Thursday, October 1, 2020

No Dear O'Abby this week... Just a bit more about critiques.

 No one had any questions for O’Abby this week, so I thought I’d expand a little on last week’s question about critiquing and use this space to talk more generally about the subject, and some of the things I’ve been seeing and noticing in the work I’ve been critiquing recently.

I do a lot of critique work for a lot of different writers and across material of all genres and for all age groups.  While I’m primarily a writer of YA contemporary, I don’t limit myself to only critiquing stories in the genre I write.  I find a learn as much, if not more, from critiquing books outside my own genre, and the writers of these books often find my critiques helpful because I’m coming to their stories without knowing all their genre’s tropes and conventions.

Writers will sometimes specify the things they are looking for in a critique when they pass a book over to me,  especially at a later stage in the editing process, where there may have been previous critique partners or readers across the manuscript.  In this scenario I will be reading with these specific things in mind – maybe the writer is concerned about a certain character and if their motivation for doing certain things they do is clear – but will still look and comment on other things that stand out to me.

If the writer doesn’t have any specific questions or concerns, I dive into the manuscript and just start reading, stopping to leave comments as I read.  These can be about anything I don’t understand, any inconsistencies I find, word choices I find jarring, places where the story’s logic is flawed and many other things.  I will also comment if something is particularly well done – a description for instance, or a scene that makes me feel exactly what the author wants the reader to feel.  It’s important to make sure you don’t focus only on the things you feel are wrong with the book; mention the things that are right too.

Once I’ve finished reading the whole story, leaving these little comments as I see things that require them, I will write a summary of my thoughts about the story as a whole, touching on the things I liked about it as well as the things that didn’t work for me and why.  If I have any suggestions about how to fix these things, I will offer these in a fairly general way. 

Now, let’s take a quick look at some of the common things I have been seeing in recent critiques…

 Not being deep enough in the character’s POV, especially in first person narratives. Remember that in first person we’re in their head and can be privy to their thoughts.  This means even if they’re saying one thing out loud, they can be thinking and feeling something entirely different.

Too much backstory early in the book – let us get to know the characters in their current situation before going too far into their pasts.  Small details often tell us much more than paragraphs of info-dump or flashbacks that take us out of the here and now.

 Stories that start too early.  I’ve read a couple recently where the story actually started around chapter three or four.  It’s an easy thing to do; when I do NaNo, I invariably write around 10K before I realize I’ve hit the beginning of the book…

Stories that start in the middle of epic action like a battle.  Back up a little.  Let us get to know who the characters are and why we should care about them before throwing them into something as complex and confusing as a battle or car wreck.

Secondary characters that don’t seem to have any real purpose.  Every character needs to have a reason to be there.  If a character doesn’t have any real reason for being, cut them or merge them with another character whose purpose is more recognisable. 

And I think that’s about all we have time for this week.

I hope you found this helpful and that you will feel better prepared to offer meaningful and valuable critiques.

X O'Abby

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