Common Issues I see on critiques

Specifics about craft, talent, technique, etc.
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RSchibler
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Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby RSchibler » Fri Nov 08, 2019 10:13 am

I wrote this up for the Super Secret post but wanted to share it with everyone. I do a lot of critiques, somewhere between 10-20 each quarter on average, and these are the issues I see most frequently. I struggle with many of them myself of course as it's easier to spot issues in other people's writing than our own. Hopefully someone finds this helpful!



1. Basic Spelling and Grammar: Without a doubt, the single most common thing I'm commenting on in stories is basic grammar, and I suspect it is the hardest to correct. "Its" vs "It's" is a very common confusion, for example. Until you KNOW the difference, the mistake will keep cropping up. Most modern stories don't have egregious spelling errors but if you use the wrong word, or don't hyphenate when you should, spell check won't catch that.

2. Formatting Errors: Shunn Standard Manuscript Format is the template all our stories should work from. Read it, learn it until anything else looks wrong to you. The biggest errors I see here are not using the formatted indents for paragraphs, incorrect spacing or font sizing, forgetting page numbers and titles, and not understanding when dialogue should start a new paragraph (which is generally when a new character speaks, but this is a hard one. I'm not sure I get it right all the time.)

3. Rambling Sentences and Paragraphs: Big Blocks of Text are hard to read. As a critiquer it's difficult to know where you as the writer would break your paragraphs into smaller chunks, but my eyes start to water when a paragraph takes up more than a third of a page.

4. Confusing or Contradicting details: Sometimes this is due to one scene showing the characters in a forest, and in the next it's more a swamp, but that's less common. What I do see all the time are character voices that don't ring true, choices that seem out of character, or setting details that make my skeptical brain twinge. For the first, make sure your character voices are consistent and realistic. "Not, uh, so like, realistic that, you know, it's hmmm hard to, like, read," but that they flow, that there is character imbued in the voice, and that it sounds like something a person would say.

For the second, don't force your characters to do things that aren't in their nature. Shy children don't suddenly take on the Fairy Queen unless they have been given reasons to do so. Brave women don't cower on the floor unless the threat is so overwhelming, anyone would cower. Brilliant scientists aren't surprised by obvious conclusions. (I see this one a lot - characters presented as brilliant missing the obvious answer, which is then presented as a great revelation) Readers are smart- assume they're smarter than we are and cover your bases.

For the last, do your research! The biggest ping here is children's voices that sound like brain-damaged adults, or, just plain adults. That's not how children talk. If you don't have kids, youtube videos are a great resource here. In the Pournelle video on the WotF blog, he talked about writing about subjects you know about. Don't write about molecular biology unless you can make it sound convincing. Do your research, or don't write about things you don't understand. Part of writing is research.

5. Passive Characters: With writers who have a good sense of prose basics, one problem I see quite often is the plot happening to characters, instead of them happening to the plot. There are no choices made, no actions taken, just 4,000 words of the character reacting to things. I've read multiple places that readers (and therefore editors and agents) prefer active characters. Literary agents call this "character agency". Try to make sure your character is the one driving the plot. On the subject of characters, some other things I see - too many characters make it difficult for the reader to keep track in a short story, not enough characters leaves the MC in an echo chamber with nothing to reveal their personality through dialogue or conflict, flat characters who don't seem to exist off the page at all (this is similar to passive characters), characters who all sound the same, and heavily cliched characters (the buff action hero, the damsel in distress, the mysterious priestess, the ugly but kind witch etc).

6. Weak Settings: This one is huge across the board, and especially for WotF is an obvious fix. Dave Farland has repeatedly stressed how important setting is. Sensory Details up front, and then regularly sprinkled through the piece. This is an easy fix, but can become hamfisted if we try too hard. Keep it simple. Food is a great hook for readers. I like to include temperature cues. KAV cycles (kinesthetic, audio, visual) are a good way to start scenes.

7. Starting in the Wrong Place: Short stories begin as close to the problem as possible. Readers don't pick up a short story to learn every detail about the world and the character's life story. Start the action. "In media res" is the industry term for this. I feel like new writers struggle to set the scene and provide backstory while getting the story going - best solution for this is to read read read read read.

8. Nothing Happening: Another frequent plot problem I notice is pages of the character going about their daily routine, or traveling. Often they're waiting for something, or fearing something is about to happen, or worried about something, but SOMETHING keeps not happening. Or something does happen, but then it turns out to be nothing after all. The problem is resolved too easily, or turned out to be not a problem at all. Again, this is something I feel like new writers struggle with. Readers want interesting people doing interesting things. Make your characters suffer.

9. Too Few or Too Easy Try Fail Cycles: Related to the previous plotting issues, this is something I still struggle with. Algis Budrys puts this into one box on his seven-point plot but it should really be the bulk of the story. Character tries to fix the problem and THINGS GET WORSE. They try to fix it a different way and THINGS GET WORSE. To the point that if they don't fix it RIGHT NOW the space station will explode, or the princess will die, or the village will get ravaged by mutant squirrels wearing hats. Whatever it is, they have to do it right now. Margaret Atwood said the cardinal rule of writing is "Hold My Attention". Characters solving problems easily without struggling, or solving their problems the first time they try, is not attention-holding.

10. Not Finishing the Story: This is pretty common as well. The problem isn't solved, leaving the character in a literary quandry with a clever exit line, but no resolution. Or the problem is solved, but the story ends immediately after, leaving the reader wondering what the point was. Don't forget to finish your climax and write a denouement. Denouement can be one sentence or a whole scene, but it needs to be there. The manuscript is not the story, but the implication of "life goes on" needs to be there somewhere.

I hope some of that makes sense to everyone. One last bit of advice- I recommend solving these problems IN REVERSE ORDER. Fix your plot problems first, then your setting and characters, and then rewrite your prose and quadruple-check your grammar and spelling. No point in fixing sentences you might not need in the long run anyway.

Always available for critiques!
Trying to refute entropy with words.

Vol34: R, HM, R
Vol35: HM, R, R, HM
Vol36: R, HM, HM, pending

ALWAYS available for critiques. PM me.


https://www.flametreepublishing.com/A-Dying-Planet-Short-Stories-ISBN-9781787557819.html

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disgruntledpeony
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby disgruntledpeony » Fri Nov 08, 2019 4:27 pm

Good stuff. Thank you for posting!
If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. ~ Mark Twain

R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, ?

Andy Dibble
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby Andy Dibble » Sun Nov 10, 2019 3:47 pm

Good stuff, especially the bit about fixing structural things before you fix finer details.

But I think you missed a few important ones (and others probably have their own lists)

Story Doesn't Do Much of Anything Innovative: Something or a combination of somethings should set your story apart from all the other stories written in the history of everything. Without novelty in characters, world, style, philosophy, whatever your execution has to be truly spectacular, which is hard when you're a new writer.

Not Enough/Early Enough Conflict: Conflict can exist on at least three levels: between characters, within a character, and within the wilder world (politics, war, etc.). You should be hitting at least two of these and doing so with regularity. It's really hard to keep a story interesting without ample conflict.

Pacing: It's no secret that the beginning of a story is the most important and the end the second-most important part. I think the third most important part is the end of all the scenes. I see a lot of stories with scenes that teeter out. Every scene should end with a decision, a disaster, a twist, or at least a precise and gripping image. Ideally the scene would build to its end, but checking all your scenes to make sure there's a "cymbal clap" goes a long way.
35.2 R
35.3 R
35.4 R
36.1 First Place
36.2 HM (hmm...)

Published in Sci Phi Journal (https://www.sciphijournal.org/index.php/2019/09/29/the-greatest-good-to-god/)

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RSchibler
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby RSchibler » Sun Nov 10, 2019 4:38 pm

Excellent things to consider! I struggle with the third one - pacing - a great deal. It’s one of the things I don’t do intuitively yet, and still have to try to be conscious of. Thanks!
Trying to refute entropy with words.

Vol34: R, HM, R
Vol35: HM, R, R, HM
Vol36: R, HM, HM, pending

ALWAYS available for critiques. PM me.


https://www.flametreepublishing.com/A-Dying-Planet-Short-Stories-ISBN-9781787557819.html

Andy Dibble
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Joined: Sat Jul 13, 2019 9:02 am

Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby Andy Dibble » Mon Nov 11, 2019 2:24 am

There's a great deal about fiction writing I don't do intuitively. And if my first drafts ever got out to the interwebs, I think I'd die from shame :)

There is one intuition you have to develop: know when what you've written isn't good enough. If you get that far, you know to re-write or revise. If you don't, your submissions will normally be subpar. Kind of like how Socrates had a daimon who told him when he spoke wrong :)

That's why it's good to make a list like the one you have above. Overtime we internalize the list and the bad becomes more and more obvious.
Last edited by Andy Dibble on Sun Nov 17, 2019 2:24 am, edited 1 time in total.
35.2 R
35.3 R
35.4 R
36.1 First Place
36.2 HM (hmm...)

Published in Sci Phi Journal (https://www.sciphijournal.org/index.php/2019/09/29/the-greatest-good-to-god/)

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MiloMinderbinder
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby MiloMinderbinder » Mon Nov 11, 2019 11:31 am

I'm a first reader for a near-pro-paying market and I had one story in the last round of submissions that sometimes indented for new paragraphs and sometimes didn't. This author also didn't bother creating new paragraphs when a different character spoke. How was the story itself? I have no idea. I didn't finish.
The trend: R, R, HM, SF, HM, HM, HM
The Bicycle Thief - 2019 Derringer Award Winner

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MiloMinderbinder
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby MiloMinderbinder » Tue Nov 12, 2019 5:41 am

Oh, there was another promising story that I read this submission period, but the writer didn't use quotation marks!

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese asked Jules?

Vincent shook his head. No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the f*ck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules narrowed his eyes. What'd they call it?


Imagine trying to read 10,000 words of that.
Last edited by MiloMinderbinder on Tue Nov 12, 2019 7:01 am, edited 1 time in total.
The trend: R, R, HM, SF, HM, HM, HM
The Bicycle Thief - 2019 Derringer Award Winner

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disgruntledpeony
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Re: Common Issues I see on critiques

Postby disgruntledpeony » Tue Nov 12, 2019 6:29 am

MiloMinderbinder wrote:Oh, there was another promising story that I read this submission period, but the writer didn't use quotation marks!

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese asked Jules?

Vincent shook his head. No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the f*ck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules narrowed his eyes. What'd they call it?


Imagine trying to read 10,000 words of that.


Ouch.
If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. ~ Mark Twain

R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, ?


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