There's a lot I'd like to be doing tonight but I'm guessing I'll spend the night working on Wordslinger critiques. That's ok, I like reading what my fellow writers are working on and giving them my thoughts about how to make it better. So I thought I'd share a little bit about how I do critiques.
Let's start with the nuts-and-bolts: I use MS Word and the 'track changes' features to add my notes and corrections. After a lot of trial and error (I used to just type my notes into the text itself, in a different color/font), this seems to be the best way to go for readability for me and the person I'm giving my notes to. Though, I do like the 'strike through' font feature for deleted/changed words.
The first thing I look at is: does the beginning of the story/chapter grab me? I try to look at it as if I were an editor selecting something from the slush pile, since that's the boat all us Wordslingers are riding in. If I can't find a hook, I'll call that out, maybe suggest one. Sometimes, the 'true start' of the story is a page or two further down.
Next is the protagonist. Do I get an idea of who they are, where they are, what they look like? I need to know, pretty early, the age and gender and general culture of the character. I know some people like experimental stories where that's up in the air, but I don't like it. It's just me, but androgynous characters - in name or detail' are too amorphous to engage my interest. I'm hoping that the main character has a clear voice, that they don't sound like anyone else in the story. I think that's important. It's also important to me that I like the characters, at least the protagonist. If I find myself wishing for someone to smack or shoot someone, they'd better be the bad guy, not the main character or the main character's sidekick/love interest.
Then I move on to tone. What is this story supposed to do? Am I supposed to laugh? Is it supposed to be action-packed? Suspenseful? Full of wonder and discovery? I feel the tone and expectations of a story need to get set at the beginning. As writers much more experienced than I am have put it, "Your opening paragraphs/pages make a promise to the reader. Your job as a writer is to fulfill those promises."
Plot is important, too. So why is it so far down the list? Plot is story, more or less and we're all trying to be storytellers here. (Though we do have some stylists. Folly, Stephanie and Shannon write some sentences I want to curl up with.) But to be honest, characters and situations come first. They are the hooks. The resolution of the situation, the plot, needs to satisfy me but it's not the first thing I look at. A lot of times, the plot isn't apparent at first and I like to give a writer time to get things clear to me. But I do need a clear plot, at least in retrospect. I don't want any refriderator moments*.
Along the way, I'm looking at typos, word usage and sentences. Not for beauty, though I do notice that from time to time, but for clarity. I'm no Hemmingway or Chandler, but there is a lot to be said for simple, clear sentences. Our minds can take a drop of purple a long way, there's no need, I feel, to layer on adjectives and adverbs in every line. I'm not the best at close line edits but I'll call out anything that jars me or makes it hard to read the submitted work. I tell you, I wince every time I send out a first draft for critique. So much so, that I'm slowing down my sharing output so I can be sure I'm at least doing a line edit before sending my stuff out to the Wordslingers. It's just a question of respect for my reader. I don't want to waste their time catching things I can catch.
Finally, we get to the ending. The ending works best when it echoes the beginning but it doesn't has to. I just has to 'work'. It has to satisfy. Now, endings are my weak point. I just haven't nailed them, yet. I hope to. That's a challenge for me, to envision the ending before I start a story. If I can do that, I think the story/novel works. If nothing else, it helps to know when you're done and it helps you with the pacing of the story. You can judge when and where to put your plot twists if you know what the ending is. Not to mention if you know how your character ends up, you start thinking about who they were at the start of the story and hint at that change right from the start. But this should probably be a post of it's own. I'll just say, in closing, that I want to leave a story or chapter wanting to immediately read what's next from that author. If I feel like 'thank goodness that's over with', then that ending didn't work for me. If I am gritting my teeth wating for the next chapter (Looking at you, Shannon), then those stories and chapters do work.
*those are those thoughts you get on your way to the refridgerator where you say to yourself, "Hey, that doesn't make any sense" or "Wait, was Luke making out with his sister? Dude, what if they'd gone all the way?!" HT to TVtropes.com