I went to a writers' retreat earlier this year, hoping for the Answer. I knew that my stories didn't sound like real books, that there was something just a little off despite all those shiny commas, but I couldn't figure out what I was missing. Polishing advice wasn't going to get me there: I didn't need to fix a bunch of passive verbs or incorrect semicolons. I needed...what?
At the retreat -- and after probably too many adult beverages -- I whined that critique partners typically handle me too gently. That I'm ready for the hard punches and I wish they'd just tell me, ferharrumphsakes.
Well, the fact is that they were telling me what I need to hear, and I wasn't even listening. Maybe because they were just being too careful not to offend a noob and stunt my development or something. So here's a list, mostly for me, so I can translate crit-speak:
What they say
What they could say
(and it would be all right)
Maybe you could deepen the POV.
This character is behaving like a cardboard cutout: no emotion, no goals, no inner conflict. Give her more to handle.
That's fascinating world-building.
You've infodumped for three pages. When do you plan to start the actual story?
Voice is a little uneven.
Did you even read the thing end-to-end? Are you sure this is the same POV character?
Pacing was a little slow.
What was the point of that scene? Or that paragraph? How much could you yank entirely without affecting the story? Do that.
You're asking the reader to do a lot, linguistically.
Quit trying to wow me with your vocabulary and use of metaphor. It's pretentious.
This is, er, nicely written. Good verbs!
Well, you hit the technical marks, but I have no idea why I should care about this story or this character.
Folks, I know what when offering critique, you're trying to be nice, and so you softball a lot of things. But when somebody asks for it directly, it's okay to be no-frills honest. Promise I won't call it brutal.
Viv is still learning how to be a real writer. You can follow her adventures to that end at her web site.