I hate blurbs.
I hate them with the searing heat of a thousand suns.
When I started writing, there was a rigid notion that blurbs should be no longer than 150 words, if you were a rebel and willing to push it, 200, and they had to conform to a three paragraph format. Her, him, them. Or Him, her, them…whichever worked. Quite literally the only real freedom was in whether or not to feature the hero or heroine first.
Then, as I tore my hair out while trying to conform to that style, I noticed an up-rise of fearless indies throwing caution to the wind and flipping their figurative middle fingers to the accepted conventions and going for it.
Suddenly dynamic blurbs of all varieties inundated the book world. We had short blurbs, long blurbs, fragments, first person, third person, one word declarations…wow!
It was literally the one stop candy shop of blurbs. It didn’t matter what your taste was, there was something out there for you from bitter dark chocolate to tart sour patch candies and everything in between.
I tried to break out of the mold. Dammit, I wanted longer blurbs, but everyone in my author groups, my tight circle of friends, those who had traditionally published or were currently traditionally published gasped at the idea. “You can’t do that!” they said.
Well, why the hell not?
I thumbed my nose at anyone who told me I can’t and instead did what I wanted. And it was incredibly freeing.
You know, as long as I could write them AFTER I wrote the story.
And then I was writing so fast I needed to have blurbs ready before the story was finished.
What do you mean I need to have them first? I’m a pantser. I don’t even know how it ends, hell, I’ve written stories where I’ve forgotten to give my hero and heroine last names until the very end. Now you want me to wrap up the basics of their story in a neat little bow?
*Stomps foot—flips the bird*
It’s just not the way my brain works. Oh, I can write the blurb first, but it’s going to be a steaming pile of poo and my story is going to go on so many different tangents that the underlying premise no longer resembles what I’ve been forced to put down on paper.
This goes back to my having the perfect first chapter. Look, logically I know I can go back and edit the first chapter. But it’s my framework. And the thought of building something on a foundation that’s not set, with rotting boards, rusted nails, and leaking windows is enough to set my heart racing while panic floods me from head to toe.
Since I don’t know my story, even condensing a story idea in 250 words is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to plot a whole book in a just a few words when I still don’t know my characters. I get to know them as I write. I start to think about their life situations and put together how based on who they were raised to be and who they choose to be influence the here and now.
I sometimes don’t know a whole lot about my characters until I’m a chapter or two in. I work them out on paper. Here’s an example:
“Well, well, well, now who is that?” Lavinia asked, an appreciative grin forming on her 1980’s red lips.
Blair followed her gaze, and her lungs seized on a gulp. “What’s he doing here?”
Lavinia’s drawn-on eyebrows disappeared under a poof of bleach-blond hair dropping low over her forehead. “You know him?”
He pushed away from the hood of his sleek, black, luxury whatever the heck it was car that might actually be just as mysterious and exotic as the man now walking toward her.
And so far out of her price range, it made her heart pinch.
“I’m not sure anyone really knows Evan,” she murmured as her mouth ran dry at the sight of him.
Black dress pants, probably designer from the sheen and quality cut, hugged his thighs as he strode toward her with one hand in his pocket and the other flexing at his side.
Tension radiated from him, but Lord help her, she didn’t care. She’d known from the first moment they’d met when she’d spilled her cup of spiced tea at her favorite coffee shop that he was something different.
He’d been polite, with those Clark Kent, square-jawed looks and dark-framed glasses designed to make the wearer look scholarly, but in his case, they only made her fingers itch to slip them from his face so she could get lost in the warm, amber depths behind them.
Fire and ice.
Cool and detached on the outside, but those eyes—God, those eyes told a whole different story.
An elusive tale likely no one would get to the bottom of.
This is chapter 2, page 17. Chapter 1 was in his POV and still I didn’t know who he was. Evan had already been in three other novellas as a side character. When the time came to write him, I hadn’t a clue who he really was, or what made him tick. I knew with all of the others even when they were still secondary characters.
The scene above was my “aha” moment. The reason I didn’t know who he was went right to the basis of who he was as a character so his being a mystery, even to me, worked!
So, how on earth am I supposed to write a blurb before I do the above?
Wanna see what happens when I try?
See…a hot mess! It’s okay, you can agree with me. I already know.
I struggle to narrow it all down. I find halfway through writing the actual book that my characters do not look anything like what I’ve outlined in my blurb. And worst of all, as a pantser, I find I’ve boxed myself into conformity and I struggle to let my characters drive the story because I’ve already committed them to a certain reality.
What I have learned, if I figure out how to do a rough outline, I might have a chance…but who are we kidding? I’m probably not going to learn hot to do a rough outline.
Because I’m stubborn.
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.
I could go on and on about how critiquing makes me a better writer. There are the obvious things like:
- The more I critique, the less mistakes I make.
- Having someone to call me on my bullshit keeps me from being lazy, taking shortcuts, and shortchanging the reader.
- Allowing someone to repeatedly pick apart my work makes it so I can take criticism easier.
Blah, blah, blah…
But there’s one thing that outshines all of the little things. Having a critique partner I can bare all to allows me to spread my wings and fly.
Writing is changing at a rapid pace and faster than ever before, especially with the explosion of indie publishing. Language is evolving. The hard fast rules are breaking down and writing is morphing into something driven by voice first, and all of the other facets coming in at a distant second. There are voices emerging that are so distinct, rules fade into oblivion. The reader is so sucked in, they’ll forgive almost anything.
Not that I suggest you ditch the rules all together…but we all have to admit, there are books out there that are absolutely brilliant that would have been cast aside to a slush pile not twenty years ago because they took liberties with the rules.
Because of that evolution in language, voice, and rules, we can take more chances than ever before…and having a critique partner spot you while you take that chance makes all the difference in the world.
With Jen by my side to review my work, I’m free to take liberties with words, structure, technique, and rules because Jen is my safety net. She’s going to make sure I don’t fail. She’s the first person to see where I’ve stretched my wings and taken a chance. She’s the one who will tell me if I’ve lost what little is left of my mind and need to reel that shit back in. She’s quick to recognize if I’m pushing the boundaries, but missing the mark, and she’s eager to jump in right alongside me to help me tweak those chances I’m taking.
Not going to lie, she’s kind of my idea dealer, too! She’s got the goods no matter when I need a fix. My own little plot genie. When I’m staring at chapter three and have no freaking clue where the story is going, she pulls out ideas, and she keeps throwing them at me until something works. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have her there to say, “You don’t like that idea? I’ve got another one!”
I can grow because she nurtures that growth. Sales numbers, stellar reviews, bestseller’s lists, and die-hard fans are all great, but they are the end result. It’s the person slogging through the shit with me during the process that propels me forward and makes me strive to improve each and every time.
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?
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,
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!