Thursday, April 28, 2011

3 Critiquing Points for Beginners

(Or, Newbie Tricks for Crits with Bling)

Critiquing when you’re a new-ish writer/critiquer can be intimidating, and I’ll be the first one to admit: I had no idea where to start. I began to write a bit later in life, and although I can’t see my life without writing at this point, I didn’t start with the traditional MFA upbringing. When these traditional writers, who had known how they’d had the calling from their first story they wrote in kindergarten to write beautiful, lyrical, literary work, well, I can't help that these guys are better than me. And they know what they’re doing because it’s in their blood.

I could have used a few pointers, especially when I first began critiquing. I feared I’d look as stupid as I felt. How could I tell someone to improve their art?

First of all, know that if a writer asks for a critique, s/he not only wants someone to point out his/her blind spots, s/he is sincerely appreciative when someone does. Still, it’s tough to know what to say after you’ve read something for the first time. After looking over the sampling of critiquers in my earlier post, I’ve come up with three points to make even the newest of critiquers review like a pro.

1.    Characters: As a writer, I want each character to breathe life into every passage, and to have an authentic and interesting point of view. When critiquing, focus on a few questions for each character:
~Does the character pop off the page (come to life and feel authentic)?
~Is the character interesting (quirky, mysterious, likeable/unlikeable)?
~Are the character’s actions guided by their goals/desires?
~Does the character have a specific and necessary role they fulfill within the story?

2.    Plot: You can look up a variety of typical plot arcs such as the chart below. Short/flash fiction may work differently, but if you review a story with a full plot, ask yourself these questions:
~Does the story stick follow a logical plot, or digress into too many subplots?
~Does the tension rise along the plot arch? How does it accomplish this?
~Are there any scenes that are not necessary to the plot arch?
~Is the resolution valid/meaningful compared to the rest of the story?

3.    Sensory Details: Writers want readers to see the world through the main character’s eyes. Therefore:
~Is each description necessary for understanding the character or the scene?
~Does the writer focus on each of the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste)?
~Does the description pull the reader into the story or pull the reader out of the story?
~Is the description/sensory detail something the character would likely focus on?
~(BONUS!) Do the sensory details, overall, help support the theme of the story?

When a critiquer watches for the above points, the writer will see the feedback as helpful no matter how new the critiquer happens to be. There are many more things that can be critiqued, so I’ll touch upon additional points in future posts.

Critiques are all about one person's reaction to the story. It’s great to point out when something works, as long as the critiquer explains why it works (see any of the above points as a discussion point). The critiquer also needs to balance the review with things that didn’t work, or things that almost worked but missed the target. It’s the writer’s job to then take the critique and figure out what changes, if any, are required to accomplish what they want within their story.

The critique belongs to the critiquer, the story belongs to the writer.


Coming up: A critiquerly interview with historical romance author Courtney Milan.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Flash Factory at

(Or, A Place to Hone your Critique Skills) 

My sister Cecilia, the literary writer of the family, has been a writer/critiquer for longer than myself. When I expressed an interest in writing a few years back and I stunk at it but she didn’t want to be the one to tell me, she directed me to the writing community at She introduced me to her friends and told me to write something. Post it. See what others say about my skills.

The experience turned out to be enlightening. Zoetrope is organized into different areas of writing: short stories, screen plays, novellas, poetry, and flash fiction. (Other types of art, like photography and songwriting can be shared as well.) Before one can begin to post his/her work, s/he is required to first critique several pieces by other writers. At this point, the writer is allowed to post a piece and receive critiques from other participants. Zoetrope sets a minimum word count for each review and provides categories to rate each piece. For example, if a writer posts a piece of flash fiction (a story of 1,000 or fewer words), they will receive a written review of at least 100 words and will be rated on a 10-point scale not only on their overall quality, but also on their voice, focus, quality of writing, and efficiency of language.

It’s a great way to learn how to write very structured critiques. But also? If you happen to hop over to Zoetrope and you’re wanting to ramp up your critique skills each week, go to the office directory and look for a place called the FLASH FACTORY, started by Frank Sullivan and now run by Richard Osgood.

The FF provides its members with a prompt. This week’s prompt?

1,000 words or less: We’re just riders on the storm -- it’s storming like crazy out there -- it ain’t a fit night out for man or beast. What’s happening in your storm? Ghosts, sock monkeys, murder, intrigue, love, revenge, betrayal? Have at it. But a storm has to figure prominently in the plot.

Each participant will write a story, and it’s an eclectic bunch. You’ll find literary wit, mystery, fantasy, and more in the posted pieces. Each participant reads each of the posted entries, writes a review for seven of them, and then votes for his or her favorite three. The winner has the honor of coming up with next week’s writing prompt. You don’t have to write a story to review.

My critiquerly friends, this experience is intense. Some adventurous writers participate week after week and have many publications that started in the factory. I participate less frequently, but I learn something new each time. Sometimes I re-learn something I’ve forgotten. Each week I participate, I feel very alive as a writer/critiquer.

So if you’re itching to hone your writer/critiquer skills and you’re wondering what flash fiction is all about, check out Zoetrope and head on over to the factory. Tell Rich I sent you.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writer Vs. Internal Critic

Writer Vs. Internal Critic
(Or, One on Each Shoulder)

1. My friend, Anita Howard, wrote about turning off your internal editor while you read for pleasure. So…yanno…you can find pleasure in reading instead of thinking, “wow, why did this author do xyz here?” 

2. My other friend, Mary Frame, mentioned being in a writing slump, but has been doing a fantastic blog series on how to raise stakes, embrace pain, and make your WiP sparkle.

3. My first critiquerly interviewee, INTERN, just did posted her frightful confession about comparing herself to others and going through torturous, self-deprecating thoughts.

Using several principles of math known only to ninja scientists and too complicated to describe in this post, I've added the above points together and I've come up with an exponential result.

I’d also been in a slump (ended a month ago). For months, I’d been meaning to work on my WiP. I printed it out. I started to chart the chapters in an excel spreadsheet to find gaps or opportunities or whatever it was I should correct. For weeks and weeks, I kept the file open at the bottom of my screen out of guilt so I could see it and it would remind me to work on it.

But I didn’t.

Here’s my excuse theory: my Internal Editor overtook me. Pinned me to the floor. Instead of being the helpful, oopsie-that’s-passive-tense kind of editor, it flipped over to the wow-you-suck-you-shouldn’t-write-anymore kind of critic. I liken it to the angel/devil on each shoulder. The angel represents my muse, but she's sometimes knocked into the dirt by my devilish critic.

Something that usually brings the worst side of my internal critic to the surface is when I’ve realized something new as a writer that I hadn’t paid attention to before, and I freeze up because I’m not sure if I can do what I need to do to become better. This realization, though, is growth, and normally comes from an outside critique which is then incorporated into my internal critic’s list of whip-lashes no-nos.

Anita told me about another friend of hers who uses a stuffed animal to represents their Internal Editor. This friend puts the stuffed toy into a drawer every time they need to write. Brilliant.

When you write, listen to your muse. When you edit, listen to your critic.

The amount of time it takes to get over a slump is different for everyone. Mary Kole describes it as a crisis of self-confidence. If you’re experiencing a slump, try to figure out the positive message from your Internal Editor. Because maybe? Slumps are good for you. 

So, embrace your devil. And then? 

Turn your head the other way and kiss your muse.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Critiquerly Interview: Author & Social Media Expert Nathan Bransford

(Or, Don’t Jump into Scalding Hot Water)

My sister introduced me to my next guest. Well, not in person. She sent me a link to one of his blog posts. Ever since then, Nathan Bransford’s blogwhere he writes about eBooks (see his recent post about the $.99 eBook phenomenon), offers page critiques, and has a mad lib formula for query lettershas remained on my must-read list. I’m interested in Nathan’s take on critiques because I like the fact that he’s a writer, and has dabbled¹ on the agent side as well. In fact, he still shows up as one of the all-time top queried agents on a particular online query-tracking system.

Oh, and also? If you read his blog, you’ll know he’s an all-around fantastic guy with down-to-earth advice for writers.

And if you haven't met him yet, then I'm happy to introduce him to you.


Nathan Bransford is the author of
a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space,
break the universe, and have to find their way back home, which
will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers on May 12th.
He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now
the social media manager at CNET. He lives in San Francisco.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

NB: I recommend treating an in-depth critique like a pool of scalding hot water. You don't want to jump right in, you want to gradually acclimate yourself and let it sink in. If writers are anything like me it's difficult to hear that certain things need to change and it's important to gradually lower your defenses. Read it once, let it sit, read it again, think about it some more, and let some time pass. Your brain will be working in the meantime, and as long as you're open to everything you'll be able to listen to your gut without your defenses or ego getting in the way.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

NB: I think the absolute most important thing is to leave aside how you would write it if you were the author and instead focus on trying to help the author achieve their own vision.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?

NB: I edit as I go. I don't really do very close line edits and instead focus on broader elements that are/aren't working.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

NB: It really depends on the particular work, but basically I just try and keep an open mind, zero in on something that doesn't feel like it's working, and then try and figure out why it's not working. So it could be any one of those elements or a combination.


Thanks, Nathan! It’s interesting how you point out that critiquers are there to help an author achieve his/her own vision, not theirs. I completely agree, but this is easier said than done.

Check out Nathan’s JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW (Amazon link below).


Question for NAE readers: Have you ever found yourself critiquing as if you’re the one writing? If so, how do you reign yourself in?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Critiquerly Interview: Author Jodi Meadows

(Or, Join an Online Writers Group)

I credit Jodi Meadows as the person who helped me find Kat Brauer’s Crits for Water campaign. Jodi had been on my “I really want to interview this fantastic person” list from the get-go.  But when I did a quick search on her name (I’m a nosy little bugger) before I sent her the “please, please, come and do an interview on my new critiquing blog,” I found her in the Crits for H2O auction. Now I’m hooked on the campaign. And? Jodi knits those uber-cool fingerless gloves. Perfect for writers (maybe other people-types, too).

She’s a yarn load of fabulous, and she’s auctioning off 3 separate 5,000-word critiques (one a day starting 4/17). If I had the financial resources to pull it off, I might try for all 3 and get the 15k all to myself. Alas, I am but a poor blogger. But I’m smart enough to find out her thoughts on critiquing.

Evil genius? Maybe. But I’m sharing, so you can all be evil geniuses with me. (Cue your wickedest of laughs *here.*)


Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with
her husband, a cat, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed
book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against
becoming an astronaut. THE NEWSOUL TRILOGY will be published by
Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, beginning with INCARNATE in early 2012.
Visit her online at


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

JM: I think it's important for writers to read a crit thoroughly, put it away for a couple days while they digest it, and then read it again. A lot of the time, what looked like fire-breathing dragons in the first read will seem less harsh a few days later.

Many writers have an automatic "no you're SO WRONG" reaction to critiques. (I'm not judging. I do it too! Quickly followed by deep despair because what if they're right and I'm the worst writer ever? Ice cream usually helps all of the above.) It's important to have time to get over those immediate emotional reactions, since they tend not to be helpful.

Spend time looking at anything the critter said they liked, and where they left reader reactions that match what you were trying to make them feel. Chances are you aren't the worst writer ever.

Also, check the urge to defend your work. Sometimes critters are wrong, but if they pointed it out, maybe there's something there after all! (Maybe it's not exactly what they pointed out.) But if there's something you need to defend or explain -- that's best done in the story, since authors can't stake out every bookstore and explain things to readers. That would be creepy, anyway!

Once you feel like you have a good handle on what needs to be done to make the story better -- and you're no longer an emotional train wreck -- that's when it's time to start revising.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

JM: Read other people's critiques. One of the best things I did when beginning my writing journey was to join the Online Writing Workshop [] where I offered my work up for critique, critiqued other people's work, and read other people's critiques of other people's work.

I learned a lot by paying attention to what better critters pointed out, how they explained things, and then deciding whether or not I agreed with their opinions.

You could say that learning how to critique is a lot like learning how to write -- and it involves stealing from the best! (And then figuring out how to make it work for you.)

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?

JM: I make comments in the manuscript as I read. In my experience, reader reactions are invaluable; I try to give those whenever possible, in addition to critical comments. At the end, I offer a few overall notes, and expand on anything I noticed in the manuscript but didn't have a specific place to talk about it.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

JM: I generally focus on whatever needs the most work, but I love pointing out logic problems -- probably because this was one of my biggest personal struggles as a beginning writer. What do you mean I've already established it takes five days to go from point A to point B, so the characters can't get there in two? Obviously they flew!


So I find myself obsessed with pointing out continuity errors, logic issues in world-building and character development. . . . Just doing my part to create a new generation of people focused on minor, possibly insignificant details!

NAE: Is there another question you think I should ask, and what is your answer?

JM: I'm not going to tell you what the question should be, but I will tell you the answer: Wool.

It's not as scratchy as most people think (at least, not the good stuff), and it's incredibly useful if you happen to become submerged in cold water. I mean yes, when wool soaks up water it weighs a ton, but assuming you're rescued, wool is one of the only fibers you want to keep wearing if you don't have a change of clothes. Because wool is still warmer when wet. With other fibers, you'd be better off naked. You'd actually be warmer like that! Shocking, I know. (The other one you want to keep on is silk.)

Another little-known property of wool is that it's self-extinguishing. I still don't recommend running through a burning house, but if you decide to do that, I hope you're wearing wool. (Or a firefighter outfit.)


Thanks, Jodi! I am now, one at a time, replacing every piece of clothing I own with like-colored, like-styled wool garments. It may take a while, but I’ll get there.

As a co-admin of an online critique group and a member in several of them, I feel strongly about these forums--both in terms of developing your critique skills and your writing skills.

Note: Bid on Jodi’s Crit for Water 5,000-word critique here 4/17/11 – 4/19/11. If you're reading this post after Jodi's auctions, you have a chance to bid on upcoming auctions and drawings through June. And yes, I’ll have more Crit for Water critiquerly interviews here, so keep checking back.

->(Added 4/17) Comment below if you know of a great online writing forum/community that deserves a shout-out.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with E. Roth Intern: Jessica Lei

(Or, Respecting Choices and Style)

For those of us who loved Katharine Brauer’s thoughts on critiques, and the fact that she’s masterminded a Crits for Water campaign, this interview with Jessica Lei is a must read. You can donate to Crits for Water today for a chance to win a 2,500-word young adult critique from Jessica, and if that’s not generous enough, she’s also got a drawing for a first chapter YA critique on April 22nd.

All I have to say is: Jessica gets bonus points for seamlessly integrating the word critiquer in her interview responses. (Yes. Critiquer is a word, even if your spell check doesn't recognize it. Or your online dictionary. See Minor Announcement the Third.)

Jessica is a 22-year-old intern for the amazing agent Elana Roth
at the Johnson Literary Agency and writer of YA fantasy looking
for a miracle (aka an agent).


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

JL: Walk away! I always recommend walking away for a short period of time (a day to a week, or longer if you need it) after reading an in-depth critique to gain perspective. After letting the comments marinate for awhile, sometimes they make more sense than before and a lot of times, you can look at them from a less personal perspective. Once you can approach the critique with an analytical mindset, you can really hit the revision full-force and pick apart your own work, which is always the most beneficial part of revising.

When I started this whole process, I was one of those types that thought she could fix everything in one or two revisions. I learned pretty quickly that you can't. My advice for the revising process is to focus on certain things each time, and build on what you've already worked on in subsequent revisions. You and your writing will be much better (or less insane) because of it :)

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

JL: Go with your gut. If something feels wrong to you, always speak up. If you're afraid it's going to be hurtful, reassure the writer that it's merely your opinion and to take it with a grain of salt. But I've always found honesty helpful in a critique. If something isn't working for someone, I can probably exercise some imagination to find a better way to do it! And my manuscript has always grown better because of the honesty of my critique partners.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process (e.g., line edit as you go along, read once before editing, read several times, etc.)?

JL: When I critique, I try to hit on everything at once (aka I'm lazy and I only read once). I line-edit as I read, and also pinpoint places of confusion or lost opportunity. I'm also known to fangirl once in awhile when one of my partners writes something totally awesome. I'm not too proud to compliment! Depending on the chapter and things I commented on within, I might write a summary or wrap-up of my thoughts and suggestions to help the writer in revisions. And I'm always open to questions after I send a critique back, in case I was confusing. I also love brainstorming!

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing (e.g., plot, grammar, characters, emotions, etc.)?

JL: I gravitate toward what WORKS or doesn't work for me (--and only me since it's a subjective business). Usually it has to do with plot, if there's a thread of causation laced throughout the narrative that strings the conflict into one, culminating point. Sometimes what works or doesn't work has to do with characters (are the likeable or not? Are they redeemable even if they aren't likeable?), character motivation (what is driving them to do A instead of B? Why are they more attracted to character Y instead of Z?), and stylistic choices (could this be better in first person, or in past tense? Does this story need to be in alternating points of view?). I just try to identify ANYTHING that could help make the narrative, story, and writing stronger.

Q added by JL: When can a critique become unhelpful?

JL: I chose this question because I've had unhelpful critiques before (haven't we all?), and I think some people take "their opinions" too far in this writing game. Critiques become unhelpful when the critiquer is trying to CHANGE the story or the writing. As a critiquer, you have to be respectful to the choices and style of who you're critiquing. For instance, I like the Oxford comma (it's my favorite punctuation mark), and I always use it when I'm writing. However, my best friend doesn't ever use it. Do I correct her every time she doesn't use it? No, because I know it's her decision to leave it out. It's okay to correct grammar and punctuation, or to suggest changes to the plotline or characters--but never expect all of your corrections or suggestions to be right for who you're critiquing. It's their story, and they have the right to decide what works and doesn't work for their own story.


Thanks, Jessica! (Kat’s so lucky to have Jessica in her crit group.) Spread the word about Jessica’s Crits for Water drawings, and don’t forget that you are eligible for Kat’s 250 words/$1 you donate for the cause. And also? You’re giving the gift of water.

Stay tuned for another Crits for Water interview with Jodi Meadows on 4/17.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stages of Critiquing Competence

(Or, the Chicken and the Egg, Revisited)

You may have already heard about the four stages of writing competence from Authoress's recent post or Mary Kole's post about dealing with rejection. My brief definitions (adding in a critique perspective, and a little bit of psychology) follow. If you already know the stages, feel free to skip ahead.

Stage the First: Unconscious Incompetence –You believe you’re great, but you stink. Your ego thrives under false pretenses.

Stage the Second: Conscious Incompetence – Your crit partner/group help you realize you stink. Your ego suffers, but rightly so. You come up for air, but you better hold your breath because you’re going under again. Soon.

Stage the Third: Conscious Competence – You know what you need to do to improve, but it’s a chore. Your ego starts to recover, but suffers multiple set-backs.

Stage the Fourth: Unconscious Competence – You’re one with your work and if you err, you hear that little critiquing voice inside your head and self-correct. Your ego is happy because people like what you write and you like that they like it. Of course, your ego worries that you’ll never write something as good as you just have. What? Did you expect a happy ending?

A long intro for a short thing to consider. As a critiquer, everyone has to push through these stages as well. Me. You. Everyone. Read the stages above again, and think of where you might be as a critiquer. And make plans to move to the next level.

I’m wondering, though. What do you suppose happens first? A person becomes a better writer, and thus a better critiquer, or the other way around? Is it simultaneous?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Special Saturday Interview with Katharine Brauer

(Or, Crits for Water)

I have access to drinkable water. In my faucet. And I can buy bottled water almost anywhere I go.

A lot of people can’t.

And here’s why I get excited about the writing community, not just because of the family I’ve found here, but because of the awesome generosity I discover again and again among you wonderful folks.

For example, Katharine Brauer’s Crits for Water campaign? It’s a glass of awesome. She’s spearheading auction/drawing events all year to raise money in order to bring water to people who need it. Take a look at the schedule of events here, because people you know, like authors, bloggers, editors/agents (oh, my!) are taking part in the critique give-aways.

More awesomeness? For every $1 you donate, Kat will critique 250 words of your writing. I don’t own the fanciest calculator on the block, but I do know that $20 will get you a 5,000-word critique from her. (Dramatic pause.) Not to mention that your money goes directly to fund the creation of water access where it’s needed most.

And if you’re thirsty for more, take a gander below at what Kat has to say about critiquing.

Kat Brauer is a slightly (read: very) silly American teaching English
on a semi-tropical island in Japan. When she's not teaching
(which is often), she takes photos, bakes too many cookies, reads, and
writes. She is represented by Sara Megibow at Nelson Literary Agency.


NAE: Who, as one of your critiquers/beta-readers, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

KB: Holy bejebus, I've learned oodles from all of them.

From Ashley (Ashley March): Pretty much all of my beginning mistakes were fixed by this lady. She was my very first crit partner and really shaped my writing. Her subtle yet snarky voice occasionally sneaks into my MS because I love it so much.

From Sooz (Susan Dennard): Your climax needs to be climax-y. It really has to be the amalgamation of all the action previous, and then some. Also: sometimes in scifi worldbuilding, it's okay to just outright explain things.

From Jess (Jessica Lei): How to best ORDER things in my MS so it makes greater sense to the reader, especially as concerns dialogue around action. Also brainstorming. I get some of my greatest scenes tossing ideas at this lady and having her raze them to shreds.

From the Fantasy Weavers: How to cut down my purple prose. (It can be excessive, especially at first.) How to keep action tags from overwhelming dialogue. How to keep the pace up. All of which I'm still working on, but I like to think I'm improving.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

KB: Make sure you understand GRAMMAR. Of course you want to keep an eye out for the bigger things like plot, characterization, and pacing, but a good understanding of grammar actually has an impact on those things! I think my crit skills improved by leaps and bounds once I started studying English to teach it to my students. Example: now I know the ins-and-outs of passive voice, so I can more easily figure out when it should be used and when it's unnecessary. I also feel that syntax is indicative of culture, so the way you use syntax amongst each character affects characterization.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?

KB: Usually I line-edit as I go with occasional comments where I'm confused or particularly amused. Then I consider everything and write a summary of the comments/line-edits with my reasoning about them, how I think they can be fixed, and what they might do to prevent them in the future. If I feel it needs a lot of work, then I let my thoughts gel and gestate before sending it off, in case I might have jumped the gun on a particular comment.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

KB: Grammar. Syntax.

Holy god, yes. Word order. Word choice. Effective dialogue.

Following that, generally characterization and pacing. Since I usually critique in chapters, it's hard to get a clear concept of plot. But as I move along later in the book, then that starts to become big, too.

Question added by KB: How have you applied your critiquing to your writing?

KB: Every time I crit something, I become much more aware of similar foibles in my writing. For example, if I see telling (with filter words, which is a particular pet peeve) in someone's excerpt/MS, then the next time I comb through my MS, I'm VIGILANT for filter words.

I DEFINITELY make the same mistakes in my work that I fix in others. This not only helps me empathize as I crit, but it really helps me tighten my writing.


Thanks for the responses, Kat. And for getting the writing community involved in this cause. I'll be interviewing other Crits for Water critiques in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned.

Now, writer/critiquers: if you’re still thirsty, go get a glass of water. And see how much farther Kat has to go to achieve her Crit for Water goal by June here. I think I'm going to have a garage sale in order to raise money for my critique from her.

For published authors or agents/editors who'd like to join in Kat's campaign by donating a critique, you can find details here. Tell her I sent you, and consider doing a Not and Editor interview here. Even if you are an editor. I'd be honored.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Krista Van Dolzer

(Or, I Could Have Done This Months Ago)

I became a fan of Krista’s Van Dolzer’s blog when I first started researching agents. The interviews she does on a weekly basis with agents are fantastic, and usually make me feel like I have at least one more insight into each agent. And the fun part? Some of the agents stick around to answer questions the day their interview is posted. Two words: love it! If you are currently in agent-search mode, her blog is a must. No, really. Go check out her list of past agent interviews.

I found Krista hanging around over at, and her super-sweet comments made me like her even more.

(Not an actual photo of Krista)
Krista Van Dolzer graduated from Brigham Young University with degrees in
Mathematics Education and Economics, which, unfortunately, didn’t teach her
much about writing YA fiction (adolescent development classes notwithstanding).
She lives in Mesquite, Nevada, with her husband and two children and blogs at
Mother. Write. (Repeat.) about mothering, writing, and overusing
parentheses (hence the name).

Here are a few of Krista’s thoughts about critiquing.


NAE: Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

KVD: I’ve found some wonderful critique partners over the last year, and I must say, I’ve learned something from each of them, especially from the four who’ve read my full.

Myrna taught me that the most time-consuming revision might still the best one. Amy taught me that even minor characters need a sense of resolution. Liesl taught me a really great lesson about similes, which is that similes work best when they’re the shortest, punchiest way to make your point. (I’m kind of a simile-o-holic, in case you were wondering.) And Kelly taught me a lot about bad guys and how to use them effectively.

(I know all of this is good advice, by the way, because I recently received some R&Rs, and some of the agents’ feedback matched up with what these awesome ladies had already suggested.)

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

KVD: Critique. A lot. The more you practice, the better you’ll be (obviously). Plus, if you’re offering to critique a lot of people’s manuscripts, chances are, at least some of them will offer to critique yours. Talk about fringe benefits :)

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?

KVD: I only do one pass when I’m critiquing a friend’s manuscript, but I do a lot in that pass. I make in-text comments as I’m going (what I’m thinking at a particular moment; what details, either good or bad, stand out; what doesn’t make sense to me), and I also use Track Changes to make grammatical suggestions.

Every time I finish a chapter, I also make a few more comments in a separate document (what I liked about the chapter; what I didn’t like about it; suggestions for changes, if I have any). Then I use those chapters notes to generate some general comments once I’m finished with the manuscript.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

KVD: I like to think that I try to comment at least a little bit on everything, but plot, grammar, and characters are the elements that I usually think about the most.

When it comes to plotting, I tend to focus on pacing, since I’ve found that’s one of the main issues agents have with the manuscripts they request. And characters are so essential, so I try to make a lot of comments about them, too. Honestly, readers can slog through a lot of tedious narrative if they love your characters and care about what happens to them, so nailing those characters is key.

Question added by KVD: How do you respond to critiques of your own writing, especially negative ones?

KVD: As I’m reading over feedback I’ve gotten from a reader, I can usually divide it into one of three categories: suggestions that I agree with right away (which usually make me smack my forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”), suggestions that I think I might agree with someday, and suggestions that I don’t agree with at all. The suggestions that I agree with right away get my brain buzzing immediately, so they’re not difficult to absorb. The rest of the feedback, on the other hand, I have to think about for a while.

I try to figure out a way to incorporate the feedback that will make the manuscript stronger (because you don’t always have to apply a reader’s feedback in the exact way that she meant you to apply it). I also try to decide if I disagree with the suggestions because I really think they’re incompatible with the story I’m trying to tell—or if I’m just being lazy and know incorporating the feedback will take more time than I want it to.

Case in point: One of my current WIP’s very first readers, Myrna, said something like, “Well, I liked Seth’s chapters, but Adair’s voice and character seem more central to the story.”

My WIP, whom I affectionately call Bob, has two main characters, but one spends more time as the POV character. In my initial drafts, that primary main character was Seth. That was how I’d written the story, and I felt like that was how the story needed to be told. (I forgot for a few months that I’m the story’s creator and, as such, the story only exists insofar as I create it. In other words, I can make the story whatever I want it to be. But that’s another post.)

So I queried the manuscript. I got some good requests. And about six weeks ago, the R&Rs started rolling in. They all said slightly different things, but for the most part, the agents’ feedback was remarkably similar. And I realized that I could resolve almost all of their concerns if I just made Adair the primary main character and Seth the secondary MC.

I could have done this months ago. I’d already been thinking about making these changes after reviewing Myrna’s notes. But I took the lazy way out, and now I’m paying for it on the back end. Bob will still end up in a condition that I’m really, really happy with, but because of my stubbornness, he took a lot longer to get there than he needed to.


Thank you, Krista, for sharing your experiences and your wisdom. I love how you were able to come back to Adair’s character after you’d tried to make Seth’s work. Myrna seems to be a pretty savvy critiquer.

How about you: is there something one of your critiquers mentioned a while back that you resisted at first, but then ended up working the suggestion into your project? I know I’ve done it. Sometimes it just takes a while for everything to gel, and you have to go through that growing period before you can see something work the way it should.