An old critique dissected (part 1)

So there I was, going through my old writing files in search of some chapter notes that I’d misplaced, when I found something that is, at this late date, really funny: a critique I’d received for a short story I posted on one of those so-called peer review sites for writers. And then I thought, Hey, why not post this thing – along with the response I sent to the reviewer – as a blog post?

If this had been a review from a critic, of course, I’d never have responded, directly or otherwise; that’s unprofessional.  However, peer review sites are meant to be a learning experience for all participants (who are also writers there to receive feedback on their writing), which means we’re supposed to communicate back and forth.  I tried to be understanding, although by the end I was so out of patience that I got a bit harsh.

I’m also adding my current thoughts ((typed inside double parentheses, like this)) on this whole review/response/weirdness, because, like the t-shirt says, sarcasm beats killing people.

This series of posts will probably be most useful to fellow writers in a See, you’re not the only one who has thoughts like these sort of way. I also hope to show what sort of feedback you may encounter on peer critique sites and explain (through example, if nothing else) why feedback from someone who just doesn’t get your chosen genre is sometimes not the kind of feedback you ought to heed.

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This is an actual critique that I got on my short story, “Finder’s Fee.”  The critique was deleted from the site soon after – by the person who gave it, not by me – and I’m not ever naming who gave it, but I’m sharing it as an example of what NOT to do when critiquing.  To give some idea of how excessively long this critique was, the story itself is about 3400 words, and the critique is over 6000.  And no, I don’t think that a critique of this length is automatically a good one – “thorough” only counts if it’s valid.  I’ve added the response that I sent to the critiquer; that part is in bold type.

Critique, and author’s response:

First, I STRONGLY suggest that you not quote the entire piece that you’re critiquing; it is enough to quote short phrases when you need to refer to them in a comment.

“And maybe you figure finding for an exciting line, but that isn’t always so.”  What is an ‘exciting line?’ As in ‘line of work’?

“Myself, I started out as a data-chaser, because there’s nothing like elven memory – while it lasts – for holding trivia, and much of the time I already had (?) what the client wanted. But by ’37. I’d switched to finding real-world stuff. (From?/There were times…) Time to time, I even found people.” ”time I already had what the client wanted’. Could you reveal a little more about your clients – how much do they usually want what you find? Also I’m not sure on this but when referring to years I’d find it easier to read ‘thirty seven’ in written form, as it keeps the narrative voice flowing. 37 is a bit ambiguous initially, it’s not till the next winter ’56 is mentioned I make the connection it’s the year, and not an ‘age’. Perhaps have switch the seasonal reference from ’56 to ’37? I could suggest ’19(?)56′ but I think shortening the year gives voice to your narrative.

“From?” – From being a data-chaser, as she says in a previous sentence.

Years are normally written as numerals – just about the only numbers that are commonly done that way.

“1956″ is not correct, because this story does not take place in the twentieth century. I need to make that clearer, maybe. (I had assumed that the reference to space travel later in the story would be sufficient, or that “data-chaser” isn’t a term you’d hear in the first half of the twentieth century.)

There would be no apostrophe before “37″ if it was a person’s age rather than a year.

“Now, Johansen’s is not the kind of place where I’d usually go. The lighting’s too dim, and(?) the music is good enough to be distracting. And even in Anglin, there are places that aren’t safe for people like me.” possibly replace the ‘and’ with a contrasting word – though/but/etc. Like how you’re revealing there’s something about the character that causes them to fear for their safety where other people assumably wouldn’t have to. I’m already thinking, what is different about this character’s ‘type of people’?

Why “but” instead of “and” in the sentence “The lighting’s too dim, and the music is good enough to be distracting”? She’s talking about things she doesn’t like about a place. It’s a combination, not a contrast.

Just a note in regard to your note, I’m getting the impression the narrative is male. I can’t pinpoint exactly why though I think if you could make it more emotional (in the bedroom females are more emotionally lead, where is males are more physically turned on, maybe you can apply this kind of concept to some of the details you’ve given – for example ‘Time to time, I even found people.’ How, emotionally, does this make the narrative feel? Instead of ‘I even’ maybe ‘I was pleased/excited/relieved’. Maybe mention something about what it’s like being female in the profession (which would work well if it is a predominantly male career), so you can nail any assumptions we may have. If you introduce the fact that the narrative is female early on, we will build our image of the character up from this.

Concerning how to show a difference in personality to show that the protagonist is female… I do not accept any all-or-nothing generalization about cognition or personality when it relates to gender. People are people. I don’t have Alandra say anything about what it’s like to be a woman in the finder profession because it’s no different from what it is like to be a man in that profession. I’m trying to make a point of some kind by NOT making a point. As I said, people are people; in this story, I’ve created a setting where most of society sees it that way.

((I am still annoyed that the critiquer WANTED information that would allow her to make assumptions about the character based on gender. And WTF is this bit about the difference between women and men in the bedroom? It’s not even relevant…))

“And even in Anglin, there are places that aren’t safe for people like me.” How safe is ‘aren’t safe’? A place that can make one feel a little anxious, or downright dangerous?

“Average height, brown hair and eyes, he’d described himself over the tel(?) – described, because he left the visual turned off. My name is Devin. You’ll know who I am.” Tel as in telephone? Unless it’s a common term from the time and place you’re writing of, I wouldn’t shorten it, as it’s not a common reference (unless of course it is throughout your story.

“Unless it’s a common term from the time and place you’re writing of” – It is. Think of it as a video phone, if that helps.

((D’uh.))

“he’d described himself over the tel – described, because he left the visual turned off.” okay, tel is something futuristic – can you make this known before using the term ‘tel’ somehow? Did it arouse suspicion that the visual was turned off? Or maybe some models of ‘tel’ don’t have the visual capabilities? Does the visual have to be turned on or does it come on automatically? If it isn’t on does this mean the user has deliberately blocked that function?

((Wow… Gotta explain a term before it appears, because waiting until the second half of the same sentence is too long for the reader to go without knowing what it means. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.))

“My name is Devin. You’ll know who I am. I did, of course.” Why ‘of course’? ‘And I did’(?)

((This critiquer is blind to clues and nuances.))

“He sat in a corner of the main room, just (?) where the shadows were deepest.” is ‘just’ necessary?

((Yes.))

“to let(letting?) my eyes adjust to the dark and (while) to let everyone else have a good look.” Maybe let us know here the thing ‘everyone else’ will be looking at is in fact yourself. Seems repetitive use of ‘let’

((Yeah, ’cause no one ever uses repetition deliberately…))

“to let(letting?) my eyes adjust to the dark and (while) to let everyone else have a good look.” – Why the changes in the wording?

‘letting my eyes adjust to the dark while allowing everyone else to have a good look.’ (my suggestion doesn’t read too well either, but I think it’s enough to illustrate my point) Maybe, in ‘feminizing’ this you could include how it makes her feel when she has to go through this.

((Arrrghhh! I am so damn tired of this assumption that all women think/act the same way. Is it so impossible that, in a futuristic setting, a woman could be more like the ‘hard-boiled private-eye’ type than like the ‘girly-girl out to prove that she’s as competent as the boys’ type?))

“In any city this far from the Threshold, I get three kinds of reactions from people: Some glance at me and ignore me, faking indifference; some see my ears and the color of my eyes and look like they’re wishing for an iron knife and no witnesses. Some just stare ’cause they’ve never seen a real live Threnendaran before.” reactions from people: some’ (should ‘some’ have a lower case ‘s’?) ‘and the color of my eyes and hair and look like they’re wishing for an iron knife and no witnesses.’ too many ‘ands’ maybe ‘some see my ears, the color of my nose, my hair, and…’

((Where the hell did “nose” come from?))

“Some” should not have a lowercase s because the colon is followed by more than one sentence comprising the “list.” (I used to be a professional proofreader working for a small publishing company – I do know a bit about this stuff.)

There is such thing as “polishing” the voice right out of a piece of fiction. I worked hard to create a character who speaks with her own voice – I’m not going to ruin that by making her narration too grammatically correct. There’s a difference between not knowing the rules and choosing to bend them slightly for artistic effect. I’m not a journalist.

((Actually, my grammar is a lot better than that of many journalists. And this kid needs to stop parroting whatever her 11th-grade English teacher told her. I should be glad that she didn’t tell me to get rid of all commas because Hemingway didn’t like them.))

While I remember, another note re female protagonist – John Marsden does it seamlessly in my opinion with his ‘Ellie’ character from Tomorrow When The War Began series. We know his male, yet we also know the protagonist is female – so I don’t think the reason people are saying your protagonist doesn’t seem female is because you’re male

((Yes, it is. There is no way my ‘inherent maleness’ or whatever is showing through my writing. I guarantee that if I’d written this story under a female pen name, people would have known all along that the protagonist is a woman, just as a male protagonist written under a female pen name would have somehow come across as too feminine… Humans, in general, are idiots.))

it’s more because of the voice/tone of the writing.

((because you’re assuming that only men talk that way))

Again, I can’t emphasize enough how us females (well, this one anyway!) are emotional creatures, we feel, we also have opinions on most things that you could include, sometimes even unsubstantiated opinions.

((I must laugh at the bit about unsubstantiated opinions – gotta love the irony.))

Also might be worth getting your hands on ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ by John Gray to help you really embrace the female psyche.

((I don’t read bullshit except for entertainment, and that book would not be entertaining.))

“Again, I can’t emphasize enough how us females (well, this one anyway!) are emotional creatures” – Emphasis on “this one.” Do you really claim to speak for half the human race, to say that your 51 percent of humanity is all alike in being “emotional creatures”? Are you suggesting that the male half doesn’t feel anything strongly? I’m not trying to start an argument here, just trying to get you to look at the generalizations and see that they are not as accurate as they look on the surface.

“Some just stare ’cause they’ve never seen a real live Threnendaran before.” – ’cause’ – could this be ‘cos’?

No, the shortened form of “because” is “’cause.” In my universe, chat-speak abbreviations disappeared after WWIII.

“It was the second type of reaction I was worried about. If I took this job, maybe I’d charge extra for having to meet the client here, where (because/when?) sometimes just being from across the Gate is enough to get a person hurt.” ”just being(?) from across(?) the Gate’

“where (because/when?) sometimes just being from across the Gate is enough to get a person hurt.” ”just being(?) from across(?) the Gate’ – Correct as originally written. It is in THIS PLACE that she feels herself to be in some danger because of where she is from.

“I knew who he was, because he was the only person who didn’t look up(?) when I came in. There he was, ordinary as can be, back to the wall and head tilted to one side as he listened to the music. Not live that night, but in some way better – a recording of Harrison Denmark Fan Club’s last concert. At least he had taste in music. repetitive use of ‘he was’ (beginning of first two sentences) ‘Ordinary’ – is he ordinary because he fits in with his surroundings, with his ‘back to the wall and head tilted…’? ‘Ordinary’ is a bit of a dry term, maybe having him ‘fitting in’? ‘taste in music’ – what kind of taste? Good taste? Bad taste?

((The default setting is “good taste,” I believe.))

Maybe reveal a little more about your character through her opinion of his taste in music in contrast to the music she enjoys.

((I believe I did. Pay attention.))

“”You are not dragon-kin…,” he said cautiously.” I don’t know about the comma. Either ‘…’ or ‘,’ perhaps? Also, maybe elaborate on why cautiously? What had caused the assumption she would be dragon-kin? Is it the line of work? Is the ‘client’ disappointed?

YES, a comma belongs after ellipses that end a sentence of dialogue to separate it from the dialogue tag.

“Also, maybe elaborate on why cautiously? What had caused the assumption she would be dragon-kin?” – The reason for the assumption is explained immediately after this. The reason for the caution is explained through the course of the story.

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If you’ve not been turned away yet by either the critiquer’s comments or my sarcasm, stay tuned for Part 2 of “An old critique dissected”…

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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2 Responses to An old critique dissected (part 1)

  1. Pingback: An old critique dissected (Part 2) | North of Andover

  2. Pingback: an old experiment explained | North of Andover

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