bookmark_borderTiresome critiqing

Many of us fiction-writing types belong to one or more critiquing exchanges. Stephen King has his wife and a writing friend that review his works. Writing classes or workshops are, in whole or in part, made up of reviewing and critiquing the efforts of the participants. I belong to a local writing group and loosely to a couple online groups (one forum, one email).

Right now I’m finding critiquing difficult. Over the past year or so I’ve absorbed a substantial amount of grammatical, line by line and paragraph by paragraph editing information. Some of this is via critiques of my submissions, especially by a particular  member of my local group. Some is via reading high quality writing (The New Yorker, Pulitzer, Man Booker and other contest finalists). Some is from “It Was The Best Of Sentences, It Was The Worst Of Sentences”, a reference book which I leave in my bathroom so I can read a chapter now and then. The chapters are short.

And some is the result of keeping these sources in mind while writing and revising my own writing. Of practicing what I’m trying to absorb. Of trying to turn the bits of information into habits.

I think this has pushed the quality of my writing up significantly, at least on the small scale. My inner editor has developed a clarity of understanding and an improved ability to sense issues or potential for improvement (though not the ability to label and explain them easily; since I’m not in school I didn’t bother learning the names or terminology). I’ve developed a better eye for small errors like tense changes or the incorrect use of commas. I’ve developed an ear for issues like awkward, choppy, or repetitive sentence structure. And I have a feel for slightly larger issues like lack of flow due to missing transitions or dialogue that lacks action. The largest scale items; plot, character, setting I don’t pay much attention to when I critique for three reasons: most of what is presented to me is chapters of novels and I don’t know what’s going on in the other chapters, and, much (too much) of the writing is in genres that I have little interest in; fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal, and, when the writing quality is poor, the character, plot, and setting usually comes across poorly.

My standards have increased. Now I find it tiresome to review submission after submission that is well beneath these standards. I’d never release any writing of my own for review that has so many transparent problems. Sure, there are always things like these that we don’t see until someone else points them out to us, but to have so many indicates an obliviousness or a disregard, either of which make the writing unappealing to me to read.


In musical terms this is like a group or performer that plays out of tune, or consistently stumbles in difficult technical passages, or is unable to maintain a steady tempo/rhythm, or is sloppy with balance or with group entrances. The simpler or less sophisticated the music — less technical challenges, less complicated harmonic or textural or rhythmic elements — the less some of these matter. Madonna can get away with always singing flat for example, plus many of these rough edges can be polished off via recording technology wizardry, if you get that far.
Here’s an example of a critique request:

“I’m less interested in grammar/spelling/punctuation, and more interested in comments about the characters and the plot. Does the story work for you? Would you read on?”

This could mean:

  1.  The author prioritizes character/plot because that’s why people read fiction
  2. The author prioritizes character/plot because the other elements can be polished later if the character/plot are worth spending time on. There’s no point editing something that isn’t worth finishing, right?
  3. The author finds critiques that discuss grammar/spelling/punctuation boring
  4. The author pays little attention to grammar/spelling/punctuation because they don’t understand and don’t want to
  5. The author really likes their characters/plot and is looking for praise
  6. The author has had too many critiques in the past that wasted focus on grammar/spelling/punctuation and not enough on characters or plot, for their tastes
  7. The author is just starting out and is remembering the classes on character and plot (the class on setting is often forgotten; it’s usually only characters and plot)
  8. Grammar/spelling/punctuation is for editors, writing is for writers

I’m not saying that these beliefs are crap, just that I can’t help you a lot because 95% of what I read in my local group or the online groups doesn’t have characters or settings or situations that interest me. The genres of the submissions from the local group are forced on me, but even in the online writing groups, where I can pick and choose, I rarely find a story that is interesting to read. And those that are are usually ones that are well written; they have decent grammar and punctuation and spelling, as well as flow, variety, description and interesting setting, characters, and plot. Writers who state that they are focusing on character and plot only almost never get there for me. Maybe because they don’t know how to create interesting elements, and if they do, they don’t know how to round them out, and if they do, they don’t know how to present them, how to write about them.

If you’re a brilliantly creative writer or hit your target perfectly maybe you can find a publisher/editor/reader base that can ignore your failings. I think the Roberts Heinlein and Ludlum fall into that category. If you’re as good at marketing yourself as Madonna, maybe you have enough to sell anyway.

Or if you’re never intending to do more than the equivalent of singing at your local pub at amateur night, then it’s not going to matter if you’re out of tune or play every song at the same tempo. If you only want to write erotica that your friends will enjoy and praise you for, then good for you. But right now I’m tired of listening to sloppy, un-rehearsed, un-practiced performances that are one step above karaoke. Or reviewing the equivalent in fiction writing.


bookmark_borderWriting in italics

I’ve heard some discussion about the use of italics, and today I ran across an example of what I think it a good use of italics in my current reading. This excerpt is from A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child.

McQueen waited. Reacher looped around the trunk. He paused, gestured, right-handed, open palm: Go ahead. After you. A precaution, not politeness.

A precaution, because Reacher wants McQueen to go toward the building first. He knows that McQueen has a gun but McQueen doesn’t know yet that Reacher knows. Reacher wants the man with a gun in front rather than behind him.

The italicized text is meant to stand out, to be obvious that it is not normal text. Child wants to be very clear what Reacher is trying to communicate visually so that he can contrast it in the normal text and tell us that Reacher is not doing this out of ordinary politeness.

So Child is using italics as a separate level of communication; different from dialogue, different from Reacher’s thoughts (Reacher novels are always first person, past tense), special compared with other physical actions, and in this case as superficial communication and as a lie, since Reacher is not doing this for the usual reason of politeness.


The discussion about the use of italics was initiated by a writer of, I suspect, limited reading experience, who criticized another writer for not italicizing the inner thoughts of his characters. He was very adamant about this, saying that he found the submission very hard to read because of this omission. (I’ve had similar reactions to cases of extremely poor grammar and no control over tenses, but that’s another story) I’ve heard this type of complaint before and find it hard to understand, but I suspect my lack of comprehension is due to not limiting myself to specific genres or writers. In other words, I think that there are specific genres and writers who always italicize the inner thoughts of characters but I don’t limit myself enough to believe that the rule is the norm. I can only vaguely guess that it was in some science fiction, perhaps some issues of Asimov’s, where I’ve even seen this rule used.

Interestingly enough — perhaps not to anyone but myself — the last use of italics for inner thoughts that I remember is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, that atrocity of writing that shouldn’t have made it past Wattpad. I know of writers who have adopted Dan Brown as their personal whipping boy, the writer whom they lash out at because his writing makes them cringe, and I may adopt Fifty Shades as mine. But I didn’t have a problem with her use of italics, other than the fact that it was always the same sort of things that came out of her italicized thoughts; “Holy shit.” “Crap.” Mental ejaculations.

And of course anything is possible if you have a reason for it and it works. Before the Reacher story I read a novel where the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue and I didn’t have an issue with it. Writing without quotation marks and in first person requires extra care to be clear when the main character is quoting and when he is thinking, but it’s definitely doable. It has the potential to make the story more intimate, to instill a dream-like quality, but another author who used that writing style said that she felt as if her characters were always mumbling.

If you can write clearly without quotation marks around dialogue, I don’t see why you can’t write without using italics for inner thoughts. And, personally, I’d rather follow the lead of Lee Child over the author of Fifty Shades, though I have a rather large list of authors I’d put ahead of Lee Child too.



It’s amazingly hard to accept and to do critiques.

When I was a music major I always had a teacher; someone that knew a lot more than I did, someone who had years more experience than I did, someone that I trusted. After years of work with the instructors, with the directors, I developed a sense of rightness, of understanding, an ability to see the gaps between was is and what should or could be, and, a sense of how to work at closing that gap.

Essentially, this enables you to teach others. It also helps you to critique yourself, to critique others (including the rest of the ensemble that you might be rehearsing with), and over time you also learn to take comments in context, though, with music usually all you hear from non-musicians is how good you sounded or how much they enjoyed listening to you.

Writing has been quite a different process. I had a little time with an experienced editor/writer but I got scared off by the amount I had paid for the setup, and was afraid that it was going to continue at this rate. So I’m relying mostly on critiques and reviews, from other writers who are learning as well. The blind leading the blind, to quote the editor that I worked with. Fortunately the local group that I joined has one member with extensive editing and writing experience, primarily in literary genres, so his detailed crits have been very useful. The others have varied backgrounds and I take what they offer within the context of where they’re coming from and still get useful thoughts.

But it can be painful to receive the reviews. You want them (or at least I do) to point out anything that they see as a weakness or might have room for improvement. Telling you what they like or find strong is good too, but I want to get better so I want to know where I’ve missed the mark or where there is a potential opportunity to improve. And that can hurt. It’s your baby, you’ve sweated over it, revised it, carved it, shaped it into something that you like, that you’re proud of, and to have it poked apart, torn apart, to be shown the weaknesses, the errors, to have your characters that you love be called thin or unrealistic can hurt. Exposing yourself to peer critique, especially when you haven’t developed the central confidence of an experienced writing student, like the experienced music student that I was, is risky. One member of my local group is pretty obvious when he’s frustrated by the group’s critiques; he’ll cross his arms, purse his lips, and lean back in his chair, swaying to and fro until it’s his turn for rebuttal.

I also participate in an on line forum, which is not nearly as useful or consistent. The writing there can vary from beginner high school writers to MFA students, and the critiques vary just as much. Most are not overly useful, but again, there’s always the possibility that something might come out of it.

When I crit I try to say encouraging things, but I also spend a lot of time pointing out the biggest things that stick out to me. A lot of the submissions have poor grammar but I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time fixing those things. I’ll point out egregious mistakes but I tend to focus on flow, rhythm, awkward sentences, missing background that’s keeping me from feeling engaged. Something to do with my music background, I’m sure.

The reactions to the crits varies too. Recently I did a critique of a submission because no one else had done a critique so I thought I would be nice and make the effort. I wandered a bit; it wasn’t my best job of reviewing, but I said that as a reader I was getting pretty annoyed by two characters saying ‘dude’ every other line. And I pointed out that the descriptive sections had no flow, no rhythm. The sentence structure was square and repetitive; bland and boring. Plus there were a few awful misuses of commas. But, I said your story is going somewhere, and I’d like to see you submit something short to an editor and have it thoroughly reviewed so that you can learn from it and build a staring point for improving your technique.

In truth, the story wasn’t very interesting and I stopped reading because the poor writing, poor grammar and stilted dialogue was too much for me. It was a relatively long submission.

The response was interesting. He defended his overuse of ‘dude’ because he writes the way people talk. He didn’t see the point of any of the other things that I said, and, he’s published two books (ah, Wattpad counts, I guess) and he didn’t understand why I even bothered doing the critique.

Last I looked, mine was the only critique given.