Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tips on Taking Critique

For writers who are new to critique, this process is daunting. Not only do we have to put up our writing to ask other people to take axes to it, but they do take axes to it, and that doesn’t often feel good.

But, it’s a necessary process—not only to make your story the best it can be, but to improve your skills as a writer. Receiving good, effective writing critique opens up our brains to new ways of thinking and approaching how we write. Receiving bad critique that sounds good, however, can do just the opposite. Only through surviving the process of critique can we learn how to handle and what to do with it.

Here are some tips on taking critique:

Steel yourself, especially if you’re new to taking critique. A tough hide is vital. If you let yourself see feedback as ridicule or an attack on your writing ability, you’ll crumble and fall into bad places. This defeats the purpose of critique. You’ve written a story, and now you need good, effective critique partners to tell you how to make it even better. Critique partners are there to help you tell the best story you can possibly tell, so don’t punish yourself by thinking otherwise.

Be open. You might be offered suggestions that would take your story in a way different direction and result in a lot more work. You might be offered suggestions that will have you consider changing the POV or taking a character out entirely. Don’t shoot these suggestions down. Weigh everything you’re told, sleep on it, brush your teeth on it, shower on it, give it time to digest so you can remove your own personal writerly bias. You might then see some promise, or you might not. Either is okay because it’s your story and you decide what happens to it.

Listen. Make note of everything your critique partner said, even if it sounds wrong. When they state what bothered them, they might be noticing an effect of what happened earlier. “I didn’t like how this character reacted at all” might actually be a cause of something the character did or didn’t do several chapters ago. Conversely, your partner might just be mistaking personal opinion for legitimate advice. “I don’t like this character and I think it would be cooler if you—” Always listen first and know that you have the power to say no.

Don’t take offense. It’s easy to get upset when a critique partner says they thought a particular scene felt like it went on forever. The important thing is to take a breath, let it out, and look at the scene in question. It might have been one of those scenes that you hated writing anyway—which is often a sign that something’s wrong—and you discover that it actually does read slow. Now, if a partner says something that is actually insensitive (whether intentionally or not), which might often start out like, “Not to be mean or anything,” and might proceed into something along the lines of, “but your writing is like the third grade level,” keep your cool, know that personal opinion is not legitimate advice, and don’t ask them for help again.

Don’t defend yourself or your writing. “My character reacted like this because—” Nope. Don’t do it. If you find yourself needing to defend or explain your writing, then it’s very possible you need to go back through your story and figure out why your readers seemingly aren’t reading what you had intended. If your partner asks for clarification on a certain part, the same applies.

Ask questions. If you’re confused or need clarification, always ask questions, and don’t ask them defensively. “Well, since you thought my character should have reacted differently—” Still nope. Instead, ask for their overall opinion on a character, see where you need to look for tweaks or additions. Don’t be afraid to ask for further elaboration. Wring everything you can out of your critique partner.

Thank everyone. Because everyone likes to be thanked. Reading other work critically takes a lot of time and brain cells, so be gracious and open to helping your critique partners in return.

All critique is biased. As your critique partners report back to you, you’re going to get similar feedback, and you’re going to get feedback that clashes hard enough to leave you with more questions than you began. That’s why having multiple partners is the best thing you can do for your story. Always seek out additional opinions, just know that, ultimately, your story belongs to you and the decisions are all yours to make.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

First 250 Words Smash! #13

Most Wonderful Author: Karlia || disneyprincehiddles @ tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master:
Working Title:

The thing about duels is, there's supposed to be a winner. Only this time, Katiana knew that even if she didn't lose, all was still lost. With one hand behind her back and the other holding a rapier pointed at her opponent, Kat started thinking hard and fast.

How to win. How to win and then get out of here. How to win, get out of here and NOT give away her purpose for falling into this mess to begin with.

Internally Kat winced at that thought. Sir would NOT be happy with her if she gave his identity away before all was ready for him.

Strong Points –
Definitely bold of you in sending us only 106 words! This opening is good in that it’s quick to ask the Big Question and instantly generates tension. Very sweet. I love that it doesn’t waste time in jumping to the story.

Some Tips –
I actually think infusing words with stronger connotations and weight into the narrative would generate more connection and even more tension. This writing exercise has tips on how to do that.

An example is when she’s holding the rapier, but “holding” itself is a very neutral word, more mileage would come from unpacking her apprehension by using a stronger word, such as gripping or squeezing. Maybe her fingers tremble, maybe her palm is sweaty, maybe the tendons in her arm are pulled tight.

Also, the opening lines are a bit telling versus showing, which is typically a no-no. I’m on the fence about them, but I wonder if they’re trying a bit too hard for the dramatic flair, or giving away a little too much too quickly.

The opening sentence could certainly be condensed to something along the lines of “Duels are supposed to have a winner,” and then continue into your second sentence. “The thing about” and other empty phrases don’t carry their weight in narratives. Sometimes they work for character voice, but oftentimes they come off clunky, and when a phrase becomes cliché, readers tend to skim them anyway. You don’t want your readers to ever skim over your narrative.

I’d also suggest you read Writing What Your CharacterThinks, as I believe that might help you integrate your character’s thoughts more naturally into your narrative. It could also help you to read about “distancing phrases”, which is found in Breaking Writing Habits.

Additionally, be wary of using mixed actions that don’t make sense, such as “Internally Kat winced,” as the word “winced” is a physical gesture, not a mental gesture, as implied.

I’d recommend getting to know some more rules of grammar and format. Comma splices, such as in the first sentence, are often jarring. The idea communicated in the second sentence is muddled with the arrangement of each subordinate clause, and the commas also fracture the flow. This is a question of style, of course, but it’s still a good guideline to keep the idea communicated in each sentence as clear as possible. Keep in mind that each comma is a natural pause.

Also, in regards to formatting, words in complete caps for emphasis generally go against formatting rules (though I have seen contemporary YA fiction that utilizes all-caps). Usually, stick to italics, but a guideline that my professor once told us is to use italics only when emphasizing a word completely changes what the sentence means.

 “I didn’t know she was going to wear that sweater.”


“I didn’t know she was going to wear that sweater.”

Or even:
“I didn’t know she was going to wear that sweater.”

Would I Keep Reading?
Not quite yet, not until the prose is strengthened and the flow moves at an easier current. I like the conflict and I like that we start with the action, but I think more work on the narrative would help tremendously!

I know you’ve been waiting a long time, so I hope you revise and resubmit. I’d really like to see what you do and I want to say yes!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Breaking Writing Habits

Habits in writing are natural. Like any other habit, they serve as a safety net and a place where we can surround ourselves in comfortable things that work for us. In short fiction, these habits might not stand out so much. In long fiction, however, repetitious formulas can jolt a reader from the narrative.

The list below is a few pointers on craft habits that I tend to give writers during the critique process. They’re only guidelines, not rules, and as such are totally meant to be ignored at any given time.

Passages of time
I once critiqued a writer who used “she waited a beat” as a way to express a moment passing, and I hadn’t seen this before, so I liked it. But then she used it again. And again.

There might be times where simply “a moment passed” is completely necessary. Oftentimes, however, it doesn’t need to be done. Instead, it might be possible to actually describe what happens in that moment, whether it’s simply just the characters seething with tension and expressing it physically.

“She looked away. They were silent for a tense moment.”


“She looked away. Her fingers picked at her jeans. The breeze tickled the gathering sweat on the back of her neck.”

Extra steps of action can be used as a tool to slow down the narrative or create a certain mood, but if that’s not the intention, then this might be the end result:

“She walked down the hall and grabbed the doorknob. She unlocked the deadbolt and pushed open the door. She stepped outside.”

This is a lot of unnecessary fat that would be trimmed right off in revision. Not every second of a scene (or between scenes) needs to be captured if there’s not plot or character development, so it’s fine if all that is summed up to simply:

“She went outside.”

Distancing phrases
I/she/he: felt, saw, heard, tasted, touched, etc. Any time the aforementioned is used, the writer removes the reader from the story one full step. Instead of diving headfirst into the description, this makes the reader test the water with their big toe first.

“I heard the wolf cry.”
“The wolf cried.”

“I tasted cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon burned on my tongue.”

“I touched the cold water.”
“The cold water stung my fingertips.”

In moderation, at the right moments, perhaps to create a certain mood or to communicate a sort of disconnect (such as in dreams or fragmented memories), using these phrases can be effective as well.

Word tics
Words like “back” and “around” are my greatest dependencies. I use them so frequently that everyone is looking back or turning back or reaching back or handing back. Even worse, sometimes my characters will turn back around.

Word tics stunt a writer in creatively approaching action. I’ve read about agents who loathe the word “look” and said to simply describe what the character is seeing. There are certainly times where these words are absolutely necessary, but they shouldn’t serve as a crutch. (You can read more about word tics in this post.)

Clichés lose their meaning over time, and because of this, they often don’t work well in regards to description.

“He had a chiseled face.”

“Her eyes sparkled like diamonds.”

These are phrases that have been used and abused to the point where readers will glaze over the cliché in question without digesting the words, or readers will read the cliché and think of another story where they last read it. (Or maybe even roll their eyes because diamonds.)

As writers, it’s our job to invent new ways to describe the same things. It’s also important to note that clichés can be reinvented, a twisted new take on old phrases, so to speak, and also that some characters might simply be prone to clichés as part of who they are.

Awesome unusual words
Sometimes we find a super cool word that we love to use and reuse. It simply works in a sentence and conveys precisely what we want to convey. The word might not be all that unusual, but strange enough that it stands out if we use it twice in a chapter. The more we use it, the more it loses its efficacy.

“The blistering cold shower water…”
“The blistering wind…”

Let’s assume the first example sentence just needs to have the word blistering. In that case, it might actually be best to rework the second sentence to let the reader infer the word “blistering”.

“The wind ripped the swell of condensation from her lips. Her eyes burned as she crossed the patches of grass, her stiff fingers buried deep in the pockets of her coat. She knew the sparse green blades would be dead with frost in the morning.”

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Small Update!

Hey, all! We just want to let you know that the blogger here is certainly not dead. I've written quite a bit of content for our Tumblr, which updates daily. If you don't follow us on Tumblr, we recommend you do, because that's always active.

We have a backlog of 250 Words Smash applicants that we'll be climbing into in the near future (recent creative endeavors have been extremely distracting), so look forward to that!

Also, I'll probably start a slow trickle of transferring posts from the Tumblr to here. There's some really good ones.

And I just want to share with you guys what we look like when you google "Keyboard Smash Writers":

WAH. It's so neat and cool and fancy and official-looking and, and, and.

The layout here has also been updated to match the Tumblr. I was so freakin' tired of the ugly background that I finally kicked myself into changing it (and I'd meant to change only the background, but then I ended up spending hours changing both the background and the header, sigh).

For now, I'll start working on a queue for posts to update here. If you have a 250 Words Smash waiting in our inbox, feel absolutely free to revise and resend to us (just make sure you mention it's revised in the subject so we don't pick out your previous submission).

That's it for now. We'll have some BIG news come June!