Using critiques to improve your writing

Using critiques to improve your writingI’ve probably mentioned I’m participating in a novel critique group this year.

Every month someone in the group puts their novel up for critique, and the rest of us pull it apart with a view to improvement.

It’s all about critical analysis, but its the passion you need to look for – what people love or… really don’t love.

Unfortunately, every comment that’s not adoration stings a little.

In fact, the more effort someone’s put into a book, the bigger the sting they’ll feel.

Still, feedback’s just feedback – impressions based on what other people would do if it were theirs, and that’s the attitude you need to take into it.

The problem is, it’s easy to get lost in the detail or take things personally. It is your baby, after all.

Once you get over the initial disbelief that everyone else doesn’t love it as much as you do (believe it or not that happens occasionally), you’ll begin to discover some value in what’s said.

Hopefully you’ll see lots of value.

Even so, all of it will all be given with bias due to personal tastes and perspectives, so take a step back and ask yourself a few questions about where you want to take your story and what you want to achieve with it.

If you can do that, you’ll be in a better position to assess the responses.

There are a lot of specific questions you could ask yourself, but only one that’s important at this stage:

“What impression did my story make?”

Seriously. Everything hinges off that question. Specifics can wait.

How people react after reading your novel is the truest test of its worth.

If your critiquers didn’t like it, consider that a reasonable parallel with your intended readers. Translation: poor sales.

You’ll need to weigh their reactions against what you know about the individual critiquers of course, particularly if they’re not in your target audience.

For example, romance writers may not appreciate your military SF novel,  but they may know more about developing characters that readers will care about than you do.

In that regard, the greatest thing you can do (from a commercial perspective) is impress readers from other genres.

Everyone’s perspective is valuable, particularly if you concentrate on emotional responses instead of critical analysis.

If you give your novel to ten people and none of them love your story, then it’s probably not working  as well as you need it to.

On the flip side, if they’re emailing you for weeks and months afterward with ideas or are demanding to read the sequel, then you know something’s resonated with them.

That’s the magic you’re looking for!

That’s what sells books, and that’s what you need.

Whatever else you do, keep the things that people love and try to figure out why those things resonated with them (if it’s not obvious).

Conversely, consider ways of improving everything they didn’t like – their critical responses will help with this.

You may even come to the conclusion that some of the things you love have to go or be completely reworked.

A good knowledge of story structure and getting readers to care about what happens to your characters helps here.

How you use the knowledge is the hard part, but it can only come after you assess their reactions.

Write another novel if you need more time to gain perspective. It can only help.

Things I wish I knew about Critiquing when I started writing

Things I wish I knew about critiquing when I started writingCritiquing means different things to different people.

For me, it was always about finding the flaws so they could be fixed.

I’ve never made it a secret that I want to get my stories in front of as many people as possible, and I assume everyone else does to (unless they say different).

That influences my approach to critiquing, because to get your stories in front of people beyond your immediate reach, you have to give them a story they want to share.

It doesn’t matter how much advertising you do, how popular you are on social media, or even who you know, if you write a story that people don’t like, they aren’t going to share it.

Having a broad base of support is a great advantage, but word of mouth has always been, and will continue to be, a writers best friend.

In that sense, it’s kind of pointless to seek feedback if you’re not going to listen to what’s said.

It’s pretty rare that the solutions people offer will work for your story, but if several people have the same problem with it, then there’s almost certainly an issue you need to deal with.

That’s my advice, at least.

Here’s some more great advice from other writers:

“Being diplomatic and constructive is very important when critiquing, as its somebody’s ego you’re poking. Be true but kind.” Mark Mercieca

“It’s as much about asking the right questions as about the writing itself.” Robyn McIntyre

“Critiquing will take up a large amount of your ‘writing time’, but don’t worry to much about that because its worth every minute.” Mark Mercieca

“You learn as much from reading the critiques of others as you do your own.” Roland Boykin

“Early in the process, there’s a fine line between following your vision and incorporating another’s ideas. Don’t expose your baby on the mountain until she can survive the elements. Then incorporate those suggestions that make your story the best that it can be.” Janine Donoho

“I wish I’d demanded written critiques, not scribbles in the margins of my hardcopy. Week’s later when you go over these reviews they often don’t make sense or you can’t read the reviewers writing.” Mark Mercieca

“There is a big difference between giving criticism and being critical. Be honest, but be constructive. Telling someone their writing is rubbish doesn’t help them. Telling them why it doesn’t work for you and helping them improve it does.” Angeline Trevena

“Like editing, you need multiple reads for: plot / world building continuity, prose / rhythm, plot pacing.” Drew Briney

“Early on I felt that sometimes I couldn’t contribute or identify issues other critiquers picked up. Don’t worry. This definitely improves with practise.” Mark Mercieca

What’s your best critiquing advice?

Check out some of the other posts in the “Things I Wish I Knew About” series: Author PromotionPoint Of View, Dealing With Rejection, Editing Your Own Work, Short Stories, Creating Characters, Story Development, Worldbuilding and Writing.

Things I wish I knew about Editing Your Own Work when I started writing

Text: Things I wish I knew about Editing Your Own Work when I started writing.Editing is a dirty word for some, but for me, it’s the best part of writing.

It’s where ninety-five per cent of my effort goes (if not more), and it’s the part I can get lost in. A little too lost, sometimes.

I wish I’d known a few more things about editing my own work when I started writing, because I spent years trying to perfect sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters, yet I didn’t have a clue that some of my stories had bigger problems.

It was a classic forest and trees problem.

I had the editing part down, but not the story part. In short, I didn’t know how to edit for story.

Therefore, my advice to my younger self: Don’t start editing words until you’ve edited for structural issues.

That’s not all I needed to learn. Here’s some more fantastic advice I wish I’d known when I started writing:

“So, so many words can be deleted. I promise there will be another opportunity to use them later.” L. K. Evans

“No matter how many times you go through it, there will still be something an editor will pick up that will have you facepalming and wondering how you could ever be so stupid.” Ann Smyth

“I finally realised that the Rules of Writing are actually just guidelines, not hard and fast rules.” Roland Boykin

“Other people will always pick up things you won’t, so another perspective is crucial; preferably six or seven or ten if you can. If different people are saying the same things about your work then it needs some changes.” Mark Mercieca

“Add your text to a read back app on a computer or mobile device. Follow along on paper to mark the errors in spelling.” Glendon Perkins

“Keep notes to help remember if it was the ‘right hand or left hand that was burned’ later on in the book. Use this for characters and places and named objects.” Keith Keffer

“No matter how good of an editor you are for other people’s work, you will never give your own stuff the same diligence. I find myself overlooking simple things like typos much less giving my work the angry red pen that it really needs.” Colin Ritter

“Get Adobe Acrobat to read your stuff back to you (albeit in a robotic voice). You’ll notice missed/duplicate words, bad sentence rhythm, etc. more easily. If you read it aloud yourself, you may still miss things as you’ll read what you think is there. The computer won’t make that mistake.” Ann Smyth

“Use word count analysis to pick up spelling differences in names etc.” Mark Mercieca

“Know when to stop and pass it off to someone else. If you are on your fifth pass through and you find yourself second guessing what you wrote, hand it off.” Keith Keffer

“There are several things in life for which no amount of preparation will match the actual task, editing is one of these. Make it as much fun as possible because one edit is not enough.” Chantelle Griffin

“When you finally get around to writing a novel, you’ll discover its fun, until editing begins. The countless revisions (i.e. self-editing) is where it gets tough – and the author emerges. Outsourcing is recommended, especially proof-reading.” Karen Wyld

“Always read your work out loud. It means you read a little slower, and you can pick up on issues like repetition, syntax and rhythm that you may otherwise miss.” Angeline Trevena

“Write what you love (what you know will come), read it aloud (and repeatedly) because if you don’t want to, you KNOW something’s wrong; start strong (and then live up to that); and seek advice (then fight it).” Will Hahn

“When you get to the point when you’re changing a word, then changing it back, it’s time to stop.” Ann Smyth

“Edit in a different medium than you write, such as e-reader or paper.” Keith Keffer

“There is no such thing as great writing, only great rewriting.” John Skeats

“Text to speech is a great idea I wish I’d heard of earlier. The metallic computer voice is the ultimate impartial judge on your writing.” Mark Mercieca

“You have to wait before editing. Doing it the day after you’ve written a chapter will block your progress and never be good enough. It may end in an infinite loop of write and correct.” Era Metko

“Find great critique partners who pull no punches. It can be a little painful at first, but once the bandaid is pulled off it doesn’t hurt so much. And the scar makes your writing stronger.” Blanca Florido

“The best way to edit yourself is to hire an editor. Before I hire one, read it out loud, it’s a very different perspective on your work that you must have.” David Nelson

“When writing a story, you need to shut off you inner editor or you’ll never finish your work. Editing comes when the work is complete, not when you finish chapter one.” Chris Mentzer

“The best editing is done three years after you’ve lost your ms, stumbled on it again, said ‘this is really bad’ and started again. You just can’t edit your own work properly until it’s stone dead.” John Yeoman

“Take at least a few months off before making a final edit to make sure the material is no longer fresh in your mind.” Drew Briney

What’s your best piece of editorial advice?

Check out some of the other posts in the “Things I Wish I Knew About” series: Author PromotionPoint Of View, Critiquing, Dealing With Rejection, Short Stories, Creating Characters, Story Development, Worldbuilding and Writing.

Things I wish I knew about writing when I started out

Things I wish I knew about writing when I started outI wish I’d known a few more things about writing when I started out, so I’ve compiled a list of useful tips and advice from other writers that might help both seasoned pros and newbies alike.

If you like any of the advice, please visit the writers profile/website and check them out.

“Make sure you have fun foremost.” Glendon Perkins

“Don’t worry about if it’s any good or not, just write.” Kyra Halland

“Wish I’d known that not everyone who critiques your writing knows what they’re talking about, including me.” Roland Boykin

“Start building a platform or following when you start writing.” Rebecca P. McCray

“I wrote a whole long novel before I learned I needed to learn things.” Louis Doggett

“Don’t write what you know, write what you love. And don’t force yourself to focus on one writing task if the words aren’t coming. A blog post, a time line, notes, even ideas for a new project. Sometimes the mind needs a rest, and new inspiration.” Penny Ruggaber

“Write the scenes and chapters in order and summarise them as you go.” Mark Mercieca

“Don’t let fear of rejection stop you.  Look how many times you’ve been rejected just to get where you are in life.  Smack downs happen, write anyway.” Mary Martin

“You’ll have days where the last you want to do is write. Write anyway. You will thank yourself later.” Tim McEnroe

“Do not compare yourself to other writers. What works for them may not work for you.” AND… “In the beginning, don’t stress over building a platform/being on social media. Focus on writing. Writing must always come first.” Alice Janell

“The only true failure is giving up.” Angeline Trevena

“Before you become a writer, you must become a reader. Read as many different books as possible. Not just the genre you plan to write, but others outside your comfort zone to see the various styles of writing.” Chris Mentzer

Write what hurts; hide it in your writing and your story will ring with sincerity.” L.K. Evans

You might also like the tongue-in-cheek The Cretin’s Top Ten Tips to Being the Greatest Writer Ever.

If you liked this post, check out some of the other posts in the “Things I Wish I Knew About” series: Author PromotionPoint Of View, Critiquing, Dealing With Rejection, Editing Your Own Work, Short Stories, Creating Characters, Story DevelopmentFirst Drafts, and Worldbuilding.

CSFG blog post on managing the size of your story

Profile image of Ian McHugh deep in thought.
Ian McHugh

I don’t normally promote blog posts I find on the net, but perhaps I should following this post by Ian McHugh on the CSFG site.

In his post, Ian discusses managing the size of the first novel he wrote, and the traps and pitfalls he enountered. He says specifically:

“So, what went wrong?

In a word: structure.

In more words: I didn’t have a strong enough structure, or even a strong enough understanding of narrative structure, to keep my story under control.”

 As I’m giving a presentation on story structure at the upcoming Conflux Writers Day I found this particularly worth the read, so please check out Managing the size of your story

Ian’s blog is also worth a look – lots of good writing information there.

The top four ways to end a chapter and keep people reading

The ending of a chapter

The ending of a chapterThere are plenty of ways to finish off a chapter, but not all of them are good.

Try these:

Clear out early

If you happen to wake up with drool seeping into your keyboard and the final words still struggling to bubble to the surface, you’ve probably gone on for too long.

Spare your readers the pain and cut the chapter the moment the scene’s had its moment.

In short, clear out as soon as possible.

Cliffhangers

Gone are the days of television when you’d be asked to ‘tune in next week’ to find out how the hero, dangling from a cliff with no hope of surviving, gets out of their predicament.

Despite being overused, cliffhangers still have a place in a good story.

They’re a great way to build tension and draw the reader on, and are most effective when used sparingly.

A good cliffhanger creates that ‘can’t stop reading’ factor – an irresistible need to know what happens next.

Reveals and twists

Secrets are the lifeblood of a good story, and revealing them at the right time is an art that will ultimately take your story in a new direction or completely alter a reader’s perceptions of it.

Can you imagine how Star Wars would have panned out if Obi Wan, upon first meeting Luke, had said, “Guess what kid – Darth Vader’s your old man!”

It wouldn’t have mattered to anyone then – the significance hadn’t been built up and it would have blown a great reveal later on.

The same goes for your own story.

The more important a secret is, the longer you need to hold it – but don’t hold it forever.

Revealing it at the right moment (preferably at the end of a chapter) is where the magic comes from.

Buttons

Now there’s a term you don’t hear every day.

When you don’t have secret to reveal, there are no obvious twists, and your protagonist is refusing to climb out onto a thin branch above a river full of hungry piranhas, then you need something else.

So use a button.

A button is:

  • a wise-crack
  • a joke
  • a sentence summing up how horrible the situation is
  • an insight into a character’s perspective
  • a hint there are worse things to come
  • a question
  • anything that neatly rounds off a scene (you don’t even have to save them for chapters).

Those are my favourite ways to end a chapter. What works for you?

The Top 10 (Hidden) Elements of Novels

It took me a long time to figure out there was more to writing a novel than creating a hero with a problem, and playing it out over the loose scaffolding of a beginning, middle, and end.

1. Conflict and Threat

Internal, external and interpersonal conflict is essential to your story, and each has an entirely different impact on how events play out. While conflict is not the same as a story’s threat, it’s often tied into it in some way. Threat is the potential. Conflict is immediate. You need to work them out and incorporate them.

2. Emotion

The emotional needs, desires and problems for your characters, which if done well (and combined with the story’s threat and conflicts), will generate empathy among your readers and lead to an unputdownable page-turner. Character is story, and for a story to work your characters need to care (desperately) about something.

3. Theme

A novel needs a deeper meaning, and that meaning is a concept neatly wrapped up in a slippery little word called ‘theme’. Theme isn’t something along the lines of love or sacrifice or hope – at best those are expressions of a theme. No. Theme is a statement – with your story acting as the stage to debate it.

4. Beginning

Beginnings, middles and ends seem so simple – but each part needs to achieve something very specific. Believe it or not, the beginning of your novel isn’t actually the beginning of your story – it’s the introduction to your characters and their world. The story starts when the beginning’s over, because that’s when the protagonist leaves their comfortable world – by choice or otherwise.

5. Middle A

The middle makes up half your novel and is divided into two parts. The first part (Middle A) lets your protagonist discover what they’re really in for. It’s the fun part of your story, culminating in the realisation that there’s no easy option – and certainly no turning back.

6. Middle B

The third quarter (Middle B) is where things get serious and everything they’ve been striving for falls apart. This is where you raise the stakes to the point where all is lost, climaxing with some sort of false victory or defeat that sets the scene for the final battle.

7. Ending

To conclude your novel, your hero(s) regroup, form a plan and take the actions that eventually see them reach a satisfying resolution (or, at least, it better be satisfying if you want people to recommend it to their friends). It helps to tie up loose ends and if necessary, set the scene for sequels.

8. Sequences

If you’ve never heard about sequences, look them up. They’re mini-stories within the bigger story, often spanning several chapters – like how a character becomes a werewolf, or how a couple meet. There needs to be an equal number of sequences too, the total divisible by four and divided into the beginning, middle A, middle B, and end.

9. The Premise

Whatever else you do, make sure you meet the promise of your story’s premise. If you promise a story about a girl trying to survive assassins, everything that happens must contribute to setting up, sustaining and resolving that promise.

10. Cause & Effect

Even when you think you have everything right, writing a Cause and Effect can pick up problems. Every cause must generate an effect, and every effect has to lead to a new cause. Look hard at your story and if necessary rework it to create an unbroken chain of effects from beginning to end.

To see how most of these structural elements fit together, take a look at my Novel Structure Diagram. Other elements can be found in The Craft.

If you liked this post, you might also like two additional elements I forgot to mention, Hooks and Buttons.

David Beveridge – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Q. What was the most & least valuable pieces of advice you took away from your critique?

Most valuable advice: the feedback itself. Least valuable: there’s never enough of it; and without denigrating any of the critiques not everyone is a fan of my genre.

Writing is a lonely occupation and one where it is all too easy to become persuaded of one’s own brilliance (unfortunately too often) or seized by doubts (not often enough, or at least not in a rational way: paranoid schizophrenia being all too present). More seriously, the input confirmed some of my own doubts and has given me a lot to chew on. Particularly in regard to characterisation; and the treatment of both antagonist and protagonists (Note to self: the child Lara to become Cloda’s twin and be fleshed out so that she provides a contrast with Cloda’s darker nature – but she’ll still be killed off).

More broadly it reinforced some of my own directions / doubts. (Note: some noted the use of US spellings, this is deliberate. Given the relative size of US vs Oz markets.)

Q. What changes, if any, do you plan to make to your novel following the feedback you received?

First priority: ponder and tease out the central theme; and implicit in that is the need to flesh out the main characters, especially the protagonists. They’re not going to be any less bloody-minded but need more colour.

Second, restructure Alia’s Gift to give the sub-plots more substance, especially the contrast between ‘Time Past’ (currently called Interludes) and ‘Time Present’ (main story). As presented they are ‘back’ and ‘main’ stories. They need to be better balanced, both contributing to the end-game for Alia’s Gift; noting that this is part of a larger series as well as a stand-alone novel.

I felt the group was uncomfortable with the lack of a single primary POV character to carry the story.  That doesn’t suit me. (And this isn’t just Alia’s story). Rather than focusing on say Alia, Cloda or Isla, I favour the braided multi-plot / multiple character approach of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn and Void trilogies. Primaries can change as the story proceeds. This will require an expansion and clarification of the Interludes into interwoven and indeed parallel (and relevant) ‘Time Past’ strands.

Third, simplify the language: but not too much. For example: ‘Asaz could become ‘the Assassins’ but the use of Gaelic (Slainte etc) is a differentiator I don’t want to lose. Likewise the similarities as well as differences from ours built into this universe. (One critter noted the use of the term ‘Machiavellian’. The Prince’s Florence is also part of this parallel universe).

Q. Having both given and received novel critiques, what do you wish you’d known when the group started compared with what you know now?

It might be useful to have critters post some brief summary of their relative experience, interests and expectations in advance of a first meeting. I know that one should be able to crit outside one’s own reading preferences. But occasionally a lack of familiarity in the particular genre can grate (but the flipside of course is that differing perspectives can have a value all of their own).

Q. What advice would you give to anyone considering joining a similar group?

Join one as soon as you have a reasonably coherent work for critique; but even if you don’t the experience of critting someone else’s work is also very useful. And when on the receiving end be prepared to give careful consideration to what’s said, even when it may be quite unpalatable. You can expect input ranging from sound and measured advice through to quite gratuitous and occasionally smart-arse commentary; but it’s all grist for the mill. Suck it in and move on.

Q: What are your future plans both for the novel you submitted and other novels ‘in the works’?

Keep going or Age quod agis as the Latin tag has it! First priority will be the manifest problems in ‘Gift’ but I also need to fill in the outline of the grand story; and of course the character templates.

Q: This is your third trip through the novel critique group with Alia’s Gift, so it’s clear you see value in the process. In what format do you prefer to receive feedback (ie, verbal, written report, in-line critique etc) and why?

All of the above. Verbal is good but needs to be complemented by good round-the-table discussion. It’s best backed up by written reports which allow time for reflection (it’s really quite difficult to note-take and retain several verbal crits – I tend to jot key points for amplification / rebuttal). Best is a combination of verbal, backed up by written notes and revision-marked text. I see all these formats as a valuable ‘set’ of which I should say this final interview is a fresh and useful part.

Q: What early advice did you listen to that you believe improved your story, and what advice would you reconsider taking if you could go back in time with the experience you have now?

I think writers tend to reflect (and be limited by) their personal experience and reading preference.  In my case this has involved academic (Honours / Masters and an abortive PhD attempt) and work-experience (engineer planning, military strategy and policy papers, later on Cabinet submissions and Ministerial briefing). Combined with a preference for multi-plot tech-oriented scifi (Peter F Hamilton, David Weber et al), this takes me down the track of grand (sometimes grandiose) space opera with a delight for world-building. It also makes me too prone to omniscient narration rather than character exposition.

The first crit exposed too much tendency to info dump and more focus on the global picture than individual characters. This was much ramped back in the second run but not by enough. The third has reconfirmed a tendency to inject back- at the expense of the main story. It has made me more aware of my strengths as well as manifest weaknesses. The trick now is too make use of it; noting that it’s after all my story, written to suit me. Getting published will require compromise between what I like and what some agent, editor or publicist can sell.

Finally let me record my thanks for your inputs and appreciation of your time. You are all talented writers.

Cat on a toilet with a mess of toilet paper.David brings varied life experience to his writing (not all of which is helpful). Now living in the genteel semi-poverty of self-funded retirement, he was born in Scotland, lived in India, Germany, England and Cymru before settling in Australia; and has worked as a Merchant Navy purser, Army combat engineer and APS policy wonk. 

He shares life with a long-suffering wife (what do you mean you don’t expect to get published this year? And can we talk about the garden! House needs painting!) and an (often) malevolent black cat with unionist proclivities (Listen up! Cats got rights!! This is my bloody chair!  Feed me now or else!) 

Read more interviews…

Leife Shallcross – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Q. What was the most & least valuable pieces of advice you took away from your critique?

Leife Shallcross at the beach
Leife Shallcross

One of the most useful things from the crit session was the feedback that reflected my own doubts about where the weaknesses in the story lay.This was (extremely usefully) coupled with some great suggestions about where I could take it to address some of these weaknesses.I especially valued the comments that picked up on things about my characters that I could extend and use to make the story more compelling.

It’s given me a much needed dose of motivation to work through those things and some really useful direction about how I might go about that.

As my story is essentially a novel-length rendition of a well-known fairy tale, some of the feedback I received was that I need to make the very well-trodden path of its plot take a few more interesting and surprising twists and turns to keep it fresh.

However, some of the (er, more light-hearted!) suggestions were for fairly major deviations that wouldn’t really sit well with where I wanted to take the tale. They gave me laugh though!

One thing I did find interesting (and I’m not really sure if it’s actually a problem) is that while I envision my main readership for this type of story would be female, the crit group that month was all male (except me!).

So if there’s any girlies out there who feel like reading a 107K version of Beauty and the Beast…

Q. You’re on the tail end of this year’s crit group. What have you learned from giving critiques that has helped you on the receiving end?

Hmm… It was good knowing what sorts of things the others picked up on. That gave me a bit of a sense of what I could expect.

I’ve usually given a couple of pages of notes, then sent back an electronic copy of the manuscript with more detailed comments throughout.

A couple of people have done this for me, too, and it been very valuable. But now I still have to wade through it all!

The pages of notes have been great, though. They have given me a real sense of what direction to take for giving it the next coat of polish.

Q. What changes, if any, do you plan to make to your novel following the feedback you received?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

It’s all about the characters, really.

There were a couple of points on which the feedback was fairly consistent, and those points were probably the things I’d earmarked as potentially needing work.

Then there were some really interesting comments that really struck a chord for me – you know, that moment, when you think ‘Oh, yes!’.

Those were about increasing the role one of the characters plays, and about roughening up a couple of the other characters.

My protagonist, especially, is going to get a bit darker, I think.

It’s the changes that I will make coming out of those suggestions that I think will carry the other stuff with it, the ho hum sort of stuff I knew needed to tweak, but didn’t know how.

Q. Having both given and received novel critiques, what do you wish you’d known when the group started compared with what you know now?

Ha. That’s easy. Don’t drink your glass of red wine too quickly when it’s your turn. It makes it harder to focus!

Seriously, I think the main thing is – this being the first time I’ve participated in a novel crit group – that I feel much more confident in my ability to critically assess a story (including my own).

So, it’s not so much a wish I’d known, more like a ah, I’m glad I know that now.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone considering joining a similar group?

Do it. It’s an invaluable experience.

Why? Because:

  1. (obviously) You get to road test your novel & find out where it needs more work. You get to find out where the plot holes are, which characters were unconvincing, which characters rocked, where you’ve clunked the info dump, where your masterful description swept your readers away and where your amateurish use of parentheses ejected them firmly from the flow of the story. Basically, why fork out for a manuscript appraisal when you can get this kind of in-depth critiquing for the very reasonable price of a return crit?
  2. You get to find out where you are as a writer. What your strengths & weaknesses are, what stuff you need to work on, what your comfort zones are and where you need to challenge yourself to step out of them.
  3. As per my answer to Q 4, you also get to hone your story critiquing skills, which you can then apply to your own work.
  4. This last one is maybe not something people think about when considering joining a critiquing circle, but involvement in a community of writers is a big part of what makes this an invaluable experience. The guys in our crit group know stuff about stuff I’ve never even thought about. And it’s difficult to describe the great feeling you get when you finish a truly awesome manuscript and you imagine being able to see it in a bookshop somewhere and think ‘I knew that when it was just and RTF doc. I helped that get there.’ *Goosebumps*.

Regarding points 3 & 4 above – as you can see, you don’t even have to have a manuscript for others to critique to benefit from joining a crit circle. We’ve got a couple of members who are there just to give us ‘bonus crits’, presumably for similar reasons.

Q: What are your future plans both for the novel you submitted and other novels ‘in the works’?

Publication followed by the accumulation of enormous wealth, obviously.

Seriously, publication is absolutely the goal. Or, more accurately, having a manuscript that is so good that someone wants to publish it.

The idea of creating a story that someone else can lose themselves in makes me feel euphoric.

On the other hand, I’m fairly risk averse, and the idea of having something out there with my name on it that is substandard makes me want to crawl under the bedclothes and hide.

As I said, I’ve had some great feedback on the story I submitted to the group that is generating some good ideas (I can tell because they feel right), so my first goal is to work all that into a second draft.

I’ve got a couple of other novels (um, four) on the go in various stages of completion, so my second goal is to finish the first draft of the next one and submit that to next year’s crit group!

I have vague fantasies about trying to complete a new first draft each year, but that might require giving up work and renouncing my family, so maybe not. Maybe every two years.

Winds of Change Cover Image.
Winds of Change Cover Image.

Leife lives in Canberra with her husband and two children. She fits in her writing around looking after the kids, and almost full-time job in the public service, baking yummy treats and playing the fiddle (badly). She’s also struggling against a recent addiction to Pintrest. She’s been making up stories ever since she can remember. She is fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and frequently steals weaves elements of these into her writing. Her first published story, ‘The tether of time’, appeared in Winds of Change in 2011. She has painted her house turquoise.

Follow Leife on Twiter @leioss or Follow Me on Pinterest

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Alexa Shaw – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Photo of Alexa ShawQ. What did you hope to get out of your critique session?

As this is my first novel, I guess my initial reaction is to be reaffirmed in my own belief that I can write a half decent story.

Once that bit of self aggrandizement was past, what I wanted most was for people to be honest about how my story made them feel, where it should have made them feel, and where it could be improved.

Suggestions on how to improve it were also warmly welcomed.

Q: What were your plans prior to the critique – jump straight into the editing, or write something new and come back to the first book when you’ve allowed the feedback to distill?

I guess like all other aspiring professional writers I’d like my first novel to be picked up by a publisher or agent.

However, I’ve started an urban fantasy and want to keep running with that until I finish the first draft.

I guess that means I’ll let the feedback percolate a bit before jumping back into the tween novel.

Q. Asking for criticism can be tough, inspiring, soul-crushing and insightful, all at the same time. What did you take away from this experience that will be the most valuable to your novel?

Receiving the comments from the group really emphasised to me that the reading experience is a personal journey that is different for everyone – as evidenced by the wide range of, often opposing, comments.

But perhaps the most important insight I received from the experience was that characters are everything.

This is something I was already aware that I needed to work on, but its importance was made more evident by the feedback.

Q. When you begin working on the story again, how do you plan to tackle it and what changes would you make, if any?

While I was writing the story, I was aware, but not willing to acknowledge I guess, that the character I’d set up as the protagonist was somewhat  lacking. And that a secondary character was doing the doing of things. This was confirmed by the feedback.

The major change I will make will be to bring the secondary character in a lot earlier into the story and build her relationship with the current protagonist, then rearrange/rewrite the plot points to fit the new dynamics. (I also liked the ‘magic scabbard’ idea.)

Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who was thinking of putting their own novel through a critique group?

Writing is an intensely personal activity.

Everything that ends up on the page (focussing on speculative fiction here) is a distillation of the ID of the writer – which in itself is a scary thing to contemplate.

It can be tough when people don’t automatically love what you write.

However, don’t take it personally. If the person or group critiquing your work is even semi-professional, any comments will be made with a view to helping the writer, not attacking them.

Growing up, Alexa Shaw cut her speculative fiction teeth on the likes of Asimov, Simak and Niven. She then discovered David Eddings and a new love affair was in the making – fantasy stories. More recent influences on her writing include fabulous authors such as Sherri Tepper, CJ Cherryh and Marion Zimmer Bradley, to name a few. An abiding love of science led her to undertake a PhD in that field, and she looks forwards to continuing to blend science and fantasy in her writing. Alexa lives with her family in Canberra, ACT.

Follow Alexa on twitter: https://twitter.com/alexa_au 

Started the rewrite

Mermaid image, found on http://cooldesktopbackgroundsx.com/I got my mermaid novel into rewrite mode this week after taking a couple of months off to let the feedback settle and get a bit of distance from it.

Reading through the notes was far more difficult than I thought it would be, not because they were bad notes or anything – just the opposite, but because:

a) it’s time consuming
b) criticism, no matter how well intended, is tough.

The first thing I did was acknowledge that being a mermaid story, it should probably start in the ocean. So I rewrote the first chapter – or more accurately, pushed the first chapter back and wrote an entirely new introduction.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

There isn’t much conflict that goes on in the water, and what there is I’m considering cutting back on. Almost the entire story is set on land. I could certainly introduce some more conflict (probably between the mermaids), but that creates an entirely new set of plot issues.

So that leaves me with two options – write some sort of ‘Indiana Jones’ style teaser, or go with what I have and try to make it better.

The Indiana Jones option has some appeal if I can find something suitable – something that introduces the main character (including her strengths and weaknesses), sets the tone of the story, and generally catapaults the reader into the action without otherwise being important to what happens next.

The current beginning is set on the beach and introduces the main character’s major internal conflict which leads into the main story. I works, but it could be better.

Any thoughts?

Writing update for May

Well, I’ve been madly reworking the last half of Prophecy of Power: Werewolf, my epic fantasy, in the hope that Angry Robot will ask for the full manuscript some time in the next month or two.

I’m not planning any major changes, but I think the tension needs to escalate more, particularly in the last four or five chapters.

With a few minor structural changes – basically having most of the main characters come together at the end, I should be able to achieve that.

As it is, two of them don’t really do much, but if I could bring them together, elevate the angst and have it all culminate in a final fight scene, it should work much better.

I’ve got about six or eight thousand words to do it in. Fingers crossed.

On being critiqued

Last night, a critique group gave my recently finished novel a well-deserved roasting.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d expected it – and the feedback was very constructive.

I wrote the story without a solid idea as to what it was going to be about – letting it unfold and change as I went. 

I don’t know if that was a mistake, but the story I began writing certainly became something entirely different by the end – and it showed.

There were plenty of opinions about all sorts of aspects of the story, sometimes even coming from opposite directions. It told me about the problems even if the proposed solutions varied.

One of the most useful things I found was that people sometimes saw things in a different light from what I’d intended.

I was surprised two or three times when I realised what I thought were minor points had such big impacts for different people – things I plan to fix (or use better).

What I didn’t anticipate was the encouragement I received for a totally unedited first draft.

Although it has (some fairly big) problems, it was largely regarded as a very readable, fast-paced story with enough going on to make people keen to know how it ends.

With any luck I can keep that aspect when I rework it.

Overall, I came away with a lot of new ideas and a fresh view of a story I was otherwise too close to look at objectively.

I’m not entirely sure I’d throw a first draft at a critique group again, but I’ve got no regrets either.

Create a writing/editing plan for your novel!

Here’s a few steps that might help you in drafting and editing your novel.

1. What’s it about? Write one sentence describing your story in 25 words or less.

Yes. 25 words or less.

Rework the story to reflect this sentence, or change the sentence to reflect the story.

I’ve seen several publishers asking for this sentence in their submission requirements.

2. What’s the theme?

This is the point of your novel, and arguably the most important aspect of it. It’s what you’re trying to say – one side of an argument.

Without a theme your story’s just explosions and pretty sunsets. Pointless.

The theme itself is a statement. For example: “Behind every good man is a greater women.” Your story is the argument supporting either the positive or the negative side of that statement.

Think of your story as one side of the debate.

3. Separate the Threat from the Conflict.

Conflict is immediate, while the threat is the potential. Work out the difference in your story.

4. Need Vs Want.

What does your character(s) want? What are they actively pursuing? This is an external goal.

What does your character need? This will be something internal, something they aren’t likely to be aware of – a lesson to be learned, perhaps. The moral of the story.

For example, a high school student wants to be part of the ‘in’ crowd, when what they really need is to be happy with themself first.

Getting what they need will affect how they see what they want, while getting what they want before getting what they need won’t fulfill them.

What they want drives them. What they need completes them.

Getting what they need may make what they want even more worthwhile or it may render it totally obsolete. They may even have to sacrifice what they want entirely if it gives them what they need.

When they get what they need they can finally see what they want in its true light.

5. Identify the main plot points and transitions – beginning, middle, end, inciting incident, midpoint, etc.

If you don’t know what these are, and there’s lots more that I haven’t listed, I’ll be writing another post (or several) in the future covering them. For the moment though, I’ve drawn a diagram.

  • Do they work to best effect?
  • Can they be made to work better?

6. Chapter outline – write a brief sentence describing each chapter.

This will help you identify weak chapters or chapters that do nothing for the story.

You need to justify each chapter’s existence. Each sentence should:

  • State what the chapter’s trying to convey
  • Show how the chapter moves the story along.

7. Write a Cause and Effect. “Because of this, this happens. Because this happens…”

Start big, Ie:

  1. Beginning: Bella moves to Forks – meets Edward.
  2. Middle A: She’s attracted to him – discovers he’s a vampire which is part of the attraction.
  3. Middle B: They hook up – she becomes involved in the ‘vampire world’.
  4. End: Bad vampires come after Bella – Edward and family try to protect her.

Each cause has an effect, which leads to the next cause. It’s a logical progression. If you can’t find the logical progresssion, your story has a problem.

Once you’ve got the big steps down, break them into smaller steps.

Your breakdown for the beginning might be two or three pages long (although it can be much less or more). And like the big steps, it needs a logical progression. Find it.

Everything outside the cause and effect must be essential to moving the story forward in some other way.

8. Identify the big structural changes you need to make.

For example: ‘the ending isn’t satisfying enough – must rewrite to ensure the main character struggles more to achieve their goals’.

Like the example, write a list of big points that need fixing. Make these changes before going on. There’s no point in polishing text if big swathes of it might be cut or largely altered.

9. Identify the smaller but important changes you need to make.

For example:

  • Make outer space/ocean/sword/city/weather more of an influential ‘player’ in the story
  • Make the main character more sympathetic
  • Make the antagonist appear nice at first [misdirection].

Write a list of things that need to be done, and make the changes before going on.

10. Edit the words.

Only after you’re happy with the overall structure should you start playing with words, sentences and paragraphs.

Do a complete pass from beginning to end, and once you move onto the next chapter, don’t go back until the next full pass. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the process of polishing something to imperfection. Set some sort of goal and stick to it.

11. Finally, figure out when its ‘good enough’ and get it out into the world.

If you found this post helpful, subscribe to Fandelyon.com to receive more useful posts on the craft of writing.

The problem with editing…

The problem with spending hours editing a story is that at the end, you don’t really have much to show for it.

The word count might have changed a little, sentences and paragraphs irrevocably altered, even some chapters moved or removed, but from a distance it’s pretty much the same as it was before. The same story, at least – but hopefully better.

When you’re writing something new, there’s a growing word count you can point at and say ‘Ah-hah! That’s what I did today’. It adds up, too, swelling that sense of achievement.

With editing though – it’s malleable. Unless you’re making big, blatant changes, it can be really hard to tell the difference between the third and fourth layers of polish.

So, how do you get a sense of achievement, a clear indication you’re not on a never-ending treadmill?

Start with a plan. Work out what you want to do before you start, and stick to it.

First, review the story. Read it through, make notes, work out what you’re going to tackle and in what order, and decide how much you want to achieve each session.

Then, work your way through the story, stick to your plan, and at the end of it you’ll have edited the full draft.

Then, of course, repeat. Figure out what’s working, what’s not, and what could be better. Work out how to fix those things – and set to it, doing specifically that.

Repeat again as necessary, but try not to get into the habit of doing it over and over. Figure out exactly what you want to end up with, aim for it, and then get it out into the world when you’re done.

Game over. New project.

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