What’s In A Critique/Manuscript Evaluation?
Part I: Structure and Flow, and Plot
There are two primary reasons writers ask for a critique of their work: Is it saleable? Should he or she go to the expense of a copy edit?
For the first question, writers are really asking: Will people like the story, or will an agent take the story? The object of a critique is to turn up the issues in a manuscript which would have readers or agents rejecting it, and what should be done to fix those. No critique can ensure salability, nor if readers will like the story. Critiques just point the right direction to take that will make the story solid, which gives the author confidence in going forward with it to whatever they deem is success.
For the second question: Critiques often result in the writer rewriting small, many, or lengthy portions of the story, which can add or reduce the cost of a copy edit. The editor doing the critique will know your writing style and will be the best person to help you make that decision.
It’s possible a critique will show up such deep flaws that the editor would not recommend a copy edit, but a second critique if/when the writer has reworked the manuscript based on what the critique has revealed.
Structure and Flow
I start all critiques by first studying the structure, which creates flow. I have “borrowed” Larry Brooks’ 4 Parts of a Story in Story Engineering, and my own understanding of structure and flow to come up with a mathematical breakdown (by word count) of all manuscripts that come to me to read, either as standalone critiques or as part of the copy editing job (which in my case includes a critique). The end result is to make sure the story’s high points, and its data points, “hit their marks” at the right places or within reason of the right places in the manuscript. I make note of the quarter breaks in the manuscript before I print it out to read.
The breakdown shows me immediately if chapters have roughly even word counts or are all over the place—which doesn’t generally make for good comprehension; readers can get comfortable with short chapters, then get anxious when chapters seem unending, then are startled when a little one throws off the pace again.
Does the author have enough chapters for the book’s word count? A comfortable length for a chapter is between 2500-3500 words. If the total word count is around 120K, and there are only eight chapters, I will be on the lookout for places to create more chapter breaks; conversely, if it has seventy-five chapters, I’ll probably be thinking of putting several together. I can do both computations with word count in my mathematical guide before I begin the read.
If I find that there are long word-count chapters in the middle, chances are good the story is bogged down, wandering, full of unnecessary data, and tension has disappeared. Not always, of course, but it’s what I’ll be prepared for.
This breakdown is simply a guide. No manuscript is the same as another; genres play a part in word count, structure, and flow. If the story is a long, leisurely stroll through the Old South with low-hanging live oaks and cotton fields the background for a romance, chapters can be slow, and word count longer, too. If the story is a fast-draw Western shoot-’em-up or a punchy PI sleuth, short, tense chapters with fewer words work better.
Once I have the guide, I begin the read. I approach that just like any reader. I might know a little more about what I’m going to read than what’s in the book description or jacket copy that millions buy books from, but not much. I don’t want to know any more than anyone else who will be reading it for the first time.
Just a hint with me: If the opening is all “tell,” I’m going to be miserable. If it opens with all action and no chance to know why someone is shooting someone else dead, I might lose interest very fast. The Goldilocks opening for me is something happening to a character at that moment in the character’s life that blossoms into braids of backstory and plenty of forward movement.
Plot has many definitions, as I’m sure you’d find if you look it up on Google, or any good book on writing. To me, every time I read a manuscript, it’s: Why am I reading this? Which needs to change soon (as in the first quarter) to “Ah, this is why I’m reading this; this is the problem which will need to be answered/solved.” I need to have a solid hint, at least, by the end of the first quarter or I’ll already know the book will need a lot of work. And at the end: “So, was that a good solution to the problem?”
The plot, to me, is made up of the facts and scenes (which include plot points) you’ve put the facts in, in the world you created to make your story. I concentrate on the facts of both the real world and the story world.
If a “real world” story messes up, bends, or ignores real-world facts, it won’t work, i.e.: The CIA is not chartered to work in the USA. One’s hero cannot get from Austin, TX via horseback to Dallas, TX in four hours. There have been no 10.0 on-the-Richter-scale earthquakes anywhere (not that this wouldn’t make an exciting “future” story). A full moon does not happen at any old time during a month.
If your story takes place in an imaginary world and the facts are created just when needed—such as a character suddenly developing a magical ability not seen or heard before—it’s a plot device (deus ex machina) I’ll flag. If the ending has a “twist” that comes out of the blue with no relationship to what’s gone before, or a character is suddenly “born” full grown to make the twist work, it’ll be the first thing I’ll tell the writer about in the critique report as a no-no.
If facts are missing or come too late (this is another issue with improper flow; not just paragraphs, but whole chapters sometimes need to be rearranged), I’ll be confused, and I’ll search through the entire document, keying on certain words until I know where they are missing and where the data should be inserted. A critique is not just about what’s wrong, but how to make it right, too.
I look for layered/multiple plots, but as they are the most complicated to carry out, few writers take them on. Some stories don’t lend themselves to it, coming-of-age studies, for instance, as those are usually severely restricted POV works. Science fiction and fantasy, though, are rich flower beds for growing three-five plots, but there always has to be one central issue kept at the forefront and if it isn’t solved at the end, even if the story is a series, the story will need to be reworked.
Last but not least regarding the plot, if your protagonist/main character/hero(ine) is not the one who solves the problem, at the very least the ending has to be rewritten.
If the protagonist turns out to do nothing in the story (and you’d be surprised how many don’t), the book must have an overhaul; there’s more wrong with it than that. How does that happen? you ask. One of two things could be going on: The author has his main character directing/orchestrating what everyone does, sort of making up the grand plan of what everyone does to foil the antagonist but doesn’t get his/her own hands dirty, as it were. The protagonist can take credit for bringing resolution to the issue, but doesn’t physically do anything but “think.”
Or, the author has two stories going in one: One has the main character trying to figure out what the problem is, and at the same time, showing us what the antagonist is up to. This looks deceivingly full. What the author does not realize is that if all the chapters devoted to showing what the bad guys are doing are removed, we can see that the protagonist never learned anything, never solved anything, and had to rely on someone else to bring an end to the antagonist’s plan.
All of this and more is what an editor performing a manuscript evaluation should be on the lookout for. These are the some of the issues I study with every manuscript that comes to me to read. No two are ever the same, nor is my response. I look forward to getting yours, whether standalone or as an integral part of a copy edit.