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!

 

Tame Your Revision: 7 Tips to Finish Your Novel Before Your Battery Dies

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. So many moving parts!! How do you keep from losing your mind?

Never fear, writer friends!

The Winged Pen is here!

Ta daaaa!

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

INVENTORY

  1. Make a scene list.
  2. Timeline
  3. Map of Major Scenes
  4. Draw, Doodle, Diagram, Index Card, Cut up Manuscript, Synopsis, Query Letter, Colored Markers.

SLICE AND LABEL

  1. Duplicate all the scenes you want to revise. (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Cut up into topics and label in Scrivener’s Binder. (“castle burns down” “tea party” “transition to vineyard”)
  3. Put like things together.
  4. Draft connections.

THROW STUFF OUT

  1. Duplicate all the files you want to revise. (If you didn’t already.)
  2. Delete everything that isn’t true.
  3. Cut stuff you don’t want. (Darlings, throat clearing, engine starting, letting characters off the hook.)
  4. Can you see?

FEEDBACK FOLDER

  1. Create feedback folders. (synopsis, draft, query, pitch) (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Label files (reader/chapters/date. Paste in comments from e-mails.
  3. Add a status in Scrivener for “send to crit partners”, “to do”, “done”.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love.
  2. Make a list ranked by size of mess.
  3. Do the big stuff first.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader?
  2. Deliver it.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up?
  4. Set it up.

DESPERATE MEASURES

  1. Find the question first. (See INVENTORY)
  2. Let subconscious work.
    (walks, water, sleep, music, whatever* works!)

*Dark chocolate Lindt truffles.

Happy revising! May your batteries and your Scrivener project targets always shine green!

Need that infographic link again? Here it is:

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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8 on Eight Feedback for November Winner: Jill Andrew’s INDIGO WAVES

eight on eight 2Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on November 30th. Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

p1050665 INDIGO WAVES by Jill Andrews

Genre: Young Adult (Contemporary Sci-fi)

 

Freedom, I decided, tastes like salt water. Using a plastic beach shovel for a paddle, I stroked away from my island prison, toward the Gulf Coast in my tiny boat, although calling my contraption a boat may have been a stretch. Twelve detergent bottles, acquired from the school laundry department, were strung together to form a loose circle. A large rainslicker, attached to the ropes with bungees, offered a kind of floating nest in the center.

I paddled until my arms shook and my muscles burned from the effort. The gentle swells that had lapped against the beach were just high enough to make seeing me from the shore difficult. As I paddled further away from the island and the storm clouds moved in, the swells intensified to a relentless four-to-six-foot ascent, followed each time by a stomach churning plunge.

Gripping the plastic shovel against my chest with one hand, I clung to the flimsy rope with the other.

Julie Artz: I love that first line! You’ve provided some great details about the MC’s home-made escape boat, which draws the reader right in to this adventure story. That said, I want a little bit more in this opening about the stakes–what is MC fleeing, and what will happen if s/he is caught by the people she’s trying to escape? That sense of fear/danger will up the tension in the opening and, when combined with the great details you already have, will make this story shine.

Michelle Leonard: Fantastic opening that pulls me in immediately. You’ve included many lovely details, but I’d like just another word or two here and there so I can understand how worried I should be for the MC and how bad the MC’s experience has been in the prison (no long backstory, just a few well-placed adjectives). A few more questions that came up as I read: Is the rainslicker truly a nest or a shade? Is this most likely going to be a short journey. Again, a few simple words will make this all clear and help us understand the stakes. Nice work! I’m very intrigued. Best of luck and stay in touch with us to let us know how it goes.

Gita: Your opening really drew me in—I would certainly keep reading to find out what’s happening and why! I second (third?) what Julie and Michelle said: I’d love some emotional underpinning for the main character here. It doesn’t need to be wordy, but it needs to be there. Also, I’m wondering if could make some of your words count even more. For example, the third sentence is a passive construction. By choosing that construction you miss opportunities to reveal some backstory and show us something about the main character. Who tied the detergent bottles together? Was it the MC? If so, “I’d tied the detergent bottles together” shows us more than “were tied.” Likewise, “acquired” doesn’t tell us much. Were the bottles “stolen,” “snitched,” “scavenged,” “pawned,” “liberated” or something else entirely?

A minor formatting suggestion: your first line is so terrific I’d think about setting it off apart from the rest of the paragraph. Good luck with your writing!

Jessica: This is a very intriguing opening! By way of feedback, I’ll say that I was slightly confused in the opening paragraph. When I read that the MC was paddling away from an island prison, I took this quite literally. But then when I read about the school laundry department, I wasn’t sure if the MC was really in some type of prison or perhaps at some type of remote boarding school that made the MC feel imprisoned (I’m inclined to think the latter since I’m not sure if there would be a school in a prison, but I’m not certain). Good luck with this story!

Richelle: Great opening line! I was immediately intrigued. I’m with Jessica in being a bit confused about whether the prison was literal or metaphorical, and details like the plastic beach shovel and the mention of the school made me lean to the metaphorical. I also agree that some notion of the stakes would be helpful — even when the storm rolled in, I didn’t get a sense of urgency. It seemed more like an inconvenience than a life-or-death adversary. Had your MC been tracking the storm before he/she left? What about pursuers? Are there any? Are there sharks or other threats from the water? Has she left anything or anyone behind that colors her journey with regret? Or is she just anxious to get away? That first line is so evocative of what she’s feeling, but the rest of the opening takes us out of her state of mind and into her physical state. I wonder if you could pin the description of the raft and the journey more closely to her emotional journey, if that might make everything else pop as much as the first line does?

Halli:  I agree with everyone about your first line. It is definitely one of my favorites! Your writing is very nice, it flows well, and your descriptions are well done. I could see enhancing it with word choices, as I think Gita mentioned. I am on the same page with everyone above when they say that they are missing who your character is. Just a few words or sentences about who he/she is fleeing, a brief hint as to why, and then the emotions that go along with those revelations. Should we be afraid for the character? Cheer he/she on? And as the journey goes on, is there terror/anxiety about the approaching storm and swells? Your opening is intriguing! Good luck with this.

Rebecca: This sounds like the start to an intriguing story. I love the first line. It grounds us in your character’s motivation. I can also see from the way you’ve described the raft that she’s no limp protagonist, ready to take on the sea and a storm for what she wants, freedom.

I might like more emotion in the beginning. How does she feel about being aboard the makeshift raft? I get that she’s tired, but wouldn’t she be nervous if not outright frightened to be on the sea with this dodgy raft? I also feel like a tighter focus on her perspective would make the situation even more tense. You mention the view of her from shore. But what about her view? She’s not on shore so I’m not sure I buy that they can’t see her. I’d buy something along the lines of, “I couldn’t see the shoreline over the swells. Hopefully that meant they couldn’t see me.” Also, as the waves start reaching four feet…that’s really big in the type of raft she’s in. Can you “zoom in?” I like the “stomach churning plunge” and I’d like even more. What’s the situation of the raft – e.g. is it holding together or looking like the next wave might pull it apart? And how does she feel going up the swell, then crashing back down. It’s such a great visual, I’d really like to see it. It would naturally lead into more thoughts from her on why freedom is so important to her that it’s worth this risk. Of course all that would take you more than 8 lines. *face palm* But would hook the reader even more, I think.

Thinking bigger picture, I wonder if this is the right place to start. From reading this bit, I’d love to see our protagonist sneaking around to steal the Clorox bottles or other supplies. Or getting a glimpse of how she’s treated in her island prison–what it is that makes her desperate to escape. It might show us even more of your character’s strength and determination, and we’d be more invested in  her success by the time she was facing those 4 foot waves at sea.

Note: I didn’t read the prior comments to make my read “distinct.” Hope I didn’t just contradict everyone. Best of luck with your story!

Laurel: That’s an exciting opening to a story! Talk about setting your main character loose at sea in an unseaworthy craft! So, is the first line hinting at disaster? Drinking saltwater is a good way to go into convulsions, so I wasn’t sure if the narrator doesn’t know (yet) that drinking saltwater would be a bad idea. (If I’ve gone off on an unintended tangent, maybe it would better to have freedom’s scent like saltwater?) The boat is brilliant and vivid in my mind. The contrast of nest and the wobbly-ness of the whole construction makes me properly nervous. I’m trying to reconcile the school laundry with prison and getting a bit puzzled. Is prison metaphorical for school or is there a school in the prison? I’m wondering about the level of danger for the narrator. Also the swells “were just high enough to make seeing me from the shore difficult.” lowers the tension. Why not keep the tension up and make the narrator worry about that too? 🙂 Nice strong verbs and spare language. The tone is almost clinically detached in this opening. If it’s concealing a deeper emotional turmoil, maybe that could be hinted at a bit more. If the MC reminds him/herself that this isn’t the time to think about X,Y, and Z concerns, that would work too. Now I wonder what’s going to happen next. . .a sure sign that your first eight lines are doing their work.

Thanks for sharing your story with The Winged Pen!

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The 8 on Eight Contest Window is Open!

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Fellow writers! The 8 on Eight contest window is OPEN!

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Q: I must have missed the announcement. What is 8 on Eight? 

A monthly contest that provides one lucky kidlit writer with feedback on their opening eight lines! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a PB, MG, or YA writer feedback on their work from at least 8 of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 8pm (EST) on the first day of July, 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 eight lines. On the eighth of the month, the winner’s eight lines, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from at least 8 of our members. Still have questions? See our 8 on Eight page for additional details.

Remember, the contest window is only open until 8pm EST on July 1st, so don’t wait––enter now!

Best of luck! (And please help spread the word!)

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