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

Cut in the Critique

princessdiariesToo long, needed to more quickly get to the point, didn’t add to the story, wasn’t enough of a comeuppance for the bad girl… The comments by the director about the deleted scenes for the movie The Princess Diaries (2001) are valuable reminders for editing our own stories. (Watch them on the DVD.) As I did, you’ll probably find yourself agreeing, yes, that scene wasn’t necessary. Or, yes, it’s a stronger story without this one. The director even cut some of his favorite scenes to make a better movie.
Enabling us to produce better manuscripts is why critique groups exist. Watching the director commentary was almost like getting a bird’s eye view of a critique from start to finish: the pre-critiqued version and the tightened, more focused version. For me, it gave me additional tools for looking at scenes in my own fiction. I learned these questions*:
• Does this add to the story?
• Does this get the emotional reaction I want?
• Am I getting to the main point here?
• Will the reader care about this?
• How does this make my main character appear?
• Is my antagonist getting what he deserves?
• Is this the right time for this relationship/problem to be resolved?
I shouldn’t just ask these questions of myself, but ask my critique group to respond, too.
Does this mean I might have to cut a scene I like? Yes. Does this mean I’ll have to do rewriting and reordering? Yes. Will it be worth it? YES! If my story goes out to an editor stronger, clearer, better focused, my odds of acceptance are increased.
*Variants of these questions may also be useful when critiquing others.
• What is the emotional reaction you want from this scene?
• Your main character seems rather useless here, is that what you want me to think?
• Do you think your villain is getting what he deserves here?
• Should these characters be getting along so well in this scene?
In addition to being more thought provoking, critique questions can also make a nice variation from “too long,” “need to get to the point more quickly,” etc. statements.
Got any other movie examples that help remind us what to edit in our own stories? Feel free to share them here.

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

The Sandwich of Critique

sandwichYou may be wondering how a critique group works. There are many methods and styles of critiquing. Some are face-to-face, some online. Some face-to-face groups read the manuscript out loud and then discuss. Some send manuscripts ahead of time, so that the time together is only spent discussing. Online groups might send attached documents so the “commenting” option in MS Word can be used. Others exchange manuscripts and comments directly in email.
Whatever method used, there should always be a sandwich approach to comments. Simply stated: say something good first, talk about problems, end with something positive. It’s good to keep in mind the purpose of critique, which is to help improve writing–not be a mutual admiration time or an opportunity to tear down another person or their writing.

Let me demonstrate using a SANDWICH as an analogy.

BREAD represents positive comments that hold the sandwich together.

    • Sometimes you have…
      …thin slices, or a single slice – not much to say
      …a big fat roll – lots to say
      …whole wheat or white – more detailed or general comments
    • This might include marketing suggestions

CONDIMENTS are a thin spread of the “nitpicky” variety of comments or questions.

    • These can be added anytime during the sandwich making process
      …a specific word that doesn’t work for the listener
      …such things as: “could you name characters with more dissimilar names?–I’m getting confused”
      …remove “that” from your 2nd sentence

VEGETABLES are those healthy comments to improve the story or article.

    • Warnings of off-putting patterns
      …weasel words (those words that just slip in, such as “very” or “seems”)*
      …passive verbs
      …excessive adverbs or adjectives
      …unvaried sentence structure
    • Requests for more
      …”What is the character thinking or feeling?”
      …”I’m having difficulty picturing this scene. Can you put in more details of setting and action?”

MEAT/CHEESE are questions and comments that reach to the heart of problems in a piece.

    • These may be in depth, but mainly deal with “big” issues
      …story is not plausible
      …article doesn’t make sense
      …character doesn’t feel real
      …telling versus showing
      …references don’t support point
      …confusion on who or what the story is about
  • Since these are tough for the writer to hear, it is important to say what IS working

* I love agent Rachelle Gardner’s list of words to cut. Do you have more that slip into your manuscripts? Feel free to share them in the comments here.