Critiquing, Revising, Writing

6 Reasons You Should Critique for Others While Revising

Did you miss me? I know I threw that four years of querying post out there and then deserted the blog for a couple of weeks. My family went to the Lake of the Ozarks, and then I had a week of craziness catching up with some deadlines. But I’m back!

So, I’m in the midst of revisions yet again, and I’ve also been doing quite a bit of critiquing. I’ve always felt the best time to critique for others is when you’re revising your own work, and I really thought I’d posted on that before, but I couldn’t find it, so here are six reasons you should critique for others while revising yourself.

1. It helps you think more critically.

As one of my current characters would say: Duh! But here’s the thing: when I go a long stretch without reading anyone else’s work for the purpose of offering feedback (reading for fun doesn’t count), I get out of the habit of looking at it objectively. Yes, as I’m reading that published book, I’ll notice a typo and I might notice if I would have commented on a particular plot point or characterization if I’d been that author’s critique partner, but I’m not reading each page looking for ways to improve the book. When I read for someone else, I’m trying to help him/her make that manuscript shine, and that triggers something in my brain that spills over into my own revisions. No matter how much I put myself in a revision mindset–and I love revising!–I always have better ideas when I’ve been critiquing recently.

2. It convicts you when you have the same issue in your own manuscript.

For some reason, seeing your issue in someone else’s manuscript makes it so much clearer in your own, like a spotlight shining on that particular scene or character weakness. For example, I remember reading for someone and spotting a believability issue that suddenly made me realize I had the same problem in my own MS. It wasn’t even something any of my readers had pointed out yet, but I knew I had to fix because eventually someone would notice and I’d have a hole to repair. Something along the lines of: Why didn’t Character A just ask Character C about this? Ha! We all have one of those at some point, don’t we?

3. It reminds you if you’ve skipped a step in your revision process.

If I’m reading someone else’s manuscript and I notice one of my crutch words/phrases or see an issue with inconsistencies, it reminds me to go through my own manuscript to look for those. Or sometimes to read certain sections aloud again to ensure the voice matches the character. These are all steps I take in my own revision process, but often critiquing reminds me I should do them again for my own.

4. It inspires you to new heights.

I mentioned this in my post on What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Querying, but I have the privilege of working with some pretty amazing CPs and writers at this point in my journey. Several of them are agented, a few have book deals, and I’ve even read for other writers who are published. (Not the books that are published but their other projects that hopefully will be!) So when I read for them, I’m often inspired to take my revisions to a whole other level. I’ll see how Writer A used a particular metaphor that was so perfect for her character and think how I need to apply that to my character or read a particular description and realize I should beef up my own descriptions. So, thank you, friends, for inspiring me!

5. It opens you up to other worlds.

I don’t know about you, but I live in my own little world much of the time. Even with the books I read to keep up with the market, I still lean toward a certain kind of story, so critiquing often leads me to read something I might not have otherwise. That’s a good thing! I need to have my world shaken up every once in a while, to experience some other types of characters who might need to enter my characters’ worlds at some point (maybe not if they’re aliens or dragons, although you never know). It’s broadening to get inside another writer’s head for a while.

6. It keeps you from getting too tied up in your own story.

Perhaps others will disagree with me on this one, but then I did work for a PR agency for ten years, where I jumped between a dozen clients in the same day. I think it’s helpful to escape my characters for a bit each day and see what some others are doing. What are those other voices like? It helps me to ensure mine are still unique and staying true to their story.

So, if you’re in the midst of revising and you’re stuck or even if you aren’t, go ask someone else if you can read for them. It’s a great way to focus your own revisions. At least, it works for me!

Anyone else have thoughts on how critiquing helps you revise?

Revising, Writing

The Benefits of Reading Your Work Aloud Revisited

Yes, I have already posted on this topic–but it’s been two years. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging long enough to decide to write on something only to find I already did. And in this case, when I looked back at my original post, I was actually pretty satisfied with what I had to say on the topic (aside from cringing at the fact that I’d thought reading out loud would be a waste of time. Bad Michelle!). However, due to the amount of time that’s passed and since I have new readers since then, I’m going to update the post with some examples–because there has to be some added value :).

So here are specific areas where reading your work aloud will benefit your manuscript.

Point of view. My work-in-progress is written in alternating points of view, so reading it aloud was extremely helpful in keeping those voices distinct. I noticed turns of phrase or words that sounded out of place for a particular character. When I heard the words in addition to seeing them, it was much clearer that they didn’t fit the character.

For example, imagine a teenage boy thinking about the girl he loves with her current boyfriend. In my draft, it said:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although I wished he hadn’t even gotten that far).”

When I read this out loud, it sounded off. Not that a boy doesn’t wish for things, but I knew it could be stronger. So I revised it to this:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although it burned me he’d even gotten that far).”

It looked all right on the page, but until I heard it, I didn’t realize it was off for the character.

Something else that stood out to me was the tone of each character toward the supporting characters. Word choice is particularly important in conveying the tone, and it’s jarring when you hear the wrong word. For this particular MS, my two MCs are coming from two very different places at the beginning of the story. The female MC is in the dark about the world around her, so she has a mostly favorable attitude toward characters the male MC disdains because of what he knows. It became very clear as I read out loud if a description of a particular character was being attributed to the wrong MC.

Dialogue. As with point of view, dialogue needs to be unique to each character. Often I would read something and think, “Character A wouldn’t say that, but Character B would,” or vice versa. And within a scene, I could tell if the characters sounded too similar.

For this particular manuscript, I had a couple of characters with accents, so it stood out if my foreign character used too many contractions or my Southern character needed to say something with a different cadence.

More particularly with dialogue, I had to address how different characters referred to each other and authority figures. Would the MC’s boyfriend refer to her parents as Mr. and Mrs. or by their first names? Do they call each other by their names or do they use nicknames? My female MC had a nickname for the antagonist, and it was only as I read out loud that I realized I hadn’t consistently used it.

A few other questions that popped up as I was reading the dialogue:

  • Would this particular character use that metaphor?
  • Is this adult talking too much like a teenager?
  • How do these two characters react to each other differently than these other two during dialogue? Do they fall into familiar patterns?

Repeated words. Although I have a pretty good eye for noticing repeated words or phrases, reading aloud helps in that I notice if I use the same words too often. Maybe the phrases aren’t on the same page or even in the same chapter, but they’re more noticeable out loud. It also stands out when one character thinks or says something and then a different one thinks or say something similar, making the repetition a voice issue.

(My crutch words/phrases for this manuscript: stride, glance, going to. I’ll find more when I go back through with the express purpose of weeding them out!)

Flow. Often things that look fine on the page don’t sound as strong when you say them out loud. Sometimes I’d read something that looked perfectly fine but sounded awkward. I also added many contractions and deleted a lot of unnecessary phrases. Even if the book is never read aloud or put into audiobook form, I’d still like for it to flow.

Specifics. It’s common advice: always use specifics instead of generalities when you can. It speaks to voice in addition to giving the reader a stronger sense of place and character. A number of these generalities stood out as I read. I’d think: this character would be more specific. It might seem minor to replace “coffee” with “cafe au lait” or “TV” with “a family drama” but there’s a reason for it, and it impacts the overall tone of the story.

Qualifying statements. I thought I was pretty good about catching these while drafting, but I guess not good enough :). In any case, there were exponentially fewer qualifiers in this manuscript than, say, CAVEBOY. Anyway, those I thought, I knew, it seemed’s really stood out when I heard them loud and clear. Sure, they have a place, but most of the time they’re unnecessary.

Hmmm. I had a lot more to add to this topic than I originally thought. And I will be reading this manuscript aloud multiple times–maybe not with every draft, but enough to catch all those POV slips and clunky sentences and repeated words. What about you? Anything to add to my comments on the benefits of reading your manuscript out loud?

Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY by Nikki Loftin

Yay! I’m back to Marvelous Middle Grade Monday! Well, for this week anyway. I’ve been on a bit of a young adult kick lately since that’s what I’m writing at the moment. However, I managed to squeeze in a middle grade read last week, and it’s definitely worthy of a review. So here’s THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY by Nikki Loftin.

The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki LoftinWhen Lorelei’s old school mysteriously burns down, a new one appears practically overnight: Splendid Academy.

Golden bowls of candy in every desk? Mouth-watering cafeteria meals, served by waiters? Optional homework and two recess periods a day? This place is every kid’s dream!

But Lorelei and her new friend Andrew begin to suspect that their teacher, the hypnotic Ms. Morrigan, is not who she seems. The mountains of syrupy pancakes and heaps of marzipan leave a sickening taste in their mouths as they uncover a sinister mystery at the heart of their classroom.

What Lorelei and Andrew soon discover chills their bones, and might even pick them clean!

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The cover and title – I’m grouping these together because they’re both about my first impression. I love the alliteration in the title, and it’s absolutely perfect for the story. So is the illustration on the cover. The three shadows peeking out the door. The trees looping into the words. Lorelei and Andrew. Just perfect.

2. The metaphors – I love it when an author comes up with a metaphor that gives me such a perfect image of what the character sees. Here are a couple of examples:

Mom. The word hung in the air like sparkles of dust in the sunlight, bringing with it memories and pain.”

“‘Have it your way, dear,’ she said, and something in her blue eyes flashed, like lightning far away.”

3. The allusions to eating – I don’t think I’m spoiling anything since the tagline says, “Were we being fed? Or fattened up?” It’s pretty clear what’s going on at this school, so it’s fun to read into the things teachers say that wouldn’t normally have another meaning but become quite ominous when you suspect they plan to eat you. There are many of these in the book, and they’re cleverly done.

“‘Where’s … Andrew?’

“‘Oh, your little friend? You don’t need to worry about him anymore. I–what’s the expression you kids use?–oh, yes. I really chewed him out.'”

4. The mystery – There are many threads woven into this story, and while the main mystery isn’t much of one, there are others being slowly unveiled in the background. What happened to Lorelei’s mother? Is Principal Trapp in on it? It kept me engaged, wondering how it would all come together in the end, and it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I love it when that happens!

5. The underlying messages – I like it when a book is able to convey important messages without hitting you over the head. Nikki Loftin does this well. Lorelei and Andrew both have issues they struggle with. Andrew’s weakness for food is what tips him off about what’s happening at the school, and his explanation to Lorelei could possibly help kids with the same issue. I don’t want to give away Lorelei’s main struggle since it factors into the climax, but it’s an excellent message as well.

I’ll definitely pick up Ms. Loftin’s next book when it comes out. Has anyone else read this one? What did you think?

Non-Fiction, Reading, Review

Review: CABIN PRESSURE by Josh Wolk

When I posted about research last week I was in the midst of reading a memoir for the first time ever. I’m definitely a fiction girl, so I would never have picked up this book without a strong incentive. I’m so glad I did. There were enough things about this book I loved that I’m writing my first non-fiction review. How about that? Here’s the description.

Cabin Pressure by Josh Wolk

It’s the countdown to Josh Wolk’s wedding, and he has just one thing left on his to-do list. His fiancee is responsible for the invitations, the menu, and the ceremony. And Josh? At age thirty-four, Josh has to pack his trunk to work as a counselor at his beloved boyhood summer camp. It’s time for one glorious, summer-long farewell to youth and irresponsibility.

A tall kid, Josh was always bigger than his fellow campers, but now he’s also as old as their dads, and he has the gray hair to prove it. Even the other counselors think Josh is wizened. For eight hilarious, uncomfortable, enlightening weeks, Josh teaches swimming by day and lives in a cabin of smart-aleck, wet-willie-dispensing fourteen-year-olds at night.

Reintegrating himself into his childhood utopia isn’t as easy as he thought it would be when he hatched this plan. His many moments of feeling ancient are paired with the unwelcome return of his old nemesis, Mitch. A macho jack-of-all-extreme sports, Mitch is idolized by the current campers, but he revives every one of Josh’s youthful insecurities and then piles on a few more. Throughout all this disorienting regression, Josh’s telephone conversations with his fiancee, Christine, grow increasing intense as their often comical discussions over the wedding plans become a flimsy cover for her worries that he’s not ready to relinquish his death grip on the past.

As always, here are the five things I loved most:

1. The humor – I’ve always had this perception that memoirs were about people with sad or horrifying stories. Obviously I was wrong. What makes this book is the humor. Josh’s way of seeing the humor in almost every situation kept me chuckling continually–probably because I like wry, sarcastic humor. He even made the boy humor palatable to me, and that’s something.

2. The metaphors – It’s no secret I love a good metaphor, and there were an abundance of them in this book. For example, in describing the dining hall, he says:

“The wide-open room was lined with three rows of wood tables with metal folding chairs, normally filled with boys screaming to be heard over boys screaming to be heard over boys screaming to be heard, the auditory equivalent of a nesting doll: the deeper you went, you’d always find another headache.”

3. The descriptions – While the metaphors certainly enhance the descriptions, there’s more to it than that. I could see, hear, smell and hear this camp, along with how he felt about all of those sensory touches. He also made the campers real and familiar. Here’s a brief example.

“Meeting the Bears filled me with a sense of deja vu. While the lumpy Trumps didn’t look at all familiar physically, I recognized his dark seizures of competitiveness from campers I’d known in the past. And every few years the camp got a new Captain Marquee, who would return from rehearsals annoyed at the lack of professionalism of his fellow castmates, convinced that if they’d just let him play every role, this version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown just might have a chance on Broadway.”

4. His journey – What he’s really cataloging is that point when you realize it’s time to grow up and let go of the past. You can’t recapture the past. You can catch glimpses of it, but you’re not the same, and places change, too. The camp was an interesting setting for his experiment, though, as it had changed less than other places might have. I really enjoyed seeing what he learned from the experience.

5. The storytelling – What it all comes down to in the end is that this story was told so well. All of the pieces above added up to a great story. So thank you, Josh Wolk, for making my first experience with narrative non-fiction a positive one.

I’m not sure I’m ready to jump into reading memoirs on a regular basis, but if you have a recommendation for one you think I’d enjoy, let me know. I highly recommend this one!

Revising, Writing

The Benefits of Reading Your Work Aloud

Do you ever hear advice and discard it because you don’t understand why you would do that?

For me, one of those pieces of seemingly pointless advice was to read your work aloud. I didn’t understand what I would gain from an exercise that would take much longer than just reading the way I usually do.

Well, last week I decided to try it. I can’t say it caused me to make sweeping changes. But I did figure out why it’s beneficial, and so I’m going to share my experience in case any of you are on the fence about reading aloud.

Point of view. My work-in-progress is written in alternating points of view, so reading it aloud was extremely helpful in keeping those voices distinct. I noticed turns of phrase or words that sounded out of place for a particular character. For example, half of my WIP is set on another planet, so Earth-based metaphors wouldn’t be relevant there. When I heard the words in addition to seeing them, I could see more clearly that they didn’t fit the character.

Dialogue. As with point of view, dialogue needs to be unique to each character. Often I would read something and think, “Character A wouldn’t say that, but Character B would,” or vice versa. And within a scene, I could tell if the characters sounded too similar.

Repeated words. Although I have a pretty good eye for noticing repeated words or phrases, reading aloud helped in that I’d notice if I’d said something a lot. Maybe the phrases weren’t on the same page or even in the same chapter, but they were more noticeable out loud. I also caught a number of things I’d have one character think or say and then a different one would think or say something similar, so that repetition became a voice issue.

Flow. Often things that look fine on the page don’t sound as strong when you say them out loud. Sometimes I’d read something that looked perfectly fine but sounded awkward. Even if the book is never read aloud to kids or put into audiobook form, I’d still like for it to flow.

So, those are the benefits I discovered, and I’ll definitely do this again. Do you read your work aloud? What benefits have you discovered?

Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: LIAR & SPY by Rebecca Stead

Hi there, MMGMers! I was on a bit of a YA kick there for a while, but I’m finally back with an MMGM review this week. I’ve had LIAR & SPY on my TBR list for a while. I loved WHEN YOU REACH ME (who didn’t?), so I was anxious to see how Rebecca Stead followed it up. I’m happy to report she doesn’t disappoint! Since I’ll cover that in the review part, here’s the description:

Liar & Spy by Rebecca SteadWhen seventh grader Georges (the s is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy.

Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend? 

And, as usual, here are the five things I loved most:

1. Sir Ott – I love how a painting by Seurat is so woven into the story it becomes both a character and a metaphor for what’s happening in Georges’ life. He’s even named after the artist–Georges Seurat. There are multiple passages I could choose to demonstrate, but I’ll go with the introduction of the painting.

“What you can’t tell from our poster is that the picture is painted entirely with dots. Tiny little dots. Close up, they just look like blobs of paint. But if you stand back, you see that they make this whole nice park scene, with people walking around in old-fashioned clothes. There’s even a monkey on a leash. Mom says that our Seurat poster reminds her to look at the big picture. Like when it hurts to think about selling the house, she tells herself how that bad feeling is just one dot in the giant Seurat painting of our lives.

“When I was little, I thought my parents were calling our poster the ‘Sir Ott,’ which is how you pronounce Seurat, the name of the artist from France who painted the picture. And I still think of the poster that way–like it’s this guy, Sir Ott, who has always lived with us.”

2. The friendships – Georges navigates through multiple friendships in the book–his former best friend, Jason; his new neighbor, Safer; and the kids at school, including Bob English Who Draws. He learns something from each of these friends–something about himself and something about friendship. I really love how these storylines developed.

3. The mystery – This was so well-done. There’s a mystery set out by Safer that masks another undercurrent running through the entire story. I was always aware something else was going on in the background, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was until I got to the end. I won’t spoil it for anyone by dropping any hints.

4. The parents – I really loved the picture Rebecca Stead drew of Georges’ parents. I could see them so clearly, even when they weren’t in the scene. The Scrabble conversation Georges has with his mom is so poignant. And their financial difficulties were handled in a way that the reader gets it without it becoming the main focus of the story. I always appreciate it when there’s a good family relationship.

5. The theme – There’s an overriding theme of figuring out how to face your fears. It’s carried out through the whole taste unit at school, but also through what’s happening with his family and Safer. By the end, I could see how it played out in almost every subplot, and yet I didn’t feel beat over the head with it. Very well done.

Have you read LIAR & SPY yet? Let me know what you thought.

MMGM, Reading

MMGM: KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES with a giveaway!

MMGMLike everyone else who participates in MMGM, I anxiously awaited the release of MMGM founder Shannon Messenger’s debut novel, KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES. I’m thrilled to say that it met all of my expectations and then some. And because I want to give back to Shannon the way she gives back to all of us through MMGM, regular giveaways, and WriteOnCon, I’m going to do my first giveaway ever this week. The details are at the bottom of this post, so read on!

Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has a secret. She’s a Telepath–someone who hears the thoughts of everyone around her. It’s a talent she’s never known how to explain.

Everything changes the day she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who appears out of nowhere and also reads minds. She discovers there’s somewhere she does belong, and that staying with her family will put her in grave danger. In the blink of an eye, Sophie is forced to leave behind everything and start a new life in a place that is vastly different from anything she has ever known.

Sophie has new rules to learn and new skills to master, and not everyone is thrilled that she has come “home.” There are secrets buried deep in Sophie’s memory–secrets about who she really is and why she was hidden among humans–that other people desperately want. Would even kill for.

Here are the five things I loved most about this book:

1. The descriptions – I’ve said before that I’m a sucker for a good metaphor or simile, and Shannon Messenger is a master of description. I’ve pulled one example that stood out enough I stopped reading to go insert it into this post so I wouldn’t have to search for it later.

“The whirlpool formed a tunnel of air, dipping and weaving through the dark water like the craziest waterslide ever. She was actually starting to enjoy the ride when she launched out of the vortex onto an enormous sponge. It felt like being licked from head to toe by a pack of kittens–minus the kitten breath–and then the sponge sprang back, leaving her standing on a giant cushion.”

It’s the kitten thing. I just loved it.

2. Sophie’s strength – I really admired Sophie as a character. Sophie deals with some real temptation thanks to her telepathic ability, and while she doesn’t always succeed, she makes it right when she doesn’t. She stays strong in resisting temptation, even when it’s really hard, and that made her character in my book. Here’s an example, although I’ve omitted one word to avoid a spoiler.

“Alden closed his eyes. Listening to Grady’s thoughts? Transmitting another plea? Not since the xxxxx incident had Sophie been so tempted to violate the ethics of telepathy and find out what was going on. But if Alden somehow caught her, Bronte could use it to have her exiled.

Would he catch her?

She could probably sneak in without him knowing, but what would she do with the information? If she said or did anything about it, he’d know how she found out.

It wasn’t worth the risk.”

3. The layers – Sophie’s been thrown into an entirely new world, so there are many things for her to figure out. Fitting into a new school. Making friends. Worrying about the fires in the human world. Figuring out where she came from and why she’s so different. And if that isn’t enough, she can’t even trust her own mind. I enjoyed the way Shannon Messenger brought these layers together in the end without resolving everything. It left me satisfied for now but wanting more later.

4. Keefe – If this is going to be one of those series where you pick a team, then I’m definitely Team Keefe. Just thought I should put that out there now. I know she likes Fitz, but there’s something to be said for the boy who keeps her off-balance and believes in her through everything. Even her best friend Dex doesn’t live up to that standard at one point. Plus, Keefe has some family issues going on that I bet are going to come up in one of the future books. It should make things quite interesting. Note: In case this point makes you wonder if the book is more YA, that’s not the case at all. We’re talking about first crushes and tingly feelings and blushing, nothing more.

5. It made me tear up – As my husband would tell anyone, it takes a lot to make me cry. I rarely do it in real life, but sometimes a book or movie will really get to me. There was a scene with Sophie’s host family that made me tear up, and for me, that takes this book to the next level. I have to really identify with the character for that to happen, and Sophie earned the tears. She may be special, but her life isn’t perfect by any means. She has to figure out how to live with her new reality, and I expect there will be more emotional trials to come in the rest of the series.

So, the contest! I’m giving away a signed copy of KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES*. To enter, leave a comment on this post by noon Central Time this Friday, Nov. 2. I’ll announce the winner on next week’s MMGM post.

For querying writers, Shannon Messenger is represented by Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

*I’ve had a few questions about whether the contest is international. I hadn’t considered that, so here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to have the book shipped directly from the store where Shannon signed. If the winner is in another country and this shop doesn’t ship internationally, we may have to work something else out (like an unsigned copy from a store in your country if available), but I’m not going to exclude anyone.