Sometimes, when I look back over my life, I think I got more done when I was running around with my head cut off like a chicken managing 3 kids in travel hockey, 2 on the golf team, 1 doing dance competition while working two part-time jobs and volunteering for the local hockey association and the PTA.
I am woman hear me roar!
That seems like a life time ago. Back then, I’d sneak in 500 words between putting kids on the bus 3 different schools, each bus coming about an hour after the other) before doing dishes, morning chores, and heading off to one of my part-time jobs. I’d then sneak in as many words as I could sitting, usually from 4pm – 10pm at the hockey rink. My kids at sandwiches, cheese, yogurt, fruit, and cucumbers that I packed most nights so they didn’t eat chicken fingers and french fries every night (though there were some of those nights). I stayed up late cleaning and doing laundry, then started the cycle all over again. Weekends were just as bad as my family split up because one kid had games in Canada, the other in Boston, and the other in Buffalo. Yeah, see how that works. But I’d sneak in my words sitting at rinks before the game started and sitting in hotel rooms.
Back then I was considered a fast writer.
Not sure I felt like I was, but I was an effective writer.
I still am. Only I get to write a lot more and it’s often uninterrupted writing (unless one of the 3 kids has returned for a visit). Even when our middle boy moved back home for a year, I wasn’t running the rat race. Oh. I’m still busy. Just doing other things.
So, what is my day like now?
It’s different every day. But what has remained the same, is I have a calendar, with deadlines, goals, and appointments. I spend Sunday planning out my week. That includes finding out if the man is going to be home and if he’s going to need to be fed. It includes planning time for my walks, bike rides, grocery store trips, and anything else that might need to be done that week (also based on weather). At the end of every day, I carry over what wasn’t done the day before, and rearrange my schedule as necessary.
When I was busy being a hockey mom, I kept my sanity by having a color coded calendar. Now that I’m in a different phase of my life, I keep busy by having a color coded calendar. Ha!
Honestly, one of the reasons why I think it’s good to do a day in the life…in your life…is to see where you’re not using your time effectively and efficiently. I do laundry while watching my shows. That way I’m folding while I catch up. If I have to go out for an appointment, I get everything else that needs doing outside of the house on that day. When I make my grocery list, I make it in the order in which the items are shelved. I hate it when my grocery store changes the isles up!
It’s not really about multitasking, as it is planning.
Hi. I’m a planner. I like organization, structure, and please don’t change my well laid plans with a snap of your finger. That really stresses me out. Seriously. If my calendar says that I’m going to Costco on Wednesday, and something happens, I’m like, shit. That fucks up my whole day! Not really, but then I have to regroup. And I can, but it takes me a minute or two.
It’s worse when something like my printer isn’t working and I spend all day figuring that out and at the end of the day, I feel like I lost a day. Or when I’m sick. That sucks.
But my point is, as a planner, I can see what I’m actually getting done, and how my day really works. My mind is always playing tricks on me, like telling my body I’m still 25 and can do a cartwheel. Yeah. Not really a good idea.
Understanding self is one of the major keys to success. But if you don’t spend at least a full week writing down everything you do as you do it, you won’t really see where you’re either spinning your wheels, or where if you just things up a little bit, you’d have more energy. After that, I think its important to re-evaluate every so often. To me, this is like looking at a map before you get in a car and taking a long trip.
Or writing some kind of outline, synopsis, and/or character sheet, for your book. You pantsers are cringing right now, but you have your own ways of keeping track of story…and keeping your day on track. That’s what this is all about. Setting goals, and setting yourself up for success.
Every writer gets stuck, no matter how experienced they are, or how many books they have. Every writer has doubts about whether or not they’ve got another book in them. Or is this book really any good. Will this be the end of my career? The more we focus on those negative things, the harder it is to get unstuck. If we start comparing our progress or success to others than we are in self-sabotage mode. We are giving ourself a reason to stay stuck.
So what is a writer to do?
My advice is basically the same. Take a breath. Step away. Go for a walk. Clean the kitchen. Bake cookies. Doesn’t matter if you’re stuck with an idea, a scene, the plot, a character, the entire manuscript, or your career, if you are stuck, it’s time to go back to the basics.
Let’s start with being stuck in book. Much of this is a repeat of my last blog because no matter how many books you have, sometimes we have to step down and look at the simple things. The things we might take for granted.
If you’re a plotter, go look at your spreadsheets. Your narrative structure outline. Your synopsis. Notecards. Whatever you use to keep track of your story and your progress. You might find where you took a wrong turn. If you didn’t follow your normal process, then go back to the step you skipped. If you did everything exactly like you always do, try something different.
If you’re a pantser, print out your manuscript, or send it to your kindle, and read it. Make notes, but don’t change anything. Not yet. You might find that seed that you misplaced that will help you get unstuck.
If those things don’t work, call a writer friend, or a crit partner. Talk it out. And then listen. Whoever is on the other end isn’t married to your idea. They don’t have the same emotional attachment. They can look at it from a different angle.
Have someone read your work. Tell them why you feel stuck. You’re so close to your work that you might not see what is right in front of your face.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a writer is accept that sometimes I just don’t have a good idea. That’s a different kind of a problem and I’ve, more than once, have abandoned a project because it’s just not strong enough. At the same time, I have found that setting it aside, working on something else often gives me just enough space to find the weak spot and fix it.
Now. Let’s talk career.
There is so much in this business we don’t control. Even in self-publishing. We have to focus on what we can do and that’s keep writing and following our passion. We’re going to feel like a fraud. Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. I mean, wow, cool, I get paid to write about people who don’t exist. How weird is that? We’re going to come across people who are going to be snarky and say things like, “well, I’ve never heard of you.” We’re going to have moments where we question, is it all worth it? That’s normal and it happens in other careers, not just in the entertainment business.
So, when I feel these things creeping up on me, I do crazy things like, go to my Amazon page and remind myself of what I have done and how it makes me feel. I’ve done this since I published my very first book. And when my first publisher went bankrupt just days after my book came out, I cried. Then I reminded myself of how far I had come. This is a tough business and I’ve seen many talented writers walk away. There are only 100 spots in the top 100. But if I tell myself, I’m not going to get there, then I won’t.
I always think: The little engine that could…
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!
First off, there are ways to help prevent a critique situation from getting to the point you’re walking away angry.
It’s called communication.
And communication is a two-way street of talking and listening. In my last post, I mentioned some critique situations that, while they were good for a while, wound up ending with hurt feelings, or anger, or in some extreme cases, loss of friendships.
Lack of communication and misconceptions regarding perception and reality.
In a critique situation, you’re responsible for clearly stating your needs. And your needs, from critique to critique can be different. I have asked Casey to read just for plot. Or to look at one character in particular. I’ve asked to only look for when I’m being lazy with passive voice. I’ve asked her to look at all three.
It’s Casey’s responsibility to tell me if she can do that or not. And in the time frame I need.
It’s my responsibility to tell Casey if something is bothering me in her critique. Or to ask questions about something I don’t understand. Or even go back to her and ask for more suggestions. It’s up to me to tell Casey if I’m feeling neglected. Or if I don’t feel like she’s giving my work the attention it needs. I can’t expect her to read my mind.
Casey and I have a unique critique situation because it’s not just about reading each other’s work. It’s about helping the other at all levels of our writing career. It’s about brainstorming plot. Character. Discussing career decisions. Conferences. This blog. The Boxset. Future writing projects together. It’s not one-demential. That said, I still need to make sure I’m telling her how I feel about the critique part of the relationship.
But there are times to call it quits and to me it’s pretty simple.
When you either no longer can give your partner what she needs/wants or you are no longer getting what you need/want AFTER you’ve discussed the issues.
But you HAVE to know the issues because wants/needs go back to my rule about perception and reality. I could really think I’m giving Casey exactly what she wants and she could be sitting on the other end going, bitch, don’t you ever listen to me? I told you I wanted it this way!
Then the question becomes: Did she tell me? Did I choose to ignore? Did I misunderstand? How long has this been going on?
No relationship is without it’s disagreements, fights, and problems. But you have to decide how important is that relationship and what can you do to fix it? If anything.
There is a fundamental problem with critique relationships. Writers are notoriously filled with ego on the one hand and horrible insecurity on the other. I often worry Casey will get mad at me when I’m so brutally honest about something. And, I’d be a liar if I didn’t think damn, I’m smart, now take that correction!
When I think either of those things, I need to step back and adjust my thinking. A tall glass of wine usually helps. LOL. But I’m being serious. Not about the wine. When either ego or insecurity is ruling your critique process, it becomes toxic…to the other person.
So, when I’m contemplating pulling back my thoughts, I have to think to myself, is this going to help Casey? If, I’m thinking I’m right and she should listen to me, then I need to pull back and again, ask myself, is this going to help Casey?
Because it’s not all about me. Actually, it is but only when she’s reading my work.
So, when do you call it quits?
When you’ve done everything you can, but you still feel like shit every time you see an email from your critique partner.
Actually, call it quits before that. That way you can remain friends. It’s like a TV show. Go out on top. LOL.
Okay folks, so here comes the hard part.
Or knowing when to break up.
Then actually following through.
No one likes having to end a relationship. Whether it’s with a friend, partner, family member, and that’s no different for a business relationship. Actually, the stakes might be higher for a business relationship…because all of your mutual colleagues and acquaintances in your business world could be watching.
So…are you ready to break up?
There are a few signs that it’s time to call it quits with your critique partner.
- They’ve become complacent and their advice is no longer helpful leaving you still feeling stuck – Remember when I talked about making sure you don’t become complacent? If you missed it, you can find it HERE. We talked about those issues that you will see over and over in your partner’s writing that you might glaze over because they’ve become familiar. I suggested you make a list of those things so you can continually check yourself to make sure you’re not missing them in critique. Think of it as upkeep. Keeping your tools of the trade at their optimum level. Would a chef go into a kitchen with a dull knife? Nope. Keep your brain sharp. Keep your critique fresh.
- You’re starting to see too much of your books or ideas in their work – This is a touchy one. And seriously, it happens. It happens often without the writer even realizing it. So don’t rush out there assuming your critique partner is a thief. Life usually isn’t that dramatic, despite the fiction we write. Hell, for Jen and I, I’ve gone and written a story line similar to hers without having ever read her story beforehand. There are no real new ideas in this industry. There’s individual voice and creative spin. Fact of the matter is, if you give a group of authors a handful of elements they must use in a story, they will all come up with wildly different stories despite the common elements. Also, if you’re writing fast like Jen and I do, you may forget you saw a detail in your partner’s story and it can creep into your words. If it’s a super important idea or a unique element to your voice that creeps in…mention it. I can’t reiterate enough, especially if it’s voice. Especially voice. Because you’re their critique partner and if your voice is creeping into their work, muddying up their unique voice, it’s going to cause a problem with their readers. This is part of what you should be doing as a critique partner. And yes, I know approaching this is awkward. You know how easy it is for ideas to bleed into writing? Jen and I had a conversation on the phone where she used the term passive/aggressive…and no, I’m not going to tell you who we were discussing, lol. Next thing you know, passive/aggressive is in her next chapter…two or three times. Nope.
- There’s no more give and take and one side is feeling resentful for always critiquing and never getting anything in return – Okay, I think Jen is trying not to swallow her tongue reading this. Why? Because she turns over a lot more to me than I do to her. Well, right now I’ve had some other life stuff slow me down so that’s to be expected…and no, I’m not resentful. After all, I just sent two chapters to her to work on as she’s flying to Greece. Yup, I’m poaching on the 30th anniversary trip overseas…and I’m not ashamed! Sorry Mike!
- They steal your idea or work – I don’t mean mistakenly drifting into your voice or that little nugget of something I spoke about above. I’m talking you’ve plotted with them or you’ve told them about a golden idea you have for a book or series and next thing you know, they’re writing it. Or you see full blown lines that are almost identical to lines you’ve written. That’s betrayal. There’s no talking this one out and moving past it. Be done. But tread carefully with the breakup in this case. Keep it private. See advice on how to do that below!
- If you’ve let things about your critique partner irritate you without speaking up to the point where you spend more time thinking about those irritations than doing your own work – Jen, stop it. Again…not you, lol. If you’re someone who avoids confrontation, this is likely going to happen to you. And confrontation is too strong of a word in my opinion. Confrontation to me is often stern and hostile. But if you have a hard time speaking up, it’s likely because you view difference of opinion, or any discussion addressing something that’s bothering you to the offender as confrontation. If you’re at this point, you’ve done this to yourself. I would advise you to try to address it first in case you can move past the hurdle. If you can’t, it’s time to end it because anything weighing that heavy on your mind that it’s bleeding into your life is no good.
- If you’re nurturing seeds of resentment and are unwilling to address them or have let them fester too long to save the relationship – This really goes with the above…only this is for those of you who have fiery tempers, you know how you are, *Casey raises her hand* and you planned to address something, didn’t get to it in a timely manner, and now you feel like the time to address it has passed and instead it festers. Just like above, you’ve done this to yourself.
- If your partner has begun lashing out at you in critique or is displaying signs of jealousy and you are unable to talk it out – And let’s be honest here…if they are behaving like this, it’s going to be really tough to talk out. Maybe impossible. You should still give it a shot, but tread carefully. This is a sign that ego has drifted into a relationship where it has no place. I’ve been in a relationship like this with writing partner in the past and I let her have it. I mean, I thought we were both adults and I was blindsided by the venom she unleashed and the way she twisted my words. In that moment, any trust I had for her vanished. Just gone. And there was no way to get it back. In that case, there was no salvaging the relationship. More about how this breakup in just a minute!
If you’re having issues with any of the above, it’s imperative that you address them when they crop up. The first order of business in this relationship is to always discuss anything bothering you or that’s not working for you. If you don’t address those issues and they fester causing you to break up with your critique partner, don’t think you can place the blame solely on their shoulders. You have a responsibility to the relationship/partnership to use your words and address issues before they have a chance to explode and take the relationship/partnership with it.
So, you’ve done all you can, but it’s time to go your separate ways…so what do you do?
Remember what you like about each other – You’re both going to be navigating this writing world. There’s no reason why ending the critique relationship has to end the friendship or cause bad feelings…well, within reason. As long as you’ve addressed issues honestly, in a timely manner, even if they don’t work out, there should be no ill will. The book world may seem huge, but I assure it’s not. You’d be amazed by how many people know who you are and how many people have talked about you. Give your former good partner some good things to say about you.
If you sabotaged your own critique relationship by avoiding confrontation or harboring feelings of resentment, learn from it – Don’t hold it against your partner and end things amicably. Take a hard look at yourself and the part you played in the breakup so you can make sure you don’t make the same mistake with the next partner since good critique partners can be incredibly hard to find. Maybe it’s not like finding something as unique as a unicorn, but it’s definitely up there with finding a bra so comfortable you can sleep in it while it also props up your girls so they look great in everything, including a V-neck.
And finally, a few things to consider if your partner’s behavior is so heinous that it torpedoes any chance of maintaining a friendship – Ahh, yes, we are back to my situation. Yes, I found her behavior heinous, I’m sure she would disagree. Did I handle things badly? Yup, there were things I could have done way better. Unfortunately in my situation, I thought we were close enough that I knew what would be okay with her. Without going into detail, I can tell you I based what I did off of what we had done in the past, not realizing that she would have a problem with it since she hadn’t thus far. Should I have asked? Absolutely. I just didn’t realize because we had never set the parameters and were applying the rules of our friendship which came first, to our writing relationship. Colossally bad idea BTW! Even if you’ve been friends for years, set the parameters of the business relationship. Agree how you are going to approach the relationship so neither of you can accidentally step out of bounds and ruin the underlying friendship.
I can offer you one last tip to think about in the event that you break up in a way that permanently ruins the friendship…remember when I mentioned that the writing world although big, is small? People know who you are even if you don’t realize it? I’m sure you are friends on Facebook with your critique partner. I’m sure you follow each other on Instagram, Twitter, etc. DO NOT RUSH TO UNFRIEND OR UNFOLLOW YOUR FORMER PARTNER/FRIEND.
Yes, it warrants shouting at you. I can’t stress this enough. It’s most important in terms of Facebook where it’s so easy to see mutual friends. My former partner unfriended me on FB unbeknownst to me right away. How did I find out? I got four emails the first day.
Four. Freaking. Emails.
Four people noticed on the very first day I was unfriended that we were no longer connected on FB. Actually, more than four, unless it just so happened that the only four who noticed happened to also have no qualms about nosing in on the situation and sending an email.
What does that tell you?
It should be telling you that people are watching. They either are brave enough to contact you and ask, or they’ll speculate behind our back. Hell, maybe both. So always consider how you handle your breakup and make sure you do it in such a way that both sides can continue on quietly without having others intrude.
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 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.
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!
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!