Posted in writing

Second Time Critiquing: Lessons Learned

What I’ve learned from critiquing the same book twice

penLast year I wrote a 115,000 word fantasy novel, and got it critiqued by my then-critique group. Then I moved, and had to find a new group of writers to hang out with. Once I found them, rather than start critiquing book two–which only had two chapters to it at the time–I decided to critique book one again.

And I’m glad I did.

I’ve only just begun the critiquing process over again, but already I can tell the difference. The book is already tighter, better written, and more interesting.

Here are some some things I’ve learned the second time around.

Don’t Get Attached

Don’t get attached–to anything–in your story. Not your characters, not the setting, not a piece of dialogue, not a scene, not the plot. Not anything. Period.

The minute you think your story/character/dialogue/whatever is perfect and can’t be improved is the day your story stops getting better. Your story isn’t perfect. It’s not going to wow the judges or  agents or whoever–especially if this is your rough draft.

The first time around, your story isn’t going to be perfect. The first time around, you’re just starting to understand the shape and boundaries of your story, of the world you created. The editing process smooths out all the rough places and gets rid of the trash.

And don’t be fooled: there’s going to be a lot of trash.

By not getting attached to anything, you’ll be able to see your world and consider critiques clearly. Anything that doesn’t move the story forward, anything that makes it worse, or unclear–those things have to go. If a scene can be written better, do it. If you need to cut a character, a line of dialogue, or even a scene, do it.

Trust me. The story will be better for having the trash gone.

Know Your Weaknesses

As writers, we all have weak points. For example, I tend to have too much detail. Always have. I also tend to reuse words (for example, look up how many times I use the word ‘critique’ in first few paragraphs of this article. It’s embarrassing.) over and over again. Names too. Use of passive voice verses active voice also. Just to name a few of my shortcomings.

Every writer’s weaknesses will be different, so find out what yours are. The easiest way to do that is to let someone else read yours stuff and let them tell you what you did wrong.

That’s right. You heard me. In order to find out how bad your story is, you’re going to have to let other people read it and tear it apart. But that’s all right. You’ll live. Eventually. But at least you’ll know what your weak points are and will be able to avoid them. Then you’ll be a better writer.

Join Writer’s Groups and Learn from Them

I’ve already touched on this, but it bears repeating. You can only learn so much about writing by writing. I didn’t start improving until I joined a writers group and learned from those who knew more. Until I started letting them read my babies and tell me how I can make them better.

Reading helps, and going to classes helps, but to learn some things, you need to listen to the voice of experience.

Tags Verses Beats

Of all things I’ve learned lately from editing, this one has got to be one of the biggest, hardest, and simplest things that has made the most difference to my story.

What is the difference? I’ll keep it simple, since I’m still learning.

Tags are also known as speech tags. They are the things you put at the end of dialogue to let your reader know someone said something here. They include things like: He said/whispered/spoke/yelled/exclaimed/asked.

Up until now, everyone has said that tags are invisible. Your eyes just skim over them. This can be true up to a point. For one, you have to be trained to not see those words. For another–in a long passage full of nothing but dialogue, reading nothing but “he said, she said,” over and over and over again–it’s not invisible. And anything that takes your readers out of the story is a bad thing.

Beats are also known as action beats. For example: Barry thundered through town on his white horse, sounding the alarm. “The house is on fire!”

When you have an action beat followed by dialogue, you don’t also need a tag. It’s redundant. We already know who is speaking–Barry.

Using action beats also gives you, as a writer, another tool to build your story with. You can use action beats to help drive a story forward or to help build the story world.

Personally, I’ll say every story needs both tags and beats. Beats may be harder to use, but they can do so much for your story. However, there comes a point in every book where you just have to use a tag. Don’t over use them, but don’t neglect them, either. Either of them.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Feel free to leave me a note or reply with your own tips.


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