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12 Steps To A Good Critique

I’m going to go out on a limb and just give tips. I had a personal revolution on editing for yourself. (”Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave ) So, I’m going to combine some of what I picked up there with personal practices. I’m also going to pose this as useable for the writer to self-edit, and the critter who sees it afterward. Hope this helps!

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Step One: (Specifically for CRITTERS) DON’T REWRITE!

Now, the very first rule is completely forgetting the phrase “If it were me…” Point of fact, it’s NOT you. It will never be you. In fact, when critiquing, YOU don’t even exist.

You might think I’m being harsh, but how many times have you gotten a crit where a sentence comes back sounding completely different than how you sent it. IF it’s even the same sentence?

For example: Tripping on her train and wishing that the champagne she’d drunk wasn’t so inebriating, Melinda casually moved through the room.

Bad Crit: Melinda walked through the room, stumbling and drunk on cheap champagne.

Why is this a bad crit? Because this isn’t even what the original author is trying to convey. It’s REWRITTEN–the first crime of a bad critter. It takes someone else’s work and makes it YOURS. Basically, you’re requesting a co-written credit, and your crits won’t be taken seriously–not even when you have a valid point!

Step Two: LOOK FOR CHARACTER SHOW AND TELLS!

Now, I know you’re wondering what I mean. Show and tells are when the author either SHOWS you what the character is like (via dialogue, action or motivation) or TELLS you. I’ve taken an axe to my own work for telling too much.

Let’s look at what I mean: (Dee, showing)

Example: Rita couldn’t dance. Danny knew it, and he suspected she was already waiting for him to get in line and ask her just like all the other fools doing so. She looked great against a wall, and had fully mastered a condescending above-it-all look when people deigned to ask her, but the truth was that she ached to be out there, pounding her feet and losing herself in the beat. Which was why Danny decided not to do it. When Miss Rita-can’t-dance finally got over herself, he’d be waiting.

Lots of info there about Rita. It’s short, it’s direct, but it’s also “telling” you about Rita, and forming the opinion FOR you. It’s a big trap for writers, I know I’ve fallen into it myself. It’s so much easier to give a fully developed character in a few paragraphs to the reader, but it cheats them of getting to know them as three dimensional characters.

So, the trick becomes “showing” Rita to the reader, and letting them see how she is for themselves.

Example: Danny watched the line of boys form in front of Rita, a usual sight at these dances. He listened as, one by one, she rejected their requests to dance.

“Would you like-” That one couldn’t even finish his sentence, caught in the wake of Rita’s coolly disbelieving eyes. Danny laughed and Rita turned his way. She looked good, he’d give her that. But when her withering gaze didn’t work on him, she turned back to her friends.

Another sap stepped up in the line, hoping he might be the one Rita would choose. He wasn’t. Disheartened, several boys abandoned the quest. Danny kept his eye on her though, and when she seemed to think no one was looking, he saw her eyes follow her friends onto the dance floor. She bounced with the beat, but nothing one might call dancing. Longing, maybe, but not dancing. She finally caught him staring, and for a moment, there was vulnerability on her face. As if she’d been caught in a secret.

And she had.

But when another boy came to ask for her, her uncaring mask returned to place, and Danny decided that he wasn’t going to be one of her rejects. If Rita wanted to dance, she was going to have to come to him.

Now the reader can see Rita. This is a Show.

Critters–It’s not your job to rewrite this. It’s YOUR job to point out to your author when they are telling too much, and not showing enough. These examples are so you can see the difference.

Writers–A good tip to escape telling is scenes, like above, where things are shown. Since you wrote it and know the story future better than anyone else, ask yourself if the character is conveyed slowly even after the description. Then the character blurb becomes unnecessary, and you can delete it altogether.

Step Three: TEST THE DIALOGUE!

Critters–Read it to yourself, preferably out loud. Does it sound forced? Does it sound like something someone would actually say? Does it grate your nerves because it tells you how you should react–even if you don’t. Now, don’t rewrite it. A critter’s main purpose is to point out errors. Not necessarily correct it. If the flow isn’t there, make a note for your author and move on.

Writers–Beware the “they laughed uproariously at the joke.” trap. It ends up like a laugh track on a bad comedy. The reader shouldn’t need to be told when to laugh, or when to cry. Also look out for adverbs on your speaker attributions. They are also guilty of telling your reader how to react.

“I hate you!” she yelled angrilly.

You can pretty much gather this wasn’t whispered by the exclamation point. (Which is something else we’ll get to later). To quote the book “RESIST the URGE to EXPLAIN”. (R.U.E.) I have a big sign next to my comp that says this to remind me not to explain how every sentence sounds. Let your dialogue do the talking, that’s what it’s there for.

You can, of course, sprinkle a few adverbs in, because what’s a cracker without a little salt? Dry, that’s what. And without flavor. But try to stick to “saids” as much as you can. Think of them like periods, and use them accordingly. Not to say they should be used for everything (remember the cracker analogy?). You can go without any he said/she saids, or you can use actions to define whose speaking and how they feel.

“I hate you!” She slammed the door hard enough to rattle his teeth.

See?

Step Four: LOOK FOR REPEATS!

Critters–Sometimes, a writer is so focused on the current line, they totally forget the last one. Or the last paragragh. Or the last chapter. Or, God help us, the last book. I know, I do it all the time. Especially with names! Sweet lord, I was appalled when I realized that I had two people talking only to each other, and using each other’s name each time they spoke!

BTW, have you noticed all the each’s in that sentence? I’ll bet you did. Tiny things like that can drive a reader nuts, and the writer won’t even have a clue they did it. Again, I do it myself. OFTEN. Luckily, I had a Critter who was willing to point it out…with a 2X4 if necessary. Things to look for:

Is a word repeated more than once in a sentence? Or a paragragh? (Anything other than necessary prepositions, of course) Or a page? Again, don’t correct–point out. Otherwise, you’re doing your kid’s homework, and they aren’t learning for themselves.

Repeat this questioning for phrases. (I realized just recently noticed how often I use “ever present”) The one question in particular to add, are you using the same unusual words or phrases in different character’s POVs? Does the hero use the same phraseology as the heroine, despite the fact they have very different backrounds? Your CP will be most grateful if you point those out as well.

Writers–Nothing is more grating to a reader than repeated phrases. ESPECIALLY if made different by characters. I’ve seen books where the heroine wonders something to herself (Those kids must have residual battery packs she didn’t know about.), and later in the book, someone else says, “Those kids must have residual battery packs I don’t know about.” AVOID THIS LIKE THE PLAGUE!

Now, there are good exceptions–aren’t there always?

Sometimes, something can be an inside joke between the characters and the reader. A great example of this is Elizabeth Bevarly’s “Blame it on Bob!” series (Sihouette Desire) in which three best friends grow up in a small town visited every fifteen years by a comet lovingly referred to as “Bob”.

The third book centers on the “spinster” character, Kirby, whom everyone in town knows good and well is a virgin. References are made throughout the previous two books about Kirby not having a man of her own, and always end with the sentence: “Not that she hadn’t tried.” Not much else is said as to how she tried, but every time you see a comment about Kirby, you know what’s coming. And you’re smiling. (Not to mention peeing your pants waiting to get this book!)

Inside jokes can be a wonderful way for your characters to interface with your reader–but use sparingly. Like all other jokes, and all other repititions, they can be annoying when forced or overused.

Step Five: WATCH THE PUNCTUATION!

Writers–Be as chintzy with your exclamation points and italics as you can. Again, telling how something should be instead of showing. Show your excitement/anger with actions, not adverbs. As for italics, try to reserve for thought or translated language. If you truly need to stress a word in dialogue, okay. That’s fine. But make sure you need to!

Critters–This is your comeuppance! This is where you shine! As a writer, I can honestly say the last place we pay attention is to punctuation. Get it down, fix it later is the general thought process. But we often don’t see the forest for the trees, if you get my meaning. With all the words, we miss the punctuation because we’re lost in story. We know where the pauses are. You don’t, and that’s where Critters become invaluable. I know I’d never write another word if my Critter dropped me. So, just make sure you have your grammar down–and that you know how to use it in the type of romance you’re critting. (Contemporary has a few rules that can be bent. Sometimes, it’s okay to bend for flow or voice, your job is to make sure a writer doesn’t break it entirely!)

Step Six: TAKE YOUR TIME!

Critters–Make sure you have the time to do a crit before agreeing to do it. You should be able to read comfortably, even a little slower than usual, so that you can be thourough. Rushing through and missing important things is much worse than saying you don’t have the time.
Writers–never beat yourself up for taking too long (to write or to self-edit!). As my father often reminded us at the dinner table: “This ain’t no damn race!” The point is to do your best work, and do it before you give it to a Critter. After all, they’re readers too. They deserve the same respect you give a reader. Best feet forward!

If a possible Critter says they are unable to crit for you, don’t push it. They know their time constraints, and a guilty Critter rushing through your work so you don’t get mad at them won’t do your writing any good.

Step Seven: BE GRACIOUS!

Writers–If you don’t like the crit you got, it’s most likely because the Critter had a point. Enough points, and you’re sure your Critter is of the Porcupine family. But the best thing to do is to take what you can use, and discard the rest. Remember someone took the time to read this for you and try to help. If nothing else, it’s the thought that counts!

Critters–If the story is less than satisfactory (meaning that reading this is making your eyes cross and you’re getting sick of pointing the same error out over and over again), don’t get snippy. No need to kick a person when they’re down. You agreed to help, so be helpful. To save your sanity, instead of doing a line by line edit, do a general one. Point out what the most frequent and glaring errors are and report those. Stress that these need to be worked on before being given to another Critter. And remember, nicely!

Step Eight: (FOR WRITER’S ONLY) DON’T ABUSE YOUR CRITTERS!

You’ve given your Critter your work. They’ve given it back to you with suggestions and corrections you need to make. Don’t make them, then turn right around to be critted again. This isn’t a class, where you can make up a grade. Often times, Critters are Writers themselves, and unless you’re paying her, she has to have time to see to her own things. Critters, I’ve learned over hard time and experience, cannot be owned.

Step Nine: DON’T HASSLE!

Writers–Critters need time. As said above, they’ve got lives too, and unless they have a contract and some cash, you’ll just have to wait.

Critters–Writers need time, too. Sometimes, you are dying to read that next chapter–a good sign that the story is strong, BUT, ransom notes on expected crits are bad form. So is threatening the lives of the writers who dare to interrupt a love scene with a chapter break (Sorry Rae!). So, we’ll all work on our patience.

Step Ten: CRIT CIRCLE CAVEATS

I’ve never been a member of a circle, precisely. There are whole groups that trade chapters weekly. There are benefits and detractions from this type of critting. While you get a varied approach to the crit process, you also may be critted by people who don’t like or are unfamilliar with your category. The biggest danger is that crit circles can become a singular voice of criticism and “rules”. Everyone ends up sounding alike because they are stripping the individuality out of the writing to please the circle entire.

On the other hand, a good crit circle is invaluable. With more people to read, you see several points of view and can often be read by at least one member at any given time. But be sure to give as equally–and fairly–to each member’s work as you’d expect for your own.

Step Eleven: DON’T FEAR–OR BLAME–YOUR CRITTER!

Contrary to popular opinion, Critters are not gods. Their words cannot ban you from publication. They are not always right. And even if they know where you live, most critters will not hunt you down if you don’t take their advice.

Writer, you create your characters and your plots. Ultimately, the responsibility for their integrity is YOURS. When a story veers off course, even if it’s because a critter has recommended it, you can blame no one but yourself. Take care of your work, fight for it, if a Critter is right, they will have a good logical explanation for it. But should that explanation not be good enough for you, you do not need to apologize. Even if you make a mistake, it is better to be secure in your writing than dependent on the opinions of others, particularly a lot of others. That is not license to hold onto your possible errors with both hands. Make sure YOU have as good an argument for keeping things as you would expect from your Critter. Writing takes a strong spine, build it up wisely.

Step Twelve: LEAVING A CRITTER: TO DO OR NOT TO DO?

It’s not always easy to end a critting relationship. But a writer must be able to end a relationship that is no longer working for them without guilt. Many writer’s grow at different paces, be it due to more experience, more craft study or simply more time to write. There is also the destructive Crit Experience, which needs to be removed from your writing.

As with an agent, the writer/critter relationship needs to be a good fit. Unevenly yoked writers critting for each other can hamper both writer’s development. The more advanced writer might be held back or over-encouraged by the less developed, who might crit though rose colored glasses, tinted by awe. Or, they simply may not have the craft skill to see where more work is needed.

The Destructive Crit Experience is when a critter is not helpful, but always seems to have a “good” reason for telling you that your writing is failing to work. Like an abusive relationship, it takes courage to escape this kind of relationship, particularly if your CP is your friend.

Ending a critting relationship does not need to be the end of your friendship, if you don’t want it to be. You’ve heard this before, It’s all in the execution.

The best way to end a critting relationship is to let the critter know that you are moving on, in as kind a way as you can. Be sure to let them know that you appreciate what they have done for you and the time they have given, but that you will be seeking other avenues of critiquing. You do not have to tell them what those avenues will be, and I leave it to your discretion as to how many details you give them as to why. The important part is to be respectful, honest and if they put the screws to you, be firm in your decision. A fair person will respect your wishes. A destructive one may well take it personally and grow angry, but if that’s the case, you don’t want that person critting for you anyway.

The more common way of ending a critting relationship is to stop sending chapters and simply fade away. Unfortunately, this can end the relationship in every other way, as well. Before you use this avenue, be sure you are all right with what you are giving up. Critting is one thing, good friendships are another. Be clear with yourself about giving up both.

Hope this helps you all with your critting and crit-recieving!


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