Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Evans Critique System (catchy, isn't it?)

I had an idea this morning.

Giving critiques is hard, and receiving them is harder. Part of the problem is that there is no standard format. Trying to line up five different critiques can be exasperating. Where five different people agree, you probably have a problem, but where one feels a certain way and four others don't, you may not. How can we standardize the process to better compare critiques?

Here is my suggestion: a standard critique format in 2 stages. First, a piece of writing has to be entertaining, engaging, and skillful enough to hold you. So stage 1, and the most important is, did you want to stop reading, and if so, was it because of technical delivery (e.g., over description, bad grammar, etc.) or story telling (e.g., not believable, bad pacing). Stage 1 is "stop" or "go" and why.

Stage 2 is polishing and strengthening suggestions. You would answer specific questions for Stage 2, then have an opportunity for general comments.

So here is my suggestion (UPDATED with Sandra Ruttan's comments):

The Evans Critique System

1. Stage 1--Did you want to stop reading? Stop/go. If "stop", break down why as follows.

       1.1. Technical delivery (e.g., use of language, amount of description, spelling, grammar)

       1.2. Story telling (e.g., characters, believable events, pacing)

2. Stage 2--Opportunities for polishing/strengthening.

       2.1. Technical delivery

              2.1.1. Narrative--strengths and opportunities for improvement (e.g., sense of setting, handling of exposition).

              2.1.2. Dialog--strengths and opportunities for improvement (e.g., appropriate to the age and background of the characters? Does each character have a recognisable voice?).

       2.2. Storytelling

              2.2.1. Believable/compelling characters--strengths and opportunities for improvement (e.g., are characters vibrant, different from each other, three dimensional?)

              2.2.2. Plot--is it engaging? Any holes? (e.g., does the plot hook you? When? If you couldn't put it down, when did that feeling begin?)

              2.2.3. Pacing (e.g., does the story unfold at a natural pace? Where parts rushed or too slow?)

3. Any other comments.

Each question should be answered, whether positive or negative, so that the writer can focus on improving what needs work while preserving what's good.

Here's an example critique:

1. Stage 1: Go. (Skip 1.1 & 1.2)
2. Stage 2.
2.1. Technical
2.1.1. Narrative: very vivid with a strong sense of mood. Some passages, however, go too long and break the flow of the story. Watch for over-description.
2.1.2. Dialog: strong. Each character has a distinct voice. Some of the regional flavor comes out. You could use more attributions (he said/she said), however, to avoid confusion in longer dialog runs, especially with more than two speakers.
2.2. Storytelling
2.2.1. Characters: protagonist is great. Love the conflicts and unexpected foul actions. Gives him depth. Many of the secondary characters are too superficial, however. Try to give them more substance/complexity.
2.2.2. Plot: Hooked from the first page! The suspense is wonderfully maintained. You've planned a great main plot. Secondary plots need some help though. Probably suffers the same fate as the secondary characters.
2.2.3. Pacing: just watch those long descriptions. They can break the flow. Also, you have a few flashbacks which go too long. Trim them to short paragraph length.

What do you think? Any critiques for the critique system?

If you think it would be helpful, feel free to pass it along or link to this post.


anne said...

For me, even stage 1 can be tricky. For instance - and please don't hold what I'm about to say against me forever.
I started reading A Confederacy of Dunces a first time and dropped it because I just couldn't get into it? Found it borderline boring even.
A long while passed and I picked it up again, and it's now one of my favorite books ever...

jason evans said...

Anne, that's a very fair point. I understand what you mean.

But what I'm trying to accomplish with Stage 1 (albeit imperfectly) is that magic line in writing. We've all seen it in others and if we're blessed with objectivity (at least in hindsight), in ourselves. Looking back, I would've been far better off if I knew my writing hadn't crossed the line to "good enough." Helpful suggestions are great, but if I'm far off, I need to know.

I'm trying to get to a critique format that best helps writers move forward. Of course, everyone's Stage 1 magic line is a matter of opinion and will vary person to person.

Bernita said...

Good stuff, Jason.
Serious working writers will recognize and accept the usual ( and real) caveats, such as Anne mentions.

Terri said...

It's a bit tricky, because sometimes it can all depend on what mood one is in when one picks up a book. Although I agree, "Did you want to stop reading" is definitely a good place to start!

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think it can help people to tell them what you want to know...

But beware the inexperienced reviewer that doens't fill in the gaps in between and cover what really needs to be said.

For example, I'd also ask about dialogue and the variation from character to character. Your characters shouldn't all sound the same. Okay, some will, because they're of comparable background, same family, whatever, but throughout the book there should be some variation.

Plus research. Oh man, do research wobbles ever cause problems in my side of the industry.

Tone. The overall tone of the writing should have a consistency to it.

Well, and there's more. But it's a good place to start. Only thing is that you risk either getting all the stuff it's hard to compile into #3 anyway, or you risk not getting those specific points at all.

And for the love of Pete, names. Boy oh boy, names. If an editor can nail my ass to the wall for having a guy who's name starts with T have a sister whose NICKNAME abbreviated from her full name start with T, then having 10 people in a chapter all with T names isn't going to fly. Use the alphabet and try to avoid those name similarities unless it's critical to the plot.

You also want to ask the reader at what point they found the book hard to put down. First few chapters of a book are usually always hard as the reader's being deluged with information.

You want to find out if you're hooking them within the first few chapters, because if you aren't, you'll have problems with other readers who're less forgiving.

Thank goodness blogger's letting me play again.

Erik Ivan James said...

First, I ditto Bernita, good stuff.

Second, all points here so far are good points.

Question: Are you intending the 'Evans Critique System' for blog critiques or manuscript? If blog, me being a newbie, I would think your system to be greatly helpful.

jason evans said...

Bernita, you're right. Grains of salt are very much still necessary. What I'm getting at here, though, is a way to organize critiques. I think it would be nice to line up 5 different responses to 2.1.1 and see what they say.

Terri, I agree. Hopefully in the "why" part of the answer, the writer can gauge the weight to place on an "I'd put it down" response.

Sandra, you give great examples of advanced critique issues! What I'm suggesting is a baseline. Something easy and quick to start. I do think adding some of those issues you mentioned into examples would be helpful to guide the reviewer's attention.

Erik, I think it would be a good tool for blog fiction, and a basic starting point for a novel critique. As Sandra points out, a good novel critique would go well beyond what I have here.

Alexandra S said...

I was just reading through your posts and wanted to say a huge congratulations on finishing your first draft! yay! Not a small feat, to say the least. I look forward to having it one day on my shelf!

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think part of the reason this will work for you is that you'll handle it like a pro.

Unfortunately, many people don't in the beginning. Critiques are about wanting to see the writer mine the gold and get that baby published - which means needing to point out the weaknesses as well as the strengths.

One thing to bear in mind though, is that you'll often (if you're giving a whole manuscript) only get one crack at feedback from a person. I try to write down first impressions right when they hit me, because first impressions can often be the most honest assessment of something. Then, if a subsequent paragraph explains my question or issue, I can say, "good" but if it doesn't, then there's a gap to fill.

My best advice is be careful who you ask for a critique from. Some people are pissy and can't wait to rip a writer to shreds for a variety of reasons - even professional writers. You want to make sure you get someone who wants to see you succeed but isn't so afraid of hurting your feelings that they pull punches - the trick to good critiques is tempering honest feedback with both the positives and negatives and demonstrating you really do have the writer's best interests at heart.

I've seen critique groups disintegrate and friendships tarnished over sensititivy about feedback...

Antonia said...

It looks like the Tractatus logico-philosophicus

beadinggalinMS said...

I know nothing about critiques but it is a catchy name. :)
So I will leave you with this.
Hi! Have a great day!

Eileen said...

I like your system. I always ask my readers the following:

- who do they see as the protagonist?
- what do they see as what that person wants (their goal)
- what keeps them from obtaining their goal

These are things I am trying to keep in mind when I write the story- I always find it interesting if it isn't clear or is seen differently by different readers.

Melissa Marsh said...

Critiquing is such a hard process - and I think it varies for every genre. But I do like what you've come up with. The criteria you have are the basics, and in the end, that's what matters the most. But I could be wrong.

Just call me Charlie Brown this evening 'cuz I'm wishy-washy. ;-)

jason evans said...

Alexandra G, welcome welcome! I wish I could get new visitors a drink and make them feel at home. Thank you very much for your kind words! I would be honored for your shelf to grace my writing.

Sandra, I know you've had your own horror stories about critiques. They are so dangerous, from both sides. I appreciate your feeling that I would be respectful. It is something I try hard to be.

(Be back in a minute to continue my responses)

jason evans said...

Antonia, it's my legal number system, isn't? :)

BeadinggalinMS, thank you kindly! =D

Eileen, thanks! I'm probably just a logic and systems freak, but we get much more information comparing apples to apples.

Melissa, yes, I was shooting for a basic system that hits the main points and isn't too confusing to apply. I've added an example to show how I think one would look.

Kelly Parra said...

All good points, Jason. =D

I've been critiquing with 2 partners for over 2 years and I've learned from each one different aspects to strengthen my story.

We don't do specifics as you've listed. We read the partial or chapter and add comments as we read. Everything you've listed comes into play naturally. The longer you write, the stronger you become, and the more you'll notice and be able to help your critiquer in different areas.

Great post!

Mark Pettus said...

I like your idea.

I wrote a questionnaire that I sent to my early readers, and asked them very specific questions - not exactly the same as you've written, but along similar lines.

I found the responses very instructive.

jason evans said...

Kelly and Mark, I see we've seen the same need. A way to guide and standardize critiques. I'm just uncomfortable with the free-for-all that critiques tend to be.

Michele said...

Whenever I see info that helps, I make note. So, I hope you don't mind, but I saved it for future reference.
I guess that means I think it's good.
Thanks for taking the time to write it all down in a thoughtful and concise manner.

jason evans said...

Michele, I'm more than happy for anyone to take it and use it. :) Sometimes I just get a bug of an idea and want to put it down on "paper."

Joanne D. Kiggins said...

Great critique system! Stage 1 is tricky. I've found if I can't "go" past the first few pages, I'll put the book down and pick it up later and try again. Sometimes, it is the mood I'm in that doesn't allow me to get into the writing. I will keep your post handy, though. I think it will be very helpful when I finally get around to joining a critique group.

jason evans said...

Joanne, glad you might find it helpful! Stage 1 seems to be the sticking point for many people reacting to the format. I know for me, however, that if anyone feels compelled to put my book down after the first page and try again later, I've got a problem. I want the first five pages to be delicious!

Joanne D. Kiggins said...

Oh, yes, I always "want" the whole first chapter to be delicious, Jason. I'm sure yours are. Normally, when I purchase a book I read the first three pages. If that grabs me, I buy it. I've never bought a book I couldn't get past the first page. But...when I'm sent books to review that's a different story. There's been several I've had to force myself to read.

jason evans said...

That's what I'm struggling with, Joanne. For the books we'd rather put down, it's so hard tell the author. Yet, assuming the author wants to pass the book store browse test (and I think most book buyers do the same thing you do), he or she or I need to know the bad news. I thought having an expectation to hear yes/no on that question might make it an easier subject to broach. Easier for both the reviewer and the author.