Storyville: Critical Analysis—An Essential Part of Your Process
Today we are going to talk about critical analysis, a crucial part of your development as an author. I want to define this term, but also let you know how best to apply it to your writing. It’s a more advanced technique, and is something that is important in your evolution from a new author to a solid writer to an elite storyteller.
Critical Analysis Defined
Critical analysis is your ability to look at something (in this case, not just art, but fiction) in a way that tries to evaluate what is working and what is not. You are critical of the story or book, looking at the various aspects of craft, genre, and storytelling to see how well the author is doing their job. And then the analysis part is where you try to then understand how they are doing it, and what it all means.
From Wikipedia: “Literary analysis looks critically at a work of fiction in order to understand how the parts contribute to the whole. When analyzing a novel or short story, you'll need to consider elements such as the context, setting, characters, plot, literary devices, and themes.”
And then as an author, you are looking beyond that to try to figure out how the author did what they did. You evaluate and then try to absorb those aspects that apply to your own writing, so that you might learn and grow. I’ll expand my thoughts, but first, let’s talk about when this part of your growth as a writer occurs.
Your Path to Successful Writing
When I look at how to develop as a writer, I see a couple of distinct levels, or plateaus, and I want to talk about that a bit before we go deeper into critical analysis.
CREATING: This is where you start as a new writer. Can you come up with an idea, what is your imagination like, can you be original, and then chase that vision in a way that makes sense. This is where my Short Story Mechanics class starts—with the basics. The very first assignment has to do with voice, and then we move on to the framework, which for me is Freytag’s Triangle/Pyramid—narrative hook, inciting incident, exposition, internal and external conflict, rising tension, climax, resolution (change), and denouement.
GOING DEEPER: Once you understand the basics, and can write a complete short story, it’s time to get better at it. This is where my Contemporary Dark Fiction class comes in. Here, I spend 16 weeks expanding on the basics, tapping into genre, setting, character, originality, sympathy, depth, relationships, various genres, how to manipulate your readers, endings, and much more. This is where you expand on the basics, and write more complex, layered, emotional work.
CRITICAL ANALYSIS: This is where you apply the skills of constructive criticism, in order to make your work better. My Advanced Creative Writing Workshop focuses on this by reading three best of the year anthologies, and then workshopping four of your stories over 16 weeks. What you need to do at this level is to take everything you’ve learned in the previous classes (or other classes, or by reading craft books, or in your MFA program) and then apply it all with a critical eye towards your writing. When reading stories that have gotten recognition—whether it’s in an elite magazine, or a best of the year anthology, or an award nomination (or win), this is where you are studying the masters (those that are successful at their craft) to try and understand a few things—grasping how complex it really is, looking at their technique, trying to make sense of how they manipulate you, and your emotions. You study the best, and then apply that same critical eye to your own work. And then try to figure out how far apart you are. This is where you hone your craft and try to get better, evolving as an author.
APPLYING THAT ANALYSIS: Once you are done being critical of other authors and their work, you’re going to turn that same gaze toward your own work. You want to look at what you’re doing and ask yourself the same questions. How does this story make me feel? Can I follow it? Does it have impact? Is it original or unique? Does it surprise me? Do I have strong feelings about these characters? Am I doing everything that is required for this specific genre? Does the ending resonate? Is there change? Does the story stay with me?
- FIXING WHAT DOESN’T WORK: This last step is taking the previous four layers of creativity and analysis and using it to fix your work. You don’t care about your protagonist? Why? Let’s look at their internal conflict, and see if it’s been developed. Did we HAVE an internal conflict? Did we resolve it? Did we develop this character enough so that we had strong feelings—love or hate—and did we buy what was being sold? Does the story work? If something isn’t gelling, it’s through critical analysis that we diagnose the problem and then figure out how to fix it. Didn’t scare you? Why not? Look at setting, tension, sensory detail, originality, the big picture, and the specific details. Pick your story apart until there isn’t a weak aspect in it, the lyricism and originality allowed to function at a high level, now that all of the components are tied together, and functioning well.
How to Be Critical of Your Work
So, now that we’ve seen the steps needed to grow as an author, how can we best use critical analysis to help make that leap in evolution? Here are a few ideas.
READ: In order to be a writer you must read and you must write. So it’s crucial that you read widely—across genre, around the world, classic stories, and new work. Read within your genre especially. It’s very difficult to understand why your vampire story is cliché if you’ve never read any vampire stories! Read Salem’s Lot, and Dracula, and Interview With the Vampire. But also read more contemporary work, like a recent Stephen Graham Jones story, “Wait for Night.” I wrote a vampire story that was an “energivore”—a woman that lived on negative energy, a psychic vampire. Or “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Or “The Boys From Blood River” by Rebecca Roanhorse.
COMPARE: It’s also crucial that you read your contemporaries. I’ve been reading The Best Horror of the Year for twenty years. I’ve also picked up and enjoyed The Best American Short Stories (literary fiction), The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction. All of these anthologies help me to see what is getting recognition, what the top magazines and presses are buying, and who is doing exceptional work. I find the voices that work for me, and then study them more. When I first discovered Stephen Graham Jones, I then basically went out and bought all of his work. Same thing for Stephen King. Same thing for Chuck Palahniuk. Find your people, and then read them and absorb them.
- HONE: Take everything you’ve learned from all of your classes and schoolwork, from all of the books and stories you’ve read, and then apply it to your stories. Write the best stories that you can, being fully aware of how complex it is, but yet, finite. I can remember reading so many stories, and thinking, “Man, I will never write a story like this.” I was blown away by Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and then kept trying to find ways to work in those senses, like he did with The Crawler. I remember reading “Harvest Song, Gathering Song,” by A. C. Wise, and how it just blew me away. I think about that story a lot. Work by Usman T. Malik and Livia Llewelllyn and Brian Evenson. Practice, practice, practice. If you put in the work, you will most likely evolve.
Critical analysis of your work, and others, can help you in so many ways. It can help you to figure out what writing you are drawn to, what voices work for you, what genre (or genres) you might want to write in, and who you are as a writer. You have so many influences, so keep an eye out for work that resonates with you, and ask yourself WHY? The first assignment in my Short Story Mechanics class here at Lit Reactor is to have you list your five favorite authors, books, films, and television shows. I want you to look for patterns, for genres, for influences, for threads that run through them all. When you apply analysis to your own work and compare it to the masters, as well as your contemporaries, you are asking yourself a few questions. What are they doing right? What am I doing wrong? What is the gap between us? And how do I close that gap? When you start out as a new author you don’t know what you don’t know. In time, you will see how complex storytelling is at an elite level, and then set your sights on getting up into that rarified air. You must write stories that function on many levels if you want to be that one in a hundred that breaks through. It’s a daunting task, for sure, but not impossible. Create, read, practice, hone, study, analyze, and evolve. There is a process, and it does work, you just have to put your ass in the chair and do the heavy lifting yourself. I promise, it does get easier. The more you write, the more you learn, the less rough your rough drafts are, the better your instincts the first time through, and the more critical your eye towards your own work—the solutions you need appearing as you critique. Good luck. Keep going!
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