Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 09, 2014 7:48 am

Last year, I did a full-length critique for Graham, and recent discussion on a few of these lessons pointed me in the direction of doing another one now. Leah volunteered this Writing Challenge entry from a few years ago—thanks, Leah!

I really, really hope that reading this will give you an idea of the sorts of things that judges look at when they are judging entries. Of course, the judges don’t write a detailed critique like this for every entry—that would take a ridiculous amount of time. But if they did, this is what it might look like.

I’d encourage you to point Level One and Level Two challenge entrants in this direction. (When I tried to do so a few months ago, some took it personally and they were offended, so I’m not going to do that again.) But if you’re already friends with someone who could benefit from this information, please gently steer them here.

Also, please don’t ask me to do one of these for you…it takes me hours to do this, and I just don’t have the time to do them often. I may consider doing it semi-regularly here, if it’s helpful. You should also know that this is similar to the sort of critique that is available at the Critique Circle, so you might consider posting some of your Challenge entries there to get some feedback.

You'll see Leah's story first, with some edits and comments within the text, then several paragraphs tied to the judging criteria.

TITLE: Under His Wings

AUTHOR: Leah Nichols

Darcy squeezed through the hallway door and adjusted the paper bags full of groceries as they threatened to slip from her forearms. “I wish the market would invest in bags with handles,” she murmured to herself. I would have put that sentence in italics; get rid of the quotation marks and the tag.

She hurried down the hall and stopped in front of her apartment door, struggling to find the right key on her chain. As she leaned against the door to open it, she nearly lost her footing.

The door was already open.

Blood pounded in her ears and her hands began to shake as the all-too-familiar fear rose from the pit of her stomach. “No, no, no, no, no...” she whispered, reaching for the wall.

The groceries crashed onto the floor. Blackness crowded her vision. “Breathe, Darcy, breathe!” she said aloud, willing her chest to rise and fall.

God, no. Please, God, save me!

The apartment appeared untouched. But he had found her. Better: The apartment appeared untouched—but he had found her. She knew it. That sentence is unnecessary.

Now the defining moment had come. Could this Jesus she now knew – could He really save her?

A moment later, Unnecessary beginning to the sentence. Just start with The tremors...the tremors in her hands nearly uncontrollable, she leaned her back against the wall and reached for her cell phone. As she swiped the screen, it lit up with a call. Blocked, the caller ID read.

She debated answering. It could only be him, and she could not let him sense her fear.

Steadying her voice, she pressed Accept. “Yes?”

“Game over.” Even years later, the sound of his voice still caused chills to run through her spine. Cliché

It's always been a game to him. No matter what hell he's dragged me through, no matter how many times he's ruined my life, he just laughs and pretends it's nothing. She swallowed. No. Not this time.

“No, it's not.” The words rang out clearly in the silent apartment.

He laughed. “I found you, dear. You thought you could hide, but you can't. You'll never be able to hide from me.”

She closed her eyes and slowly sank to the floor. “You still won't win, not in the end.”

“ 'In the end'? What do you mean by that?”

“Just what I said, James.” She took a deep breath as confidence began to replace the fear. “You think you have beaten me, and it may look like it on the outside, but I'm not going to let you win this time. Or even if there is a next time. I'm beyond you now.”

“Beyond me?” he spit out the words. “BEYOND ME?” Use italics for emphasis, not all caps. The line went dead, but she had heard the distant shout, not only through the phone.

Darcy rubbed her arms and hugged herself. A prayer rose from her heart, silently, then out loud as she spoke to her new friend. “Oh, Jesus, keep me as the apple of Your eye. Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.”

Grateful for the words of the psalm* she had listened to only that morning, she repeated the prayer, over and over.

As the door to her bedroom opened. When did she go to her bedroom?

As the screaming and swearing started.

As the blows fell.

Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.

This time, she felt no terror, only peace.

And before losing consciousness, she whispered the knowledge she knew to be true. “He wins.”

OVERALL STRENGTHS: Strong, vivid writing. The whole story is strongly in Darcy’s POV, with no wasted words of description. The reader gets a very clear picture of the history of this relationship.

ANY SPECIFIC WEAKNESSES: Just one small plot point (#5 below), and one cliché that could easily be re-written.

Now for a critique using the various ratings categories.

1. HOW WELL DID THIS ENTRY FIT THE TOPIC? The topic for this week was “game.” This is an excellent example of out-of-the-box writing that is still spot on topic. While most people would tend to think of board games or children’s games, the antagonist’s view of stalking Darcy and toying with her life as a perverse game is definitely on topic. I’d have given this a 5.

2. HOW CREATIVE, UNIQUE AND FRESH WAS THIS ENTRY? HOW MEMORABLE? This basic idea (stalking ex) has been seen many times before: the subject of TV shows, movies, books—but this particular twist (it’s likely that the protagonist dies, but wins anyway because of her recently-found faith) is enough to make it memorable among other stories with similar themes. I’d give it a 4.2

3. HOW WELL CRAFTED WAS THIS ENTRY (OVERALL WRITING, INCLUDING GRAMMAR AND PREDICTABILITY)? I didn’t find any errors in writing mechanics (spelling, usage, grammar, punctuation). I made a few suggestions above that might improve the mood or the pace, but these are mostly personal preference. The short sentences and paragraphs give it a quick, breathless pace. The intentional sentence fragments near the end are very effective. 4.6

4. DID THE ENTRY START WELL? Yes. You started with something utterly ordinary—returning from a shopping trip—so that the reader could almost feel the same shock and fear that Darcy felt. That one sentence: The door was already open tosses us abruptly into Darcy’s nightmare. This was a solid 5 for me.

5. DID THE ENTRY COME TO A SATISFYING CONCLUSION? Yes, in my opinion. There will be some people who are unhappy with the openness of the ending (does Darcy die?) and some who would want a happy ending (the police come and stop the beating). So this is a matter of personal taste, but there’s no denying that Darcy’s faith has enabled her to “win” this game, whether she lives or dies. However—I found a major issue with the plot in that you never have Darcy move to her bedroom. And why would she, if she suspected that James was in her apartment? During the time when I assumed she was just inside her doorway, praying and talking to James on the phone, I just wanted her to get the heck out of there. 4.1

6. DID THIS ENTRY HAVE A POINT? WAS THE ENTRY CLEARLY WRITTEN AND COMMUNICATED? Yes. The point was that Darcy’s faith saved her—not from the beating (murder?), but for eternity. God gets the last word. 5

7. DID IT FLOW SMOOTHLY FROM START TO FINISH (NO DETOURS OR ROUGH BITS)? Yes—the only detour is the one I mentioned in #5—not enough consistency in narrating Darcy’s (and James’) movements through the apartment, causing the reader to have to backtrack just a bit. 4.3

8. HOW PUBLISHABLE IS THIS ENTRY FOR ITS TARGET AUDIENCE? The target audience would probably be Christian women who enjoy suspense and drama. This would be right on target for them. 5

ANY OTHER COMMENTS: We need more of this kind of writing at FaithWriters—excellent craftsmanship, authentic characters and situations. I’m not saying that we necessarily need everyone to start writing about abusive and criminal behaviors, but just writing well, without sugar coating.

***

Do you have any questions or comments about this critique?
Anything additional that you’d say to Leah about her story?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by violin4jesus » Sat Aug 09, 2014 1:51 pm

Just as a side note, this story didn't place anywhere in the rankings. And I worked pretty hard on it before posting. So this is a great example of a "Huh?" moment when one thinks they have a good, solid piece and it just falls short. The standards are very high in the Challenge, and clearly there were better pieces that week that inched my entry away from the top.

I'm very grateful to Jan for pointing out my weaknesses. It really helps me to see where I need to work on my writing.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by Vonnie » Tue Aug 12, 2014 7:53 pm

You pointed out that she should use italics instead of quotation marks when the MC was thinking to herself. Is that normally how you how you are supposed to do it or just a preference?

Just want to thank you for these classes and for critiquing my article in the critique circle. You have helped me a lot to improve my writing. Thanks, LaVonne

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Tue Aug 12, 2014 7:58 pm

Vonnie wrote:You pointed out that she should use italics instead of quotation marks when the MC was thinking to herself. Is that normally how you how you are supposed to do it or just a preference?

Just want to thank you for these classes and for critiquing my article in the critique circle. You have helped me a lot to improve my writing. Thanks, LaVonne
Vonnie, the use of italics for thoughts (as opposed to quotation marks) is fairly standard in publishing these days.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by WriterFearNot » Tue Aug 12, 2014 11:13 pm

Hmmm. I posted a reply on Saturday, but I must have gotten distracted (by a squirrel or something) before I submitted it, because it's not here! Then I was struck by a never-ending migraine, and now, finally, I'm out of that dark tunnel.

Anyway, what I had said, but failed to submit was that I really enjoyed this sample challenge entry. It was so powerful and moving--impressive for so few words.

I also enjoyed reading your review of this piece, Jan, and I have some questions:

Um...I forgot what the example total points were but it seemed pretty high. My question is would this particular score be considered high, medium, or low in a regular challenge?

I also wondered how important it was for the author to consider his/her audience? And is there any way to define this "audience" made of judges?

Jan, earlier you mentioned that you are not a fan of fantasy, but when you read a fantasy entry, you tried to look at it based on the scoring guidelines. But I'm wondering just how much of the Judge's personal tastes play into his or her scoring. For example, if a judge has a strong distaste for abuse-related stories (for whatever reason), do you think that will put the an abuse-related story at a disadvantage?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Tue Aug 12, 2014 11:45 pm

WriterFearNot wrote:Um...I forgot what the example total points were but it seemed pretty high. My question is would this particular score be considered high, medium, or low in a regular challenge?
This question is impossible to answer, sorry. When I was judging, I never knew who the other judges were for that week, and I didn't know how they scored any given piece. I do know that occasionally Deb would tell me that my scores AS A WHOLE for a particular crop of entries were either tending to be higher or lower than the other judges' scores were. And that's not a problem, as long as each judge is consistent within herself. In other words, all of the pieces that I score in the 3.0 - 3.5 average range might score in the 3.5 - 4.0 range for the other judges, or vice versa. So if Deb were to take the time to plot all of the scores on a line graph, it's fine if the 2 or 3 judges for any given week would have lines that follow roughly the same course. The problem would be if our numbers tend to vary widely: if some of the entries that I rate high are low for the other judges (and vice versa). I hope that made sense--I'm exhausted.

To answer your specific question about Leah's piece--it would have gotten a very high score for me if I had been judging that week.
WriterFearNot wrote:I also wondered how important it was for the author to consider his/her audience? And is there any way to define this "audience" made of judges?
I'm not sure that I'm following this question, which seems to be two quite different questions. I think it's VERY important for writers to consider their audience (see last weeks' lesson). I don't think they should write specifically to try to please the TEENSY TINY audience that is the judges.

The current judges -- I think -- are all FWers with editing experience or who have a history of doing very well in the Writing Challenge. I think they're all published writers.
WriterFearNot wrote:Jan, earlier you mentioned that you are not a fan of fantasy, but when you read a fantasy entry, you tried to look at it based on the scoring guidelines. But I'm wondering just how much of the Judge's personal tastes play into his or her scoring. For example, if a judge has a strong distaste for abuse-related stories (for whatever reason), do you think that will put the an abuse-related story at a disadvantage?
It would be naive of me to say that personal preferences do not play into the judging process. It is by nature a subjective process, and the judges have to make a conscious effort not to be swayed by personal preferences. I'm certain that they creep in there, judges being fallible human beings that they are. I know that I always worked very hard at it (with some weeks being very difficult).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by RachelM » Wed Aug 13, 2014 12:23 am

I find these in-depth critiques very, very helpful especially when you include the judging criteria. I hope that you will continue providing these once in a while. I realize that these take a long time to craft, but you are welcome to use any of my challenge entries if you would like to.

I purchased critiques for the fist two challenges that I entered because one did well and the other didn't, and I wanted to understand why. This critique is similar to the ones that Deb provided. (I'd be happy to share those publicly if they would be helpful to others.) Deb included this guide that I found helpful too:

General Guide to Rating Descriptions (as used in feedback):

Poor: Rated at the lowest end of the scale and was considered exceptionally weak.

Below Average: Rated below the middle of the field of entries and was considered weak. This usually means an entry was rated between 2 and 2.4.

Average: Rated right in the middle of the scale, and considered average. Not particularly strong. This usually means an entry was rated between 2.5 and 2.9.

Above Average: Rated just above the middle of the field of entries. Although not outstanding, it was considered a little better than average. This usually means the entry received a rating between 3 and 3.4.

Good: Basically, what it says. This usually means the entry received a rating between 3.5 to 3.9.

Very Good: The entry had a strong rating, usually between about 4 to 4.5.

Excellent: The entry had a rating up to about 4.9.

PERFECT: The entry rated 5 for a category and was considered outstanding.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM CRITIQUE

Post by DustBSH » Wed Aug 13, 2014 11:16 am

Very good. I truly enjoy reading this. It helps so much to judge your own work and is a great help in positively judge other people's work. Thanks.

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