CRITIQUING YOUR OWN STORIES (part one)

Must multitask...
Must multitask…

Whether you join a critique group or not, you need to know some basics about good storytelling that your 8th grade English teacher didn’t tell you. These will be helpful to you even if you’re not in a group, but they’re written as though you just joined my critique group and I’m about to read your story. Okay? Okay.

BTW, you should join a critique group. We talked about that HERE

https://savvystories.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/why-you-should-join-a-critique-group-you-arrogant-sob/

Later we’ll actually let a few of you submit a chapter for me to critique, and get the Dan Treatment, as it is known. Okay, I’m the only one who calls it that. I’ll be gentle. Probably. To do that, go to the Contact Me button and, well, contact me.

Let’s get started!

  1. WELCOME

Be nice! Welcome new people to your Critique Group. You’d be surprised at how seldom that happens, and how few writers think it’s their job to make somebody feel at home. It’s everybody’s job. You could become friends with the next Hemingway. Think about that.

I usually say:

Thanks for submitting a story with few or no punctuation issues – that’s kind of rare in the “newbie queue.” If the crits spend their time addressing little typos that are easy to catch, they’ll use up all their energy on that and not helping you build a better story.

Usually I add:

Keep in mind that each reader brings their own likes and dislikes to your story, and not everyone will get it. What appeals to a custom cabinet maker in California may not be what appeals to a retired chemistry teach in Michigan, but they both might read your story.

I also usually add:

If a person in a Critique Group can’t deliver their message without coming off as harsh, consider why they are here and whether their input is worth receiving. I don’t mean we need to sugar coat things; I mean we can use the written word to inspire people to become better writers, or we can use it to degrade and humiliate them. You can decide which works best for you. It’s the internet; some people are here to vent their venomous dark souls and make hopeful writers feel inadequate – or to drum up business for their editing service. Look for the constructive things in what they say, even if they deliver the message poorly. But there will be a fair amount to disregard altogether.

I usually end with:

Nice job! Not everyone can write a decent story; it takes something extra to put your written stuff out there for others to see, and you did that. If you do it in an interesting and readable fashion – which you have done – you are already better than 90% of writers in a critique group. When it comes to crits, most hate anything with unique style. Look at the stories they post and see if their style of writing is interesting to you. If not, ignore a lot of what they have to say. Most of the harshest crits can’t assemble an interesting story.

If I liked the story:

The story flows well. The dialog consists of things people would actually say. That’s very good.

Wow…

Yep, they get all that from me when I read their first story. That’s a lot of information and it sets their expectations. I wish somebody had done that for me when I first joined a critique group.

Of course, if I didn’t like the story, I leave out things the things above that indicate I liked it, and focus on other things. Maybe it has good dialog, or interesting characters. If it has poor punctuation, I don’t say it doesn’t. You get the idea. But I want to look for things done well and emphasize that. They’ll get enough crits that don’t.

When I see something amiss, I address it nicely. A critique is a method of telling somebody what they did right and what they did wrong, only the stuff that’s wrong is where I’m going to redo it or rearrange it or rewrite it or make suggestions as how to change it, which definitely implies that it didn’t work for me. Why beat them up? If you’re helping them, act like it.

  1. GRABBER OPENINGS

I like a “grabber” opening to a story or chapter, and a cliffhanger ending. Of course, that’s not always possible or even desirable. Most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in, and they should usually end their story a few lines before they actually end it. IF YOU CAN LEARN TO DO THIS IN YOUR OWN WRITING PEOPLE WILL LOVE IT!

It’s not easy, but go find the most interesting paragraph in chapter 1, and then find the most interesting sentence in that paragraph. Have THAT be your opening sentence. It’s a way of building around important, exciting stuff.

If you can create a cliffhanger ending to the chapter – leave a huge question asked but unresolved – readers will love you. They’re strange that way. As writers, we write the chapter until we answer a question. Instead, stop early, so the reader has to turn the page and start the next chapter to get the answer, or answer one question and ask another one. Stories that do this are known as page turners. Readers love them, saying nice things like “I couldn’t put it down!” Yeah, that’s not because the binder glue didn’t set or because they spilled their Coke on the eReader.

  1. DIALOG TAGS

A lot of crits will go on and on about dialog tags. They don’t bother me too much, but apparently it’s the preferred way of writing these days. So little phrases like “he said” are to be eliminated.

What I do is, I write what I want, and then I go back and look for all the she said or he said stuff, and just replace it with some small action. Like a game. The point is, we know people are talking, we just need to subtly know who, and since nobody sits around JUST talking, the little actions make them more alive – and therefore make a better story. You delete needless words and enhance your characters, a win-win. So it can be this way

“You gonna go back home?” I asked him.

or

I looked over at him. “You gonna go back home?”

or

I looked down the street.  “You gonna go back home?”

See? Like I said, they don’t bother me, but some crits will insist you eliminate them all. I think it’s worth removing most of them simply because they aren’t needed, and because replacing them with little actions makes the story read better.

  1. LONG DIALOGS OR SPEECHES

Long strings of dialog/conversations/speeches are a good way to explain things or show your characters, but they also convey telling actions. Again, people don’t just speak back and forth; they move. They listen and react, shift their weight, drop their jaw, scratch their face, that sort of thing. They have thoughts about what’s being said. If they like what they hear, they might smile; if not, they might bite their fingernails. Let them do this. It tells us more while keeps the story flowing and interesting.

MORE on writing better dialog HERE

https://savvystories.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/a-dialog-exercise-for-writers/

  1. CRITS ALSO HATE ADVERBS and so does Stephen King, so they will drone on and on about not using them. Look for them (usually words that end in –ly) and reword accordingly. Usually it improves the writing. A lot.
  1. PROLOGUES

Consider whether you need a prologue at all. My guess is you don’t. You can reveal the information in your prologue over the course of the story, through dialogs and other ways, and you may not need it at all. Maybe you as the author needed to write it as a reference for yourself, but we readers probably don’t need it to understand and enjoy your story. It’s usually an info dump, and we talked about those HERE

https://savvystories.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/take-a-info-dump/

Want me to critique the first chapter of your story? SEND IT. Hit the Contact Me button and, you know, contact me. I’ll see what I can do.

TOMORROW we’ll get into reading critiques, tips for writing action scenes, and other stuff, but right now you want to subscribe to this blog and not miss another valuable bauble that falls from my fingertips. SUBSCRIBE TODAY (click the follow “Follow” button, above) and I’ll send you a free copy of my amazingly cute book “The Short Years” plus we’ll probably become friends and start hanging out and stuff.

Dan Alatorre is the author of numerous bestsellers that are not cookbooks. Also some that are.
Dan Alatorre is the author of numerous bestsellers that are not cookbooks. Also some that are.

If you benefit from this blog, share it with your friends!

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Alatorre/e/B00EUX7HEU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1425128559&sr=1-1 and check back often for interesting stuff.

15 thoughts on “CRITIQUING YOUR OWN STORIES (part one)

  1. These are great suggestions and would serve well as guidelines for any critique group!

    Something for writers to consider–following your steps to critique their own stories before submitting them to a critique group will force their critiquers to dig deeper. They will be more likely to comment on things like continuity, flow, pace, character inconsistencies, an so on. (Since the usual points have already been addressed) Feedback from others on these types of issues is an invaluable resource for the writer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great point, CJ!

      I recently had a new author submit a chapter and he made a comment about “Don’t worry about the punctuation and spelling errors, I’ll pay an editor to fix all that.”

      I explained that those errors make it harder for a reader to read, including a crit, but that by making such a comment, he was obviously NOT putting forth his best efforts (really, how hard is doing a spell check?) and that he would appear lazy and arrogant. It was like saying “You people aren’t worth cleaning this up for, but please read and analyze my work and give me your best, most effective feedback.”

      Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.

      Of course he had no idea (think about that – a writer who was completely unaware of how his audience would receive his written words) and he apologized (to me – not necessary), but he didn’t get a lot of critiques.

      So he didn’t get the help he wanted, and he made a bad first impression. Oh well, he’ll do better next time. But he could have done well the first time, and that was a waste of valuable time on his part.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great tips!
    When I recieve encouraging critiques from aspiring writers and successful authors, it fuels my passion. These suggestions will definitely help pay that encouragement forward.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree, Jenny. Encouragement fuels everybody.

    These things are part of what I was referring to when I mentioned (a while ago) to develop a group to work with. Read each other’s stuff and help each other. Hopefully, we all learn something and will all be successful with our writing. You’ve read some of my stuff and found things to correct (tense issues or verb inconsistencies, you’ve suggested hyphen where they don’t belong and occasionally demanded single quotation marks for some bizarre reason), but having a few valued critique partners take the time to give input as the story develops, that makes a huge difference too. Being able to suggest that a writer expand something, or delete something, and then seeing it done that way in the published work, that’s always a WOW moment for me!

    You and another author friend are coming up on your editing phase, and both of you want to hire editors which is a decision I respect. You can help each other search and maybe find a better deal by offering a two book situation. Keep me in the loop, and maybe i can help or learn or pass along the name. Since I literally just wrote this next helpful tip down for her, I’m going to copy paste it here and also use it as an upcoming blog post. Let’s see who’s paying attention.

    (The time to shop for editors is soon, not when the book is finished, or when you send the book out to beta readers, that’s when you could start shopping for editors. An editor will have a backlog and a schedule, too.)

    Me, I’d have a friend like you edit, or help edit. Catch spelling and tense issues, make a few suggestions and whatever else you bring to the table. That way, the title you edit gets you listed on Amazon and begins to develop ways for you to be found, and more book helps you look more established (and makes my book look more professional).

    How does that work? The edited book (title) would appear when people search your name, so if you help a few authors with a few books, you’d already have a few books showing on your Amazon page when you actually release your first book!

    On my page, The Grandfather Tree is a book I helped edited with another author, so it shows up as a title on both of our author pages and NEITHER of us wrote it – sneaky, huh? For that reason, I’m big into trading favors, so when I help somebody they’ll help me and vice versa.

    Paying an editor is a good idea, ad I recommend it, so I respect that. When you’re ready, I can help you with that process. They want samples sent to them, and I’ve done that a few times.

    For me, between my critique group, beta readers, and a few friends, I’m thinking that’s as good as an edit, and it helps new authors get established and start making money in this business, and build lasting relationships I hope lead to all of us toasting each other in some swanky New York literary club as we wait to receive our awards.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really enjoy learning about the business side of writing.

      That’s another reason why I love online writing communities so much! As an aspiring author, it’s great to feel like I have someone who’s published their work successfully in my corner!!

      BTW, Beta-readers has a hyphen.

      Just ‘joking.’

      Liked by 1 person

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