I was sick yesterday and couldn’t get my brain to function properly. I apologize for being a day late in this post!
Let me ask the question again: Does critique make us a better writer?
My answer: Yes OR/AND No.
Casey made a comment a while back about taking care of what she has when it comes to her critique partner. Well, you have to do the same thing when it comes to your writing. If you don’t use it, stretch it, keep learning and growing, you’ll become a very stagnant writer. (Casey’s eyes are twitching. I used the word VERY and I left it there just to make her cringe. I’m so mean!)
So, what does this have to do with critiquing and becoming a better writer?
It goes back to finding the right critique partner or group. The wrong one can be detrimental to your writing. You want to work with writers that want to lift you up while they tear you down. KIDDING, sort of. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth reporting, you want writer’s who will check their ego at the door and focus on helping, not picking.
But there are other problems with critique groups that can injure your writing.
I remember back in the day when I was a contest junkie. I entered two manuscripts in an unpublished contest. They both finaled! Go me! So, I got the same final judge who wrote me an interesting note. Oh, and no, I didn’t win that contest. But it was more than worth the entry based on what this judge, who was an editor at HQN, said to me.
In a nutshell, she told me in one book she felt like my unique voice had been stripped. She said it was well written and blah blah blah, but it was the blah that got to her. There was nothing different about it and it was almost as if it had been critiqued to death. Where the other book was raw and full of powerful characters that popped right off the page. Of course, she told me that one had a few different kind of writing mistakes that as I learned my craft, I’d learn how to fix.
What I had done was taken in EVERY stitch of advice and changed that book based on probably 15 different opinions (including judges from contests) as I rewrote and rewrote until it became a clump of perfectly strung together sentences (stop laughing Casey, it does happen sometimes), but had no meat. No substance. It didn’t have that special something that made it a Jen Talty book. Flatter than a crepe.
To this day, that comment has stuck with me. It’s why I don’t have a ton of readers. I have Casey. I have Beta Readers, and I have an editor. And I change up the beta readers, not having the same one read all the time.
That wasn’t on my critique partners/group/others. That was on me. And frankly, not all advice is created equal, especially since I had gotten contradicting advice on one particular element of the book.
Another thing to consider is while you can pick up good habits from being critiqued and critiquing, you can also pick up bad habits. And this isn’t something you obviously do subconsciously. It’s why Casey and I both agree, you need to pick partners that are close to your level and have the same goals. You also want to make sure that the person critiquing your book isn’t projecting their own writing and ideas into yours. Meaning, they’re honed in on how THEY write and not how YOU write (though below you will see how it can be done in a way that shows it’s an opinion).
It works the same in reverse. Whenever someone makes a comment that makes me immediately shake my head, nope. You’re wrong. Screw you. I need to consider why I had such a strong reaction. Usually means that there is at the very least, a hint of truth in the comment.
One thing that Casey and I will do in a comment is write: I would do or if this were me. That’s qualifies the opinion. We only do this when we KNOW we’re projecting. That is key: Understanding the difference between suggesting something based on an analysis of the writing and telling a writer an opinion.
Here is an example of making a suggestion based on analysis:
This is based on analysis of my writing, specifically of my character development and is the character behaving as I have crafted. It took some fineness for me to change this in a way that really worked, but the comment really made me think about what my possessed character was doing and how she was changing.
Here is an example of a comment made based on an opinion:
The reason I wanted to show these in a wrap about critiquing is that I truly believe it’s important to understand we all have different perspective and realities. This is Casey’s opinion and she states it clearly. It’s not about the writing. It’s not about how to make the scene better. It’s an opinion and trust me, I’ve given her my fair share of opinions on things I absolutely would not do or would not want to read. It doesn’t make what I did wrong. Or right. And to be frank, I left the reference in. Did I take a risk? Sure. But I also took a risk in another book by dealing with religion and how it can affect relationships.
But here is the deal. I’m glad she made the comment, giving me her opinion. I trust and value her critiques. It doesn’t mean that I think she’s the be all end all. But I left that comment bubble in the book until the very end and went back to it and decided it went to a point I had made later on in the book.
I have found that when I’m in the right situation, I find myself pushing to be a better writer because as I read my partners material, I’m thinking, damn that was good. I want to be able to write like that. Or as I read their comments and analysis, I think, wow, that’s interesting. I never looked at it that way. It’s why Casey and I are good together. Her strengths are very different from mine, so we’re constantly learning from each other.
Being critiqued is as important as critiquing. It only works when each person takes responsibility for their own writing and their own comments and analysis of one’s work.
So, yes. Critiquing can absolutely make us better writers, but we have to be aware of the built in pitfalls and constantly question both yourself, and you’re partner.
Before I get into the topic of today’s post. Here are some pictures of the Jupiter Writing retreat. We had lots of laughs and enjoyed the sites around my little town. I didn’t get enough writing done, which is okay, the laughter made it all worth it!
Casey talked about how she can’t stand writing first chapters. This is the one place she doesn’t sort of follow one of our rules about critiquing. IT’S A DRAFT.
I say this because she’s spending a lot of time making it PERFECT. Trust me when I say, she does not sweat like this when she does the other chapters. They come flying at me one right after the other. My theory on this is that she’s trying to get to know her characters and story better. Setting it all up nice and pretty.
Fuck pretty. I’m sitting here in my PJ’s writing this post. My hair looks worse than in the pictures above and I’ll stay that way all day!
First chapters for me are easy. They flow from my brain to my finger tips to the page in seconds. It’s exciting. It’s like driving your new car for the very first time. You want to check out all the features and when you pull out onto the street, your heart races and you have a smile plastered across your face. You love it so much you want to show it off. You take people for rides and you drive places and don’t need to be there.
I love first chapters. But I spend a lot of time with my people and I have an outline written out before I even sit down to write. I’ve taken the time to write my blurb and in my head, I know that climatic scene, so I know where I’m going. If I don’t have an ending in mind, then I will get lost and that often means I started the book in the wrong place.
The other thing is I generally like to start in action in the first chapter. That’s my thing. It’s my strength. Most of the time I have too much action, a lot of dialogue and NOTHING else, and I’m okay with that. I TRUST that Casey will point out the places I need to layer in all the good stuff. I also TRUST myself to do it because the first chapter is one of the last chapters I completely edit.
Because once I get to the end, some things have changed, so some things might need to be added to the first chapter, and also, I can see the nuggets I had might have edited out. For example, I had a character I introduced in a first chapter that I honestly thought, fuck, I have to take her out, she means nothing to the story. But oops, chapter ten there she is and she’s very important.
I have confidence in my first chapters mostly because I’m so freaking excited about the story that it shows in what I write and that’s a good thing. It might be a false confidence, but when I sit down to write a new story, I’m busting at the scenes.
Here’s the deal with my first chapters. I don’t read and reread looking to make sure I set it all up. I take the creative energy it generates and keep writing. I almost always write the first 10k of a story in a day or two. Then I pitter out a bit.
Because it’s not so new anymore. LOL.
And now, I’ve been told have to talk about sex…
I don’t hate writing sex scenes. But I do avoid them. I will go clean my son’s bathroom instead of writing a sex scene. You’d think because it is in part an action scene, I’d be good at it and enjoy it (yeah, don’t go there, this is FICTION not reality).
Ever watch the movie Overboard? One of my favorite lines is, “What, no boom boom?”
That’s what my characters say to me as they stare at me waiting for me to write their love making. Ugh.
I dread writing sex scenes, even though I use them to show emotional growth and change in a character, and let’s remember, they have to move the story forward. In my book, The Return Home, there is only one scene because that is all the story required. In Summer’s Gone, there isn’t a single one. Lots of attraction and some making out, but no sex and that is because of who the characters are, not because I don’t want to write them.
While I love language and swearing rolls off my tongue like honey dripping off a spoon, word choices bother in me sex scenes when I read them. Like the word Penis. Nope. Please don’t use it in a sex scene. I’m like, ewe. But I also don’t like writing the three C’s and they isn’t, church, cooking, or cleaning (go see Casey’s post if you can’t figure them out). While I write sort of graphic sex scenes, I try to focus on the emotion…BINGO that’s my problem.
Writing emotion, or showing emotion, is difficult for me. The Return Home was a very emotional book and not only did I cry writing it, but it took longer than I thought it would. There is no suspense and even though there is only one sex scene, the entire book is a big old puddle of emotions.
No one got murdered. No one turned into a Fairy. There was no high-speed car chase to break up the emotions that are so hard for me to get on the page.
So I avoid it.
But, one thing I always do when I go through a book for the second and third time, is I layer that emotion right in. I can do it when I’ve gotten everything else down on the page, so to write an emotional scene is like, fuck, do I have to?
I also write linearly. So, that means I HAVE to do it right then and not jump to the next scene. Why? Because it’s an emotional scene and it might reveal something about my characters I didn’t know.
Everyone has something they struggle with. What’s yours?
There is a bit of controversy out there in writer critique land if you should be giving your critique partner your best work or your first draft. The answer to that is not whether one is right or wrong, but what one is looking for in a critique, what one wants to give in a critique, and what one believes will best serve them. I also think, the answer come in where you are in your writing career and the development of your craft (which is always getting better). Casey and I will cover that in another topic soon.
When Casey and I first met. We both came at this critique thing with each other wearing protective gloves. This is because we both had bad past experiences. Those experiences helped us shape the critique process we have now. Neither of us wanted a line edit. We didn’t want proofreading, although we’d say, if you see, feel like fixing it, go for it! We also didn’t want smoke blown up our skirts. We wanted honest and real.
Last week Casey talked about taking care of what you have and not becoming complacent as a critique partner.
Every time I get a critique back from Casey I get excited about finding out all the things she found wrong, or that could be better, or that I missed an opportunity, where I can amp up the tension, make a reader care, whatever. If I ever got a crit back from her that had a comment or two, a few fixed typos, and tells me I did a good job.
She’d be fired.
Of course, the few times (okay, maybe once in the last, I don’t know, two years) I’ve gotten a critique that had very few critical comments. I immediately picked up the phone and said, “WTF? There has to be something wrong with this bad boy.” To which she replied, “It was a real shocker to me too, but other than that one area, I thought, damn girl, you rock.”
Trust me, the next one that came back, I saw so much red I cried tears of JOY! See, I like editing and rewriting. It’s my favorite part of writing. I’m that weirdo that HATES drafts, except first chapters, but I digress. I’ve never thought I’ve gotten anything “right” on the first try. I shine in second and third draft. I layer in second and third draft. Though, because I focus on action and dialogue, I often miss little opportunities, which is why I need Casey to constantly show me where I can amp up the tension and emotion. Without her, I think my books would be a bit flat.
Her post last week talked about taking care of what you have and not becoming complacent. Now let’s look at what Casey does…one thing she has a tendency to do is give me way too much information in a short period of time. I’m overwhelmed. The reader might be overwhelmed. She might have a reason for doing it, but if I don’t keep pointing out when I’m bored, or she’s beating me over the head with something, or I’m lost in the detail and not the story, or I’m starting to skim, not carrying much about what she’s writing, then she might not know where she’s mucking up. Thing is, almost every time I tell her this, she’s like, well this person or this thing is important because of XYZ. Okay, but there is NO NUGGET that makes me care. You have not planted that SEED. Give that to me! And she always finds it usually by doing two things. Tightening where she can, giving the reader only what they need in that moment, and finding that one little bomb that says, you need to know this. But poor Casey is stuck with me giving her comments like this.
Or, I often toss a bunch of questions at her about what I’m reading. I don’t have to have the answers because you have to remember, she might want me as a reader to be thinking all this stuff. Or it just might be, okay, I don’t HAVE to give the reader all this right now and it goes back to what does the READER HAVE TO KNOW RIGHT NOW.
Now, some of you might be thinking, God, Jen, you’re mean. Or geez, Jen, why are you airing CASEY’s dirty underwear out there. And I want to make this clear. The reason why I’m giving you examples of my critique of Casey is to show how I’ve come to know her as a partner and how I help her make her writing better. Basically, calling her on her shit. And her calling me on mine. Not only do you have understand your partner’s voice in draft mode, but you have to understand how you critique. It’s essential that you’re working on their writing, not projecting your own into.
Another thing to consider is to be assertive in what you need. There have been times when I’ve said to Casey that I really need you to look for certain specific things. It’s not because she’s not doing it, but it’s good to restate your needs.
Also, when writing something that is a little out of my comfort zone, I will ask her to focus say emotion or character development.
And here is another thing to consider, sometimes we focus on what WE do in our writing and not what THEY do.
If I’m told often enough that I have a specific bad habit, I will start to notice it in everyone else. It’s part of learning who you are as a writer.
I think Critiquing in DRAFT MODE is an important concept because too often we focus on the mechanics. The Oxford comma. The word WAS. We’re not line editing. We’re not really even being developmental editors. We’re doing a stream of conscious commentary on a writer’s draft. Understand, that the draft may go under many edits after that. I’m just seeing Casey with her pants down.
The continued conversation about critique from the other half… “Seriously, take your ‘potential’ critique partner/group out for a test drive.”
You know that feeling you get when you leave a conference, or your local chapter meeting, and you’re all jazzed up. You met some pretty freaking fantastic people and you think, “Wow, I need and critique partner and she’d be perfect?”
Sleep with her first.
But you know what I mean, I hope.
One thing you’ll find out very quickly while reading this blog is that Casey is the funny one. I’m the serious one. Not that I can’t be funny (if you find the above is laughable), or she can’t be serious, but we approach things from different perspectives and for us that is a very good thing.
And we test drove each other (it did include being roommates and having to share a bed), but more importantly, we did not jump into a critique relationship right off the bat not knowing each other and expressing what our career goals are, how we approach the business, and a whole lot of other things. I mean, when I buy a car, I want to make sure it has the bells and whistles I want and need, not the bells and whistles someone wants to sell me.
Casey said some really fantastic things in her blog, and I agree with every single one (I’ll warn you, that doesn’t happen all the time, and again, that’s good).
I think the two most important things she mentioned are that your critique partner needs to check their ego at the door (and so do you) and secondly, critique partners need to care about each other’s success. We need to raise each other up, while we shred each other’s work.
The only goal in critiquing is to help the author make THEIR book better.
Here are my hard and fast rules.
- Don’t jump in with two feet. I’ve done this before, and it was disastrous. It’s like meeting someone and moving in three days later thinking I know enough about that them to spend all of my time with them.
While you’re in your dating phase, talk about goals and expectations. Listen to what your critique partner wants and needs. Express what you want and need. Discuss past critique relationships and why they worked and didn’t. I would also suggest that you at least take a peek under the hood, as in READ some of your potential new partner’s work.
- Be honest (without being cruel) – if you can’t tell your critique partner something isn’t working, then what is the point of being critique partners? My role is to find things that are either missing, don’t fit with the character or plot, or are dropping down a rabbit hole that is a dead end. This might not be the best example, but it shows my honesty.
But remember when being honest, to be real in why you feel the way you do and understand you maybe projecting personal opinion.
- Do project your personal opinion – remember, that it is an opinion and just because it bugs you, doesn’t mean it will bother anyone else. So remember there is a difference between critiquing story, and expressing a feeling. BUT both are important because again, the goal is to make the book better. So go back up to my first rule: BE HONEST.
I like this example that I sent to Casey because really, I went right to my weird obsession with Hannibal Lecter, but even this whacko has a limit, and for me, that just jolted me right out of the story.
Here is an example of where Casey did something similar in mine. I’ll be honest, I kept the reference to the hero’s use of weed when he was 17 in the story for a lot of reasons. She shared her opinion and feelings, and I did hear her, thought about it, and thought this is really part of his journey. It’s part of who he was back then.
- Never expect your critique partner to agree with your corrections or suggestions, much less use them.
This goes hand and hand with #3. Casey and I generally don’t go back and reread each other’s work to see what suggestions we made and if the other actually incorporated it. There have been times I’ve taken her sentence changes word for word, other times, just portions of them, and other times, I’ve gone in a completely different direction.
So, if your partner comes back to you and is upset because you ‘ignored’ them, it might be time reassess the relationship.
- Learn their choices and their voice. Casey and I do disagree on a few things and I’ve pointed out certain issues I have stylistic wise and she’s just like, “Yo, Jen, I’m not going to change this, EVER.” So, I have learned to step away. The example below is a good one.
I’m a stickler about speech tags. I’m also not a fan of flying body parts. So, something like: his eyes dropped to the floor, makes me nuts because that would hurt. Others may disagree, so in this case, I do stop commenting. It’s not my book. Well, sometimes I just have to say something and I’m sure Casey just goes, yep, NOPE. It’s all good!
- Ask questions. I always ask the writer questions in my critique. Now, I’m not looking for them to pick up the phone and call me and give me an answer. However, the author does have to have a good reason for what they doing. If they don’t, well, that’s a different story.
But I also ask questions because something popped into my head and I think it might be good for the story, or bad for the story.
- Share the love. I know Casey said this one, but it’s worth repeating. Why? Two reasons. One, we’re pointing out places that could be punched up, or potential issues with character or plot, but along the way, it’s always nice to know that something is positively perfection.
The second reason is sometimes I write something that I think is so freaking good, and it’s nice when Casey says, yep, you hit the sweet spot! (Often, she’s saying nope, that didn’t work, but hey, sometimes we have to kill our darlings.
- My final hard and fast rules… Re-evaluate your critique relationship.
As we grow and change as writers, so do our needs for critiquing. It doesn’t mean we need to change partners, it means we need to have a discussion with them about what we’re looking for. Sometimes I send Casey something to read and I ask for something specific, like, I’m concerned about how my heroine comes off, can you focus on that?
Every single time Casey sends me back a critique I get excited. I can’t wait to dive in and make my work better. That’s how a critique relationship should be.
Next up: Casey will be discussing how our specific critique relationship started and why, along with a few other tidbits. I’ll be adding on after she shows us her infinite wisdom!
You get two crafty word slinging bitches.
Or, as we decided to call it after toning down the awesome factor…Crafty Word Slingers.
Welcome to our world. Grab a drink, put your feet up, and get that mouse finger ready to do all the clicking!
So, how did we come to be?
Jen: I first met Casey on-line when trying to register for the NJRW conference and everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I hounded this poor woman for weeks in email, feeling a bit of the fool since at the time I was running the tech side of Cool Gus Publishing, go figure the techie got schooled!
Casey: This poor woman didn’t mind. Jen was just one of a hundred or so pain-in-the-ass emails she received daily from people who couldn’t find their asses with both hands. Since Jen had manners, and maybe recognized my willingness to smite anyone who rubbed me the wrong way, she rubbed me the right way (with words, don’t be a pig), and wound her way into my good graces.
Jen: Then came the conference and I was on a seek and destroy mission to find Casey and thank her. However, since she was the conference chair, she was busy, and I didn’t run into her Friday night. Saturday, I go to breakfast and since I’m a speaker, I go to my assigned table. I sit down, KNOWING I’m at the conference chair’s table and it dawns on me, I don’t have a freaking clue what this chick looks like. No idea. All I pictures are lips (see her logo and you’ll get it). Some woman, with red hair sits down and says hello and acts as if we met a dozen times. I’m like, crap, who is this woman, so I check out the girls…
Casey: My tits.
Jen: I read the name tag and then felt like the shmuck I am.
Casey: I won’t hold it against you.
Jen: Awe, thanks (only she reminds me of her tits all the damn time). That night, I went to the after conference party. I don’t remember exactly how we got to this statement, but a few drinks were involved and then Casey said: “It’s not like I was going to go to his hotel room and hump his leg.”
Casey: Oh, I can help you with that. I was psyched to have Bob Mayer presenting, but then, at the kind of last minute, he had to cancel and l all I got was you…no offense. I mean, you were great and all, but I didn’t have one freaking clue who you were, but Bob? Oh, I so knew who Bob was. I read everything he cowrote with Jennifer Crusie and dammit, I was finally supposed to meet the dude who wrote all the amazing boy parts in Agatha and the Hitman, Don’t Look Down, and Wild Ride. And I was trying to not be obsessive about it. Like most things, the more you try to not be obsessive about something, the crazier you look. In this case, the crazier I looked. So I made a joke about Bob avoiding me. After all, maybe he was catching my fan vibe and it wigged him out. I’m telling this to Jen who’s laughing. Then, while being my natural funny self I say, “Look, it’s not like I’m so obsessed I was going to show up in his room or something and try to hump his leg.” Now, here’s the thing…I go for the funny. Only these words rolled off just a tad too easy and we all froze the minute they were out. That is, until Jen burst out laughing so hard she wheezed and tears squeezed from her eyes. So, from that moment on, I became humpy. And I’m sure there’s still some question as to whether deep down I really want to bump uglies with Bob Mayer.
We left the conference and for WEEKS, I went on Facebook every Wednesday and wished Humpy (my original nickname for Casey) A Happy Hump Day! It was great because NO ONE got the joke but us.
For the next year, we chatted on-line, poked each other on Facebook, and then had a radical idea…let’s try being critique partners.
We didn’t enter into this situation lightly. We both had not so great experiences in the past, so we started out slow, but with one rule: Honesty.
For me, I knew I hit pay dirt when Casey wrote this:
This one is so hysterical that when I first read it, I peed my pants. When my husband asked what the hell was so funny, I said: “I’m having sentence babies with a new friend.”
Essentially, we sling each other’s words into the abyss!
But we’re more than critique partners. We’re more than friends. We’ve come to develop a business partnership that supports the other. Even we don’t agree (and we don’t always see eye to eye on things), we are there to lift the other without blowing smoke up each other’s ass.
Two and half years later, I feel like I’ve, know this woman since the womb (of course I came out something like 10 years earlier, but whatever). We’ve had our share of blips, and we’ll have more, but at the end of the day, we have each other’s crafty back.
Until the next time…sling those words!