Writing is a solitary act for most of us. And usually we are too close to what we’ve written to see what is working and what isn’t. This is where a critique can be powerful. My favorite critiques are from other writers. (This is all separate from an editorial letter from an agent or editor, which would be after critiques.)
I’ve been in a number of critique groups as I moved around the country. Critiques of my work have caught typos, pointed out awkward or confusing sentences, asked for more depth, inspired me, taught me, and corrected me. My critique partners have suggested where to tighten, brainstormed when someone is struggling with a particular issue, shared marketing news, cheered successes, discussed possible comp titles, and become faithful friends.
So, what elements have I seen that make a good critique?
First, encouragement. It can be as simple as “Nice title” or “I like this character” or a smiley face. It could be: “I know you’ll figure this problem out.”
Second, kindness. A lot depends on how something is said. E.g. “I’m not getting this.” versus “This doesn’t make sense.”
Third, honesty. I’d much rather hear something isn’t working than be told polite lies that will become evident when others see my manuscript. E.g. “This is really good,” when it’s not.
Fourth, basic writing knowledge. Most of us don’t know everything about grammar and spelling, but critiquers need to have some basics to catch others’ mistakes.
Fifth, current readers. Those who read in the category and genre you write will have a better understanding of what is working in the current market.
Sixth, questions. Sometimes I learn more from questions than anything else. “Why is your character doing this?” “Where or when is this happening?” “What is your character’s motivation?” Oh, I haven’t made that clear, I realize. Or, I hadn’t thought about that. One of my critiquers often asks, “What’s the heart of the story?” Such a good question. Audrey Chin says, “Critiquing has taught me that the best stories are still the ones that move hearts.”
Seventh, time. It takes time to give a critique, whether it is in person or written. My favorite critique groups are face-to-face and have the writer read the material aloud. Each listener writes comments (positive and negative) on the manuscript, then the comments are shared aloud (unless someone else has already mentioned an issue). Time consuming, but so helpful, especially when one person’s comments prompt confirmation, disagreement, or suggestions from others.
Am I missing anything? Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section.
Have you ever spent time on twitter reading #tenqueries, #500queries, #querytip, or the like? If you haven’t, you might want to consider it. It’s a good reminder of what TO DO or NOT TO DO in a query and/or sample pages.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, agents post brief summaries of a sampling of the queries in their inbox on twitter and whether they would “request” or “pass.” I think we can learn from both. Sometimes you can find these on blogs and contests too.
Look at what these agents have to say:
NOT TO DO
“Mystery / suspense. Good concept but first three chapters are all backstory. Not entirely sure what this protagonist has to fear. Pass.” – Sharon Belcastro“Adult Psychological Thriller. The thriller aspect of this query is not focused on in the way it should be. It’s not the forefront of the pitch, making it feel like a subplot instead of the crux of the tension. Pass.” – Peter Knapp
“Do not, I repeat, DO NOT query a project you’re not done writing! Pass.” – Laura Zatts
“Something I see way too often in sample pages = ‘her brain rattled with shock upon seeing the dead body.’ That's going to end up in the ‘quality of writing not-quite-there-yet pile.’” – Sara Megibow
“Women's fiction. Premise is a bit flat and run of the mill. Nothing unique. Pass” – Scott Eagan
“Let me make this clear: I do not accept email submissions. And it is not in fact easier than Query Manager. If you can't respect that, I am not the agent for you.” – Natascha Morris
“If you're querying and find yourself using phrases such as your character ‘becomes someone he's not’ try to find more descriptive ways to show what the story's about. You want to pull readers into your story and to do that you need these details.” – Kortney Price
“A query letter that starts out ‘in lieu of a query I am sending...’ goes straight to spam. Email address flagged as ‘divert to spam from now on.’” – Janet Reid
“If your query focuses on a character who readers don't meet till halfway through the novel, you either started your book in the wrong spot, or you need to take another stab at that query synopsis.” – Michaela A. Cane
And WHAT TO DO!
“Your comp titles tell who your book's audience is. A quick reason why you chose them is helpful, e.g. ‘Fans of Satanic balls and political irony, as found in Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA will enjoy my super awesome book.’” – Mary C. Moore (Note: I’ve seen and heard agents say don’t tell us how good your book is.)
“Before you query, check the opening pages. Does your opening line raise a question? Does the story start in scene? Are the stakes clearly established? Make sure you engage the reader (agent).” – Jennifer March Soloway
“Pitch contests are fantastic, but never underestimate the power of an old fashioned query sent to an agent’s inbox. I’ve signed the majority of my wonderful clients from queries, so it still happens!” – Penny Moore
“Be Honest- If you previously had an Agent or your book had gone on submission to Editors before let the Agents you are querying know that.” – Christa Heschke
“If you don't mention genre or age group in your query (maybe because you're not sure?), it's obvious. Better to be decisive than to hope agents just won't notice.” – Melissa Edwards
“The query did a good job of capturing a fantastical plot with multiple surreal elements, which can be so hard to summarize, and the opening page drew me in with its voice, detail, and delicate sorrow.” – Rebecca Podos
I hope you found this selection of thoughts helpful.
Introspection by your main character is good, but it can also be too much of a good thing. I know I get annoyed when introspection does the following:
I like what novelist Gail Gaymer Martin says, “Too much can be boring since introspection is passive, and too little deprives the reader of getting to know the depth of a character’s needs, longings, and struggles.”
Check that your main character’s introspection serves a purpose. Does your character change because of his thoughts? Does she realize something new? Is a new action realized due to the internal monologue? “Introspection is one of the key elements of growing up and moving forward,” Kelly Rogers says. That works for our characters too.
Just like with description, mixing internal dialogue in with action helps avoid too much at once. “That new understanding or new goal or desire, and the size of it, may only become apparent in bits and pieces and stages, not necessarily one huge Moment.” – Emma Darwin
Introspection should also show something of the main character’s personality or beliefs. I love this quote I found in an absolutewrite forum, “Make sure it oozes personality: Is your character funny? Sarcastic? Morbidly dark? Hyperbolic? Adding bits of their personality to the introspection makes it more engaging.” – Raivnor
Keep on target. Elizabeth Grayson says, “While our thoughts sometimes come in stream of consciousness, a genre fiction character’s thoughts are relentlessly logical. They must segue from one to the next in a manner the reader can follow — even if the character you’re writing is a flake.”
What are your thoughts on introspection?
I haven't posted recently as we took a much needed vacation. We had a great relaxing time. Though we may have eaten too much good food. And despite liberal use of sunscreen, we are peeling now! But waves, sun, sand made it all worth it. Plus, we learned some things. One was that white sand is not hot!
Since we came home, both my husband and I have been playing catch up. Sometimes not so successfully. But we are getting back into the routine of normal life. Our pets have forgiven us for being gone, too.
I'll have a new writing post up in a day or two.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
It’s more a matter of writing decided to embrace me, I think. As far back as upper elementary school, I was composing little ditties and couplets. By junior high school, I was writing multi-stanza poems and short-short stories. By about 10th grade, I was fully on fire with poetry and stories, had a couple of things published at the school, and even attempted (but never completed) a novel. By my senior year, I’d won some cash prizes in a regional writers conference and had a first place winning poem published on the front page of my hometown newspaper. So, I guess you can say, I’ve “always” been a writer.
Do you have authors who inspired you to write? If so, whom?
My dad was a writer. He wrote novels and plays (never published or produced), along with short stories and poetry. Some of his stories and poems were published and/or placed in contests. He and my mom were always very supportive of my creative writing. My older brother was also a big writer, having completed a novel while he was still in high school. He’s gone on to publish numerous non-fiction books and several novels, along with hundreds of articles in professional journals.
Also, a friend of my parents – the famous novelist Walker Percy – lived nearby and he was (for a while) a member of the local writers’ group that my dad was involved with.
What genre(s) do you write and what made you choose it (them)?
Another tough question, because I think of my fiction work as being mostly “hybrid.” After I retired from my full-time library job, I shifted from non-fiction books, poetry, reviews, and articles… and felt led to try my hand at long fiction. I made a conscious decision to write fiction for the broader market that includes what people consider “romance” — though there are so many sub-genres and hybrid-genres within “romance” that it’s less of a category than a phenomenon. All that said, my fiction has romantic elements, along with humor, and usually an action sequence. Some titles have been suspense and some have been what people call “contemporary.” I have at least one ghost story and two of my novels have elements of science fiction. Several have been under the broader tag of humor — some of which are straight-out “screwball” comedy, while others are not quite that far out.
What kinds of classes, workshops, organizations, groups helped you learn the craft of writing?
I’ve never taken a writing class, other than the English courses in high school and college… in which there were always compositions and research papers to complete.
I’ve been a member of Romance Writers of America since 2007, I think. In 2010 I joined the Chick Lit Writers of the World Chapter… which later was re-named Contemporary Romance Writers.
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how often do you meet?
No. In the instances – earlier in my writing career – in which I shared poetry with other poets, I found that I put a lot more into my feedback about their poetry than they ever did about mine. [To put it one way, I was giving a dollar’s worth of effort and receiving back only a dime’s worth.] And, too often, I found some of their comments to be way less than helpful — at times even dismissive.
Tell us about your first break into print experience.
I mentioned, above, the poem on the front page of the local paper. Prior to that I guess my first time “in print” was during 10th grade when the faculty sponsor of the creative writing anthology selected my short-short story to run in that year’s issue. I was ecstatic, of course.
After high school, I was on the staff of a college newspaper and saw my byline a lot. Later I was a full-time photo-journalist for a small-town daily and got many more bylines for articles and photos. After that, I moved to a small-town weekly where there many more bylines. In the military, I worked on three different base newspapers. As a librarian, my articles and reviews appeared in professional publications.
My first real BOOK was a non-fiction work co-authored with my brother in 1988. It was released by one of the top three publishers of resources for libraries and librarians (at that time). We co-authored another book with them in 1991.
My first novel – The Overnighter’s Secrets – was released in May 2012 by Astraea Press (since re-named Clean Reads).
What’s one tip you’d share with other writers?
Since I found this trait in my own early writing years, I assume it’s pretty common: the tendency to think of one’s first drafts as “ready” (and perhaps even “perfect” — ha). I feel confident in saying a first draft is almost never ready to go anywhere. Be willing to revise, re-draft, and re-think scenes. If something’s not working in your story, be willing to cut it — maybe it will find a home later, in another work. Always proofread… then proofread again. Try to find an insightful, honest beta reader whose own writing is of high quality and whose feedback you trust. LISTEN to what she/he says about your work. That doesn’t mean you have to adopt every single suggestion they make, but if they tell you Chapter Three bogs down horribly and loses the interest of the reader… they’re probably on to something. Re-do Chapter Three.
Please share your most recent book title and the opening line. (Please include a buy link.)
My most recent is Not Easy Being Android, released by TouchPoint Romance on Feb. 16, 2018 This is a good example of the hybrid genres I discussed above. It’s got romantic elements, along with a bit of a detective plot, some “sci-fi,” and an action scene.
It actually begins with a teaser scene, but here’s the first line of Chapter 1:
If the caller had not quickly mentioned my former faculty advisor, I would’ve hung up because I rarely converse with people from numbers I don’t recognize.
Buy link: https://tinyurl.com/NEBAndroid
Besides 15 fiction titles, Salter has published non-fiction monographs, articles, reviews, and 120 poems... and has won 40 writing awards. As a newspaper photo-journalist, he published some 250 bylined articles or photos.
Before working 30 years in librarianship, he was a decorated USAF veteran. Salter is the married father of two and grandfather of six.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ AuthorJLSalter
Blog: https://fourfoxesonehound. wordpress.com/
Sometimes we all need encouragement to keep writing. I have several things I do when I’m discouraged.
One, since I’m a quote junkie, is read or collect encouraging quotes. Here are some that either encouraged me or were reminders to press on:
“The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write.” – Gabriel Fielding
“It’s easy to think that you haven’t made any progress when you forget where you were when you started out. Be kind to yourself, you’ve come a long way and overcome a lot.” – Patricia Caldwell
“A book might not sell, but that doesn’t mean the writer wasted time on it, not as long as the writer is learning and growing.” – Laurel Gale
“Rejected pieces aren't failure; unwritten pieces are.” – Greg Daugherty
“The voice of the inner critic can shut the whole process down. I tell it to take a number.” – Barbara Taylor Brown
“Have faith in your art, even when others don't.” – Sean Qualls
“The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language.” – Mary Kole
This last quote is a good segue into number two. Catch up on reading. This comes in two parts.
Today I’m reading some writing newsletters I’ve not gotten around to. I’m reassured by things I already know. I’m inspired or challenged by others. I learn something new. And I share some of these posts or articles with my tribe.
Part two is reading in and outside my genre(s). That’s always a good reminder of what I want to do. Plus, it gets me into the rhythm of those types of stories or makes me look at something in a new way. Read what Nicholas Sparks has to say on this topic, “By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it's possible to learn how things are done - the mechanics of writing, so to speak - and which genres and authors excel in various areas.” Yes, I learn by what others do and don’t do.
Three, spend time with your writing tribe.
It can be done online or in person. Online is a nice quick fix. I use Facebook groups, writing list serves, and Twitter.
Face to face takes more time, but in the end is more rewarding for me. I have a critique group and just knowing a meeting is coming up makes me want to have something ready for them to hear and comment on. But even if I don’t, I get encouragement from them.
Four, attend writing events.
These can be book signings, talks, workshops, conferences, intensives, retreats, writing times. I almost always get something out of them. Sometimes I get a whole lot. And, I'm with my tribe. But most importantly, they inspire me to write.
So, what helps you have the courage to get back to writing? Feel free to comment below.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.