Critique Example by Susan Smith

Critique for Title Removed (a science fiction story)

Thank you for letting a stranger read and comment on the partial manuscript of your story. That shows professionalism. Critique is never easy, but it’s a great way to see your work through a reader’s eyes.

You have a number of strengths as a writer. You know your tools—English grammar and structure. The text is mostly error-free and reads easily; therefore it flows. You write beautiful prose with some great turns of phrase and apt figurative language. With the character D, you show ability to achieve a distinctive voice for your creations. By this last, I don’t mean the dialect, which is stock, but the quirky diction, arrangements, and rhythms of his words. With the elegant prose and the clear talent to sketch a character’s persona voice, you’re on your way toward a strength many published novelists lack: finding your individual storyteller’s voice.

All these qualities will help your writing career. Now you have to practice till you learn how to bring them into fine focus to serve the novel’s story. You know how to write; now study how to write fiction, which is more than pretty words sweetly arranged for sonorous effect.

The late Marion Zimmer Bradley, as editor of her eponymous magazine, was famous for her dictum, “Don’t show me how beautifully you write, show me a story.” Bradley was far from a stylist herself—her prose was often clunky and tin-eared—but she sold enormous numbers of beloved books because she knew how to get her stories across to readers. She knew how to craft scenes, how to involve readers, how to disguise surprises without frustrating readers.

For me, this start feels assured and well paced, which made me trust that I-the-reader was in capable hands. The character, D, is three dimensional; I liked the prologue’s brevity and the strength with which it ends, although it’s not at all clear to readers who “The Navigator” is. That may not be important, but it was a question that bothered me as I read onward.

The bigger, more crucial question raised by this opening is, what’s this enemy our protagonists are fleeing? That backstory is extremely vague, and sometimes (marked in the text) that obscurity raised other questions that do need answers if you want to grip readers. That question implicates the all-important what’s at stake for D, B, et al., right now? If their situation felt vital to the characters, readers would go along much more happily.

I got the feeling you left it vague because it’s not the Big Story Question, but it does require some explanation to ground readers in this particular time and world. The Makers have a different problem, but the humans on this ship need a story-spine that’s clear and compelling for their present. It won’t take much—a hint here, an explanation there—but I think the richness added for characters and world will be worth a little extra text.

But about richness—the scene where D meets the Makers and takes his oath to them works very well. You set it up perfectly, and readers are experiencing the scene with him. Lovely descriptions. This is a crucial, pivotal scene, and it will hook readers if the whole chapter surrounding it is made more immediate, too.

First, a small thing that will make a huge difference, that first sentence needs to be shown to readers, who need to feel right along with D everything that’s going on. As is, it’s narrative telling, distant and calm. It should be emotional and gut-wrenching. Readers will not have experienced being severed from their bodies like this; having such experiences is a big reason SF/F fans read the genres. In other words, go into deep POV and make it personal and specific.

Then let D figure out that he’s been severed from psy and ship and body—let his reactions and emotions show us instead of your telling us. That way, readers will participate and empathize. By the end of the opening paragraph, you’re doing it, but it needs to start out that way.

The other suggestion isn’t just for this first chapter, but it’s key to it in particular. If this were my story, I’d lose most of the internalizations and self-questions, and put those thoughts into actual dialogue with the other characters. That’s automatic high-interest and conflict. But especially in this scene, the internalization technique works against the story. I say this because D asks himself, but never the Makers, all the story-questions that I-the-reader was asking throughout the scene. He never gets any answers, yet he agrees to the bond without a reason! I just couldn’t buy that, and the missing link weakens the whole.

Have D ask the Makers at least some of his questions. They can answer or mislead or whatever you choose, but he has got to have a motive and a reason for accepting their binding on his will. Otherwise, readers won’t follow him. One character alone thinking is less interesting than plural characters debating. You’ve got really cool characters in the Makers, and there’s no better way to showcase them than through conflict. That discussion could be gripping. D’s thoughts get a little wearisome, because they don’t resolve anything or explain anything further to readers.

Doing this section in real-time dialogue can also show readers the first hints of the larger story, helping us understand the various “enemies” (not to say why there are such things as “enemies”). If I hadn’t had the synopsis, I don’t think I’d have realized that the Makers’ “enemy” wasn’t the same as the humans’ “enemy,” yet that seems to be a key element of the plot. Don’t risk leaving readers out in such fundamental story elements. (It’s been said, tell everything but how the story ends, and that’s not bad advice.)

I liked how the spirit of his grandfather helps D accept the Makers’ bond, but the scene would be stronger if D had been shown/convinced by some reasons given by the Makers, too. They want/need him because _____, and he finds that reason compelling because ____. He can end up in the same place, but he won’t seem so willy-nilly if we’ve been persuaded (and misled) right along with him. Willy-nilly isn’t good for a protagonist, especially our hero when we’ve just met him and don’t really know him.

Although you have another trance scene soon after D’s first with the Makers, the second one works because you show it from S’s point of view. Seeing an outsider’s impressions of the trance made the two scenes feel totally different and actually enhances the world you’re building. For this reader, that worked.

But (there’s always a but), for that second scene, I’d like two others elements: first, to know from the very start that the Trace is a private thing not revealed to outsiders. You don’t tell us till after it’s over, which doesn’t help us understand your main character, D. Second, I needed evidence that B is “arrogant” and that S is a “prick.” All we have are D’s interpretations of looks and voices, but no actions or words to show the reality. I must know I can trust D’s evaluation of others, and so I need to see actual interaction, with arrogance and actions to suit being deeply woven throughout. Without that, S remains flat, as does B, and so readers don’t get to take D’s side like we want to.

The brief scene, almost a vignette, between T and S works, because it leads right away to an uh-oh moment. It did raise another of those what’s at stake for them questions … because S has a moment that made clear to me I understood too little about the evacuation, the rescue, and who was who doing what. (See comments in text.) The humans’ present-story arc needs rather desperately to be defined, but I don’t think you need the S moment that raised the question anew in the first place. All S needs to think (or say aloud to T) is something like, He hadn’t known she was aboard. Surely the presence of a sheltered young socialite was a hindrance to B? Or, “Why in the world did B permit you aboard, my dear? A young woman of such prominent family can only be a liability, no matter her wit or charms.” She can respond however you like—easily, upset, angry, and tell him then about her grant. Again, that will offer a place for high-interest/conflict, and both T and S will have more flesh in readers’ eyes.

Despite all the long silences (dialogue works best when it’s snappy, back-and-forth, and the interruptive actions serve to deepen the scene), B is darned wordy, and Z is, too. Z especially needs to be short and sharp. There’s a lot of filler you should eliminate (marked). Sometimes the characters react in “shock,” etc., when readers haven’t seen anything to be shocked by (and aren’t told why, either), all of which bounce us out of the story’s flow. Heed stimulus/response patterns and show the stimulus before the response. Tiny things: hunt for then and very and get rid of them. This draft also had pronoun problems, so where I stuck in somebody’s name, the antecedent was incorrect or too vague for easy reading.

The synopsis is generally good, though it gets bogged down in sub-plots and secondary characters. Eight pages is a very generous synopsis length; what story would you tell if the acquiring editor requested a two-page synopsis? Focus on main action-line, main character arc, and bring in the subplots as they matter to one or both of those. Agents and editors are canny; they know you can’t tell a whole novel in two or three or eight pages.

I hope you will take these comments, and those in the pages, as food for thought. That’s all they’re meant for. It’s helpful to understand how somebody else reacts to the text. It’s always a constant surprise (“But I knew what I meant…!” – that happens all the time). You’re on the right path. Good luck with this.

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