Category Archives: Critique

I’ve Finished 2 Novels. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

With the release of Harbingers, the story I began working on in 2009 with the hazy goal of finishing a single novel has now materialized into 2 published books. Hooray!

But something looks a little off there. 8 years to finish 2 books? Lots of authors publish novels on a yearly basis.

I’ll tell you right now: I’m not “lots of authors.” I haven’t distilled novel-writing down to a crank-’em-out science. But, I also don’t think it’ll take 4 years to outline, draft, and finish Sword and Starship Book 3. Here are some factors that should aid my turnaround time.

1. I’m more disciplined about writing now. This is the big one. From 2009 to 2014, I was only writing once a week or less, flying by the seat of my pants with no outline. Quitting my day-job allowed me to make writing my full-time focus. Once I got connected with an editor who could guide me in the ways of book-planning, things really started falling into place.

All planning and good intentions aside, the book only gets written if I sit down to write it. I’m blessed to be able to do that every single day. (Though I do take breaks on weekends. Breaks are necessary.)

2. I’m more informed about the novel-writing process. Novels are a LOT more complicated than short stories, which I was more accustomed to prior to starting this project. My first draft of Blood’s Force (which was later expanded into Blood’s Force and Harbingers) was only about 80K words, and performed a breakneck speed-run through the plot without pausing to build up suspense, relationships, or other really important stuff.

A ton of prep work has to happen before any writing starts: figuring out character goals, constructing an outline, mapping character arcs and relationships. They won’t be set in stone—while drafting, surprises always happen that force you to change course—but working in the mid-draft revelation is much better than petering out after 80 pages because you have no idea what happens next.

3. I know to finish the first draft before doing any editing. Long before a first draft of Blood’s Force was done, I was taking chapters to critique groups, obsessing over word choices, etc. This is a HUGE waste of time. Surprises happen constantly while you’re drafting. You don’t want to know how many really polished scenes I ended up cutting as my outline changed, and how much I was tempted not to cut only because I’d spent so much time on it. This time around, I know not to start rewriting or soliciting critique in earnest until I have a complete story done.

4. I’m letting myself be OK with imperfection. This is hard, because it goes against the grain of my upbringing. “Make all As!” “Always give 110%!” The demands of perfectionism are like a harsh spotlight blaring over everything I do. When writing, I pause constantly in search of the right word or turn of phrase. A voice in my skull tells me I need to be funnier, more clever, more profound. Get it right, or else!

Then a whole morning passes, and I only have three sentences written.

It helps to remember that the writing process isn’t a one-time orchestral performance in front of a huge audience. It’s more like sculpting alone in a studio. I can start rough where no one will see, then chisel out something more beautiful while editing.

Eventually, though, I have to stop chiseling and release my work into the world as-is. There are always parts I think are still unacceptably weak, but they’re probably not as bad as I fear.

5. I’ve learned to prize clarity and simplicity. As a younger writer, I wanted my prose to be profound and complex and thought-provoking. Now, I just want to communicate clearly, which should make drafting easier. I don’t need the fancy $10 thesaurus word when the first word off the top of my head will do—especially in a first-person narrative where the main character is talking informally to her audience.

6. I know how to leverage the strengths of my reviewers. I’ve learned my husband is great for taking a pitch and improving it. “Why don’t you do X instead?” where X is something so much cooler than what I thought of. What he’s not so good at is at challenging me on the weak points in my writing—pointing out awkward phrases, noting where I could include more emotion and reflection, etc. My editor is much better at this. So I’ll keep these things in mind when seeking critique.

All that said, I’m now outlining what I’d like to have happen in future Sword and Starship books! Wish me luck! :)

The Rapid Prototype Model of Drafting

masonry(Image credit: Imagebase.net)

When most people think of “editing,” they think of reclining on the couch with a printout, red pen in hand, making tiny, gentle corrections in the space of an afternoon.  Probably followed by a cookie and a well-earned nap.

With a novel-length work, though, editing is a complicated slog.  You take out extraneous words, and collapse chapters.  You add words where they’re lacking, and split chapters.  You say, “holy crap, this character would NEVER do/say that!”  You rediscover plot details you totally meant to weave into the larger work, but never did.

Whatever changes you make, you have to ensure everything preceding and following is consistent.  For instance, if I decide my character doesn’t curse after all, I have to review all of her dialogue, across hundreds of pages, to take out every errant naughty word.

These changes snowball until the chapters toward the end have no relation to the chapters you’ve already gone over.  They might as well be from another book, or alternate plane of existence.  With the entire back third of my novel in progress, I haven’t been editing- I’ve been writing from scratch!  (It’s for the best, trust me.)

I’m still mostly adhering to my one chapter a week “editing” schedule, though.  How?  Here’s my process:

  1. Outline the chapter at a very high level- the scenes it will contain and the big events that will happen.  (ex.  Vlad the Decimator reaches the Hall of Math, saves it from destruction.)
  2. Write a terse draft.  Expand/collapse the outline at will- anything goes- but I only let myself work on this draft for a few days.  It’s absolutely not richly detailed or nicely worded by the time I’m done.  It’s more a suggestion of where I could go with it.
  3. Get feedback from my spouse.  Is this a good approach, or should I try something else?  What should there be more/less of?  Are the characters’ actions consistent and reasonable for the situation/state of mind they’re in?
  4. Spend a few days expanding and refining the draft with the suggested changes.
  5. GOOD ENOUGH. NEXT CHAPTER.

It’s similar to the rapid prototype model of software development, wherein you hack out a rudimentary program to start, then hone it with continual rounds of user testing and feedback.  You don’t spend too much time on the prototype, because you don’t know what might get the bum’s rush.

I don’t have time for zillions of feedback rounds at this point, or making the prose beautiful.  I’m more concerned with solidifying the big plot and character events.  In September, I’ll be working with a professional editor to give the manuscript some real spit-polish.

Is this the way all first-drafting should work?  Absolutely not!  As with software development, different design methods work best for different situations. I find this method good for:

  • Times when you can get fast, reliable feedback
  • Times when you’re having trouble figuring out where to be wordy, and where to be concise
  • Adhering to a strict schedule
  • Short, “easy” pieces (ex. my Daily WTF articles)

How do you prefer to draft when there are time constraints involved?  Drop me a line and let me know!


Be A Beta-Star, Part II: Getting Great Feedback

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Last week, I wrote about giving the best feedback possible.  Now it’s time to discuss receiving great feedback.  No, this isn’t about everyone kissing your butt!  It’s about putting aside your ego and lovingly beating the crap out of your work until it’s better than you ever imagined.

Some of this advice complements ideas from the last post, but as a writer soliciting feedback, your job is more involved.  Not only do you have to gather it, you also have to apply it to the greatest possible effect.  You may then need to change how or from whom you solicit critique from in the future-

-but for now, let’s start at the beginning.  You have a piece or a chapter done, and you want more eyes on it.  Good!  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, you always benefit from ensuring there’s nothing lurking in your blind spot that unravels the plot or otherwise turns off potential readers.  What now?

Be tough.

Remember that scene in Happy Gilmore when Happy enters a batting cage to face an onslaught of mechanical fastballs?  When you bare your soul and ask others to critique your work, you must be every bit as fearless and immune to what’s thrown at you. (At the same time, there’s no shame in wearing a helmet.)

Always, remember, though: unlike baseball, the people slinging those fastballs are on your side.

When you have food caught between your teeth, are you upset or defensive with anyone who politely warns you about it?  Do you take it as an affront?  Hopefully not.  In fact, you’re more likely to be upset if they keep quiet, and you wind up flashing a goofy spinach-riddled grin at your crush.  That’s what I’m talking about with critique.  What may feel like an attack is really just someone trying to help you put your best foot forward.

It’s tough to convince your ego of this sometimes.  Ever write something you thought was killer, only to have it fall flat with everyone who looked at it?  Even seasoned writers sometimes feel like they’ve endured a beating after a tough critique session.

Still- better you identify and fix problems now, before your crush happens past.

Be adventurous.

It’s time to find beta-readers.  Friends and family are a good start, but you also need opinions from those who aren’t super-close to you, those who won’t be tempted to tell you everything smells like roses.  Look for seasoned beta-readers at local writers’ groups and on social networks.  If you’re joining a group cold, don’t shove your work under their noses right away.  Spend a few sessions providing feedback for the other members, until you have a better feel for whether they understand your genre and provide strong advice.

When you do ask for feedback, explicitly invite the group’s honesty.  Let them know you can take constructive criticism (and mean it).

Be specific.

To avoid the dreaded “It was good” review, give your beta-readers specific things to watch out for.  Was a certain scene transition effective?  What are their impressions of the main character?  If nothing else, ask the readers to identify three things they liked and three things they thought could use improvement.  Also state whether you want people to point out typos and grammatical flaws, or if you want them to put that aside and focus more on the plot, characters, etc.

Be open to discussion.

Ask if you can delve into your beta-readers’ comments.  Their notes should be the starting point for a civil discussion where you invite clarification and flesh out ideas for improvement.

This isn’t a doctoral dissertation.  You’re NOT defending your work from the criticism it received.  By all means explain what you were trying to do in a certain paragraph/line, but don’t assume every misunderstanding is the reader’s fault.

Brainstorm together to make the suggested changes as awesome as possible.  You can forge a lot of great ideas and friendships this way.  A fun, spirited discussion not only inspires you, but also makes your beta-readers more eager to help you in the future.

Be selective.

All this said, you shouldn’t try to incorporate every single suggestion your beta-readers give you. We all have pet peeves that other people completely don’t care about, and you’ll never satisfy everyone.  Place more weight on feedback that more than one person has made.

If one person says a certain line confuses them, but it doesn’t bother anyone else, and you don’t feel it needs to be changed, don’t change it.  However, if nearly everyone says a certain part runs on too long, it runs on too long!

As you work with different beta-readers, you’ll find there are some people who “get you” and provide tons of great ideas.  Stick with those who really challenge and inspire you, and place more weight on their opinions.  They’re more representative of the people who’ll ultimately form your audience.

Do you have any tricks for getting the best feedback and making the most of it?  Feel free to comment and let me know!


Be A Beta-Star, Part I: Giving Great Feedback

stars(Image credit: texturezoom.com)

Beta-reading not only provides an opportunity to help others, but also exercises your creative muscle, which aids you in your own writing.  It’s a true honor and privilege whenever you’re asked to be a beta-reader.  It’s even better to be a trusted beta-reader, someone whose opinion others repeatedly rely on when developing their ideas.  Here are some tips for giving the best feedback possible:

Be Honest.

This, first and foremost.  Don’t have the time to devote to a proper critique?  The story isn’t your cup of tea, or the genre isn’t one you’re familiar with?  Best to be upfront about it, rather than half-assing things and wasting everyone’s time.  Being honest also means telling the writer about your every impression, not just what you liked.  Critique that avoids problems doesn’t help your writer improve.

Be Nice.

Yes, your main goal should be honesty, but your delivery matters too.  There’s no need to be an asshole about it- you’re trying to help this person, not tear them down.  Always phrase things so your critique is clearly about the work, not the writer.  The writer will be more open to phrasing like “I think X could be improved if you [suggestion]” rather than “You suck at X.  Change it.”  Remember what it’s like when you’re the writer looking for critique, how nerve-wracking it can be.  A writer must often overcome immense anxiety to even ask for your help.  Don’t make them sorry they did.

Be On-Target.

If the writer doesn’t provide specific things they want feedback on, ask for some.  Are they worried about pacing, spelling/grammar, cohesion?  Should you treat this as a first draft (and be more forgiving as a whole), or a polished final draft?  This will help both of you make the most of your time.

Be Thorough.

Have you ever attended a writer’s group where everyone is expected to solicit and receive feedback?  For the most part they’re wonderfully helpful, but inevitably, there are one or two readers who hand back every sample with no notes, saying only, “It’s good!”  My paranoid brain always assumes they either (a) didn’t care for the genre/story (absolutely their prerogative, but at least tell me as much); or (b) thought it was an unmitigated trainwreck, and are trying to avoid saying so.

Don’t be one of these people.  Have an opinion!  To develop one:

  • Several reads are best.
  • As much as possible, complete your first read without any thought toward critique or the writer’s concerns.  Record your reactions and first impressions on a separate sheet of paper.  It may be that some of the questions you have at the beginning are answered later in the piece, so that’s why you don’t want to make notes in the work itself just yet.
  • Note down things you enjoyed- good lines, funny parts, etc.
  • Note down moments when you were confused, bored, or found humor in something that wasn’t supposed to be funny.  These are points where you disconnected from the story.  It’s important for the writer to know about them.
  • Note down your impressions of the characters- what you like or don’t like about them, and why.  It may be you’re not supposed to like them.  This allows the writer to gauge whether his setup is working as intended.
  • If given specific things to watch out for, comment on these to the best of your ability.  Go back and reread specifically for those things if you have to.
  • If spelling and grammar are really bad, don’t try to correct every last thing- just note that these need improvement.  If spelling/grammar are decent, do note the mistakes you find (if any).
  • For anything you didn’t like, prepare as many suggestions for improvement as possible.  It’s much more helpful to hear “X didn’t work for me, how about you try this instead?” versus “X needs work.  I’m not sure what.”

Once finished, go through your critique with the writer.  I like face-to-face for this best, fueled by coffee or similarly wonderful substances, but email isn’t bad either.  The reason face-to-face is nice is that you can immediately delve into or clarify your remarks as needed.  You can also brainstorm together, which I find is the best part of beta-reading.  Many things that end up in my manuscripts were spawned during these caffeine- and laugh-addled sessions, things I never would’ve thought of on my own.

Moreover, it feels really good to help other writers improve their work!

Do you have any suggestions for providing the best feedback possible?  Drop me a line in the comments!