How to Write Fiction Critiques of Book Manuscripts
by Adrienne deWolfe
Anyone can critique fiction. Licenses aren’t required. College degrees aren’t necessary.
However, if a writer trusts your opinion and hands you her prose, please exercise compassion when writing a critique. A flippant remark delivered on a bad-hair day could make someone’s publication dream go up in smoke.
A veteran fiction teacher once told me that whole-sale “slashing” should be considered as a last resort for any manuscript. Most passages can be saved if the writer employs techniques that strengthen characterization and plot conflicts.
Ironically, many fiction writers can't see in their own writing what they may be criticizing in yours. Your job, if you're writing critiques, is to figure out the techniques that will improve a particular passage in someone else's prose and guide the writer to apply them.
An Invaluable Service to Fiction Writers
Fiction writers who devote their time and knowledge to writing critiques are performing an invaluable service for writing peers -- one that most book editors avoid. Why? Because most book editors don’t have the time, or the analytical skills, to show a writer how to save her prose.
Case in point: after purchasing my debut novel, Texas Outlaw, my Bantam editor directed me to cut 75 pages to eliminate what she described as the manuscript's “sagging middle.” I was devastated. Those 75 pages were 1/3 of my book!
Fortunately, my critique group rallied around me. After careful analysis, they helped me figure out the problem -- one that was intrinsic to Romance novels, if not to other genre fiction. Apparently I'd dropped the romantic / sexual tension between the Hero and Heroine. In my enthusiasm to write a "real Western," I'd turned the last 1/3 of my Romance novel into an Adventure novel.
Once I rectified this problem, guess what? My editor happily approved my revisions – which had increased to 81 pages.
The moral of this story?
While slashing 75 pages may have been one solution for Texas Outlaw's sagging middle, it wasn't the only solution. My critique group helped me find a better one.
Base Story Critiques on the Foundations of Fiction
Personal bias is the realm of the literary critic. If a fellow writer asks you for a manuscript critique, she is not asking you whether you "liked" her story. Instead, she's asking you, if indirectly, "Have I mastered the fundamentals of book writing? Is my prose compelling? Does it move you emotionally? Is it ready to stand the test of literary agents and book editors?"
Story critiques aren't helpful to other fiction writers if you base your evaluation on personal bias. In fact, in advanced or professional book writing circles, you'll run the risk of offending the members of your critique group if you offer story critiques that smack of personal prejudice.
Any critique that you're writing should focus on fundamental writing problems. Your story critiques should not focus on your personal preference (for instance) for flowery adjectives or a Spartan writing style. To be credible and helpful, logically support your evaluations with citations from the foundations of fiction and good novel structure.
What are the Foundations of Fiction?
The Foundations of Fiction are the nuts-and-bolts that fiction writers must master for just about every length of story. When reading someone else’s manuscript, ask yourself these questions:
Is goal, motivation, and conflict (both internal and external) present for every character in every scene?
Does the submission demonstrate mastery of the scene-and-sequel technique?
Is the submission too terse for a tender scene? Does it lack the urgency necessary for suspense or humor? Does it bog down with narrative (adjectives, adverbs, stage directions, character exposition, etc.)?
#5. View Point:
If the author “jumped heads” in mid-scene, was the viewpoint shift distracting? Does the viewpoint shift raise the emotional ante? Could the scene be stronger without the viewpoint shift?
Is the dialogue conversational? Does it help to build characterization and move the plot forward? Is the dialogue consistent with the character’s personality and the time period in which the novel is set?
Are they seamless between paragraphs? Do the scenes and sequels flow logically into each other? When one chapter ends, does the following chapter immediately grab your attention? With each successive chapter, does the tension build?
#8. Grammar and Word Choice:
Is the writing fairly flawless? Does it roll easily through the mind? Are anachronisms used? Is the language repetitive or unwieldy?
What is Novel Structure?
Novel structure (or narrative structure) is the framework of your story. In general, you can think of novel structure as having three acts:
The Set Up:
The main characters are introduced, along with their backgrounds and story goals.
The bulk of the story transpires. The characters go through major changes along the way to achieving their story goals.
The protagonist is forced to confront the biggest obstacle to achieving his story goal. All elements of the story come together, and the resolution leads to the "inevitable" ending.
When evaluating a novel-length manuscript for another writer, be sure that:
#1. Chapter 1 opens with a hook.
#2. Chapter 3 ends with an intriguing cliff-hanger.
#3. The story has compelling subplots that are tied to secondary characters, including the antagonist.
#4. Tension and conflict consistently evolve throughout the book to keep the middle from “sagging.”
#5. Subplots are resolved in reverse-order of importance (The greatest conflict should be resolved last)
#6. The “dark moment” shows the protagonist making the toughest, value-based decision in the plot.
#7. The climax shows the protagonist triumphing over the antagonist.
#8. The resolution ties up all loose ends in as few pages as possible.
#9. The ending provides a satisfying sentence or final paragraph designed to linger in the reader’s memory. (In the immortal words of Mickey Spillane, “The first page sells [your] book. The last page sells your next book.”)
Reading the Book of a Writing Peer is a Labor of Love
Like any labor, it can become tedious. In a time crunch, you may be tempted to write terse comments that would make you wince if you spied them in the margins of your manuscript.
When you find yourself growing impatient with the book that a peer is writing, put down the red pen and grab a chocolate bar. Or a can of cold beer.
If all else fails, walk away from the manuscript for a few hours.
Remember: He who slashes eventually gets slashed.
The article, How to Write Critiques of Fiction Book Manuscripts, is copyrighted by Adrienne deWolfe.