Tag Archives: critiquing

Writing a Saleable Book

10 Aug

by Susan Dennard

~~

Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.

🙂

My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.

I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.

That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).

Parts of a Good Book

1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.

The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.

2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).

This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.

Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.

3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.

4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.

Finding Problems

My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!

When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems

When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).

What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Crits for Water

4 Apr

Today we have the great pleasure of sharing a charitable cause with you!

Crits for Water is fundraiser headed by Kat Brauer in which writers can donate money in exchange for manuscript-critiques.  Several LTWF ladies have donated critiques–in fact, this week you could win a crit from our very own Vahini Naidoo!

Kat, who is both the coordinator and primary critiquer, currently lives in Japan, teaches schoolchildren English, and writes amazing (we can vouch for the amazing!) YA novels.  We were lucky enough to snag a few minutes of her very valuable time to pester her with a few questions about this whole shebang.

So Awesome Kat, why don’t you tell us what exactly Crits for Water is…

It’s a fundraiser for charity: water. The general idea is that in return for donations that provide folks in developing nations clean water, writers get their work critiqued by published/agented authors, agents, or editors. Kat-Crits (er, crits by yours truly) are available at any time throughout the campaigns duration–where $1 = 250 words.

What inspired you to set up this enormous (but amazing!) fundraiser?

Two things. First, I love charity: water. An estimated one billion people don’t have access to clean, safe water. Many people actually walk hours upon hours each day to get water that will give them hepatitis, e-coli, and other water-borne diseases. That’s ridiculous and really flabbergasting to me, when my (safe!) water source is about ten feet from me at all times.

charity: water is committed to providing that water. They also look at the water issue as a whole. They provide sanitation classes, create community boards that must include women to help teach those classes and maintain the clean-water projects. And all public donations, 100 percent, go straight to the field. They’re very transparent about costs, and that pleases me immensely.

Second, I want to help writers. It’s an opportunity to improve one’s writing and network while saving lives. Also, I really wanted to make these opportunities available to writers whose pockets aren’t so deep as a lot of the auctions for charities often go–which is why I’m doing “random drawings” as well.

You are the primary “critter” in this fundraiser. What’s your critique style?

Generally speaking, I read for characterization and pacing issues first, as those are what pop out in smaller, chapter-like excerpts. As I’m reading, I tend to do pretty intense line-edits if I feel that’s necessary. Sometimes I’ll read excerpts twice. Once for more broad, plot, characterization, pacing type issues, and another time for line edits.

Once I do the readings, I set the excerpts aside for about an hour and ponder whether my initial comments were justified. Then I sit down and type up notes. If there are specific, broader issues, I try to come up with ways to fix it. Even if my ideas won’t work for the writer’s vision of the book, I figure it’ll help them brainstorm other ideas to address the issues.

Finally, I’m all about BALANCE. One of my most common addendums to my comments is “Don’t go crazy with this!” Yes, we should try to avoid passive voice, adverbs, and filter words where necessary, but that doesn’t mean avoiding them completely! Working too hard to avoid such writerly pitfalls will probably make your work more awkward than including them sparingly.

What industry professionals are contributing critiques?

Well, you can view the whole list on my blog. But aside from the fabulous group of YA/MG and romance authors, so far nine agents and two editors are also contributing critiques (sometimes more than one!). They’re all rockstars. Folks like Jim McCarthy, Joanna Volpe, Laurie McLean, Sara Megibow, Chris Richman, and Editorial Anonymous. Many of them are also providing random drawings for their crits in addition to auctions, which I’m very happy with.

The list is constantly growing, too, which just astounds me. People are so generous with their time, and I’m honored that such a large group of people have agreed to help with this project.

Now, these “Super Sekrit” giveaways…can you give us a hint as to what kind of swag they include?

A hint? But the point is that they’re SEKRIT. But okay. The current one running has a Japanese theme–I live in Japan, and I know a lot of us have Japan on our thoughts at the moment. Part of it is also CUSTOMIZABLE, which I think is rocking.

I’ll also do some of books and like writerly things, and one will be water-related. All are awesome, and all are worth $50+. There will be four giveaways total.

Finally, any last words or Sage Writerly Advice to impart?

Is it corny to end with a quote? Well, I’m gonna anyway.

One of my favorite authors, Natsume Soseki, wrote in his fab book Kokoro (The Heart of Things), “Words are not meant to stir the air only. They are capable of moving greater things.”Authors are artists. Our work is commentary on the human condition, what humanity implies, even if we don’t mean it that way. I love the way that the online writing community has come together time and time again to prove that our words can move greater things–be it Brenda Novak’s charity auction, Write Hope, or the romance community’s Operation Auction. I’m deeply humbled that so many people have reached out to help me with this effort–though I think I’ll give most of the credit to charity: water for being fantabulous. 😄

So yeah. You guys are great. That’s all.

~~~

So there you have it!  What are you waiting for?  Get thee to the Crits for Water page and start donating–surely you can spare a single dollar, right? 🙂  And be on the look out for guest critiques from our members: Sarah J. Maas, Kat Zhang, Susan Dennard, and Vahini Naidoo!

The Querying Flowchart of DOOM

17 Mar

by Kat Zhang

~~~

No, silly, it’s not actually “of DOOM,” but sometimes querying feels like it, no? (And besides, as writers, we’re obligated to be dramatic, right? What, that’s actors, you say? Pshaw!!)

Anyway, in order to ease the beginning querier into the query process, I’ve made a handy-dandy flow chart. Yes, it’s a very condensed version of the pre-query checklist…mostly because I only have so much patience with making little multi-colored text balloons. Also, there are no arrows. I know. Sadness. But look at it as a test of thy skill, young querier! If you can not master the maze that is the Query Flowchart of DOOM, then see it as a sign that you need more training before daring to enter the lair of the dragon–I mean confront Darth Vader–I mean query!

Are you ready to begin your test of skill??

Enter at thy own peril…

So? Did you make it? Are you ready to send out those queries? 😀

…and did you notice the two missing bubbles?

…because I totally did that on purpose as a further test of your skills.

yup

that’s my story, and I’m STICKIN’ WITH IT!

D:<

~~~

Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–is currently on submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

Workshops: A Survival Guide

10 Mar

By Sammy Bina

~~~

Ah, the workshop. Something the Creative Writing major fears, yet simultaneously adores. It is a place where our work is torn apart, then put back together by esteemed (or not-so-esteemed) classmates and professors. Where we are able to hone our craft in the hopes that it will someday lead to publication.

Yet so many people are intimidated by it. The other day I spoke with some freshmen at my college who were considering majoring in Creative Writing. The reason they had yet to declare? Fear of workshops. Before my first one, I felt like I was walking headfirst into the zombie apocalypse (hence today’s picture), so I can understand their anxiety. However, I will tell you what I told them: don’t let your fears hold you back.

So, for those of you still on the fence, or who may be dreading your first workshop, I’m here to give you the 411 on how things work. Keep in mind each school runs them differently, but I think the basics are all pretty much the same.

1. Class sizes are small. My school caps a workshop at 15, and I’ve had one as small as 10. This is good news for you because the smaller the class, the more opportunities you have to share your writing. The more you share, the more you learn. It also means that, yes, you will have to speak.

2. Participation, as I mentioned, is kind of mandatory. On the weeks people critique your work, you may not be allowed to speak for the entire period (I’ve heard a few people say this), or you may be invited to ask questions of your peers based on their comments. Conversely, when it’s someone else’s week, you’ll have to give them feedback. A lot of times this will come in the form of marking up the pages they gave you, or turning in a critique.

Critiques themselves can be a bit tricky. Sometimes you’re going to come across a piece you didn’t like, made no sense, or was obviously thrown together the night before (trust me, it happens). And while you need to be honest, be nice about it. Constructive criticism is what people look for in workshops. Be sure to tell your classmates what you did like! Even if it’s just the character’s name, or the title, you can always find something nice to say. I had a professor whose rule was to write a paragraph talking about the things you enjoyed, and then a second detailing what you thought could be improved upon. This way the writer didn’t go home feeling craptastic at the end of the day. The one guy in my class who never once said anything nice about anyone’s work? Well, he never got nice comments in return. Give and take, people.

3. Know that you’re not always going to agree with what people say about your work. Workshop is essentially a giant group of beta readers and, as we’ve talked about here before, you’re not always going to agree with people. And that’s okay. Keep an open mind during workshop. I learned some really valuable techniques and advice from people who gave me some tough love. I also learned when to pick out and toss aside comments that didn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s still you’re story. Never forget that.

4. Writing styles vary, so be prepared. One of the things I enjoyed most about workshops were the varied writing styles I came across. My favorite class had a mix of horror writers, a satirical writer, one girl who loved to imitate gothic literature, and a taxi driver whose stories stemmed from wacky conversations he overheard in his backseat. I read some really fantastic things that semester, but there were also a few experimental writers whose pieces I could never understand. It’s okay when you don’t get something; chances are someone else didn’t either. But it’s still a learning opportunity.

5. Be prepared to do some reading. Not only will you be reading work by your classmates, but you’ll probably be reading some short stories or novel excerpts as well. Hemingway, Joyce, Poe, Updike, and Oates are all names I’ve come across when reading for class. Read from the best, learn from the best.

6. Expect to see people of all ages. I’ve been in classes with freshmen as well as middle-aged and old men. The varying ages mean varying life experiences, and some really interesting stories and life lessons. Discussions don’t always wind up revolving around the written word, so you might pick up some valuable tips along the way. Take note!

7. You don’t always have to write short stories. I was petrified when I joined my first workshop because I am a terrible short story writer. My first one was torn to bits, and I went home feeling totally defeated. Then I found out I could submit chapters from my novel instead, and my love of workshop increased ten-fold. I can’t guarantee that your school follows this rule, but I’ve talked to a fair number of people where this is allowed. So if writing short stories is what’s scaring you off, just ask!

8. Sometimes there’s food. And free food is always a good reason to go somewhere. I had one summer workshop where we’d occasionally meet at the campus bar. That, my friends, was a good time.

9. Like any class, you can’t always pick your teacher. You might wind up with a lousy instructor, in which case you might feel as if you’re not learning anything. But if the instructor isn’t fantastic, just pay attention to the other kids in class.  You can always learn something from them.

On the other hand, you might wind up with a fabulous instructor. I’ve studied under some really fantastic people, and I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything. My writing definitely improved because of them and I still see them around campus. Because of the small class size, you get to know your professors pretty well and they can be invaluable resources when you need letters of recommendation, or even just advice.

So hopefully that’s taken the scare out of the dreaded workshop. I can promise you you’ll learn an insane amount if you pay attention, and your writing’s definitely going to improve. If you’re considering signing up for one, I encourage you to do it. Having your work critiqued is never an easy thing, but you can’t really improve until someone tells you what you’re doing wrong. So take a chance. Live a little. Learn a lot.

For those of you who’ve taken workshops before, did you enjoy them? Learn anything particularly useful?

~~~

Sammy Bina is finishing up her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She’s currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.

The 51 Steps to Editing

15 Dec
by Kat Zhang
~~~
Having critiqued a number of manuscripts and received critiques in return, I think I’ve gotten the Critique Email Response down to a science. Here, in exactly 51 steps, is how the average writer* reacts. 

*in this case study, “the average writer” is a compilation of exactly 1 writer. Me.

1. Send out manuscript
2. Wait
3. Wait some more
4. Get very friendly with your inbox
5. Have mini heart attacks every time you see “Inbox (1)” (man, that right there just ramped up my heartbeat a few bpm…and I typed it myself)
6. Convince yourself that nobody loves you
7. Realize how dumb that is
8. Bug other writing friends until *they* tell you how dumb that is
9. Wait some more
10. Receive notes
11. Cheer!
12. Actually open notes
13. Read
14. Read again
15. OMG
16. How did I not think of that??/That’s the coolest idea EVER/WHAT, how did that not come across??/Eeeeek/That DEFINITELY needs to go in the story. Likerightnow
17. Brainsplode
18. Recovery mode
19. Read notes a couple more times, taking notes on the notes
20. Organize notes on notes under a select few headlines, like “Improve characterization for character A” and “Give more hints that Agent Kazoooski is a mole from outer space”
21. Cut “mole from outer space” subplot entirely
22. …add it back in
23. Brainstorm in trusty moleskine, telling yourself that there are no stupid ideas
24. Prove yourself wrong
25. Very wrong
26. Coffee/chocolate/carbs/other forms of comfort
27. Read through manuscript, despairing of ever changing anything without screwing up what’s already there
28. Read through notes again
29. Read through notes on notes
30. Save manuscript under a new document name (Manuscript_version97833283)
31. Take a deep breath and—
32. Ooh, lookie who’s on skype!
33. Spend the next three hours talking about anything and everything but the editing you should be doing.
34. Distract thyself from the task at hand
35. Repeat
36. Repeat
37. Repeat
38. Break something small and insignificant
39. Open manuscript doc again.
40. Have a staring contest with your own words
41. Damn.
42. They beat you.
43. Delete a couple out of spite. Hey, that felt kinda good.
44. Delete some more.
45. Hmm, might need something to replace those words…
46. Type a little something. That’s not half bad, right? Try a little more.
47. Freak out and stop.
48. Fiddle with what you already have on the page until it feels right. With regained confidence, revise deeper.
49. Emerge from editing cave 36 hours later realizing you have a test the next day and you can’t even remember what chapter you were supposed to study…or which subject.
50. Ah well.
51. At least you got some editing done!

What does YOUR list look like?
~~~

Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


Gaining Some Perspective on Criticism

15 Nov

by Susan Dennard

~~~

We talk a lot about the importance of giving critiques, the soothing of one’s ego in criticism, the why and the what of finding crit-readers. I have to points to add — two idioms tailored to the Writing Critique World.

1) Too much criticism can spoil the broth.

So, let’s say you’ve been writing a while — months, years, centuries – and you follow the age-old advice: “Get feedback and lots of it.”

You share your manuscript with 4 people, then 6, then 8, then 25. You want to make sure you have the best possible novel before you try to find an agent/editor.

Good for you. That’s the best attitude to have. Like milk, criticism does a manuscript good. Like weight-lifting, criticism helps us find our weak points and fix them.

But, like analogies, criticism should be taken in moderation.

A friend of mine recently critted a paper, and she had this to say: “It’s clear that this writer has done a lot of work on it, and that she knows enough about the craft, but she has had too many people crit her book. It’s hard to find her voice because I can see the effect of so many others changing her MS along the way.”

Too much criticism can be the death of your novel, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth. It is ultimately YOUR story, and if you try to take in too many perspectives on YOUR story, you’ll lose sight of what you were creating. You’ll end up with a Frankenstein-novel built from the feedback and tweaking of others.

While I fully support finding beta readers or crit partners, be careful about how many you work with. I also support crit groups like the OWW or Critique Circle, but again, be careful about how many people’s feedback you take to heart. Honestly, you can’t please everyone, so be sure to evaluate criticism critically and choose whose advice you do want to follow.

And that leads to idiom #2.

2) All criticism should be taken with a grain – nay, a handful of salt.

A story to illustrate: In August, I entered the first 30 pages of my novel (The Spirit-Hunters) into an RWA contest, hoping to gain valuable feedback from professionals.  At the end of October on the very same weekend I signed with NCLit, I got the contest results – and you know what?

I got DEAD LAST. Out of ~20 contestants in the YA category, I was LAST FREAKING PLACE. Now, I’ll admit the pages were different from what the pages I submitted to agents – but only in terms of a few story events. Not in terms of voice or character.

And those were the aspects I got smashed on. They hated my main character – too introspective. Not logical. Deserves what she gets. They hated the voice – felt forced. Not accessible to modern readers.

Ouch, right? Even though I’d had so much agent success during the two weeks prior to getting these results, coming in last place really stung. And even though I knew I had written a good novel, the judge’s criticism made me want to curl into the fetal position and groan like a zombie.

Had I received this feedback two weeks earlier – before I started querying – I would have been CRUSHED. Devastated. I would have done nothing but eat ice cream and cry. I probably would have given up on The Spirit-Hunters, in hopes that I could write a better novel with less FAIL in it.

But thank the merciful heavens I received the contest results after taking the plunge into the querying world. Thank heavens I was able to apply some much needed perspective to those contest results. Otherwise, I would not be on submission to publishers right now. I would be belting “All By Myself” à la Bridget Jones and considering going back to freelance statistics (bleh!).

Perspective Gained:

  • Because of the timing, I was able to see that maybe the judges weren’t qualified to judge my novel. They were first and foremost romance novelists, which is a very different genre from YA. Additionally, none of them were published writers or represented by agents (which I thought they would be when I first entered the contest).  This doesn’t make their judgement wrong, but it’s something to consider.
  • What they didn’t like in my novel (the main character or the voice) was their own personal opinion. The main character and the voice were also what attracted several agents to make offers of rep. And think about it: how many books do you love but your friends hate? Different strokes for different folks.

Moral of the Story:

  • You need to be really careful when choosing with whom you share your novels. You want feedback that makes sense to you. It should fit:
    • your writing style (ex: my style is quirky YA)
    • your writing goals (ex: my goal is a career in commercial publication)
    • your writing skill (ex: someone who is at the same stage or further along in the path).

It took me a while to find crit readers I trust – I started with too many and found readers from every place imaginable.  I was constantly adjusting my novels according to the newest feedback rolling in.  It was exhausting, and I lost touch with the stories I’d originally set out to tell.

Now I have two crit-readers plus my agents. I’ll let other people read my novels, but when it comes to feedback, I’m only willing to rely on the people whose advice I know matches what I need. And, perhaps most important of all, the people who trust and can use my feedback in their own novels.

How about you — critique horror stories?  Feedback you shouldn’t have trusted or regret following?  Or, do you have any criticism-perspective of your own to share?

~~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her manuscript is currently on submission to publishers. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

A Lesson in Bad Writing – Why it’s Good to Read Books that Disappoint

5 Oct

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

~~~

You know that feeling you get when you read a great book? The one where you cling to every single word, and fight to keep your eyes open because you feel as though you’re on an adventure (and don’t want it to stop)? Where you lay in bed and find yourself still in that place, with those characters? Where you can feel your heart beating with adrenaline? Those books where you find yourself laughing and crying; where you can swear that your heart ached a bit? Where you close a book and it felt right, no matter how happy or sad it was?

Yeah… that didn’t happen to me the other night.

I hate when I see a book with so much potential that ends up being a huge let down. In fact, the first half of the book I’m referring to was amazing. Each chapter was from a different character’s point of view, and their voices were incredibly strong and compelling. The story kept me turning the pages. There was this incredible lead-up, and a wonderful world I was able to explore. And yet somewhere along the way, I began to find myself knitting my eyebrows together. Something wasn’t working anymore. The spell that had been woven so brilliantly at the beginning was lost to me.

And try as I might, I couldn’t find it again.

But why? The prose was wonderfully lyrical (and I even jotted down some absolutely BRILLIANT lines that I came across); the shifting P.O.V. was exciting and intriguing; the voice was strong; the characters were well-rounded; and there was a wonderful fairy-tale quality to it (in fact, it was a fairy tale retelling!).

Here’s why: The second half of the novel was preachy. There was a moral to be told, and that author was determined to make sure we understood the lesson being told to us. It became less about the story and the characters, and more about the message.

I was being lectured at.

Imagine my indignation, then, at realizing that I was expected to gain from the story a lesson in morality! No one reads a fairy tale looking to be sermonized. I was not looking to read a YA fairy tale retelling that pounds into my head the idea of God and miracles and heaven over and over and over. I was not looking for an anti-climactic, happy ending. I was looking for a story. I was looking for a character who would win my heart, and take me on a journey of learning and discovery with them – without it being obvious that I should walk away with an ethical message.

Characters are supposed to grow as the story continues. Somehow, I felt the opposite was happening; they were becoming less than they had been in the first half of the story. They were no longer real to me; I could tell that they were becoming shells of morality. They just weren’t believable. I was losing them; and they were losing me.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against God or religion in literature (or in YA). This wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I felt as if I were at Sunday school. And while some people might think, “well, what’s so wrong about that?”, I just want to say that a truly GOOD story doesn’t preach. It had become a two-dimensional parable – everything that happened seemed so contrived for this one purpose of teaching me a lesson; and it just wasn’t ringing true. The characters I had loved, the world that had mystified me, and the voices that had propelled the story became monotonous, repetitive, unbelievable, and annoyingly preachy.

If you can tell that an author is trying to teach you something, then the author has failed. No story should be written with a moral lesson in mind. A story should, first and foremost, resonate with readers. It should resonate with people who are constantly plagued with doubt, and fear, and even hatred at times. The most compelling characters aren’t perfect examples of morality. If your story happens to be a reflection or commentary of society, then great; so long as you focus on the characters first and foremost. Without them, your story is nothing.

The best books are stories first and foremost, and lessons or social commentaries second. That’s what makes them enjoyable to read. Otherwise, your reader won’t be able to invest in your characters or the world you’ve created. It doesn’t matter if it’s historical, or fantasy, or sci-fi, or contemporary – it all comes down to whether or not your reader will want to continue the journey with your characters.

As disappointed as I was, though, I’ve gained understanding into what doesn’t work. Being able to identify how a story goes wrong is a great way to understand how your story might perhaps be going awry (or, even, how your critique partner’s story might be heading off the rails). If you’re able to figure out what it is that doesn’t work, you’ll become a much better writer, and a much better critique partner. So as painful as it is to think of those novels that you just couldn’t get into (or that just fell apart, in my case), think about them a bit longer. Even after you’ve sighed and put it down, figure out what wasn’t working for you; once you’re able to find the specifics of what you didn’t like, you’ll be able to be a much better critique partner, and a much more capable writer.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Your Ego is Not Your Friend – How to Take Criticism

23 Sep

or,

How to Avoid Hysterical Fits of Sobbing/Rage

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

Since Kat and Vahini both wrote wonderful articles about critique partner relationships and how to provide useful critiques respectively, I thought I would talk about – in further detail – how to deal with criticism (which Sarah talked about here; and how to get over yourself… which Sarah also talked about here). Because for me, the most difficult part about being a critique partner is being critiqued.

Not everyone reacts to critiques the same way. Some people get insulted; others become so sad and dejected that they lose all desire to even continue writing; and there are people who are indignant and think their critique partner has no idea what they’re talking about.

If you’re new to being critiqued, you’ll find yourself feeling INCREDIBLY nervous. Heck, even if you ARE used to receiving all kinds of criticism from others, you’ll probably still be a bit nervous about sharing your work with others.

Take me for example. Having been an art student, I’m used to receiving criticism – and art professors and fellow art students never hold back from telling you what they really think of your work. I’ve also taken a couple of creative writing courses and have had to share my work. So I should be used to receiving critiques, right?

HELL NO.

I mean, in a way I am; I’m much more apprehensive about myself, actually – and how I’ll end up responding. But I will always be nervous when I hand my work over to someone else for their opinion. I know myself. I get hurt as soon as I start seeing red everywhere. It’s just the type of person I am; though I know it’s silly of me, I want EVERYONE to be pleased with my work. Even though I know that it’s unrealistic.

I sometimes get so bummed out that I just sit in a slump at my desk, unwilling to continue working on my MS. Or I find myself looking for comfort food; ice cream and cookies and hot chocolate to devour as I sulk (and thereby also avoiding any and all writing). Or I scribble down angst-filled poetry. And other times I feel FURIOUS! I think, “How is my writing melodramatic?!? It is LYRICAL, dammit!”. Or, I think to myself, “Well, our styles of writing are SO different! Idiot.”

Harsh, I know. But I HAVE thought things like that; about people I respect and admire, close friends, and near-strangers. And chances are you’ll probably feel like that sometimes too. Sure, you’ll tell your critique partner, “Be honest! Tell me if something doesn’t work, if there’s something off. I want your real opinion! Don’t hold back!” – but once you see all the comments they’ve made, and read them pointing out all the flaws in your story, you’ll find yourself getting defensive. EVEN if you know you shouldn’t.

If you’re having this problem (and don’t worry – it’s only natural!), take a step back. Don’t respond right away. If your CP is using the track changes feature on Microsoft Word, don’t go through the entire MS in a fury rejecting all the changes your critique partner has made without even looking to see just what changes they’ve suggested.  It has actually happened to an editor I know – she just got on the wrong foot with the author, and he ended up even rejecting her corrections of spelling mistakes. So remember: your CP has done a WHOLE lot of work for you. They’re trying to help you improve. They WANT your MS to be the best it can be; they want you to get published.

So, here are 10 tips to help you throw your ego aside and take criticism from your critique partners – or anyone, really – gracefully.

1. As I said before, never respond right away. Don’t write a scathing email to the agent who has just rejected you and offered a few suggestions for improvement. That’s rude, and unprofessional, and you can bet that agent will never look at any of your future works. Likewise, don’t freak out at your critique partner if they think a character serves no purpose and should maybe be cut from your MS (or further developed, if you want to keep them). Read their critiques and do nothing – at least not right away. Let it sink in.

2. Take a step back. Wait a few hours; or better yet, wait a day or two. Distance yourself and try to be objective. Let their critiques sink in before you go back to reread your CP’s comments. And then read your work. Chances are, they might just have a point.

3. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard, but you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that they aren’t telling YOU that you lack personality – they’re saying your MC does. Find out why they’re saying that (and a good CP will give you reasons as to why your MC lacks the qualities of a great character). And even if they don’t give you reasons, you should always…

4. …ask. If you’re not quite understanding what they mean and need clarification, email them (when you’re NOT upset, of course). Or call them. Or meet up and talk about it over coffee (just don’t go if you think there’s a chance that you’ll throw your coffee in their face. Cause that’s a sign that you’re still pretty upset). Being good critique partners means that talking about one another’s work – in depth. Have a conversation.

5. Never confront your CP if you’re upset. Yes, I’m repeating myself – but this is important. Don’t tell them that they don’t get you or your work. They probably do. But they aren’t as emotionally invested in your work. It’s YOUR baby; your sweat and tears. And as a result, you’ll be blind to a lot of the problems – and get pretty upset when confronted with those issues. Especially if your CP has something to say about the one character, or one plot arc, that is your absolute favourite.

6. Read all the good things they have to say. A good critique partner will always mention what they really liked/enjoyed. They’ll highlight lines/paragraphs/bits of dialogue and say, “LOVE this!”. So if you find yourself getting upset, read only the good things they had to say. Chances are, you’ll start to feel better (not only about your work, but about yourself).

7. Be open to new ideas. Don’t automatically ignore what someone says because it’s not something you’ve ever thought of. Your CP is trying to push you to becoming an even better writer; and that means they’ll push your boundaries.

8. Embrace change/ have multiple drafts. I probably should’ve made this the first on the list. If you can’t bring yourself to revise your first draft because you think it is THE shit, you might not be ready for a critique partner. Your first draft WILL NOT be perfect. It will be flawed. If you understand that and are okay with the thought of changing your MS, then you’re ready to be critiqued.

9. Critique your fellow CP. Put yourself in their position. It’s not easy, now is it? You’ll probably feel terrible pointing out things that you feel don’t work. You’ll feel as though you might be overstepping your bounds by offering suggestions. And the last thing you want is for them to get really hurt by what you say. So try to understand both sides.

10. Don’t lose yourself. While you should never brush off someone’s critique, you should also remember that it’s okay to have differing opinions. You don’t HAVE to agree with everything they say. But if you do disagree, you should discuss it more in detail. And if you still feel that you’re right, get a second (or third) opinion.

So, think you have what it takes to be a critique partner (and take criticism yourself)? Then head on over to our Critique Partner page and find yourself a CP! And if you’re already a CP, remember to always give your reader credit. Be respectful, take a few deep breaths (and maybe eat some ice cream), and you’ll be on your way to earning the status of awesome-critique-partner (and maybe even earn this snazzy “Accepting Criticism” Writer Merit Badge):

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Providing Useful Critique

22 Sep

by Vahini Naidoo

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I’m going to be totally honest – when I first started critiquing other people’s work, I was bad at it. In fact, that’s an understatement. I was awful. I’d write stuff like, “This is good. Yeah…I feel pretty unhelpful”.

So, in order to spare anyone else the pain of knowing that they’re not critiquing well, and to spare any writers from critiques like my initial ones, I bring you a sort-of idiot’s guide to critiquing a manuscript.

Anyway, my biggest problem was that I’d regularly stop and ask myself this question: What right do I have to be critiquing so-and-so’s work?

The answer to this question is every right, so long as you’re a reader. Thinking that you don’t have the authority to critique is really counter-productive to providing helpful feedback, because you lose the confidence to truly make not of the mistakes you catch. When a scene is confusing, you assume that it’s your fault, not the writer’s and so on. In other words, you won’t be totally honest with the author because you’re limiting yourself.

And the first step towards critiquing a manuscript is a willingness and ability to be straight-up with the writer about what you think. Even if you don’t feel particularly qualified – and you are! – you have to deliver your critique with clarity and honesty .

My other problem? I never really tried to accommodate the writer’s needs.

My awesome fellow contributor, Kat, wrote a post on Monday about critique partner relationships. She mentioned that all of them are different.

My mistake was not recognising this, and just diving straight into reading a manuscript. Instead, I should have been asking the author what they were specifically looking to fix with this revision, or whether there was anything that they were worried about, or felt wasn’t quite working.

Often, people are quite specific. They’ll tell you that an agent told them that their prose isn’t quite shining, even though their premise is great – and that means you focus on the nitty gritty little stuff. Or they’ll tell you that they’re worried that their character arc isn’t coming full circle, or something, and you’ll know to focus on that.

It can be really helpful to dive into critiquing a manuscript and have some clear direction. So, if you can get that out of the author, that would be step number two.

But what if the author says something like, “Just looking for general stuff” or “Not really sure” or, worse still, “Everything”? Then what, huh?

You stare at your computer screen and burst into tears, obviously. Just kidding 🙂

If the writer doesn’t give you direction you have to follow through with the third step in any case. That is, you have to read the manuscript – I know, I know, I’m a genius.

It’s important to know, at this stage, to know what kind of critique you like to give. Do you like line by lines? Or do you like to make more general comments? I’ve found that if I try to give detailed line comments on more than a chapter, I often find myself unable to get through the manuscript. This is because I’m incredibly nitpicky, and detail-oriented and will often write 6000 words worth of comments on 3000 words.

I’m pretty sure that this kind of over-critiquing is not helpful to either the author, or the never-ending piles of homework lying in wait for me.

So that’s me, I don’t give line by line critiques, although you might. I focus on the macro stuff, and I tend to think that even if you do focus on the micro and give a line crit, you need to give the writer a sense of how the manuscript stacks up overall for the critique to be truly useful. After all, someone can have seriously awesome prose and be completely unable to plot.

One of the mistakes I often made when giving this overall critique to a writer, was not being thorough enough – I’d just forget to talk about entire aspects of a manuscript. For instance I’d say something about the characterisation, but the plot would totally slip my mind.

 In order to be more thorough, you should probably carefully think through the big elements of a novel. That is, character, plot, setting, and depending on the manuscript, theme. Thinking through those elements, and really asking yourself whether there was anywhere it could have been improved allows you to spot more potential areas for improvement.

Final tip? Sometimes you need to think about things for a while. I finished a mind blowing manuscript two weeks ago, and initially I couldn’t think of anything to say. The author was firing on all cylinders – she had characterisation, a great plot, a wonderful voice and prose that was both beautiful and evocative.

But I gave it a week, and reconsidered the manuscript. Then I sat down and wrote her a two page critique – the manuscript is still mind blowing, and is probably already publishable, but there were areas there that could be improved upon. I just needed time to see them.

Lastly, so that you can all SEE for yourselves that different readers work in different ways, and also get some shining examples of how to give good critiques, check out THE BETA PROJECT. It’s a blogosphere experiment where six blogging writers critique one brave author’s first page, and post it so that everyone can get a handle on different critiquing styles. Check out the critiques from  Cory , Kate, Meredith, Sarah, Windy and Raven.

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Vahini Naidoo is a high schooler who eats instant noodles like she’s already in college. She writes contemporary YA novels and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find her over at her blog.

Critique Partner Relationships

20 Sep

Okay, so you’ve written a novel—or at least the first draft of one. Or maybe you’re not all the way done yet, but you’re pretty darn close. You stumbled upon LTWF’s Critique Partner page and found yourself an awesomesauce beta reader. You’ve gotten to know each other a bit, discovered that you both have a secret weakness for chocolate-covered gummy bears in your late night ice cream and a fondness for melodrama. Things are going good.

Then it comes time to send him or her your story.

Eep.

This can be a nerve-wracking experience both for you and your new beta, especially if neither of you has ever critiqued for a critique partner before. And even old hands can get nervous when working with someone new. What if they get offended? What if they don’t tell me what they really think? What if I come across as a total jerk? What if they secretly hate my story but refuse to tell me?

Here are a few ways to smooth over this transition.

First of all, if you’re new, let your CP know! As a writer gets more and more work out there, his skin grows thicker. I’ve gotten a lot more resilient to critique since I first started. Good, honest critique is very important, but there are many ways to phrase something.

For example, if I’m critiquing a manuscript for someone I know well—someone I’m good friends with and who I know has been writing a good long time, I might just say, “That ballroom scene isn’t grounded enough. Your characters seem to float in a void, and I don’t feel an emotional connection to the protagonist.”

But for someone I know is new and who might not be ready for more blunt, straight-forward remarks, I might phrase things differently: “I think you could improve that ballroom scene; maybe try adding a few sentences about how the other girls’ dresses look or how the chandelier sparkles or things like that. Right now, it’s hard to picture the characters’ surroundings. Also, I’d like to know a little more about the protagonist’s feelings. That way, I can sympathize with her more.”

See what I mean? Both get the same points across, but the second is a little gentler about it. Of course, always be polite! No one appreciate your saying, “The ballroom scene sucks.”

Also, if you’re the one getting your story critiqued, try helping your betas out by letting them know what points you’d like them to focus on. For example, let them know you’re having trouble with world building and ask them for their thoughts. Or maybe you’re afraid your protagonist is too whiny, but you’re not sure. Ask them! Think your middle lags a bit? Or that your epilogue is too neat? Ask for advice, and you shall receive 🙂

Every critique partner relationship is different. Some like to do line-by-line comments. Others like to exchange the story chapter by chapter. Still others want to read the whole thing at once. Each adds its unique perspective on your story, and all are incredibly useful.

So get out there and start marking up some stories!

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Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She has recently signed with literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.