First off…good morning everyone. I’m sitting in Jen’s kitchen in her slammin’ condo in Jupiter Florida alternating between blissful contentment because I’m here writing all the words and flashbacks from living in the oppressive heat and humidity of my Florida years I couldn’t wait to leave behind when I moved in 2009.
I know, I know, palm trees, warmth, and the ocean nearby. I should love it.
Here’s some of the tropical pretty I’m sitting in the middle of…
But I’m a northern girl. I grew up in Vermont. I live in Maine. There are four seasons there… instead of hot and hotter like they have here. I live just off the ocean now…but I don’t melt sitting on the sand. The water is so cold that you don’t get used to it, you just go numb after five minutes so you don’t mind the cold anymore and your nipples are so freaking hard they can cut glass.
So…I’m tolerating the heat and trying to keep my bitching to a minimum while I finally get some words down.
These ladies are helping…Stacey Wilk, Jen Talty, and Chelle Olson!
Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of today’s subject.
First chapters…the bane of my existence.
The reason I lie awake at night.
The thing that makes me flip my computer the bird, adopt semi-permanent resting bitch face, growl at the keyboard, pace on my postage-stamp size section of floor behind my desk, find all kinds of boring shit on Facebook utterly fascinating that I have to explore even if it means I lose hours, and finally, what makes me want to avoid my crit partner like the damn plague.
Yes, I have to fight my urge to avoid Jen.
Why you ask?
Because every time she talks to me she says, “Okay, love you, gotta go, and hey, send me shit.”
Send. Me. Shit.
Nope. I can’t send you shit.
Now I know she doesn’t mean shit literally. She’s not calling my first draft shit, but in my head, despite not being written, it’s shit.
My first resistance is the rush of my insecurities as a writer coming to the forefront and kicking me in the figurative teeth. It’s the fact that I’m a pantser for the most part writing on a deadline. It’s my needing to at least know the bare minimum about my chapters and characters, but having nothing but a dark, looming void before me. It’s about me forcing myself to write linearly when I’m not a linear writer. Because when I’m writing novellas, writing out of order is not nearly as effective.
I started out writing long books. And I have every intention of getting back to those books, but for now, I’m writing shorter works. These shorter works are so much harder. And that’s where I have a horrid problem with first chapters.
I want perfection in the first chapter before I send it to Jen.
Okay, so I know it’s just me. I know I’m picky. I can go back and rewrite, add in the nuggets I didn’t get in the first time, but I just don’t wanna.
I reread that chapter at least fifty times before Jen ever sees it.
My first chapters have to have all the elements to set up the other 8-10 chapters to come. They are the foundation by which the story stands. I’m totally fine with letting my ugly hang out in every chapter after. I’ll let my freak flag fly, but never in chapter one.
Of course, this also means that when I send that chapter one to Jen, I’m convinced it’s the best thing ever written. There couldn’t possibly be a typo. No missing words. My characters have been set up just right and there’s no annoying back story or info dumps.
Then she sends it back with fifty or so track changes.
Aaaannnnnnd I’m back to flipping off my computer screen.
So that’s my first problem with the first chapter.
The duh factor.
If you see Casey writing, you can practically hear it. The “duh” of a woman looking at the blank screen and saying, “What do you mean I need to just make shit up? There has to be more to that. It can’t be that easy.”
It is that easy.
And it’s that hard.
Anything that involves any sort of world building like creatures or lore in paranormal/fantasy or even if it’s contemporary/suspense and I’m coming up with an agency/company/network/business, I stall.
I mean, I stall like a middle-aged woman’s metabolism as she suffers from menopause, scorching hot flashes, and a thyroid disorder.
Jen, well, she’s a whole different animal. She’s a ball of wild abandon and just makes shit up. She’s confident in her ability to just put the right terms together and create something all hers.
I love that about her. I hate that I can’t. I hate that I examine everything to death. When I found the name for Aegis, I researched words that had to do with protection and shields. I toyed with the idea of putting two words together, but nothing ever sounded just right.
In other words, I wasn’t confident in any of it.
The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
Hi, I’m Casey. First chapters, invented terms/names are my weaknesses. I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of my own head long enough to get better at them. And that’s okay.
Pssst! You know why it’s okay?
Because I rock the boom-boom.
All. The. Sex.
Yup, I’m not afraid to admit it. My chapter one tells me at least 75% of what kind of sex my characters will have at the 50-75% mark of my book.
Because I’ve agonized over that first chapter, I know what my characters weaknesses are, I know what’s holding them back, and I know how those qualities have to play into how they come together.
I don’t have words that I won’t use. If clit, cock, or cunt fit (Jen’s three C’s), I use them. Even if the words are something I don’t use in real life, it doesn’t matter. I have to ask myself what the people I’ve created would use. I let my characters weaknesses and their POV’s drive the language. I’m a voyeur, in a non-perverted way of course, playing out their growth in the most intimate of ways. In this I need to do them justice, but they lay it all out for me. It’s less about my head and more about what my characters want me to see.
I remember to weave the transformation of emotion and the bond building through the words so the scene doesn’t turn into a mechanical sex pamphlet.
In order to do this, I throw away any ideas I’ve been harboring of hot sex. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met that have this idea in their head of a hot sex scene that they want to write, so they do, and it never quite sounds right.
It’s because it’s not right…for those particular characters.
You can’t force it.
Some writers will try to force it to work because they don’t want to let the idea go.
Well, technically, I can put a pair of size five undies on my ample ass, but it’s going to look like I tried to squeeze twenty-five pounds of shit in a five pound bag.
And the fact that I did will show.
The key to writing stellar sex is that it’s not personal preference. It’s what will be the hottest sex for your characters dependent on their wounds, emotions, what’s happening around them, and how they connect with one another. The minute you’ve accepted that, you’re halfway there!
Join us Monday where Jen will give us her wisdom on first chapters and the boom-boom and she’ll do it all from sunny, hotter-than-hell Florida!
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.
Jen is my current critique partner.
That sounds like I plan on replacing her, doesn’t it?
So why do I call her my “current” critique partner?
Because nothing lasts forever if you don’t take care of it and when I call her my current critique partner, it serves as a constant reminder to take care of what I have because I could lose it if I don’t.
Critique relationships start out like dating…
You come at each other at first showing the other person your absolute best. You’re still feeling them out to learn how they’ll react to you, to life, to the world around you. When you’re getting ready to go out you scrutinize your hair, makeup, and clothing. Everything has to be in place and perfect.
Then you start to show them bits and pieces of what they’re really in for…
It’s the fourth or fifth date, and you answer the door in yoga pants and your threadbare Rolling Stones T-shirt with the bleach mark on the front because you haven’t put on your date clothes yet, but your hair and makeup…they’re spot on.
Then you get comfortable…
A few months in, they’ve spent the night and they’ve seen your bed head and smelled your morning breath. You’ve stopped humming in the bathroom so they can’t hear you pee. The fear of having to poop while they’re around doesn’t make you so nervous that your stomach cramps and then you end up in the bathroom, the very place you didn’t want to be, praying the bathroom fan is loud enough to disguise your body’s revolt.
You’re critique relationship grows and changes just like any relationship. You start to recognize patterns and bad habits. Sometimes even the patterns in their bad habits. And you start to understand why, despite repeatedly mentioning those habits, they continue to do them. This is when you’ve reached the point of understanding your critique partner’s voice in draft mode. You recognize how they work. And it gives you a glimpse into a few of the things you’ll forever need to look for.
It’s also a warning sign for what you need to make sure you don’t start to glaze over and miss.
The most common issue I see in Jen’s writing is the sections that make me say, “So what?”
She quite literally has given me nothing about her character (usually the heroine) to care about. She’s put her on the page, but she hasn’t given her much for emotion and instead has propelled into the action. I’ve noticed when this happens she usually makes a lot of other minor mistakes with telling and passive voice, and mistakes with homonyms. These areas are also usually heavy in dialogue and often after a few sentences, I have to wonder what her characters are doing, their expressions, and how they’re moving in relation to each other. I basically get a whole lot of talking heads…and as a reader, I feel cheated.
In Jen’s case, I suspect this has a lot to do with the story moving so fast in her head, she’s trying to race to get it all down. We’ve all been there. No matter how fast we type, it’s two against one in there with our hero and heroine battling it out at a rapid pace while we’re trying to build the picture for the reader before parts of it disappear.
When I start to see these patterns, it’s because I’ve learned her voice in draft mode, I know I’ll always have to look for these sections.
Nope, the problem with a habit like this is it’s easy to gloss over them as her crit partner because I get used to seeing them. Think about your own writing. We all have missing words or maybe the wrong verb tense and what happens when we read it back?
Our brain fixes it before we even realize it’s there and we miss it again.
Bad habits can become ingrained just as good habits can.
Think about that relationship I spoke about above…think about when relationships slip into comfort mode.
It’s a risk a critique partner runs when they get used to another writer’s work. I’ve almost fallen into the pattern myself of glossing over those parts of her draft, assuming that after all this time she would go back and layer in details to give them more depth. The minute I let myself slide, I become an ineffective critique partner.
And that’s why it’s especially important to have that list of things to look for, habits that occur in draft mode specific to your critique partner so you won’t become complacent when reading their work.
- Make sure that although you’ve seen your critique partner at her worst and she’s breathed that morning dragon breath on you that you continue to be careful to pick apart her work so she’s always presenting her first-date-self to the reader world.
- Learn her voice in draft mode and make note of the reoccurring mistakes that won’t go away so you don’t become complacent and start missing them, too.
- Make sure you reevaluate your critique relationship, just like you would a marriage, and make sure it’s working for both sides. Modify where you need to. Be honest in those discussions.
Check in Monday where Jen is going to tell you a little bit about my bad habits in draft mode!
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!
A writer’s way of saying, “Does this make me look fat?”
Only, instead of hoping you’ll tell us we’re slammin’ in our bandage dress despite the fact we can’t take a full breath and our shoulders are hunched up to our ears, we want you to lay bare our ugly.
That’s right, if there’s toilet paper stuck to my shoe, my skirt is tucked into my pantyhose, and/or I’ve got a boogie hanging out my nose, otherwise known as having a bat in the cave, I want to know about it.
My crit partner is not there to spare my feelings and blow sunshine up my ass. She’s there to make me better. She’s the brutal personal trainer of the writer world. Think Biggest Loser brutality here! She’s making me live on boiled, lifeless lean protein, arugula, and water. I may never see sugar again. She’s making me workout three, sometimes four hours a day. I’ve got shin splints, blisters, and head-to-toe muscle fatigue.
She’s making me stronger, fiercer, and capable of a long, successful future.
She’s going to pick apart every line, every plot point, every word and drive me to be better. I’m trusting her to make me the best writer me I can be. I’m trusting her to put aside any feelings of competition and focus on my work separate from hers.
Most importantly, I’m trusting her to care about my success as much as I do. If she doesn’t…this doesn’t work.
I’m an odd one. For the most part, I keep my ego completely out of the process. Sure, there’s an occasional ding. Sometimes I sit back, flip off the monitor, and give it some major side eye as I focus on something a little less scathing. But ultimately, I relish the opportunity to get feedback from someone who gets the struggle to find the best words and the best flow to write their best story.
Another writer trying to give at least one more reader all the feels.
When looking for a critique partner, I look for the same. I can’t spend my time worrying she’ll get her panties in a wad because I’m honest.
Egos have no place in this.
I need a partner who is just as driven to elevate their talent and uplift mine as well.
I have six hard and fast rules for critiquing:
- Use Humor – Always. We’re picking out mistakes. Mistakes we’ve all made thousands of times over. We can laugh about it. My job as a crit partner is to take out the sting in the evaluation by making it funny. Humor works to keep your partner from sliding into defensive mode.
- Explain – Don’t just say something is not working. Explain how. Most importantly…give concrete suggestions/examples of how to fix it. Often if Jen’s wording isn’t working for me, I’ll give her at least two examples of how she could change it or strengthen it. If I’m going to find fault with something, I’m going to explain why. Even if those examples don’t work for her, they could very well jog her creativity and give her and idea on how to make it better.
- Give those examples to her entirely – If I take a sentence that’s not working and give her two or three alternative sentences that flow better, I give her the freedom of using those sentences word for word. I know, sounds like a no brainer, right? Well, not in the writing world. People get a little sideways about that at times.
- Make it a “we” thing – Like I said before, we’ve all made the same mistakes. And no matter how we improve over time, we will inevitably slip into those mistakes again. The story will race through our head faster than we can dance our fingers over the keys. We’ll reread it and find out we did a whole lot of telling and not much showing. We’ll duplicate words. We’ll have a favorite verb crop up in every other sentence. It’s the nature of writing. So, often I will point out something and after I do, I’ll say, “I do the same thing when the story is flowing. I imagine your hands couldn’t keep up with you and you just had to purge. I have to go back and clean those bursts of creativity up sometimes, too. No worries.” Remind your crit partner that you’re in it with them every step of the way and that you go through it, too.
- Don’t forget the love (See example above) – Make sure you tell your crit partner what’s working. Always reinforce the good habits and let them know when the words are all coming together, or even better, when they’ve managed to drop a line so good that you just sit back, bob your head, and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” Not just for the ego boost, but so they can refer back to that and let it inspire them in scenes they’re struggling with in the future.
- You’re crit partner is not always right – Yup, I said it. Your crit partner is a whole other human being with emotions, perceptions, habits, and desires completely different from yours. They’re shaped by their unique history and with that comes a perspective that might not always jive with yours. Sometimes that comes out in the critique. Maybe they don’t see your character using a certain word or having a certain attitude. Maybe they don’t see the connection between characters as you’ve intended and tell you that you need to change A, B, and C.
But you love A, B, and C. A, B, and C were moments of brilliance and poignant.
But you done went and screwed up how you delivered them. You didn’t offer them up on a pretty porcelain platter; you served them up on a garbage can lid. A, B, and C may not have to change…the fault may actually be with the way you set up your story to present them. Your crit partner does not know your characters the way you do. They don’t talk in her head. She can only know them in the way you deliver them and if something you really love isn’t working, it might just be that you didn’t drop all the info you needed to about them in previous chapters. In my case, I have a habit of my heroines saying something saucy and Jen comes back and says, “I don’t see her using that word or phrase.”
So I go back. I look at her interactions in dialogue in the previous chapters and make sure I’ve brought out the personality I see for her. Sometimes all it takes is a line or two. Maybe I need to add an interaction. Either way, once I do, I’ve fixed the problem. Jen was right, but I didn’t have to remove A, B, and C.
Now go forth and find your absolute best critique partner. Forge bonds. Build each other up by tearing the words down.
And when all is said done, realize and accept that the minute you engage in a critique partnership, it will change the way you read everything in your future. Even if for pleasure. There’s no avoiding it. You will no longer read as a reader does, and you never will again. While that’s a scary reality to face, you’ll be a much better writer for it!
Signing off for now,
Welcome to The Crafty Word Slingers Blog by Casey Hagen and Jen Talty. Join us on our creative train as we share the inner most secrets of our writing minds.