One day, long ago, in a round hotel, by a casino, in town not so far away, Casey and I sat eating cheese and drinking Diet Coke contemplated the topics we might cover here in the world of the Crafty Word Slingers. I sat with a yellow pad in my lap and created a schedule as we brainstormed our ideas. Ha! Brainstorming will be a topic in the coming weeks!
As you can see, I’m a very tactile person. I like to hand write things. I have an iPad and an Apple Pencil now and I love it. But I digress.
I’ve always tried to live by the idea that perception is reality. While we each might experience the same event our realities could be vastly different. I hate rollercoasters. They terrify me. So the few times I’ve gotten on one, it’s been hell. But my husband loves them, so for him, the same exact event is spectacular!
So, while Casey and I shared the same space for a great weekend (this I know she’d agree on), the ideas we settled on for this blog, our perception of what we decided might be different.
Why am I bringing that up? Because this can often lead to a misconception and misunderstanding.
I’m going to state flat out, that I agree with Casey’s post, especially that critique is not a shortcut past all the other steps to polishing your work, whatever those steps might be for you.
I remember my very first critique group. It was four authors. One published. Three unpublished. It was a great group. We meet up once a month, though we often tried to do it 2x a month. We sent each other a few chapters to read and when we got together, we openly discussed the work. I’ll never forget one author saying to me, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” Essentially telling my character was behaving like she was too stupid to live! We had one rule. The person being critiqued couldn’t talk until after all the other authors had their say. I love critiquing like this. It was like sitting back and listening to reader discuss your work, only it was your peers. At the end, we all gave each other the notes we’d made on the manuscript. This often had other mark-ups, like line-edits, tense issue fixes, typo corrections. If someone didn’t have anything for us to read, but wanted to brainstorm, then their time was used on that. I really feel like my storytelling really improved during my time with these women. They helped me develop three-dimensional characters and compelling plots.
But as things often happen, things changed and the group stopped meeting for a variety of reasons, one of which it didn’t work the same way it had in the beginning. Some of us were doing more work than others. Some of us were doing different things. It eventually became a grind, and not a positive.
I was devastated, but found another group. Five writers. All unpublished. We did chapter by chapter. I also loved critiquing this way. I got a wide range of opinions, but what was interesting about this group is that each one of us tended to focus on different things. Two of us (not me) did mostly line-edits. Very little story or character. Just line-edits. Let me tell you, I leaned a lot from those two women. It strengthened my writing in a different way. There were two of us (yes me) who focused more on plot. We were always asking them: what’s the conflict? Or, why are these people doing this? Does this matter? Is this driving the story forward? The 5th woman tended to only focus on character. And damn, could she write some really creative characters. I loved her characters and she helped us all with ours.
But this group had its own set of flaws and it created misunderstandings. Hurt feelings and eventually, it too collapsed.
I’ve been in some bad critique situations where every time I got a critique back, I had to go take a long walk before I opened it, knowing that it was going to make me feel like shit. As Casey said, critiques can tear us to shreds. This is why I always suggest you take baby steps into any critique situation.
But more importantly, not only do you have to take care of what you have, you have to take care of what you give.
I believe there are many misconceptions about critique, but it all starts with self and our perceptions of what we give and what we want to take. I talked about some of my critique situations because honestly, at the time, my expectations of critique were different ten years ago then they are now. My needs are different. My perception is different, therefore so, is my reality.
As a critique partner, you have to realize that you’re reading with a bias. Not necessarily for the writer, but for yourself. You come in with your own judgments and personality. Your ideology about story and writing. You’re own process. You have strengths and weaknesses. You have blindspots.
And so does your partner.
The misconception is that these things don’t affect how you give advice and how you take it. I believe it is very important to understand your own process in writing. The more you do, the better a critique partner you will be, because it will no longer be about you and your perceptions, but about your critique partners.
Next week. When to call it quits! Oh boy. I’m going to have fun with that one!
Everyone has a different writing process and this is one place where Casey and I really differ. Really, really, really differ.
I don’t love writing blurbs, but without that as the foundation of my story, I’d be totally lost when I tried to get past the first sentence. I always know when I struggle with the first chapter, it’s because the blurb isn’t right.
Or I didn’t write one. Bad me!
First, I want to address the blurb must be 150 words. This is something I had never heard of being a hard and fast rule. I know there has always been debate on how long they should be, what they should cover, etc etc. I do know that not all blurbs are created equal. Kind of like bios. I have three different bios I used for different things in writing depending on the audience. I think back in the day, the same was true. A writer need something similar to an elevator pitch. A short blurb covering perhaps just the story idea. And the long blurb.
I spent a lot of time back in 2004-2007 before I got my first book deal, writing query letters and approached a query letter as the back cover copy of the book.
That is how I approach my pre-writing blurb.
I believe a blurb must cover the theme and tone of the story, along with the central story question at the very base level. I think it should touch on the goals, motivations, and conflicts of the main character. I also think the more specific detail you give in a blurb, the more you’re either giving too much, or making the blurb flat and for me, if I wait until after I’ve finished the book, I tend to be focused on the details and it then reads something like, than this happened, than this happened and then OMG read to find out what happens in the end.
I’m a plotter who pants her way from point A to point B. I have to know where I’m going. I need a map.
Casey mentioned needing to know her characters first, and she got to know hers in chapter 2. Well, if I don’t know them from the get go, I’m screwed. I wouldn’t be able to write the first paragraph.
I don’t need to know all about them, but I do have to know their core personality. I also need to know where the story is going, otherwise I will get lost. Below are my notes for BURNING BED. I wrote those before I wrote the blurb. Then I wrote the blurb.
And remember, the blurb is subject to change!
So, what did I need to know?
The Story Idea: What if someone murdered your brother to cover up corruption in the local police department?
The Heroine: Tabitha Nelson. Age 28. Driven. She a real estate agent. Parents died 2 years ago in a car accident. Brother killed 2 weeks ago in a house fire. She thinks her brother was murdered because he was on to possible major corruption in the local police department, leading all the way to the District Attorney. She believes that the local fire inspector covered up evidence.
The Heroine’s Goal: Prove her brother was murdered.
Her Motivation: Clear her brother’s name (he was linked to a drug ring AFTER his death).
Her Conflict: Someone is trying to kill her.
The Hero: Garret Pierce. Age 30. Youngest of three kids. A bit shy with the ladies. Was called the Jolly Green Giant his entire life because he’d been so tall and it affected his self-esteem when it came to asking women out. Dry sense of humor. Sarcastic at times. But a really big heart.
The Hero’s Goal: Help keep his neighbor safe.
The Hero’s Motivation: He’s falling in love, but also, as they uncover evidence, he believes her brother was murdered.
The Hero’s Conflict: the man who maybe the mastermind is an old family acquaintance.
Now here is the thing. There is a lot I didn’t know about this story when I started. But as Bob Mayer always says, story can change, Ideas can’t. This why I try to keep the blurb I’m writing to share with the world free of specific details, but gives the reader a little tickle in their brain that says, read me!
Now, here is the blurb I ended up with, BEFORE I started the story based on the above.
Tabitha Nelson knows her brother’s death was no accident, regardless of what the local fire inspector and police department says. Having found her brother’s computer and all his notes regarding a local news story he’d been working on corruption, she makes it her personal mission to find out who killed her brother. Why they killed him. And to make them pay, even if that means pointing the finger to the first responders.
Only the louder she gets, the more strange and dangerous things begin to happen to her. This forces her to turn to her neighbor for help.
For two months, Air Force Fire Protection Specialist, Garret Pierce, has been admiring his sexy neighbor from a distance, trying to get up the nerve to ask her out. Now he tries to ignore her all together. He had nothing to do with fighting the local fire that claimed her brother, or the subsequent inspection of the cause. However, if looks could kill, he would have spontaneous combusted every single time they crossed paths.
So, when she comes banging on his doors at two in the morning, begging him for help because someone tried to set her house on fire, he’s more the skeptical. That is until she steps into her bedroom.
Together, the unravel a trail of corruption and a sinister plot that puts them both in the line of fire.
The real detail I have is the two in the morning. I added that in when I wrote it because it’s a key element in their romance.
For me, the blurb is my foundation. It’s my rock. It keeps me focused and whenever I’m struggling, I go back to this and see where I might have derailed. I’m not married to it and I can tweak it. That said, this is the IDEA for the story. NOT the story.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
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!