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Common Issues I see on critiques

 
RETreasure
(@rschibler)
Gold Member
Posts: 750

I wrote this up for the Super Secret post but wanted to share it with everyone. I do a lot of critiques, somewhere between 10-20 each quarter on average, and these are the issues I see most frequently. I struggle with many of them myself of course as it's easier to spot issues in other people's writing than our own. Hopefully someone finds this helpful!

1. Basic Spelling and Grammar: Without a doubt, the single most common thing I'm commenting on in stories is basic grammar, and I suspect it is the hardest to correct. "Its" vs "It's" is a very common confusion, for example. Until you KNOW the difference, the mistake will keep cropping up. Most modern stories don't have egregious spelling errors but if you use the wrong word, or don't hyphenate when you should, spell check won't catch that.

2. Formatting Errors: Shunn Standard Manuscript Format is the template all our stories should work from. Read it, learn it until anything else looks wrong to you. The biggest errors I see here are not using the formatted indents for paragraphs, incorrect spacing or font sizing, forgetting page numbers and titles, and not understanding when dialogue should start a new paragraph (which is generally when a new character speaks, but this is a hard one. I'm not sure I get it right all the time.)

3. Rambling Sentences and Paragraphs: Big Blocks of Text are hard to read. As a critiquer it's difficult to know where you as the writer would break your paragraphs into smaller chunks, but my eyes start to water when a paragraph takes up more than a third of a page.

4. Confusing or Contradicting details: Sometimes this is due to one scene showing the characters in a forest, and in the next it's more a swamp, but that's less common. What I do see all the time are character voices that don't ring true, choices that seem out of character, or setting details that make my skeptical brain twinge. For the first, make sure your character voices are consistent and realistic. "Not, uh, so like, realistic that, you know, it's hmmm hard to, like, read," but that they flow, that there is character imbued in the voice, and that it sounds like something a person would say.

For the second, don't force your characters to do things that aren't in their nature. Shy children don't suddenly take on the Fairy Queen unless they have been given reasons to do so. Brave women don't cower on the floor unless the threat is so overwhelming, anyone would cower. Brilliant scientists aren't surprised by obvious conclusions. (I see this one a lot - characters presented as brilliant missing the obvious answer, which is then presented as a great revelation) Readers are smart- assume they're smarter than we are and cover your bases.

For the last, do your research! The biggest ping here is children's voices that sound like brain-damaged adults, or, just plain adults. That's not how children talk. If you don't have kids, youtube videos are a great resource here. In the Pournelle video on the WotF blog, he talked about writing about subjects you know about. Don't write about molecular biology unless you can make it sound convincing. Do your research, or don't write about things you don't understand. Part of writing is research.

5. Passive Characters: With writers who have a good sense of prose basics, one problem I see quite often is the plot happening to characters, instead of them happening to the plot. There are no choices made, no actions taken, just 4,000 words of the character reacting to things. I've read multiple places that readers (and therefore editors and agents) prefer active characters. Literary agents call this "character agency". Try to make sure your character is the one driving the plot. On the subject of characters, some other things I see - too many characters make it difficult for the reader to keep track in a short story, not enough characters leaves the MC in an echo chamber with nothing to reveal their personality through dialogue or conflict, flat characters who don't seem to exist off the page at all (this is similar to passive characters), characters who all sound the same, and heavily cliched characters (the buff action hero, the damsel in distress, the mysterious priestess, the ugly but kind witch etc).

6. Weak Settings: This one is huge across the board, and especially for WotF is an obvious fix. Dave Farland has repeatedly stressed how important setting is. Sensory Details up front, and then regularly sprinkled through the piece. This is an easy fix, but can become hamfisted if we try too hard. Keep it simple. Food is a great hook for readers. I like to include temperature cues. KAV cycles (kinesthetic, audio, visual) are a good way to start scenes.

7. Starting in the Wrong Place: Short stories begin as close to the problem as possible. Readers don't pick up a short story to learn every detail about the world and the character's life story. Start the action. "In media res" is the industry term for this. I feel like new writers struggle to set the scene and provide backstory while getting the story going - best solution for this is to read read read read read.

8. Nothing Happening: Another frequent plot problem I notice is pages of the character going about their daily routine, or traveling. Often they're waiting for something, or fearing something is about to happen, or worried about something, but SOMETHING keeps not happening. Or something does happen, but then it turns out to be nothing after all. The problem is resolved too easily, or turned out to be not a problem at all. Again, this is something I feel like new writers struggle with. Readers want interesting people doing interesting things. Make your characters suffer.

9. Too Few or Too Easy Try Fail Cycles: Related to the previous plotting issues, this is something I still struggle with. Algis Budrys puts this into one box on his seven-point plot but it should really be the bulk of the story. Character tries to fix the problem and THINGS GET WORSE. They try to fix it a different way and THINGS GET WORSE. To the point that if they don't fix it RIGHT NOW the space station will explode, or the princess will die, or the village will get ravaged by mutant squirrels wearing hats. Whatever it is, they have to do it right now. Margaret Atwood said the cardinal rule of writing is "Hold My Attention". Characters solving problems easily without struggling, or solving their problems the first time they try, is not attention-holding.

10. Not Finishing the Story: This is pretty common as well. The problem isn't solved, leaving the character in a literary quandry with a clever exit line, but no resolution. Or the problem is solved, but the story ends immediately after, leaving the reader wondering what the point was. Don't forget to finish your climax and write a denouement. Denouement can be one sentence or a whole scene, but it needs to be there. The manuscript is not the story, but the implication of "life goes on" needs to be there somewhere.

I hope some of that makes sense to everyone. One last bit of advice- I recommend solving these problems IN REVERSE ORDER. Fix your plot problems first, then your setting and characters, and then rewrite your prose and quadruple-check your grammar and spelling. No point in fixing sentences you might not need in the long run anyway.

Always available for critiques!

V34: R,HM,R
V35: HM,R,R,HM
V36: R,HM,HM,SHM
V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: F, SHM, P, P
Available for critiques - PM for availability.
www.rebeccaetreasure.com

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Topic starter Posted : November 8, 2019 4:13 am
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1121

Good stuff. Thank you for posting!

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it. ~ H.G. Wells
R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, F, SHM, SHM, SHM, SF, SHM, 1st Place (Q2 V38)
Ticknor Tales

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Posted : November 8, 2019 10:27 am
AndyDibble
(@andydibble)
Bronze Member
Posts: 86

Good stuff, especially the bit about fixing structural things before you fix finer details.

But I think you missed a few important ones (and others probably have their own lists)

Story Doesn't Do Much of Anything Innovative: Something or a combination of somethings should set your story apart from all the other stories written in the history of everything. Without novelty in characters, world, style, philosophy, whatever your execution has to be truly spectacular, which is hard when you're a new writer.

Not Enough/Early Enough Conflict: Conflict can exist on at least three levels: between characters, within a character, and within the wider world (politics, war, etc.). You should be hitting at least two of these and doing so with regularity. It's really hard to keep a story interesting without ample conflict.

Pacing: It's no secret that the beginning of a story is the most important and the end the second-most important part. I think the third most important part is the end of all the scenes. I see a lot of stories with scenes that teeter out. Every scene should end with a decision, a disaster, a twist, or at least a precise and gripping image. Ideally the scene would build to its end, but checking all your scenes to make sure there's a "cymbal clap" goes a long way.

This post was modified 6 months ago by AndyDibble
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Posted : November 10, 2019 9:47 am
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RETreasure
(@rschibler)
Gold Member
Posts: 750

Excellent things to consider! I struggle with the third one - pacing - a great deal. It’s one of the things I don’t do intuitively yet, and still have to try to be conscious of. Thanks!

V34: R,HM,R
V35: HM,R,R,HM
V36: R,HM,HM,SHM
V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: F, SHM, P, P
Available for critiques - PM for availability.
www.rebeccaetreasure.com

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Topic starter Posted : November 10, 2019 10:38 am
AndyDibble
(@andydibble)
Bronze Member
Posts: 86

There's a great deal about fiction writing I don't do intuitively. And if my first drafts ever got out to the interwebs, I think I'd die from shame Smile
There is one intuition you have to develop: know when what you've written isn't good enough. If you get that far, you know to re-write or revise. If you don't, your submissions will normally be subpar. Kind of like how Socrates had a daimon who told him when he spoke wrong Smile
That's why it's good to make a list like the one you have above. Overtime we internalize the list and the bad becomes more and more obvious.

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Posted : November 10, 2019 8:24 pm
Jamesblakey
(@jamesblakey)
Advanced Member
Posts: 49

I'm a first reader for a near-pro-paying market and I had one story in the last round of submissions that sometimes indented for new paragraphs and sometimes didn't. This author also didn't bother creating new paragraphs when a different character spoke. How was the story itself? I have no idea. I didn't finish.

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Posted : November 11, 2019 5:31 am
Jamesblakey
(@jamesblakey)
Advanced Member
Posts: 49

Oh, there was another promising story that I read this submission period, but the writer didn't use quotation marks!

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese asked Jules?

Vincent shook his head. No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the f*ck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules narrowed his eyes. What'd they call it?

Imagine trying to read 10,000 words of that.

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Posted : November 11, 2019 11:41 pm
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1121

Oh, there was another promising story that I read this submission period, but the writer didn't use quotation marks!

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese asked Jules?

Vincent shook his head. No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the f*ck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules narrowed his eyes. What'd they call it?

Imagine trying to read 10,000 words of that.

Ouch.

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it. ~ H.G. Wells
R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, F, SHM, SHM, SHM, SF, SHM, 1st Place (Q2 V38)
Ticknor Tales

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Posted : November 12, 2019 12:29 am
Galen
(@galen)
Advanced Member
Posts: 47

Found this belatedly. This is a terrific list. I am proud to say I've only made errors on items 1-9. Er wait, also 10.

As they say, we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over until we finally learn them, so I really appreciate seeing this in a condensed format.

Finalist x1
Semi x1
SHM x3
HM x7
R - lots!

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Posted : November 27, 2019 11:51 pm
pdblake
(@pdblake)
Bronze Star Member
Posts: 132

I

2. Formatting Errors: Shunn Standard Manuscript Format is the template all our stories should work from. Read it, learn it until anything else looks wrong to you. The biggest errors I see here are not using the formatted indents for paragraphs, incorrect spacing or font sizing, forgetting page numbers and titles, and not understanding when dialogue should start a new paragraph (which is generally when a new character speaks, but this is a hard one. I'm not sure I get it right all the time.)

Got to this a bit late too. Its a helpful list.

Could you give a little clarity on point 2 with regard to indents? Do you mean just pressing tab or using the likes of word's auto indenting thingumajig?

I personally write in Jarte (rtf) and convert to word once its ready to submit. All that auto correcting stuff just annoys me lol

www.pdblake.co.uk

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Posted : February 23, 2021 8:46 pm
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1121

I

2. Formatting Errors: Shunn Standard Manuscript Format is the template all our stories should work from. Read it, learn it until anything else looks wrong to you. The biggest errors I see here are not using the formatted indents for paragraphs, incorrect spacing or font sizing, forgetting page numbers and titles, and not understanding when dialogue should start a new paragraph (which is generally when a new character speaks, but this is a hard one. I'm not sure I get it right all the time.)

Got to this a bit late too. Its a helpful list.

Could you give a little clarity on point 2 with regard to indents? Do you mean just pressing tab or using the likes of word's auto indenting thingumajig?

I personally write in Jarte (rtf) and convert to word once its ready to submit. All that auto correcting stuff just annoys me lol

In my experience, using Word's auto indent is generally safer than manual tabs because then you don't miss a tab by accident.

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it. ~ H.G. Wells
R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, F, SHM, SHM, SHM, SF, SHM, 1st Place (Q2 V38)
Ticknor Tales

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Posted : February 23, 2021 10:48 pm
RETreasure
(@rschibler)
Gold Member
Posts: 750

Yes - formatting refers to how the document itself is organized - not the author’s editing of the document. It’s important to have your indents set correctly instead of using tab for a few reasons - one, it’s too easy to miss a tab. Two, on different devices the tab may populate differently, where as the formatting is more likely to stick. Shunn Standard Manuscript format is the default for (almost) every professional short story market, agent, and small press.

V34: R,HM,R
V35: HM,R,R,HM
V36: R,HM,HM,SHM
V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: F, SHM, P, P
Available for critiques - PM for availability.
www.rebeccaetreasure.com

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Topic starter Posted : February 23, 2021 11:02 pm
pdblake
(@pdblake)
Bronze Star Member
Posts: 132

Thanks looks like I need to change things a little then.

ETA: That was all quite easy to change in Word. Can't seem to do auto indents in Jarte though. I'll use it for notes (I like the way I can lay out all my documents and have it open them all again in one go too) and start doing the actual writing in Word. I now have a new template (ooooh wotf007 ) and a new thing on my list of things to watch out for while editing.

I do use standard manuscript format (save for this issue anyway), I just wasn't aware it was specific about tabs and indents.

www.pdblake.co.uk

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Posted : February 24, 2021 12:06 am
rkcapps
(@rkcapps)
Active Member
Posts: 20

Fabulous list! All great points Smile
One thing I see newer writers struggle with is POV. If we are in a character's head, stay in that character's head for the entire scene. Think Game of Thrones, a character per chapter. I find head-hopping disorientating, as do many readers. I find many new writers don't understand the difference between head-hopping an omniscient POV. And to explain the difference, this is the best blog post I've read: https://ellenbrockediting.com/2013/11/2 ... d-hopping/

I find I'm guilty of "its v it's", but not because I don't know the difference. When I'm typing fast my brain and fingers don't like to cooperate. Frustrates me endlessly because, when editing, I read over them, thinking I got it right the first time. Well, my brain did, my fingers didn't. So I rely on fresh eyes to pick up these pesky typos.

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten - Neil Gaiman

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Posted : February 24, 2021 4:26 pm
AliciaCay
(@aliciacay)
Bronze Member
Posts: 93

Whoa!

First: This list is amazing RSchibler! Excellent points, all of them!

Two:

Pacing: It's no secret that the beginning of a story is the most important and the end the second-most important part. I think the third most important part is the end of all the scenes. I see a lot of stories with scenes that teeter out. Every scene should end with a decision, a disaster, a twist, or at least a precise and gripping image. Ideally the scene would build to its end, but checking all your scenes to make sure there's a "cymbal clap" goes a long way.

Andy, you are spot-on. Yes! to the pacing part. I've heard Dave say, over and over again, that not only should a story begin with a hook, but every scene should begin AND end on a hook (the definition I'm using for a scene is where the #'s have been placed. they end a scene). It's important to continue to hook the reader and keep them hooked so that they want to keep reading. In the stories where I manage to pull this off to some degree, I've noticed they get more attention from editors.

And Thirdly (that's a word, right? ;):

Found this belatedly. This is a terrific list. I am proud to say I've only made errors on items 1-9. Er wait, also 10.

Galen, your humour cracks me up and warms the cockles of my cold, unfeeling heart! wotf001

Fourthly (who cares if it's not a word, I'm sticking with it!):

I fear I am not familiar with Jarte, but if it helps, here is how you format MS Word to indent automatically:

Don't use the Tab key or Spacebar to indent paragraphs as it can make formatting for editors more difficult. There is an underlying formatting issue there that I don't know all the details on, but have heard about from several editors.

In MS Word, go to Paragraph settings (on the HOME tab). Under Indentation, set the Special option to First Line. In the next box By: select 0.5" (per William Shunn formatting, indents are half an inch).

What this setting should do, is when you reach the end of a sentence and hit Enter the cursor begins a new paragraph with the indentation already done.

And lastly ... here is a link on how to properly format a story (the William Shunn way). It has both Classic and Modern versions. Use Modern unless otherwise specified in a submission call/by an editor. https://www.shunn.net/format/story/

~A. ♥

V32: HM (Q4)
V33: HM, HM, SHM, HM
V34: R, R, HM, HM
V35: HM, HM, R, HM
V36: R, R, SHM, R
V37: SHM, FINALIST, HM, SHM
V38: SF, X, tbd
Ten story publications! (including Air and Nothingness Press, Third_Flatiron, and three with WordFire Press ♥)
https://aliciacay.com

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Posted : February 26, 2021 2:29 pm
Dustin Adams
(@axeminister)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1000

In MS Word, go to Paragraph settings (on the HOME tab). Under Indentation, set the Special option to First Line. In the next box By: select 0.5" (per William Shunn formatting, indents are half an inch).

I used to hit tab. I liked the exercise of it. Then I self-pubbed something and Scrivener made me undo every tab. Ugh.
So I do this now and sooo happy.

One other thing is that I use the same file for all new stories. I've got the formatting, so I open it, file-save as, new name, delete words. This way I don't miss anything.

2x Finalist
2x Semi
6x Silver
9x HM
1 of 6 SilverHM. 1 of 3 DSF: Short Stories. My Finalist #1 Finalist #2 coming soon in 4th & Starlight

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Posted : February 28, 2021 2:26 am
Disgruntled Peony
(@disgruntledpeony)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1121

One other thing is that I use the same file for all new stories. I've got the formatting, so I open it, file-save as, new name, delete words. This way I don't miss anything.

I do this now, too! Finally started a year or so ago. Having a base template is very helpful.

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn't expecting it. ~ H.G. Wells
R, SF, SHM, SHM, SHM, F, R, HM, SHM, R, HM, R, F, SHM, SHM, SHM, SF, SHM, 1st Place (Q2 V38)
Ticknor Tales

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Posted : February 28, 2021 2:32 am
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