Oh, yes it most certainly can!
Every single book I’ve ever written has a nugget of my life or the lives of people around me. Sometimes that comes in a form of a character’s behavior, a hobby, their career, but often in my books, it comes in the form of an incident.
An incident of the accidental and mortifying variety…
So let’s take a look at a couple of my favorites!
Falling in Fiji:
He shifted to cover his growing problem. A glance at Corrine confirmed that she was fully engrossed in an article in her magazine. Everett did a double take when he read the title. “You Did What?—Most Embarrassing Blunders from Loyal Readers.”
“What are you doing?” she asked as she folded the magazine in half.
He shrugged. “It seemed like an interesting article.” He leaned over and whispered, “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done, Corrine?” He didn’t miss the goosebumps rising on her skin as he whispered low into her ear.
Her face turned beet red. With jerky movements, she shoved the magazine into her large purse. “I don’t even know you, and you want me to talk about my most embarrassing moment.”
“What better way to get to get acquainted?”
She turned in her seat as much as she could and crossed her arms. “Fine. You first!”
He’d gone and done it this time. He had a few embarrassing stories, but one stuck out in his mind. He’d never told anyone. “It just has to be an embarrassing story, right? Not my most embarrassing?”
Her eyes flashed, and the sly grin from last night spread across her face. “Oh no. You asked me about my most embarrassing moment. You want it? Give me yours.”
“And what if, Corrine Anderson, I give you mine and you choose to hold out once you have what you want?”
“That’s a chance you’ll have to take, Mr. Harden.”
Oh, the way she said his name like that. Formal, but not formal at all. Just to unnerve him, the way he unnerved her every time he used her full name. He liked it. He liked her. “All right, but I expect you to pretend you never heard this.”
“Oh, this is going to be good.”
“I got suction-cupped to my bathtub and couldn’t get out.” He gave her credit for not making a sound, although her mouth twitched.
“And how did you get out? Since you’re not still in said bathtub today.”
She let loose then, her light laugh dancing between them. Since she was already laughing, might as well go for broke. “And my sister.”
She laughed with her whole body. She slapped her hand down on his thigh and dropped her forehead to his shoulder. Damned if he didn’t have a stupid grin on his face. “Your laughter is detrimental to my ego.”
She wiped the tears coming from her eyes. “How old were you?”
He cringed. “Sixteen.”
“Oh my God! Wait, you still took baths at sixteen?”
“Often. I wrestled. My reoccurring shoulder injury made baths an almost daily practice.”
Her eyes roamed him up and down. “So they saw you?”
“Saw me what, Corrine Anderson?”
“You know what I’m asking.”
“I do. I just want to hear you to say it.” He smiled, unwilling to answer until she asked him the right question. He cocked a brow at her.
“Oh for the love of God. Did they see you…uh…your—?”
“Dick, okay! Did they see your dick?”
It seemed as though every eye on the plane locked on them. Corrine’s eyes widened. She slammed a hand over her mouth. A couple rows over, a girl asked her mother, “Mommy, what’s a dick?”
“Shhh. Don’t say that word, it’s naughty!” her mother replied.
“Thanks, lady!” the guy next to her yelled.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” She buried her face against his chest. When he started to laugh, she slapped his arm. “Don’t laugh!” she whispered furiously. “They all heard me!”
“Yes. They did.”
Her face went scarlet. “How much longer until we get there?”
He looked down at his watch. “Eleven hours.”
“I’m sleeping. For all of it!” She grabbed a sweatshirt out of her bag, balled it up, and tucked it next to her face as she turned to him and closed her eyes.
He pulled the sweatshirt away. “Oh…I don’t think so.”
“Give me that!”
He wedged the sweatshirt behind him against the window. “I didn’t get your most embarrassing moment.”
“Really? This didn’t qualify?”
“Well, that depends. Is this really your most embarrassing moment?”
Her eyes slid away. No. Not her most embarrassing moment.
“Now this I have to hear.”
“This is so unfair. Now you’ll have two stories.”
“It’s not my fault you couldn’t control yourself. Don’t worry. Something tells me I’ll make a fool out of myself somehow over the next week. Then we’ll be even.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“That’s supposed to make you feel less alone.” He tipped her chin up when she ducked her head. “Tell me. Our little secret.”
She bit her lip and glanced around.
Everyone had gone back to their business. They sat silent, eyes roaming over one another. Until the guy next to Corrine started to snore like a buzz saw. They glanced over simultaneously to find drool running out of the corner of his mouth, down his neck, and under his collar.
Corrine shivered and leaned a little closer. “God, that’s vile.”
“Kind of makes you wonder what his most embarrassing moment is, doesn’t it?”
She gave him a small smile. “Okay. Let’s get this over with. I was on a field trip with my school to a water park. I went down their steepest slide. When I got up”—she closed her eyes—”I didn’t know I’d lost my bikini top on the way down. I stood there, not a care in the world, with everything hanging out. Well, what little I have, anyway.”
He glanced briefly at the soft swell of her breasts. “You have just the right amount.”
“Oh…well. I—” Her throat worked. He’d surprised her. Hell, he’d surprised himself. He was a flesh and blood male, though. Her curves had grabbed his attention from the first minute, but he hadn’t been bold enough to call attention to it.
Embarrassing Moment: For my brother who actually did get suction-cupped to the tub!
Sunset at Lake Crane:
The players took their positions. The team split into two. Half wore their current jerseys, while the other half wore their old jerseys to distinguish between the mock teams. They used scrimmages to keep their skills fresh. Everyone fielded balls, and everyone took several opportunities to bat. Grant noted any minor issues that needed tweaking before Saturday. This was the time to correct any bad habits, distractions, or physical weaknesses, and adjust them as necessary.
Wyatt favored his left leg after a rough slide into third over a week before. He could play, but not at a hundred percent. Eric maintained his stellar pitching arm even to this day. Kent goofed off in left field a little more than usual. Grant would have to speak with him. Dallas, their catcher, preserved his natural energy. So much so that he couldn’t keep his horny, wandering eyes off any girl walking past the baseball field. It was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. Grant hoped to get him through the season without an injury from something as lame as his thinking with his little head.
“Dallas. Get your head in the game or your ass will be in the dugout.”
Dallas’s head snapped back to his coach, a wicked grin splitting his face. “Yes, sir.” He saluted with his catcher’s mitt.
When Grant glanced up to the bleachers, there was Erynn, reaching toward her feet to retrieve what, he didn’t know. Her breasts pressed tight against the V-neck opening of her dress, drawing Grant’s gaze like a magnet. No matter how she strained, she couldn’t grasp the object and ended up knocking it to the ground inside the bleachers. She clutched the sides of her flowing skirt, lifting it a bit as she made her way down, one metal bench at a time.
At the bottom, she knelt on the lowest metal seat, reaching for the grassy area behind the first row of the bleachers. Her dress stretched across the most edible, round ass he’d ever seen. Thanks to a little clumsiness on her part, his eyes got the full tour of all her delectable parts.
The breeze lifted the back of her skirt, giving him a creamy expanse of thigh before she slapped her hand down to stop it. His mind flashed to a time when he nipped at those thighs and soothed the sting with his tongue. He adjusted his waistband as his pants grew tight.
Grant was so focused on his perusal of Erynn’s body that the sound of the bat making contact with the ball didn’t register. Only when Marcus yelled, “Grant, watch out!” did Grant realize Dallas, their best hitter, had swung early, sending the ball just outside the third base line where Grant stood as base coach.
He didn’t feel the pain as the baseball caught his left cheekbone. His vision faded to black as he dropped flat on his back. He opened his eyes a few seconds later. At least, it only seemed like a few, but that couldn’t be right. He looked up to the brilliant blue sky ringed by his players’ faces. The muffled sound of Marcus talking sounded far away. Erynn knelt in the red clay dirt, running her hands over him. He could have told her that if she wanted to help him, she could move those hands a bit lower. Yeah, that would be sweet relief.
He blinked a few more times and sat up. Red clay dust clouded the air from the accumulation of feet stirring up the third base line. The clashing voices of his team rang in his ears, as did Marcus’s authoritative voice and Erynn’s anxious questions. He ran a knuckle down Erynn’s damp cheek.
“I’m okay. Don’t cry.”
She smacked his hand away. “I’m not crying, you big jerk. Why the hell weren’t you paying attention?”
“Man, Coach, I could have killed you,” Dallas said.
“Nah, Coach is indestructible,” Josh said.
“Really? The way I see it, he chewed my ass for checkin’ out Carmen and Daniella. Then he went on to do the same thing and got himself knocked out.”
“Yeah, I saw him. He was checking out, uh, I don’t know your name. What’s your name?” Mike asked Erynn.
“Oh, I’m Erynn.” She reached out to shake Mike’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” Mike said.
“Ouch, son of a—”
Marcus held the towel and ice steadily on Grant’s face. “Easy, you’re going to need stitches.”
“I’m fine.” Grant started to get up, but Marcus shoved him back down on his ass.
“Sit still for a minute. You’re not bleeding out in my new car.”
“My car is here,” Grant said.
“No. You’re not driving.”
“I can take you,” Erynn offered.
“Erynn can take me.”
“No can do. I have to fill out paperwork on the incident for the school anyway. Go ahead and take Grant’s car back to his house. I’ll bring him home when we finish.”
“Wait, are you staying with Coach?”
“She’s staying with me for the duration of her interview of our creative writing program. Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“My mind? You’re the one watching the wind blow her skirt up.”
“Apparently you didn’t miss it either, Mike.”
“Well, yeah, look at her.”
“Practice is over. I expect everyone back here right after school on Thursday,” Marcus said. The guys finally got the point and filed into the dugout.
Erynn clasped Grant’s arm. “Can you stand up?”
“Yeah.” He levered himself up to his knees and the world spun. Erynn held his elbow and waited. He took a few deep breaths before he tried again. He wobbled at first, but recovered and stood. He reached for his cheek where Erynn’s hand held the towel to his face. She peeked under the terrycloth and frowned.
He hissed at the sting and slid his hand up under hers to take the towel from her. They stood like that, just staring, her soft, warm hand cradling his, on the towel.
“Okay, guy, let’s do this,” Marcus interrupted. The intimate bubble burst, and Erynn looked away toward the stuff she’d left on the bleachers.
“I’ll see you at home later, I guess.”
He didn’t miss the hitch in her voice on the word ‘home’. “Yeah,” he rasped.
“Okay, well—um, good luck.” She marched away, muttering to herself.
“Come on, Romeo. Let’s get that ugly mug of yours put back together,” Marcus said.
Real Life Moment: Getting grazed in the cheek…happened to a guy I know 😉
Fun Fact: The above moment with the hit to the face…well, a hugely famous author read this book and actually told me that this injury couldn’t happen and not be bruised and awful looking a week later when I reference the injury later in the story. She said this happened at her nephew’s game and she knew for a fact that my account is inaccurate. What she didn’t consider is that I also had this experience and I knew for a fact that a week later it can almost look as if nothing happened. That’s the difference between a direct hit and a graze along a cheekbone that can slice the skin open.
This is a prime example of how writers write what they know. We observe. Sometimes at a distance with strangers. Sometimes we pull old memories from our memory banks. Everything we see shapes us and flows into our narrative making our characters come alive.
And often, in talking to readers, family, and friends, we borrow their memories and experiences for inspiration, too!
Every step of the way, whether novice or seasoned author, whether this is a hobby or career, we all have those roadblocks that drag their concrete asses over and plop themselves right in front of our creative highway.
The ones I had in the beginning are far different than the ones I have now.
You might see a bit of you in what’s to come…
You might be sitting in the center of what I’m about to describe…
You’re a new writer. You’ve been an avid reader for years. Essentially, through the process of devouring books, deep in that voracious brain of yours, you already know everything you need to in order to write your own book. No, it won’t be pretty. It will need heavy editing. But the pieces are essentially there in your mind just waiting for you to use them if you wish.
So, one day you sit down at the computer. You start paying attention to your favorites, what they do, what they talk about, events they travel to. You start to piece together the nuts and bolts of an author’s life beyond the final product that hits your kindle on release day. You see they’re going to RWA Nationals, or other small conferences. You see them talking about filling up their creative well.
So you start joining writer groups. You take some online classes. You one click thirty million books about saving cats, hooks, and writer tool kits.
You are pummeled by information about the “right way” to write.
The writer word starts screaming at you, sometime their advice solicited…often their advice unsolicited…
Other writer 1: “You have to outline.”
Other writer 2: “If you pants it you’ll never finish.”
Other writer 3: “First kiss by the 25% mark, sex by the 50% mark, black moment/climax at 75%.”
Other writer 4: “This trope is overdone.”
Other writer 4 (That chatty shit): “That trope is overdone, too.”
Other writer 6: “Write to market.”
Other writer 2 (Yeah, that asshole is back): “Incorporate high concept.”
You: Wait, what? What the hell is high concept?
Other writer 7: “Write what you know.”
Other writer 7 again after you show him/her your idea: “Wait—not that. Write something else you know.”
Other writer 3 again (The one writing formula romance only): “Oh, that’s not allowed.”
Other writer 8: “Don’t make it too gritty.”
Other writer 8 again driving his/her point home: “That’s not safe.”
Other writer 9 who is in the same writing group as other writer 8 and often wants to smack that uppity ass upside her bland head: “Don’t make it too sterile.”
Other writer 10 (This one is likely traditionally published and will offer to read your first 50 pages for you): “Don’t make your conflict a simple misunderstanding solved by a conversation.”
Blah, blah, blah, freaking blah.
See that utter bullshit up there? That’s what a beginner writer’s problem is.
Right. Freaking. There.
You’ve decided to write a book. Your family is patting you on the head and saying, “Oh, hey, that’s great” and rolling their eyes the minute you’re not looking. Classes are introducing aspects of writing you’ve never thought about. You’ve always loved the sausage, you understand it’s not just pork, but this is the first time you’re seeing the recipe to make the sausage. You are seeking information and getting bombarded with a bunch of unsolicited advice. You’ve convinced yourself that what you write has to be perfect before anyone can see it.
And you’re letting a writing world, one with old school veterans and breakout indies tell you there is a certain way to do it that’s the only right way.
I’m here to tell you, that’s utter bullshit.
When I started, conflict was a big deal. Conflict had to be strong. Now that our real life climate has become so divisive, romance is changing and becoming conflict light. As for that conflict that other writers might dismiss as not strong enough since it can be cleared up by a simple conversation…you have to ask yourself why the characters don’t have that conversation. If your characters are closed off, avoid confrontation, or maybe are young enough that they aren’t that forward yet, it’s understandable that the conversation would not unfold. A young adult is going to be less likely to lay it all on the line than an experience adult who has a serious relationship or two in their history.
Rules change all the time. They evolve. Traditional publishing is careful about what they publish. They take less risks. Indies are all risk. They don’t conform. They are the divergents of the writer world.
As a new writer, you’re worrying about being perfect, about following formula while finding your voice…about being accepted. Not just by readers, but by fellow writers. That’s the pressure that sits on the chest of a new writer.
Once you shed those confines, make connections, build confidence, you start to shed those roadblocks.
Which opens up room for roadblocks of a whole different variety…but more about that another day!
Write fearlessly. Right now that story belongs to you. Make it larger than life. Write something that makes you laugh, get mad, and cry. Even better, write something that makes you do all three at once.
Worry about the rest later.
Ahh, the shiver moment. That moment in time where you read something you wrote and goosebumps. The hair stands up. You know the moment I’m talking about. It’s when you look around you, you see your family, or maybe you’re alone in your office, and realize that no one quite knows what just happened and there’s no real way to explain.
I have a feeling the shiver moment is more profound for me at times since I’m a pantser.
A pantser who is currently working really hard at not being so damn pantsy. So far it’s not going so hot. I’m definitely trying to shoot holes in the theory that there is a way to outline a book for everyone.
Anyway, that’s not what you’re here for today. Today we talk about the shiver moment. You know the one…where something you write is so great that your fingers freeze over the keyboard, forcing you to take in the words in all their glory. Or…that moment where you’re pantsing *Casey raises her rebel hand* and words fly from deep in your psyche through your arms, hands, and BOOM…they’re right there on the screen…finally telling your character’s “it” factor.
I’m a firm believer that these moments come to writers easier when they shed the confines of writing rules or what other writers say you should or shouldn’t do, and just let those rogue fingers fly.
Those are the snippets of work I go back to when insecurity tries to grip me by the throat. They drive me to tell the next story, and the next, and the next.
So this week, it’s about showing you our shiver moments.
And it’s important to note…a writer’s shiver moment isn’t necessarily the readers. It can be, but it’s really about those little glimpses that encourage a writer to believe in themselves or that moment when the pieces slide into place and you learn something about your character that makes the whole character arc come together.
So…I’m going to start with Sunset at Lake Crane. Super emotional story that had lots of shiver moments. My hero is gutted. Gutted and angry. Angry almost to the point of not being redeemable. At last, not to traditional publishing.
Grant and Erynn had a rather taboo history. He was a student teacher her senior year of high school and shortly after graduation, they run into one another again, and a hot affair ensues. Now, don’t get that face…she was 19 when she graduated after missing a year of school when her parents died in a car crash. Without saying goodbye, before summer ends, she disappears without a word.
Now, it’s 8 years later. She Grant writes under the pen name, Alex Cole, and is a big time author who has managed to conceal his true identity. Erynn is an in-depth reporter for a literary magazine who manages to snag a rare interview with…you got it…Alex Cole. This is a scene from early on in her interview.
“I don’t do serious.”
His tone invited no argument, but the reporter in her wanted to know. So did the woman. “Why?”
“I just don’t.”
It was her turn to smirk at him. “Now who’s full of it?”
“Don’t,” he bit out.
“Can’t handle it?”
With surprising speed, he spun toward her. He leaned his face within inches of hers, the muscle along his jaw jumping. “Can you, Erynn? Can you handle it?”
“Absolutely.” She stood her ground, leaning toward him with almost as much aggression as he’d leveled at her.
“I don’t do serious because—” He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again she saw more agony in their depths than she’d thought possible. “I’ll never give another woman enough of me that she has the power to gut me when she walks away. Not. Ever. Again.”
Welcome to the moment where I realized I adore angsty, tortured, growly men!
Next is from Shielding Blair. I had been writing Evan as a secondary character for three books and he was the one of the four that I hadn’t really figured out. And in chapter two, writing this scene, I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to pull this story off…until this ah-ha moment. The moment I realized he needed to unfold for me at the same time as the reader and the reason I didn’t know much about him was because of his mysterious nature that was an integral part of who he was meant to be as a character in his own book.
“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 next snippet is the shiver moment that I didn’t even realize was one until Jen read it and told me. More than six months after this was published, she still recalled it as something of mine she read where she said after, “God, I wish I could write like that.” BTW…she’s got her own shiver moments that make me wish the same! This one is the opening paragraph of Marked…a story I just got the rights back to and will be republished soon:
White-hot rage permeated every last cell of Micah Alessi’s body. His fingers curled into his palm, his fists clenching until his neatly manicured nails left crescent digs in his olive skin. In a rare show of temper, he slammed his fist down on his two-hundred-thousand-dollar Parnian desk.
This is from Bewitching Her Warlock, on standby for republishing and my first paranormal…when I was terribly insecure about attempting to write paranormal.
They say knowledge is power.
Only, knowledge in its infancy can be a deep breath of horrifying realization before the exhale of heartbreaking acceptance.
Brigid O’Rourke held the stretched skin of her now-empty belly in the palm of her hand as her life leeched out in a river of red, soaking into the damp moss and the rich earth below.
Her girls would live.
She would not.
Her first glimpse of their pink, screaming faces had been her last.
Searing sorrow pierced her ravaged heart.
And finally, my second paranormal, On the Run, also waiting for republishing, where I realized, I might actually be getting the hang of this whole writing thing…
Conceit is poison.
It’s a sinister elixir that when left unchecked, runs rampant and infects everyone it touches like a futuristic superbug with no cure.
It seeps into their pores and attaches to their cells becoming a living, breathing shield that blinds one to their faults.
It annihilates humbleness and humility and turns people into pillars of judgment.
I worked next to her for years. I gave up time with my friends and family, and devoted myself to her work.
I made it possible for her to perfect the recipes for her concoctions by doing the thankless tasks in the shadows of her success.
I forfeited glory.
I see her now, through the dingy bay window of her atrium, bustling about. Dried herbs hang from twine strung back and forth overhead. The spring in her step tells me that she’s just come up with another recipe.
A new way to tweak lives.
One more step toward perfection.
I should be there, beside her.
She told me she would teach me the ways, make me her apprentice.
She turned me into her slave, and when it came time to fulfill her obligations to me, she said I was too lazy, too emotional, and untrustworthy to learn the secrets of the craft.
Little did she know, I paid close attention.
When she wasn’t looking, I wielded my power.
And she’ll pay the price…
I solidly recommend all writers mark down those moments in their writing and revisit them when insecurity bubbles up. Or when the story isn’t flowing. And definitely when the urge strikes to beat one section to death with editing instead of moving on to the next. Seriously, there are dark days ahead for all of us, whether we’re writing book five, forty, or one hundred, when you might need to pull them out to remind yourself that yes, you really can do this!
This isn’t me. I know, you’re shocked, right? LOL. My stomach has not been this flat since I was 8. And I’m definitely not rolling in enough money to have an office that looks like that. If I did, not gonna lie, I wouldn’t be getting much writing done. I’d be sniffing all the book interiors like a child of the 90’s huffing White Out.
This week we’re going to talk about common misconceptions about critique… for me, this is short and sweet. It comes down to one essential fact.
There are limits to a critique partner’s abilities!
Critique has the unique ability to both tear an author to shreds and build up their ego to mass proportions…often at the same time. It temps an author with a false sense of security.
It’s a misleading seductress…don’t fall for that shit!
Are you expecting miracles with the critique process? You think this means you can short change editing, skip beta reading, eschew a final read through with your own eyes?
Don’t tell yourself that lie.
- Critique is not a copy edit or a replacement for copy editing.
- Critique is not set in stone. It’s not all the right answers to the final exam.
- Critique is not a full reader perspective. Critique is not a replacement for a team of readers with different thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and life experiences.
- Critique is not a shortcut past all the other steps to polishing your work.
Critique is not line or copy editing. My focus as Jen’s critique partner is first and foremost story. We’re essentially developmental editors for one another and since we are, our focus is character and plot. We’re focused on wordsmithing the hell out of each chapter. In that process, we can’t also be focused on the technical aspects. After all, there’s a reason why there are different types of editors and why it’s always a good idea to hire different editors to do different types of editing. Fresh eyes for every level of correction. Don’t look for this from your critique partner. They make catch a few things here and there, but there’s no way in hell they’re catching everything. Hell, I have a BA in English Literature and still can’t master commas or proper dialogue punctuation. My verb tenses? A bloody nightmare. At this point, I would need rigorous training in order to even consider editing either punctuation or verb tense.
Critique is not set in stone. Jen’s opinion and commentary on my work, and mine on hers, is not the be all end all. It’s subjective. You take what advice resonates and leave the rest. If a comment resonates to a degree, but you don’t like your critique partner’s suggestion for how to fix it or change it, talk it out. It’s possible that the solution is somewhere in the back of your mind and by picking it apart together you’ll come up with a solution that fixes the issue, but is also a solution you’re comfortable with. It’s all pliable.
Critique is not the reaction all readers will have. Being an author changes how you read. Period. This colors our reaction to one another’s work. In order to get a true reader reaction…before publishing, of course, the story has to land in the hands of beta readers. Beta readers who are straight up readers and fans of the genre…in other words, don’t hand your chick lit or contemporary romance rom-com to an avid thriller reader. You won’t like the way it all turns out.
Critique is not a replacement for your own final read through. This really goes along with the editing. You have to read through your story one final time…after critique, after beta reading, after editing, and even after proofreading. There are no shortcuts in this. You’re the one who has it all riding on reader reaction. You’re the one with a fan base you don’t want to lose or maybe a fan base you’re trying to build. Don’t take shortcuts. Readers will notice. They’ll tell their friends. They’ll post it on social media. Worse, they’ll put down your book and never pick up another one you write. Can you afford to lose a loyal reader or a potential new one? No. None of us can.
Stay tuned for Jen’s take on the misconceptions of critique coming Monday!
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.
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!
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,