Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Critique Rollup: What you might learn from my critique

Here are some dos and don'ts plucked straight from a recent critique of my latest piece.

First off, THANK YOU to those friends who helped critique Gladiator.

Andrew Rosenberg
Donna Hole
Ashley Ladd
Raquel Byrnes
Christine H
Carol Anne Carr

And of course my WONDERFUL READER Lanai D!

(I hope I didn't miss someone)

Now, on to what I learned from it, and what you might be able to learn from me.

It is okay to be critiqued

This was my first critique. Yes, you read that right. I have NEVER been critiqued. I let people read my finished pieces, and I've had beta readers who helped me set the working piece afloat in the right direction, but I have never had a group of writers look at my work and shred it.

And it wasn't as bad as I thought. I assumed -- wrongly -- that I might receive silly and meaningless suggestions, or would open myself up to personal attacks. I was afraid of the critique.

It wasn't that bad. Brutal, yes. Enlightening, sure. Can I make everyone happy? Hell no. But I can take away some good information from each critic, and can use that information to improve not only this piece, but my future pieces as well.

Lesson Learned: Don't be afraid to ask for a critique.

Introduce the MAIN CHARACTER!

I introduced a secondary character in my first chapter. I have to change that. You MUST introduce the primary character, the Main Character, the big MC, first.

Then you can introduce the supporting roles.

Lesson Learned: MC comes first.

Story Hooks
Nobody got my hooks. One reader did. Sort of. But overall, I was far too vague.

"What is your point? Where are you going with this?" was a common question. I need to be specific and precise and determinant.

Lesson Learned: Give the reader a direction.


My piece was ripped in turn by each critic for a single lacking element: Conflict.

The first scene was interesting, but it did not introduce the plot or the main character or the main character's story question or the story's primary plot element.

Lesson learned: Unless this is lit-fic, which is allowed to ramble, and which usually sits unread in hardback on your built-in bookshelf, you'd better introduce some conflict.

Addendum: Nobody mentioned it, but the conflict must be BIG, preferably life-or-death.


One of my personal quotes is this: Yell ACTION! not BACKSTORY!

And yet, despite my advice-to-self, I am guilty of beginning my story with lackluster action.

Folks, description is backstory and slow reading. Don't forget that. Work it into the action, or at least set the action in motion before you slow it down to look around.

Lesson Learned: Start with a smidge of action. Then introduce the setting. Propel the story forward first, and mold setting around the action.

Run-ons and fragments

I use run-ons not only on my blog, but as a habit inside my fiction. I like the feel of a run-on sentence, but most critics highlighted that I may have been over-using it.

I also got a few red marks for my sentence fragments. I think I am using them too often and need to back off and use proper construct.

Lesson Learned: Minimize stylistic elements, and if you use them, use them properly.

Voice and Tone

Now on this I got good marks. This is huge, because the other stuff I can fix and modify to hit a wider percentage of readers (you'll never get 100% consensus), but voice and tone are something intuitive that cannot be learned.

Mostly, nobody mentioned V&T, so I had to read what they were not saying, and assume it was not an issue. When I queried, the response confirmed that V&T were not an issue.

Lesson Learned: Pay attention to what your critics do not say. These may be your strong points.

Setting and Character

Overwhelmingly the response was that I did a good job putting the reader into the setting and bringing the characters to life.

That's a good thing, too, because combined with V&T, getting your setting and characters to pop into life is one of the deeper elements of writing.

Lesson Learned: Everyone notices setting and character.


You can never make everyone happy.

Lesson Learned: So don't even try.

- Eric


Cherie Reich said...

Great lessons to learn! Thanks for writing this post. It's definitely something we writers need to keep in mind. :)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Yay! claps

I do disagree on two points.
1 Introduce the MC first...meh. I don't introduce my MC until the third scene. You read it...did it not work for you?

2 Voice and Tone cannot be learned...w w whaaa??? Not only can they be learned...they must change between different POV's. Yes, you have a good voice...but I'd like it less of a narrator's voice and more of a character's voice. Be the character. It was just a little bit down on my list.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Critique.
Now go get me some conflict. ;)

Raquel Byrnes said...

I beg to differ with Andrew on the introducing the MC in the first scene. The reader needs to immediately connect...I concede that you can do this indirectly, by establishing them through other means.

I agree with his voice and tone comments...I've read his stuff and he's right on the money. He changes with POV extrememly well. Love those blogfests!

You were so brave to do this blind...I cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes after an agent shredded my stuff at a conference and that was nowhere near as public as what you did.

Then you come back and help other writers with what you learned...

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Them's fightin words, Raquel.

Introduce the CONFLICT in the first scene. Conflict is what drives the story, not the MC. Mysteries usually start with the Crime...which has nothing to do with the MC. Introduce the bad guys first...that will get your reader interested.

But I am willing to concede that the MC should be introduced as early as possible.

Raquel Byrnes said...

What are you talking about? The murder always has to do with the MC...solving it is why they exist.

And to clarify...not throw a punch...I believe that mystery has its own special requirements and should thus...respectfully, be excluded anyway. =)

To be fair, I do write romantic suspense and it is actually a genre requirement to introduce the mc and the love interest in the first chapter, along with a hook in the first 50 words, and the conflict. Whew!

And you are right about bad guys...they do tend to hook the readers.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Oh fiddledee dee

What's "romantic suspense"?

Eric W. Trant said...

In programming there is a saying, specific to PERL: There is always more than one way to do it.

You should see me arguing code constructs with fellow programmers. You think writing critiques are heated!

And don't get me started on statisticians. Here's a stat saying: Ask four different statisticians, you'll get five different answers.

So introducing MC second might work. Sometimes. Depends. In my case, I feel I introduced the wrong person first, ergo I'll change it on my next cut.

Raquel, the agent was an idget to embarrass you, if that's what happened. In fact, in the real world, I'm a bit of a jackass, and there's a good chance I would've popped the guy's eye if he'd shredded my script, and if it'd been a woman, I likely would've gotten personal.

Andrew, Voice and tone can be modified and honed and controlled, but not learned. That's the muse speaking.

Cherie, I hope my pain is your gain. ;)

- Eric

Raquel Byrnes said...

All right...now I just sense a raised eyebrow and a mocking tone.

Good job anyway, Eric.

dolorah said...

That is brave to share your critiques, and the lessons you learned. Eric, you were an excellent recipient of feedback. Your responses were gracious, and your appreciation for the efforts on behalf of your novel was clearly evident. It is hard to accept criticism; and the first time can be the toughest.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer feedback. I always get something back when I critique, a learning experience.

The only thing I have to disagree with in your "Lessons Learned" is the ACTION statement. Sometimes you need a bit of backstory to set up the action. And forward movement - the introduction of characters (I'm of the side that wants MC first), setting and something subtle that introduces the overall plot - is action. At least, in my opinion. Doesn't always have to be flashy.

And voice and tone; that my friend, is something you don't have to worry about. Ever. In all your short excerpts, it is your strength as an author, and what makes your stories so engaging.

Good luck with your re-writes. I'm glad we didn't scare you off of any more critiques.


Unknown said...

Thanks for being so brave and sharing. Crit is a hard thing to swallow, but a necessary step in writing.

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

Great post, thanks! You gave me some things to think about. I also use sentence fragments and am a fan. They're short and to the point and move the reader along. But I can see that too many would be, well, too many.

The main thing I'm questioning, though, is whether I've introduced enough of the plot in the opening of my MS. Hmm...

I hope you leave your piece up long enough for me to come back to it in a few more days when I've got more time. I did read the beginning a while back when you posted it when talking about writing what you know. Or not.

TaTa, ~That Rebel, Olivia

Tara said...

I'm glad to be of some help. You know where I stand on the MC intro and the action sequences ;)

Nighfala said...

Hey, I'm a statistician! Watch what you say.

No, really. I truly am. I'm an M.S. and I teach statistics part time.

The reason you get four different answers is that they each took a different sample and got slightly different results due to random variation. But overall trends suggest a course of action. You seem to have done a good job of synthesizing your data.

Regarding the MC: I heard an author at a conference say that he had introduced some characters in his first scene, but not the main character. His editor had him change the first scene to a prologue so that the MC was the first person the reader meets in Chapter 1. Usually, the reader is going to assume that the first character they meet is the MC.

Almost every book I've ever read follows this rule, except for mysteries in which the victim is often introduced and murdered in the first scene, then the detective is summoned.

Nighfala said...

(hiding my face behind my hands, peeking anxiously between my fingers, waiting for your critique of my chapters)

Nighfala said...

PS If I knew this was your first critique, I would have been all love and light, encouraging you, patting you on the back, saying "Good job, it's wonderful! You are God's gift to fiction."

Because that's what my first critiquer did for me and I needed the encouragement desperately. But perhaps she knew that.

Eric W. Trant said...

Donna: Nothing brave about sharing the critique. I'm on here to learn and improve and gauge how well or rotten my writing is accepted. I've always gotten a good response from some, bad from others. I'm a love-hate sort of guy, I think.

Mary: Crits are necessary, I guess (and I'm starting to believe), but I wouldn't say it's hard to swallow. I've been posting online for so long now that I am pretty immune to negative comments. I mean, at least nobody on this post threatened to come to my house and kill me for what I wrote!

That was a nice change.

(Seriously, yes, that has happened on many occasions.)

Olivia: I'm leaving my piece up a bit longer. I may leave it up indefinitely, since it is not a huge excerpt. Feel free to rip me same as everyone else did.

Tara: You were VERY helpful, thank you! And yes, I know exactly where you stand on action and MC intro.

Christine: I'm a Chemical Engineer with a minor and a lone patent in statistics. Statisticians are a different breed.

I thought the same thing about the intro of a supporting character -- put it in a prologue.

I also sent you back your crit. Enjoy. And thanks for looking at mine!

- Eric

Nighfala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

That was a great critique! I have received some excellent critigues and felt exactly like you did the first time. Now I can't wait to have the ms ripped aprt. It makes it so much better. One critiquer didn't like my solution to a mystery. "You are cheating the reader." It made me sit up and take notice. I rewrote the ending and made it much more satisfying. It's a lesson I remember for each new plot.

Anonymous said...


I wish I would have been around when you posted your excerpt for critique. Instead, I read what you learned from it before I got to read your writing.

Regardless, I love that you had the guts to do this so publicly. And I've had Andrew crit me, so I know his feedback is spot on in many ways. He made my writing much stronger in only two chapters.

Good feedback is invaluable. I'm glad you took the chance to do this. I hope you find a handful of critters to keep you going.

Great lessons. We are all smarter from reading!


About Me said...

I enjoyed critiquing your chapter. I didn't know that the characters introduced where secondary characters. However, I've seen books start with secondary characters, and work well. I don't mind some backstory to create a rounded character from the start. A lot (I mean whole lot) of books on the bestseller list right now are loaded with backstory in the opening scenes. I was surprised by that, but it seems to work for them. Do what works for your book.