Writing

Critique #1

Based on the feedback I received from you fabulous blog readers last week, I’m starting a new agenda for “YA on Saturday.” Each week I’ll mix it up and try something different, so it won’t be the same format every Saturday (unless I get all questions or all critiques). Today I’m doing a critique because Syd bravely offered me her story. Thanks, Syd!!

Please don’t judge Syd based on this excerpt. This is the first draft of her first novel, and I purposely picked one of her weaker scenes as a means of illustration. I could’ve picked one of her many brilliant excerpts, but that would’ve defeated the purpose of a public critique. This part won’t make sense without the context; just know that Ari is relating an incident to her best friend, Jess …

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“Okay.  Go back for a second.  What do you mean you felt like Cy was watching you?”

“Well it was really too dark to tell what he was looking at.  But you know when you get the feeling that someone is watching you?”

Jess nodded her agreement completely engrossed in the story.

“Well that’s what it felt like.  And right when I told the guy with the snake to take a hike Cy smiled.   There wasn’t anyone else around him, so it’s not like he heard a good joke and decided to crack a smile.”

Jess frowned, “Well if you couldn’t tell he was checking you out or not, he must have been a ways away, right?”

“Yeah…all the way across the dance floor and in the corner by the bar.”

“So how’d he hear you?”

“That’s the weird part.  I have no idea.  And I could be completely wrong.  Like I said, it just felt that way.”

Jess gently prodded, “Okay, so then what happened?”

______________________________________________

Disclaimer:  the following opinions are just that—opinions. I am not an expert. I am not always right (as much as I hate to admit that).

First, I have some points to make.

Point #1: Notice the Jess frowned*comma* and Jess gently prodded *comma*. I see this mistake a lot when I’m editing stories. Those commas should be periods. Only use a comma if it’s: Jess said, “Okay …” OR if it’s a synonym of said (whispered, shouted, gasped, asked, etc). Jess frowned. That’s a sentence, so treat it as one. Jess did not frown her words; her face frowned. Likewise, Jess did not prod the words—she prodded Ari. In this case, I don’t think the prodded is even necessary; we can tell by her dialogue that Jess is prodding Ari. Showing is better than telling, so explaining Jess’s behavior here is repetitive telling. A common mistake I see is: Someone laughed, “Good joke.” Use a period after laughed. Or you could write: Laughing, she said, “Good joke.”

Point #2: Notice that Well and Okay start lines of dialogue more than once in this excerpt. I’m guilty of this, too. I say Well and Okay a lot in real life, so I put those words in to attempt realistic dialogue. Good intentions, but bad idea. Yeah, dialogue should be realistic … but writing dialogue doesn’t always equate dictation from real life. Dialogue in a story has to be quick and snappy. Don’t use a lot of repetitive, unnecessary words that distract the reader. Maybe once in awhile you could use a Well or an Okay, but only if it’s vital (like the character is stalling for time or at a loss of words).

Point #3: I’d like to see a little more action, especially from Ari. You don’t have to add a tag (action or description) to every line of dialogue, but don’t go too long without a reference to the character or surroundings.

Now … let me try rewriting this (just as an example, not as “My word is final”). I’ll add some commas and phrases, delete extra words, and put spaces around the ellipsis—one space before and one space after. I’ll also delete words that tell rather than show. See if you notice the changes:

__________________________________________________________________

“Go back for a second.” Jess flipped her hands palm out, halting the conversation.  “You felt like Cy was watching you? What does that mean?”

Ari fidgeted and glanced around the restaurant. “You know that feeling, like someone is watching you?”

Jess nodded, her mouth slack.

“That’s what it felt like. When I told the guy with the snake to take a hike, Cy smiled. But he was alone, so why would he smile?”

“You couldn’t tell if he was checking you out,” Jess said with a frown, “so he must’ve been far away, right?”

“Yeah … across the dance floor and in the corner by the bar.”

“So how’d he hear you?”

Rubbing her temples, Ari sighed. “I have no idea. That’s why it seems so weird. Forget what I felt—I must be completely wrong.”

Jess quirked an eyebrow. “So then what happened?”

_____________________________________________

Again, this is just an example. By rewriting this, I’m overriding Syd’s voice and original intentions. She’ll have to rewrite it again to fit her own needs.

I want to point out one more thing. Instead of writing: Ari felt uncomfortable with the topic, I wrote: Ari fidgeted … Instead of writing: Jess was completely engrossed in the story, I wrote: Jess nodded, her mouth slack. Not the best examples, but I hope they illustrate the difference between showing and telling.

Anyone want to offer further thoughts or suggestions for Syd? Constructive criticism is welcome, but I will delete anything hurtful or derogatory. When giving advice, it always helps to sandwich it with praise. Example: “I like Jess’s concern for Ari. I want to see more description though. Loving Ari’s dilemma!”

Most importantly, thanks to Syd for submitting her work and making this post possible! Follow her lead and email me your own story’s excerpt (approximately 100 words in length). Or email me any questions you’d like to see answered on a future post. You can remain anonymous, if you wish! Hope to hear from you soon!

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14 thoughts on “Critique #1

  1. Good points. And that thing I do with commas? When I’m writing I can’t think grammar…it just isn’t ingrained in my brain no matter how many grammar textbooks I read. So every time I’m writing dialogue I think of you and say, “To heck with figuring out whether to put a period or comma. I’ll fix this later and if not, E will get it.” LOL…that sounds horribly lazy doesn’t it?

    Good point on showing/telling…I think that probably happens more often than I’d like to think 😀

    Thanks for the critique and advice 😀

    • Aww, you are so NICE. How can you read a critique and immediately respond with such affirmative things?? See, this is proof that you have what it takes to be a writer. If you can handle criticism, then you can improve … and keep your sanity!

      I know grammar doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But I tried to explain it in a way that will stick in your brain. ALWAYS use a period UNLESS it’s said/synonym of said. Does that make sense?

      No problem … you know I live for this grammar stuff. *snort* Thank YOU for volunteering!!

  2. That rule does make sense. It’s actually pretty simple, LOL. But grammar is complicated for me and I like to confuse myself :}

    I don’t know if I’m NICE, exactly…cause I KNEW this excerpt was dragging. And since it’s still the first draft I haven’t had a chance to go back and fix it. Had I fixed it and you tore it apart, I may not have been so understanding 😉

    But doing this just made me realize that there were times when I let parts like this go. I just wrote and didn’t worry that it didn’t sound right.

    I’m not sure if that was a symptom of NaNo or I’ve become more anal now, but I’m having a very hard time feeling that way about my current writing.

    • Maybe it’s not that you’re more anal now, but that you’re more educated in the writing craft. You’ve read and learned a lot since that NaNo, and it’s only natural that the info would change how you view your writing. Somehow you have to recreate that urgency of NaNo, that feeling of “I have to get this many words done today, no matter how bad they are.” You set the goals and run toward them … accepting that some scenes will be bad. 🙂

  3. Honestly? I think the main problem with the scene is that it’s a whole lot of exposition — that is the “tell” problem, imo, not so much the interaction between the characters, though I too prefer the change to a more active verb if you’re going to describe what they’re doing.

    If the scene in which Ari and Cy exchange looks is already in the story, then I would turn this conversation into a summary, something along the lines of “Ari told Jess what happened with Cy last night” and go from there, if Jess needs to be informed for their conversation to continue, or to foreshadow something that happens later. Because if the reader already knows what happened, the scene is redundant. It IS okay to tell sometimes! (The hard part, of course, is knowing when to use it, and how to do it effectively.)

    If you’re informing the reader about what happened through Jess (that is, the reader would be asking Ari the same questions Jess is asking), the scene should stay — or somehow be turned into a less sitting-around-and-just-talking scene, but maybe there’s other stuff happening too that we don’t see in this snippet? I’m not sure if the restaurant bit is part of Syd’s story or just made up for the critique.

    (In either case, I would be more inclined to change some of the action to specific things they are doing while eating because it makes the action more interesting/immediate/specific. For example:

    Jess slowly placed her full glass of water back down on its coaster. “Okay. Go back for a second. What do you mean you felt like Cy was watching you?”

    “Well, it was really too dark to tell what he was looking at.” Ari shifted in her seat, glancing nervously around the crowded restaurant, and then met Jess’s eyes. “But you know when you get the feeling that someone is watching you?”

    Jess nodded, plate of spaghetti forgotten for the moment.

    “That’s what it felt like. And right when I told the guy with the snake to take a hike, Cy smiled. There wasn’t anyone else around him, so it’s not like he heard a good joke and decided to crack a smile.” Ari tore her bread into tiny pieces, scattering crumbs over the tablecloth.

    “If you couldn’t tell he was checking you out or not, he must have been a ways away, right?”

    “Yeah…all the way across the dance floor and in the corner by the bar.”

    “So how’d he hear you?”

    Ari rubbed her temples, still unable to settle her nerves. “That’s the weird part. I have no idea. And I could be completely wrong. Like I said, it just felt that way.”

    “Okay, so then what happened?” Jess said gently.

    [1. I would be okay with the use of “prodded” in the last sentence.

    2. Another personal preferences: I don’t like “quirk” as a verb describing certain facial actions because I think it’s overused.

    3. re Point #2 — “well” has been eradicated, but I count 3 “so”s in the rewrite. 😉

    4. The action would change depending on how the girls felt or what habits they had. If Ari is not the nervous type, then the tone of her story would change, and likely, so would Jess’s reaction to her/it — the last sentence could be read as a demand, for example, if they were really excited, rather than a careful inquiry because Ari is nervous.]

    • Handyhunter! Thanks for stopping by to critique!! 😀

      I think you make some very good points, but it’s impossible to know if the scene is necessary without reading the rest of the story. We don’t know if this retelling of Ari & Cy is crucial or not, or if it would be better summarized. That type of critiquing is more of a big-picture, second-draft editing. Since we don’t have the context to work with, we have to focus on this scene and the nitty gritty details.

      I like your ideas about referencing the restaurant (water, spaghetti, etc). That all depends on whether they’re eating or not, or maybe they’re waiting for their food to arrive. But it’s good to check in with the setting and give the characters realistic actions. With the dialogue tags I chose, I think I was trying to show emotion without telling. But maybe a mix of emotion and setting? Again, it depends on how much of the setting we received earlier in the story. That’s the hard thing about critiquing little excerpts, I guess!

      Interesting to see the differences in word choice, LOL. Everyone is different! And we all catch different mistakes! 😀 Thanks again for your thoughts and suggestions!!

  4. it’s impossible to know if the scene is necessary without reading the rest of the story.

    Yeah, it’s why I started my sentences with “If…” 😀

    That type of critiquing is more of a big-picture, second-draft editing. Since we don’t have the context to work with, we have to focus on this scene and the nitty gritty details.

    That’s true. I just wanted to point out that this is the type of scene that should get cut or integrated into the action of the present moment, if an author wants the story to keep hopping along.

    With the dialogue tags I chose, I think I was trying to show emotion without telling. But maybe a mix of emotion and setting? Again, it depends on how much of the setting we received earlier in the story.

    I think it also depends on whose POV we’re in. That would change the context of the scene as well because not only are we getting told a story (within a story), we’re also getting Character A’s thoughts and her interpretation of Character B’s words and actions, filtered through A’s eyes.

  5. Hello Erin, hello Syd:

    First of all, congratulations to Syd for being so brave!!!! It’s difficult to offer a ‘firstborn’ for critique, even to a best friend, isn’t it? And Erin is so sensitive about hurting anyone’s feelings, which is a good thing….at the same time Erin, you make an awesome critic/reader/advisor, and if it had been one of my chapters on the chopping block, I would have thought you did a decent and helpful job too, whether you consider yourself an ‘expert’ or not……

    Re. the grammar thing….there are those who say just get the First Draft written full steam ahead, and go back over it when it’s done to pick up on the sentence structure, grammar, character flaws, plot problems, etc., Something tells me that’s probably the right thing to do…..but I agonize over grammar from the get go, which is why I haven’t finished Draft 1 yet, no doubt…….

    I agreed with your suggestions, Erin, regarding Syd’s piece.
    And I too am guilty of overusing ‘Okay’ and ‘Well’, etc., in order to make my dialogue realistic……dialogue is tricky, in that it is more often what we can leave OUT that presents difficulty. The personality and authenticity of our character’s voice comes through dialogue….something no writer wishes to lose. Also, what characters are saying moves the plot, so the words shouldn’t allow the story to slow down…..

    I did feel there was some extraneous dialogue. For example:
    “Okay. Go back for a second”etc., could be reduced to “What do you mean you felt Cy was watching you?”

    Following are a few further ‘reductions’:

    “It was to dark to tell what he was really looking at. But, you know, a feeling that someone’s watching…that’s what it felt like,” Ari said.

    “When I told the guy with the snake to take a hike, Cy smiled,” she continued. “There wasn’t anyone near him; it’s not like he heard a good joke and decided to crack a smile!”

    Jess nodded in agreement and frowned. “He must have been far away, right?”

    “Yeah…across the dance floor, by the bar.”

    “So, how’d he hear you?”

    Ari turned away in exasperation. “Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. Like I said, it just felt that way!”

    “Okay, okay,” Jess said gently. “So, then what happened?”

    THE ONLY other thing I have to say, is to Syd: I want to know what happened? So, carry on writing, girl……

    All my best to you both,
    Ann (Canada)

    PS Should I send in a chapter for critique too?

    • Oh, Ann—I love it when you stop by to comment. 😀 And you have some wonderful suggestions as well!! I like finding extraneous words. When I did the final draft of my first novel, I read every word and decided whether it could stay or go. It was hard at first, but then I started to love it! I easily shaved off a few thousand words that way. Anyway, thanks for your reduction examples!

      I’m the type that believe in full steam ahead for the first draft. But that doesn’t work for everyone; you have to find what works for you. Think of it this way: at least you’ll have less editing to do in later drafts! 😀

      Dialogue IS tricky … I still have a lot to learn about it. I keep meaning to post a topic about dialogue, but I don’t know what I’d say! 😉

      And YAY for encouraging Syd! I want to know what happens, too, but she’s slowly killing me. LOL

      P.S. Yes, I would like to critique some of your story! You can send me the whole story if you want! *evil grin* For the sake of the website though, I’ll probably only share 100 words or so online (it takes too long to do more). Next Saturday I have an interview scheduled, and the following week Savannah volunteered for a critique! But I could sign you up for the week after that. And thank you for volunteering!! *hugs*

  6. An interview, no less……Erin, are you fabulously famous and you’re keeping it to yourself? (LOL)

    I’d be delighted to be signed up for the week following Savannah….I’d also be doubly delighted to send the whole novel…..(Erin, be careful for what you wish……..), but it only exists in part. So, a chapter will suffice I hope, and you can pick the 100 words to share online out of that (uh oh, what am I getting myself into!!!)

    I’ve been asked to read some of my poetry at a poetry workshop this coming week, (yes, I write poetry!!)…so I’ve got a bit of preparation to do for that as well. If you enjoy poetry, I’d be happy to share some of mine with you one day…

    Lovely to hear from you, Erin, as usual…(:)
    All the best,
    Ann

    P.S. Thanks so much for the ‘hugs’.

    • LOL! It’s ME interviewing a famous person, not the other way around! But that’s a funny thought, me being secretly famous … 😀

      WOOT, a chapter!! Syd will tell you that I am wickedly gifted at receiving stories from people! Don’t worry though, I will check with you before posting an excerpt!

      I didn’t know you write poetry! I’m horrible at writing it, but I do enjoy reading it! I should host some poetry-sharing sometime, because Vicki loves writing poetry, too. Good luck with your reading!! Let us know how it goes, and I’d love to read it someday!

      And don’t worry about the failed smiley … I knew your intentions. 😀 You can have hugs anytime!

  7. Pingback: Critique #2 « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  8. Pingback: Critique #3 « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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