I’ve been attending writers groups for about a year now.
I know I’ve talked about groups several times, but I soooo believe in them. Their impact on my writing has been substantial.
With that said, I wanted to talk a bit about critique itself.
Because people of varying skill levels attend groups, you’ll hear so many different comments. They can be vague (“I don’t like this. Why? Just because.”), insightful (“Your characters are all the same.”), and even completely random (“I don’t like negative writing.”).
While some comments are really straightforward and make perfect sense, there are a handful that can be difficult to understand, even for more experienced writers.
I wanted to share some more common ones I hear that I think are important. Then I’ll attempt to shed light on exactly what they mean and how to address them. Wish me luck!
1. “You have passive language”
Take these two sentences:
He was shot in the face by a soldier.
The soldier shot him in the face.
The first sentence is a prime example of passive voice. Instead of having the typical subject (gunman), verb (shot), and object (him), this sentence does a flip flop on us. The result? A longer, less action-oriented sentence.
(NOTE: Wow that’s a pretty violent example. Let’s say the soldier wielded a watergun. Full of unicorn love.)
You can typically tell passive language by a plethora (good word, me!) of “was” verbs. This includes “was”, “were”, “to be”, “been”, etc… The problem with passive language is that there is usually a more concise, exciting way to write the same sentence. Using passive voice frequently can really slow down a story.
For example, which of these is more descriptive and concise:
He was walking slowly to the market.
He ambled to the market.
That’s what I thought. BAM.
(NOTE: It’s been pointed out that this example isn’t technically passive writing. That is totes true. However, a verb followed by an adverb also slows down pacing. It’s usually better to choose a more descriptive verb. So I’ll leave it here. But feel free to shoot me. With a watergun. Full of unicorn love.)
2. “You need more dialogue”
There are times when a writer unintentionally gives a 50,000 foot view of a scene.
Jimmy walked through the cold night. He came across a mugger who asked him for money. Jimmy needed the money, so he refused. The mugger pulled out a gun and yelled something back at Jimmy.
The problem with this is the lack of immersion. Instead of taking us into the action/emotion of the scene and getting the reader intimately involved, the writer keeps a safe distance.
I mean, just reading this, a thousand questions fly through my head: How did the cold affect Jimmy? What did the mugger sound like and what did he say? Is Jimmy even scared?
This is a potentially exciting scene that falls flat because the writer failed to immerse us in the action. To me, this can often reflect lazy writing. There have been many times I’ve skimmed over a scene, only to realize I was too lazy to go in and immerse myself. Sometimes it’s because I haven’t taken the time to really get to know the characters or the location. Other times it’s because I’m tired.
When stuff like this happens, critique group members will often say, “You need dialogue.” This is a blanket statement that really means “take us into this scene!”
How does adding dialogue fix the issue?
Take this revision:
Jimmy walked through the cold night. He came across a mugger.
“Wallet. Keys. Phone.” The mugger spoke with a slurred staccato.
Jimmy looked down at the wallet bulging from his pocket. Rent was overdue.
“I can’t,” he said, his eyes fixed on the ground.
The mugger yanked out a gun.
“NOW!” His spit landed on Jimmy’s face.
This is definitely not great, but notice something: by simply adding dialogue, you’re forced to take a step deeper into the scene. You’re forced to think about what, exactly, the mugger would say and how he speaks. You’re also forced to think of exactly how Jimmy would react. Would he stutter as he spoke? By simply adding some dialogue to the mix, the reader is taken from 50,000 feet to 20.
I will say I sometimes disagree with the blanket statement “You need more dialogue.” There are wonderful, immersive scenes out there that don’t have a single line of dialogue. The critique is just a quick fix: you can’t have dialogue at 50,000 feet.
3. “You have a POV shift”
Every sentence in a story should be told from someone’s point of view (POV). That POV can be a certain character in the story, a wholly different person, or even God (a narrator-type who knows and sees everything). The thing to keep in mind is this: when writing from a specific character’s point of view, every single word must be within the realm of something that character would know.
Take this example:
Jimmy looked at Schmimmy. He didn’t know what to think. While Schmimmy had loaned him her car, she stabbed him in the back.
Schmimmy was just as confused. She couldn’t understand why he was giving her so much grief over nothing.
This is a pretty blatant example. The first few sentences are essentially in Jimmy’s head. Then we suddenly jump (or shift) into Schmimmy’s (isn’t that an amazing name?)
If we are writing the scene from Jimmy’s point of view, he wouldn’t be able to read her mind so the passage doesn’t work. He could make assumptions (“Jimmy could see in her eyes she was confused”), but we can’t hop from his head to hers if the scene is supposed to be written from his POV.
Seem pretty obvious? Well, let’s take a look at a more subtle example:
Jimmy turned away from Schmimmy. He was so done with the conversation. Placing his head in his hands, he heard Schimmy groan and then she flipped him off.
If this little scene is written from Jimmy’s POV, how would he know she flipped him off? He was turned away from her – with his head in his hands. Realistically, he would have seen nothing. This is a classic unintentional POV shift.
In order for this scene to work from Jimmy’s POV, he would have to keep watching her. Or she’d have to make a noise indicative of the gesture. Maybe she yells a curse word and he assumes she’s flipping him off.
Don’t think I can go even more subtle? Think again! Mwahaha! Take this final example:
Jimmy put his head in his hands. He rubbed the bags under his eyes. He looked awful. Straightening, he stared at Schmimmy.
The problem with this passage is the sentence “He looked awful.” That’s not coming from Jimmy’s POV. Looking implies another person is watching (unless Jimmy was staring in a mirror, which wasn’t the case). This is subtle but the passage has a slight POV shift away from Jimmy then back to him.
In every scene, it’s important to remember the current POV and stick to it. Can you shift POVs? Sure, but it MUST be intentional and you can’t leave the reader confused.
P.S. I’m suddenly fascinated with the name Schmimmy. Schmimmy Mariah Wagner has a nice ring to it. It also made me create this meme:
4. “You have a lack of tension/conflict”
A couple months ago, a gentleman at group was told “you need more conflict in this scene.” He threw up his hands and replied, “I can’t have bombs and explosions on every single page!”
That’s a very typical misunderstanding that can ruin scenes with boredom.
Here’s the deal – In EVERY. SINGLE. SCENE. the character must have a goal. Then something has to get in the way of that goal. The interaction between the character and that obstacle is what creates conflict and tension.
The misunderstanding here is that conflict/tension has to be huge. It doesn’t. You could, for example, have a character who wants a glass of water, but doesn’t want to wake up her child in the process. If written correctly – with the mother carefully inching out of bed as her child threatens to start crying – the scene can be overflowing with juicy tension.
5. Random critiques covering multiple structural issues.
There are times when, after reading a piece, I’ve receive major critiques that ranged from “lack of tension” to “character development issues” to “needing more dialogue”. The sucky thing was, no one really focused on one main issue; their critiques were all over the place. It was like they couldn’t quite put their finger on the problem.
Back in the day, such comments were really confusing. How do you fix an issue when you’re getting feedback that’s all across the board?
Then I realized something. When such major critiques are flying around, that means there’s something inherently wrong with the story and it’s not resonating with readers.
So how do you interpret this random barrage of critiques?
For me, this now means only one thing: scrap the piece and start over.
Some people might disagree with me on this one. But I firmly believe such critiques mean the story has some type of fatal flaw. Every time I’ve received such comments, scrapped what I had, and started over, the end result was far far better.
This whole point might beg the question: So why doesn’t the group just say the story doesn’t work? That’s a great question! And my only answer is this: when a story is flawed at its foundation, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong.
All in all, I hope this sheds some light on various critiques. I really just hope it hasn’t scared anyone away. If you were planning on attending a group and this dissuaded (another good word!) you, just keep in mind this is all about making you better. And people at group are no better than you. Except that one guy. You know who you are.