Critique of Bad Fiction
Several years ago, I did a critique for a friend who wanted my editorial-writerly insight on some stories she wrote. After I read them, I was then uneasy, because I am not willing to lie, yet I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. When she asked about the results of my reading, I told her I was afraid she wouldn’t like my critique. She stated emphatically that she wanted the cold hard truth. And so, that’s what I gave her.
Below, is the critique, and I post it because I feel it covers lots of territory that every new writer should be made aware of.
I’ve marked your copies up, but thought it might be hard to read. I don’t have the best penwomanship…so I’ll expound here.
I wish I had your writing in electronic form, because it would have been neater for both of us and I could also run stats on the writing and give you a better idea of things like reading level and frequency of word usage. These things are very helpful to me after I finish a draft. I do the polish and cleanup and some formatting after the story/book is done.
Onward. . .
I don’t pretend to be a writing instructor, but I have learned a few things along the way, and will just mention a few points. If you are serious about becoming a writer, I do you no favors by patting you on the head. What you need is constructive criticism. That’s what I’ll try to give–hoping that it will be taken in the spirit intended…
If you are serious, then understand that you have some work to do. There are many things a writer must do to create quality work. Although being a writer is often romanticized, Good Writing is hard. It requires great dedication and thus, it is not for the thin-skinned, nor the meek. Contrary to popular belief, it is not normally something that comes naturally. Rarely is someone able to write great fiction after the whim strikes. It springs from a “need” to write and then becomes a lifelong avocation, passion and SCHOOL, where the writer can learn and teach. . . it has always been a Continuing Education for me.
In all fiction, the story must accomplish the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. In your stories, I was not only unwilling to suspend my disbelief, it was IMPOSSIBLE. If you had not been my friend, I would have stopped reading and told the writer to stop writing and start studying the craft of writing before attempting again. And strangely, I saw promise in your writing with the other things of yours I saw-the erotic story, and the journal entries. Something happened between then and now.
As a conscious writer, you must also identify your audience. Is this just for your girlfriend? Even if it is just for her, I have read other pieces of writing by you, and this batch simply does not hold a candle to the other writings. You wrote the other things, if memory serves, before you met her. So what happened? “End of a Long Hard Day” was so much more real, much more filled out, well-rounded and believable. Has love made you lose your sense, woman? These stories don’t show your writing strengths. There is little exposition, and the dialogue is forced, trite, predictable, and not specific to each character.
When I revised As You Were, I had to deal with a lot of harsh truths.
I initially started it when I was still a fledgling writer. It was, in fact, my first real novel. I saw that I had ruined an otherwise promising story with all the cheesy melodrama. I had fallen prey to the machinations of the overly-romanticized, even quixotic cogs of sentimentality. Everything in the story was just a pathway to a sexual encounter. To my own fantasies. I learned that if I wanted it to be a real novel, with any hope of engaging other readers, I had to give it more bite. More tension. I had to really challenge those characters. I also had to dial back the props and contrived situations to a believable degree. It was difficult to do that entirely due to the nature of the storyline, which was a romantic suspense one. . .and I also had to make sure that the plot twists were credible.
For example, in one of the early drafts, I set up the premise that Brittany could not be found after her accident, because there was no ID in the vehicle–completely OVERLOOKING the fact that cars have VIN numbers and are registered to someone. I worked that part out without compromising where I wanted the story to go, but it was a challenge. And it took the keen eyes of someone else to shed light on those things. . .While I’m still not entirely certain I pulled all that off effectively, I know it is at least a much better book than it was, and plausible. You can only do so much with certain romantic story lines. I had learned that freewriting from a space of romanticism did not create strong fiction. There are certain guidelines that are helpful, and these are too numerous to mention here…to that end, you should look on some writing sites and perhaps join some writer’s groups online…and I have books you can borrow too…
I realize you were writing longhand and quickly–and freewriting is a good technique for a draft, but you must be willing to revise more than once. Your mechanics, voice, and word choice are problematic. As an overview, understand that a few NEON signs of bad writing or an unseasoned writer are:
- Not knowing how to format the writing. (A new paragraph is started for each character…have a look at some modern fiction book. Pay attention to how it’s arranged).
- Attributions which are largely he said/she said, and used liberally. (You have to know when and how often to use this, and other ways to handle attributions, without repeating he said/she said to the point of distraction. And that doesn’t always mean changing “said” to “mumbled” either. Sometimes this might mean not using the attribution at all, but rather using an action or some exposition. Your reader should be able to tell who is speaking without always having the attribution. If they can’t tell, your characters aren’t individuated yet).
- Choppy, awkward phrasing and timing. (There is a rhythm and a flow to sentences and paragraphs. You must nurture an instinct for that cadence)
- Using exclamation points frequently. (Teenaged girls do this when they write…it’s a big no-no in adult fiction).
- Using the same word repeatedly, especially in the same sentence, paragraph or page. (You should never have to use the same word twice in a page–unless it’s a conjunction or article or the like. There are plenty of other words in the English language. Using synonyms will both help the flow and also add nuance to the content)
- Overtly sentimental content (all the lovestruck comments, honey-this and honey-that and you-were-so-wonderfuls, etc., are overkill. This makes your writing sound immature. There is a bold line between poignant writing and cheese).
- Contrived situations that lead to what the writer obviously is most interested in–in this case, sex. (readers are smart enough to spot it when they are being led down the garden path. Any reader with half a brain cell will be offended if they don’t feel the events are plausible, or a natural extension of plot or character development).
- Dialogue that does not ring true, and does little to move the story or reveal character. If you are going to take liberties with grammar, dialogue is one place you can do that–and contrarily, you cannot be precise and proper in dialogue, because people simply don’t speak that way, unless they are Harvard-educated members of the intelligentsia. That’s why you have to know your characters and how they speak-dialect, regional colloquialisms, the natural flow of conversation. (see marks). Repetition of Words,
- little boy
- we/they said in unison
- looked at
- reached up
- reached for
- we/she began to
- she said/I said
and using cliches:
- “warmed my heart”
- “made me glow with love”
- “looked deep into her hazel eyes”
- “layed together as one” (that one was a misspelling, misusage, and a cliche, all at once)
- “lost in her eyes”
- (see marks).
The words you choose are closely related to the style you have. To develop your own style, you have to play with words. With the above list in mind, I REPEAT: please understand that there are so many words in the English language, that it is not necessary to use the same one twice, unless you’re talking about conjunctions, articles, etc. Redundancy is one quick way of getting your reader to stop reading.
You must find the nuances, and pick a word that will allow the reader to see and feel and hear what your story has to offer.
SETTING & ATMOSPHERE
In these pieces, you say that the snow is falling and the wind is blowing. Beyond that, there is little detail about the weather, its affect on you, whether it incites memory or reveals character, or what it smells like, feels like, sounds like, tastes like, looks like…you must engage the five senses of the reader as much as possible to create a real sensation of suspended disbelief. That’s part of suspending disbelief, too. It has to feel real, before the reader will go on the journey you wish to guide.
Also, in only one place, did you mention where you were, and I was frankly surprised it was Canada. You let that go on too long before identifying the location. And where in Canada? Why were you there? did you like it? Did you both live there? or did one of you move? Why? Did it have to do with how you met? All these things are setting and atmosphere, because they set the tone, and allow the reader to relate, and to understand what’s happening, and feel it like YOU do.
There is no discernible plot in these stories. While it might seem that short stories don’t allow room for a plot, this is not so. There should be a plot in any story, if it is indeed fiction. Further, plots in short pieces are necessarily more succinct because they have to accomplish the same goals in a shorter amount of space.
The purpose of plot is to have a compelling series of events that make sense and create tension.
If I had to explain your plot in one of the stories, it would go something like this::
Two amorous lesbians go snow sledding, find an injured toddler in a ravine, take him home and put him on the bed, have lots of sex, and then hear on the news that his parents are looking for him. They call the number on the screen, and police bring the distraught parents to their house, where one of the lesbians asks the mother why her son was sledding alone, to which the mother replies with a detailed account of the boy’s history, and then the family and police leave and the two lesbians decide they will also have a child…
This plot synopsis–does it sound like anything you would want to read? You must be careful not to contrive situations for your own need to get to “the good parts.” Your personal attachment to these characters shows in that sense, and it only serves to cripple the writing. What is the point of these stories? Why are you telling them? Is it just a form of literary masturbation? I think you are too close to this material, and so you write to satisfy your own fantasies, and not for a reader. The reason your girlfriend likes it is because she is in the same space you are, and it’s about you and her. But all it really is at this point, is self-gratification. So you need to be clear about WHY you are writing. If it’s for you and your girlfriend, then fine. If you are trying to be a real writer, this is going to be a process and it will take time and effort.
To beef up these stories, (provided you are attempting fiction) you first have to identify your audience. Is this for young adults? Mainstream readers? Young lesbians? Older lesbians? Only when you know who you are writing to, will you be able to write to them effectively. My guess for these stories is that it was for teenagers, and still, I don’t think it is up to par–not even to the level you set for yourself with your previous writings.
In any fiction, there must be conflict, an attempt to ease the conflict/or exacerbation of conflict, and resolution of conflict. Ideally, you want to create a character that a reader cares about, not a cardboard cutout. Then you must place that character in some dilemma for which there seems no escape. You want the reader to see the character evolve through the conflict and its resolution.
You are interested in these stories because you are in that zone, and it’s about you and someone you know…that is often a mistake…while one school of thought tells the writer to write what she knows, another school of thought says to stretch beyond that…both suggestions have merit. One thing you must realize, though, is that there is little interest for a reader in representations of idyllic relations and events. The content here is overtly sentimental, cheesy, trite…it smacks of pre-pubescent girls, and yet your characters are supposed to be adults. They behave in ways that are not adult-like…they speak in ways that most people simply do not speak. They are not three dimensional. They are not meeting any obstacles. Conflict creates interest. Challenges create intrigue and tension. These things keep the reader turning pages. Which leads to…
These two characters and the few secondary characters are one-dimensional…often referred to as Cardboard Characters. You never allow the reader any authentic sense of who your characters are. We don’t know what they look like, or what they are about. The only specific is that K. has hazel eyes, and that you have had some sort of training in medical or first aid. The reader wants to know enough about the character so that he/she can relate on some universal level. You can do this in exposition, in dialogue, and in what they DON’T say, as much as what they do.
My suggestion is to step away from the personal aspects of this content, and merely use it to springboard into something else. Make these characters multi-dimensional. The most common way is to allow the reader some insight into who they are ASIDE from the relationship…and another way you do that (as I mentioned) is to have them in some sort of conflict.
It does not make your characters appear credible when they miss the obvious, or they behave in ways that don’t make sense. They should have immediately contacted the authorities after finding the child. They most certainly should not be having wild sex repeatedly while a child lies unconscious in the other room. If the plot dictates that they cannot call anyone, give a credible reason for it, i.e. a dead cell phone, or ice on the land line. You really must explain their patently cavalier method of dealing with the child. It’s also not believable that that experience changed them to the point that the one character suddenly wants to have a child after not wanting to. That experience simply was not poignant or powerful enough to incite such a deep-seated change. When you sent your characters to dinner at the pizzeria, I thought there might actually be some plot twist, where the child figured into the story somehow, or the waiter you introduced might have some connection, and maybe it was all going somewhere–but this did not happen. Again, you introduced a character and told us a few things about him, but he did not move the story any more than a lead weight would have. You HAVE to populate your story with people who MATTER–and not just to you, but to a reader. Any reader. And especially a reader who doesn’t know you at all.
You are in the throes of a new relationship and you have sex on the brain. Don’t let it interfere with telling a story with meat on it. It can’t just be one situation leading to another for the sake of having sex. If you feel the need to do that, write erotica (your other erotic story was pretty good). And if your characters have a different set of goals for having children, don’t be obvious about placing a child-catalyst in front of them…this kind of contrived element is very difficult to accomplish with any degree of credibility. It’s very difficult, in general, to write romantic stories without coming off cheesy. Your tale will ring true if it is more hardcore–more like our day to day lives during a time of stress or important events…you have to breathe some life into your characters. Why do I care? why would anyone care? does every line move your story? Does every paragraph really count toward that end?
Your nouns and verbs should have enough strength on their own to stand without lots of modifiers and adverbs and adjectives. It’s a good idea to look for all your gerunds and cut back on using them (gerunds are made by adding -ing to a verb, and -ly words).
As for the actual telling of the story…Does it really matter that a character brushed her teeth, put on pajamas, walked down the hall, smiled, flipped on a light….? These are play-by-play notations that are not at all helpful in moving the story, or enriching it, or revealing character. Instead of brushing her teeth, have her brush with a certain brush because she always has used that one, and always starts on the right, and always rinses twice, without knowing why…use the ACTIONS of the character to REVEAL character. It is exceedingly dull for a reader to trudge through the play by play, for no real reason. The way in which you accomplish this is what will set you apart from other writers. You have something unique to say. If you read this and it was written by someone else, what would you say about it? Can you remove yourself from the writing? You HAVE TO or it will not aspire to anything but a romanticized journal entry. Make it matter.
The only way I can suggest you do this is to study articles about writing, and other writers. Compare what you write to how they write and find the differences –try to mimic their techniques. Ironically, if you can imitate them, you are on your way to finding your own voice. That’s what I mean when I say you have to know the rules, in order to break them effectively.
Assuming you are serious about writing, study the elements of plotting, setting, characterization, conflict, mechanics, story arc, etc., and pay attention to the other writers you like to read. The most fundamental rule in plotting is that a story of any size (even a novel) must have a beginning, middle, and end. And it must also bring something meaningful to the reader–meaningful in a universal sense.
Go to that coffee shop, or better yet, to a mall or other busy place, and sit down with your notebook. Take dictation from the voices around you. Get story ideas from the content of their discussion. Get a feel for real dialogue.
Subscribe to a writing magazine like Writer’s Digest, and study it cover to cover.
Here are a few online places to check too:
Write101: short story
Building Blocks of Creative Writing
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