Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesday Writerly Ways~Writing Critiques

Have you ever belonged to a writing group and one person takes control, or one person does most of the work while others do the minimum? I've been part of groups that are so badly managed I just can't keep my big mouth shut. By the same token, I've been part of groups where there is no wiggle room for creative input.

The critique group I've been with for over twenty years has balance. It operates on a quid pro quo system. Before you can upload your chapter, you are required to do so many critiques. You are required to do X amount of critiques for every uploaded chapter. Depending on how fast you critique or write, you set the pace.

Now, authors come and go both published and wanna-be published. They write and read a variety of material in the process. Sometimes the best teacher is seeing something wrong in someone else's work before you rethink your own. That's the way it was for me and boy, did it take some pounding on my head to change certain things from the way I was writing it.

As an author, you have to grow a thick skin. In a critique group with numerous personalities, it goes double. Most times someone will cut your work to ribbons. You'll take everything in and wear it like a badge of shame. But, it's better to have someone in your critique group who will honestly do that before you send it out to an agent or publisher. If the group is good you will get lots of feedback.

Remember me, I'm Mrs. Overachieving-Everything. I tend to be pushy and brutal with a red pen. If three is required, I'll do ten. Will I catch every single mistake, no. Will I tell you the honest truth? To the best of my ability and try to balance the good with the bad, if possible. Do I believe in free-will of an author? Yep, I do. Nothing gets a cookie stamp of approval and there is always to improve creative writing. Take the suggestion, change it, or leave it. It's up to you as an author. It is your work the critique is about, but if two or more mention the same thing...I'd definitely look at it again.

Now, I might not know everything about English grammar although I do edit and/or critique other authors' work. When I first started writing my major stumbling block was comma splices. But when something is blatantly wrong with the sentence and I mention it, it should be noted. I have helped edit over 300 books to date and have been in the business for over thirty years. That counts for something. Some of these books are published and some hopefully will never see printed word on pages. Yes, some are that terrible. They should hire someone else to write it, which is why I do ghost writing.

What I lack in grammar skills, I make up for in consistency and redundancy. I'll catch it every time.  If something isn't clear or physically impossible, I'll ask a rhetorical question about it.  What I look for in a chapter or book I'm critiquing...

Consistency- You've changed the characters eye color without saying how. Your pronouns don't match the character. The rooms in the apartment magically change position between chapters. Sometimes as a writer, you are too close to catch these errors and it takes an extra pair of eyes. And no, I don't mean your mother's unless you mother is an editor. These are some faults I've caught during critiques and editing. I've even caught it in my own work, but before I show it to anyone else. Does consistently spelling a word wrong make it the right way to spell it? No. A spell checker may not always spell a word correctly so use it with caution.

Redundancy- You explain to the reader why the character does something and you beat a dead horse with it long after it's dead. Once is enough. The reader is smarter than you think.

Redundancy is also the overuse of the same word over and over again in rapid succession.  An example- I looked left and right and looked again to my right before I pulled forward. When I looked to my right, I saw a bicycle coming towards me. When I see something like the example I want to run from the room screaming, "My God! Someone get this person a thesaurus!"

It's easier to do than you think. I use a rule of thumb of one word per paragraph or even two. Never give your rough draft to someone to read. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. When I was learning English, I carried a thesaurus instead of a dictionary. I gained a better understanding of the word I heard or read. It's a good thing I kept English as my main language after my stroke instead of one my husband didn't know.

The physically impossible- Sometimes you get so caught up in the scene you are writing that you forget a step. Example- Cara's mother hugged her so tight she couldn't breathe. She was smothered between her mom's ample bosom. "It's okay, Mom," she said as she patted her hand. Can you see the error? How could Cara pat her mother's hand while in a bear hug? Fight scenes are usually where these type of errors occur, but not always. It will prompt a rhetorical question from me like, "How is this possible?" or "Something is missing." I don't want a long drawn out answer to me, but show me in your writing.

Tension and conflict- Now, I read a whole lot. I had all the Nancy Drew series in my read pile by pre-teenage years plus many classics like the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, it's almost 100 books or more a year. I'll often read the beginning of a WIP and wonder what the problem is. Where is the tension? Where is the conflict? I'll usually find it in the third or fourth chapter in novice writers. Usually conflict and tension go hand-in-hand, but they are different.

Think of the tension of the story as the rope pictured above. It slowly unravels getting thinner and thinner as it is pulled. Until finally, there is just one strand left holding the pieces of rope together.  The same is true with writing. What is the undeniable force pulling the rope apart in your book? Tension builds excitement for your reader. What are the stakes? How does it build the anticipation of the reader? What will happen when the strand of thread finally breaks?

Now, a book that is all tension, and skirmishes (conflict) to the ultimate climax is tiring. These are often the type of books readers say they can't put down. For the ultimate climax you've got to create a a situation in the reader's mind that's intolerable left on its own. The thread holding the rope together breaks and all bets are off.  For romance, the person literally can't imagine their life without this other person in it. For suspense or thriller, a good guy versus bad guy (it can be a person or situation)- winner takes all. Every book needs tension, conflict, and resolution.

If you find a good critique partner or partners, stick with them. They are a rare commodity. Equally sharing the work load, deadlines, and ownership of the group is also scarce, but can be found.

Do you have a critique group or are you looking for a new one?

I may have an answer for you.
Keep writing and loving the Lord.


  1. Critique partners are a must, and I think I am guilty of the "fight scene" example. I know it was pointed out to me.

  2. I would love a critique group!! :)

    I love your comments on tension - I've just started reading submission to a lit magazine (volunteer) and I've noticed that so often the tension and the true plot are way halfway through. I give up long before then (in terms of being interested).

  3. Although conflict and tension go hand-in-hand tension leads up to conflict or confrontation.


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