WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY CRITIQUE PARTNER THIS WEEK
If you are a new writer and don’t have a critique partner yet, go get one! Or two or three. I haven’t done much with on-line critique partners whom I’ve never met, but people say that works, too. My favorite format for critique is for three or four of us to meet, have a chat, and then settle down to read each other’s pages. We sip our iced tea, pen in hand, and read, make comments, and sometimes read again before everyone is then ready to critique.
We choose one of us to go first and the three readers take turns going over their remarks, comments, and questions while the author of that piece listens. Emphasis on listen. The first impulse is to defend your words on the page. That’s a no no. You’re there to hear and to learn how your words come across to a fresh mind. We often get so close to our own writing that we imagine the whole scene, as we read our own stuff, without realizing we have not actually conveyed that scene. If one of your partners makes a comment you absolutely do not agree with, just nod, say, “I see what you mean,” and go on to the next remarks. No where is it written that you have to rush home and change your ms to suit your partners. It’s still your baby and you still make the final decision as to how you write your story.
What kinds of things do critique partners look for? If you’re pretty far along learning your craft, then they won’t need to tell you that you have too many adverbs, too much passive voice, too much telling instead of showing. If you’re still making those mistakes, those are your first skills to master. (See list of where to get help at bottom of post.) After that, a good critique partner takes your wonderful baby and shows you ways to make it better. Let’s take a look at some of Liz’s remarks.
I had written a scene about my heroine’s father being very ill (advanced TB), lying in the cabin in the South Florida heat. My heroine comes home: “She heard the coughing before she set foot on the porch steps. When she opened the door, her sister turned swollen eyes on her. ‘Get some water.’ ”
Liz said, “I bet that sick room smelled. No air conditioning, hot, airless. The family is fearful Daddy will die. Give us some more so we can see, smell, taste, touch, hear – get all the senses involved.” Of course! I knew that! But I had all those atmospheric elements in my head and had not put them on the page. (This is why we write third and fourth and fifth drafts.)
Black Beauty (I hate to use my partners’ real names since I haven’t asked them if I could make them immortal and famous on my blog) suggested I develop that paragraph to show (not tell) how Daddy’s worsening condition affects my heroine.
Rewrite using Liz’s and B.B.’s suggestions: “She heard Daddy coughing before she set foot on the porch. She took a moment, hand on the latch, to squeeze her eyes shut and gather her courage. (See that? Added non-verbal response – pause and eyes shut.) She forced a smile and opened the door, prepared to be cheerful for Daddy’s sake, but the smell of blood and sick sweat rolled over her. She pressed her hand to her mouth to stop the bile from rising (visceral, non-voluntary response – need some of those) . Then Dite moved aside and Theena saw the red handkerchief at Daddy’s mouth, blood speckling his shirt and the sheet.”
Better, right? And I’m not finished with this passage yet. Getting there. (This is my work in progress set in South Florida about 1870 when Miami was a sleepy fishing village.)
If you don’t want, can’t find, critique partners, you can learn a lot from the many self-help writing books out there. These are some I especially profited from:
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. This is the first craft book I read. It covers the basics beautifully and made me feel like “I can do that!”
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This book is especially good for making the writer conscious of point of view and aware of how deep a pov she needs for any particular passage.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont for solace, inspiration, and encouragement.
And any of Margie Lawson’s workshops.