Why do I encourage critiquing? Because it’s how I learned the craft of writing.
When I wrote my medieval, I had no idea what emoting for the scene meant. When I reread it years later I asked myself--Why did the hero have to shout all the time, when he knew the heroine had sensitive ears? Because he was emoting for the scene, is the answer obvious to me now.
There isn’t a newbie mistake I haven’t made. Hero and heroine met on page 64, after 30 or 40 pages of backstory, with enough head hopping to give the reader a bad case of vertigo. I didn’t understand info dumps, viewpoint, overuse of adverbs and adjectives, stage directions--the list goes on and on.
A How to book never tells you what is wrong with your ms.
Most people can see some advantage to being critiqued--it might be useful. Many writers don’t see what advantage there is in critiquing others. But by critiquing others, you learn to see what is wrong with your own writing. It is amazing how easy it is to see errors other writers make, and then see it on your own pages.
Critiquing in a group can be useful. 5 opinions make you realize how subjective it is. Every editor, agent, and contest judge will have their own opinion. When you critique, don’t rewrite anyone’s words, instead explain how it might be done differently.
The key to critiquing is never to expect anyone to make changes you suggest--and you must suggest nicely, after all, it will be your turn next. There are lots of books with styles I don’t admire, and others that make me green with envy--and they are all published.
Study your competition--all those published authors whose books soar up the bestseller lists. How do they introduce characters, start and end scenes and chapters, describe setting. Look at dialogue and action tags. Look at how the pros do it and take notes. All those authors on the bestseller lists are bought by the same editors you want to impress.
If you want to really see how they construct their magic, take some colored highlighters and designate color for dialogue, emotion, introspection, backstory, setting, etc.. Think of them as layers. Then highlight a few pages of your ms. Are you missing any layers? At first, I was always missing setting and often emotion. I learned to add telling details for the setting and to find fun ways of showing the characters’ emotions.
My first published book--note I did not say the first book I wrote--is Every Midnight, historical romance set in the Regency. Lizzie and Dace make a pact when they marry--she will go to him every midnight if he is faithful to her, but there are other rules as well, like her obligation to pretend she loves him. Here is an excerpt from the wedding night. The Beast has promised not to touch her, if she will spend the night with him--the only night she will be safe from him. She has accidentally hit his wounded shoulder when she entered his bedroom. He fell to the floor in pain and hit his nose, which accounts for the blood He is now safely in bed, but Lizzie is having trouble joining him.
excerpt 3 from EVERY MIDNIGHT
Lizzie knew she'd made a pact with the devil when she agreed to meet the Beast every midnight and allow him to debauch her. Sensuality: SPICY -- Click HERE for a first chapter excerpt.
Lizzie held out a dose of laudanum for the Beast. She stood as far away from his bed as she could and willed her hand not to tremble and spill any from the glass.
James and Molly had gone to their beds, leaving her alone with him. Their whispered assurances of her safety had not worked as much to ease her mind as the Beast’s acknowledgement, delivered with lurid groans, that she was innocent of a plot to drive him insane with pain. All the while he promised dire retribution if she dared so much as touch him with the tip of her finger.
“Is it poison, dearest Lizzie?” The bolster under the pillows kept the Beast sitting almost upright. His nightshirt, a pristine white--was borrowed from James. The viscount’s manservant had been left behind in London with most of his clothes.
The Beast had washed fastidiously, cleansing himself of all traces of blood. His nose looked no worse than before, but his expression was one of a man goaded beyond endurance. “Drink some of it, my own dear wife, to prove it is not poison.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Felmont.” Her hand shook, spilling a few drops onto the carpet.
He stared at her. Lizzie took an involuntary step backward.
“Remember Lizzie, my love, you are to show me affection at all times or our pact is null and void. Perhaps you wish to break it and free me from your ridiculous rules and regulations?”
“The pact requires me to show you affection only during the day. Is that ferocious look meant to show your affection for me, dear Felmont?” She had answered him back. She was alone with the Beast in his bedchamber and she was managing to remain dignified.
“I apologize for having a Felmont face, Lizzie, unfortunately I can do nothing to change it.” A wicked smile hovered on his lips. “You can’t call me Felmont in my bedroom, dear heart. Come closer.”
He was sin personified.
Words tumbled from her mouth. “I don’t know what else to call you.”
“Give me the laudanum, loveliest bride of mine, before you spill it.” He took it from her and sniffed it. “Get into bed and I’ll tell you what you may call me.”
Lizzie shook her head. Impossible. She simply could not do it.
“Then, drink some of this--I am taking no chances on surviving the night, my love.” He held out the glass. “Take it, Lizzie, drink some.”
The huge bed seemed shrunken by his presence. He looked even taller lying down. Death would be easier, and a grave more inviting than his bed.
“Hellfire, Lizzie! Don’t look at me like that.”
“D ... d ... don’t swear at m ... me.” There, he had reduced her to stuttering again! She hated him.
He sank back against the pillows. “Lizzie, let us try again. I apologize for not speaking gently to you, though I beg to point out, if you could be a trifle more sympathetic for the terrible pain I am suffering, you’d soon realize you have nothing to fear from me.”
“Hitting you with the door was an accident, husband. I am sorry for it.” It was best to speak with dignity at all times. Arguing with the Beast would gain her nothing but his anger roused.
“You are safer with me this night, my love, than you have ever been in your entire life. Not only am I incapable, I worry that even if I were well, I might be unable to ... to ... interest myself in proceeding to know you better. Now, with those comforting words, share this laudanum with me and let us both get a good night’s sleep. Please, dearest wife, just in case you have decided to do away with me, taste it.”
“Give it to me, I’ll drink a sip. You are making a great fuss over nothing.” At his warning glance, she hastily added, “Dace, it is laudanum not poison.”
He let her take the glass from his hand.
“Don’t call me Dace, it’s what my friends call me. Until you can honestly claim to want my friendship you must call me such sweet nothings as come to mind. Perhaps, dearest Devil, darling Demon, sweet Satan? How clever of you to have my portrait painted on the dome welcoming the family into hell. Dear Lizzie, did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
Lizzie sipped the laudanum rather than answer. He put a finger at the bottom of the glass to tip half the mixture into her mouth, so she coughed and choked and, at last, managed to swallow the brew.
Beast! She had meant the dose to relieve his pain and make him sleep. He was twice her size. Half the doze was enough to knock her out for the night and most of the morrow.
“Get in, dearest Lizzie.” He took the glass back and downed the remaining contents in one gulp. “Remove the bolster for me, you can put it between us to divide the bed. And don’t dare move from your side. This is the one night I get to share my bed with you, dear heart, what a pity I shall spend it in a drugged sleep.”
The Beast muttered a curse when she slid the bolster out from under the pillows. He lay back and clutched his shoulder protectively when she placed the long cylindrical cushion carefully down the center of the bed.
Lizzie got into bed with the Beast.
The laudanum was not long in taking effect. Her eyelids grew heavy, long before sleep claimed her. Her limbs grew weak and the sound of her breathing filled her ears. She could hear but not speak, feel but not react. She floated over and over until she lay in the Beast’s embrace.
“Are you asleep, my love?” he whispered in her ear. “Let me hold you to keep you warm. Forgive me. Hush. There is nothing to fear.”
Here are some books on the craft of writing.
Self-editing for the Fiction Writer by Rennie Browne and Dave King
Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
The first five pages, Noah Lukeman
Happy writing and reading!
© Maggie Jagger