Critique Vs Review: a writers showdown

I got some disturbing news at my writer's critique group this week and it had nothing to do with my chapter submission. During an off-topic conversation, one of the members commented that she worried about what I would say about her next submission. When I asked about this she said my Goodreads reviews were harsh.

Well, there's no point in denying it. I can be critical when it comes to reviewing published work. You can check out my reviews here if you're interested. Outside of live performances, books are the only artform you pay for before knowing if you'll like it.  You'd never buy a painting sight unseen and usually you hear a great song on the radio before downloading it. But with books, you fork over the money and hope for the best.

This is the mindset I have when reviewing books. As the author you are asking readers to pay for a certain level of entertainment, education, or what have you (depending on the kind of book you write). As the reader I expect to be entertained, educated, etc. When I'm not, it feels as though I bought a non-refundable box of chocolate covered rocks. Sure the picture looked good, but rocks aren't edible.

I'm sensitive to the fact that authors pour their blood, sweat and tears into books.  Shoot, I'm a writer, I get it. But the emotional investment an author made doesn't change my expectations. I'm sure Kim Kardashian worked really hard on her song Jam, but that doesn't mean we should go easy on her or even try to pretend that her song contains any artisitc merit whatsoever.

**On a side note, if you haven't heard this song yet, please stop right now and click the link.  It really is atrocious.**

My group member's comment about my harsh reviews didn't bother me, except she assumed that being a harsh reviewer would make me an unforgiving critiquer. That really upset me.

 I see a very obvious line where these two things don't meet. When I give a critique my mind is always aware that this is a WIP. No one asked me to pay to read this draft. The writer knows the work isn't ready for public consumption yet. My goal then is not to steer away innocent readers, but to help the writer get to the best story possible.

I would never, NEVER, blast someone in a critique. I will give you the honest truth, and that means sometimes saying that it's not working for me. This is always dished out hand in hand with a why. Maybe my point is valid, maybe it's not. That's for the writer to decide.

So how do you draw the line? Do you critique with a different eye than you review? Do you like Kim's new single? Let me know!

Novel Super Glue

There are those that will tell you that the key to any great novel is a wonderful plot, others will preach character arcs, and still more will say its convincing prose.

I am here to tell you that none of those things are worth a can of beans without consistency!

I want to talk about two kinds of consistency because they are the offenders I am seeing most often in my reading these days. Let me preface this by saying, this is not rocket science.  A trustworthy beta reader can be a huge help in finding these lapses.

The first is detail consistency. Some of this seems pretty straight forward.  If your character goes to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then you can't give her a gym scene on Friday without explaining why she's there on her off day.  Makes sense right?

So why are so many authors leaving out the why?

Here's an example, in an unnamed book I am reading the opening scene is a doctor trying to stitch up a man's ankle in the emergency room.  This is made difficult because a storm has knocked out power and there are no lights (yes, I know there would be a back-up generator at a hospital, but apparently the author does not).  The author spends a lot (a lot) of time describing the difficulty of putting in these stitches using only the occasional lightning strike to see. We have a crystal clear picture. And then...

Another critical patient comes in and we see a whirl of activity while doctors and nurses hook up central lines, examine wounds, apply bandages and use the shock cart.  During this entire scene no one has any trouble seeing anything.

Now maybe this patient was taken to an area of the hospital where the lights were on. Or maybe they were having a hard time seeing.  The point is, I don't know, because the author didn't tell us.  All the sudden, this detail that was hammered in our head for fifteen pages is just gone.  The glue holding the scene together has dissolved.

The second area I want to touch on is character consistency.  This is a biggie for me.  Failure to keep your characters consistent is an epic fail. I'm not saying your character's can't grow, but I need to see that growth, not assume it.

Here's another nameless example to bring home the point.  Character A has been ordered by his boss to get a valuable object from character B.  Here's what we know about character A: he is shy, always follows the rules (due to his personality and his cultural upbringing), is excessively polite, does not have any home invasion skills (like lock picking) and, most importantly is afraid of character B. Character B is a highly armed, very skilled professional body guard. So what does character A do? Obviously, he breaks into character B's apartment and steals the object.  What? No, why would he do that? The character A we've come to know would simple ask character B for the object, using please as many times as possible.

In this case, the author made a character do something because the plot line called for it, not because it was a probable action for the character. This is a cardinal rule, character trumps plot every time. There are few rules in writing, but this is one of them. If your character is going to do something out of character there must be adequate motivation. 

Failure to be consistent in your writing is like taking the binding off a book.  Pages start falling apart and very shortly you'll find yourself with little more than a hot mess. Or a can of beans. Your choice.

Please stop using that word

Last week I talked about the current editing work I'm putting in.  One of the items on my must-fix list was whittling down all my over-used words. Lucky for us writers there are tons of blogs out there with helpful lists of words that lots of folks flood the pages with. If you haven't seen these, here are just a few.

Go Into The Story
Learned About Writing

I'm also a big fan of Janice Hardy.  She has tons of help on her site.

So I started with these master lists of bad words, but I quickly realized that I probably have a few of my own unique bad boys.  The trick would be figuring out what they are.

My first tip is to print out your novel, but do it a little different.  Remove all the line spaces and indents and all the white space that makes for good formatting.  By cramming all your words together it makes it easier to see when you have the word 'just' eight times on one page.  Not that I did that...

There is also a really neat website out there to help you identify your problem words.  It's also fun to use which makes it feel like your playing when you're really working.  Sneaky.

The website is Wordle and here's the fun part.  You enter your entire text and it gives you a fun graphic with all your big words.  The larger the word font, the more times that word appears in your text.  So after you get over all your character names and major locations you can see where you need work.

In the spirit of sharing, here is my hot mess:

So if you skip my character names, the other stuff is pretty easy to see.  I already mentioned that 'just' is an issue.  I also struggle with 'like' because I am overly fond of simile (the first step is recognizing you have a problem). While some of these I expected, other were a surprise.  I didn't see 'time', 'head' or 'back' coming.

Now, that's not to say I can't use these words, but knowledge is power, right?  I can use the amazing ctrl+F to look at where I have these words and figure out if something else would work better.

Let me end this post with a little ctrl+F advice I discovered.  It has been my experience that using this function on your entire document is not helpful.  By the time I get halfway through I start skipping the word instead of trying to change it.  I can only do so much.  I have found I'm more focused if I work through my list one chapter at a time.  If I spread it out, it doesn't seem so tedious and I'm more likely to want to fix the problems.

I hope this helps.  I also hope I have not just provided a crazy procrastination tool that will put everyone's current editing projects on hold.  How do you identify your crutch words?  Any secrets or tips of the trade?

Hello, Red Pen

Many weeks ago, I started editing my novel.  While this isn't the first thing I've written, it is the first time I have ever done any large scale editing. 

When I opened up my rough draft here's what I thought editing would look like:
1. run spell check and correct any typing flubs.
2. adjust off phrases and correct passive tense.
3. fill in some minor details that weren't completely fleshed out when I started writing.

Not a very hefty list.  I naively assumed it would only take a few weeks, maybe a month to finish.  After all, I still had to work and take care of my kids.

I'm not ready to laugh at my stupidity, but at least I can see the error of my ways.  Oh sure, I ran spell check.  I even went back and filled in those missing details (things like last names and other trivial facts). 

The real wake-up call came when I started re-reading the draft to look for what I thought of as weak writing. I realized then the amount of work staring at me from those pages. I quickly printed out my novel and made a new list of things to do.  It looked more like this:
1. ctrl+F all those words I keep over using (pretty, just, almost, etc., etc.)
2. keep reading the same section at least twenty times until I can figure out why it stinks.
3. obsess over poor verb choices.
4. remove all the flashy dialogue tags, you moron.
5. make changes that create continuity issues I'll have to fix later.
6. recognize the numerous useless subplots and remove or fix them.

The list keeps going, but I think you get the idea. My once beautiful pages look like an English teacher exploded on them.  I have circled words, entire sections slashed through, arrows moving sections from here to there.  My favorite are the arrows reminding me to turn the page over where I have completely re-written an entire page. I'm also partial of the big question marks to indicate I have no idea why I wrote something.

Needless to say, my estimate of time is a little off. A few weeks has grown into a few months.  It's hard, ugly and makes my brain work more than it did when I wrote the first draft.  But at the will be a better novel.  Or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Walking the Line

Unless you've been buried under revision pages for the past several years, you've heard non-stop about the importance of an author platform. Obviously, by way of the existence of this blog, I've bought into the idea.  Honestly, I love that, as a reader, I can look into the private world of the masters who have written some of my favorite works.

I mean really, wouldn't it be cool if Jane Austen was alive and could blog about her world.  I'm kinda geeked out by the idea of it.

There are all kinds of idea about what makes a good author site/blog.  Many folks cite wanting to know about author inspirations, their path to publication, updates on the progress of their current projects and the like.

I also think it's interesting to read about certain aspects of authors more personal lives. I would love to learn that you wrote your novel on graph paper in half-hour increments during your kids baths. Did your dog literally eat your first draft forcing you to start from scratch? That's awful and I want to hear all about it.

Insight like this can remind us that writers are real people.  However, when does sharing cross that invisible TMI (too much information) line?

For me, the line is irrevocably crossed when I start to squirm. If I open your website and immediately feel like I accidentally read an entry in your diary, damage has been done. I don't want to hear about your husband's affair, your strong political/religious beliefs or the inadequacies of our public school system.*

Let me clarify a point here.  This really applies for fiction writers.  If you are a non-fiction author who writes about child labor violations, then I'm going to expect that your website will leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

However, for the fiction writers among us, it should be noted that some topics should just be off-limits.

*I know that sometimes these experiences/beliefs can fall under the category of inspiration, but sometimes less really is more. :)

A Letter to Betas

Dear Wonderful Beta Reader,

At some point in time, a manuscript was placed in your hands and you heard the begging words, "Can you please be a beta reader for my latest novel/short story/etc.?"  Being the wonderful person that you are, you agreed, even if you didn't know exactly what it meant to be a beta reader.

The author of the gem you now have in your possession probably said something like this:

"Just read it over and be completely honest.  Feel free to rip it to shreds if you hate it."

You should know that this is what all writers say.  It is the worst lie we tell ourselves and others. While we say we want you to let us have it with a red pen, what we really want is for you to finish the book and tell us it's a masterpiece.  We love to hear the words "Don't change a word.  I love it just the way you have it."

And because that is the deep, down desire for all of us, we will never question you if your feedback consists of gold stars and gushing admiration.  We will see this as validation of our genius.

So why am I telling you this?

Lately, I've been reading a lot of self-published work. Some of the authors are well known folks in the writing community on Twitter, FB, and others.  So, since these folks must know a thing or two about writing I have to assume they went through the normal editing process which usually includes beta readers. And this is where our problem starts.

I can't help but read some of these books and think to myself "where was this author's beta reader?"  As the writer we tend to be too close to our story to see some of its flaws.  That's why we need critique partners and beta readers to show us these things. Fluffy praise feels good, but it doesn't make our story any better.

So, dear fabulous, kind-hearted, brave beta reader, if something doesn't make sense, please tell us.  If all our detailed descriptions slow down the action, point it out.  And if a character is completely unlikeable, trust me, we need to know.

The truth is we may take your notes, fling them on the ground and storm around for the next few days in a fit of self-righteous rage.  But when the storm is passed, we will look at your notes, make changes and thank you for helping us write a better story.

**A note to authors** The above is a perfect example of why selecting friends and family members as your beta readers is a really bad idea.  Unless you have a second cousin who hates you for giving him bunny ears in last year's reunion photo, stay clear.  Strangers make good betas and there are plenty of websites out there where writers can trade projects with each other.

New Adventures

So today was kinda a big deal for me.  Officially, today was my first day as a self-employed marketing consultant.  While most of me is pretty excited about this new chapter in my life, part of me is super nervous.

After spending the past (many) years in cubicle world, I've gotten pretty used to the old office scene.  Arrive in the morning(ish), get some coffee, make my rounds, then work feverishly until it's time to go home.

So now, it's just little ol' me, in my home office.  While I do have a reliable coffee maker, I fear I'm going to miss making the rounds.  Unlike most writers who profess to be extreme introverts, I thrive on human contact.  In fact, when taking the Myers-Briggs Personality Test I am 100% Extrovert.  And that's not hyperbole.  I don't score a single point on the introvert side of things.

On one hand, this is great.  Being a people person is what helps me to succeed in the marketing world.  It also helps me create realistic characters (because I talk to everyone).  On the down side of things, it makes me a little dependent on human contact.

So while I'm still really excited, I'm going to allow this blog post to serve as fair warning to the internet community as a whole.  If you engage me in a conversation on FB, Twitter, YALITCHAT, this blog or any other social medium I will engage you back.  And then you may have to tell me to go away.  It's ok; I promise not to be offended.

Good Reads on Goodreads?

Can we talk for a minute about Goodreads? So I recently signed up as a way to find out about new books I might enjoy. Well, that was my main (public) reason for joining. The second (private) reason was because I wanted to be able to dish the dirt on books I loved/hated in a place where it was expected.

This blog is not a book review site, although I tend to devour books on a regular basis. When I love a book, I want to tell people so they can enjoy it too. And when something stinks like last week's tuna I want to warn folks off so they don't waste the precious hours I did. 

Now, I appreciate that everyone has their opinion of what makes a good book. I also understand that while I might not have enjoyed something, that others may find it good. But at some point I have to start asking "Who are you people?". I want to shout "That book was pig slop! How could you give it 5 stars? Are you the author's mom?!"

This is about the time when I start to worry about today's savvy reader. I wonder if I'm wasting my time trying to create something creative, insightful, funny and heart-warming. Maybe I should just throw some garbage up on Amazon and charge $.99 for my gross misuse of the English language packaged in 256 pages. After all, if some of these reviews are to be believed, people will read anything.

Then I stop myself and remember that my writing is not just about selling books (although I'd be lying if I said that isn't important at all). If I put my name on it, I want it to be good. No, scratch that, I want it to be great! And I want 5 star reviews from strangers and not just my aunt in Tulsa.

So I will continue to plug away at making my work shine and keep the faith that somewhere out there is a gaggle of readers who can appreciate a good read. 

What about you? Do you worry about the quality of today's readers? 

Also, if you want to know my thoughts on books, you can check out my Goodread's account here.

Art Imitates Art

On Monday I went to my first theatre audition in nearly five years. With such a long hiatus I was a bit nervous that it wouldn't be the same, but just like riding a bike, it all came back to me.  I decided to audition to give myself a break from all my current editing.  I'm sure anyone who has ever gone through serious editing can relate to the creative drain it can create.  I figured a little art in another form might help to rekindle some of my depleted stores.  I got a bit more than I bargained for.

As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, my stomach got the nerves.  Those butterflies that most of us have felt at one point or another.  Not bad, just different.  Immediately, I was struck by how similar this was to starting a new project.  It had just the right mix of excitement and panic.  Yeah, something new! Oh God, can I do this again?

But once we got past all the formalities and it was just me on the stage with a script in my hand, all of the butterflies dissapeared and I was left with wonderful freedom.  In theatre we are given the chance to take a character and breathe life into the written word.  We give the character emotion, movement, motivation.  For those brief moments, we get to live in someone elses shoes. 

Writing can be the same, if we let it.  For the time we are sitting at the computer cranking out words we immerse ourselves into the world of our characters.  We give them emotion, movement, motivation.  All that.  If we give ourselves over to the process and stop worrying about every single word.

After the audition, I felt good about what I had done.  It wasn't perfect and I could see the other talent there around me.  But before I gave head space to doubt and speculation I allowed myself some time to just enjoy what I had accomplished.  I put myself out there and didn't die. :)

That's exactly how I felt when I finished my current MS.  I knew it wasn't perfect; far from it actually.  I also knew that once it was done, I would be competing with a lot of other folks for agents.  But for just a bit, I let myself forget what was down the road and revel in my success.

Then came the waiting.  It was less than a day before I knew if I was cast, but they were some long hours.  I started second guessing all the lines I had delivered.  Was it enough?  Would the director laugh at me and throw away my audition sheet?

And that's how I feel when I send out my work to be critiqued.  Will they like it?  Will they get it?  Did I give them enough?  Will they laugh and fill it with red ink?

The next morning, the truth was out there.  Alas, I wasn't cast.  When you are competing with twenty other ladies for three female roles, the odds are slim to start with. 

And just like that, my manuscripts can come back with enough red ink to light up the night sky.  Details that I overlooked, grammar mistakes, weak word choices.  No matter the reason, my MS as it went out wasn't ready yet.

So is that it?  Do I throw in the towel on my MS or on acting?  Heck no!  I go back to the table and look at all those notes.  Chances are high, the changes will make my work stronger, an one step closer to being ready for query.  And I'll keep going to auditions because we only lose when we stop trying.  Rejection is good for us.  I'm sure when I query there will be plenty of rejection letters.  But the beauty is that I only need one agent/director to like me.  Then the real work starts.