To Be or Not To Be: When To Avoid This Common Verb

Sorry, Billie. “To be” verbs are dead.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.

For real.

This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.

In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.

Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.

I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”

To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?

“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.

Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.

The Quick Fix: Past Continuous

Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.

Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class.

It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.

Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.

Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:

Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.

Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.

Next Step: Kill the Narrator

All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.

To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.

Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.

Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes.
b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.

In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.

When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!

Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose.
b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.

Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.

Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How

If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.

Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.

Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn.
b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.

Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks.
b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.

Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water.
b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.

I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.

Conclusion

Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.

To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.

What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.

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Finding Your Balance: How to Show AND Tell Effectively

Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”

The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.

In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.

What is Telling?

“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.

Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.

When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.

Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.

The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.

Good Telling vs Bad Telling

Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.

  • a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
  • b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.

In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”

Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!

Let’s look at another example of telling with style.

  • a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
  • b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.

Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.

Adverbs: Telling in Disguise

Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.

  • a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
  • b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.

Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:

  • a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.

But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”

Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:

  • a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.

Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.

Everyone’s favourite “Show, don’t tell” quote.

What is Showing?

If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.

There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.

Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.

The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.

Good Showing vs Bad Showing

Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…

  • a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
  • b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
  • c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.

Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.

  • d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.

Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.

When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.

Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.

  • Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
  • Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
  • Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.

In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.

Choose wisely, and show with caution.

Finding Your Balance

How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.

But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.

Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.

Discussion

What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.

Fillers and Filters: Give Your Writing a Fluff-Free Face Lift

I really, truly mean that, literally.

If you have ever received a story critique from me (you lucky dog, you) I’ve probably harped on and on about filler and filter words. It comes up in 90% of the stories I read.

I just made that statistic up out of thin air, but it’s how I feel, and that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?

Filler words get talked about on a lot of writing blogs. We’ve all read, and probably ignored, countless articles about how they weaken our writing and felt that it doesn’t really apply to us. (Really. See what I did there? My own blog pieces are full of the bastards.) Filter words are trickier, and they aren’t discussed as often, but I’m going to shine a light on the ugly blighters today and hopefully scare them out of your writing.

If simultaneity is the death by a thousand cuts, slowly draining your story’s momentum, then fillers and filters are equally dangerous. If I had to stretch this metaphor–and of course I have to–filler words are death by suffocation on Peeps marshmallow chicks and filters are death by toe-suspension. Or something.

Okay, let me explain what I mean by Filler and Filter words before you decide if those ridiculously nefarious images make any sense.

Filler Words: Put your story on a diet

Cut the fluff. Trim the fat. Tighten your prose. It’s time to put your writing on a word diet.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from studying short story crafting over the past couple of years is the power of brevity. If you are writing a 1000 word flash fiction piece, you must make every word count. You cannot afford to waste precious words on fluff.

I’m looking at you, filler words.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Filler words like: just, that, very, really, literally, totally, quite, perhaps, actually, almost, slightly, simply, absolutely; Filler phrases like: in order to, due to the fact that, etc.

Seeing these filler words in a list, they seem totally innocuous. These are common, every day words that slip naturally into our writing because we use them in our speech. First person narratives tend to be the worst offenders for this reason, but fillers can slip into any POV. The trouble is, in written language, these words do nothing but drag us down.

I get a lot of push back when I point out filler words, for some reason. A lot of writers seem to think that they create a conversational voice and add authenticity to their stories. And in some, exceedingly rare cases, this can be argued if one is writing in a particularly deep POV for a particular kind of character.

For the moment, though, please humour me and lets assume that you are not that special case and your filler words are unnecessary dead weights dragging your story into the depths of the oceans of despair.

Examples: How to cut Filler Words

Ex. 1. a) Breanne really wished that she could just disappear. (8 words)
b) Breanne wished she could disappear. (5 words)

Ex. 2. a) The wind was quite cold and the trees almost bent double. (11 words)
b) The trees bent double in the cold wind. (8 words)

Ex. 3. a) Josie popped into the shop in order to grab a coffee before work. (13 words)
b) Josie popped into the shop to grab a coffee before work. (11 words)

Discussion

Yes. I know. You’re already rolling your eyes at me. Surely saving two or three words here and there isn’t going to make or break your story? Spoken like someone who has never tried to write flash fiction!

But do you see how much cleaner the above sentences sound, simply by removing the filler words? It’s a subtle different that adds up if you apply it throughout your story.

Now, I dare you to search your latest manuscript for the words: very, really, that, and just.

It’s not just a few words here and there is it?

Depending on the length of your story or novel, I’m betting you have hundreds if not thousands of filler words waiting to be culled. I know I do. I’m getting better at not writing them in the first place, but my drafts are still full of them.

I actually love going through my first draft, cutting the fluff, and then deciding where to spend my newly freed-up words. Particularly when I’m confined to a tight word count.

The fact is, filler words give your writing a diluted, wishy-washy feel. Write with conviction, commit to your images, tell the reader exactly what is going on and don’t be afraid to be specific. Cutting the fluff will give an automatic boost to the pace of your story and make your meaning clearer to the reader. It’s probably the only foolproof diet plan in existence.

Filter words, on the other hand, are trickier.

Filter Words: Strip down and get intimate

Now that your story is sporting a trim new silhouette, it’s time to show off. Filter words are all about how close you allow your POV to get to the characters thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. You want to eliminate words that filter your characters experience unnecessarily.

I like to think of POV as a movie camera. How your reader experiences your story has a lot to do with where you place this imaginary camera. Panning across a scene from far above shows a breadth of detail with little depth. The closer you bring the camera in, the less the reader will know about the big picture, but the more they will get to see of your character’s actual experience in the world.

I, personally, like an intimate POV. It allows for greater emotional investment and deeper immersion in the story. Of course there are times when a narrative requires a little distance, and I’m not going to argue about that. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you want your readers to BE your characters while they are reading. Culling filter words is how you will do this.

Filter words can be broken into two main categories. Sensing and Thinking. Sensing filters are verbs like: to see, to watch, to smell, to feel, to hear, to taste, etc. Thinking filters are verbs like: to know, to wonder, to realize, to think, to seem, etc.

And the worst offender of all, which probably deserves its own post, is the verb “to be”

Again, these words are ubiquitous. They seem harmless. But they are not. They hold your reader at an emotional distance from your POV character, effectively preventing them from fully immersing themselves in your story. That’s bad.

Filter words unnecessarily filter your story through the characters perceptions when, in a tight first or third person POV, the reader should actually be the character. Filter words are a constant reminder that the reader is reading and not experiencing your story first hand. That’s very bad.

Examples: How to cut Filter Words

Ex. 1. a) Sarah felt a stab of panic in her heart. She heard a scratching sound on the other side of the door. She wondered if maybe she’d forgotten to let the cat back in. But then she noticed something she couldn’t ignore. She smelled damp earth and rotting meat. Sarah knew that Rob was back from the grave. (57 words)
b) Panic stabbed Sarah’s heart. Something scratched outside the door. Had she forgotten to let Mittens back in? No. It couldn’t be the cat. The smell of damp earth and rotting meat oozed in through an open window. Sarah backed away slowly. Rob, fresh from the grave, called out softly, “I know you’re in there, Sarah.” (55 words)

Ex. 2. a) I was walking down the garden path when I smelled the sweetest scent. I looked down and saw bright purple flowers at my feet. It seemed like they were growing out of the cobblestones themselves. I wondered who had planted them there? I heard birds chirping in the trees and felt the warmth of the sun upon my face, and I realized that I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (70 words)
b) I meandered down the garden path when the sweetest scent tickled my nose. Bright purple flowers waved at me from the cobblestones at my feet. Who could have planted them? Birds chirped gaily in the trees and warm sun kissed my cheeks. I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (49 words)

Discussion

I hope I’ve illustrated how much more you can show a reader, in equal or fewer words, when you eliminate filters. Again, as with any of the examples I come up with off the top of my head, these are not brilliantly shining beacons of literary genius. But, in the first example I was able to add detail to the scene without adding extra words. In the second example, I conveyed the exact same information, using stronger language, in far fewer words. All I had to do is get rid of the filters.

The thing is, if you tell a reader that “joy bubbled in Ali’s heart, like fizzy cream soda” we know that Ali is the one feeling this. To say “Ali felt joy bubbling in his heart like fizzy cream soda” is redundant, and it only serves as a reminder to the reader than he is not there with Ali, experiencing this joy with him, but a mere observer.

To Be or Not To Be…

Definitely not. “To be” verbs, like was, is, am, were, and all of their various tenses can almost always be eliminated to create a stronger image or sentence.

Bob was looking around the corner. –> Bob looked around the corner.

Sheila was wearing a bright green hat that was drooping on one side. –> Sheila wore a bright green hat that drooped on one side.

I was sad. –> Grief crushed me.

Eliminating “to be” verbs simplifies your sentences and, in some cases, forces you to show an image or emotion rather than telling the reader about it.

Now Forget Everything I Just Told You

Wait, what?

At least for the first draft, try not to worry about any of this too much. It’s the kind of fussing that really slows down the writing process. My advice is to save fillers and filters for later on in the editing process. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, and all of these rules can bog even the most experience writers down.

But I would like you to try applying this to one of your own stories and see what you think! Let me know how it goes.

Conclusion

What do you think about fillers and filters? Were you aware of these terms before? Have you read about them and ignored them repeatedly, like I did for years? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Thoughts on the Limits of Short Fiction

Just kidding, guys. Mostly.

So, I decided to participate in a Fantasy short story competition this month. Fantasy story up to 5000 words, sounds easy enough, right? Well, folks. I think I discovered one of my hard limits. Writing fantasy as short fiction is painfully difficult. Not the good pain.

I love fantasy. It was probably the first genre I really got into as a young reader, and it carried me through into adulthood before I reached my saturation point and gave up on it for a while. At the time, I felt like there was nothing much new happening in the genre and I wanted to branch into different things. Like James Joyce.

I may never recover.

Anyway, I still like fantasy. I have never been a fantasy writer, though. I use a lot of fantastical elements. I almost never write general fiction. Bizarro details sneak in when I’m not expecting it. It is a gift and a curse. But full on fantasy in a different world with different rules… Never.

A short fantasy story seemed like a nice easy way to get acquainted with the genre as a writer. Even typing that sentence now has me giggling manically and pulling out my hair.

HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS THING WHERE THEY CRAM A WHOLE WORLD AND BACK STORY AND CULTURE AND EVERYTHING INTO ANYTHING LESS THAN A NOVELLA????

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.

But I need to vent. Let me tell you about my experience.

Draft #1 (secretly hoping “and only”)

My first draft went really well. I was riffing off of a 1200 word flash fiction piece I did for 12 Short Stories last year that was well received. The overwhelming feedback I’d gotten was that readers wished it had been longer. Convenient, right? I’d just flesh out the details to about 4000 words and voila, my competition piece would be born.

Well, luckily I have reader friends who set me straight on that front. It was a fine story. But I was info-dumping like I’d eaten a bad literary burrito. That’s a new thing for me. I do not info dump. I am usually accused of the opposite–withholding all the necessary details and forcing my readers to puzzle out the truth. But apparently, the info-dump is how one deals with all of that back story and world building and other crap that is supposed to appear in a good fantasy story.

Okay, Draft #2 then…

Second round. I cut out a bunch of the extra details, culled the back story to what I thought were the bare essentials, and tried to disperse it a little more evenly throughout the story. The result? Readers thought it was better. There was still a little too much exposition, but that’s to be expected with fantasy. Then one of my readers suggested working all of that backstory into the dialogue with an “As you know, blahblahblah” technique.

I balked at that, naturally. The only thing worse than an infodump, surely, is an infodump pretending to be natural conversation.

But I also wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reception of my second draft. And I’m a writer, dammit. I can figure out how to get my characters talking about their world, can’t I?

Third time’s the charm?

Draft three. Glowing praises from the readers. Yes, the pace was much better now, there’s no more info dumping. I’d killed all of the infodumps, there were none. It was glorious.

So I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. He’s not a writer, so he doesn’t get hung up on all those little writerly things we like to nit-pick about one anothers’ work. I figured it was going to be a slam dunk.

Not so. He had no idea what the hell my story was about. The only reason my other readers loved the new version was that they, unwittingly, were still benefiting from all the exposition I had cut. Just like me, they knew the story that was behind the scenes, and they couldn’t unknow it. I needed new readers.

I’m not going to lie, I cried.

Two more new readers gave me the same feedback. So, back to the drawing board again.

Draft #4. Bring it on home!

Draft Four now. An editor friend of mine suggested that I reverse engineer the story to discover the absolute bare minimum amount of back story necessary in order to make the story work. In order to do that I really had to focus on the little golden kernel at the heart of the story. Everything else was chaff. Cut, cut, cut, cut cut.

Okay. I revealed the key elements of my story. Now I had to drop those elements in earlier, without killing the pacing I’d just amped up. And make them more obvious, despite my overwhelming desire to hide them like easter eggs at random throughout the story (Why do I do that? We may never know.)

Result? Much better, much clearer. But…

But? What do you mean ‘but?’ I solved the problem. I fixed the story. It’s all good now, right?

Well, it’s just a little choppy is all. You did hack the whole thing apart with a meat cleaver. And now that these details aren’t here, these character reactions are completely unmotivated and seem overly dramatic.

Fucketh.

Draft “Just-let-me-die” #5

Well. Draft #5 was it. Not because I have a masterpiece of fantasy writing on my hands but because today was the final deadline for the story contest. I managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and I think I’ve got a story that is worth reading, if not a home-run-slam-dunk winner. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell if it’s garbage or not anymore. I’m just exhausted. I only sent the final copy to a couple of my original readers, and I made them promise not to tell me if they notice anything I need to change. They can sit on it until I get my rejection.

But I’m coming back to it. Because I will make this story work, dammit. I will. I have put too many bloody hours into this thing not to see it published.

The Moral of the Story Is…

First of all, fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to write in short forms. I clearly underestimated the skills required to tackle a project like this. I also need to read more fantasy stories in the 5000 and under range to get a feel for how experienced writers go about crafting micro-fantasy worlds. Because now that I know how hard it is, of course I want to keep doing it. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Second of all, first drafts suck. Usually second and third drafts suck. If you come at writing expecting to do it right the first time around, from inspiration to finished project, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Or maybe you don’t see it, in which case you’re setting your readers up for disappointment. Either way it’s not good.

Now, I know this about my writing. I have come to terms with the fact that first drafts are beautiful in their potential and ugly in their execution. I also know that it is infinitely easier to work through the drafting process if you give yourself time between each kick at the can. What I didn’t realize was how mentally and emotionally exhausting drafting can be when you don’t give yourself that distance between drafts.

I did not have the luxury of time on my side and getting through these drafts nearly drove me insane. Do yourself a favour and plan to take your time. Your story and your mental health with thank you!

But I don’t regret the experience at all. Even if I don’t place, which I know I likely won’t, what I learned by doing this intense speed-drafting process was invaluable. I pushed through even when I didn’t want to, I tried things I didn’t want to try, I took advice I didn’t want to take, I stuck with it even when I wanted to throw my computer out the window. And the story I have now is so, so, so much better than my first draft.

And in a month or so, I’ll be ready to tackle Draft #6, 7, 8… however many it takes to get it right.

End Rant.

Writers, have you ever tried to cram massive revisions into a short time frame? How did you feel during and after?

Readers, did you have any idea how many different versions your favourite stories go through before they make it into your hot little hands?

Add your questions, comments, and moral support below.

Simultaneity: And How it’s Ruining Your Writing

Harsh words. But true…

There is a little talked about writing habit that slowly drains the life and excitement out of your story. It slows readers down and confuses them, often without anyone being able to articulate why. It is so common, most people don’t even recognize it as a problem. But if you fall victim to this habit often, it becomes the death of a thousand cuts. You are effectively killing your story, one sentence at a time.

Are you scared yet? Have you been the unwitting victim of this insidious monster?

Yes. Yes you have. And I’m willing to bet my daily caffeine ration that no one has ever pointed it out to you. I’m going to shine a light on this demon now, and together we’ll banish it for good.

Are you ready to face it?

The Devil You Know

I’m talking about SIMULTANEITY. You know, things happening at the same time. In real life, stuff happens simultaneously. The phone is ringing while the kids scream about the toy truck while you wipe up the coffee you spilled trying to reach for the phone, while your husband stumbles, bleary-eyed out of the bedroom and asks “What’s for breakfast?”

No? Just my house?

My point is, life is often chaotic. We are pulled in a hundred different directions at once. Even the more peaceful moments of life are a beautiful blend of simultaneous events. You sink into the cool grass as a warm evening breeze kisses your skin as the birds sing their final songs of the day as the sun disappears behind the trees as shadows lengthen into long purple fingers to envelope your body.

Whatever.

It is natural for writers to want to recreate that feeling of being “in the moment” with life happening all around us. It is “realistic” we say. That may be. But it’s also a huge mistake.

Fiction isn’t Real.

Fiction pretends to be real. Good fiction is so good at pretending to be real that we forget it is not. A gripping yarn takes something real or potentially real, and cuts out the boring bits embellishes the interesting bits. It plays around with the sequence of things in order to achieve the maximum emotional impact.

Fiction manipulates reality.

If you ever find yourself defending a writing choice as “realistic” you must pause. Reflect on what you mean by realistic. It is not always a compliment. Real life is tedious and often confusing. Your writing doesn’t have to be.

In real life, you must cross the room, reach out your right (or left) hand, turn the door handle, and pull (or push), in order to answer the door. Readers know this. If your character hears a knock and goes to see who it is, we do not need to know the precise details of how he gets from point A to point B. This is called stage direction. It is “realistic.” And that’s BAD. Let your reader fill in the blanks.

Simultaneity is also realistic. It is also bad. Not because it is boring, like stage direction, but because it is confusing. Why?

In real life, our brains can process many different things at the same time. You do not have to think about every sensation and thought individually in order to experience them. Do you remember the last time you stepped in dog poop? It is annoying. You do not have to think about it–the smell, the slippery sensation under your brand new shoe, rage at your neighbour’s apparent inability to keep his animal out of your yard–in order to experience annoyance.

The way we process written language is different from the way we experience events in real life. In real life, simultaneity is natural. Fiction isn’t real, and reading is different from first hand experience. No matter how good a writer you are, there is one inescapable fact that makes actual simultaneity impossible.

It’s so obvious that we don’t even think about it.

We Read One Word at a Time!

Attempting to create simultaneity in your writing will weaken it. Every time. This is not because you are a bad writer who cannot write realistically–would you stop trying to do that already? Your job as a writer is to create the illusion of reality. You are a magician!

The very nature of written language makes true simultaneous events impossible. Does that mean, like stage direction, you should cut these details out and leave them up to your readers imagination?

NO!

Details are the life-blood of your story. You want the reader to feel that they are really there with your characters, and you need details–the right details–to do that. And then you need to put those details into the right order.

“In wrhiting, one word follows another, instead of being overprinted in the same place… Any attempt to present simultaneity… obscures the cause-effect, motivation-reaction relationship that gives your story meaning.”

Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer


In real life, things happen simultaneously. But this is fiction. You are going to manipulate reality. You are going to create the illusion of simultaneity. Magic, in order to be believable, has to follow rules. The rule we are following today is that of chronological order.

If you want your writing to be clear, quick to read, and easy to follow (read: salable) you must pay close attention to the order in which you present your material. Whether it is the order of your sentences, or the elements of the sentences themselves, a strict chronological order is necessary.

You need to turn your whiles and ases into and thens, even if it’s just in your own head.

Let The Magic Begin!

Show, don’t tell. That’s another rule. And I’m going to show you what I mean right now.

Examples

Ex.1 The Phone Call

a) As the twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car, the phone began to ring. I was reaching to answer it when I spilled my coffee. Cursing, I attempted to wipe up the mess while my husband emerged from the bedroom, stumbling into the kitchen.

Rubbing his eyes he asked “What’s for breakfast?”

“Answer the phone!” I snapped, barely able to contain my anger.

b) The twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car. Again. The phone, not to be outdone, added its voice to the racket. I jumped to answer it and lukewarm coffee spilled into my lap. Shit! The kids shrieked louder. I grabbed a towel to contain the mess and reached for the cordless. My husband stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes.

“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.

I whipped the handset at his head. “Answer the damned phone!”

Ex 2. A Glorious Evening

a) Samantha sunk into the cool grass while relishing the warm evening air kissing her skin. As the birds sung the last songs of the day, the sun slipped behind the trees, causing long purple shadows to reach out to envelop her body. It had been a glorious day!

b) Samantha sunk into the cool grass and relished the warm evening air kissing her skin. The sun slipped behind the trees. Birds sung their last songs of the day into the deepening dusk. Long purple fingers of shadow reached out to envelop Sam’s body. What a glorious day!

Discussion

Are any of these examples glowing examples of literary brilliance? No. But which examples are easier to read? I hope you have answered “b!”

In The Phone Call, attempting to create simultaneity in a) actually decreases the tension of the scene. It adds confusion. The reader has to hold all of these bits of information in their heads and piece it together like a jig saw puzzle once they have all of the information. In b) the reader is able to imagine each event separately, and move onto the next step in the scene without having to hold on to loose pieces. This makes the scene move more quickly, and builds tension rather than confusion.

In A Glorious Evening, simultaneity might seem like a nice way to create a lovely flow of imagery that adds to the dreamy feel of the scene. However, allowing each image to stand on its own gives the reader the opportunity to linger on each moment without other images competing for attention.

Conclusion

As with all “rules” about writing, nothing is set in stone. It’s perfectly fine to write something like “Grinning, Mack laid his cards on the table,” or “Sucking on her pipe, Gretta glared at her grandson.” But in general, it is best to avoid simultaneity when you can. Be conscious of it. When you use it, use it on purpose. Ever word you write is a choice. You, the writer, get to choose the words that best tell your story. You are in control!

What do you think? Have you fallen victim to this attempt to write “realistically?” Have you ever read something that was awkward or confusing, and not been able to articulate why? Simultaneity be the culprit.

Do you agree with my assessment? Or is this just another rule you’re going to ignore while channeling the muses as you let the words flow through you water from a vessel?

Whatever your opinion, tell me all about it in the comments.

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Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer is my absolute favourite writing craft book. It’s a little old-fashioned, and is geared toward writing salable fiction rather than literary fiction. But I honestly believe it applies to all writers. Give it a go and let me know what you think! Here’s the Amazon.com link.

Critique Mystique Part 2: How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique

Oooooh, that smarts.

The first time you receive real critical feedback on writing, or anything, can be painful. It can be painful after you’ve received hundreds of them. Thousands. Any time you are told that what you are trying to do isn’t working sucks.

It does get easier, though. Receiving feedback is a skill you must hone just like giving it. Here are my tips on how to receive creative writing critiques with your dignity intact!

Check Your Ego at the Door

Yeah, yeah. I know. Easier said than done. How do you separate yourself from this brilliantly shining piece of art–it’s ART, dammit! You’ll never understand me–that someone has just defecated upon?

Well first of all, just stop. It’s probably not that great. It’s a draft, and drafts are supposed to be crap. Even if it’s a late draft, if you are at the stage where you are soliciting creative writing critiques, you are still in draft mode. You are asking for other writers’ ideas on how to improve your writing craft. Right?

If you’re not, then you need to go back and read my initial article on what a creative writing critique actually is and how to give one. Go ahead. Click it. I’ll wait.

It was a little long, I guess…

Okay. Are you back?

So we should be in agreement now, that you never ask for a creative writing critique when what you are really looking for is someone to tell you how wonderful you are. If that’s what you want, send it to your mother. She probably won’t read it but she’ll probably still tell you she thinks you’re neato. At least, I’ve been told that’s what other people’s mother’s do. Mine tells me she doesn’t understand anything I do and wonders how she went so wrong…

Anyway.

In order to check that Ego, you have to realize one thing. It’s a big thing. Are you ready?

You Are Not Your Writing!

Do you hear that? You are not your writing, your art, your job, your hobby, your anything. You are you, and these are things you do. Sometimes you do them well, sometimes you don’t. No matter how good you are you can always get better. And no matter how good you get, you should never define yourself by the things you make and do.

Identify with the process not the product.

You are a writer, you are not your writing. So when someone says that your story isn’t working for them, you don’t have to take that personally. In fact, if you take it personally you will never get better. You will live in fear of failure and judgement, wallowing in self pity and unrealized dreams. You will stagnate, because you will never be able to show your work to anyone (except maybe your mom). And we have to show our work. Because that’s how we learn and grow and flourish and become the glittering unicorns of greatness that we were always meant to be.

Yeah, you.

When you accept that you are not your writing, it will become much easier to view it objectively. This numbs the sting of a rough critique, especially if it, too, is written objectively. Which, to be perfectly honest, it might not be.

Objective vs Subjective Feedback

Ideally, your critique partner will be skilled and experienced in delivering constructive criticism. But, of course, this will not always be the case. Delivering creative writing critiques is as much an art as the creative writing itself. Sometimes you will receive feedback from people who are still early in the learning process. And that’s okay, because we are all still learning how to receive feedback, too. We all need practice.

Practice makes PROGRESS!

How can you tell if the critique you have been given is good or bad? Good criticism is objective and focused on the actual writing rather than you as the writer. Poor critiques are subjective, confuse the writing with the writer, and are sometimes, but not necessarily, delivered in a condescending or hostile tone.

The trick is, being able to tell the difference.

Objective critiques:

  1. Focus on the facts. That means, they critique what is there on the page. Word choices, sentences structure, character’s actions, etc. They do not make assumptions about your beliefs and critique that. Ex. “Wow, Charlie is a really despicable character! Can you provide more evidence to show why he is the way he is?” vs “This is totally misogynistic and gross. What is wrong with you?”
  2. Are familiar with the genre you are writing in and aware of the expectations of that genre. Romance stories have happy endings. Mysteries have a reveal. Some things shouldn’t be messed with.
  3. Offer clear examples and actionable suggestions. These should be presented as possible ways around a problem, rather than prescriptions. “You can bring the POV in closer by eliminating some of these filter words. Consider the difference between ‘Charlie realized it was too late.’ and ‘Charlie checked his phone and groaned. He’d never make it in time.'”
  4. Never attempt to re-write your work, change your voice or style to suit the personal preferences of the critiquer.
  5. Are aware of potential biases, and disclose them within the critique. Ex. “I don’t really enjoy romances, so take this with a grain of salt…”

Subjective critiques:

  1. Are based on personal opinions, assumptions, interpretations and beliefs. To some extent, all critiques are a bit subjective. It is impossible to completely divorce yourself from your opinions and experiences. However, a good critique won’t point out a first person present narrative as a flaw just because the reader doesn’t like them.
  2. Confuse the writing with the writer. We all have to write conflict, villains, and disasters. Good stories are rife with bad things happening to our beloved characters. It is possible to write a homophobic character without being homophobic yourself. Good critiques will be able to tell the difference. HOWEVER, it is perfectly valid for someone to point out when it isn’t clear if a particular bit of nastiness belongs to a character or is an overflow of your own personal opinion. If someone points out something like this in your work, thank them profusely. It may save you a lot of negative reviews and bad press. Or identify something you need to unpack with your therapist next week. Either way, say thank you.
  3. Forget that they might not be the targeted reader. If you ever receive a creative writing critique that tries to steer your piece into a different genre, a different POV, or a different style of writing without very good reason. “Oh god, I hate vampire stories. Can’t you make Fang a werepig instead?” Flag it as a personal preference problem and move on.
  4. Assume that how they would have written your story is better. This is the worst kind of critique to get. It’s in extremely poor taste and is best ignored if for no other reason than that you will not learn if someone else does the work for you! Never mind the fact that the people who attempt to re-write other people’s work are usually the least qualified to do so.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

So, you’ve received your creative writing critique. You’ve read it. You aren’t crying anymore. Much.

What do you do now?

First of all, thank your critique partner for their time and insights. Even if you just spent the last half an hour screaming at your computer about how said critique partner is an ignorant worm who wouldn’t know quality writing if it crawled up their arsehole and died. Yes. Even then.

Why?

Because whether you liked what they had to say or not, this person took time to try to help you become a better writer. And even if they don’t know how to write a proper critique and can’t tell an opinion from a fact to save their life, you can still learn from their comments.

Yes, even poorly written crits are valuable. They still highlight potential problem areas in your piece. They still help you to identify what works and what doesn’t work. Even if all you identify is exactly who your intended audience is not.

And then…

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

Yup. You survived. Now, you need to do it all over again. Why? Because getting more eyes on your work is what is going to help you decide what is advice you need to heed and what you can safely ignore. If that one weird girl from the back of the class totally digs your favourite sock puppet metaphor (Yeah, I loved it) and ten other people just don’t get it… maybe you need to kill that darling.

Or, you know, accept that what you’re trying to do isn’t for everyone and be okay with that. That’s okay, too.

Whatever you do, do it on purpose.


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Is there something you’ve always wondered about the writing, editing, or critiquing process? Do you need me to clarify any of these points? Hit me with your best shot in the comments.

Want to practice your own critique writing skills? Check out my Story Laboratory! I dare ya…

Critique Mystique Part One: How to Give a Creative Writing Critique

Yesterday I waxed poetic about why writing critiques are so important to growing and developing writing craft. But how do you actually give a creative writing critique? What is the difference between a good crit and a bad one?

Today I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned while stumbling through online writer’s groups over the last couple of years. These tips are applicable whether you are providing feedback for a high school English course, helping out a friend, a university paper, or the aforementioned online writing circles. I am going to focus on short stories.


What is a Creative Writing Critique?

A creative writing critique is feedback on a piece of writing–short story, novel, memoir, article, etc.–that is designed to help the writer improve their writing craft.

What is writing craft? Writing craft refers to the the linguistic tools and techniques an author uses to convey a message or tell a story. The two broadest categories within writing craft are Narrative Elements (Big Picture): Setting, Foreshadowing, Characterization, and Theme; and Literary Devices: Imagery, Diction, Metaphor, Allegory, etc. and Sentence Structure (The Nitty Gritty). It does not refer to grammar, punctuation, or spelling except where these things affect the writer’s stylistic choices.

The Big Picture

When critiquing a piece of creative writing, you should have three main macro-objectives:

  1. Identify the writer’s goal. In a research paper, this is the hypothesis. In a short story, this will be the goal of the main character. Depending on the piece, there may be a secondary goal like the writer’s theme or moral.
  2. Evaluate the evidence. Do the characters’ motivations add up? Are their actions believable? Does the plot evolve in a natural, believable way? When you are reading the story, write down any questions that occur to you. If they remain unresolved at the end of the story, point them out in your critique. Unresolved questions in the story are often referred to as “plot holes.”
  3. Describe the impact. How did you feel upon finishing the piece? Did the writer achieve his or her goal? Stories don’t have to finish on a positive note in order to feel complete. All loose ends do not necessarily need to be tied up. But there should be a sense that the story is finished. The emotional impact of the ending will have a lot to do with how the writer handled the Narrative Elements of Setting, Foreshadowing, and Characterization. If the story does not feel resolved or complete, try to identify what is missing. But if you can’t, just provide the writer with how you felt at the end and let them identify how to solve the problem.

The Nitty Gritty

After you’ve assessed the Big Picture stuff, it’s time to dig into the micro-elements. This includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Imagery: Great imagery is what makes a story come alive for the reader, whether it is description of characters or settings. Metaphor and simile are the most used literary devices that affect imagery. Does the author mix metaphors, use too many similes to describe one thing, contradict themselves with their descriptions? This is the kind of thing you want to be on the lookout for. The best imagery plays into a bigger theme, and can be used to demonstrate shifts in the character as they move through the plot. Make sure to point out images you love as well as the ones that have you scratching your head so that the author has a chance to replicate their successes in the future.
  2. Dialogue: This is one of the aspects of creating writing even the best story tellers often struggle with. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Are the characters’ voices as individual as they are? Does the dialogue reveal too much or too little? Realistic dialogue and effective dialogue are not the same thing! In real life, we blather on to one another endlessly about things that don’t matter. We don’t need to read that in fiction. Dialogue must serve a purpose. It should show the reader something about a character, reveal something about the plot (but not so much that it acts as an info dump), it should create tension. Straight-forward, Q&A style dialogue is boring. Interesting, effective dialogue reveals more through what isn’t being said than what is being said. This is where you should look at the writer’s choice of dialogue tags and action beats. Do the action beats reveal something to the reader or are they simply stage-direction? Too many descriptive tags, or tags modified by adjectives are usually signs of “lazy” writing, telling vs showing. Point out what works for you and what doesn’t.
  3. Point of View: How close does the writer allow you to get to the main character? The more intimate the POV the more emotional investment from the reader. Is the writer holding the reader at a distance via “to be” verbs, filler words, and filter words? Is there “head-hopping” between characters? Is the POV consistent throughout the piece, or does an omniscient narrator sometimes drop in and reveal things that the POV character wouldn’t know? Identify the writer’s choice of POV, and evaluate whether or not that choice serves the goals of the story.
  4. Showing and Telling: Despite the rule being “show don’t tell,” good stories need both. Showing is used to slow the pacing, allow the reader to linger on important imagery and details, and add sensory detail to the scenes that increase the reader’s ability to identify with the characters and imagine themselves in the story world. Telling is used to pick up the pace, propel the plot forward, blast through action sequences, and leave the reader gasping for breath. How much of each the piece needs will depend on the story. Help the writer to identify areas that fall flat (and could use more showing) or that meander (and could use more telling).
  5. Vocabulary and Sentence Structure: Identify weak verbs that could be strengthened, adverbs that could be described in more detail [“He said angrily.” vs “His face purpled and spittle exploded from his mouth.”], redundancy “she climbed upward,” etc. This is one area where a writer’s individual style can vary. Faster paced narratives, like action/drama, allow for more “telling” which in turn allows for more descriptive shortcuts, like adverbs. Your goal as critique partner is to point out areas that can be made stronger and areas that the style is interfering with pacing. Sentence Structure, likewise, has stylistic implications. Some writers prefer short, succinct sentences. Some like long, flowing, poetic prose. Your goal is not to impose your own personal preferences on your critique partner, but to ensure they remain true to their own style, and are using the right type of sentences in the right situations. Like showing and telling, short sentences move quickly, longer sentences linger. They should be used purposefully!

Okay, I’ll stop there. You have a lot of options when it comes to what you can critique. You do not, by any means, have to address all of this. Usually, I focus on whatever aspects of the craft I have been studying recently and which are fresh in my brain. I also point out the things that are weaknesses in my own writing, because that’s what I’m primed to pay attention to. Focus on the aspects that stand out to you, and don’t go trying to pick the whole thing apart piece by piece. That’s what line edits are for!

What is a Creative Writing Critique NOT?

There are a few things you should avoid when providing a creative writing critique. A critique is not:

  1. Personal. You are critiquing the writing not the writer. Address the aspects of the story directly, without referring to the writer themselves. Be careful with your language so that you don’t come across as condescending, rude, or insulting. There is a big different between “Your writing is derivative and boring” and “This is a cliche, is there a way to make this image more original and specific to your character?”
  2. An Invitation to Re-Write. It is never okay to rewrite another writer’s work. This is a major faux-pas! Sometimes it is necessary to provide an example of what you are talking about, but this should be presented as an example and not a prescription. Use the “comments” feature and never directly edit within the document, even for typos.
  3. A Grammar lesson. If you notice a particular grammatical error that is repeated throughout the piece, mention it briefly but don’t point out every instance. Spelling and grammar are the business of copy editors. Some grammatical “errors” may be used to achieve a specific tone or style, and are not necessarily wrong just because the are ungrammatical.
  4. An Award Ceremony. Glowing praises are nice. But a critique that is only positive will not help the writer to grow and improve. If you really can’t find anything wrong with the piece, at least ask the writer some probing questions that might get them thinking about their story on a deeper level.

When should you critique?

Not everyone who shares their work with you actually wants a critique. It is good writerly etiquette to wait until you are asked to provide any kind of critical commentary on a piece of writing. Some people are just writing for themselves and don’t care what you think about it. Don’t waste you time and energy on writers who are not actively trying to improve their craft. That said, if you belong to a writer’s group or critique group, it is probably safe to assume that critique is welcome. If you are unsure, ask the writer what kind of feedback they are looking for and cater to their requests.

Practice Makes PROGRESS

Critiques writing, like any kind of writing, is an art. It requires practice. You will make mistakes at first! I still make mistakes. It is helpful if you can practice with someone who will not have their feelings hurt if you fumble a delivery. Newer writers in particular, who haven’t grown the calloused hides of us veterans, should be handled gently. Speaking of calloused hides, why don’t you practice in my Story Laboratory? I’d love to have the feedback, and you really can’t hurt my feelings. It’s a critique practice safe zone!

When in doubt, follow the golden rule: provide critique in the way you would like to receive critique.

In the event that you do hurt someone’s feelings, apologize, clarify, and move on. You will have plenty of opportunities to be on the other side of the fence. In my next Critique Mystique article, I’ll tell you How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique with all your grace and dignity intact. Well, on the surface, at least.

Critique Me!

What do you think of my critique articles so far? Is there anything that you would like me to clarify or maybe expand upon in the future? Hit me with your questions and suggestions in the comments.

Critique Mystique: Unlocking the Writing Craft BONUS LEVEL

What is is the value of criticism to you, as a writer or creator? How can critiquing other people’s work strengthen your own craft? Criticism and critique are invaluable in any field. Creatives in particular can use critique to take their work to the next level.

It’s been over a year since I quit the emotional energy treadmill that is Facebook. I don’t miss it. I really don’t. In fact, I feel much freer without it and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back even in order to make myself an author page and do the social media writer gig. But I do miss something that I used to get on Facebook. Writing groups!

I was lucky to belong to a number of great writing groups, and while I used to get frustrated with myself for spending more time critiquing other people’s work than actually writing, I’m really starting to miss that aspect of my erstwhile favourite writing community. Ditching the Zuck has opened up a lot of time for writing, which is great. I’ve been a lot more productive in the last year than I was in the year before that. There is no denying that the year I spent writing less and critiquing more wasn’t great for my word count output. What I didn’t realize is I was actually doing a lot of learning and processing when it comes to the craft of writing in that time. I’m really missing that critique community now that I have a back log of stories to prep for submissions!

I’ve been trying to get and stay involved in some WordPress circles, and it’s a wonderful community itself. However, publishing on a blog–even if it’s just in draft form–hinders one’s ability to submit work to most serious paying markets. These challenges can only really act as writing exercises rather than first drafts for salable work. With flash fiction being one of the best markets to start publishing in, it irks me to “waste” all of that creative energy on pieces I can ultimately do little with beside pad future collections of (hopefully) previously published stories.

So I’m looking at some other options. I’ve been investigating online critique groups. The Next Big Writer has had pretty good reviews from the writing community, and during my seven day free trial period I received valuable feedback. However, there is an annual fee involved that I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to yet. Scribophile is another site I’m scoping out, though I’ve heard mixed reviews. It seems more geared toward socializing than critique compared to TNBW. I’ll keep you posted with what I decide to do with those groups.

One place I’ve found that has been amazing so far is 12 Short Stories. I joined last year, but I didn’t get as involved in that community as I should have. As a result, I ended up missing half the assignments and being late with the ones I did finish. I’ve commited anew this year, though, and I’ve already found a handful of serious writers who deliver serious critique. Even better? They actually want to receive critique (rather than just praise, as you see with a lot of amateur writer groups).

Why is that better? Because giving constructive criticism is even more valuable to writers than receiving it. It’s only been two months and I can feel how much more focused my own writing is become!

That’s something we don’t often consider as writers. Giving critical feedback, applying what we are learning from all those craft articles and books we devour, on another writer’s work is just as important as receiving feedback on our own. This is true of writing, and it’s true of pretty much any skill that requires study and practice.

Writing a strong story is like solving a puzzle. Reading and critiquing a story allows us to apply all of our problem solving skills on a piece that we are not emotionally invested in. It’s the practice session to our game day. Constructive criticism forces us to identify issues, assign potential remedies, and articulate the things we have learned in a way that someone else can understand. It’s kind of like writing a paper to prove to your university professor that you actually read and understood the material. You make an argument for your case. The recipient of your criticism may or may not use anything that you suggest, but the value in giving that critique is never wasted.

That’s not to say that it isn’t wonderful to receive quality feedback, of course. By quality feedback, I don’t mean glowing praise, either. My favourite is when someone steps outside the warm and fuzzy back-patting bubble and says something like “You’ve used 17 unnecessary adverbs in a 1200 word story” or “Is the personification of the house really necessary?” or “Your imagery is great, but this is a little too much even for me.”

I don’t agree with everything that other people think about my stories. But even if I disagree, that feedback is invaluable. When someone draws attention to a potential problem within you work, it gives you the opportunity to assess that part and decide for yourself what should be done. Keep it? Tweak it? Trash it? The important thing is that you make a decision. Nothing in your story should ever be there by accident!

If the personification of the house is necessary, I might need add more examples so that the reader knows I’ve done it on purpose. Then they can wonder why (and hopefully I have provided an answer to that, too). Okay, 17 adverbs is a bit much. Which ones should I keep and which ones to I need to rewrite? Yes, this borders on purple prose, but does it serve a purpose? Am I slowing the reader down and forcing them to linger over something that matters to the story? These are the kinds of questions you are forced to ask yourself, and if you answer them honestly, your story will be better for it.

If you want to unlock the mysterious power of critique and use it as a tool to enhancing your own writing the secret is this: you get what you give. If you just tell everyone what a wonderful job they’ve done, whether or not they have earned that praise, that’s likely all you’ll ever get in return. Giving honest feedback is harder than receiving it, sometimes. But if you want to receive it, you might have to break the ice with your own foray into real criticism. Sometimes this will fail miserably. But you know how I feel about failing.

As writers we are often afraid of offending other writers, we are afraid that because our own writing needs work that we have no right to critique others. Bullshit. That’s fear talking. That’s insecurity. Some of the best critiques I’ve ever received are from editors who are not creative writers. Being a good writer and being a good critiquer are two separate skills. They are complementary skills, but they are separate. So get over that fear, do yourself a favour, and join a critique group today and start analyzing some stories!

If you belong to a group you really love, please share in the comments!

Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

Challenge(s) Accepted!

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My writing space looks nothing like this but I love stock photos and it’s fun to pretend.

Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be January without a flood of blog posts and news articles about New Year Resolutions. I’ve never been the resolution type. I don’t think I’ve ever even halfheartedly made a New Years Resolution unless the timing was just coincidental (I do occasionally resolve to be better at things, and sometimes that happens in January…)

One thing January is especially good for, though, is that there are a surplus of writing challenges going around right now! With the holidays winding down and real life starting back up on Monday, I’m ready to get settled back into a regular writing habit. Not all of it will show up here, although I have decided that I’m going to push myself to blog more. But January brings a few opportunities that I will be jumping into.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Round One kicks off January 18th. I have done two Flash Fiction Challenges with NYC Midnight, and this will be my second Short Story Challenge. It’s a really fun and exciting competition for a relatively affordable entry fee. I only do the two each year, so I might have a different idea of affordable compared to someone who participates in more challenges/competitions. But the feedback is quite good, and I love the random assignment format. It really pushes me outside my comfort zone!

12 Short Stories Challenge: I participated in this last year, and I think I made it through half the year before I got side-tracked. This year, I’ve signed up for the the paid membership for some added accountability. I really loved the community when I participated last year, and the feedback was really excellent. I’ll be using these entries as my Flash Fiction Friday pieces for the first of Friday of every month (starting February as our first prompt comes Jan. 9th and is due on the 31st to 12SS). If (when!) I complete all 12 assignments on time, there is a competition at the end of the year with prizes, and that’s my goal this time. I vow to submit something every month, even if it’s not my best work.

Jeff Goins’ “My 500 Words” Challenge: Jeff Goins is a writer that I have followed off and on since I was more active in the world of Facebook writing groups. I don’t Facebook anymore. But I do still open most of the emails I get from Goins’ page, and one of the ones I read was an invitation to participate in the “My 500 Words” Challenge. I understand that this Challenge runs year round, basically a challenge to write 500 words every day for 31 days straight. There are prompts if you like, and email reminders. I mentally committed to this project a couple of days ago (and I’ve completed my 500 words for three days in a row now!) But this is my official acceptance of the challenge. I’ll be posting my blog in the participants section, and following some other writers doing the challenge.

Linda G. Hill’s “Just Jot it January” Challenge: I stumbled upon this challenge when (finally) going through my WordPress reader and catching up with what my favourite blogs are up to. I haven’t been a follower of Linda G. Hill, but I like the looks of her challenge, so I’ll be doing some of these ones, too. I like the idea of “Stream of Consciousness Saturday.” I might not post all of my submissions, but I’d like to add weekly stream of consciousness exercises to my writing habits. So I’ll give SoSC a try at the very least.

So that’s what’s going on with me. Are there any other writing challenges, competitions, or blogs that you think I would enjoy? Please share what you’re up to in the comments!