When Less is More

It’s something we all hear from time to time – less is more.

But when it comes to writing, what does that mean, exactly?

Yesterday, as I was working on my young adult novel, I was reminded yet again of this adage, and how it affects my writing – generally for the better.

Most writing books will have something to say on this topic. Stephen King will tell you that adverbs are the work of the devil. A lot of writers will tell you that dialogue tags are the first thing that need to go in a manuscript (which has some merit; after all, if your dialogue and action don’t tell who’s talking, then you’ve got some work to do). Description? Of course you need it, but do you need ten pages of description? Probably not. That’s why it’s so important to work details like that into the narrative.

(I read the first page of a manuscript once where it was nothing – nothing! – but a description of this spaceship. I was so bored and confused by the end of the first paragraph that I told him to start with a character and the character’s problem, and work these details in later.)

So yesterday. I was working on my manuscript and I had several places where there were ‘problem sentences’ – sentences that didn’t quite make sense in the context to the scene, that needed rewritten.

Or did they?

Take for instance this one (problem sentence is in bold):

Bart hauled me to my feet and tucked his gun away. “Scrappy little thing, aren’t you?”

“I don’t take nothing off nobody,” I said.

He laughed. “I can see that.”

“Bart.” Sally’s voice came down the hall. “Bring the kid in here.”

And then he dragged me down the hall and into that room. 

Next to that line, I scribbled Why? She needs to ask why Bart has Nicky in the basement. And then I realized that just down the page a bit, she does ask. And so – voila! Less is more.


Cut the problem line, and it reads just fine.

I can’t tell you how many times that trick has saved a scene for me. Here’s another example:

He stared at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw fear, real fear, in his eyes. “You met Collins? He was there?”

“He liked Abby real well.” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying real hard to hang on to my temper. “Told me it’s a sin to take another man’s runner.”

“He’d know.” Simon picked up another apple, but he didn’t take a bite. “He say anything else?”

This is an example of a time when I had one thing planned for this scene, but by the time the entire thing was written and done, this line didn’t make sense anymore. Through several drafts, I kept coming back to it, wondering if I should – or could – make it work, if there was a way to revise it. And then, finally, I just cut it. And guess what? It works fine.

Of course, it’s not just about a line here or there (though if you’re trying to cut your word count, that does help). It’s also about entire scenes. For example, in this novel, my MC, Nicky, is a rumrunner in 1924. I had a pivotal scene drafted in which he needs to leave at a certain time to make a delivery to a hotel, but Bart delays him – and the next day, they find out that revenuers were patrolling that road at the time Nicky would have been there. But the hotel they were delivering to didn’t exist in 1924. So that kept bothering me. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In fact, at one point in the manuscript I wrote The Gueda Springs Hotel is a problem for them AND me! 🙂

But. I had this other thing in the back of my mind – a local Klan parade that I just hadn’t worked into the narrative yet, though I knew it was important. Finally, yesterday, the two clicked (I literally saw the light going on in my head!) and both problems got solved. Rather that mess with the hotel, I changed the scene so that Bart keeps him from getting caught up in the Klan parade (because in the 1920s, the Klan hated bootleggers more than they hated just about anyone). That made me very happy.

Sometimes, sadly, you do have to ‘murder your darlings.’ Entire scenes get cut. Characters get the axe. Ideas don’t work. But sometimes, it works out for the best. And sometimes, rather than fuss with one line that doesn’t make a lot of sense . . . you can just cut it.

Less really can be more. 🙂

Pop Culture – Yay or Nay? The Shadow Knows!

When I was working on my Associates’ degree, I took a creative writing class in which I wrote a short story that I was quite proud of. (Hey, when you’re 20, everything you write is gold, right?) And I still remember the huge kerfluffle that ensued over my use of one tiny word. Hint:  it’s not what you’re thinking. In a million years, you’ll never guess.


I’m not kidding. That’s the word. Kleenex.

“It took me completely out of the story,” the main griper griped. “I mean, in fifty years, will anyone know what that word is? You need to use tissue. Everyone knows the word tissue.”

Well, I’ve read historical fiction for most of my life. I read Black Beauty when I was eight, for crying out loud. No one has hansom cabs and overchecks anymore, either, but guess what? They’re still part of that novel!

I was thinking about this topic this week as I read yet another New York Times bestseller, The Nanny Diaries. Again, not my usual reading fare. My paperback edition was published in 2003, so yes, it’s a bit old. It’s set in New York City; ‘Nanny,’ the main character, works for the X family, who are, let’s say, very well-to-do. As in, they buy Gucci for their son’s piano teacher for Christmas. This story is nothing but pop culture – references to The Lion King and all manner of Disney movies, every major designer in New York, including Manolo Blahnik, ultra-expensive restaurants, and more.

Question:  does this date the novel?

This is a huge debate among writers, readers, agents, and editors. How much is too much? At what point do you risk ‘dating’ your novel and making it unpalatable for future generations? At what point does it become so bland that it’s unreadable because you’ve left out every pop culture reference you can?

For me, pop culture references don’t date a novel; they create setting for a novel. How different would On the Road be if you couldn’t include all the 1960s references? Or the Sherlock Holmes stories? Dogcarts and skirts trailing in mud? Where would the clues go? 🙂

Maybe it doesn’t bother me so much because I read so much historical fiction. I can say that the only thing that truly bothered me about The Nanny Diaries (aside from wanting to reach through the pages and strangle Mr. and Mrs. X so that Nanny could just take the little boy, Grayer, home with her), is the cell phone. Now, I’ve had a cell phone since 1998. My first plan was 100 minutes/month for $100. I really do remember most people having cell phones in 2003. But here’s the exchange when she first gets hers:

The girl with her own cell phone calls her best friend, Sarah . . .  “Hey, it’s me. At this very moment I am walking down the street and talking to you. Just like I could on a train, a boat, or even from the makeup floor at Barneys, because . . . I got a cell phone. She (Mrs. X) gave me a cell phone! See, that’s not a perk you get as a professor’s assistant. Bye!”

Then I ring Grandma . . . “Hi, Gran, c’est moi. I’m out on the street talking to you on my brand-new cell phone. Now all I need is a Donna Karan bikini and we can hit the Hamptons. Woohoo! Talk to you later! Bye!”

So in two paragraphs, we see several pop culture references AND get the sense that this character has no idea about cell phones (in fact, it takes her other friend to let her know that this could be a pay-as-you-go plan). This took me out of the story more than the pop culture references. But then again, I’m inured to those. I still watch Will & Grace and Sex and the City. 🙂

So as you work on your novel, consider your references carefully. I myself use them – sparingly. In my urban fantasy novels, set in Oxford, I have references to both Top Gear and Doctor Who. Since my books are meant to appeal to readers who like urban fantasy AND England, I’m sure they’re going to be familiar with those references. Read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – their references to common British pop culture are hilarious (like when the demon, Crowley, takes immense pride in the role he played in creating the Ring Road around London). Now, if you’re familiar with British-isms, this is SO FUNNY. But if this novel were written today, the demon might instead be proud of the congestion charges in The City. 🙂

A friend recently wrote  a manuscript in which the band Green Day features. I’d never heard of Green Day until I read her manuscript . . . so you have to keep that in mind as well. I gather Green Day isn’t that far in the past, but will your readers get the reference?

So this is where beta readers come in handy. Finish your novel first. Don’t worry about the pop culture references. Then hand it out to as many different people as possible. My friend had no idea that there were people in the world who didn’t know about Green Day! And I’m constantly shocked when I find people I know – I KNOW! – who have never seen Top Gear. This is why Easter eggs are so popular – because to those in the know, they’re a lovely, hidden inside joke. Like in the episode of Supernatural where Sam meets up with a woman he should have killed when they were both teens – but he let her go. She tells him her new name is Amy Pond. He grins and says “Great name!” (Given that Mark Sheppard – who plays Crowley on the show – also played a Secret Service agent in a two-episode arc of Doctor Who, this is a GREAT reference, and a fantastic Easter egg.)

You won’t catch everyone. You can’t please everyone. You will find readers who have no idea what you’re talking about. But if the reference is part of the setting – or better yet, part of the plot – use it. Curious readers – good readers – will figure it out.

Pitches, Pitchapalooza, and What the Bleep Have I Done?

“If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or your mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.”– Michael Kordon, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1984).

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I really hate about writing, it’s the pitching process. Especially with that kind of pressure! Thank you, Mr. Kordon.

I know – it’s a necessary evil if you want an agent. I get it. But there’s so much to it. And the sad part is, I can write a pitch for almost any book I’ve read – but not mine. There’s something about self-aggrandizement that really gets under my skin and makes me want to rip my eyeballs out. Pitching my own book is almost impossible.

What do you leave in? What do you leave out? Is that secondary plotline really important? How much setting do you give vs. how much character development? Are you really getting the point across and grabbing someone’s attention? Every. Single. Word. Counts. Especially if you only have 250 words to do it in, like I did this past week.

Pretty much on a whim, I decided to try my luck at NaNoWriMo’s “Pitchapalooza,” hosted by The Book Doctors, Ariel Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. I haven’t seen a Pitchapalooza in person, though I know they do them at writing conferences and book fairs – basically, authors get 1 minute to pitch their book, not just in front of Ariel and David, but in front of a live audience. The best pitch wins a free consult with them, and hopefully will lead to a better book overall, and introductions to agents who are actively seeking something exactly like your book.

My friend Debra Dockter (debradockter.com) won Pitchapalooza at the Kansas Writer’s Association Conference a few years ago. They made suggestions and introduced her to her current agent. So I knew things could happen. You know, good things.

This Pitchapalooza, though, was online. You got just 250 words to convey the essence of your novel. In addition, the ideal pitch would:

  • showcase your writing ability
  • explain why YOU are the one to write it
  • show what’s unique about this novel
  • and create the same kind of “I have to know what happens next” feeling of a movie trailer.

Not hard, right? No pressure. None at all. So. After working with Deb on my pitch for my young adult novel (Nicky’s story!), I sent it in. They would choose 25 pitches at random to go on their website and be critiqued. The public would then vote and the ‘fan favorite’ would get a consultation.

Random + me = not a snowball’s chance in hell. But I sent it in anyway.

And surprise – I’m one of the 25!

The point of this whole thing is twofold.

One:  here’s a chance to see 25 pitches, for all genres and in all kinds of writing styles and levels of expertise, in one place, complete with fairly in-depth expert commentary on what they like about them – and what needs improved. If you’re not good at writing pitches (like me), this is a GREAT learning opportunity.

And two:  go vote for me and Nicky. 🙂 No, seriously, you should vote for your favorite, but if your favorite happens to be Nicky, that would be brilliant.

In the meantime, I’ll be frantically writing. Because Nicky’s story? It ain’t quite done yet. 🙂


http://www.thebookdoctors.com/2015-nanowrimo-pitchapalooza – The website for the pitches, and where you can vote.


Some helpful links for writing that pitch:



http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000755331 – the winning pitches for Amazon.com’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Awards.

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/pitching – the best of Writer’s Digest’s pitch articles, in one convenient location!


Academics, Papers, and Citations, Oh My!

I am SO tired – I’ve spent the last three weeks working on edits to this anthology. And I just want to make a few observations. This will mean getting out the old soapbox.

soapbox1.) PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PUT YOUR PUNCTUATION INSIDE THE QUOTE MARKS! This goes for periods, commas, exclamation points, question marks, colons, semi-colons, and anything else you can think of. Why are adult professors at well-known universities not doing this???? Why???? Just. Do. It. Right.

2.) Please see #1, above.

3.) Cite your quotes properly. If you say so-and-so said it, make sure they really did say it. Please. Do not, in your sentence, say “X says “blah blah blah,” and then in your end note or footnote, attribute it to someone else, UNLESS it’s being quoted in that other source. Then, say “quoted in _.”

4.) There are TWO spaces after colons. Colons look like this:  semicolons, on the other hand, which look like this; only have 1 space after them. I am pretty sure this is true even on Adipose 9. If, you know, little smiling globs of animated fat use colons, that is.

5.) See # 1.

6.) If you’re going to submit a paper for publication, YOU NEED A WORKS CITED OR BIBLIOGRAPHY PAGE. Trust me. I don’t care what your discipline is. They will want that. It’s sort of important. You know, so others can go find your sources? Make sure you didn’t just, I don’t know, make them up?

7.) In MLA format, block quotes are double-spaced, and indented 1 inch. Just saying.

8.) See #1.

9.) If you are, let’s say, a professor at a university, and your name is on this paper, please have someone proofread the thing before you send it in. Just have someone over in the English department give it a go-over, in exchange for a $20 Starbucks card.

10.) There are three basic forms of paper citation and formatting: MLA, APA, and Turabian. Pick one. An amalgam of all three is not correct. Making up your own style is not correct. I know people can make up their own religions, but you CANNOT make up your own citation style!

11.) See #1.

Thank you. I feel better now. Carry on. 🙂

“But WHY are the curtains blue?” A rant about ‘literary criticism’

When I first started college, I intended to go into English, maybe majoring in Literature. But I figured out pretty quickly that I lacked one major character trait that was absolutely necessary for being a Lit major:  I had zero ability to rip apart a work and analyze it for every last nit-picky thing. (Okay. Really, I should say “interest,” not “ability.” I had the ability. I just couldn’t be bothered.)

To be fair, I should have figured this out in high school. I didn’t need it all spoon-fed to me. I didn’t need to endlessly discuss each and every novel. Yes, I get it, Jim is Huck’s surrogate father. Yes, I get the symbolism of Hester Prynne’s beautifully embroidered A. No, I do not want to ponder the dichotomy between Heathcliff and Catherine; I want them to both die already so I can stop reading this god-awful book!

Currently, I’m editing a small anthology of literary analyses of HP Lovecraft’s stories. Ironic, yes, I know. Having never read Lovecraft, I’m intrigued by the depth and range of his work. But I’m even more fascinated by the people writing these papers.

If you don’t know Lovecraft, he is considered one of the very first sci-fi and fantasy writers. He wrote mostly in the 1920s and into the 1930s. His writing style is . . . odd. Though born and bred in America, he affects an 18th-century British ‘accent’ in his writing that even I, a dyed-in-the-Lake-District-wool Anglophile, find frustrating (in large part because half the time, I can’t tell if the person writing the analysis misspelled the word, or if they’ve got it right and it’s one of Lovecraft’s misspellings instead). However, I am coming to appreciate – deeply – his word usage, his sentence structure, his ability to create fantastical plots, and his descriptions.

And holy cow, can his fans find depth in his stories!

A few years ago – I forget exactly where – I heard a story about an author who was scheduled to give a presentation at a small college. Most attendees would be college students and instructors, and she was looking forward to an hour or so of give and take. But when she got there, they started bombarding her with questions. “Why are the curtains in Sarah’s room blue? What does blue MEAN?!” Etcetera, etcetera. She finally held up her hands, waited for the questions to stop, and then told them that – gasp! – it all meant nothing. The curtains were blue because that’s what she saw in her mind when she wrote the scene. That’s. It.

That’s how I feel about literary criticism. Who bloody freaking cares if the curtains are blue? Who cares what the red dress signifies (ahem; unless you’re in the 1950s and it’s a subconscious ploy to get you to think about Communism, that is)?

Take Lovecraft, for example. There are two papers in this anthology that deal with the same short story, The Colour Out of Space. These two papers make radically different arguments, come at it from radically different viewpoints, and – you guessed it – come to radically different conclusions. One is absolutely certain that Lovecraft was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and there can be no other explanation. The other is absolutely certain that this is a story about radiation poisoning. Both have good evidence (though as a historian, I find one a bit more convincing and interesting than the other). But what a contrast!

See, this is why I find literary criticism so pointless. A story means one thing to me. It means another thing to you. And it means something else to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Why can’t we all be right? Why can’t we just take our interpretations and conclusions, agree that we’re all brilliant, and go home with smiley faces on our papers? Why does the professor have to glare down his nose at some of us, heave a great sigh, and say, “Of course this isn’t right! This is a dribble of cold pudding! Try again!” I despise digging deeper into a story. I despise looking for meaning. Maybe the author didn’t have a deeper meaning. Maybe the blue curtains really are just blue because that’s what she was thinking of at the time. Maybe the curtains in her own room are blue. Maybe somewhere, the character said their favorite color was blue. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . . who knows?

More to the point, who cares?!

Seriously. I am happy to rip apart primary sources, picking apart words and sentences, to dig for the true meaning behind the words of the person who wrote it. It’s one of my favorite things, in fact. But picking apart a fictional story to discover the greater meaning, is just So Bloody Pointless.

By now, I realize I’ve destroyed any and all chance of ever being admitted to University of Oxford or any other schools worth attending. Oh well. To quote one of my favorite movies, “I said what I said, and I’ll defend it to the death!” (McLintock!)

So right here, right now, I make a plea to my future readers and critics. Do not do this to my books. There is no deeper meaning, I promise you. Kai’s eyes are blue because that’s my favorite eye color. I chose the name Abigail because I happen to like it, not because it means a particular thing relating to x in the plot. Likewise, the name Malachi signifies nothing more than a really cool name, which I could then shorten into an even cooler name. I am a totally superficial writer, and a totally superficial reader. I will not look deeper into a text for the Greater Meaning Of It All. And I won’t write esoteric Easter eggs into my novels, either. My Easter eggs are right there in the open.

I do wonder, though, what Lovecraft would think of the papers I’m editing, particularly the one I read today in which the word ‘phallus’ was used (I kid you not, I counted) 40 times in 4 double-spaced pages. See, that’s what I mean.

Please, people. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. Life is short. Read for enjoyment. I beg you.

Betas in Action: My Critique Session


I met with my beta readers, Deb and Cynthia, today to go over the revised first book of my series. And let me tell you, they were spot-on perfect.

First:  they talked about the good. My initial version of this novel was in third person, and they both loved the change to first. They loved my MC’s voice and her sarcasm, they liked being in her mind and knowing her thoughts, and they liked seeing the growth and change she undergoes. They liked some of my secondary characters a lot, especially my comic relief team. 🙂

Second:  they got down to the nitty-gritty. And what was amazing was that they both had pretty much the same things to say, and that we were able to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they saw.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene (if you don’t know Latin, that means “note this well!”):  if your betas agree on the same thing, that’s something you need to fix.

Those Blasted Secondary Characters:  One thing they both agreed on, which was something that had already been in the back of my mind, is that two of the secondary characters do not play a huge role in the story. They will play BIG roles later in the series, so I had to introduce them now. But Deb and Cynthia felt they were too peripheral, and that I had two choices. A.) Make them more important and put them in scenes where we get to know and like them better, or B.) Eliminate them. I will have to do some thinking on that, especially since I’ve never seen myself working in waste management. But. Secondary characters have to play a role:  they can’t be window dressing. So we brainstormed ways to give them solid roles in the story.

See? Betas are good! 🙂

“Oy! You’ve said this already!”:  They also picked up on some key phrases that I overuse. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have that problem,” HA!!!! We all have “go-to” phrases that we revert to when we’re writing, even subconsciously. You need to train yourself to look for them. Sometimes they’re scattered throughout the manuscript, and it takes a fresh set of eyes to find them all. And sometimes, just some time away will let you see that you’ve used that same phrase four times in two pages. Ahem. Not that I did that or anything.

A Different Perspective:  Betas are also good because they have different knowledge and backgrounds than you do (or they should, if you’ve chosen properly). Deb teaches psychology, and she had some great suggestions for the massive conflict that forces my MC to break up with her boyfriend. Things I hadn’t even thought about, because I’m a historian, not a psychologist.

That inevitable “What the fruitbat?” moment:  One thing that did catch me off-guard was the sudden emphasis both Deb and Cynthia had on my MC’s family. They appear in just one tiny scene at the end, but they both felt that my MC’s entire family couldn’t hate her. (My inner writer is still saying, “Hmm. I remain unconvinced. I must think upon this.”) But Deb made a very good point:  she said, in effect, “When I read this, it made me stop reading and wonder why her entire family were jerks.” And one thing you never want to do is take your reader out of the story. Therefore, Deb’s reasoning was absolutely valid. As a beta, remember, one of your key tasks is to help the author make the story better. In the end, I think we all agreed on the fix.

I’m not saying it was always easy to hear the criticisms. There were certainly instances where I felt my inner writer rise up and say BUT I LOVE THAT AND IT’S NOT COMING OUT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY YOU MEAN, MEAN PERSON!  Wait. That was my inner drama queen, sorry. It was my inner writer that made me sit back in my chair, carefully consider everything they said, and admit that they were right. Or at least, that their opinions had validity. 🙂

And the clearest example of this was the vehemence with which Cynthia hated my ending.

I love my ending. It took days to craft into perfection. It’s bold. It’s full of intrigue and danger, and sorrow and sacrifice. According to Cynthia, it’s also full of crap.

For one very good reason, though, which she explained (and with which Deb agreed):  because there’s no real resolution to the largest problem. Yeah. I know. It hurt to even write those words. I was trying to blame the fact that Cynthia just got married on her insistence on a happy ending. But damn it, she made a good point:  we never really solve the mystery of who killed Someone Very Important, and we need at least one bloody thing resolved in this book. Not everything gets to wait until Book #381 to be explained or solved. 

So we spent quite some time going over Who Really Killed This Very Important Person, and why, and how to impart that information. As Cynthia put it, “Erin (my MC) is throwing everything away, including her academic career, to help this girl. It has to be for something.” So now my job as the writer is to incorporate those changes in a way that makes sense, is true to the story, and yet enables us to still have a bit of a mystery. Yay!

All told, this was such a great session. This wasn’t about them telling me what was wrong; this was about us working as a team to make the book better. When you, the writer, come into a critique session with an open mind and a willingness to admit your betas have a point (because if you don’t, then why did they just waste their time reading your manuscript?), magical things happen. And when your betas come to the session with both the good and the bad, and the confidence to state both equally and give their reasons for their opionions, magical things happen. Magical things = Your Book Gets Better.

I know mine will. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

Being a Good Beta Reader: Writing Good Critiques

It’s easy enough to tell someone how to give a good critique. But unless you see them for yourself and have practice writing them, it can be daunting.

So I wanted to share a few snippets from a friend’s story I edited earlier this year. This is Deb Dockter’s YA novel Deadly Design, coming out next June from Penguin (YAY!! Happy step-mom dance!) FYI, you can follower her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, and find her on her website, www.debradockter.com

When I edit and critique, I do a little of everything. I’m a grammar Nazi, so I always (naturally) look at spelling, punctuation, run-on sentences, fragments, etc. I also love a perfectly-crafted sentence, so I’m constantly looking at ways to improve them, make them more clear, give them more punch. I’m a firm believer that every paragraph needs to move the story forward and contain one major thought, so I will often give suggestions on how to rewrite them. I’m also looking for ways in which characters act out of character, and comment if there seems to be no reason for them to do so. And then, at the end, I will sum up with my own thoughts about the novel, where it’s heading, overall story arc and character arc, and whether there are plot holes.

And before you ask, YES, I’m every bit as hard on myself as I am on others — even more so. Last fall when I taught Creative Writing, I took drafts of my own novels, complete with red and purple and green ink, for my students to see. They were suitably frightened. 🙂

So without further ado, here’s an example of a paragraph I suggested rewriting. This was the original:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean. He’s the quiet but tough guy. He doesn’t need anybody else, doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks. He’s a bad boy.” She gives me a sideways glance.

I consider this, then nod in agreement. “Yep, that’s me. I’m bad to the bone.”

I suggested it could be:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean?” At my blank look she says, “Seriously? East of Eden? Rebel Without a Cause?”  She gives me a sideways glance. “Really?”

I shrug. “Rebel without a cause. Yeah. That’s me.” (But, that’s just me – my suggestion – I have an idea most teens even today will know the “bad boy” reference from James Dean and maybe the movie title.)

The italics are my comments to Deb. She can take the suggestion or not; I’ve given my opinion. And if you’re writing a critique, it’s your responsibility to give your opinion. That’s why you’re there, after all.

Here’s an example where I’ve found a paragraph that I think isn’t quite right, but I can’t figure out why I think that.  I make a note of it, and then I offer an opinion on what it could be:

“Don’t come if you don’t want to.” His mouth was full of cornflakes, and there was a tiny dot of milk on his chin. “Your mom and I have always been understanding about you not wanting to go watch your brother. But this is his last meet, ever. He wants us there, all of us. But if you think you’ll sleep all right tonight, not going, then by all means, stay home.” (something about this paragraph reads funky – I think it’s the two middle sentences, structured exactly the same.)

Again, it’s always up to the author as to whether they think you’re right or not. But as a critique partner, you have a duty to let them know that something isn’t quite right there. If it reads funny to you, chances are it will read funny to others.

Here’s an example where I’ve commented on plot and structure:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (I haven’t gotten the sense yet in this version that he is in love with Emma. I did – really did – in the old version. We saw it. But I don’t get that at all yet here.)

By this time, I’d read about 25 pages of the new version, and I’d of course read the old drafts; therefore, I had a different viewpoint than someone who may have just picked this up for the first time. Deb and I have critiqued for each other for a few years now, so we know each others’ characters and plots, and we feel comfortable making comments like this. But let’s say this was the first time I’d ever read this. What I might say instead here is something like:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can get score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (Question:  Is Kyle in love with Emma? You’ve hinted at it — on page 10, for example — but I don’t see it clearly. He doesn’t come right out and say he’s in love with his brother’s girlfriend. And that’s a LOT of conflict to keep bottled up! If he is, let us see it, and let that conflict spill over into the story.) 

There. I’ve asked the question, pointed out a potential flaw, and given the author a reason to fix it — to improve the story.

If you know the story well, and the author, you might also feel okay with suggesting small things. Particularly if you get to know the characters well and see an opportunity for them to do or say something that could add context or depth to the story, or at least would be more in keeping with who they are. Like this:

“Could you go wake him up?” she says. “Emma’s coming over this morning, and I’m sure he’s not going to want to be in bed when she gets here.”

“Sure.” (perfect opportunity for a snarky remark like “Actually, I was sure he’d love to still be in bed when she got there,” or something. :))

As a critique partner, one of your jobs is also to pick up on the small mistakes that the author may make. If you’re a writer, you know how close you get to your own story; it sucks you in, and you start to miss things. Sometimes big, glaring things. 🙂 You skip over mistakes, and gloss over plot holes (“I’ll fix it later!”). But that’s why you have beta readers. Or you get into a big rush to finish it, and you make silly mistakes that you don’t catch later. Like this one:

She tilts her head and smiles at me like I’m the world’s biggest pain in the ass. “As you are probably aware, today is May 15th. In approximately seven days, the love birds will be graduating from high school. They will then commence living in a dorm in Manhattan, while they attend the University of Kansas.” (BOY, it’s a good thing you have me here! Manhattan is K-State. Lawrence is KU!)

So as a beta reader, if you know the fix to a mistake, tell the author! Don’t assume they’ll find and fix it later; give them a hand. 🙂 Obviously, if I didn’t know Deb as well as I do and didn’t feel comfortable teasing her, I’d phrase this differently!

And, of course, always be supportive and kind! It’s as easy as making smiley faces when you find something you like, or writing “Good girl!” in the margins when the MC does something you like, or even just dashing off “LOL!” at the end of a paragraph:

If I was a girl or gay, I’d be instantly smitten. I’d be sending him a friend request on Facebook and moving quickly from acquaintance to stalker. I can’t help but wonder if his name is made up, a way to keep the would-be Triagon worshippers from finding his high school and setting up surveillance across from his locker. (LOL!)

So I hope that helps you figure out some ways to give constructive criticism. Next week, I’ll follow up by giving you some examples from my own novel — things my beta readers pointed out to me, and things I pointed out to myself. Like I said, I’m much harder on myself than they are!

(All quotes are from Debra Dockter’s young adult novel Deadly Design, to be published June 2015 from Penguin. Keep an eye out! Again, you can follow her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, or her blog/website at www.debradockter.com. You can also follow me on Twitter — @RobynNHill.)

Giving Critiques: A Few Hints

It’s that familiar, sick feeling. You want to run and hide, even if the only available place is in the sewer drain.

“Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?”

Does anything strike fear in the hearts of people more than this? Well, except for police sirens. And being asked to speak in public. Job interviews. Spiders. I digress. Your friend/co-worker/acquaintance/fellow writer/family member has just asked you to read their work, and comment on it.

What do you do?

You could accidentally burn the manuscript in the fireplace. Or flush it down the toilet.

Or you could learn how to give constructive criticism.

I’ve been a beta-reader for a good friend for a few years now; I’ve taught creative writing, and I’ve edited others’ works. I’ve had my own manuscripts critiqued by betas. I’m also a peer reviewer with Quality Matters, which is a comprehensive program that reviews online courses for instructors and colleges, and makes recommendations on how to improve them based on eight standards. One of the things reviewers learn to do is provide quality, constructive feedback on each standard. And as I was doing a review this past week, it struck me that these skills are the same skills beta readers need in order to give quality, constructive feedback on manuscripts. So here’s a few hints on how to make your next beta reading experience better — for you, and the writer.

1.) Read thoroughly. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the fact is, not everyone does read things thoroughly. However, you can’t properly critique what you haven’t properly read.

2.) Be balanced. Just as the universe has yin and yang, just as you can’t have a mocha latte without whipped cream, your review needs to have both good and bad comments. A good way to do it is this:

“I really like this paragraph — it’s tight, has a lot of tension, and we really see Bobbie Joe getting into the action. But I’m a little lost on where we are. Could you include more setting here — maybe Bobbie Joe could interact with something in the environment, or see someone moving in the trees, or whatever? This would ground it and make it more alive to readers.”

By starting with the good, you offer encouragement. By offering a suggestion, you cushion the blow. By saying this will do x for the readers, you let the writer know you’re on their side, and that you’re only offering this criticism in order to make their work better.

3.) Be constructive. I know you’ve heard this since fifth grade, and no one’s ever told you exactly what it means. What it means (to me) is this:  pick up only the most glaring things, and then offer solutions as to how to fix them. They may take your suggestions, they may not. That’s up to them. And in the end, it’s only your opinion, after all. Maybe they have this same MS to three other people, and none of them thought that one thing was wrong. Or maybe they ALL did! Either way, be true to yourself and your gut feeling. Someone has asked you to help them. Help them to the best of your ability.

4.) Don’t deconstruct — or demolish! If you called in an interior decorator to come paint your living room and put up new drapes, and you came home to find that they’d knocked down half a wall, put in French doors, changed the hardwood floors to shag carpeting, and installed a water fountain where the fireplace used to be, you’d be pretty darn pissed off. (I hope!) Same thing with this manuscript you’ve been entrusted with.

This is someone’s baby. Sure, maybe the MC’s name changes five times in the first three chapters, and maybe the plot has holes so big you can drive a coach-and-four through them, and maybe the setting is supposed to be Kansas, but there are palm trees and white sand beaches. Fall back on your positive. “Your description of the beach is fantastic — I really felt like I was there! But I thought this was set in Kansas — did you change the setting to Hawaii? If not, you might want to double-check that Kansas has beaches and palm trees.”

It’s possible that the entire thing might be so bad that you need to call the writer and say, “Look, I think you should put this away for a month or two, and then revisit it. I’m not sure it’s ready for anyone to see right now. ” Give them the chance to fix their own mistakes first. But. Be aware that they may not take this well. At all. Been there. Done that. Sometimes, writers get so blind to their own faults that they simply believe they don’t have any faults. If they get too belligerent, it’s time to take a step back and tell them this isn’t going to work at this time.

5.) Don’t make it about the grammar. If you see things, mark them. Especially if you see that the person makes the same mistake over and over, or — as happened to me this year — you see that the writer has made a tiny spelling error that would totally change the plot of the book! 🙂 Now, if the writer specifically asks you to do copy editing or line editing, then by all means, if that’s your gig, go ahead. But for the rest of us, the writer is probably wanting the big-ticket items.

What are the big-ticket items? For me, they’re plot, characterization, continuity, and overall satisfaction. As my beta readers are working on my latest manuscript right now, these are the things I’ve asked them to focus on. Does the plot hang together? Are there holes in it? Do the characters act consistently? Do they ever do anything you didn’t understand? Is the story easy to follow, or are there places where I’ve skipped something, or not explained something clearly? Did you ever not understand how we got from Point A to Point N? And the big one:  did you feel satisfied at the end? Were all the questions answered, all the loose ends tied up? Did the ending meet expectations? Why or why not?

I’m always grateful when people mark the grammatical errors, but I need my betas to focus on the big-ticket items — what Becky Levine calls “big, overall issues” in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. This is one of the best books by far I’ve found for not only learning how to do a critique, but also for improving and critiquing your own writing. Get it. Seriously. 🙂

If your writer is serious about improving, they’ll receive your comments graciously. They may not agree with them, and that’s their right, as it’s ultimately their work and their choice. However, if you make the comments positive and balanced, offer suggestions that don’t step on toes, and prove that you’re solidly in their corner, then the sting of the criticisms will be greatly diminished.



Here’s a link to the book:  http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Critique-Group-Survival-Guide/dp/1582976066/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410714031&sr=1-1&keywords=the+writing+critique+group+survival+guide It really is fantastic!