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?