If you enter my Word Weaver Writing Contest, I’ll be critiquing the first 25 entries. That’s super helpful, to have a bestselling author give you some input. Just ask anyone. Or ask folks like THESE, who thought it was helpful.
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 entered my writing contest or joined my critique group and I’m about to read your story. Okay? Okay.
BTW, you should join a critique group – mine or another one. We talked about that HERE.
These are things for you to watch for as you write and revise your masterpiece. It’s part editing, part critiquing. As I read your story/chapter/whatever, I’ll see lots and lots of other things I like and stuff I think can be improved on, and I’ll point those out, too, but let’s begin at, you know – the beginning.
Okay, let’s get started!
Whether you are in one of those free online critique groups or reading a friend’s story, be nice! If you’ve been in your critique group for a while, welcome new people to it. 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 – and for purely selfish reasons. 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 (people who critique your story) 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.
If this sounds familiar to any of you, it’s because it’s part of the letter I send you when you enter my writing contest and get selected to be critiqued by me.
Usually I add:
Keep in mind that each reader brings their own likes and dislikes to your story, and not everyone will get it. (NOTE: THIS IS THE KEY TO WRITING. At least it’s the key to writing without going insane.)
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, especially in a critique group.
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 there – and whether their input is worth receiving.
I’m serious about that. 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. But
- Look for the constructive things in what they say, even if they deliver the message poorly. And
- There will be a fair amount to disregard altogether.
I usually end my critique 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.
I don’t say stuff that’s not true. If I didn’t like the story, I’ll say so in a nice way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good; it just means it’s not for me.
HOW TO FIND CRITIQUE PARTNERS:
When it comes to crits in a free online critique group, 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 in free online critique groups can’t assemble an interesting story.
(and this is even better)
Read a story by person A and then see whose critiques (by persons B, C, and D, etc.) you agree with – and whose you don’t. Who got the jokes you thought were funny? Who pointed out stuff you were saying Aha to? And who – because you read a story by someone else and critiques from people you don’t know and don’t know you were gonna read them – has a style you’d like to receive input from?
- DON’T look for fans or softies who just tell you what you wanna hear.
- DO look for someone who’ll give it to you straight, right between the eyes, but, you know – nicely.
Your goal is to improve as a writer, not make friends. (Making friends is a nice side benefit, though.)
If I liked the story:
If I like what you wrote, I’ll tell you some nice stuff like these comments.
The story flows well. The dialog consists of things people would actually say. That’s very good.
Yep, there’s stuff to like in EVERY story, so why not tell the author what you enjoyed? 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 free online 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. I’m not here to lie to you. 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.
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.
I like a “grabber” opening to a story or chapter, and a cliffhanger ending. Most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in. They get wordy or take a while to get up and running. 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!
WHERE SHOULD I START MY STORY?
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.
WHERE DO I END MY CHAPTER?
Writers mess this up all the time. Don’t be one of the folks who mess up.
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, then we stop. It’s natural. There was a problem; we addressed it. Time for a break.
No, no, no, no, NO!
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.
By the way, cliffhangers rock at the end of a chapter, not at the end of the book.
DIALOG TAGS = Also NO
A lot of crits will go on and on about dialog tags. They don’t bother me too much (J. K. Rowling uses them constantly, as did Lucy), but apparently going tagless is 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.
I looked over at him. “You gonna go back home?”
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.
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
and they show that thought process physically.
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.
NO LOVE FOR ADVERBS, EITHER
Crits 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.
PROLOGUES – also to be tossed out with the bath water
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 dialogues 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, so write it, but we readers probably don’t need it to understand and enjoy your story. It’s usually an info dump, and those are bad.
Okay, that’s enough for today, but before I let you go
here’s the BIGGEST Tip about self editing:
LET THE STORY REST
Take a few days off if it’s a chapter, a few weeks of if it’s a manuscript, but go away for a while and don’t even peek at your story.
I discuss why HERE at length, but the bottom line is, you will not be seeing the mistakes until you spend a little time away from what you wrote. The longer you go away, the more you see when you come back – and the more objective your editor eye will be. You want that. So let it rest.
Want me to critique the first chapter of your story? SEND IT. Join my Word Weaver Writing Contest and send me your stuff. If you aren’t one of the first 25 entries (and by now you probably aren’t), just write please, please, please in the subject line. I may take pity on you.
I’ll have other posts during the week, but NEXT SUNDAY 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.
If you benefit from this blog, share it with your friends!