Monday, 11 June 2012

The Unliked Words

A lot of times, it's can be quite challenging to find some good ol' criticism.

People are terrified of offending each other, so they refuse to offer any advice at all.  If you share your story with someone, usually, the response will be...

"It's good!"

So, you thank them, and prompt them to say more.

"Well, I don't know..."  *shrug*
"...but I really liked it."

You may be able to eek a small criticism out of someone - they might point out a minor grammar mistake or a spelling error, but honestly, when everyone responds to you with a, "It's good" or "I really liked it", you begin wondering if your book really is good.  You begin wondering if these opinions are honest, or simply shallow words instead of real criticism.

Of course, if you ever do find that one person who tears your manuscript apart and tells you that you will never be a writer...  that might not be particularly helpful either.

So, let's flip the situation around.  Your friend asks if you'll read a portion of their story.  You say you will, and they send it to you.  How do you respond?  Surely you, as a fellow writer, will not respond with the hated words, "It's good!"  So what do you say?

How do give good advice / criticism 
I used to have a Writing Group.  We would hang out, eat snacks, read a chapter of our stories, and then comment on each other's stories.  I had a format that went something like this:

two compliments
one criticism 

I think I got the idea from somewhere else, but I can't quite remember where, so please forgive me.

At my writing group, I would often take notes while the author read her story out loud.  I would make notes about grammar, I would write down if something confused me, and make comments about what I liked.  When my friends send me their stories, I generally try to respond in a positive manner.  Their stories are usually well-written (I have never received a horrendous story from anyone) and I can find many things to compliment.

My advice might end up sounding something like...

"Hey, that was really good!  [Yes, I begin with the hated words, so immersed are they in society that I can't help but use them]  I really liked how you described so-and-so.  You used very vivid adjectives and I can see him perfectly in my mind.  I also love how you left us on a cliffhanger, I can't wait to find out what's going to happen to him next week!  One thing though, I got a little confused on the scene where he falls off the cliff and climbs his way back up...  maybe you could make that scene a little longer and describe it in more detail.  Anyway, good job!"

Okay, so I don't think I've actually ever read a friend's story where someone falls off a cliff, but that's beside the point.  :)

Obviously there are many ways to critique a novel; another method I use is to send the story back to the author, with my comments in bold.  A lot of editors do this, and when I asked people to edit my books, they would do this as well.  This also works well if the story is being sent over the email.

If I have a hard copy of the story, I make notes in the margins or on the paper, then return it.  I actually do this when editing my own stories - I will write notes to myself on the hard copy and then make the changes to the computer.

So the next time someone asks you to look at their story, you could ask them if they would like to receive advice.  Then perhaps you could try out the 2 nice things, 1 bad thing (that's what we ended up calling it at our Writing Group :)).  But about that "1 bad thing" - it's really not so bad, is it?  I'm actually quite appreciative when I receive a critiquing comment.  :)

So, if any of you would like to send me your stories, I would be happy to read them...and critique them!

Klara C.

Saturday, 2 June 2012


In Fine Detail
If someone asked you to describe your main character - or any character really - how well would you be able to accomplish this?  There are, of course, the major details - hair and eye color, height, weight, etc.  But what if you go deeper?  What about the shape of their nose (if your character does not have a bulbous nose then you may not have thought much about this), the length of their fingers, or the complexion of their face?

I used to worry that my readers would not imagine my characters the same way I did, so I would try to describe them in a very detailed manner.  I realized however that my readers will probably imagine my characters' exact minor features however they want.  No matter how hard I try, transferring my exact image from my brain to theirs is near to impossible...but, that's okay.

What does he look like again?
There are pros to NOT describing your character in minute narratives - your reader will be able to imagine her / him the way they want.  For example, if you want them to think that a character is extremely beautiful, they might put in their mind their version of an extremely beautiful person, which would be stronger and more meaningful to them than your version of the word.  "Beauty" is relative and it's a word whose meaning varies from person to person.

You yourself
Although our outside appearances are only the covering for our real selves, our inner thoughts, desires and dreams, it still might be important to really know what your character looks like.  I think it's important that an author knows every detail about their main character, even though the outward shell called appearance might end up being the least of their worries.  (Characters can be huge problems sometimes...  sometimes they just aren't working out.  In that case, appearance is generally not the issue).

When it is important
Becoming skilled in describing people might be helpful in your fiction writing, or even nonfiction writing - say, if you were going to write about George Washington's appearance, you'd better get it right, because people can access photos of him on the internet!  

Assignment: A little practice
Next time you watch a movie, pick out a couple characters you would like to describe.  If your main character is a brunette with short, straight hair, next time you see one on a movie, pause the movie (or find a picture online) and try and describe her.  Or, just pick anyone - a guy with a funny beard, a handsome gentleman, a little girl, an elderly person, a young woman, etc.

How to use your description
If you're introducing a character in a book, the reader may or may not be interested in a lengthy paragraph concerning them.  If the character is a side character or it is an inopportune moment to spend in depiction, you can try and intertwine their physical appearance in with the action.  For example, you could describe the way their ____ (color) eyes dart around the room in fear, or how they sweep a piece of ____ hair from their face in a moment of battle (cliche!  Cliche alert!).  Do they stand on their tiptoes when in the presence of tall people, because they are short?  Are they self-conscious of a physical fault on their face, or a wart on their hand?  These things can be revealed as the story continues on, adding quirks to the characters that might make them seem endearing.

Occasionally, a long description is acceptable, especially when the book is narrated in the first person.  When you see someone, you take in most of their physical characteristics in a couple seconds.  If the first person narrator has just met someone, she will most likely look them over - and in doing so, will describe him / her to the reader.  But in general, you shouldn't make them too long, or your reader will fall asleep and start drooling on your novel.  (And you're shouting, "TMI!" at me now, aren't you?)

So, the next time someone says, "Hey, what about that character...uhhh...what'shisface?" you can surprise them by offering a long description of your character...  just kidding!

Klara C.