3 Tips for Accepting Critique

critique

Today I want to talk briefly about critique.

As writers, critique is part of what we do. Instead of avoiding it or dreading it, I believe we can learn to embrace it. It’s not always going to be pleasant, but after having edited hundreds of books and worked with as many authors, I strongly believe that the ability to ask for and accept constructive critique is one of if not the mark of a good writer.

I’ve talked in the past about how to critique, but now we’ll discuss accepting critique. I obviously cannot speak for anyone else, but here are three things that I think are important to keep in mind when you are preparing to receive a critique of your writing:

1. Have an Open Mind

If you aren’t entering the critiquing process with an open mind, then what’s the point of even asking someone for a critique in the first place? Anything they say to you will be automatically dismissed, and you will have wasted both your time and theirs. Being open to the possibility of revision will allow you to, at the very least, consider an alternative view even if you ultimately decide not to take it (see #3).

2. Don’t Take it Personally

This one is hard.

After all, this is your baby. The product of uncounted hours staring at a blinking cursor when you could have been watching Bones on Netflix or baking an apple pie from scratch. But the thing is, the person offering critique is only trying to help you. This is, of course, assuming you’ve chosen a worthy critique partner or beta reader.

If that’s the case, then this person is not out to hurt you intentionally. They are not out to destroy your self-esteem or writing career. They truly want you to succeed, and they want your writing to find success; and so you must understand that this is not personal. If you feel like it might get personal, maybe that’s a sign you should find a new reviewer (i.e., not your mom).

3. Realize that You Don’t Have to Take Their Suggestions

In most cases, you will not be forced to take a critiquer’s suggestions. If your book comes back with a suggestion to remove a certain scene or phase out a character or use a different point of view but YOU feel strongly that it should stay in, then keep it! Your critique partner/beta reader/editor isn’t always going to make a suggestion you want to follow, and realizing that you don’t have to should take some weight off your shoulders. Now, obviously this isn’t an excuse for not changing anything. Remember to keep an open mind (see #1).

But let’s say you have a favorite scene–one you think is hilarious and well written–and the reviewer came back and said he or she didn’t like the scene. That doesn’t mean you have to cut it, but maybe you should consider revising. Maybe the point isn’t coming across how you intended, isn’t reading in their head how it reads in your head. Or, it could be that reviewer just didn’t get it, and it’s fine how it is.

Asking for critique doesn’t mean you will be forced into changing something you don’t want to change. But if you are keeping an open mind, it may be a good opportunity to rework a good scene into one that’s great.

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I know there are more tips and tricks for critique, but those are a few that I’ve found to be helpful, both as one who has received critique and one who has given it. Now I’d like to hear from you!

How do you learn to embrace critique? 

 

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A Writing Tip from John Green

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Right now I’m reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I’m almost finished, in fact. His books are pretty quick reads. Anyway, I came across the following line from chapter fourteen that struck me, and I wanted to share (no spoilers):

“On the flight home, twenty thousand feet above clouds that were ten thousand feet above the ground, Gus said, ‘I used to think it would be fun to live on a cloud.'”

John Green could have written: “On the flight home, thirty thousand feet above the ground, …”

That would have been the easier, more standard way to go. In fact, I’ve seen that line before. But he didn’t, and I think this is a perfect example of an author’s voice and creativity shining through in a simple way that says a lot. Since the character Gus goes on to mention the clouds, it makes sense that Green would highlight the clouds in his opening sentence of description. And yet, he still is able to mention how high the plane is in the sky and let readers know what stage of the flight we’re at: cruising altitude.

I don’t really have much else to say about this. Mostly I just wanted to share an example that recently stood out to me of a creative way to write a fairly simple line. The next time you start to write a line of description, take a second look and see if there’s another way to phrase it. You might come up with something that surprises you.

Happy writing!

Melodrama [Part 2 of 2]: 5 Tips for Cutting

 

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Last week I shared 6 ways to spot melodrama in your writing. This week we are going to talk about some tips for cutting melodrama. First, here’s a quick refresher of the definition:

Melodrama [noun]:
drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions
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The kindest thing you can do for your writing—and your readers—is to cut the heart right out of your melodramatic passages using these techniques:

  • Check the emotional intensity: Your first order of business is to go through your scenes looking specifically at the emotional content. Are people fist-fighting and launching soap-opera style accusations at each other? Are lovers a little too profuse in their expressions? Are your characters saying too much about their feelings rather than demonstrating them? Try to take the temperature of the emotional content of a scene. If it feels too hot, bring it down.
  • Rework dialogue: Go over your dialogue with a fine-tooth comb and read it aloud until it sounds like things people might actually say to each other. Read it to someone else or have someone else read it to you. This is one of the best ways to check dialogue. It can still be stylized, but it should sound believable, and it should not make your readers want to gag.
  • Smooth out character behavior: Take the diva or the preening prince out of your characters. Get to know who they really are so that their behavior stems from true motivations is not just empty behavior. Characters should act within their framework and should not be exaggerated.
  • Ground gestures in reality: In similar fashion, your characters can be bold and passionate, but think twice about having them do things that are too implausible or over the top. Readers will not be able to relate to your characters if they find their actions unbelievable.
  • Equalize characters: Try not to make one character so much larger than life that he or she seems out of proportion to the others. Villains often get very colorful in first drafts, since villainy is so much fun to write. But if your bad guy outshines your good guy in his speech and behavior, the scene will feel off kilter, and the reader will become confused about which character to pledge allegiance to.

What do you think?
These are obviously not the only places to cut melodrama. Can you think of any others?

Melodrama [Part 1 of 2]: 6 Ways to Spot It in Your Writing

Nell poster

Happy first day of May!

In college, I took a course called “Writing Fiction & Poetry.” It was one of the first times I can remember actually exploring writing prompts and crafting short stories and then getting peer and professor feedback. The class was fun and challenging, and I learned a lot. I’ll never forget what my professor told me after reading one of my short stories titled “Broken.”

He called my story melodramatic.

Truthfully, until that point in my writing career, I had never given melodrama much thought–and I never imagined that anyone would say my writing was melodramatic. But every good writer worth his or her salt views constructive criticism as just that: constructive criticismSo I took a good look at my story and saw that yes, it was a bit melodramatic. After all, I had a character punching a mirror and then sliding to the floor in a puddle of tears. I guess I should have seen it coming.

Since then, I have tried to be more aware of when I am slipping from realistic action into melodrama, and as an editor I watch out for this in other’s writing as well.

Following are a few short tips for how to spot melodrama. Next week’s post will offer some tips for cutting melodrama. These tips are adapted from Jordan Rosenfeld’s book Make a Scene, which I mentioned in my post on good writing books to check out.

Feel free to leave any melodramatic tips or thoughts in the comments! (And yes, that sentence is phrased so it’s unclear whether I want you to leave tips on melodrama or tips that are themselves melodramatic.)

First, a definition of melodrama from my friend, Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Melodrama [noun]:
drama in which many exciting events happen
and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions
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The Traits of Melodrama

  • Sentimentality: Think of the kinds of sentiments written in romantic greeting cards. Think of cliché, trite, or corny dialogue. “‘You are my everything,’ he said passionately to her.” “My heart would stop beating if you weren’t by my side,” she said to him.
  • Hysterics: Think crying, screaming, arguing that gets too loud, too emotional, or too angry. Allowing hysterics to go on for too long is a good way to lose your readers.
  • Grand or unrealistic gestures: These are often found at the end of sappy romance movies, in which the changed man arranges for something utterly implausible, like hiring a famous football team to serenade his love. Big gestures may work for Hollywood, but they rarely fly in writing because they aren’t believable.
  • Affected speech: Be careful that your characters don’t sound like divas and English barons (unless they are), dropping phrases that real people wouldn’t likely utter. Often what seems melodramatic in a character is just a bad affectation or poorly crafted dialogue.
  • Kneejerk reactions: When a character changes his mind or behavior too suddenly, flip-flopping from meek to brave, from kind to villainous, the scene can read as melodrama.
  • Descriptor overload: On the technical level, remember that an overuse of adverbs or adjectives can often lead to a feeling of melodrama. Often just cutting them away will solve the problem.

Can you think of any other traits of melodrama that I missed?
Have you ever been told that your writing is too melodramatic?

Tips for Humor Writing (Part 2)

*Read Tips for Humor Writing (Part 1)

Writing funny can be difficult. What comes off funny in spoken word does not always translate to paper so easily. Following are a few tips for humor writing as a follow up to part 1.

***WORD CHOICE (and the K rule)***
As a humble writer of prose, your humor rests almost exclusively on the power of your words, which is why you must pick them with care and arrange them for maximum impact. William Zinsser, in his well-respected reference manual, On Writing Well, states that humor is the one type of writing where using a thesaurus is actually beneficial. Careful word selection allows you to assume many different voices or tones in your writing and use them to sneak up on your readers while carefully concealing your punch line until the last possible minute.

Some words just sound funnier. (I mentioned this in Part 1. Consider which is funnier—pull or yank?)

Also, words with the k sound (cadillac, quintuplet, sex) are perceived as the funniest; and words with a hard g (guacamole, gargantuan, Yugo) create almost as many grins. This may be because much of what makes Americans laugh today has roots in Yiddish humor, the language of which includes many guttural sounds—and the k and hard g are as close as English comes.

***THE RULE OF THREE***
Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line). For something to be funny, it has to first have a solid foundation; there needs to be something there for the humor to play against. One thing to note, however, is that it is important to anchor the humor in something familiar. Exaggeration is funny only to a point, but for it to be funny, it needs to be believable on some level.

One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list and then add a third, incongruent, idea. Here’s an example of a sentence using the Rule of Three: Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more, and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.

This is one of the most flexible ways to naturally incorporate humor into your narrative. Take advantage of the element of surprise; after listing two everyday things, throw in something your readers won’t expect (like the quip about NASA).

***FUNNY ANECDOTES AND STORIES***
Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories, sometimes exaggerated for effect. In fact, experts say we laugh far more at these types of everyday happenings than at “jokes.” That’s because all humor is based in truth—things people think and ways they act. It makes sense, then, to use real things to help illustrate your points as you write. When Your Money or Your Life authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wanted to demonstrate the importance of changing the way we think about money, they did so by telling the story of a young girl watching her mother prepare a ham to bake for dinner. As the mother cut both ends off the ham, the daughter asked why. Mom replied that her mother had always done it that way. When the daughter still insisted on knowing why, a quick call to grandma revealed the reason: “Because the pan was too small.”

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So what do you think? Do you find writing funny to be hard? Have you ever tried using a rule of three or a specific word choice to add humor to your writing?

How to Hyphenate Ages

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I saw a tweet about hyphenation earlier this week, and I thought this would make a good grammar tip, because I have to correct this almost every time I edit anything with ages.

This is going to be short and sweet. (Note: these are just grammatical examples. I do not actually have a seven-year-old.)

Correct: I have a seven-year-old.
Correct: I have a seven-year-old daughter.
Incorrect: I have a seven year old.

Correct: My daughter is seven years old.
Incorrect: My daughter is seven-years-old.

Here’s the difference: One example is using age as a noun (seven-year-old); one is using age as an adjective phrase (seven years old).

When using age as an adjective before a noun to modify it OR when using age itself as a noun, use hyphens.
When using age as an adjective phrase after a noun, do not use hyphens.

Here are more examples:

That lady looks like she’s eighty years old, but she’s only twenty! <–adjective phrase after a noun
That twenty-year-old looks like she’s eighty. <–noun
The twenty-year-old lady looks like she’s eighty. <– adjective before a noun

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I hope that helps! Feel free to leave any questions in the comments.

Tips for Writing Children’s Books: Animals as Main Characters

I don’t think I’ve written anything about children’s books on this blog yet, and I’d like to. At the publishing company I used to work for, I was actually the leader of a children’s book editing team at one point. This topic will not apply to many of you, but then again who knows? You might just learn something!

One of the things I did was take my team to the bookstore to browse the children’s section. When making edits on a children’s book, it’s a good idea to be able to give the author an example of an actual children’s book that has been successful while utilizing the technique the author is attempting. Each month we focused on a different aspect of children’s books: animals as main characters, repetition, setting, theme, teaching, just to name a few.

Following are copies of notes I wrote based on one of our monthly bookstore outings where we looked at using animals as main characters. These are all books you can find at the bookstore or library that provide a great example of an author who successfully used animals as his or her main characters.

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Olivia by Ian Falconer

Olivia is an excellent example of a beloved children’s book that tells the story of a character who is an animal, not a human. There’s nothing in the text itself that says one way or the other, but the illustrations of a pig are so much more engaging to a young reader. This also shows why minimal narration is key. You don’t have to list everything a character is wearing, for example, because that can be shown in the illustrations. The text is understated—nothing literal. Also, nothing actually happens in this story that’s extremely out of the ordinary, but it’s still interesting. Why? Because it’s a pig. That’s why the use of an animal or unique human (ie. pirate, ninja, alien) is so important.

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Corduroy by Don Freeman

Corduroy is a beloved book about an animal, and yet there’s little in the text to suggest that Corduroy actually is an animal. The illustrations do this. Even though the book ends in a suburban home, the main plot’s setting is extremely fun and unique—a mall. Every child dreams about their stuffed animals coming alive in their room, but this setting makes the story stand out. The fact that this book has become a classic illustrates the fact that books featuring animals and set in out-of-the-ordinary locations last through the ages.

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Sea Monster’s First Day by Kate Messner

A sea monster is a unique animal that you can have some fun with illustrations and storyline. This book is another example (like Olivia) of why minimal narration is key. The story centers around a sea monster who is nervous about his first day of school but learns how much fun school is. This is something every child can relate to, but the fact that the main character is a sea monster rather than a child makes it more interesting to read about. Plus, the book is set in the ocean, so even though a classroom setting may be familiar, it’s under water, which is a fun place to read about.

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Can you think of any other children’s books that do a good job using an animal as the main character?
Do you think using a well-known book from the bookstore can be a good learning tool for writers?