Julie Hyzy is not only a super-nice woman (she lives across the street so I know this as a fact), but she’s also a ginormously fantastic mystery writer. When I started doing critiquerly interviews, I thought of Julie right away, which is why I'm so excited about this post. Julie is amazingly prolific, and has a number of books that you’ll want to order after reading her thoughts on critiquing.
Plus, she knows how to use “critiquer” (Real word, critiquer is. No, seriously.), which puts her at ninja status here at NAE.
Anthony and Barry Award winning author Julie Hyzy writes two national bestselling mystery series:
the White House Chef Mysteries (fourth in the series, Buffalo West Wing, came out in January), and
the Manor House Mysteries (the second book, Grace Interrupted, debuts June 7th). She recently
entered the eBook arena with her first harder edged novel - about a Chicago-based female private
investigator. Playing With Matches is written under the N.C. Hyzy pseudonym. Julie lives in the
Chicago area with her husband, three daughters, and two cats.
NAE: Who, as one of your critiquers/beta-readers, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?
JH: I have two answers to this. First, I learned more about writing, about reading, and about discipline from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch than from anyone else. I was fortunate to participate in a two-week workshop at their home in Oregon, in 2002. There were 12 of us there, learning, writing, workshopping and talking business. I can't even begin to describe how tough it was to keep up. We were required to write every night... most assignments were 3,000 words minimum. In addition, we had to complete a technique assignment, a grammar assignment, and we had to read and critique all the other participants' submissions from the day before.
We met every morning at 10 AM. That's when our "homework" was due and our critiquing began. After we broke at about 2 PM, new assignments in hand, we got to work. But... then we had a business meeting every night beginning at 8 PM, and usually ending around midnight.
Did we all get everything done on time every day? Yes. We learned to get out of our own way, to write first, revise later. To allow our real selves to come out because we didn't have time to allow the the critic on our shoulder to hold us back. I learned that I can write even when I don't feel like it. Even when I'm exhausted, hungry, frustrated. That's unbelievably empowering.
When I got home, I didn't sleep well for days. When I did, I would wake up disoriented. It took me at least two weeks to recover. But the lessons I learned have stayed. The experience was life changing. In the most positive, fabulous way possible.
Second: I did have a beta reader for a long time, from whom I learned a lot about crafting realistic fight-for-your-life scenes, and about creating and maintaining tension. He was a great beta reader and I believe I was an equally good beta reader for him. Alas, he's not really writing much these days and we don't critique one another anymore. I do miss that. I always felt much stronger about my manuscripts after I had another pair of experienced eyes go over it.
NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?
JH: I think it's important to be open to having one's own work critiqued first. That's where I believe I learned the most about how to critique. I listened to what others were saying about my stories. I paid very close attention. I still do. This may sound so basic, but one of the first stories I submitted to my writers group had a moment in it that I liked, but didn't love. Something was off, but I turned it in anyway. One of the group members said, "You shifted point of view." Can you believe I hadn't even noticed that? But I had, and that was exactly why the scene stopped working.
That was extremely helpful to me. And that, I believe, is what critiquers should strive for - to be helpful. Telling a writer that a scene doesn't work is most helpful when you can explain why. Getting involved with a critique group can be extremely beneficial. When I've worked with one, I've found that it's also best to allow critiquers to express themselves one at a time and for the writer to remain silent throughout. When critiquers are allowed to jump in all at once in a free-for-all discussion, there's a risk of everyone is ganging up against the writer, which can quickly alienate him or her. And to have a writer argue that he or she is right is even worse.
Also, and this is probably *the* most important thing a person needs to do if he/she wants to be an effective critiquer - READ. The more we read, the more we absorb and assimilate, even when we don't know it. By reading we start to pick up pointers on pacing, dialogue, and characterization. All so very important in writing fiction.
NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?
JH: If I have the luxury of reading once through before editing, I do. I believe that's the best way to critique. I usually read through once to get a feel for a story, and feel for the author's style. When I critique, I try very hard not to tread on the author's style because that's what sets him/her apart from all the other writers out there.
After my first read-through, I'm a very picky line-editor, for sure. I note every typo, word echo, and continuity issue that I find. I also suggest changes to the story, if appropriate. If I believe a story has real potential, I make lots of notes all over it, some revision ideas, some simple commentary. If I think a story can't possibly ever go anywhere, I usually give it a very light edit. That said, I haven't done any editing/critiquing in quite a while. I just don't have the time anymore. Sniff. I miss it.
NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?
JH: Two things. Characters and wordsmithing. I need to believe in a character before I can truly get into a story and if a character isn't real to me, the story won't work. There are exceptions (such as those in The DaVinci Code), but it's rare that only plot keeps me reading. I prefer stories about characters.
I am also attuned to how a story sounds. If the words match the tone, if the words sound well put together. If they flow. Words have to flow. They shouldn't jar a reader or throw a reader out of the story.
I'm also big on grammar, especially spelling. I'm the first to admit I have comma issues and often forget them when they're necessary or add them in when they're not. Otherwise, I'm very picky. I hate it when writers spell their own characters' names wrong. What's up with that?
Thanks, Julie! It’s a little funny when writers misspell their characters names. I have to admit that I’ve renamed characters before which has resulted in name confusion. I like your point about reading to enhance your critiquerly skills. It’s something we hear about developing as a writer, so it makes perfect sense to me.
Here’s a peek at Grace Interrupted that comes out next Wednesday, available on kindle and in paperback. Of course, you'll want to read Grace Under Pressure first.
On the grounds of Marshfield Manor, Civil War re-enactors have set up camp.
And what a dedicated troupe! One of them has really been killed...
As an aside, I have one quick yet stupendous announcement: Those of you who have followed my Crits for Water interviews may be happy to know that the campaign has just tipped over $5,000, which provides an entire village with clean water. Congrats to Kat Brauer for running the CfW events, to the agents and authors who donated critiques, and to the writers who bid on them. Mucho hearts and kisses all around. There are still some fabulous critiques up for auction this month.