Clarion at home: Critiquing

This is part 4 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on critiquing.

Critique what you read

Read stories. Figure out how they’re flawed. Then, look at the bits that are less flawed, and figure out how they work. (Then apply that understanding to your own work—but that’s the topic of the next post.)

It’s tough to do this with great stories, but it is possible. Once you’ve had some practice with mediocre stories, try your improving skills on some really good stories. They’re not really different; it’s just that the bits are put together a bit more smoothly (and they don’t have any missing bits).

Here’s just a few ideas of things to look at:

  1. Think about why the author chose this viewpoint character. Is it the person who changes? The person in a position to watch someone else change?
  2. Think about why the author chose this sequence of scenes. Is it chronological? Is there a flashback? Does the story begin at the beginning, or in the middle of things?
  3. Think about the purpose of each scene. Find the scenes that show you that the hero cares about something. Find the scenes that show that there’s something important at stake. Find the scene where the hero is forced to make a choice. Find the scene where the consequences of that choice are shown.
  4. Look at the dialog. Does each character have a unique voice? Is each bit of dialog motivated—does the character have a reason to speak?
  5. Identify each descriptive phrase. Have you ever seen the same bit of description in another story (dark cave, tall tree, pretty girl)? When you find a bit of description that’s new to you, make note of it. Think about whether it’s more effective than the more generic descriptions.

The book on writing that you picked will have many more ideas. For every suggestion that your fiction-writing book makes, some stories out there will be doing something different. Sometimes, those differences will be what makes the story brilliant. More often, those differences will be flaws that make the story less than it could have been. Find those flaws (and occasional bits of brilliance).

Once you’ve done the thinking, go ahead and write out a critique, just as if you were going to deliver it to the author.

Read other critiques

As I mentioned in the part on planning, though, the way to get maximum benefit from this activity is to read the story, prepare your critique, and then examine several other critiques of the same story. (Don’t do it in any other order. You’d get vastly less benefit if you read the critique and then read the story, or if you read the story and then read a review of it without first preparing your own critique.)

What you’re looking for are any insights that anyone else had that you missed—and especially any tools that they used that you weren’t aware of.

At my Clarion, Pat Murphy demonstrated a technique of analyzing a story that I included as point #3 in the brief list above—identifying the story purpose behind each scene. This is a very powerful technique, especially for stories where there’s a lot of good stuff—good prose, good characterization, good science-fictional idea—and yet the story isn’t quite working. If you dismantle the story at the scene level, you can spot all sorts of flaws that are otherwise hard to see. There may be scenes that don’t even serve a story purpose—cut these. There may be scenes that occur at the wrong point—move them to where they belong. There may be scenes missing—write them.

But there are many, many tools of this sort—far more than I can list here. That’s why Clarion lasts for six weeks and why students critique over 100 stories (and listen to over 2000 critiques): so they are exposed to worked examples of using many such techniques. (Importantly, they are not just exposed in the abstract. They see the techniques applied to stories that they themselves have already tackled as best they can with the techniques they already have.)

To make Clarion-at-home a success, you’ll have to do something similar. You don’t need to do it all in your six weeks, but the more stories you critique, and the more other critiques of those stories you explore, the more you’ll improve your own understanding of how stories work—and how they fail.

Part 5 of this series will be on using these efforts to develop expertise.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

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