Don't Be A Jerk! Selection for Critique and Example of a Critique
with your host
Sarah M. Anderson
The following is an excerpt from Sarah's very first book she ever wrote, Marrying the Emersons. This isn't the first draft of what was a terrible book; this isn't even the first revision. But these 5 pages and the critique (done ten years later) are intended to show readers and writers what a critique should look like, including how to frame criticism without being a jerk and how to offer constructive encouragement--as well as demonstrating how honing the craft of writing can take an author from something not-great to published. Please contact Sarah M. Anderson for permission to reuse.
Marrying the Emersons
Lily winced at the sound of Mary Beth clomping down the stairs. “I swear, one day, the whole house is going to come down, the way you jump down those stairs,” she scolded in exasperation.
All arms and legs, Mary Beth thumped into the kitchen, ignoring the comment. “Mom, who’s in this photo?”
“Let me see,” Lily glanced up from the stove to see her daughter holding a curled, browned picture. “Where did you get that?”
“I found it in the back of the dresser. It kinda looks like you.”
Lily held the old picture up to the light, tilting her head back to look through the bifocals. “Well, that’s Granny Rose, pumpkin, not me.”
“Really? She used to look that much like you?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “I look just like she did. The only difference now is the wrinkles.”
“And the fashion,” Mary Beth giggled. “People really wore hats like that?”
Lily studied the men in the picture. “I’ve never seen that guy before, but the boy almost looks like – oh, shoot, the sauce!” Bubbling over, the marinara was spraying the stovetop in a red mist. “Shoot,” Lily muttered again as she wiped up the mess.
“Well, we gotta finish a family tree for class, and we gotta go back past the grandparents. Mrs. Johnson told us to get pictures and names and stuff while we were home.”
“When’s it due?”
“After Easter break.”
“I think you should ask Granny,” Lily replied, a note of bitterness creeping into her voice. “That’s definitely her. I’m sure she could tell you who’s with her.”
“Okay.” Mary Beth stared at the picture as she sat at the kitchen table. “They don’t look very happy.”
“Really?” She looked again. “No, I guess they don’t.
Mary Beth frowned at the image. “Hey, you don’t think she was married before Grandpa, do you?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Lily snipped. “Heaven knows, Granny certainly never tells me about anything from before 1939,” she muttered, the tension knotting her shoulders as she vigorously chopped the oregano.
Granny Rose tapped on the back door, her hands full with grocery bags. Mary Beth flung the door open.
“Granny, who’d you -” she breathlessly demanded as the door banged into the countertop, but Granny Rose cut her off.
“Pumpkin, be careful,” she gently chided. “And take some of these groceries. Goodness, there were some good sales.”
“Granny, oof,” Mary Beth staggered backwards under the weight of the bag. “Granny, who’d you marry before Grandpa?
Granny Rose froze for a split second before she put the rest of the groceries on the counter. No, she thought. It can’t be. She smiled a small, tight smile, quickly peeking at her daughter. Lily’s mouth was screwed into an angry grimace as she gave the sauce a hard stare.
As the air seemed to thin around her, Rose knew the truth about that dark decade had come home to roost.
She swallowed hard and calmly asked, “What on earth are you talking about, pumpkin?”
“I found an old photo in the back of the dresser in my room.” Mary Beth held the picture out to her grandmother. “Mom says it’s you. You’re a lot younger and you look like you’re getting married to this guy, and there’s this boy with you. So who’d you marry?”
Rose’s hands began to shake as she touched the glimpse into the past. Fifty years of laughter and love melted into a swirl of memories as a life she had almost managed to forget stared back at her.
The stubborn girl she’d once been was trying to smile for the wedding photo. “Was I ever that young?” she whispered.
“You look like Mom used to, only smaller.”
“Gee, thanks, Mary Beth,” Lily snipped as Mary Beth rolled her eyes.
The memories were coming faster now. “I cut my hair short to fit under that cloche hat. Oh, Mother was so angry with me.” She smiled and looked to her granddaughter. “I got that gray flannel instead of white because I didn’t know when I’d get another dress, and it was the middle of winter.”
“That was your wedding dress? Granny Rose, That’s not right! You’re supposed to wear white!”
“You really were married -” Lily said curtly, but Mary Beth interrupted.
“To him? What a hunk!”
Rose stared at him, at the past that she couldn’t deny any longer. So much taller than she was, his blond hair gleamed in the cool February sun as that bright, charming smile covered the cruel darkness underneath. She remembered how the navy pinstriped suit had made his blue eyes practically glow with a light that she’d wrongfully thought was love.
Decades of pretending that he hadn’t existed, that she’d never been so young or so foolish as to marry the wrong man, fell away under the accusatory glare of her daughter.
“Who was he?” Lily stirred the sauce with a bit too much vigor. She grabbed the dishrag and furiously wiped the new splatters.
Stalling, Rose stood on her tiptoes, trying to reach the tissue box on top of the fridge. Mary Beth reached over her and grabbed the box, handing it to her Granny.
“Well?” The indictment in Lily’s voice was damningly cold.
Blinking back the tears, Rose looked at her daughter. “Sweetie, it was all so long ago. I never wanted you to find out. I was just trying to protect you.”
“Find out what?” Her words were clipped as she her voice pitched up by degrees. “Find out what happened before you and Dad got married?”
Rose nodded. Memories so long hidden in the rafters of her mind came tumbling down, threatening to overwhelm her with their urgency. For a painful moment, the whole of those ten years filled with nothing but grief and shame, those ten years that she’d locked deeply within her soul came roaring back to life, threatening to swamp the joy that had been the last 43 years.
Lily leveled her eyes at her mother, her lips tightly pursed. “Well?”
She needs to know, Rose realized. She deserves to know. She took a deep breath, and squeezed Mary Beth’s hand.
“I was only eighteen. I didn’t know any better,” she finally spoke, wishing her voice would stop wavering. “I met him at the first dance Mother let me go to in 1929, and I married him just as the Depression was building.” The words came faster as she tried to justify the secret. “I was so young, so terribly stubborn, that I couldn’t see what he was. I didn’t know any better, sweetie. You’ve got to believe me. It was all a horrible mistake.”
Lily spoke carefully, like she was talking to a recalcitrant child. “Who was he?”
“Frank.” Her voice came out as a whisper, as if she were afraid that speaking that name out loud would call him back from the dead.
“Frank? Frank who? Who’s Frank?” Mary Beth asked in one breath.
Critique of Marrying the Emersons
Critique Sheet for: Sarah M. Anderson
Title: Marrying the Emersons
Reader: Sarah M. Anderson (uh…)
Scores: 1-10 (optional)
10 = Excellent, ready to submit
9 = Almost there, needs only a little polishing
8/7= Above average, minor corrections needed
6/5 = Average, shows promise
4/3 = Below average, needs work
2/1 = Major problems, author needs better understanding of basic concepts
Does the submission open with a lure and end with a hook? Would you keep reading?
Rank: (1 to 10) ___6___
We open with this domestic scene between a mother and daughter, which is nice and domestic but…Mary Beth finding a photo isn’t exactly a whole lot to set a plot in motion. And it’s clear by the end of the selection that Frank Emerson has been a huge secret and his name is meant to be a hook but it’s not clear why it’s a hook. So mostly this opening—a prologue set in 1982—just left me wondering if it was necessary to the story. I’m concerned you’re giving away too much backstory and weakening the impact of your Big Reveal by putting all this vital information in the first five pages. Make sure you’re not undercutting yourself!
Are the characters interesting (i.e., creatively written and multi-dimensional, sympathetic, with distinct characteristics and histories?)
Rank: (1 to 10) __6___
Despite the fact that this is a short selection, three characters are introduced so it’s unclear who the main character is going to be. You do a good job introducing the Grandma/Mom/Granddaughter dynamic, but only Rose gets any sort of interesting backstory—and I’m not sure this is the place for it. All we get in this selection is the family dynamic, which is a good start but isn’t quite enough to reel me in yet. Of the three, Lily is the least-fleshed out character. She wears bifocals, is sandwiched between her mom and her daughter and aggressively stirs the pot, both literally and figuratively. That’s all I know about her.
Is there sufficient internal and external conflict to keep the pace moving forward and to sustain a story for the entire manuscript?
Rank: (1 to 10) __6___
Again, because this is a Prologue, I’m not entirely sure what the conflict is. Is it just that Rose was married before? I am unsure if this selection is a Woman’s Fiction story and will be focused on the family dynamic between three generations of women or if, because the date was included in the Prologue, if that was a flash-forward and this is going to be something more historical fiction-ish? Again, I think you should take a hard look at your story’s structure and really weigh the pros and cons of whether or not the Prologue is working in your story’s favor. Is this really where the story starts?
Does the dialogue flow naturally and move the story along? Is there an effective mix of dialogue tags, action, and dialogue standing alone?
Rank: (1 to 10) __8____
This may be your strongest area. I could see these three sitting around a table, talking. Every character had a distinctive voice and I never got any of the women’s words confused with another woman’s. I found the jump between Mary Beth and Lily bickering over Rose was smaller, Gee Thanks, back to Rose reminiscing about cutting her hair to be a little sudden but otherwise, the overall flow of the dialog was well done.
Is the plot innovative or original, either as a whole or because of a creative internal or external conflict? Does the opening lay the groundwork for the story to play out for then entire length of the novel?
Rank: (1 to 10) __5____
Seeing as I have no idea what the plot is after reading this selection…this is something to think about. Obviously the story will focus on one or more of these women and clearly this mysterious first marriage will play a part in it. But is that the story? Is it a historical flashback? Is 1982 historical in your genre? A contemporary? I think you have the potential to have a really creative play here and women’s fiction is a strong genre right now, but you have to know what your story is before telling it and I’m not sure that’s the case here. Which comes back to the question of whether or not the Prologue is the right starting point for the story.
Jumping timelines can be done and absolutely CAN work—and work well!—but you’ve got to have a firm grasp on your story to make it work. If that’s what’s going to happen here (again, hard to tell, such a short selection!) make sure you’ve read a few comparable books in your genre to get a feel for how readers expect those kinds of stories to play out.
Is point of view clear throughout the submission? Are transitions smooth and easy to follow? Is the writing vivid and evocative, with an easy-to-read style using varied sentence length and structure?
Rank: (1 to 10) __6____
I feel like you are SO CLOSE here! There’s clear glimpses of solid, smooth writing that are just getting tripped up by those pesky questions, like “what’s going on?” and “why is this important?” You’ve got a good handle on dialog and you’re good at setting a scene, what with a short grandma unable to reach the tissues and an angry mom angrily stirring sauce, etc. So you can write a vivid sentence, no problem!
But all the great talking and description in the world has to serve a larger purpose, which takes us right back to the plot (or lack thereof) and the starting point of your story.
Another area that needs work is that you head-hop. We start the scene in Lily’s POV, with Mary Beth’s clomping down the stairs like elephants. But by the time we get to the bottom of Pg. 2, we switch to Rose’s POV without a paragraph or page break. For most genres, staying in one character’s POV per scene is how it’s done to avoid confusing the reader. While I’m not convinced you need this prologue, if you decide you have to have it, ask yourself—does it start in the right place? Or does it start when Rose walks into the kitchen, catching her family looking at the photo? Do we need the first 2 pages to set up that MB found a photo, Lily is testy about it, and they’re in a kitchen or can all that be conveyed in a paragraph from Rose’s POV? The fact that the POV jumps is one of the reasons I’m not sure who the main character is. If we were in Rose’s POV the whole time, that’d be a strong context clue that this is her story.
Does the writer's voice work well for the subject matter and plotting? Does the author have a unique and/or interesting voice?
Rank: (1 to 10) ___7___
Again, this is SO CLOSE. There’s nothing wrong with your voice, but I can’t get past my confusion. And just to be clear, a large part of that is because this entry is so short. BUT to be even clearer, a story has to grab a reader right away. Most people do not have unlimited time to read until a story finally gets good. If a story doesn’t get them in the first ten pages, they’ll put it down and walk away.
Is the pacing appropriate to the story? Does each scene promote and advance the plot progression? Does the author present necessary plot information (backstory) at relevant locations and in an unobtrusive way?
Rank: (1 to 10) __5____
I can see you’re really trying with this. It seems to me that you, the author, feel the information about what she’s wearing in the photo and how she remembers things like cutting her hair are really important to the story. But the thing you have to ask yourself is, are they? Are those the things that are really important for me, the reader, to understand RIGHT NOW? So important, in fact, that we had to have a Prologue to set them up? I do understand that perhaps the point of the prologue is to introduce the daughter and granddaughter but again—that’s true if this is a WF, 3-generation story. If it’s a historical romance and you want us to know she was married before to someone who’s not Lily’s father? I’m not sure that works. Instead, the prologue comes off more as backstory. Information that you the author know and want us to know, but that we really don’t need to know right NOW. You need to know it because this information informs all the choices your character(s) make but consider holding the information away from the reader until revealing it is more of a Big Moment.
Does the writing clearly define the setting and give a good sense of time and place? Does it set the mood effectively using the senses?
Rank: (1 to 10) ___8___
After dialog this is probably your strongest area. Splattering sauce, cloche hats, tissues on top of the fridge—you have a good eye for details that set a scene without overwhelming the page or the reader with minute details.
Is the manuscript free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and formatted according to industry standards?
Rank: (1 to 5) ___4___
Overall, this is solid. No major issues.
How would you rank your "overall" experience reading the piece? Leaving behind the detail of previous scores (including mechanics, etc.) please focus on your experience as a reader.
Rank: (1 to 5) ___2.5___
READER ENGAGEMENT Comments
I’ll be honest, this isn’t quite there yet. Part of that is due to the short nature of the work but I don’t know who the main character is, I don’t know what the story is about, I’m not sure what genre I’m reading. You show a lot of skill with dialog and description but that all has to serve the story, not the other way around.
So where to go from here? First off, figure out what story you’re telling. Is it a multi-generational WF family saga? A historical romance? A…time-traveling robot story? (OR NOT!) Once you’ve figured out your genre, then you can start to shape your plot a little. I’m not saying you have to change your story to perfectly fit into a preformed mold, but readers of a genre have certain expectations. Once you meet those expectations then you can branch out into time-traveling robots (OR NOT!).
Identify who’s story you’re telling and develop that character. Do some research into POV and head-hopping and look for ways to expand your craft so that you don’t have to jump heads.
Really evaluate where your story begins. Don’t be afraid to cut words if they’re not working for you. The ultimate goal is to have a story that readers can’t put down. Don’t give them an excuse to put this one down!
Above all else, KEEP WRITING! There’s a lot of promise here—great description, little details, etc.—that show you’re on the right track. You can do it! Good luck!
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