Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Art and Craft of Critiques

Marta Stephens (Guest blogger)

Marta Stephens is the author of Silenced Cry, first in the Sam Harper series.

The first time I submitted one of my manuscripts for critique, I did so knowing
I had taken the story as far as I could. I also felt that it was in good shape and close to completion. But when I read the comments, I realized I was mistaken. My fellow authors found scads of errors and inconsistencies that resulted in cutting and adding chapters and several months of rewrites.

A solid critique provides the author an honest review with constructive feedback, offers valid suggestions to improve the work, provides examples, and offers a good dose of encouragement.

So when asked if I allow others to read my work in progress I respond with an emphatic, “Yes.” I rely on the experienced fresh pair of eyes to tell me if I have adequately developed my characters and the plot. Are the scenes and dialogue believable? Does the opening paragraph pull the reader in, or does it read like a bad diary entry? Does my narrative drag? Are the chapter endings page-turners or turn offs?

On occasion, I may disagree with a suggested change, but I consider each comment to understand what really bothered the reader. Someone else’s observation often reveals an amazing new perspective. An example of this was when a fellow author read the first few chapters of my work in progress. I intended for my female character to be a strong-willed individual. She is driven, spunky, and the perfect counter balance to my male protagonist. Yet my critique partner interpreted the character’s actions as those of someone who is somewhat of a scatterbrain. Shock! To make matters worse, she couldn’t understand the character’s motivation. A double whammy!

My first reaction was to balk; I knew she was wrong. After reading through her comments several times, however, I decided to walk away from that scene for a few days and study it later from a reader’s point of view. Of course, she was right on target. The problem wasn’t the character though; it was me. I knew the character well. She is key to the plot and can’t be anything less than strong and assertive. I assumed the reader would pick up on her traits. But I had been so wrapped up in recording my thoughts that my mind raced ahead of the typing without taking time to develop the character as I should. Once I understood the problem, it was an easy fix, but I doubt I would have seen the omission without someone pointing it out. Whether it’s a matter of changing a few words or several paragraphs, the tweaking always strengthens the prose and occasionally spins the scene in an unexpected direction.

Be cautious of the reader who tends to rewrite your story or tries to change your writing style. That’s not the intent of a critique. No one knows the characters or the plot better than the author, therefore, the secret to accepting someone’s suggestions is to selectively listen and use only the valid information.

I keep the following in mind when I edit my work:

Don’t describe every detail about a character in the first paragraph. Allow the reader to engage his or her imagination and get to know the character a little bit at a time. When we meet people, we don’t learn everything about them in the first hour. Similarly, characters should come to life gradually through dialogue, actions, reactions, and through the eyes and words of the other characters.

For a tense scene that needs to show urgency, use short, abrupt sentences. Don’t kill the suspense with flowery prose, exposition, or excessive internal dialogue.

Pace it. Dialogue speeds the prose. After a fast-paced section, slow things down and give the reader a breather through some carefully written narrative. Narration can be used as a transitional tool to get the reader from one scene to the next or when the prose needs to slow down. However, if not done correctly, the writer will risk turning the narration into information dump sites in which the he or she tells the readers all they need to know. If the narration describes an important turn of events, convert it into a scene between characters. Remember that dialogue is far more interesting and engages the reader’s emotions rather than the intellect.

Show, don’t tell. Two of my favorite quotes to drive this home are:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." --Chekhov

"Don't tell me about the tragedies of war; show me the child's shoe discarded by the side of the road." --author unknown

Need I say more?

Don’t let dialogue turn into exposition, when a character speaks for the sake of informing the reader.

Separate one character’s words and actions from another character through paragraph breaks. No exceptions.

Dialogue attribution—stick to “said” written after the proper noun or pronoun. If the character is excited, show it through his or her words and actions, not the attribution.

Replace tags with beats as an alternate way to vary the dialogue and show action. “Tom, where’s Hank?” Her gaze dropped to the dark red stain sprayed across the front of his shirt. She met his eyes and shook her head. “How could you?”

Look for repetition of words or information to avoid redundancy. If you’ve communicated the information well, once should be enough. When the reader needs to be reminded of an event that happened several chapters before, find a fresh way to relay the information.

Get rid of attribute adverbs, “ly” words, that tell the reader how the character said something and replace them with action verbs. Instead of “He angrily punched the pillow,” try “He slammed a fist into the pillow.”

Avoid “ing” words. Make it active. Instead of: “He was walking to the store.” Try: “He walked to the store.”

Know when to end your chapter. You’ve written a great chapter, you’ve come up with a fantastic twist for a page-turning ending. You’re certain it will shove the reader to the edge of the chair while he turns the page. Don’t ruin the suspense by writing two or three more paragraphs explaining how the character feels. The reader doesn’t need, or care at this point, what the character does next. If you have to explain it, rewrite it.

Writing is an on-going learning process and the critique is an excellent way for an author to know if he or she is on track. Don’t accept rude or cruel comments, but to expect anything less than an honest, straightforward, and constructive critique, is a waste of everyone’s time.

Experience has changed my attitude toward and expectations of a critique. Initially, I looked to others for encouragement. Now I question the light critique that doesn’t catch inconsistencies, point out technical problems, or question a character’s motives. I’m no less sensitive or thicker-skinned than I was before. A harsh critique can still be as painful as a swift kick in the shins, but my focus is on pushing my writing to the next level. Although the occasional pat on the back feels great, an honest critique is the only way to advance the skill.

Visit Marta’s web site at


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great blog, Marta. It's not only that the ending needs to stop exactly where it packs the most punch. The beginning needs to start not a moment too soon. I was in a workshop some time ago with an experienced short story writer (a fellow participant, not the leader) who looked over my shoulder at the first page of my Chapter One, put his finger on the fourth sentence in the first paragraph, and said, "It starts here. I learned my lesson. The other day I looked at a different and much reworked manuscript, and the sentences I needed to cut before the "real" beginning leaped out at me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oops. Close quotation marks. I wish Blogger let us edit Comments after posting. ;)

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Elizabeth!! :)

You're absolutely right about the beginning! I too have found the "perfect start" to a chapter in the middle of the page.

Unknown said...

Good overview, Elizabeth, with solid pointers and observations. It's wonderful to hear when a writer approaches critiques the way you do. Indeed, it's a rarity - your reaction to critiques. I've been a member of IWW (Internet Writing Workshop) for more than 7 years, providing critiques on everything, from book-chapters, short stories, to poetry to non-fiction, and have long learned to be ultra-cautious when providing a critique to a workshop member. Particularly writers just starting out are a proverbial mine-field. They eagerly declare they want to learn, to improve, to polish but what they really want is just glowing endorsement of their work. In that case, the critiquer must be very discriminating in his approach and choose only one (and relatively small) issue to "gently" critique, while spending a paragraph or two on general encouragement. A rule of thumb I learned very early is that it's always necessary to find one or two things that the piece does well and praise it.

Of course, there are also those writers who are old-timers at the Workshop and in the word-smithing business. Those can be critiqued from a "writer's point of view" as well as "reader's reaction" point of view because they do mean it when they ask whether something works, whether the style is consistent and whether the movitations are clear. I always strive to explain why something doesn't work for ME and stress the fact that it's ME wearing a reader's hat or me reacting as a writing instructor from stylistic or structural perspective.

I have an editor friend in California who is simply fantastic and talented as an editor and a writer. I am comfortable with her critiques and editing to the point that she simply strikes out what doesn't work -- and occasionally gives me the reason: It sucks. Knowing her skills and knowledge in the writing field, I don't have to ask or react to such terse explanation. To date and it's been a long association, she's been right about her critiques...oh, about 99% of the time. I really treasure her, as a friend and editor.

I dedicated my first paranormal mystery/romance (The Cracked Shadow) that came out in tradepaperback, to another editor-writer-friend, Nancy Mehl. I credit her with teaching me all about "pov" issues and I couldn't have asked for a better teacher -- and critiquer. Your blog actually put me in a sentimental mood...thank you for that and my best regards, Edita.

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments and suggestions, all. I started my first online critique group back in 1999. Not only did those critiques strengthen my writing, but *doing* critiques for others helped me grow as an author, as well. I was amazed by how much I learned, simply reading over a fellow writer's work.

Great blog, Marta!

Jill N. Noble
Senior Editor
Noble Romance Publishing, LLC

Marta Stephens said...

Edita, you've made a very interesting point--TRUST. I have several wonderfully talented friends who have critiqued my work. The amazing thing about each person is that they bring their unique talents to the table. One person may have a real eye for plot, while another may be fantastic at tightening the prose. I trust each of them completely. That’s not to say that I agree with all their observations, but like you, I’ve accepted at least 99% of their suggestions. I’m very grateful to them!

Jill, thank you for your comments. I too was amazed at how much I learned from helping others with their manuscript. I didn’t realize to what extent my writing had changed until my publisher asked for the second book in the series. It was originally a novella so when the request came in, I thought it would be an easy transition—add a few subplots, several new chapters and it should have been good to go—wrong. I hadn’t read it in a couple of years and to say that I was horrified by my earlier attempts is an understatement. I didn’t think twice about dumping the 45,000 word story. I held on to the essence of the plot but wrote the first draft of over 60,000 words in 83 days. I let the MS sit for several months while we launched SILENCED CRY then with the help of those trusted friends I mentioned above, I began the edits. I’m now working on the final draft and hope to send it off to my publisher in a few weeks. Sometimes we have to swallow hard and do what’s right.

Anonymous said...

Great guest blog, Marta. Thanks for visiting PDD! I had a great time at Magna cum Murder in October, particularly spending time with you.

Marta Stephens said...

Hey Lonnie! Thank you. Me too! :)

Sassy Brit @ said...


Writing is an on-going learning process and the critique is an excellent way for an author to know if he or she is on track. Don’t accept rude or cruel comments, but to expect anything less than an honest, straightforward, and constructive critique, is a waste of everyone’s time.

This is so true! There is never any excuse for rudeness. Fair, honest and constructive criticism is the only way to go.

Some very good tips here, Marta.


Marta Stephens said...

Sassy Brit!! Great to see you here. Thanks so much for your comments. :)