Guest Page: Responding to Other People’s Fiction

by Luke Whisnant

If you’re an old pro at workshopping and you already have a method for going over other folks’ work, good for you. But if you’re wondering where to start, or want a little guidance, then here are some suggestions.

First, read the piece all the way through, in one sitting, without writing any responses. Set it aside and come back to it later. On your second reading, write comments in the margins — specifics on style, images, characterization, dialogue, phrasing, etc. Then turn the last page over and write a note to the author, giving your overall reactions on what’s working and what could work better. (Sometimes I tell my students to write down two major things that are working, and two suggestions for what could work better — if you like that idea, by all means do it.) Here are some questions you might want to address in your note.

Are the characters believable? Why or why not? Is their dialogue believable and consistent? Do you understand their motivations for their actions? Is there enough background on the page to tell you who they are and how they got to this point in their lives? Do you feel an emotional connection with them? Do you know what they want?

Is there a clear conflict? What is it? Tell the author in a few sentences what you perceive it to be and where that becomes clear in the piece.

How is the pacing? Is it slow, bogged down with too much exposition? Or is it too fast — just a lot of scenes which fly by without any depth? Where would you slow down, and where speed up?

Does the piece open well? If you picked it up in a bookstore and read the first paragraph, would you buy the book? Or put it down? Or, undecided, read further?

Are there enough physical details to make a good movie in your mind?

Is the point of view (POV) consistent? Who is/are your “hot character(s)”? Would you want to read a whole novel about that person or persons? Do you think the POV is appropriate for the story being told?

Is the style clear and free of mechanical/grammatical errors? Realize that you’re reading a draft and drafts are never perfect, so go easy, but at the same time, if you see errors, correct them in a friendly way. Are there aspects of the style that seem unsuited to the story (for example, diction elevated far above the characters’ vocabularies)?

What is the mood/tone of the piece? When the mood changes, is it done convincingly?

What is the theme — the main idea — of the piece? Try to state it in one sentence. Is it coming through clearly? (In a brief excerpt of a novel, you may not be able to identify a theme, but guess anyway).

Your responses should be phrased as “I think” or “It seems to me” or “In my opinion.”

It is usually more valuable for a writer to hear observations than evaluations. Instead of evaluating something as “good” or “bad,” I prefer to note “what’s working” and “what could work better.”

It is more valuable for a writer to hear what’s working and what could work better than it is to hear “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” “I liked it” is good for the ego but does nothing for the writing.

– – BACCA thanks Luke Whisnant for agreeing to share this. It has helped us.

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