I’m not an excellent writer. However, this does not mean there aren’t people who suck worse than I do, and it certainly doesn’t mean I can’t recognize writing bullshit when I see it.

One such instance of what I would call “bullshit” would be Amy Sterling Casil’s Hardcore Critique Guidelines. The first time I came across this page, I thought it was some kind of sarcastic joke, a clever satire of what most people think is important when it comes to writing. I was sadly proven totally, totally wrong, and humanity in general just got another five points off its score. And it was doing so well, too, what with Obama’s election and all.

Now to examine just why Amy Sterling Casil has no idea what she’s talking about.

Let’s start off with the title. “Hardcore Critique Guidelines”. What makes a critique “hardcore”? Maybe a “hardcore critique” is one in which the author might be told what they’re doing is wrong. Apparently that’s a rarity in the amateur writing crowd, where everyone praises everyone else like mad in the fear that if they say anything negative, someone else might say something negative to them too. And then they’d have to improve. A horrifying concept.

When we criticise work, we are commenting for the purposes of publishability, and our goal is to help authors to become publishable and published writers.

Having read the entire article, I’ve just one thing to say: YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Virtually nothing in the article has the slightest bit to do with “publishability”, which isn’t even a word in the first place. Not that there’s anything wrong with making up a word. Hell, that’s why English is so fantastic for writers; if you do end up sticking words and suffixes together in writing, it doesn’t sound “off” because no one can tell in such a convoluted language. But please, make up words only when necessary.

I’ve read other books on publishability. Lots of others. It’s something I’m considering attempting, one day, so yes, I am reading up on it. Here’s the thing: Nothing you’ve listed has to do with “publishability”. It has to do with making a piece not suck, yes, but that doesn’t make it publishable (which is a word, incidentally). Getting published is all about the market. Yes, you need to have a good piece of writing otherwise you haven’t got a prayer. But no, just because a piece of writing does not suck does not mean it’s going to get published somewhere, because there’s tons of other writing that doesn’t suck either. It’s part competance and part competition. Nothing here covers that unpleasant bit.

1. Plot – does the action make sense? Is what is written moving the story forward? Sometimes, the pieces are too short or are fragments, so a complete plot analysis isn’t possible. Most pieces can be judged within the first few sentences for effective plot beginnings, however. That’s what editors do.

There is no such thing as “too short”. Length depends on what you’re trying to say. And yes, you can have a plot in one sentence. Turn on your TV and flip to the TV Guide station; you’ll notice there are plots described in a mere sentence or two. That’s a plot. Or, maybe you should Google “microfiction,” or “flash fiction,” two other mediums known for being short but still having a plot. And “a complete plot analysis isn’t possible”? I’m sorry, but have you seen how much people can analyze and over-analyze a single page of writing? Even a sentence? Give me a break.

a. Does the story start at the right place (the beginning?) Most stories by beginning writers start far too early – way before the key action takes place. Some, however, may start too far forward. These writers have taken the advice of “start with the action at full steam” too literally.

Writing is also about being concise. It’s about not repeating yourself. Not saying the same thing over and over again. And lastly, not repeating yourself. “Does the story start at the right place[?]” is a good question to ask oneself; all that other crap about “beginning writers” said absolutely nothing. “They might start too early… or too late…” is not useful information.

b. Is the pacing appropriate to the story? Too fast? Too slow? Just right?

No complaints here. Totally agree that pacing is important.

c. Is the plot a real plot (a character, in context, with a problem)? Are things happening which seem to have no discernable reason or purpose?

Oh man, you didn’t just try to define what a “plot” is, did you? Oh, you did… First of all, your definition fails. A plot might be multiple characters. S/He might have multiple problems. Secondly, and more importantly, who gave you the right to define what a “real plot” is? If a plot is not a “real plot”, then it’s not a plot, is it?

d. Are there unconvincing coincidences passing for plot? “I saw Prunella at the A & P that afternoon. I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she had the other half of the key to the Ancient Peruvian Treasure Box which I had been seeking, the very one which had brought upon the murder of Uncle Henry by the ravening pirates.”

Hey, it could happen. For once I’d like to see a story where the main character’s quest ends in an anticlimax like that.

e. The ending: is the payoff adequate to the buildup? Does the ending make sense? Is it satisfying? Does it arise from character and situation or is it “deus ex machina,” where the Cavalry suddenly comes riding in over the hill to save the hero and heroine? Most importantly: were the seeds of the ending sown in the beginning?

Have you asked enough questions? Have you asked too many questions? What’s wrong with “deus ex machina” if it’s pulled off well? Granted, it rarely is, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Hook – Is the beginning adequate to catch the reader’s interest? Another key issue related to publishability. Is there the proper balance of action, dramatization, and narrative? Sometimes, more narrative is needed, as in the pieces where the author will begin with a lot of unattributed dialog. The dialog might be saying exciting things, like:

“I’ll kill you, Jim!”

“No you won’t, I’ll rip your arms out of their sockets first.”

“Darn you, Jim! Just pass me that ketchup.”

OK, here’s killing, anger, conflict . . . but who? Where? Who cares? Other beginning errors include hooks that are a bit too strong: and I’ve seen child abuse, rape, incest, this type of thing. The reader has to care about the story and characters first, not be thrown into a situation from which they will instinctively recoil.

Here’s my problem with hooks. Yes, a strong beginning is important; yes, it’s a great idea to catch the reader’s attention. Ultimately, it will help you. But here’s the flaw: If someone wants to buy your book, they’ll probably look at the author’s name first, then the plot summary (on the back or on the flaps), and then you don’t know where they’ll flip next. They might start at the beginning. They might open up in the middle, or towards the very end. You don’t have control over that. And once you’ve sold the book, it hardly matters how shitty your beginning might be – they’ve already spent the money, so of course they’re going to read it.

Again, not that I’m saying hooks are completely unimportant, but they’re extremely overrated. I wouldn’t worry about a hook at the beginning so much as having a hook everywhere. If someone opens up your book or story to a random page, are they drawn in? No? Then no one cares how good your original hook is.

Furthermore, I don’t know about you, but I find that “bad example” to be damn funny. I want to know why they’re so enraged about the ketchup. The juxtaposition of anger and an ordinary condiment makes me laugh, and I want to keep reading. So screw you – you have a poor idea of what a good hook or a bad hook is. And if you’re so obsessed with beginnings, why doesn’t the beginning of your article draw me in? If I didn’t have to read your mind-numbingly stupid page, and I’d just come across it by accident, I’d have left at “publishability”. Why? Because normally people who talk about writing have no clue what they’re talking about, and I just don’t want to hear it, unless you give me evidence why I should listen to you from the very beginning.

I don’t have any complaints about the Characterization section, because it effectively says nothing other than “Make sure your characters are actually characters”.

4. Point of View – whose story is being told and who is telling it?
a. Omniscient narrators are pretty much on the outs in the current publishing world. The omniscient narrator hops from head to head, from scene to scene and place to place and there is no single point of view or voice, other than the author’s.

Terry Pratchett, a national bestselling author, uses omniscient narration in some of his novels. Or if you’d like an example of someone who’s more well-known in America, Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl) allows almost all of his characters equal time in the spotlight. So no, I can safely say your statement that this kind of narration is “on the outs” is completely wrong.

b. First-person narrator. A difficult voice for the beginner, though many people often think it is “easy.” The first-person narrator can only tell what he experiences and knows. This can be a powerful, but also a limiting voice. It is often thought to bring the reader into the story, but poorly-done first person narration has the opposite effect. The reader becomes aggravated by the character, and generally quits reading. A good example of when first-person narration is inappropriate: stories told by people who are dead or in comas, unless it’s a horror or surrealistic story.

Of course, Dalton Trumbo’s, “Johnny Got His Gun,” the famous World War I story, was told from the point of view of Johnny who had no arms, legs, eyes and was deaf from a war wound – a unique and effective story not likely to be repeated.

First-person narration is often slaughtered. I have to agree there.

c. Third-person narrator. Also called, “limited third-person point of view.” This is the most common narrative style used in novels and short stories. The technique uses limited authorial intrusion, and done properly, can bring the reader in as close to the story or closer to it than can first-person narration. A point-of-view character is selected and the story told from that character’s perspective.

So far so good! Maybe this article isn’t terrible after all! If it was telling me things I hadn’t learned in fifth grade English.

d. Common mistakes include:
i. Head-hopping: switching back and forth between different characters’ thoughts and opinions

Wait a minute. Not only are you telling me that omniscient narration is “on the outs,” now you’re telling me it’s a mistake? Perhaps you ought to phone up Mr. Pratchett and inform him just what he’s doing wrong. Maybe he’ll come out with some second editions of his already bestselling novels, considering they were just mistakes.

iii. WRONG point-of-view character. Sometimes stories are told from the wrong character’s point of view. This is an error in plot, related to the point-of-view issue. If the author more fully understood the story’s plot, he or she would have automatically and easily chosen the appropriate character to “tell” the story.

Can I get a “WTF” from the audience at home? A “WTF”? Thank you.

I get what she’s trying to say here: Sometimes stories don’t work from a certain perspective. But really, no matter how well you might know your plot, you don’t “automatically and easily” do anything. Maybe you “automatically” get a feeling about what you should do next, but “easily”? I find writing easier than most people – again, not that I’m claiming a fantastic writer or even above average, I’m just saying that I write – and I still find it really fucking hard. If something is “easy” in writing (as in perhaps many art forms, I don’t know) it’s probably also wrong.

5. Style – is the writing appropriate to the story? Style is subjective, but true errors in style are glaringly obvious.
a. Tone. Is a serious story being told in a flippant tone? Or a comical story told in a plodding, self-conscious style? Most common, especially with younger writers: inappropriate irony, otherwise known as “smarting off.”

A comical story can be told in a serious tone – the comedy can be revealed through other means than style. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is simply hilarious, but the humor doesn’t come through because of the tone. It comes through because of the characters.

You can also be serious with a “flippant” tone. In fact, if the character who is being “flippant” is doing so while speaking about, say, killing babies, it becomes all that much creepier.

And don’t generalize about “younger writers”. You don’t know us. We might just be better than you. Not me, maybe, but there’s undoubtedly someone else who is.

b. Anachronisms or Freudian slips. In historical stories, are characters using modern phrases? Or, do inappropriate comments slip into the narrative, for instance, in a tense scene of financial intrigue, does one character suddenly say to another, “I love your see-through blouse, Frieda?” Are characters acting appropriately for their age and stage in life?

That’s also funny. Have you got something against funny?

c. Usage/Confusion errors. The gerund problem is among these. “Pulling on his boots, he leapt to the door with his gun.” Gerunds used in this manner are usually associated with two unrelated clauses jammed together with a comma. The author needs to use separate sentences which portray clear and understandable action and narrative. This is lazy, confused writing.

Psychologically, I think it signifies a confusion as to what the appropriate story and/or action is, because most often, I’ve seen very beginning writers do it when they are tired or bored and don’t know what to do with the story.

Misplaced modifiers and split infinitives also fall into this category.

Sentence fragments? Sometimes they are appropriate, if they seemed planned or intentional and are not excessively used.

“Beginning writers” are simply “tired or bored”? That’s also a nice generalization. I hope that one of those pieces you’ve declared “tired or bored” was written by someone who will outsell you, and your pathetic excuse for psychoanalysis.

By the way, sentence fragments work better when they appear unplanned or unintentional, especially in dialogue. Really.

d. “Taking the reader for granted.” Otherwise known as “The urge to explain.” The great phrase, “RUE” or “Resist the Urge to Explain,” is used in the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King.

“I’ll never darken your doorstep again, you thieving hussy!” Johnny slammed the door furiously. He was angry. He had never been so angry in his life. [Thank you, author, I got it the first time . . .]

Simply put, authors make this error when they use dialog, narrative summary and action to accomplish the same purpose. Dialog and action can both be strong methods of communicating plot developments; narrative summary less-so, but it has its place.

“Thirty years passed and Monica had never kissed another man.” That’s narrative summary – preferable to detailing Monica’s turn-downs of men over a 30-year period.

If I wasn’t so horrendously annoyed by you already, I’d have let this one pass. Yes, repetition is bad. However, you’ve been so guilty of it in something that’s not even five pages long – and not even a fiction piece – that you really just ought to shut up.

Lack of variation in sentence length or sentence structure. Too many short sentences? Too many long, run-on sentences? A long sentence or two can be interesting, but not *every* sentence. An ungrammatical, confusing sentence is exactly that, and is never good writing.

TOO MANY RHETORICAL QUESTIONS?

e. Excessive use of passive voice. Passive voice is often mistaken for the past-perfect tense. Passive voice refers to the reversal of the “normal” subject/verb order of a sentence. Tenses of verbs serve to indicate time and order of events. When writing about the past, or indicating various moods, past-perfect verbs are very useful, and they have nothing to do with “passive voice.”

“Bob hit the ball” is “active” voice, the normal sentence order in English.

“The ball was hit by Bob” is passive voice. The subject, “the ball,” comes before the verb.

You might see something like “The speech by Mayor Bob was given in his usual sarcastic tone.” Normal sentence order would be: “Mayor Bob gave the speech in his usual sarcastic tone.”

Passive voice isn’t a major point in fiction writing: if it is used to excess, there are usually other severe problems in plot and style which are more harmful than passive voice alone.

I’ve hated the passive/active voice argument ever since that fucking paperclip in Microsoft Word started drawing green lines all over my stories because I was using “passive voice”. I don’t see a problem with passive voice. Active and passive voice get the same message across in a different order. Maybe active voice hits the reader harder, or something, but as a reader, I couldn’t care less. Yes, sometimes it indicates an awkward sentence, but that’s a different matter. “Awkward sentence structure” and “passive voice” are not the same thing.

I’m glad she pointed out it’s not, in fact, a major point. Maybe I’m being unfair here, thanks to Clippit the Grammar Nazi haunting me during my first years of writing. But damn, I hate that paperclip.

Internal dialog passing for emotions or plot. Many beginning writers do this. At its most extreme, the internal dialog is actually the author’s own thoughts as they ruminate along the page, not those of the character. “What would Mary do? Would she fire the gun at John, or would she turn it on herself? What would happen if she fired the gun at the floor? How could she ever decide?” Please, Mary, decide. Please, author, don’t tell us what happened until Mary decides. Sometimes, this sort of internal dialog can be unintentionally hilarious, like the authors who are going along with the story and suddenly say, “this is really boring. When is this going to be over?” Soon, I hope.

Bite me. Don’t generalize about “beginning authors/writers” – I cannot stress this enough. You don’t know they’re bored with writing. You don’t know how their mind works. Maybe you get bored with writing easily and you’re just projecting. Hell, maybe you’re bored with your own egotistical, biased, uninformative, and unsupported article.

Yes, I’m very well aware of the hypocrisy, thanks so much. However, my opinion isn’t so much that I’m right – after all, I’m not a big famous published author like Amy Sterling Casil – but that she’s wrong. As are most writing guidelines.

6. Dialog: is it good? A good ear for dialog is something which is difficult to learn. It’s easy to spot when a writer is good at dialog. Conversations should be believable and serve to advance the plot. Good dialog is not realistic dialog, it is dialog which advances the story, shows character and echoes in the reader’s mind.

Okay.

a. “Maid and Butler dialog” is dialog where two characters tell each other things they already know. It is often used to attempt to tell backstory or to explain concepts the author thinks the reader won’t understand. In SF, we know this as the “infodump.”

I really didn’t need to know what it’s called in SF, but fine.

b. Flowery dialog: sometimes found in Romance writing, Historical writing or Fantasy writing, these are characters who speak language which never issued from a human mouth. High language can be appropriate in all of those genres, but dialog like this:
“Margaret, your lips are as sweet as the nectar from a honeyed buttercup,” Lord Brockston Bragg ejaculated.
“Oh, Brockston, I can feel your . . . it’s . . . it’s pulsating, Brockston,” Margaret exhaled.
. . . is never appropriate.

Ahem. WHAT’S pulsating? If I had to be as arrogant as the author of this article, I’d have to say that, psychologically, the author is bored with her own writing and has decided to think of sex instead. While still writing the article, apparently. Not the best of ideas.

c. Bad tags. “Said” is fine, as well as the occasional whisper or shout, indicating volume (but even that’s not necessary). Bad tags include “exhaled,” “ejaculated,” “shrieked,” “sputtered,” “muttered,” “murmured,” and all other verbs attributed to a line of dialog instead of appropriate action, description and good dialog which speaks for itself.

Marianne cupped her hand by my ear. “He’s going to try it now. Just watch,” she said. Whispering is pretty much understood.

Bob sighed and opened his mouth, then sighed again. “Can’t,” he said at last. “Can’t do it.” (Beats “stuttered,” or “sputtered,” followed by “Bob stuttered. He had stuttered since he was seven and the Burnsey boys had whipped him behind Old Man Gruenpfluegel’s barn.”)

Okay. Hold on. What?

You’re telling me tags are bad to have in dialogue? Maybe if your characters are flat and uninteresting. Yes, dialogue should be able to “speak for itself.” But cutting out the tags? Man.

I’ve had a thing for dialogue ever since I started writing – perhaps before. Everything about it was fascinating to me, from how it was paced to the use of verbs like “sputtered,” “murmured,” “spat,” or “whispered”. Look at each of those tags – or even the tags Miss Casil has provided. Each of them invoke a specific action or sound in your mind. The sounds produced by the tags are a critical part of dialogue too, if you want to do it well, at least. It’s possible to forget the tags, but telling me they’re unnecessary? Man, you just bruised my literary soul.

I could point out that most published works have an assortment of these tags to break up the monotony of “said” or “told X”, but that’s far too obvious of a a point to make.

7. Originality and creativity. The most important part! We should be encouraging people to use their imaginations and to think beyond the first ideas which pop into their heads. Cliched plots and characters and situations, like “Worldmaster Gray” and “the spacefaring couple who crash on a planet and turn out to be . . . Adam and Eve!” fall into this area. Originality in character, plot and setting is very important and goes a long way toward contributing to the quality of any kind of fiction writing.

I’m somewhere between “duh” and “you are completely wrong, again” in response to this one. Yes, we need originality and creativity. But then again, you can take cliched plots and do something new with them. I have a list of science fiction cliches bookmarked – not because I want to avoid them, but because I look to them for inspiration. If you can write an original story, good, fine. But if you can revive a cliched plot and make it entertaining and thought-provoking, then you’re truly someone to be admired.

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