an editor. But this is a draft and you are critiquing, not copy editing. When pointing out these types of error, can you identify a pattern? Are the spelling errors just typos? Point out the pattern by citing one specific sentence, then tell the author it is recurring. Is the grammar consistently poor? Is it just one poor phrase? We almost all need help occasionally with grammar. Point out an overall problem, or mention the single instance.

Stylistic errors include errors in tense, journalistic-type stylistic errors (writing numbers as "25" instead of twenty-five, etc...) using ellipses in an incorrect manner, trouble with quotation marks, too many run-on sentences, etc. Unless the problem is unusually severe, a brief mention in the critique ought to suffice. Again, your job is not to be a copy editor. A recommendation to purchase a style manual might be in order, or the use of a grammar or spell-checking program.

Not the sort of story you personally like? Pass on it or try to see the story from the author's point of view. After all, even if it's not the sort of thing you enjoy, others may like it.

Do you see, from your experience or knowledge, a particular problem with the story that may prevent it from being published? Maybe a new writer just isn't aware that "it's been done before." Maybe they don't realize that the heroine must be over 18 to have sex with the monster crustacean, or that crustacean sex may be considered bestiality and therefore not acceptable in some markets. Just let the author know that there might be a problem with some elements.

Try to make your comments as clear, specific, and understandable as possible, both for the author's sake, and for other workshop members as well.

Are there particular books or authors you that this writer could benefit from reading? Do you have any specific market suggestions? (Writers should NOT take such marketing suggestions as recommendations to an editor, however. They are just informal suggestions and should not be mentioned in one's cover letter.)

Try to keep the author's skill level, tastes, and prior experience you've had with their work (if any) in mind as you do your critiquing. Our goal is to help all members to improve their writing and get published. Writing is a skill which is learned and which is improved with continual work and effort. No matter what point at which a writer starts, if he or she continues to work diligently, he or she will one day be writing publishable material.


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