The Power of Critiques

Sometimes, turning a good story into a great one is as easy as getting a critique.  As easy and as hard.  Critiques are powerful tools, not to be taken lightly.

The things I’ve been taught by critiques — too many to count.  How to slay passive voice.  How to deepen POV.  What parts of my writing really stink.  Practical ways to show instead of tell.  Grammar refreshers.  Awkward sentences to fix.  Places that lag.  Generally, how to write better.  Sometimes it hurts, but it’s always good.

I love Critique Circle because each chapter I put up gets 2-4 (or sometimes more) critiques from people who all have different backgrounds, experience, expertise, and things they look for.

For a while, I even had a “crit partner”.  We got to the point where we knew each other’s stories well, and knew each other a bit, so that we could yell at each other when we messed up.  I loved it because he wouldn’t let me get away with things.  He’d say, Beth, I know you can do better than this.  Now go fix it.  And he loved it because I was meticulous at catching his grammar errors and making sure his story improved.

Critiques have taught me so much of what I know about writing.  And you know what?  They’ve put fuel in my tank to keep writing and keep improving.  People that enjoyed a chapter of my story.  People saying “I want to read more.”  Those are lifelines to an author.  People saying, “You know what, I wish I could write dialogue like you.”  And even sometimes, “This totally stinks, but keep you head up and keep writing anyways.”

Now, there is a hidden, sometimes overlooked value in critiques: what you learn by giving them.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been giving a crit and said, OOoooh, that’s a vile thing to do.  Wait…. wait, I do that too.  Oh crud.  So then I can go fix it.  ANNND, it’s trained me to be a much more meticulous proofreader of my own writing.  And every piece of writing I come across.

WARNING: being a writer and giving critiques may make you paranoid about all writing.  You may be reading magazine articles, published books, children’s stories, etc, and feel the need to critique them.  I know I certainly do.  But the pros of Critiques far outweigh the risks.  🙂

Don’t Forget the Conflict

magnet

Based off of a blog post I wrote for the CC blog a while ago.  I thought it was an important enough topic that I should post it here also.

When was the last time you stayed up half the night to finish reading a book?  Why?

It’s every author’s dream that their book would be so good that readers, editors, and agents wouldn’t be able to put it down.  How do we do this? Suspense. If readers are made of metal, then suspense is the magnet that pulls them to the page. But how exactly does one go about creating suspense or conflict in a story?

First, we need to make sure there’s something standing in the way of our main protagonist. It seems fairly obvious, but I’ve read many stories (and written some too) where the protagonist was just having a happy-go-lucky adventure with no antagonist and nothing working against the MC. So we need to be sure that our overall story has a main thing standing in the way of the MC’s goals. I’ve heard it said that there is an inverse ratio between the character’s happiness and the happiness of the readers – so limit the amount of time that your MC spends in a happy, safe environment.

Second, we must make sure that each chapter has suspense. Even if we have created the coolest scene, the sharpest dialogue, and the most realistic characters, unless there is suspense, there is nothing pulling the reader to the page. Every chapter should contain something, either small or large, that goes against the protagonist, and that could turn out one way or another. Keep readers guessing! It’s unanswered conflict that pulls in the reader’s attention.

There needs to be conflict in nearly every scene in your MS. If you find your characters living happy lives, then go in and wreak havoc. Turn peaceful conversation into a misunderstanding. Flip a nice gathering into a high-tension situation.

I’m writing a fantasy story where my MC receives a warm welcome in an Elvish city and is asked to a dance.  I was going to have it be all happy conversation and lovely gowns. But then I thought, what if my MC is terrified of going to the dance? What if my MC has never danced before and is scared of making a fool of herself? What if she gets into a fight at the dance? What if she doesn’t have anything to wear? What if, what if?
Suddenly it went from a cool scene to a magnetic scene. Even if the small changes didn’t effect the outcome of the whole story, they helped make the lead-up to the dance more suspenseful.

If you go through each plot, each chapter, each scene, and add distrust, confusion, and chaos… well, then you will have a terrific story. Or at least a magnetic one.

Scrivener: download complete

scrivener logoYesterday I took the leap of faith and downloaded the free trial of Scrivener.  I’ve gotten to the point where I’m doing serious edits on my MS and I figured it was time to check this program out and see if it could help!  I was pleasantly surprised with all of the cool features and gadgets it has.

For those of you who don’t know, Scrivener is “a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.” After fooling around with it a fair amount today, I decided I’d list some pros and cons (thus far) of Scrivener.

PRO: It is just as cool as the website makes it out to be — maybe even cooler.

CON: I can never remember how to spell / pronounce it.  Scri – ven – er.  Scree – vhon – noir.  S-C-R-I-V… oh whatever.

PRO: I love how it is organized.  Within your MS folder, you have separate folders for each chapter, and within each chapter folder, you have a text file thingy for each scene.  What does that mean?  It is really easy to move a scene from one chapter to another — just drag & drop, and BAM!  Moved to another chapter.

CON: If you’re importing an already-written MS (like I was), it might take you a few minutes to figure out how get your scenes and chapters organized.  Luckily, there is an “import and split” feature that will break up your scenes for you automatically.  All I had to do then was add in the folders for the chapters.

Scriv Scene Break

PRO: Once you’ve done that, it allows you to edit all your scenes & chapters together.  When editing the text, it will give you a single dotted line for a scene break (see pic at left) and a double dotted line for a chapter break.

CON: I got nothing for this one!

Cork Board - Labled Note Cards

 

PRO: There is an amazing “corkboard” feature that allows you to play around with virtual index cards.  Each “scene” file you create automatically has an index card that is linked to it.  Say you are looking at a chapter’s corkboard.  If you move around the index cards in that chapter, Scrivener will reorder your MS’s scenes to match what you did with your index cards.  Not happy?  Just drag the index cards back.  Or re-order your scenes with the navigator (“binder”) on the left.  Basically, re-ordering your scenes is just a drag-and-drop away.

And look! You can label your index cards “first draft”, “revised draft”, “done”, and the like.  You can also take notes on the index cards that won’t appear in your MS.

Scriv Glitch

CON: Scrivener does occasionally glitch on my mildly old computer when I try to view my enormously large document and ask it to do something complicated, such as zoom in.

PRO: There are a lot of awesome things you can do, like editing while in split-screen or full-screen mode.

Full Screen Mode
Full Screen Mode
Split Screen -- corkboard on the left, document editing on the right.
Split Screen — corkboard on the left, document editing on the right.

CON: If you’re like me, you might spend a few hours playing with all the features, instead of doing something more important, like, say, homework or actually working on your MS.

PRO: You can download a free 30 day trial from the website!  http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php  — AND that’s 30 days of actual USE.  If you use it twice a week, you can have it for fifteen weeks.

CON: After that, it does actually cost money.  It’s not super expensive though — just $40.

PRO: In the course of an afternoon, I have this thing up and running, with my MS all organized and ready to be edited in a fun, easy-to-navigate environment.

Note: There are a TON more features that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of — name generator, built-in dictionary, outlining program, formatting, research management, and so much more.  Their website does a pretty good job of advertising for themselves, so check that out if you want the details of everything Scrivener can do.

So.  Who all out there uses Scrivener?  What are your favorite features?  Drop me a comment and let me know!

Thoughts While Editing — aka, DID I REALLY WRITE THAT?

Woah.  Did I really write that?

The most common thing I think while reading through my story.  And it can go one of two ways.

Option #1: Woah, Did I really write that?  That’s terrible!  I must kill it!

Or, Option #2:  WOAH!  Did I really write that?  That’s incredible!  I had no idea I was that good!

There is very little in between.

My “editing” process has begun with a general read-through of my MS, and I’m taking notes on it as I go, highlighting things that need work, adding notes such as KILL THIS! or Deepen POV or What? She would never do that.  I’m nearly done, and my MS has gained a lot of color and a lot of notes flying everywhere.  And I’ve done a lot of thinking the two thoughts above.

You see, when I started out, I really. Could. Not. Write.

And as I wrote more (and had it critted) I got better!  And now I can see how awful my MS is in a lot of places, especially at the beginning of the story.  The first six chapters or so were brutal to read.  And then in about chapter 7, I thought for the first time, woah.  Did I actually write that?  ‘Cause that’s not half bad.  Actually, that’s pretty good.  And then — AND THEN!!!!  About two chapters later, I nearly made myself cry.  (In a good way!  A character died and I wrote it really well.)  And it was amazing.  My whole brain went this is why I’m a writer!  (Not because I enjoy crying… but I love the feeling when you’ve written something well enough that it merits that reaction from anyone — even myself!)

The scenes like that give me the courage and perseverance to slog through the scenes where I think Option #1… and hopefully after a few re-writes, I can think option #2 for every scene in my book.

Too Much Distance, or Why My Writing Stinks

I recently discovered why my writing stinks.  The issue is that my POV isn’t deep enough.  (For the newbies: POV = Point of View)

Often when speaking of POV, we talk about first person versus third person and that whole debate.  But not today.

Today, I’m talking about how shallow POV kills your story and how deep POV can give it that jolt of energy it lacks.

Here’s the deal.  You have an interesting story, awesome characters, and great setting.  And to tell a story, you start reporting it.  And suddenly your reader gets to be a fly on the wall in your awesome story.

But that’s WRONG.

Readers don’t want to be a fly on the wall.  They want to be LIVE the story themselves.  So if your writing has too much distance – if there’s an unplanned narrator between the reader and the MC – you’re doing it wrong.

Let me give you some examples:

DISTANT:

Emily walked down the stairs and saw blood all over the kitchen.  She felt like she was going to be sick.  She ran from the room, her face the picture of distress.

CLOSE:

Emily walked down the stairs and gasped.  There was blood all over the kitchen.  She was going to puke.  She ran, her heartbeat thudding in her ears.

By taking out words such as felt, saw, tasted, thought, etc, and simply WRITING what the character felt, saw, tasted, etc, we take out the distance and get our reader right there with the MC.

Another issue in the “close” version was actually a POV break: her face a picture of distress is not something Emily would say about herself in this moment.  Therefore, if she’s not thinking those words, then who is?  The invisible narrator.  Often times I’ll see new writers say things like “Emily looked at him, her blue eyes like fire.”  Well, if it’s from Emily’s POV, then how does she know what her eyes looked like?  The invisible narrator strikes again.  We don’t want him!

That’s my point.  If you want a better-told, faster-paced, more emotionally compelling story, then don’t tell me what the character felt, looked like, saw, whatever.  Let me see it, feel it, taste it, with them.

(I must give credit in this post to a CCer who gave me an amazing crit that pointed this out to me.  Thanks Jayg!)