Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So, You Question The Value of A Critique?

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights

The first time I submitted SILENCED CRY for a critique, I did so knowing I had taken the story as far as I could. I also felt that it was in good shape and close to completion. But when I read the comments, I realized I was mistaken. My fellow authors found scads of errors and inconsistencies that resulted in cutting and adding chapters and several months of rewrites.

A solid critique provides the author an honest review with constructive feedback, offers valid suggestions to improve the work, provides examples, and offers a good dose of encouragement.

So when asked if I allow others to read my work in progress I respond with an emphatic, “Yes.” I rely on the experienced fresh pair of eyes to tell me if I have adequately developed my characters and the plot. Are the scenes and dialogue believable? Does the opening paragraph pull the reader in, or does it read like a bad diary entry? Does my narrative drag? Are the chapter endings page-turners or turn offs?

On occasion, I may disagree with a suggested change, but I consider each comment to understand what really bothered the reader. Someone else’s observation often reveals an amazing new perspective. An example of this was when a fellow author read the first few chapters of my current book, THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008). I intended for my female character to be a strong-willed individual. She is driven, spunky, and the perfect counter balance to my male protagonist. Yet my critique partner interpreted the character’s actions as that of someone who is somewhat of a scatterbrain. Shock! To make matters worse, she couldn’t understand the character’s motivation. A double whammy!

My first reaction was to balk; I knew she was wrong. After reading through her comments several times, however, I decided to walk away from that scene for a few days and study it later from a reader’s point of view. Of course, she was right on target. The problem wasn’t the character though; it was me. I knew the character well. She is key to the plot and can’t be anything less than strong and assertive. I assumed the reader would pick up on her traits. But I had been so wrapped up in recording my thoughts that my mind raced ahead of the typing without taking time to develop the character as I should. Once I understood the problem, it was an easy fix, but I doubt I would have seen the omission without someone pointing it out. Whether it’s a matter of changing a few words or several paragraphs, the tweaking always strengthens the prose and occasionally spins the scene in an unexpected direction.

Be cautious of the reader who tends to rewrite your story or tries to change your writing style. That’s not the intent of a critique. No one knows the characters or the plot better than the author, therefore, the secret to accepting someone’s suggestions is to selectively “listen” and use only the valid information.

A bit about self-editing and what I keep in mind when I edit my work:
1. Don’t describe every detail about a character in the first paragraph. Allow the reader to engage his or her imagination and get to know them a little bit at a time. When we meet someone, we don’t learn everything about them in the first hour. Similarly, the character should come to life gradually through dialogue, actions, reactions, and through the eyes and words of the other characters.

2. For a tense scene that needs to show urgency use short, abrupt sentences. Don’t kill the suspense with flowery prose, exposition, or excessive internal dialogue.

3. Pace it. Dialogue speeds the prose. After a fast-paced section, slow things down and give the reader a breather through some carefully written narrative. Narration can be used as a transitional tool to get the reader from one scene to the next or when the prose needs to slow down. However, if not done correctly, the writer will risk turning the narration into information dump sites in which the he or she tells the reader all he or she needs to know. If the narration describes an important turn of events, convert it into a scene between characters. Remember that dialogue is far more interesting and engages the reader’s emotions rather than the intellect.

4. Show don’t tell. Two of my favorite quotes to drive this home are:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Chekhov

"Don't tell me about the tragedies of war; show me the child's shoe discarded by the side of the road." author unknown

Need I say more?

5. Don’t let the characters’ dialogue turn into exposition; when a character speaks for the sake of informing the reader.

6. Separate one character’s words and actions from another character through paragraph breaks. No exceptions.

7. Dialogue attribution—stick to “said” written after the proper noun or pronoun. If the character is excited, show it through his or her words and actions, not the attribution.

8. Replace tags with beats as an alternate way to vary the dialogue and show action. “Tom where’s Hank?” She lowered her gaze to the dark red stain sprayed across the front of his shirt. “How could you?”

9. Look for repetition of words or information to avoid redundancy. If you’ve communicated the information well, once should be enough. When the reader needs to be reminded of an event that happened several chapters before, find a fresh way to relay the information.

10. Get rid of attribute adverbs, “ly” words, that tell the reader how the character said something and replace them with action verb. Instead of: “He angrily punched the pillow.” Try: “He slammed a fist into the pillow.”

11. Avoid “ing” words. Make it active. Instead of: “He was walking to the store.” Try: “He walked to the store.”

12. Know when to end your chapter. You’ve written a great chapter, you’ve come up with a fantastic twist for a page-turning ending. You’re certain it will shove the reader to the edge of the chair while he or she turns the page. Don’t ruin the suspense by writing two or three more paragraphs explaining how the character feels. The reader doesn’t need, or care at this point, what the character does next. If you have to explain it, rewrite it.

Writing is an on-going learning process and the critique is an excellent way for an author to know if he or she is on track. Don’t accept rude or cruel comments, but to expect anything less than an honest, straightforward, and constructive critique, is a waste of everyone’s time.

Experience has changed my attitude toward and expectations of a critique. Initially, I looked to others for encouragement. Now I question the light critique that doesn’t catch the inconsistencies, point out technical problems, or question a character’s motives. I’m no less sensitive or thicker-skinned than I was before. A harsh critique can still be as painful as a swift kick in the shins, but my focus is on pushing my writing to the next level. Although the occasional pat on the back feels great, an honest critique is the only way to advance the skill.

Marta Stephens Stephens is a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime Speed City Indiana Chapter, and the Midwest Writer's Workshop. She resides in Indiana with her husband, two grown children and pet Boston Bulls.

SILENCED CRY (2007) Autographed copies available via my website.


ajmenden said...

Hi, popping in from CafeMom.

I so agree with you about critique groups/partners. As I've blogged about myself, everytime I've ignored a crit comment because "They didn't know what they're talking about/didn't get my vision" that comment has come back to haunt me from either my editor or my agent. My writing really grew as a result of joining a crit group, through both other people pointing out my flaws, and learning to look critically and objectively at other people's work helped me with my own.

s.w. vaughn said...

Spot on, Marta. Outside eyes are invaluable when it comes to getting a manuscript "just right" - that's why publishers have editors! :-)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Well, said, Marta. And chock full of excellent advice. Thanks for posting this!

Marta Stephens said...

I find that I'm often so close to the work--I've read it so many times, that I can't see the problem(s). Call me weird but I enjoy the editing/polishing part of writing because it forces me to think outside the box and read the MS from a reader's view point. I don't know that there's anything more exciting than to think you've done the best you can, and then suddenly realize...there's a better way.

Kim Smith said...

...That old forest for the trees issue that we all fall prey to sometimes. Good article, M. Thanks for sharing!

Marta Stephens said...

... and if you're lucky, you meet some pretty interesting folks along the way, huh? ;)