Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools

Tidying Up

While tidying the house, I remembered a comment the buyer (male) said to my brother-in-law about their home, “How does she keep it so clean?” Like it’s only my sister’s (or the man’s wife’s) responsibility? Grrrr.

But writing is a bit different. Everything in my novel manuscript IS my responsibility. Yes, my critique group can help find mechanical errors or ask good questions such as “What’s the purpose of this chapter?” or “Why would your character do that?” However, I need to do my own homework first.

What does that include?

For me the first step is setting a new chapter aside for a week or more. That allows me to reread it with a fresh eye.

When rereading I check for big picture items first:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Do the characters actions feel realistic? Is their motivation clear?
  • Is there a good balance of action, thoughts, description, setting?
  • Does the chapter move the story forward?
  • Are the stakes clear? Or do I need to ramp them up?
  • Do secondary characters have lives of their own?
  • Is the ending a page turner?
  • What’s the emotional tone? Or how does it change?

What big picture questions or comments do you hear from your critique partners? Is it that there’s not enough sense of setting or character’s thoughts? Or too much telling? Recently, one for me was about emotions being all over the place, hence the latter set of questions.

Next, I tidy up line-by-line items:

Think about those things you often hear from your critique partners. Is it run-on sentences, or misplaced modifiers, or too many adverbs? Add those to your checklist and challenge yourself to find them yourself.*

After I fix any problem areas, I read it again. I may let it sit another week or more and repeat the above before presenting it to my critique group.

The Critique Process

During my verbal critique, I often find there are issues critique partners bring up that really resonate with me.

  • They may be easy fixes than can be changed immediately.
  • Others take more time and consideration. For example, I get what the person is saying, but either I’m not sure how to rewrite or it’s going to take time to make all the changes affected by this one change.

Some, I may disagree with. However, if more than one partner brings it up, I know I must do something about that issue.

Often, I make a few changes before I get the written feedback emailed to me. But more work happens when I open the critiques and consider each comment. This is usually a few days later.

  • I compare opinions and suggestions.
  • I rewrite and reread and ponder if the changes addressed the problems.
  • If I’m stuck on something, I set that suggestion aside and come back to it later.

If the chapter has major changes or additions, when it’s ready I probably have my group critique the rewrite before moving on to the next chapter. Which causes additional revision.

I reread and revise my material countless times. As author Michael Crichton said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…”

*If you have trouble finding grammar issues yourself, try some of these options:

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Dialogue Heavy

Have you ever been told your writing is “dialogue heavy?” What does that mean? Is it just that the characters are talking too much? Maybe. But often it means there’s very little sense of setting, sensory details, and action. The dialogue is in a vacuum and the reader can’t tell where the characters are or what they are doing. They may not even know when there are.

I recently was at an evening high school volleyball game for a friend’s daughter. My friend and I talked, but some of what she said was drowned out by the teens or crowd cheering. And we were distracted by the game. We yelled, “good job” or “go Bulldogs,” and my friend knew all the team members, so encouraged them by name. We stopped talking to applaud when “our” team won a volley against the other team. We moaned when “our” team served into the net or missed blocking a spike.

What else did I notice at the game? The smell of homemade rolls baking. Leftover from earlier that day? I don’t know. But I wanted a homemade roll slathered in butter. The older couple in front of us had brought seat pads—I wished I had too as those wooden bleachers are hard. A member of the teen cheer team walked by carrying a sign that read, “If you’re not cheering, go sit with your mother.” That made me laugh.

Was our talk just filler? No. We actually discussed something very emotional and important. And, yes, we had everyday talk that wouldn’t be important in a novel.

Did I have any thoughts during the game and conversation? Definitely! Some were mundane but others would show my character, and/or my thoughts about other people—both useful for showing thoughts in a novel.

“Details are what helps your reader see and feel the story, as if they are the character,” says Lauryn Trimmer. Read her article “My Characters Talk Too Much.”

So, check out your dialogue and make sure you are including a sense of setting and time of day, sensory details, action, and thought. Your readers will appreciate feeling grounded.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, You Are Not Alone

Critiquing Via Zoom

The Covid pandemic forced us to look at other ways of communicating. Now we commonly use Zoom for webinars, meetings, family get-togethers, and, yes, critique groups. (Kinda wish I’d owned Zoom stock before Covid…)

My critique group started Zooming in March of 2020. And we are still meeting that way–partially as
several of us are not within close driving distance.

Here’s what we learned along the way:

First, sending manuscripts ahead of time saves time.

In face-to-face meetings we brought manuscripts to the meeting and read aloud. Critiquers physically wrote on the paper. Now each manuscript is sent via email two-three days ahead of our Zoom meeting. Each person reads the manuscripts at their leisure and uses a combination of commenting,
and track changes on their copy. We often type in global comments at the beginning as well. E.g. “Loved this chapter. Could add more sensory details.” The file is saved with a new name identifying who critiqued it, e.g. Beauty Chap 8 – Sue.

Second, not everyone can share a manuscript every week.

There are seven of us in our group and we want to have time to discuss each manuscript in depth. We’ve found three to be a good number for everyone to have time to comment. That means we schedule who
“presents” each week so everyone usually gets to share several times a month. We meet from 9 am to 12 pm.* Sometimes we end early. Often, we take a bit of time to talk about our lives or share ups and downs in the publishing world.

Third, someone moderates each meeting.

We rotate who moderates and that person keeps everyone on track. E.g. “We’ll start with C’s manuscript, and we’ll go in this order of commenting: S, G, J, B, K, and myself.” The moderator also reminds the one
being critiqued not to explain or tell what’s going to happen next. The writing needs to stand alone. Having a moderator has reduced frustrations.

Fourth, verbal comments at our Zoom meeting, may prompt other thoughts.

We add these to our own electronic copy of the manuscript. E.g. “E had a great suggestion
on…” or “This didn’t bother me.” or “What if you did…here?”

Fifth, don’t verbally repeat what someone else has already said, nor go over every typo.

The writer gets all the manuscripts with comments returned and can see punctuation suggestions and where critiquers agreed about an issue.

Sixth, after everyone has commented, there’s a short time for questions or additional comments.

This is where the writer can ask for clarification. Or a critiquer can add a last minute thought.

The finished manuscript copies are emailed back to the writer.

I like that we don’t spend time stuck in traffic going to and from meetings. But I love how much regular time I get to spend with my critique group, even if it isn’t in person.


*Several of us have paid Zoom accounts so can host meetings of any length.

Posted in Craft

Three, Not Four

Recently, I found myself telling a critique partner, “Three actions in a sentence, not four.” Let me give you a few made-up examples:

Snorting, Melissa stomped across the floor, flung open her bedroom door, and yelled at her sister, “Turn the music down!”  (20 words)

Do we need the snort? Probably not. It’s just one more thing to visualize and doesn’t really add. We know Melissa is mad by the other verbs: stomped, flung, yelled. Or we could cut the stomp. Snorting, Melissa flung open her bedroom door, and yelled at her sister, “Turn the music down!”  (16 words). But I think the stomp is stronger.

Anthony scooped up the football, threw it across the backyard, then raced across the weedy lawn and tackled his imaginary opponent. (21 words)

It would be easy to cut the scoop section. A reader will assume Anthony is holding the football without it. Anthony threw the football across the backyard, then raced across the weedy lawn and tackled his imaginary opponent. (18 words)

But it’s more than word count. I love this quote from Masterclass, “Using strong sensory imagery will create a vivid image for your reader. It doesn’t provide too much information that insults your audience’s imagination, but it gives enough detail that is necessary for the message you are trying to send.“ Enough detail. “Explain your concepts and your topics but don’t over-explain them.” – from Writing Effective Sentences: Presentation Notes (Bladen Community College).

But why did I choose three? Is there a rule about this concept?

Yes, it’s called the Rule of Three. And it’s cultural. We think of stories as having a beginning, middle, end. Often characters try two times and fail, but win the third time (Three Little Pigs). Characters may come in threes, too. (Goldilocks and how many bears?) “Grouping things in threes not only provides rhythm and balance, but also invokes a powerful subconscious expectation,” says Joslyn Chase. She also says, “Listen to a persuasive speaker, and you’ll hear him engage the Rule of Three time and again to drive home his points, motivate his audience, and boost their memory of his words.” (And she used the power of three in that sentence.) Read more here.

Dawn Bauman says, “In writing, the Rule of Three is the idea that groups of three words, phrases, or ideas are more engaging, effective, and memorable.” In her post, you’ll see a bunch of familiar examples.

So, three is more pleasing to our ears. Why wouldn’t we use the technique in our sentences?

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Are You Stage Directing?

On a recent student manuscript, I found myself saying, “avoid stage directing.” I know the writer was trying to show, but it wasn’t working. What’s the difference from showing? In this particular case, the protagonist turned around to face the antagonist. We already knew they were standing close to each other. They were already in the midst of a conversation. It felt like a director saying, “Now turn and face him.” It wasn’t needed. It didn’t add—in fact, it distracted from the tension of the conversation.

Bucket Siler says, “Stage direction, by my definition, is pointless movement.

Nat Russo says, “Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension), too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is.”

Janice Hardy says, “Good stage direction requires balance and subtlety with the rest of the text. Too much and the scene drags, describing every little move a character makes.” (from “Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions”– great article) She also says, “Skip the obvious.”

Then I found this fantastic article called, “Avoiding Stage Directions”  by M.L. Keller which says, “In novels, anything reported to the reader must be significant. For this reason, listing all of a character’s actions (including insignificant actions) actually creates distance.” The writer explains MRUs (Motivation-Reaction Units) in a very compelling way. This is a must-read article.

Back to the student’s protagonist and antagonist. Another action could have increased tension. And as M.L. Keller says, adding thoughts/motivation would even do more. Compare these three:

  • Ew, why does he have to stand so close to me? She inched away.
  • Wow, he smells good. She had to stop herself from leaning in.
  • Her eyes narrowed. If he takes one step closer, I’m going to punch him.

In these examples, the protagonist could be facing the antagonist, but we get so much more and know each situation is very different.

Nat Russo says, “Stage directions are small beats in your prose that seem, at first glance, like action beats. After all, it’s a character doing something. In reality, however, they often come across as ‘smack the reader over the head with the Hammer of Obvious’ beats.”

No stage directing, please.