Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Critique - writing tip

Question: A friend asked me to critique her manuscript. I read it and told her I was interested, but she says she wants more. What else can I do?

Answer: She may be looking for a "line edit." Where you would mark every typo or correction on the manuscript and then give it back. can only tell you what I do.

As for a critique, I can only tell you my own method:

When I do a critique of advanced work, I like to look at three things:

First I give a short summary of the action, as in “What happened?” This may sound like a waste of time, but it is the quickest way for a writer to discover whether the her message has been delivered.

After I saw the movie “Cross Creek” I set a story in Florida, though I had never been there, and I worried that I hadn’t gotten the atmosphere right, although some people had told me, “a marsh is a marsh is a marsh” even when they call it a “prairie” as they do in Florida. I wrote a “coming of age” story in which a young girl loses her virginity, and used an alligator hunt as the metaphor for that. I put in lots of what I thought was sexual symbolism and tension between the girl and the older man, a friend of her father’s, who had just been waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of her, etc. But I was worried about the setting, so I read it in a critiquing session with about 17 women, five of whom I knew were from Florida. I felt sure they’d pick up on any bloopers.

When the moderator asked what happened, I was stunned. “This girl and her brother went alligator hunting.” Whoops! If they thought he was her brother, then they didn’t get my carefully constructed sexual metaphors at all. My job was to give it to them and I had failed miserably. I learned a lot that day — nobody had to say whether they “liked” it or not, which isn’t relevant to begin with. Nobody had felt bored, which I felt was luck, not skill, since nobody had got the plot. When it came my time to ask, the Florida people said they had assumed I lived there as the detail was so accurate. Most of those place images had come straight out of the Cross Creek movie, which was filmed in Florida.

Second, I try to look at how I felt when I was reading. To give some reader reactions. I never come right out and say I was "bored," but I do say I was "easily distracted from the story." Or I felt tired, or confused, and where and when, but that might have been my day. Tie enough of these reactions together and the point is hard to miss.

Finally, I look for things that I might change if I were writing the story from the perspective of a seasoned writer.

For instance, "You might want to change the name of either Marsha, or Marna, as I kept getting them mixed up. I know they are twins, but characters whose names begin with the same letter are easily confused in a reader's mind. I went to high school with girl twins who were named May and June, because (you guessed it) they were born in different months. Seventeen minutes apart and they had different birthdays!

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