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.

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

Showing the Passage of Time

Writer Jami Gold said, “Time—just like location—establishes our story’s setting, which anchors readers in our story.”

There’s a movie that does a marvelous job of showing passing of time. In it the character is literally walking through different seasons. It takes a very short time on screen but we know without a doubt that a year has passed.

We want readers to have a sense of time passing in written stories as well. How do we do that?

Use simple transitions to show time has been skipped. This is where we get to tell. “That evening…” “The next morning…” “Two days later…” “After school…” “He showered and dressed…” We are summarizing nonimportant happenings to get on with the story.

State the time in the text. Or day of week. Or date. Or season. “Leslie checked the time on her phone. 7:32 a.m. If he didn’t show up soon, they’d be late to school. 7:35.” “On the first day of spring break…”

Show the time with what is in the sky. “The rising sun peeking through the window…” “The moon glow…” Mention the stars and the reader will assume night.

Use events to show time. It can be a countdown: “Only one more week until my birthday.” Or can be days counted since an event: “It’s been three hours/days since…” Or it can be a wait and payoff. “In six and a half days Stella would finally see her best friend.” The next scene might be at the airport as the friend exits the gate.

Use physical cues. “Oh, great, it’s that time of the month again.” “Dad’s chin was scratchy on my cheek” could indicate evening. “The dew on the grass was cold on my bare feet” probably means morning.

Scene breaks can indicate time has passed. If the end of one scene shows a character studying for a final then heading to bed, and the next scene shows him in the classroom taking the test, the reader will assume the night has passed.

In addition, remember time is relative. Waiting 15 minutes to be called in the doctor’s office can feel like a long time. We might be aware of things we normally ignore such as a pattern in the couch across from us. Or the finger smudges on the window. Or the buzz of the lights. On the other hand, when a crisis is happening, we might only focus on the main thing—the charging bear.

Also, think how kids the age of your character in your manuscript view time. Author Elizabeth Varadan said, “In a child’s life, a week, a month, a few months, can feel like forever.” My great-niece who is seven recently said, “…it takes a thousand years before I get a year older!” A child character will not be talking about how quickly the years or even months pass—that’s an adult reaction. Though a kid might think summer vacation goes by too fast.

Robert Wood said in his article on time, “a compelling sense of time passing can bring a story to life in ways you’d never expect.” By contrast, if too many things happen in a specified time period to be possible, we can lose readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Do you know what time it is in your story?

If you need help keeping track of that time, perhaps this post on timelines will be helpful.

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

Short Story Versus Novel

A short story usually has only one problem to be solved. And a relatively easily solved problem at that. Novels often have an overarching problem—something big, such as death of a parent, or not fitting in, a mystery from their past to solve, etc. But there often are other problems along the way. The character must keep solving in a novel. Not one and done as a short story does.

Your story can cover a short time period or a long period and still be a novel, but the longer the time period, the more likely the story is a novel. Short stories exist in a short time period, often one day or less. They are more like a snapshot than a two-hour movie. A short story can be one scene or a few. A novel will usually be many scenes.

Similarly, setting is often different between the two. It’s easy to have a short story resolve in one setting, one place. More difficult to do so with a novel. Think of how many novels, even if they aren’t about a journey, don’t stay in one room, or one house, but have indoor and outdoor settings, and often a variety of those. Of course that all affects how much description there will be.

In a short story, you won’t go as deep into your main character. You’ll probably show only one flaw in the character, not many. The same with skills, desires, dreams. The short story focuses on one aspect of a character’s life. One situation. A novel will do much more.

Think of a novel like a TV series. I’m watching one now. As I go along I’m getting tidbits of the character’s past. I want to know more of what’s happening in his life now, and in the past, so keep watching and get to learn both. In a novel and a TV series, I don’t get a full info dump of the character’s past—only what I need to know now for this scene. In a novel, I want to know more of both the character’s future and past so keep reading. In a short story I’m pretty content with what happens here and now with the character. I don’t need or want the depth. Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

Short stories don’t usually have subplots and backstory on the page is very limited. Novels often have both. More characters can work in a novel where the same number would be overwhelming in a short story. It’s also unlikely for a short story to have multiple viewpoints.

I like this quote from Sophie Playle, “A novel is a journey – not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.” A journey takes commitment versus a short trip to the grocery store.

These reasons are why I’ll write on student short stories, “novel topic” or “This problem can’t be solved in a short story.” If you can’t personally imagine solving the problem in a short amount of  time, then your character can’t either, so think novel, not short story.