In attending numerous writers’ conventions, small critique groups, and writer workshops I’ve realized that amazing writers aren’t inherently prepared to critique constructively. It’s a separate skill from writing.
Feedback from qualified writers leads to a more polished product than a writers get from well-meaning but untrained friends and family. However, surprisingly little instruction is provided in most critique groups. Given a handful of manuscripts and eager writers, a critiquer needs to read without bias (ignoring favorite genre leanings, for example), and provide judgment in a way that a sensitive writer can accept, internalize, and act on. It’s as tricky as plotting a 7-book George R.R. Martin series.
When I began critiquing, I did everything at the line level with ‘track changes’ enabled. This led me to feel useful (I get to show off my understanding of grammar!) but ultimately buried important observations in a flood of red comments.
Like me, many new critiquers tend to focus on small-picture items, but a sentence level approach is nearly meaningless without context.
BE A GOOD CRITIQUER: Ask the big questions first
1) Author’s Purpose for seeking a critique: Ask yourself whether the author is seeking to improve this particular piece, or general writing skills. Usually, you can quickly get a sense of the skill level of the writer. If it’s someone young or starting out, provide a different level of critique than you would give to someone seeking to finish polishing a dog-eared piece they’ve taken to every conference for the last 5 years. (Free advice: Write something new.)
2) Author’s Purpose for the piece: The intent of the author (whether they want to seek paid publication, explore an idea, or seek catharsis for a personal issue) is absolutely integral when you address the piece, but is rarely stated prior to the critique. Be certain a story is intended humorously, for example, or your comments can come off as mocking to a sincere writer. If the work is art or exploratory, then judge it at that level, but if it’s intended commercially you’ll know how to measure it.
3) Format: I’ve marveled at critiques that offer advice at odds with the format the author has chosen. Don’t ask for more back story in a Flash piece, you should expect a quick start to a short story, and don’t wonder why a novel section isn’t resolved. At the same time, I beg all submitters to mark on their submission whether the piece is complete. The critique will be so much more valuable this way! It’s frustrating to watch reviewers comment on a short story only to discover it was a novel chapter all along.
4) Genre: If the genre isn’t clear, that’s a problem with the piece. If the genre isn’t one you are familiar with, then acknowledge it and judge its other merits. I dislike it when someone bashes a paranormal romance and calls it “Twighlight-like” then admits to never having read Twilight and not knowing anything about the genre. I, too, have preferred genre (sci-fi pieces get more comments from me), but I won’t knock a high-fantasy piece for being what it is.
5) Story/Plot Elements: Address what elements of the story work and don’t. Authors are notoriously bad at identifying plot holes in their own stories. Don’t offer a solution, and if you can’t help yourself then offer it without the expectation that the writer will accept that suggestion.
6) All that other stuff you thought was important: If the other items are addressed, you’re finally permitted to point out words used incorrectly, bad grammar, and all the nit-picky basics. Choose only one or two items to mention, since it’s pointless to focus on these items if the other elements need work. If the story is poor, who cares whether the person knows how to use a semicolon or write great dialogue?
I’ve virtually given up giving line edits, since that isn’t what will help most writers grow. You want to hear the same thing we say a million times per critique session? Here’s my 30 second overview on the tips you need at each level–
- Basic: Format properly to be taken seriously; use active verbs; eliminate unnecessary words; choose pronounceable names; adhere to proper mechanics; avoid clichés. (i.e., don’t open with weather, the character doesn’t awaken in an unfamiliar room, it’s not a dream, name your characters)
- Advanced: Open with an intriguing beginning; swiftly provide who, when and where; smooth transitions; stop relying on adjectives and adverbs, especially around dialogue; adhere to POV.
- Master: Identify the theme and seek to reinforce it; suggest a market (if they plan to sell the piece); strong characterizations; is the goal and what’s at stake consistently clear?
The irony of critiques: It’s the stories I like the most that I critique most harshly, because I want them to achieve the greatness they’re so close to. I can see what they’re striving to deliver. The stories where I’m not certain of their intended message, or what idea prompted enough enthusiasm to generate the story, get fewer comments.
If you’ve ever gotten a particularly useful or useless critique, let me know about it. If you’ve ever gotten a critique from me, let me know if it was helpful, if you made changes, and how I can improve.
If you’d like me to expand on any of these points, let me know. I didn’t mean for this post to be as long as it is, actually. But I have lots to say when it comes to the art of writing, and the particularly sensitive topic of critiques.
About the Author:
Heather has critiqued in the annual Horror Addicts Writers Workshop (2012, 2013), Baycon Writers Workshop (2012, 2013), Cascade Writers Workshop (2012), Norwescon (2013), Marlene’s Writers Critique group (ongoing), and Cloudcity Wordslingers as well as online forums such as Book Country.
I’m packed and fly out early for this year’s Baycon 2013 Science-Fiction convention. It’s my third year attending, and second as a panelist.
The year’s theme is Triskaidekaphobicon, and there’s an emphasis on a new horror track that I’ll be assisting with this year.
I’ll also be bringing my family, so I’ve volunteered to help with some of the kids events, though I imagine my kids will spend part of their time across the street at Great America.
The tentative schedule has me very busy, though times may shift when I get there and see the final schedule. Here’s where I think I need to be–so say hello if you see me!
Assist with the HorrorAddicts.net table
Meet the Guest (assist with the prep)
HorrorAddicts Tea on the Party Floor
Family Friendly Spooky Cartoons and Cereal
Writing Workshop Pro (private session)
Character Slam Book [I may be double booked here with the writing workshop, in which case Emerian Rich will run the show on her own.]
Trick or Treat Carnival
Wicked Women Writers BOF
Podcast Live! Recording of Poe’s The Raven
LIVE Podcast/Skype Interview
Self-Publishing Tips & Traps
Reading from Horrible Disasters
Horror Addicts BOF
I can also be found occasionally manning the HorrorAddicts.net table and even delivering a TerrorGram if necessary.
While I was at Rainforest Writers, the Horrible Disaster Anthology was released by HorrorAddicts.net:
HorrorAddicts.net proudly presents Horrible Disasters. Thirteen authors from around the globe share their visions of terror set during real natural disasters throughout history. Travel back in time to earth shattering events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and the Winter of Terror avalanches, 1950. What supernatural events went unnoticed? What creatures caused such destruction without remorse? Stock your emergency kit, hunker in your bunker, and prepare for… Horrible Disasters. Proceeds go to help disaster relief globally by way of the Rescue Task Force
My short story is set during the Winter of Terror in 1950. A vagabond ex-soldier is swept up in an alpine avalanche. Injured but alive, he encounters a hermit, a boy, and the fabled barbegazi. Trapped on the mountain beneath the looming weight of another snowy avalanche, he risks his life to free the child and defeat the monster before an unsuspecting village is buried.
The Winter of Terror is famous for the series of avalanches which killed over 265 people.
Not familiar with the Barbegazi? Here’s a copy of the Wikipedia entry and a picture of a barbegazi that I particularly like:
Barbegazi are mythical creatures from Swiss and French mythology. A variety of dwarf or gnome, a barbegazi resembles a small white-furred man with a long beard and enormous feet. They travel in the mountains that are their home by skiing with their massive feet, or using them as snowshoes. In the summer they aestivate in caves and tunnels and do not come out until the first snowfall. The word barbegazi comes from the French barbe-glacée, meaning “frozen beard”. Because of their penchant for high altitudes and low temperatures, they are rarely sighted by humans, but sometimes help shepherds round up lost sheep. Their greatest known excitement is surfing on avalanches with their remarkably large feet, but they are said to give low whistling cries to warn humans of the danger above, sometimes they will give their best effort to dig humans out from the snow.
Considering how completely adorable these creatures are, you’d think my story would be cheerful. But what fun is that?
I’ve just returned from the Rainforest Writers Village Retreat 2013. There are numerous blog posts after a writer’s retreat. If you want to hear about the general experience, check those out. This one is more personal.
At the retreat, panelists explained the difference between literary and commercial fiction—boiling it down to resonance and resolution. My week had a theme that stretched back to the first Rainforest I’d attended, last year.
Both years, I spent the week before Rainforest visiting my brother, his new baby, and his inoperable brain tumor. Surgery removed most, but not all, of the tumor. If they’d continued he would have lost language. They dominated my thoughts at Rainforest. I went for a walk and in a moment of unlikely coincidence, met another writer attending for the first time. We made friends on the path and walked back, agreeing that it’s easy to feel like an outsider. After Rainforest he thanked me in his blog for cheering him up. Only later did I find out his mother had a brain tumor. Can you imagine the conversation we could have had, if we had known? I’m glad we didn’t.
But I knew he shared my feelings of alienation. They should label the nametags of newbies at all writer’s conventions and retreats. Just attending is a huge act of bravery, and most of us aren’t the types to introduce ourselves around.
This year I knew the schedule and expectations, but still sensed people testing each other, trying to find where they ranked in the pantheon of writers. J.A. Pitts gave a lecture on the “Imposter Syndrome” which rang true for many people. It’s hard to see your own accomplishments because you know how you got there and aren’t sure you can add to your successes. I don’t think I’m insecure, until someone asks about my writing, which I’m proud of but don’t like discussing in real life (IRL). It’s a bit like first-time podcasters editing their own recordings. They’re shocked to hear their own voices, but eventually don’t notice it anymore. I’m still hearing the sound of my own voice when I talk about writing IRL, and no matter how relevant it is, it sounds inane to my ear. John Pitts argues that you need to take a stand and say what you have to say. James Van Pelt agreed, saying that writers need three things. The third of which is something worth saying.
I consciously started attending conventions and the retreat in order to step outside the insular bubble of indie authors I’d accumulated on the internet. It’s wonderful, and comfortable, but limiting. At this retreat something that should have been shop-talk, “What agents are you querying?” threw me. This isn’t the sort of thing my circle of indie authors discusses, for obvious reasons.
One person who was confident, and rightly so, was Robert J. Sawyer. Plainly successful in his career, he spoke about turning prose into scripts. Late one night, I saw him sitting on the couch with James Van Pelt on his right hand, neophytes sitting on the floor in a ring at his knee, making an imaginary director somewhere happy at the symbolic postures.
As it got later, we covered many interesting topics. If you want to realize how far you have to go, listen to insiders discuss the minutia of writer’s sartorial choices and who has a shtick to make them memorable. I didn’t know most of the people they referred to by first name.
I left thinking about all the advice given by the pros, and grateful for the new people I’d met. Next year, I’m resolved to seek out anyone new and introduce myself. Bob does a great job of that. Perhaps I can make someone’s time more comfortable. Because these annual events are starting to become milestones by which I measure my progress. And I can see the changes in other people’s lives, a year at a time.
My brother’s son is a year old and saying his first words. My brother’s tumor isn’t growing, according to MRIs. But I couldn’t help thinking of my friend from the last year. His mother died a few weeks before Rainforest and he had to give up his spot.
I hope he’ll be back next year.
My theme was progress. What will yours be?
Last year I attended the Rainforest Writers Village and enjoyed it so much I signed up as soon as registration opened for this year. I will be attending session #1 at the end of February on the Olympic Peninsula in the beautiful rainforest. And I have a plan.
In the month of February, I joined members of the Cloudcity Wordslingers in a wordcount writing contest. Each day we’ve reported our wordcount. In order to improve our consistency, in addition to word count, our speadsheet’s formula includes the chain of consecutive days in the calculated points. This has made me feel incredibly productive. By mid-month, I’d written roughly 22,000 words, so I’m looking forward to spending time editing and submitting.
See all the contest detail on the Wicked Women Writers blog.
Essentially, each woman writer who signs up will be assigned a location, an item, and a disability. She will then record a ten minute audio short story for the contest. The deadline to enter is June 20, 2013.
The men’s Master of the Macabre contest will also be announced soon!
It’s the start of the year and a good time to take inventory.
Publishing: Since this time last year, I’ve been printed in three anthologies and sold two additional stories that will be published early this year. See my Amazon Author Page for updates.
I also provided blurbs to a few other authors after reading proof copies of their novels.
Submitting: I made twice as many submissions in 2012 as I did in 2011. I expect that trend to continue.
With the two rejections I got today (Thanks for the opportunity, Harper-Voyager. Perhaps next time.) I’ve gotten four rejections in January.
That leaves six short stories currently under consideration. Two of those, according to Duotrope.com, aren’t likely to see responses since they’ve exceeded their expected response times by several months and the publishers have not replied to anyone. I’ll likely have to send them out again.
Podcasting: With my partner Rhonda R. Carpenter’s blessing, I stepped away from Podioracket.com’s daily activities to focus more on writing. The podcast has expanded to include articles on independent authors outside Podiobooks.com and is progressing well. I recorded an interview late last year that I expect to air early in the year, and will continue to record specials.
My Parsec Finalist podcast novel Fractured Horizon has received more than 300,000 downloads from Podiobooks.com and iTunes listeners, and I continue to receive donations and fan mail. I appreciate the ongoing interest.
Upcoming Events 2013: I received the wonderful news that my vampire SF story, Better for Burning, received acceptance for the much anticipated BLOOD TYPE anthology edited by Robert S. Wilson. I’ll let you know once that becomes available. I’m expecting to get edits soon.
My private project with Emerian Rich is progressing rapidly now, and I expect we’ll have something to share shortly. Our daring escapade is a fun riff between the two of us, and the experiment will entertain you as much as it has us–if you’re into that sort of thing. We’re certainly branching out! (Sorry to be a tease. Announcements coming soon!)
My two novels are tied down to delivery schedules.
Classes, Courses, Retreats, Crit Groups, and Cons: I will attend Rainforest Writers at the end of February, and should be able to get in a good chunk of writing. Who knows, maybe a third book will be born! I hope so, since I have ideas raging to be written.
This year I joined two critique groups, both of which I’m grateful for. The Cascade Writers group generated a critique group that meets in Bellevue. After running into the kind and dignified Mark Andrew Edwards at both Rainforest and Cascade Writers, I was invited to join the Cloudcity Wordslingers.
In 2012 I attended Rainforest Writers, Cascade Writers, and was a guest panelist at Baycon. Classes included a one-day Hugo House course on plotting and a one-day Clarion West class on using senses in writing. I expect to keep up a similar schedule in 2013.
I attended four author’s readings at the University Bookstore or the SFWA sponsored readings in Redmond, which I enjoyed very much. Hopefully I’ll find time to attend more later this year.
Writers, you may be interested to know about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The submission period just opened for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It is open to all novels that are unpublished or self-published. They continue accepting submissions until January 27th, or when they reach a cap of 10,000 entries. There are many genres. Check out the links for more information.
In previous articles (as well as this one) I’ve mentioned the useful site Duotrope.com for finding market listings and response times. Unfortunately, Duotrope now requires a membership fee. I know alternatives are in the works, but can’t yet make a recommendation. I’m paying on a monthly basis, but will see whether the site is significantly more useful than the free alternatives as each month passes.
I’ve created a list of upcoming submission dates, including the ones I’ve been invited to submit to (which is also a nice change). At some point I’ll offer a copy of my spreadsheet, if anyone is interested in similarly tracking their works against possible markets.
Authors often debate whether it is useful to submit short stories to open submission calls. After all, it takes effort to write, effort to sell, and the pay isn’t great. And if it doesn’t sell to the first market, you have to make it conform to market after market.
I had to ask myself this question this week. I once wrote a 5,000 word superhero short story that was turned down when the publisher chose not to proceed with the anthology. Now, I’ve expanded the idea into 17,500 thrilling words to fit a different call. That will be a difficult length to sell if it is rejected. But I enjoy short stories and there are several real benefits to writing short stories.
First, to motivate writing. Story calls offer themes, guidelines, and deadlines.
Second, to generate a short story for a critique group. Getting a critique of a novel is difficult. It’s better to learn weaknesses in a small piece that can be applied in longer works.
Third, to offer moments of validation. Sales, posts, and contest wins are small moments of triumph on the path to authorship. I just received Honorable Mention for a story in Writers of the Future and that feels good.
Fourth, to provide content for a query letter. Even if your eventual goal is to publish a novel with a traditional press, short stories can help. It does no good to write something if the editor or agent refuses to read the submission. Perhaps these credits will get them to turn the pages a little more slowly.
I have seven short stories or novels under consideration with publishers right now. Writers of the Future is mailing me an Honorable Mention certificate for “Shadow Plagued” to hang on my wall.
Some weeks, that’s enough.
One of the fun things about being a science-fiction writer is speculating about the near and distant future.
My mother asked me whether I’d written a scene in Fractured Horizon before or after the recent spate of publicity for Felix Baumgarner’s space jump. (Note: I know this links to a Red Bull site. Sorry, but they have the footage if you want to see it. I get no money, I’m just offering the link if you’re curious and somehow missed out on the media blitzkrieg.)
The free serialized audio podcast of Fractured Horizon has reached over 275,000 downloads since I released it way back in 2009. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t attracted to the hip trendiness of a space jump. I needed a truly extreme sport, and this was perfect.
My fictionalized account happens in Episode 11:
The Royals’ ability to predict the future let them take incredible risks with complete confidence, but with Kay their sport essentially goes from the safety of a mall rock-climbing wall to scaling K2. Then Orlando takes it way beyond that.
Should I worry whether space jumps will seem so commonplace I’ll need to select a new sport for the long-promised print version? Fractured Horizon had a first pass through the editor, and I’ve made all revisions. It’s quite different from the audio version now, especially since I’ve condensed Devon’s visions so we get more at once and do less ping-ponging between the past and future. If ping-pong isn’t an official term, can we all just agree to make it one? Thanks.
I’d also like to take credit for the popularity of tattoos (Episode 9) and the ombre hair color movement (Episode All-of-Them), especially the pop stars with brightly colored ends. But I won’t. Because I’m modest. Or possibly because none of these people have heard of my book and their colors aren’t related in any way to my character Kay’s hair. But mostly: modesty.
Now I’m off to sell all the short stories I’ve written with near future technology. Because the future is here. Especially 3D printers. Have you seen those? Flexible screens are only a moment away. Same with tricorders. For that, I blame the X-Prize folks.