How to be an excellent critique partner

If you want to keep improving your writing, you will want to foster relationships with people who give you the best feedback. But in order to get you need to give. A great critique partner is not going to continue to spend their precious writing time scouring over your chapter if you are not offering quality feedback in return.

This can take some practice but there are some ground rules.

 

Identify strengths! Whether it’s the idea, descriptive abilities, strong characters, use of language this should be the first thing you look for when you critique another writer’s work. If the writing is generally strong, tell them! If the writing is still in need of a lot of work, it’s even more important to tell them where their strengths lie so that they know where they are safe once editing begins, and to encourage them to keep going.

Consider the genre. Romance is not the same as Thriller. Pulp Horror is not the same as Literature. It may not be your preferred genre but that doesn’t mean you can’t critique it. If you really don’t understand the genre, you can fall back on the basics. Clean writing, strong characters, solid plot, grammar, descriptions, ect. If you don’t feel qualified to comment on the effectiveness of a certain troupe in the genre, then don’t. Insisting that a romance is “frivolous” or a fantasy is “ridiculous” because they are not what you would choose to read for pleasure is not helpful. It’s really kinda douchey.

Don’t pander. No matter how “nice” you are or how much you want the other writer to like you, you’re not help to anyone if you just feed their ego. You may be blown away by their work. That’s awesome. Tell them that! But if you see flaws in their work, it is your job to point them out. That is why they gave you their manuscript.

Be professional. Writing is work. Providing feedback is work. Yes it is personal work but the critique you are offering should not be taken personally. It is to help them improve their work, so keeping your language professional will help keep the line intact, prove you are taking their efforts seriously and allow them to consider your efforts to be serious as well. We are writers, people. We know the difference between “Your character is such a bitch” and “I’m concerned this passage could alienate your character from readers”.

Consider the writer’s skill. Determine where they are in their writing and critique accordingly. If someone is a new writer, their work should not be judged on the same scale as a published literature professor and writer of twenty years.  New writers will become non-writers if you rip their work apart the first them they submit. Give them time to adjust to peer critiques. Participating in critiquing the work of more experienced writers will do more for them then your harsh review of their own work and even without you nit picking every single thing that is wrong with their writing, you will start to see their work rising to the standard around them. On the other hand, a more experienced writer can not only handle more extensive criticism, they are likely seeking it out specifically as they are already aware of where their strength lie (although you shouldn’t skip that party).

CONSTRUCTIVE Criticism. Please! Telling a writer you don’t like it, It’s weak writing, The story makes no sense, it’s boring, it’s too sad, you just can’t get into it… it’s not helpful. All it does is make the writer feel kinda crappy about themselves, about you and undermine any helpful advice you may have in the future. Why do you feel the writing can be improved? What are you struggling with understanding? How is the story dragging? Offer suggestions, not problems. Otherwise you’re useless. And also kinda douchey again.

Never ever ever ever assume you know the writer’s story better than them. I shouldn’t even have to mention this. But i do. I see if all the time, particularly with chapter by chapter submissions. You can say “I can’t see how you are going to pull this together” or “I’m really surprised you made this choice”. Maybe that will be helpful, but it’s even more likely that the writer is trying to keep you on your feet. Telling them that they are writing their story wrong, that their character shouldn’t be this way, that the twist doesn’t go with what you thought would happen is silly until you’ve seen how everything turns out. It’s not your story. Don’t try to hijack it.

Work to your own strengths. If you are a grammar queen, make those grammar notes! If you are more of a big picture person, comment on how the work is coming together. You are best equipped to help others in the areas you excel in. You should never ignore problems that you notice, but don’t kill yourself trying to correct punctuation if you know you can be most effective helping them to develop their characters.

What are some things you have found most helpful in critique partners? What are some things that you have learned to avoid?

Advertisements

You’re always moving forward, unless you give up

There is nothing quick about being a writer. Writing a book takes a long time. Editing a book can be just as long or longer. Publishing takes forever. Making money… I think you get the point.

In this very long process, it is easy to get discouraged. In fact, it’s pretty much standard. When you finish writing a novel and realize how much work it needs, when you spend years editing and it’s still not right, when you can’t find an agent, a publisher, when your self published work languishes, literally at every step you are going to be discouraged because it feels like after all this work and all this time you are stagnant.

This is only emphasized by the fast furious flurries of activity, writing and editing binges, critiques, contracts, launch parties, that seem to consume everything while they are going on.

With these big exciting milestones, it’s not always easy to see the little steps in between. They are frequently eclipsed by the waiting game that plays such a prevalent role in the path to becoming published author. But if you find yourself discouraged while you wait for these big things, it’s time to scale back and look at all the little things that you have been ignoring, because that is where the real progress is made. Even if it doesn’t seem like progress.

Because another reason we get discouraged is that these little steps can feel like they’re going backwards. A bad critique, a failure to impress with your novel, a query rejection.

But they are all pushing you toward what you want, as long as you keep going. Each failure is an experience to learn.

If you join a new crit group that tears apart a manuscript that your last crit group was praising, it’s not a back slide. You just leveled up. You’re going to learn things you never would have learned in the last group.

Your query’s been rejected again? Now you know that query isn’t working for you. Write a new one!

A reader doesn’t like your book? Find out why and determine if it’s something you can and want to fix. Maybe they are seeing something you missed. Maybe it’s not for them.

There are also little steps you take every day, cutting a few words, writing a new chapter, reading articles on writing, signing up for classes and seminars that are pretty mundane but all provide the potential of that final piece to make your work click into place.

And don’t forget the way you help other writers. Reading and critiquing the work of other authors can not only give them the benefit of your knowledge but also help you to zero in on your own strengths and flaws. Supporting other writers gives you a community to support you, people to bounce ideas off of and to commiserate with.

The milestones are huge. They tend to overshadow our little steps, but they cannot be accomplished without them.

You are not stuck, no matter how long it’s been since your last milestone. You are never stuck unless you throw in the towel forever.

 

Keep writing, friends.

 

Fixing a Climax Chapter

In one of my novels I’m editing there is chapter, a big chapter, an explosive, climactic chapter that is just full of problems. At first I thought it was just the choreography of the final scene. It wasn’t spaced quite right, it didn’t move fluidly, it was confusing and it didn’t possess the punch it needed.

So I set out to rewrite the whole thing, really get in deep and describe every element, every sensation, to really make it hurt.

But something happened in the rewrite. It immediately started veering off in other directions. Every bad thing that could happen in this scene started to happen and I kept trying to steer it back. Only this ONE big bad thing was supposed to happen.

No matter how I tried to steer it, it kept going off the rails. Murphy’s Law wanted to write this climactic chapter.

I kept deleting and starting over. Deleting and starting over. Yes, that really ups the stakes but I don’t know how to fix this if it happens! And if this happens, then all these other dominoes are going to fall.

Last night I saved the chapter with only a paragraph of decent work.

Today I started again, and after grappling with the same problem, I sat back to think for a bit. Or I tried to think, but instead found myself breaking up yet another fight between my kids, who are having a bit of a rough time getting along right now. My house is chaos. It’s hard to find a quiet hour to work. Every five minutes it’s something else with them.

And finally I got it. You can’t avoid the chaos. You just gotta try to swim through it.

I’m being too easy on my characters. This is a climax in the book. The ONE BIG BAD has to happen, but so does everything else. All hell needs to break loose so that we can really feel this Big Bad when it finally comes.

And it will be a relief that we even made it.

So I’m not sure how my characters are going to get out of all the nets that are falling on them. I’m not entirely sure everyone is going to survive. Murphy’s Law wants to write this chapter and I am going to let it. It’s my job as the author to deal with the chaos, not avoid it.

Here’s to hoping I can do it.

Research to compliment your story, not to be your story

So if you missed the news, I finished another first draft. Woo hoo! This one was a bit different than my previous projects because it was based on actual mythology and history. Research was necessary. Tons and tons of research. As far as this subject goes (and I don’t want to give away too much on what that specific subject is because I’m shady like that) I think I may now be considered a bit of a scholar.

When I realized I was getting close to the end, however, there was a problem. There was so much more stuff I’d learned about that hadn’t gotten into the story yet. It was really cool information, but it just hadn’t found it’s place yet.

So maybe there’s a sequel in the future, but most likely that will still leave libraries worth of information that still has no home in my novels. I will have to accept that, no matter how cool  it might be.

There is a balance when it comes to research and too often writers ignore it. I certainly have. Regardless of the subject, you’re going to have to do some research but when the novel aims to inform, sometimes we are so anxious to do that we bury our story in information.

Research should be revealed in your story just like any other information, as it is relevant to the plot. If you are writing a book about a 15th century English peasant in the village Scarborough, you might learn all about the reign of Henry VII but it is unlikely that the contentious relationship between Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort is going to come up in any way except as an info dump.

However,  day to day information like dress, local politics, plagues, hardships, food and occupations of a 15th century peasant will be woven into every part of your story.

Woven, not dumped.

Mary sewed a shift. Shifts were a standard item of clothing for peasants. They were typically worn beneath tunics and made of either wool or linen. Peasant women spent a great deal of their time spinning, weaving and sewing the clothing for their families. They would secure their tunics with broaches where they could hang useful items like keys.

or

Mary sewed the last stitch in the hem of the rough wool shift and flexed her aching fingers. She was getting better at the work and Tom would be pleased with the new garment.

One of these examples gives a lot more information about 15th century peasant dress and life. The other states the information as it is relevant to the story. In short bursts it might be easy to overlook, but imagine an entire story that keeps stopping to lecture the reader.

Don’t lecture your reader.

Patroness: DONE! I’m seeing a trend here

A little over a year ago, I posted This update on April 10th.

A year before that, on May 9th, I posted this.

Today I’m excited to announce my newest novel, Patroness, is complete in it’s first draft.

I have been pounding away at various works in progress since January, but when I returned to Patroness in April it took off. It had a strong start last year, after I finished Summer’s Circle, but life stepped in and put an abrupt halt to my creativity. Funny how that happens.

So now I am seeing a trend in the cycles of my writing. Spring time is writing time. I want to write, I am inspired to write, I am motivated to write and I do write. Even with great shows calling me on Netflix I find the time almost every night. Even when I come up against a roadblock in the work, I find ways to power through it.

If I had this kind of momentum all year I would be up to my neck in first drafts.

Which is probably why it is not the case.

I might power through a first draft, but editing is still a difficult process for me. I have a hard time discerning when I am truly done. I need alot of feedback.

I am currently back to editing The Silent Apocalypse and I haven’t even started hard edits on Summer’s Circle.

I used to get frustrated trying to force my way through a novel that didn’t want to be written. Many writers would caution against “waiting for inspiration to strike”. But, in my life, I am coming to find that there are seasons for different aspects of my work. They may change, but if I stay connected to what is calling me, I will be able to take advantage of when I am best suited for each task.

But let me tell you this, Creation season is awesome.

Second Blogiversary!

Hard to believe it’s been two years since I finally decided I was going to do this. Looking back, I am amazed at what I’ve been able to accomplish in two years, even as I have so much I’m still striving toward.

Pursuing writing is a challenging path and there have been plenty of times over the years that I have set it to the side to focus on more pressing aspects of life, but the truth is, aside from forming my family and raising my children, it is the most rewarding thing I’ve pursued.

I’m a day or two from completing the first draft of my newest novel, Patroness, a historical fantasy retelling, and I have to admit, I am so freaking excited about it. I started it last year before a health crisis took over my life and my creativity completely sputtered out. After a few false starts on other works in progress in 2017, I came back to Patroness and found it was waiting for me with a clear idea where it wanted to go.

Writing has never been without challenges though and while I don’t like to dwell on hardship, it is a good idea to look back on hurtles you’ve overcome.

So, in honor of completing my second year as a blogger, Here are the top ten challenges I’ve faced as a writer.

  1. Taking criticism. Going from “You just don’t get my work!” to “That’s helpful and something I haven’t considered before” is a big shift, but it’s had a massive impact on the quality of my work.
  2. Re-learning grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I know my grammar, but there are techniques I’ve adopted that haven’t been the norm and stylistic choices I’ve made that just don’t quite work. Correcting these in old work and changing the way I’ve done things for my entire writing life is difficult, but finally making progress.
  3. Getting to the end. Oh all my works in progress, languishing with no end in sight. I used to spend so much time tweaking and perfecting drafts as I wrote, adding and subtracting complexities that I never got to the end of the story. Now I power through and do not go back to revise unless it’s to delete what I just wrote to go in a different direction.
  4. Clearing out the telling. Granted I’m still working on this, but when I look back on my old work, I can see the progress that has been made. I used to tell everything and anything that was shown was so subtle that it was practically useless.
  5. Doing the editing work. Note to past Lindsey, you cannot half ass editing. You have to do the rewrites. You have to do the line edits. You have to print the whole damned thing out and slash it to bits with a red pen. Then you need to keep refining as feedback comes in.
  6. Making time to write. Unlike some writers, no matter how I schedule it, it’s not always easy for me to churn out X amount of words each day, year round. But when I am on a project, I need to give myself the time to work on it. When I used to work full time, I barely wrote. When I was home, I wanted to spend time with my husband, go out with my friends, veg in front of the TV. Now I set the time aside. As soon as the kids go to bed, I start to work. I write until i run out of steam and then I turn on the TV to binge watch whatever show is calling me, or pick up a book. Write first.
  7. Making space to write. Another thing that used to stop me? It was too damned hard to write without a quiet place to shut myself in, and in my home, there is no quiet place until everyone is in bed. My current office is the living room couch, with a sofa desk and while my husband watches TV, I put in headphones to drown out the news. Before I had this set up, the writing was sporadic and based on circumstance instead of necessity.
  8. Making writing a PRIORITY! Oh, hello mom guilt, wife guilt, homemaker guilt. I see you are all well, but I would like to introduce you to my friend, you did not write guilt. She’s new, but she’s a lot louder than you all now. She reminds me that dishes can be washed later, it’s okay to let my husband give the kids their baths, and I’d rather be tired tomorrow morning than miss out on this inspiration that is flowing through me tonight. No job should take precedence over family, but just like you might stay up late studying for an exam in law school, you may need to sacrifice a few hours of sleep to get those words down on that page.
  9. Every writer works different. I have a friend who can complete a first draft, have it edited himself a few weeks later and then has it sold or self published within a month. I think he might be superman. I do not work this way. I used to think I should, but should doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s okay to work the way you work. As long as you’re working.
  10. Having confidence in my work, even when it still needs work. This was the hardest thing for me to overcome. When I presented my writing to someone I wanted it to be flawless, but even if I perfect it for myself, it will never be flawless to everyone. To own being a writer is to own that you are working on your writing. Every new thing I write is better than the last, and not a single thing I’ve written is perfect. It’s okay because it all is awesome and I love it.

Share your thoughts! What are some challenges you have overcome as a writer?

Don’t try to write a perfect first draft

After I realized that what I first put on the page was not necessary my best writing (imagine my horror!) I concluded that I would save myself a lot of work and effort if I edited as I wrote.

And so it took me more than five years to write a first draft.

And it still sucked.

The end.

No, but in all seriousness, there is nothing wrong with skimming over your work and doing a little clean up here and there, adding something to clear up the part you are currently writing, adjusting the spelling of the name or including the character trait that revealed itself later. Especially if you are stuck in the scene you are writing.

Just don’t, don’t don’t think this will save you any work in the long run.

I am a person who takes great pride in working smarter and not harder and in many aspects of my life this has served me very well. As a designer I set up a template program that allowed me to drop the print designs into a layout that removed the element of human error while at the same time leaving the original art untouched for future work and cut set up time in half. (it’s okay if you didn’t understand that).

As a writer, however, I have yet to find the easy way around editing the entire manuscript, multiple times.

Ironically, avoiding edits until your first draft is done ends up being your time saver in the long run and there are several reasons for that.

  1. If you are riding on the writing train (writing non-stop) getting off to “fix things” even minor things, means you are getting off the train. Don’t get off the train! You may not be able to get back on!
  2. No matter how much you have plotted, outlined, and prepared, your story is going to take some unexpected twists. Characters will reveal something surprising, people will die, people will live, the ending could turn out very different than you expected. Wasting time on edits before you know how your story ends is wasteful.
  3. Most important. YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO EDIT THE HELL OUT OF THIS DRAFT ANYWAY! No matter how clean you have gotten your writing, no matter how much you have “fixed” you are in for the long haul with edits, IF YOU EVER FINISH THE BOOK.

I know! I know it’s hard to leave that glaring mistake right there in the open! I mean, it is so so so bad! But it is your first draft and no one is every going to see it but you.

There is a solution though, and one I recommend you take. Instead of editing while you write, keep a notebook or file with all the problems you see arising in your story. Plot holes, character changes, misinformation, ect. Make notes of the things you will need to fix WHEN you edit and then get back to writing.

I wrote a story where a girl referred to her prep school by a different name every time it was mentioned. At one point I found myself scrolling through the 237 pages I had already written trying to find every instance. (Geez,don’t I ever learn!?). I think i managed to fix one and waste an hour. Later, when I was reading the completed manuscript, being aware of this problem allowed me to mark and change every instance of this problem when it came up in the reading. Time saver for sure.

The most polished partial manuscript is completely useless.

The messiest finished manuscript has unlimited potential.

There is no one way to write a book

A lot of writers have a lot of advice. And most of it is good. But not all of it is relevant every time.

I completed a first draft in record time last year using an outline and it was glorious. Not only was it completed fast, and without any serious plot holes, but clean up and editing have been minimal. I suggest everyone try this sometime.

Unless it’s not working for you.

Like it isn’t working for me, this time around.

When I wrote “The Silent Apocalypse” I didn’t have a good working outline until I was nearly done the book. It took a while to write, but it revealed itself to me as I went along, instead of adhering to a pre-determined plot.

When I wrote “Summer’s Circle” the whole plot laid itself out in front of me at the very begining, with the exception of a few details and the exact specifics of the ending. I didn’t put effort into plotting it, it was more like the completed story was handed to me and I shoved it into an outline so that I wouldn’t lose it before I got to write it.

I thought this method would work with one of my latest projects, a dark urban horror. The outline came along pretty well, but as soon as I started writing it, it veered completely off course and got stuck in a corner. I shifted some things around, blew a few things up and it ran right back into that corner again.

The novel wants to go it’s own way and, at present time, I can seem to figure out what that way is.

You will find thousands of articles, books, quotes, on how to finish your novel. All of these things have worked for authors at some point. Maybe they work for certain authors all the time. But even Stephen King ends up putting manuscripts away that he can’t seem to finish.

Don’t tie yourself to one method. Don’t insist there is only one way. If you are struggling to complete a novel, read all the advice you can find and try everything. If it still doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to shift your focus to another project.

Sometimes a novel needs a little time to cook before its ready to move forward. Sometimes your brain just isn’t ready for where the book has to go. Sometimes you need to try something new.

Writing is an art. Don’t try to be a scientist about it.

Stuck plot? Drop a bomb

Apparently I’m not alone in running out of steam in the middle of a manuscript. I have been trying to force my way through a sticky patch somewhere in the middle for the last couple weeks and coming up with nothing, so I was reading a few articles last night that commiserated with my plight. The middle is hard, even when you know where you’re going, things can veer off course, putter out, or just get plain boring.

Then I was reminded of something I read in Stephen King’s book “On Writing” about when he got stuck writing the stand. He just couldn’t seem to propel the plot forward and so he just took walks, thinking about what to do until the idea struck him. He needed to blow everything up.

He did so literally, putting a bomb in the closet and taking out everyone’s favorite character, Nick. I read “The Stand” when I was fifteen and I still remember that devastating loss.

The bomb jarred the stuck gears back into their roll in many ways. It shocked the reader, brought their attention and investment back into focus. It propelled the plot, forcing both the story and the characters out of the comfort zone. And it set up the end of the story.

So last night, as my character Raff had nothing on his schedule besides breakfast with his buddy, Popcorn, I blew up the bell tower. And the proceeding landslide pushed my story into breakneck pace where revelations began springing up as the ending moved a whole lot closer.

Now obviously, not every story should use an actual bomb. It might liven things up if the restaurant blows up in the middle of your rom com, but it also change it from a rom com to a drama.

But there are different types of bombs to be dropped.

  • A Truth bomb – A revelation comes to light that changes everything.
  • A life bomb – a car accident, losing a job, a fight, a break up.
  • A death bomb – an unexpected death of a major character.
  • A nature bomb – any kind of natural disaster that shakes everything up.

One of the best thing about dropping a bomb is that, since you don’t see if coming, neither will your reader. In the most authentic way you reach out and smack them across the face and say “Hey! Are you paying attention?”

And even if their attention had started to stray, they sure are now.

Have you ever employed this technique? Have you found it effective? Share your thoughts!

Plot comes first

Writers are explorers. Explorers of the mind, explorers of the world, the universe, the alternate universes. Chasers of What ifs and How could this be. And it is really pretty excellent. But sometimes we get so lost in our explorations on paper, that we forget we are there to tell a story.

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend who wanted to tell you something that happened, but kept getting distracted with details? It went something like this:

Oh, I need to tell you about Saturday night! I was out with Kim, you remember Kim, right? She’s the one who went sky diving? Yeah, i know sky diving scares the hell out of me. She went with John and Laura. They asked me to go, but i was like, no way. But I might go bungee jumping if they ever do that again. You want to come with me? Oh cool. My brother went last year and he loved it. He went while he was on that business trip in Maui. Yeah, Seriously. Why doesn’t my job send me on business trips to Maui? I only ever get to go to Scanton. Although, they were talking about the conference in Vegas next year, so fingers crossed.

Oh, yeah, so anyway, Saturday…

I admit, I am guilty of this. In a back and forth exchange, I have so many trails to follow, I tend to run down all of them.

But reading my meander toward a point is not so easy when my path is all over the place.

And the same goes for writing.

Early on in my work, I loved to explore subplots, quirky backstories for secondary characters, set the scene with interesting facts that I’d dug up.

My manuscripts would take forever to finish and when they were done, they were drawn out, confusing and sorta dull.

No one cared about the quirky backstories, though I loathed to cut them. People fell asleep at my extensively researched description of the history of the Jersey boardwalk.

I remember one, first chapter scene, where I described how every character there made their taco, thinking this was a brilliant little detail that showed something important about them.

But it wasn’t a little detail. Describing how four characters make their tacos took two paragraphs.

Two paragraphs too much, as it turns out, because no one actually cares about characters they just met and how they like their tacos. They want to know why they should care about them, if they should care about them (since three of the characters never made it past the second chapter, the answer was not really) and what the hell they are doing.

The plot. That is what a reader cares about first. How you share they plot makes all the difference, but a story that is more details than plot is a story that people will not stick with.

Imagine the conversation about Saturday night was actually a story entitled “Saturday Night”. If the first two chapters were filled with details about Kim and sky diving and business trips to Maui and Scranton, would you keep reading? What the hell happened Saturday night? And what do any of these people or these details have to do with it?

Now instead, imagine it went something like this.

Saturday night the narrator and Kim went into the city with plans to walk along Broadway and grab a meal. The first place they went to had a long line and then the kitchen caught on fire. Narrator was so freaked out that she wanted to go home but as they tried to catch a cab they found a new restaurant that looked interesting and went inside, surprised that they were seated immediately during the dinner rush. While they discussed Kim’s latest sky diving experience, which the narrator had opted out of joining, Bruce Willis was seated at the table beside them. They asked for a picture with him and he got irritated.

They apologized and bought him a drink. He laughed and they got to talking to him and he offered them his tickets to Hamilton, that night.

On the way to the show Kim fell in a puddle, and her outfit was covered in mud. They almost called it quits but a stranger gives her a towel and Kim sorta cleans herself off decided to just go with it.

They went to the show and during intermission they met the actor playing the lead. He thought Kim’s muddy outfit was so funny invited them backstage after the show where they me the cast, drank IPAs with the crew and the narrator, who’s been unhappy at her job for a long time, met a set designer who asked her to interview for a new position.

More interesting that going on and on about the random events in other peoples lives?

Details are important. Details flesh out the story. But the story is the point of it all. If you find that you have wandered off the path too many times or in too many different directions in your manuscript, try nailing down the driving action in short sentences.

Kim and Narrator go to Broadway.

Fire at restaurant compels them to find new restaurant

Meet Bruce Willis

Get Hamilton tickets

Kim falls in mud.

Kind stranger gives her a towel

Meet the lead of show

Invited back stage

Narrator offered interview for dream job

Each event leads to the next, which leads to the resolution. The rest is just filler.

Thoughts? Ideas? Primal Scream? (this is what my freshman English Prof used to say at the end of every class. There’s a random detail for you)