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!

 

Review – How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript

In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript, James Scott Bell promises the reader craft secrets to shape great dialogue. As a writer juggling a full life, the phrase “fastest way to improve” catches my eye and I hit Amazon’s buy now button.

When the book arrives, it’s a slim 135 pages. Was it worth the price? Will it stay on my How To writing shelf or end up in the donate pile? I find my favorite booth at Panera, order an iced tea, and crack it open.

I have my doubts the first few pages. Bell starts with what not to do examples that are so bad my fourth grader would know better. With a sigh, I turn a few pages. Next up is a tip that all characters should bring specific, opposing agendas to a scene. I read an excerpt from Gone With the Wind and jot a note to myself: Identify characters’ opposing agendas at the start of scene to increase conflict and tension. A few fun ideas bubble up.

The next idea sounds crazy, but I try it. Bell’s tip is to take a dialogue heavy section in my story and pick a random line. Then I go to my bookshelf, select a favorite novel, and flip it open. The first line of dialogue on that page will now replace the line of dialogue in my manuscript. Bizarre, but it works! My scene takes a creative twist and the dialogue’s interest shoots up.

Bell’s book includes tips on everything from punctuation to attributions to cursing, but the idea that pulls me in next is bare bones dialogue. I tend to be wordy. So I take a page of my dialogue and snip, snip, snip. My goal is to get each line to five words or less. The page suddenly has more white space and the dialogue more snap.

After applying Bell’s tips, I email my newest scene to my tough love critique partner whose comments tend toward “yawning here” or “this scene matters why?”

Several days later, I’m back at my favorite Panera booth, sipping my iced tea and open my email. My critique partner has responded and I nearly keel over when I read: Engaging and well written scene. Easy, enjoyable read. I wonder if it’s the tea or all the hard work. Nice job!

I write back that it’s not the tea, but the tips from How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript.

Worth the cost?

Definitely!

A keeper?

For sure.

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.

Find Mentors after Pitch Wars?

If Pitch Wars 2017 seems too far away or too selective for you, you can always try out other mentorship programs available online.

Some are free and some come with a fee. I have listed both below.

But first….

What should you expect from a mentor?

A mentor is a professional who is ahead of the game and understands the industry better than you. By definition, a mentor advises, guides.

However, a mentor is not your friend, like a CP (critique partner) could be. A mentor is NOT someone with a magic wand like a Book Doctor or a Ghost Writer.

A mentor will point out what you need to work on, and will give you pointers and references.

Mentors will talk to you periodically, from just a few hours up to a year.

Finally, a mentor will be most helpful if you’ve tried your best, maybe won a few awards or competitions, sent a bunch of queries that did not amount to anything, and you’re now ready to move to the next level.

FREE MENTORSHIP PROGRAMS:

Writing with the stars is a mentorship opportunity for intermediate picture book writers and illustrators. 3 months mentorship. <http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/>

AWP Mentorship: Every Spring and Fall. The program matches new and established writers for a three-month series of modules covering topics from craft to publication to the writing life. < https://www.awpwriter.org/community_calendar/mentorship_program_overview>

Australian Society of Authors (ASA) mentorship. The ASA offers paid mentorships to all published and unpublished writers and picture book illustrators with a work-in-progress. <https://www.asauthors.org/emerging-writers-and-illustrators-mentorships>

CBS Diversity Institute’s Writers Mentoring Program (script writing) Will help you get your TV show on the way. <https://www.cbscorporation.com/diversity/diversity-institute/writers-mentoring-program/>

Gemini Ink Mentorship Program: Spring. Apply to the Gemini Ink 2016 Mentorship Program and be one of four writers chosen to work one-on-one over a six month period with a nationally recognized author on a book-length project, free of charge. < http://geminiink.org/writing-mentorships/>

SCBWI Mentorship Programs. Any SCBWI regions offer mentorship programs that match established members with up-and-coming authors and illustrators. Some of these programs are open to just members in a particular region, others are open to any SCBWI member. < https://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-mentorship-programs/>

WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) Mentorship Program: October.  For the 2017 year, WNDB is offering mentorships to ten upcoming voices—eight aspiring authors and two illustrators—who are diverse or working on diverse books. <http://weneeddiversebooks.org/aboutapply/>

Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Your Novel Year: Summer. Arizona State University. Online Certificate Program in the country for those looking to write Young Adult novels. <https://piper.asu.edu/novel>  

Leigh Shulman’s Women’s Writing Mentorship Exchange. For women. Will read through answers and choose 65 people to work with the mentors. Results come in June. <http://thefutureisred.com/birthday-giveaway-2016/>

The WoMentoring project. Accessible to only women, especially women who cannot afford a traditional mentorship program. This organization depends entirely on volunteers. <https://womentoringproject.co.uk/>  

1st 5 Pages Writing free Workshop. Will workshop your first five pages with authors and an agent. <http://www.1st5pageswritingworkshop.com/p/mentor-schedule.html>

MENTORSHIP PROGRAMS WITH A FEE:  

Inked Voices. An online group gathering professionals (agents, editors, writers) and a selective number of writers in a critique group.<https://www.inkedvoices.com/group/pro_groups/>

UCLA’s One-on-One Mentorships. Mentorships give you access to an instructor Monday through Friday for 4 full weeks.  You receive feedback every 12-24 hours for most work and 24-36 hours for longer material. <http://writers.uclaextension.edu/programs-services/mentorships/>

Amanda Hampson’s The Write Workshops, promises to complete your first draft in 12 months with a writing mentor. Affordable monthly fee (about $100). <http://thewriteworkshops.com/writingmentor/>

Novel in a Year Mentoring Course. In twelve monthly sessions, you will be able to submit instalments of up to 10,000 words for your editor to assess as you go. First month free. <http://www.danielgoldsmith.co.uk/writers_mentors.php>  

The Dzanc Creative Writing Mentorships is an online program designed to allow writers to work one-on-one with published authors and editors to shape their short story, novel, poem, or essay. Has an extensive list of authors ready to work with you. <http://www.dzancbooks.org/creative-writing-mentorships/>  

Creative nonfiction offers its own mentoring Program, at <https://www.creativenonfiction.org/mentoring-program>  

The NSW Writers’ Center Mentorship. A NSWWC mentorship is an opportunity for you to work one-on-one (either face-to-face, by email, Skype or over the phone) with an experienced writer or editor. <http://www.nswwc.org.au/support-for-writers/mentorship-program/>  

Blue Pencil mentorships. Professional children’s authors and illustrators who are Members of CANSCAIP will give a critique and answer five follow-up questions. You need to be a current CANSCAIP member before applying. <http://www.canscaip.org/Mentorship>  

Bespoke Mentoring. Mentoring for 3, 6 or 12 months. They will support you every step of the way, from structuring your novel to advice on where to go next with the final product. <https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/services/bespoke-mentoring>

Australian Writers Mentoring Program to offer high-level mentoring to new and emerging writers of fiction and non-fiction.  The program runs over six months,  providing five one-on-one meetings with an established, award-winning writer.  Before each meeting the mentor will read up to ten thousand words of your work-in-progress. <http://writermentors.com/>  

GRANTS:

For parents with young kids. <http://apply.sustainableartsfoundation.org/>

RESOURCES:

Find a writing coach. <http://www.book-editing.com/writing-coach.html>

Mentoring and coaching. <http://www.nawe.co.uk/the-writers-compass/events-and-opportunities/mentoring-and-coaching.html>

 

If you liked this article, visit Sussu Leclerc at Novel Without Further Ado.

A follow up on Twitter or Pinterest is always appreciated.

Author Interview–Julie Leung

mice-of-the-round-table

We are thrilled to have on the blog today Julie Leung, a debut author whose middle grade novel releases on October 4th. MICE OF THE ROUNDTABLE: A TAIL OF CAMELOT is an epic new middle grade series in the tradition of Redwall and Poppy, based on Arthurian legend and told from the perspective of Camelot’s most humble creatures: mice. Young mouse Calib Christopher dreams of becoming a Knight of the Round Table. For generations, his family has led the mice who live just out of sight of the humans, defending Camelot from enemies both big and small. But when Calib and his friend Cecily discover that a new threat is gathering—one that could catch even the Two-Leggers unaware—it is up to them to unmask the real enemy, unite their forces, and save the castle they all call home. The book has received positive reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal!

“A winning new adventure featuring a stalwart warrior mouse, heroic knights, and magical Camelot.” (Kirkus) “Leung employs classic language, with regal terms to re-create the timeless feel of Camelot.” (School Library Journal)

What drew you to this story for a retelling?

I grew up on a steady diet of the Redwall series. I checked out every book from the library and savored every feast scene and battle. And like most fans of fantasy fiction, my first taste of it came from tales of King Arthur and his knights. So when Paper Lantern Lit approached me with the project for Mice of the Round Table, I knew this was the perfect fit for me.  

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of retelling a story?

My favorite thing about writing an Arthurian retelling is that I can bake in references and literary Easter eggs that will hopefully pay off when the reader continues to explore the legends in their own right. On the flip side, I have to ensure that my story arc follows the trajectory that everyone expects—for the most part at least, I like to throw in some surprises. 😉

How much research did you do?

My research was twofold. I did a lot of digging into Arthurian legends themselves. But I quickly found that the versions we have come to know as canon have also been modified and tweaked through the ages. Different authors left in their own details and flourishes which I found fascinating.

I also refreshed myself on a lot of “rodent-as-hero” stories like Poppy, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and other classic tales. One of my biggest challenges was to correctly scale mice in a world built by humans.

What are some details you included to evoke the time period?

I tried to place the story in a timeless and familiar fairytale setting. That meant excising any words or terminology that sounded too modern and paying attention to the descriptions food and clothing to make sure they felt grounded within historical reason.

Why do you write middle grade?

The books that truly turned me into an insatiable reader for life were read when I was 8-12 years old. I wanted to write for this age because I could incorporate a sense of innocent wonder and adventure but at the same time introduce more complex themes.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid? 

Ozma of Oz by Frank L. Baum

How about a favorite middle grade that you’ve discovered as an adult?

I read the Tale of Despereaux for a college class and have been craving soup ever since.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write like you’re running out of time, adapted from the Hamilton musical. To keep myself focused on the goal of finishing a manuscript, I cultivate this sense of urgency in the back of mine: No one can tell your stories but yourself, and you owe it to your stories to see them to realization.   

julie-leung

JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth.

By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. She is also the mother of FictionToFashion.com, where she interprets her favorite books into outfits.

In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.

You may accost her in the following formatsTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.

Katharine Manning has a soft spot in her heart for mouse stories, dating back to third grade when she first read about Ralph and his motorcycle. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls, friendship, and occasionally, magic. She blogs here and at The Mixed-Up Files, and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List, and can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter and Instagram