Friday, July 24, 2015

Why Writers Need to Critique

Before I launch into my whole blog post thing, I need to announce that midnight TONIGHT is the deadline for my short story contest. So, if you’ve written one, I need it in my inbox ( by that time, unless you’ve specifically contacted me about an extension.

So ends the announcement, now for the post you actually came to read:
Have you ever received a critique? Did it shake your to your core, or make you want to tear your novel apart? Did it help you grow in your writing?
If the answer is yes to any and all of those questions (especially the last one… if the answer is no to the last one, then we need to have a talk and critique exchange, yes?), then you know critiques are helpful.

So what if I told you that it works the other way, too? I am here today, standing on my internet soapbox, to tell you that critiquing can help your writing become stronger.


Yes, I know, it’s a fascinating, disturbing idea. I mean, critiques are hard work. The real ones are, anyway.

Before we discuss why critiquing can help you grow as a writer, it might be helpful to discuss how to critique. Thus, my “Five Bullet Points About Critiques” (Such a handy little name, hm? The FBPAC.):

  • Ask for specific questions. Whenever you critique, ask the writer what they want you to look at. Ask for questions like “what do you think of [character]?” or “how is the pacing in [section]?”. These questions will help fuel your critique, and will give the author useful information

  • Answer these specific questions specifically. This might seem obvious, but when the author asks a question, answer it. But don’t just answer “I liked the character” or “The pacing was slow”. Be very, very detailed in your answers. Make them as long as possible without being redundant. Launch into why you liked the character, or why you thought the pacing was slow. If applicable, find examples in the writing (such as slow moments or great character handles) that support your thought. After all, it is just your opinion, and the author probably wants some proof.

  • Read the excerpt twice. I know novels/chapters/scenes can be long, but trust me, this is worth it. The first time, just read it. Don’t comment, although it’s all right to make a little notation where you know you want to. This will get the story in your mind. Then, equipped with this first read, go through and add notes as necessary. This will clear up any confusion you might have, and possibly help you notice when confusion isn’t cleared up.
  • The Sandwich structure. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it mine. But it’s a good idea. Negative comments in a critique are necessary. Without them, no one will ever grow in their writing. However, they can be difficult to deal with. So, “sandwich” each negative comment with more positive feedback. Even if the negative is “I think you can cut this entire scene”, simple compliments like “Nice verb!” and “Good character reaction!” can help soften the blow of “get rid of this garbage, imbecile”.
  • Be kind. So, that last sentence wasn’t very nice: “get rid of this garbage, imbecile”. NEVER, EVER SAY THAT. Even when you’re not critiquing, just avoid calling people imbeciles. It is good to include negatives in your critique (almost necessary), but use soft words in them, yes?

There, now that that’s over, let’s get to why it’s beneficial to you.
Actually, let’s have another bullet list, eh? 

-Your eyes will be opened to the mistakes in your own writing. It’s easy to notice when someone else is using too many passive verbs in their writing. If you point it out enough, then you’ll start to see it in your own writing as well. It’s a chance for you to learn what mistakes there are and how to fix them. Beneficial, yes?

-You will make a connection. The publishing industry is a lot about who you know. So, isn’t doing a favor to someone a way of “getting in” with them? Helping them prepare their draft for publication might mean they’ll be willing to help you as well. The world of writing is about helping each other along. Few can make it alone. Critiquing is an easy way to make those connections.

-It’s fun! You get to read what might become a popular novel before it’s even published. You are given the privilege to see into someone’s dream before it’s even finished. They’re opening themselves up to you and you get to respond. Human interaction at its finest.

I love to critique. It’s something I’ve enjoyed ever since I started (although I must say, my first critiques were pretty… unhelpful. Yeah, let’s go with that word…) and I continue to enjoy it to this day.

What about you? Do you enjoy giving critiques? Why or why not? Leave a comment and share!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Writers Need Critiques

A few weeks ago, I talked about why writers need writers. And then last week, I talked about critiques, and offered free ones through a contest (which you can still enter, the deadline is next Friday). Today, I’d like to take the time to draw these two things together.

Imagine you have a finished manuscript. It’s a good story, you think, and you want to try and publish it.
That’s great. Brilliant. Fantastic.

But how do you know what needs to be fixed first?
Well, you could go through and edit it. Easy enough. But is that enough? Will your own, biased eyes catch every plot hole, boring dialogue, poorly equipped minor villains, cliché epilogue, unengaging beginning, and every single passive verb?


So, maybe you get your mom to read it. Or your dad/cousin/best friend/boyfriend/dog from next door. They aren’t a writer, but they’ll give you their opinion, right?
Chances are your mother will give you a list of spelling errors and all the places you used a fragment. That’s great; now you don’t need a proof editor.
Your dad and boyfriend will appreciate your action scenes, and your dad will cry when the hero forgives his wayward father.
The dog next door won’t say much of anything. Naturally, it will bark excitedly and eat the paper, but it won’t give much feedback beyond a bark for more. Must be a good sign, right?

While readers who aren’t writers are great (for instance, my dad is always one of the first people I let read my manuscripts and he's ready to give his honest opinion), the best sort of help you can get is from other writers. They know what you’re going through, and they know what you’re looking for when you want a critique.

This term might scare you. It probably conjures up mental images like bleeding red ink, torn up manuscripts, and a black and white video of you huddling in a corner crying.
However, critiques don’t have to be scary. In fact, they can be fabulous. Whenever I read a critique of my work, I feel very excited and energized, even when the critique is saying something negative about my manuscript.

But what if you still feel terrified by the idea of showing your work to someone who knows what they’re talking about?
Well, let me give you a few tips for looking at a critique:

-This critique is a personal opinion. The critic of your work is not the all-powerful god figure of the writing world. This person is not the law, and even when their words come across as “you should NEVER DO THIS”, what they’re really saying is “I don’t think this works here, and I’ve never seen it work anywhere else.” If this is an experienced writer, then you should put a little more weight to their words. Always take opinions with a grain of salt. Do some research; see if other writers tend to agree with what they say.

-This critique is not attacking you. Often times, people will get defensive when they read a critique. I’ve seen some take a critique personally.
Don’t do this.
It makes the critic feel bad (sometimes, unless they have tough skin), and it’s an improper reaction.
When you offer something up for critique, the critic is assuming you want honest answers. They aren’t trying to attack you personally, but make your writing better. They’re there to help you. Let them. Please?

-This critique is useful. Every critique, even those praising you and nothing else, can be used to make your manuscripts better. Take the advice that helps, discard what does not.

Critiques are wonderful things. They can and will help you become a better writer, if you let them. Next week, I’ll talk about how you can critique other’s work, and why it’s helpful to you as well as to others.

And remember! Deadline for my short story contest is Friday, July 24th! It’s never too late to enter, and everyone wins!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Story Forger: Forging Short Stories

Last week, I ended with this rather vague paragraph: “tune in next time for an important announcement! It might possibly involve me giving out free critiques and things. Possibly.”

Yeah, I’m pretty good at vague.

Regardless of my ability to be vague, today is the day for an important announcement: I am giving away free critiques. This is in preparation for my next series of posts, which will be about critiquing.

Qualifications: I add this because sometimes people like to know that someone is qualified for something they want to do. For instance, I’m about to give you my qualifications for critiques, just so those few who want to know them have them. (Please take careful note of how clear those two sentences were, and feel free to admire them and their specificity. Also note sarcasm as necessary.)

First and foremost, I have critiqued seven full novels and fifty or more chapters from other manuscripts. These critiques have ranged from broader critiques (e.g. “what do you think of the overall plot, and this character?”) to more in-depth critiques (e.g. Sentence flow, plot hole-picking, emotions, etc.) to the full on editorial (e.g. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, prose flow, and once I helped with formatting).

Secondly, I have received critiques on four manuscripts (some full, some not) from roughly two dozen people. I add this so that you know I’ve been on the other side of the critique. I know that crumpling feeling in your soul when someone says “I don’t really understand where this theme is going” or “I’m really annoyed by this character”. Been there, done that. 

Lastly, I placed second in a “critique contest” held on the One Year Adventure Novel forum, a contest hosted and judged by the creator of said curriculum. Just to throw that out there.

Now, back to business. Today, I’m starting a contest. Yup, one of those things where I, the blogger, encourage you, the reader, to do something for my amusement. You get a reward out of the deal, supposedly. But then, if you really consider something a contest, then someone loses. Someone doesn’t get a reward.

Losers are for… losers.

So today, there will be no losers. This contest will have a winner and second and third placers and even honorable mentions, but it will not have losers.

These are rather important, aren’t they?
Basically, I’m going to give you a prompt or two, a word limit, and a reward. After that, it’s up to you. I want you to write a short story based on what I give you, and then want you to send it to me.

Right. Details:
1. The prompts are as follows (you may use any or all of the prompts).

-use these words somewhere in the story: “Today I spilled my coffee. Someone is going to die.”

-this picture:

-or incorporate a dead dragon into the story. No one knows how it died, but it’s dead, and it’s in the story, somehow.

2. The minimum wordcount must be 1,500. I’d appreciate it if you keep the story below 5,000 words, since I have to read all of them. If you have 5,001 words, I’ll probably string you up and leave you for the birds. (Okay, I won’t. Ten lashings with a wet noodle, instead!)

3. Your story will be read (by me), and will be looked over for:
-emotional connection between reader and main character
-strong conflict
-steady pacing
-impactful resolution
-incorporation of the prompt(s) in clever ways.
I will not be looking for anything related to grammar or spelling, so don’t worry too much about those. This won’t be a final draft-type story.

4. You win!
I will choose a winner, second, third, and potentially honorable mentions from those stories sent in. But as I mentioned before, there will be not losers.
The winner will receive: A critique of their short story (which, if they allow it, will be posted sometime in the near future), and a critique of 5,000-7,000 words of one of their manuscripts.
Second place will get: A critique of their short story (which, if they allow it, will be posted sometime in the near future), and a critique of 3,000-5,000 words of one of their manuscripts.
Third place will be bestowed upon by: A critique of their short story (which, blah blah blah), and a critique of 1,500-3,000 words of one of their manuscripts.
After that, everyone who enters will receive: A summary critique of their short story (not to be posted in the near future), and a critique of 1,000-2,500 words of one of their manuscripts.

Eesh. What have I gotten myself into?

Ahem. More details:
5. The deadline to send your short story to me is Friday, July 24th (of this year, 2015, obviously). That gives you two weeks to write, polish, and submit. Exceptions can be made, but I’d rather not make them. Wizard may always arrive precisely when they mean to, but I’d rather you mean your story to arrive precisely on the deadline or before it.
6. Please send all submissions to Even if you have other ways of contacting me, I’d rather receive all entries via this email. Put “Forging Short Stories” in the subject line, and put the story in the body of the email. Please refrain from attaching the short story. No other information will be required of you until later (for instance, if you win one of the top three awards, then I’ll email you about information I’ll need for that, and all entries will need to send me an excerpt of the correct length).
7. Remember, just because I chose not to give you one of the top three spots doesn’t mean your short story is bad. In fact, there will probably be several fabulous stories that won’t make it to the top three. You just wrote a short story. Pride yourself in that, regardless of what rank I don’t give you.
8. Oh. That’s it. Oops.

I look forward to reading your short stories!
(Oh, and if you could leave a comment if you mean to try and write a short story, that’d be great; then I’ll now just what I got myself into.)

Friday, July 3, 2015

5 Reasons not to let the Hero Win

Does the hero of your story win?
I should hope so; that’s what your readers want, and your job as a writer is to give people what they want, right?

Well, yes and no.
If you gave people what they wanted, then they’d complain. “It was too easy”, they’ll say, or “it was soooo predictable!”
You certainly don’t want that.

However, if you don’t give people what they want, then they won’t like your story at all. If your hero wins too easily, then reader will feel cheated. Yet the hero losing would send audiences into fits of rage. (As a side note, a lot of Asian movies set in the past will deal with heroes who die and/or lose. These stories may seem nihilistic, but when you consider what was gained in the loss, these stories become beautiful.)

So how do we get a balance? When is it not okay for the hero to win?

Enter: five answers 

     1. Dues ex Machina. This queer little Latin phrase is commonly heard among critics and speakers at writing conferences. It means “god in the machine”. When applied to literature/theatre, the ‘god’ reference is literally you, the author. The ‘machine’ is the story. So, when someone says “the ending was a little Dues Ex Machina”, they’re saying the author was clearly involved in making the story end the way it did.

Your hero should never win because of Dues Ex Machina (nor should they lose because of it, but I’ve never seen that happen). A convenient car, bomb, sword, treasure map, decoding of the villain’s secret language, uber-powerful magic/magical artifacts, cats, dogs, flying things (including eagles, owls, and dragons), and any other item/entity which appears just in the nick of time to save the hero without any form of foreshadowing or preparation on the hero’s part is Dues Ex Machina. 

Don’t do it.

It’s really that simple. If you have Dues Ex Machina in your novel, cut it out. Burn it with fire (ceremonial or otherwise). And if it means your hero having to work extra hard to win, then all the better.

     2. Too many villains. I’ve read a few books with what I call PVS (Plethora of Villains Syndrome). Basically, the main villain(s) have an army that numbers in the literal millions and each of the minions is near invincible.
Somehow, by the end of this four hundred page book, the hero manages to come out with maybe a missing finger and a limp.

It’s one thing if said hero has a faithful Samwise, the hosts of Gondor as a diversion, and the ability to kill the evil overlord just by losing aforementioned finger and pushing a shriveled old man off a cliff into lava, but it’s quite another thing when said hero is working all alone, excepting his girlfriend who just happens to be pretty good with a revolver.

No hero can fight the good fight alone. So, naturally, we give him a girlfriend, a dorky ally (I’m going to address Allies in August, so stay tuned), and a wizened mentor who dies in chapter twenty-two. But is that enough?
Well, the villain has mutated his human soldiers into half-dragon robots, so…
Let’s give the hero a few random bystanders.
There. Good enough.

Proceed with an epic battle in which somehow the hero, the ally, and the girlfriend all make it to the end.

(Best answer I could find)
If there are too many villains, you have two options: one, cut out half of them. Two, make the hero work harder. Personally, I like the second option, but if there’s half a million cyborg dragon men on the loose, then it might be time to shrink the villains’ plans a little.

     3. The Price is too Great. One of the most commonly accepted ‘rules of thumb’ in writing is that the hero must sacrifice to win.
While I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, sometimes people take it too far.
If the hero has to lose their entire family, village, their dog, their cat, their girlfriend, their friend, their mentor, their other friend, their king, their country, their king and country, their arm, their leg, the feeling in their right eyelid, and be banished forever, then something is wrong.

The price to win should be great. It should be so great that the audience needs to consider whether or not the price is worth it. But when the price is paid, and the hero wins, do we really feel like all those things needed to be paid? I mean, come on, let the poor guy keep the feeling in his right eyelid, at least!
I’m done talking about this, but for a good example of when the Price becomes too Great, check out this post on Suffering in Writing.

     4. Unresolved Subplots. Does your book have an epilogue? How far into the future is it? And what percentage of the epilogue (or last chapter) is explaining away all the plot holes and subplots that didn’t get explained in the first forty chapters?
If the answers are yes, more than two years, and more than 15%, then the hero can’t win yet.
Subplots and plot holes can’t be fixed by using 95% of an epilogue to tell the reader “then this person got married, this person dueled his brother, and they both shot each other in the head, and mentor actually did die when he fell of the cliff”.
The reader comes to your book needing to be satisfied at the end of the second to last chapter.
I say second to last, because the last chapter (or epilogue) is there to reinforce our contentment. It’s there to give us good feelings about the future for this character (or bad feelings, if there’s a sequel). Therefore, most of your subplots need to be resolved before the last chapter. One or two can still hang around to keep us asking questions until the end, but 4-24 is pushing it. And plot holes need to be eradicated, not explained away.

     5. Twisting clichés. This might be one of my favorite things to do.
Let me give you an example:
Last November, I wrote a book with NaNoWriMo, called Asher’s Song. It just barely qualified as a novel in its first draft, coming in at ~53,000 words. It’s a dystopian-steampunk, and, based on that first word, might qualify for some hazard signs. There’s a cliché rebellion against the government, a cliché government which lies about things, and a slightly cliché main character who sets out to reveal what the government is lying about.
By the end of this first draft, I had him reveal the secret, and blah blah blah happy ending.
When I came back to rewrite it, I realized it didn’t feel complete. For one thing, there were a few subplots I never resolved (yay NaNo). Secondly, I had tried to avoid the clichés of dystopian novels, but fell into several.
So in the rewrite, I came up with an idea. What if the government was right?
*existential crises as the conservatives ponder what this means*
The idea sounded fabulous to me, so I wrote it. It turned out wonderfully, if I do say so myself. Suddenly the book was thirteen chapters and thirty-two thousand words longer.
Does your novel feel cliché? Does the ending not feel right?
Flip the ending on its head.
Maybe your character found a treasure map and then finds the treasure.
Flip the cliché around. The map doesn’t lead to treasure, instead it leads to an empty cave, or maybe nothing at all. Maybe the character learns that treasure isn’t just a pile of gold in an ancient chest.

How about this one:  the kingdom is overturned, and the displaced prince(ss) fights to regain the throne.
In the end, the prince/princess wins, and the evil uncle who usurped them is killed/imprisoned/banished.
Instead of boring us, flip it around and try something new:
The prince or princess is overturned in a rebellion and must learn to live as an outcast commoner, never to regain the throne.
Possibilities for a story like that are endless, because it’s not a common storyline. The character could learn to be content with what life throws at them, learn that power isn’t everything, that life in the lower classes isn’t so bad after all.

When your story ends, does the hero win?
I sure hope so.
Every story needs a hero who wins.
Even the story of your own life needs a hero who wins. Are you winning?

(Wow what a cheesy end. *wince* Let me try something different: tune in next time for an important announcement! It might possibly involve me giving out free critiques and things. Possibly.)