Category Archives: Critique

Does Good Writing Matter? by Katy Lee

I recently came across a survey titled, Does Good Writing Matter? The following are a fewpen of the questions I answered. Would love to compare your answers with mine. Feel free to leave some, or all, in the comments below.

1)      Do you judge other people based on their writing?

Now before you throw your pencils at me, or your mouse as the case may be, I will say the word “judge” may be too harsh. Do I judge? No. Do I feel a writer loses credibility if they can’t express themselves well in writing? Yes. A person’s inexperience comes through in their writing and if they want to be taken seriously, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, accurate writing is a must. But like I said, I would not call it judging. I think a better term would be “to question.” Do I question a person’s validity based on their writing? Definitely.

2)      What writing mistakes bother you most?

The answers to choose from were: “Grammar/punctuation,” “word use,” “long, difficult sentences,” “vague purpose,” “poor logic.”

And my answer? Poor logic and vague purpose. A writer may lose credibility with inaccuracies in their writing, but I don’t let those bother me. I’ll most likely continue to read on, correcting mistakes as I go, but a lack of purpose and poor logic has me closing the book/article all together. For example, a few months back I had to judge a writing contest of published works. One book in particular was nearly painful for me to read because it lacked purpose. I squirmed in my comfy chair. I fidgeted and kept looking at how many pages I had left. My husband watched me from the couch. He said, “You’re not enjoying that book.” I was not surprised he could tell. Every sentence, every piece of dialogue, every scene needs to push the story along and show the purpose to the reader, and it needs to be logical, or they will close it up.

3)      Do you apply the same writing standards to social media?

This one was a tough one for me. With the 140 character limitations in Twitter, I think I have to be more understanding to errors in social media. Although, I have seen some great Tweets and Facebook statuses that are short, but full of impact without compromising intelligence. Then there are those posts that confuse “there, they’re and their.” (See question #1 for my response to those.)

I thought this was a great question given our social media world these days. It used to be that a person had to be credible in their field in order to write. These days, everyone has a soap box (or media outlet). Some might think that’s scary, but I still believe your intelligence, or lack there of, shines through even in 140 characters.

Either way, I’m interested in hearing your take on this one.

4)      What is your personal pet peeve in writing?

This is a question we ask many of our guests here at the Scribes, and I have learned so much from their responses. I had no idea some of my word choices bothered people. Now I do, and I don’t do them anymore. So, I am hoping if you don’t answer any of the other questions, you will at least answer this one. I know there is still so much for me to learn, so please share.

Now as for my personal pet peeve word. I would have to say the word “got.” It just jolts the flow of my reading. Also, “lightening vs. lightning.” One is to lighten your load. The other is a natural electric discharge in the atmosphere. The misuse of that word also gives me a jolt. <grin>

The Unlocked Secret: Today’s secret isn’t really a secret, but here it is anyway: Everyone’s a critic. Make every effort to put your best work out there. That means take the time to learn through classes and workshops, reading various works, and keeping your handy-dandy grammar book by your side at all times. And if you’re still unsure? That’s what editors are for.

So, have at it, Scriblings! Answer away, and remember as I said in question #1, I don’t judge.

And as always, thanks for your Tweets and Shares!

The Thing About Backstory…

What is backstory? Authors use backstory, or a characters past to explain a character’s motivation. I love a good backstory and if you want to see backstory done right, check out any of Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie series. I would recommend starting with the beginning  with THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE. And while backstory is entertaining and informative it can also kill a story.

I’m in the middle of judging entries for my local RWA chapter’s contest and I can see that there a lot of talented writers out there and I genuinely enjoy reading others work, but the thing that really hurts a story for me is poor pacing. A slow start.

 It’s the author’s job to grab the reader by the throat and never let them go until the book is finished. The way to do that is to start the story off with a bang. But some authors make the rookie mistake of wanting to throw up all the information in the first chapter. I know this from experience. I used to do this. But that drags the story down and when you get to the middle you find that you’ve got no place to go.

We don’t need to know everything about your hero or heroine in the first five pages. Readers like a little mystery. They like things to unfold. They want to savor the words. 

I’ve heard different advice of how to correctly write backstory, including don’t add any in for the first hundred pages. I wouldn’t follow that advice. You have to write the story that works for you. I would use this analogy. Write like you would use seasoning on your food. You wouldn’t dump an entire shaker of salt on your chicken before you had your first bite. Right? Then don’t dump an entire novel’s worth of backstory in the the first chapter. Trust me it will only bore readers.

Here are some tips that I like to look at from time to time from Story Sensei, Camy Tang, who says it way better than I ever could .

Some rules for backstory:

You want to make the reader WANT to know the past.

a–Keep it short. Cut ruthlessly. Include it only if you’re absolutely certain the reader would be completely lost without the information.

b–Dole out the information in bits and pieces, not all at once in one scene. Create mystery that motivates your reader to keep reading to find out what happened.

For example, mention a clue in chapter one, then another piece of the past in chapter five, another in chapter seven and finally write a sentence in chapter twelve that helps all the clues make sense and complete the picture.

c–Make a character absolutely need the information for some reason. Their desperate goal will keep the reader interested.

d–Make that person have to fight to get the information. Create conflict that tries to prevent the character from finding out what they need to know. Let the witness be slippery or reluctant. Make obstacles for the character, and the reader will be drawn into his fight to find out the information.

e–Tie the information to some type of action going on. For example, if I see a young girl killing two boys, speaking a haunting incantation, and demanding they tell her where her doll is, then I’m more likely to want to know why she’s doing this.

f–Create situations where another character needs to know the information. If the girl saying the incantation accidentally summons a genie, the genie is naturally going to want to understand what’s going on.

g–Give the backstory from the deep point of view of the character affected by it the most. For example, an omniscient narrator explaining the girl’s lost doll isn’t going to have as much impact as the psycho-chick reminiscing about how she stayed awake nights, longing for her Raggedy Ann.

h–Make sure it’s realistic. Don’t let someone talk about something they wouldn’t normally talk about. For example, most normal people don’t spill the town’s darkest secrets to strangers at the diner. Even a crazy girl isn’t going to confess to the police officer that she’s going to kill the Hardy Boys that night.
So what do you think? How do you like your backstory?

What is ARWD in YA Lit?

PJ Sharon, coming to you on this fine Tuesday from the Northeast Hills. I hope you’re all well and ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. Today, I’d like to share a few new tidbits I learned last week. I just finished taking a YARWA sponsored online workshop , Sex in YA, with the fabulous and talented Heather Howland, editor at Entangled Publishing, who cited ARWD as one of the main problems she sees with YA manuscripts. So what does this strange acronym stand for?

Adult Romance Writer’s Disease. That’s right, it’s that inadvertent adult voice that seeps into YA manuscripts, especially when writing sex or sexual tension scenes. She noted that this seems to happen most often when writers of adult romance make the leap to writing YA. She also noted that she sees this as a problem in many indie-published YA titles. I would agree, and think this is possibly due to the fact that indie-authors are not working with “commercial” editors and aren’t worried so much about fitting into the trad-publishing mold, which has some pretty strict standards about what is marketable fiction. It may also have to do with the fact that YA has a huge cross-over market with adult readers these days, so the language has become more sophisticated. Whether this is intentional or simply an oversight because of the ARWD problem is anyone’s guess.  

There are many levels of steaminess in YA, and Heather has seen it all. But what separates YA from adult romance is the subtle, or not so subtle nuances in voice, word choice, and knowing how far is too far for the story. I saw many awseome examples during the workshop and Heather’s critiques were invaluable.

For instance, if you’re writing about a teen pregnancy, as I did in ON THIN ICE, you’ll likely have to account for the “deed” and will want to make it real to readers…along with the consequences. But we as authors might just need to be sensitive to our audience and take some responsibility for HOW we make it real. Of course this is up for debate, but in my opinion, you have to consider whether you want 12-14 year-old readers (the lower end of the demographic for YA these days) getting a head full of “on the page” description of body parts and anatomical functions the way we see it written in most adult romances. Or is it oh-so-much better to be in the character’s head, experiencing not only the physical, but the emotional impact of the scene from that “first” time POV, which is usually less about the act and more about the feelings involved and all the crazy thought processes that interfere with the actual event.

 I thought I had handled this pretty well when I wrote about Penny and Carter’s first time, but alas, Heather rightly diagnosed me with ARWD. I submitted this particular scene, because it was the steamiest I’d written in any of my books–the only time any of my characters have gone “all the way,” and I knew something wasn’t right. Heather was kind enough to critique our scenes and underlined the sentences that came across as “adult” language. It’s been two years since I wrote this passage and I’ve learned a lot since then, but when she pointed out the problem, I saw it clearly for the first time.

Like any good critique, she started with a positive:

My first impression was that you have a strong, smooth voice. Very easy to read. I can definitely appreciate this as an editor who sifts through a lot of submissions!

Thank you so much for saying so, Heather! And here’s the part of the excerpt that she found problematic, followed by further critique:

As for the intimacy itself, there are some ARWD moments:

A large sleeping cat awoke deep inside me, ready to make its escape. My body purred in response to his flushed face and blazing eyes. His fingertips scalded along my cheek. He wanted me. I could see it, feel it—even taste it in the air.

 As our lips touched, my heart fluttered madly in my chest. I felt the power of his desire, the confidence of his touch. He wasn’t like any other boy I’d known or kissed. He was gentle and sure, and he knew what he wanted. He laced his fingers into my hair and pulled me closer, his lips parting. His tongue felt soft and warm against mine, not demanding, but giving and taking equally. Beyond the saltiness of potato chips and the shared bitterness of Budweiser, I tasted a unique flavor that was his and only his. I wanted to drink him down until I was drunk with it. I wanted to drown in the sensations and smells, the sounds of our mingling sighs and the feel of his hands on my skin.”

Heather’s critique:

With minor exceptions, these are the exact descriptions I’d expect to find in an adult romance novel, not the observations of a 16yo virgin. That’s problematic in and of itself. Your heroine is very aware of her body, his body, her body’s reaction to his body, and all the back and forth physical actions of the kiss—none of which I’d expect to see from someone with her experience. I think this can be tweaked by remembering how you felt about sex at her age. While times have changed and sexual attitudes have relaxed a bit since most of us were 16, I think a lot of the same fears and maturity issues are the same. Teens really do think of everything in a self-oriented light, and when they experience something like this for the first time, it’s hard to be in the moment for them. Their minds are rioting with new information and observations. (There was some confusion about Penny’s age…she was actually 17 in the story, but I agree with this critique on all counts).

This was enormously helpful feedback and made me wish that Ms. Howland was one of my editors. I’d love to see what she would do with my more recent work. Hopefully, I’ll manage to avoid the ARWD trap now that I know what it is and can hopefully spot the signs and symptoms.

Do any of you YA writers out there have this problem? Have you seen it in the YA lit you’ve read? How do you like your YA sexiness…sweet or spicy?

 

 

Get Over Yourself!

Hey, all. Suze here. Welcome.

Last night I attended a talk by a famous author at our local library. (I was horrified by the poor turnout, despite quite a bit of publicity, but that’s the subject of another post).

Now at the same time this talk was scheduled, a writers’ group was also meeting informally in another part of the library. And when I say “writers’ group,” I mean a group of people who get together once or twice a month and exchange pages and discuss each other’s work. The librarian in charge of the event approached the group to let them know that a New York Times bestselling author was speaking. Great opportunity, right? They could come in and ask questions and learn about the writing process and the publishing industry from someone who had achieved great success.

And not a one of them came.

I’m not kidding. They stayed huddled in their little group, apparently too wrapped up in themselves and their “art,” to meet someone who has achieved what I’ll bet each of them wants: publication.

Now I’m not knocking small writers’ groups. If I had not found the guts to walk into one a few years ago, I wouldn’t have met J Monkeys and Casey Wyatt and PJ Sharon, and I wouldn’t have a completed manuscript and a couple more in progress, and I wouldn’t be blogging to you from the Seven Scribes today. But there came a time when we realized we needed more than we could get from each other if we wanted to be published, and that’s when we rushed our local RWA chapter, even though we’re not all writing romance.

It ain’t all about the art. (Well, for some people maybe it is, but you’ve still got to get it published somehow) And it ain’t all about the genre, either. Good, sellable writing is, well, good sellable writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s romance, mystery, YA, sci-fi, paranormal, or even (spoken in a hushed tone) literary. We’ve all got plenty to learn from each other. In fact, I’d argue that exposing ourselves to different genres and styles of writing makes whatever we’re working on fresher and stronger. As the teenaged Crown Prince of Hardydom is so fond of telling me, “Don’t judge.”

How about you? Any missed opportunities you want to admit to? Secret biases you want to come clean about (the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, LOL!)? If you don’t feel like confessing, tell us about a great speaker you’ve heard.

How to Speed Date your Character

Hey Scribe’s fans, PJ Sharon here. This past weekend, I spent Saturday with my writer friends at the CTRWA (CT Romance Writers of America) chapter meeting. Our usually packed monthly meeting had only about thirty members due to the New England Crime Bake conference that many of our members ditched us for attended. But even with our skeleton crew, we managed to have a fabulous time. Thanks to Jamie Schmidt, our illustrious leader for the day (that’s her in the Victorian garb and the funky boots), we enjoyed a most helpful exercise, called “Speed dating your character.”

Some of us took the liberty of getting into character by dressing up for the occasion. That’s me in the silly glasses (Lily’s eye shields that look suspiciously steampunky rather than dystopian but work for the costume, I think). Left to right is Christine Bundt, Jennie Francis, Angelique Meltivier, Jamie Schmidt, me, and Melanie Meadors.

 I found that becoming my character was especially challenging since I’m far from a sixteen-year-old girl and even farther from the year 2057. The exercise itself, however, was very enlightening. We divided up into groups of five or six and went around the table asking questions of each other’s characters, focusing on one person for about five  to ten minutes. Being grilled about our likes and dislikes, and the most intimate details about our character’s lives and personalities felt a bit like being on the Dating Game.

The funny thing was that as I answered questions from each person in the group, and each answer led to deeper questions, the more I felt like Lily Carmichael, my main character from Waning Moon. I had to totally put myself in her place, talking about my family, friends, what life was like in my fictional future world, and even what my hopes and dreams were. It really made me think about what my story was about and who my character was down deep. After a few minutes, I actually began talking in a different voice and even felt different inside. It was strange to answer in Lily’s voice and from her experiences in the book.

The following questions came up, which I thought really got to the core of our characters.

What are you most afraid of?

What is your greatest flaw/strength?

Who do you love/hate?

What are your hopes and dreams?

What is it like being a teenager with so much responsibility?

How do the people of the future survive and what does the future world look like?

These were only a few questions, but the idea was that we put each other on the spot and forced each other to dig deep and get to the heart of our characters. If you have critique partners or a writing group, I highly recommend you try it.

What questions do you ask your characters to get to know them better?

 

Retreat Recap

Tuesday’s Scribe, PJ Sharon here. I had the great pleasure of joining several CTRWA members this past weekend at the lovely Guest House Retreat Center in Chester, CT. We’ve been planning this weekend retreat for months, and no one was more excited than me to get away and share some quality writing time with my pals. I thought you all might like to hear about the highlights.

After checking in at 3:00 on Friday afternoon, we were all treated to a wonderful dinner and dessert before settling in for an evening of critiquing. We divided up into small groups, and each had the opportunity to share the first five pages of our WIP. This was immensely helpful to me personally, as my fabulous critique partners, Jane Haertel and Tracy Costa, convinced me yet again, that my short story prequel to my trilogy, to be released as part of the WG2E October Anthology, called SOUL REDEMPTION, actually started in chapter two. (Read my previous post about “The story starts here.”) I’m not sure why I haven’t quite mastered the art of where to start a story, but they were absolutely right and it will now read so much better.

Saturday morning, I rousted eight of my fellow writer friends out of their beds to join me in a 6:00 a.m. yoga class. I’ve been teaching yoga for about seven years now, and I love sharing a gentle, restorative practice with newbies and experienced yogis alike. Relaxed, refreshed, and energized, we had a hearty breakfast and then spent the next few hours working on our individual WIP’s in the comfort and solitude of the many nooks scattered about the quaint old inn.

After lunch—and I have to say here, that the food was simply outstanding—we gathered for an interactive debate with authors Kevin Symmons and Arlene Kay, who shared their humorous and spirited take on setting vs.character. Then we had more alone time before supper, where most of us made another dent in our weekend word count. I was able to finish all of my edits for WANING MOON, and I heard from Melanie Meadors that she broke her record of 5,000 words in a weekend. WTG Melanie!

Saturday night after a tasty Salmon dinner and blueberry cobbler—seriously, did anyone else gain five pounds this weekend—we got together for a fun-filled evening of Plotting Playoffs with our hostess diva, Jamie Pope, aka. Sugar Jamison. Our illustrious Prez, Jennifer Fusco won the big honor of the night and was rewarded with the coveted tierra, boa, and pink girly gloves—not to mention the best writer on earth certificate.

I’d like to personally thank the brilliant Jane Haertel, aka Suze Hardy, for helping me plot out Book Two of my trilogy, WESTERN DESERT. It’s going to be awesome, but I may need another retreat in the spring!

Much wine was consumed, laughs were shared, and in my opinion, the best line of the weekend came from Jennifer Yakely, another CTRWA contracted and soon-to-be published author, who said, “Historical romances are all about balls and Duke screwing.” I love writers! Don’t you?

“The story starts here.”

If you’ve ever heard the words, “the story starts here,” you know what every writer eventually learns. The first few chapters of a manuscript are likely not where your story begins. This concept is not new to me. Over the years, I’ve heard these words from contest judges, critique partners, and even as feedback from agents and editors on submissions.

I shouldn’t have been surprised then, to hear it from my editor on my current WIP. When I got my first round of edits back last week and she said get rid of your first two chapters, my jaw dropped and I immediately wanted to argue. But what about setting the scene? How will my readers know that we are in a dystopian future and how we got there? What about all that lovely description? After I took a few deep breaths, poured myself a glass of wine, and contemplated leaving the country, I turned around and looked at my story board and had a good laugh. Among the pink sticky notes I’d posted, briefly outlining each chapter, there was a bright yellow sticky signifying chapter three. It said, “INCITING INCIDENT-story starts here”.

Well, crap! That yellow sticky note not only validated that my editor was right on the money (isn’t she always?), but that I knew where my story began and I had ignored my better judgment. I also realized that I had taken the easy way out. Instead of skillfully weaving in backstory, description, and setting, I had laid it all out in those first two chapters like a newbie.

You’d think I would know better by now, but I fell prey to what most writers do without being consciously aware—I “told” my readers what I thought they needed to know. In all fairness to myself, I recognize that this is part of my process. Those first few chapters are necessary for me to clearly set the stage for the story to unfold—at least in the first draft. During revisions I should have caught this and fixed it. Given more time and the opportunity to work with critique partners I’m certain it would have been.

If I had to pick my greatest weakness as a writer, I would have to say it’s that pesky “showing”, and knowing how and when to deliver back story. It’s a tricky business finding a balance between narrative, dialogue, internal thought, and description. Sprinkling information through a story without “dumping” or taking short cuts via prologues, journal entries and other overused devices is hard work. Normally, I wouldn’t use the word “lazy” to describe myself, but when it comes to “show don’t tell,” I’m afraid I take the easy way out every time until someone points out that I’m “telling” too much. For those of you who aren’t sure what I mean, let me give you an example.

Zeph challenged Sam’s authority at every turn.

Rather than saying this, I could easily show Zeph arguing with Sam. In other words, don’t state the obvious. Whenever there is telling, it takes the reader out of the story and into the narrator’s voice instead of staying in the character’s head. In my opinion, one of the reasons Kristan Higgins’ books are so good is because she is a master of the show don’t tell rule.

As I continue on with my edits, I’ll have to find creative ways to weave in the back story, setting, and descriptions that will bring the story to life rather than drag the reader along by the nose. Wish me luck; I have my work cut out for me.

What about you? Do you have trouble with information dumps and giving too much backstory? How do you know how much to tell the reader and when?