Tag Archives: criticism

How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Filed under Description, Research, Revision

Evaluating Criticism

writing groupEvery writer can benefit from feedback, but not every bit of criticism is equal. Some may come from readers who can tell writers little about how to improve a story. Primarily they can point to what they liked or where they lost interest or what rubbed them the wrong way.

Those bits of feedback are still helpful, but a writing group is the best way to get useful information about how to make a story better. However, a writer needs to evaluate the feedback coming from their group because all criticism is still not equal.

When I first joined an online critique group, I discovered this problem. Some critiquers would write how much they loved a piece I submitted, and others would tell me how bad it was. In fact, both might point to the same line, even the same word. How can a writer know which voice to listen to?

Author and writing instructor Nancy Kress pointed out some years ago in her Writer’s Digest article “Critiquing the Critics” that there are basically four types of criticism: line editing, story structure, character development, and prose. The feedback a group gives in each of these areas needs to be evaluated differently.

Line editing, which many writers key on, is the easiest to validate or disprove. The kinds of problems uncovered in a line critique include factual errors, repetitious words, inconsistencies, and proper word choice.

If, for example, a quote is attributed to Shakespeare but it was actually from the Bible, a line critique will make that correction. Or if the protagonist is six feet five in the first chapter and six feet four in chapter ten, a line critique will point out the discrepancy. If the word turn shows up four times in two sentences, that’s a line critique issue. As is using words properly, according to any nuanced meaning rather than a strict dictionary definition.

Because these line issues deal with factual information, a writer should accept most suggestions. If there’s a disagreement, a good style book or dictionary can verify or refute a critiquer’s suggestion.

Story structure criticisms involve things like the direction of a scene, its pace, its necessity, whether or not it accomplished what the writer intends, whether it’s properly set up, if it’s confusing.

These criticisms are easy to evaluate when more than one person mentions the same issue. Even then, the members of the group may not suggest the best possible way to fix the problem. They may think the scene is redundant, for example, but you, the writer, know there’s some necessary information embedded in it. Consequently, you may wish to change key components to eliminate the similar elements rather than cut the scene altogether.

If only one member of the group identifies a problem area, then it’s important to weigh the source. Is this bit of criticism coming from an experienced writer who has studied the writing craft and completed several novels, or is this the idea of a beginner?

Of course, beginners can spot problems, too. It’s important to give the criticism consideration, but to be validated, it should not hinge solely on preference. Beginning writers and beginning critiquers sometimes critique based on how they would write if this were their work. In other words, the scene is not actually confusing—it’s just different from the way the critiquer would have structured it.

The third area of evaluation has to do with character development. Unfortunately not every person in your group may like your main character. In that case, it’s important to know if the problem is in your portrayal of the character or in the character himself.

In other words, did you mean to draw the character as clever and innovative but your critique partner perceives him as sneaky and untrustworthy? In that case, you haven’t portrayed him as you intended and you need to revise accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you meant to create a sneaky, untrustworthy character, and your critique group sees that, understands that, and doesn’t like him, should you make changes? Your decision here is tricky.

One point to consider is whether or not your target readers are similar to the people in your critique group. For instance, members of your group may say they don’t care for your protagonist because he’s a mind reader and they only like characters that seem realistic. Criticism like that misses the mark.

On the other hand, if your group reflects your likely readers, their reaction to your character gives valuable feedback. Do they not like the character but feel invested in his journey and want to see what will become of him or do they not like the character and want to stop reading? In many types of stories, the character needs to be plausible, interesting, well-motivated and not necessarily likable.

The fourth area of evaluation is prose, or style. Because style is a personal signature of an author, it’s not easy to critique and just as hard for the writer to judge the feedback. Ms. Kress explains:

Perhaps the most difficult criticism to evaluate—and to sit through without anger or despair—is stylistic criticism. You can rewrite scenes in your story, strengthen characters, fix line gaffs. But what do you do when you’re told that your style has problems—that same style in which you wrote not only this story, but all your others? (“Critiquing The Critic,” italics in the original).

When confronted with stylistic criticism, start by determining if there’s a group consensus. Next read the work with the suggested stylistic changes (fewer adjectives, for example, or more concise dialogue) and see if you think the piece is stronger. Third, ask you critiquer to explain why he is making a suggestion. Have you fallen into a common stylistic error—“head hopping,” using cliches, passive voice, incorrect use of participial phrases, overly descriptive to the point of interrupting the story, too much telling, and so on. A good critiquer should be able to give you a reason for any stylistic changes they suggest.

In the end, the story is yours. You need to decide what changes to make. Critiquers are there to reflect to you what they see. As the author, you must then evaluate what they’ve suggested. Keep things that make your writing and your story stronger; ignore whatever doesn’t accomplish that goal.

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Filed under Revision, Writing Process