How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!

 

DIY Infographics and other Cool Marketing Things

If you’ve spent any time online recently (which, yeah, maybe you’ve been avoiding it as much as we have!), you’ve probably seen these cool graphic communication tools known as infographics.

A practice infographic on how writers can use different social media platforms

Infographic is really just a fancy way of saying “a picture and a few words working together to communicate key information or important messaging.” They give people an easy, at-a-glance way of gathering info, and they’re a great nod to those people who grasp pictures faster than they do words.

I’m a non-visual thinker — give me words any day! — but even so, I’ve grown to appreciate their amazing ability to communicate big complex ideas in a flash. So I wondered if I could learn how to make them.

The short answer is YES — anyone can learn to make an infographic, and depending on how fast you can pull together the content, can do it in 15-20 minutes! The longer answer…well, that’s what this blog post is for!

The Tools

There are at least half a dozen platforms that can help you design your own infographics. Most of them are free for the basics, paying if you want to get really fancy and customized. I found a great rundown of the major players here.

I used Canva to create both the samples I’m posting here. You can scroll through dozens of templates — some free, some paid — and find one that gives you the general look you want. The designs can be changed with photos, colors, textures, etc. I have only just started to play around, and found it easy and fun to mess around.

You’ll also want to have your statistics, facts, sources, images and a general outline ready before you start. I just dove in for the first one I created, and while I wasn’t trying to really create something I would use again and again, it took a lot more time than it could have.

And there aren’t only infographic templates available. You can use these platforms to design anything from wedding invitations to brochures to social media graphics and more.

The Whys

Which brings me to all the reasons you might want to get familiar with infographics.

Marketing. One Penny used Canva to create marketing materials for her upcoming book, saying, “I just took a stab at it, and take this from someone who HATES, no, abhors all forms of fiddly technology– I made a cool pamphlet in half an hour!! It still needs some tweaking, but it looks so much more professional than my 1st attempt using a word doc.”

Reaching readers. Kids are geared to accept visual ways of communicating, and as kidlit writers, it’s to our benefit if we can reach them in the ways they like to be reached. If you have a message for your readers, see if you can put it in infographic form.

Another practice with more in-depth information and graphics

Blog posts. As a blog reader and a blog writer, it can be really refreshing to see information presented visually. Instead of writing 500 words on writing great dialogue, why not try a graphic that explains what makes dialogue great?

Presentations. I occasionally give talks in my professional life and to school-aged kids. Infographics are a fantastic way to underscore the information you’re presenting orally — and help you stay away from the curse of the three-bullet-point Powerpoint slide!

Play around with a couple of the platforms to see which one works best for you. Once I tried one, the ideas started coming fast and furious. I’m looking forward to creating more and finding more ways to use them!

Our February #Fouron400 Kidlit Writing Contest Window is now Open!


Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of February, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the February Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on February 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

The Four C’s — Yoga Rules for Writing

Back when I took my first yoga class, the teacher warned us to avoid “The Four C’s” – comparing, competing, complaining, and criticizing.

balance-1107484_640I can still vividly remember feeling so chastised – I had committed every single one of those sins!

In the years since that first class, The Four C’s have popped into my head at various times – while taking yoga or other gym classes, while going about my daily life, and while writing fiction.

But while The Four C’s are big Don’ts, they can lead to some even bigger Do’s.

DON’T Compare

It’s so, so tempting to look at other writers and wonder why you don’t have the same success they do. How does she write so fast? How come he is getting a multi-book deal? How did she sell so many copies if everyone thinks she’s a terrible writer?!?

But here’s the thing: comparisons don’t move you forward. All of your observations about other writers could be 100% true (although they’re probably not), but they have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re writing. In fact, wasting a bunch of head space on how another writer is progressing just gets you mired in picking apart your flaws and all the ways you can’t measure up.

DO Study and Learn

Where it’s damaging to compare, it can actually be really helpful to look at what another writer is doing to achieve such success. That writer with the killer output? Maybe she’s getting up at 4am to write every day or another productivity technique you could use in your own work. And the best-sellers? Study what they do right rather than picking apart what they do wrong. People are buying them for a reason – can you see what that reason is?

DON’T Compete

I was at a children’s soccer game recently where a parent was so upset that his son’s team was losing that he lost it. He began yelling at an eight-year-old child on the opposing team and had to be escorted out of the park. It didn’t help his son or his son’s team play better, it didn’t increase anyone’s enjoyment of the game, and it didn’t change the outcome. While some drive to win is a good thing, in general, competing with your fellow writers isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

DO Collaborate

hands-1445244_640Instead, try collaborating. My fellow Pennies have given me fantastic writing and life advice. They spot my weak spots and celebrate my strengths. Different minds have different takes on the same situation, and working together can help everyone succeed…and make this often lonely journey a whole lot more fun.

DON’T Complain

I like to complain as much as the next person. But let’s face it: whining about a situation isn’t getting you any closer to fixing it.

It’s OK to have a venting session if you need it. Get that frustration out with a trusted friend. But once you’ve purged the bad feelings, try to remember what an incredible privilege it is to have the time, energy and ability to create art.

DO Embrace Challenges

Writing — like life — doesn’t promise to be easy, comfortable or fun. Instead, it promises one challenge after another. So embrace those challenges. Come up with creative ways to solve them. Sometimes, the knocks we take in writing end up pushing us to heights we never would have reached without them. (And sometimes they’re just knocks. Sorry.)

The bottom line: the sooner you embrace writing’s challenges, the more joyful the time you spend writing will be.

DON’T Criticize

Criticism has no place in yoga, where the idea is to do the best practice you are capable of doing at that specific moment. But what about in writing? Shouldn’t we criticize in order to produce the best possible work?

Well, no. Criticism is inherently negative. Criticism is that voice in your head that tells you you’ll never be able to do justice to this story, you are a terrible writer, and you should probably just set your laptop on fire to save the world from your pitiful attempts at fiction. Criticism hurts.

DO Critique

Unlike a good critique, criticism doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for what’s you’re doing right. And I actually think that is often just as important — if not more — than what’s going wrong.

In their fantastic book on change, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about one of the key steps that people who successfully change situations take: they follow the bright spots. By looking at what is working and trying to do more of that, we’re usually more successful than if we look at what’s not working and try to change it.

In other words, endless criticism is not going to get you where you want to go as fast as thoughtful critique. Try to look at where your current story gets your heart pounding. Why? What are you doing there that you can do in the rest of your story?

In my Saturday morning spin class a few weeks ago, the instructor ended the class by telling us, “I want you to go out today and remember: You showed up, you tried, and you didn’t quit. That is something to celebrate!”

That powerful message – and my mantra for whenever my writing gets a little tough — is the opposite of The Four C’s.

Craft Intensive: Building Backstory

As a couple of my fellow Pennies can tell you, I love to do a deep dive on characters’ feelings and motivations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do while writing and critiquing is to explore and uncover why the characters act the way they do.

I’m also a firm believer in that old adage that the easiest way to know what someone is going to do in the future is to look at what they’ve done in the past.

But until recently, I never managed to put those two ideas together in my writing! As much as I love the behavior analysis part of penning a novel, I have been leaving a huge chunk of motivation on the table: Backstory.

It’s not that I’ve been ignoring backstory. I actually like it quite a bit and enjoy imagining pre-novel scenes. But I haven’t always written down that backstory or given it much more than a cursory glance. It’s always been an under-developed, well-you-see-this-once-happened explanation available if someone asked.

But after Julie recommended Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS to me, I started paying a lot more attention to backstory in my books. And I’ve picked up some great new habits that — I hope! — are making my current WIP a much more emotionally engaging read.

  1. Write that backstory down. I used to be content to dream up a nice, somewhat vague backstory for my character — e.g./ “She’s watched her mom cut people out of their lives for little to no reason and she’s scared of that happening to her.” But with this draft, I’ve written out several scenes from her past that show her mom turning on their friends and family. The details that writing the scenes forced me to conjure up are helping me show my character’s fear so much more vividly, and they serve the dual purpose of propelling actions that are making my story zing.
  2. From STORY GENIUS: Find a moment that made your character believe something about the world that your novel’s story will prove wrong. Think Professor Snape. For almost the entire seven-book series, Harry believes that Professor Snape is evil. He has ample evidence for this belief — much of it circumstantial and misinterpreted — and for him, it is confirmed at nearly every turn. We even get to see memories of Snape’s boyhood that seem to confirm Harry’s suspicions. All of which makes it so deeply moving for us and for Harry when he learns the truth behind Snape’s actions late in the final book.
  3. Real people often take unexpected lessons from life events — so can your characters. A character whose mom died when he was thirteen could vow to remain a bachelor for life because he’s seen how painful it is to lose someone you love…or he could decide to become very religious because he believes his mom might have been saved if she had gone to church…or he could fervently wish to create his own family very young to make up for what he missed out on…or, or, or. Any one of a thousand reactions to that one event — losing his mother — is possible, which means you need to keep digging. What else was happening in his life at that time that shaped how he reacted? What kind of person was his mom, and how did she shape him while she was alive? What did he believe about the world before she died, and how did that death challenge that belief? Try to find the core belief that led your character to choose the specific lesson that makes him behave the way he does — and that belief will do a lot of heavy lifting to move your story forward.

As I’ve started incorporating backstory questions into my writing, I’ve found that not only does it mean I get to do more of what I love — exploring character motivation! — but it is also helping me improve my much weaker area of plot development.

Because if the truest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then knowing your characters’ backstory backwards and forwards will help you know exactly what they’re going to do next.