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Friday, April 10, 2009

Learning from Critiquing

One of the best ways to hone one's writing skills is to critique other writers' work. Yes, I know I've said this before. But even after writing eleven books, and learning an incredible amount, it never hurts to get reminders.

I just completed critiquing seven manuscript submissions for several workshops. All of these were the opening pages of fantasy or science fiction works. These ranged from utterly beginner level to one that made me sorry the submission was only 20 pages. And I want to state right here up front a Bravo! for all seven submitters. It takes a lot of moxie to put your work out there for someone else to scrutinize. Some aspiring writers never get there...and they'll never get anywhere. Because as much as we must write for our own pleasure, publishing means communicating our ideas to someone else.

This exercise reminded me of several important lessons about openings.

  1. Open with something important - the story!
  2. Be specific
  3. Go deeper - step back and view the big picture
  4. Strip TV and movie cliches from your writer's vocabulary

  1. Open with something important - the story!
    Even the most die-hard seat-of-the-pants writer [me!] knows a lot before beginning to write. Backstories of characters. World history. The nature of magic. You need to know those things. The reader may need to know them, too, but not necessarily everything, and certainly not in the first two chapters. Be ruthless. Get to story developments - events – in the first two pages. It is story that draws in the reader, not history. If it is page 16 before we know the gender of your main character or page 18 before the first “event” occurs, you will have lost most of your readers.

  2. Be specific
    Specificity is what separates generic prose from vivid prose. Think about moving from place to place. Walk is a generic movement. It almost always requires an adverb to tell the reader what kind of movement we’re talking about, eg. walked slowly or walked briskly or decisively. English is rich with verbs, especially for something so basic as movement. Pull out that thesaurus - not to find hifalutin words your characters would never use, but to find the right word: stroll, meander, stride, trot. For nouns, don’t just say flower or cup or animal. Find a word that will evoke the world you’re describing or reveal something about the character who is describing it. Tankard and teacup give us more vivid scenes without excess verbiage. Think replacement, not addition. When your characters hear a prophecy, don’t leave us with generic, “Beware of the evil one. Shadows will drown the light,” come up with something interesting and specific to your story.

  3. Go deeper - step back and view the big picture

  4. What makes your fifteen-year-old hero different from every other fifteen-year-old hero in literature? Think of the heroic deeds he needs to perform…and then think of what seeds of personality or emotion exist inside your character that can emerge to support those deeds – or what the character lacks that he must develop to be able to do what you require of him. Sometimes you don’t know these things right away, but eventually you must. You’ll not only enrich your character, but you’ll get ideas for meaningful story events that will develop or expose these characreristics. And then look at the reverse to find interesting quirks and flaws. Maybe your female love interest doesn’t need to be highly literate, but she needs to be assertive, so let her lack of literacy be something that distinguishes her from other female characters or something that bothers her.

  5. Strip TV and movie cliches from your writer's vocabulary

    How many people in the world can actually survive their boat going over a waterfall? A blow on the head severe enough to cause unconsciousness will generally cause a concussion. Look up the recovery time and symptoms of a concussion. Repeated concussions cause brain damage. [See the NFL statistics on players who are held out of games or retire because of repeated concussions.] Is it really possible to do the Jason Bourne thing and pick out the evil perpetrators from a mobbed train station? Visit a mobbed train station and try picking out one person! Labor almost never begins with one violent contraction. See what I mean? Don’t rely on film or TV for any medical advice, historical fact, or mechanical reality, ie. guns, bombs, car flipping etc. [Watch TV with a doctor, historian, or mechanical engineer and you’ll hear about it!] Besides being inaccurate, they are cliché. Boring. Unoriginal. And editors, agents spot them right away.


Silver Hawke said...

Do you mind if I copy/paste this post onto my forum? I'll link back to this page but I believe there are several of us who would really find this very useful.

Deb S. said...

Great advise as usual.

carolwriter said...

Silver Hawke - yes you can post with a reference back here.