For me, critting depends a lot on the thing being critted. I’ll tackle a piece of literary flash fiction differently from a romance novel and a romance novel differently from a hard science fiction story. More than anything else, I like to ask, “whatever this work is trying to be, is it the best possible version of that?” and if it isn’t, the process of critting is me trying to work out why not and putting that down on paper.
So if I’m critting a plotless 500 word piece, I’ll tend to focus more on ideas, theme or language, rather than plot. Plot isn’t really what short fiction is aiming for and I want to do whatever the piece needs rather than one-size-fits-all.
However, assuming we’re talking about long-form plot-driven adventure fiction—a category that covers most of the novels I read, from the Dresden Files to Harry Potter—then for the first pass, I’ll sit down without a notepad and just read.
I’m hoping that I’ll get caught up in the story like I would in a good book. If I reach the end without looking up, that’s the writer’s job well done and I’ll want to tell them that. Usually, I’ll write something like, “I was pulled right through from beginning to end.”
If, on the other hand, I lost interest at any point, I’ll try to work out why. However it goes, the idea of the first pass is to get to grips with my unvarnished reaction as a reader and then let the other person know what that is.
On the second pass, I want to approach the text more like a writer. In order to do that I’ve developed a number of questions that help me zero in on where it is or isn’t working. So I read it again and try to answer the following:
In this piece:
- Who is the main character?
- What are they trying to do?
- What’s stopping them from doing it?
- What do they do about that?
- How does it resolve?
- What would happen if they just gave up and didn’t bother?
If there’s a problem, I can usually track it down from the answers to these questions:
- If I can’t identify a main character (or characters), then the story will feel unfocused to me.
- If I’ve identified a main character, but they aren’t trying to do anything, then I’ll usually comment that they seem quite passive. Usually, if the character doesn’t care about the story it’s hard for the reader to care either.
- If the main character just wanders around without the forces of darkness pushing back on them, then there’s a danger that the story can turn into a travelogue. Not every part of a novel needs to have conflict, but if I don’t find any conflict over an extended piece, I’m going to suggest that maybe the writer ought to be meaner to their hero.
- If the character has motivation, tries something, hits conflict, but then backs off, then I’ll look closely at why. One of the main driving forces over a whole novel is the ability for a character to fight against adversity and keep pushing forward. Characters can be reactive at the start of a novel, but if they don’t fight back at any point, there’s a danger the story will feel mechanical – because plot is happening to the character from above rather than flowing out of their motivated actions.
- If a character powers through conflict, then, win or lose, something should change as a result. What I’m checking for here is that actions have consequence.
- Finally, it’s possible to have all the above, and for the story to still feel a bit thin. If someone rushes into a life or death conflict where they didn’t need to, then the story may well be lacking concrete stakes. The danger here is that it all ends up feeling like nothing mattered very much.
There’s more to a critique, of course. I’ll also take a look at pace, structure, clarity, world-building, theme, emotional content, and voice. But, for me, these all come afterwards, because before I can look at those things I need to know more than anything else what the story is all about. Working out who the main character is, the actions they take, the conflicts they face and how everything turns out, is, for me, the key to knowing this.
Having assembled the material for a crit, the last thing I look at is how to put it all together. Here, I’m indebted to Damon Knight’s book “Creating Short Fiction,” in which he points out that a story is composed of the following layers:
You write a story from the bottom up, so in this way of thinking it all starts with an impetus (I have to write about X), that turns into an idea (I’ll do it this way). The story is told via certain materials invented for the purpose (character, setting, background), and these are given form and structure (a novel or a short story; the relationship between chapters). Finally, everything is put down on paper in words (prose, dialogue, descriptions).
The idea is that it’s never any use to critique a story at a level higher than the lowest one that has a problem. So if the characters are paper-thin, there’s no point in suggesting the dialogue be fixed. Likewise, spelling mistakes don’t matter if the story has problems with the setting. The prose will have to change anyway, and only when that’s right does the spelling need to be addressed.
Finally, out of all the above, it’s time to put it all together. I usually want each crit to contain the following thoughts:
- What I thought was good about the piece.
- Whether I read all the way through easily, or stopped somewhere.
- What I learned from the questions above, filtered according to the most useful level this can be said.
- How it affected me emotionally.
- How I feel about it overall.
… and then it’s done, and time to start reading the next one!
John Moran has been an industrial chemist, programmer, art shop owner, IT security consultant and nuclear physicist. He lives in the North West of the UK with his wife and a vegetable garden that is increasingly resembling the Amazon rainforest. Although it is not currently on fire.