Friday, August 26, 2016

Critiquing to Encourage -- by Rachel

Critique sounds a lot like criticize. But the best critiques I’ve had (and I’d like to think the ones I’ve given) are encouraging too. It’s true that writers need to develop a thick skin and take the bad news of how they’ve fallen short so they can improve. But part of a critique’s job is also to lift up a writer.

How do you encourage in a critique?

1.      Small Scale – Point out the gold nuggets that catch your attention.

Did something make you laugh? Write a comment: a smiley face, LOL, etc. Is there a beautiful turn of phrase or an incredible twist? Give it a “Wow.” Writing instructor, Margie Lawson, says if there is a piece of incredible writing, she writes “NYT” as in New York Times bestseller quality.

A redline critique can make it look like something has bled across the pages. Profusely. So it’s a good idea to make sure that at least some of the red is positive. I often go back through my comments and if there aren't a couple of positive comments in each chapter, I’ll see if there isn’t something to point out.

2.     Large Scale – At the end of a scene or chapter, summarize what the writer is doing well.

Yes, I also summarize what needs improvement, but I make sure to include what’s working too. Even when I’ve critiqued a brand new writer and quite frankly have wondered if there is any future for them in writing, I’m always able to find a little something that’s working. Maybe my encouragement will help them build on their strength, and once they’ve studied the writing craft they’ll become known as a world builder or the laugh out loud novelist.

3.     Help the writer sharpen good writing.

Not every bit of positive feedback needs to be a “Wow” comment. Offering advice on how to deepen a plot device or expand a phrase can be encouraging in itself. First, it shows the writer they’ve got something that’s on track. Second, it’s encouraging to most writers to explore ways to take a good idea and make it even better (as long as it’s a suggestion and you’re not trying to rewrite their novel for them).

4.     Take time to brainstorm with the writer.

When I was a student teacher, my supervisor reminded me that giving out “Great Job!” comments wasn’t the only way to encourage my students. Taking a student’s comment, giving it “air time” and exploring it further with the whole class showed an innate respect for their idea.

If the writer is someone I know, I usually offer brainstorm after I send a critique back. This can be so exhilarating for a writer. They get to discuss their work and get solid feedback about where they might take the story next. And it shows them that someone respects their story enough to discuss it at length.

5.     Give General Encouragement

When you send a critique back, if it’s appropriate, give them general compliments. Tell them you see the hard work they’ve put in researching their story or that even in the raw rough draft, you can see their storytelling gift. Writers live in an isolated world and get very little encouragement for what they do. If you give them a compliment, it may carry them along for weeks.

And not all encouragement has to be about the chapter you just critiqued. Talk with your fellow writer about what’s going on – overcoming writer’s block, balancing a writing vocation with a family, what you’re gleaning from writing books, etc. If they’re struggling, remind them that even Pulitzer winners experience self-doubt and agonize over blank pages. It can feed a writer’s soul to talk to someone who gets what they’re going through. 


Friday, August 19, 2016

Self-Editing, the Bottomless Well – by Christine

Photo attributed to Randyoo

Honestly, I could pick up any one of my books that have been published for a while and still want to edit them. With that thought in mind, here’s my advice on the bottomless well.

Self-editing is something you will do your entire career as a writer. During your writing apprenticeship, self-editing will assist you in becoming a writer as you compare your work to books on writing, and while reading excellent novels from your predecessors.

After you have developed your craft your self-editing takes on a different goal—polishing your manuscript to be its very best.  

There are three different levels of editing—self or otherwise:

Level 1 – Proofreading (includes the basics such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, verb-tense consistency, etc.)

Level 2 – Copy editing (a step further to assure the writing is clear, concise, consistent, etc. This includes sentence and paragraph structure, delete over-used words, repetition of words and words that sound the same, replace weak words, phrases, and more powerful choices.)

Level 3 – Substantive editing (Think of the big picture of your story. Substantive editing looks at overall concept, the purpose of the book, audience, organization, style, etc.)

When I’m working on my first draft, I tend to flip the lineup and work on my substantive editing first. No sense dillydallying over spelling and such when you’re working on getting the overall story down. So I tend to work on level 3 first, then copy editing and finally proof-reading.

I’ve read a number of excellent books on the craft of writing and could list them all. I could also list a number of self-editing tips but those are easy to find on the internet. 

What I’d rather do is list those books that I recommend, books with various ideas on craft that have stayed with me over the years; ideas that I think of every time I self-edit my work.


Stein On Writing by Sol Stein – Excellent book for character refinement.

One of the things that I never forgot from Sol Stein’s book is his advice that for every book you create a scene where your main character is naked. Strange, you might say, but even in a Christian book you can put your character into the bath or shower, or in the moment of their infancy or toddlerhood. This exercise enables you to get into the very soul of your character without the clothes of their era, occupation, or social standing. You get an understanding of your character from the skin inward.  

I’ve done this for all of my novels, whether or not I use that scene in my book.  

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – A great craft book for laying out the structure of your novel. One of the many helpful pieces of advice that remains with me is to make sure that fairly soon into your manuscript you take your reader to that “door of no return,” that spot in your novel (major crisis, setback, clue or discovery that will push the protagonist forward for the majority of the book). I like to aim for this to occur within the first 50 pages of a full-length novel or 5% into a shorter book.   

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renee Brown – Great for lots of things, but don’t make it your Bible like some writers have done. However, the advice that stands out for me from Renee Brown was in her chapter on Point of View and in creating narrative distance within POV. She was able to teach me more simply than any other craft book on how to take a reader from a distant viewpoint to an intimate one all within one character.  

BOOKS ON COPY-EDITING (wording, a closer focus on words):

On Writing Well by William Zinnser – I learned to keep writing tight from this book.


The Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Short and Sweet on Grammar that I refer to as a reference book.

Lastly, a few of my self-editing tips:

I visualize all my novels as a sculpture. First I throw a bunch of wet, sloppy clay on the pottery wheel and pound it out to a rough shape, trying to squeeze out all the air bubbles. Then when it’s in the shape I want, I start cutting to remove the excess clay. Cut, cut, cut, and throw away. Then when the clay has dried (after a little time away from my novel) I haul it out, and start to chip away at the excess clay. Then I smooth, and file, and only when it is finally in the shape I want do I put my sculpture into the kiln to fire it. Lastly, I paint on the glaze.

But if I had one word to describe self-editing, that word would be “CUT.”  


I read my chapters out loud to myself.

Read chapters starting from the end of the book, or change the font so I catch things I would ordinarily miss.

I Let my work simmer for a while by not looking at it for at least a month after first draft is written. (Amazing how different it sounds when you take a break from it).

You’ve maybe heard this gem of wisdom before but I’ll repeat it here: Do not self-edit until you’ve written your first draft. Write your entire manuscript or at least write your first chapter before you go back to edit. You need to get the flow of your story down.

Self-editing is a bottomless well, but there comes a time to stop, and that’s when your editor sends you’re the final read-through of your novel before it goes to print. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Checklist for Self-Editing Fiction -- by Rachel

Hugo's Les Miserables
Aside from getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, I read through my finished novel multiple times, looking for specific things I want to improve: plot, theme, character, relationship, language and dialogue. When I’m close to being finished, I go through looking for typos. But that doesn’t give you a clue as to how many times I’ve gone through tweaking this or that. In fact, I spend months reading through my novel a hundred plus times with a metaphorical red pen. By the time I'm done I could recite the book.

It would be impossible to list all of the things I look for in a self-edit, but here are the majors.

Big Picture Edits

In a big picture edit, I read through, looking for ways to improve how the story works together as a whole. 
  • Do I have a unified theme throughout the novel?
  • Is there a single concern that propels the reader along throughout the novel? (In a suspense novel, this might be to find the bad guy. In a literary novel, it might be for the characters to work out a psychological problem.)
  • Are there several defining moments in the story (turning points)? Have I given each of these moments sufficient drama and made them stand out clearly and beautifully?
  • Does each of the major characters have a story arc? Are they portrayed with complexity, heroic qualities, flaws and believability?
  • Is the setting well-visualized and does it have a character of its own?
  • Have I found a general hook that is likely to draw readers in from a simple description of the story?

 This is also where I might delete a couple of scenes because, no matter how wonderful they are, the scenes aren’t relevant to plot or character. I’ll probably add a scene or two as well to strengthen the storyline now that I understand it better.

Chapter by Chapter Edits

In a chapter by chapter edit, I’m combing through each chapter, making sure that individual scenes work the way I want them to.

  • Have I found a way to make the first few lines or pages of the novel evocative of the entire story? Is the beginning likely to draw the reader in?
  • Have I brought the story to a rich conclusion that wraps up the story without being too pat? Will the reader continue thinking of the story when it’s done?
  • Is there a hook at the beginning and ending of each chapter and scene? (This can be something suspenseful, but it can also simply be a downward turn in the hero’s fortunes or the sense that a character is about to do something interesting).

  • Does each scene move the story forward while moving the character further from his or her goal until the end?
  • Is the dialogue concise and does it carry the conflict forward? Does it often leave something between the lines for the reader to discover?
  • Does each scene deepen character and/or relationship in some way, while adding new setbacks?
  • Have I added a few moments of rest in between the tense scenes, while still reminding the reader that there is a danger hanging over the character’s head? (This is where things appear to be going well for a short time to give the reader a breather. Think of the Katniss/Peeta cave scenes in The Hunger Games).
  • Have I cut internal dialogue that tells the reader what is going to happen next, so the following action will be more surprising?

  • Is the writing concise and free of cliché? Have I found original, rich language to convey the exact meaning and emotion I’m looking for?
  •  Is each scene well painted, with a full range of the senses?
  • Does each scene evoke emotion, showing rather than telling? Have I avoided the easy descriptions like crying and shouting for deeper and more authentic emotional descriptions?
  •  Have I kept my word count to what editors in my market are looking for? If not, what can I cut?

Detail Edits

At this final point, I’m no longer looking to improve the story. I’m trying to catch errors or simply shore up the finer details.
  • Do all of my dates, character ages and timelines match up?
  • Do my story details match my research? Do I need to research any other details to make sure they’re accurate?
  • Are my story details consistent throughout? (The hero’s eye color doesn’t change; a west facing window in the beginning doesn’t look out on the rising sun at the end; a minor character doesn’t witness an event and later appear to be in the dark about it).
  • Are grammar, spelling and language usage correct (with the exception of conscious choices made for character voice and authentic dialect)?

 Once I’ve gone through all of this, the novel should be polished and ready to send off. The months of self-editing  has made my novel seem like an effortlessly told story with memorable characters and evocative plot twists. And honestly, for me, it’s the fun part of writing because it’s where the novel starts to shape up into the story I wanted to write all along.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Dickens' Great Expectations

Austen's Persuasion 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Intro to Critiquing by Christine

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt
I had no need for critiques when I first started writing back in 1999. 

And then I learned better.

As I worked through the very first draft of my non-fiction book about my birth-mother experience—which by the way is what started my writing career in the first place—I plowed along on my own strength. 

No wonder the Lord saw fit to postpone the publication of that book for the next 17 years.

When I set aside my non-fiction account and turned my energy to “Christian Fiction” I decided that maybe I needed some help. 

That’s when I started taking courses on creative writing at Trinity Western University (where I worked) and making friends with other aspiring writers.

My first critique group was a mixed bag; Christians, non-Christians, a poet/photographer, a blogger, and two of us who wanted to write novels of vastly different genres.
  • At first I found the critiques from the group to be wildly confusing and discouraging. To my thinking—this wasn’t helping me write my novel.

Everyone had such different ideas on how the first chapter of my novel should flow that I soon wished I’d never joined the group. 

  • But after a while I came to understand that though a good 50% of the critique wasn’t all that helpful, that the emotional support was exactly what I needed.

My critique group became my very first fan club. (We believed in each other’s creative abilities.) That became the injection I needed to keep on in the early days when I could so easily have packed my writing dream away in a trunk and forgotten it forever.

That group dwindled down to only three of us, two of us are now published authors, and the other is a highly successful blogger with a following that makes me green with envy. To this day we still encourage each other. As for critique group though, I wasn’t sure how helpful it was to my creative process.

Somehow I managed to write a novel that my first agent wanted to have critiqued by a reader whom he trusted, Crystal Miller of Indiana, also a writer, and highly involved with American Christian Fiction Writers. When she read my book and loved it, we began a friendship that has lasted to this day. Crystal encouraged me to join ACFW in 2008.
  • Still shy of large critique groups, I discovered that I work best with one partner whom I can trust.

I found my critique partner on a sub group of ACFW, and you guessed it—that’s when the Lord hooked Rachel Phifer Moore and I up as critique partners.

At last I had found another writer who not only understood the genre I was writing in, but someone who understood me as a person. Rachel (an American) having grown up as a missionary kid in Malawi Africa, understood the British Colonial mindset as well as the American audience. Not only has Rachel been a joy to me as I now look forward to the release of my 7th title, but it has been a joy supporting her in her award-winning writing career too.
  • Through my journey I have discovered that we all need critique groups or a partnership.
  • Some of us work well in a group that injects a lot of energy and diverse thinking.
  • Some of us (like myself and Rachel) need a quieter partnership.
  • Either way, all writers need that group of first readers who will catch the million and a half things that are wrong in our writing, and celebrate with us over those things we get right.

It is through that partnership that I will see the publication of that book that the Lord put on hold for the past 17 years—that non-fiction account that started my writing career in the first place.

All good things come in time, and it’s all the more sweet to share it with my dearest writing partner.

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