“How to Critique a Manuscript” For Dummies

Books and a coffee cupHere’s the deal. If I ask you to read my manuscript and give me feedback, I’m asking you for help and not for insults. Too often I get neither. If you aren’t a writer, I can imagine how intimidating it might be. Unless you’ve taken creative writing classes or are super in tune with the elements of story-telling you might not know where to begin. And I am grateful that you don’t want to hurt my feelings. But I want my story to be the best it can be. If I have given you my manuscript I am asking for you to help me improve it. So whether you are critiquing my manuscript or someone else’s, let me help you out with a few tips.

  1. Whether or not you personally liked the story, you should be able to give some helpful, polite feedback. In fact, if you really didn’t like the story, be extra mindful of how you communicate your thoughts.
  2. Feel free to use “I liked” comments (ex: I liked how you used the dramatic setting for the conclusion). But beware “I didn’t like” (I didn’t like the scene with the storm). Whether you mean it or not, “I didn’t like” phrases communicate judgment and rejection. Think of the parts you didn’t like and then rephrase them. (The scene with the storm was confusing/The scene with the storm seemed to have a much darker tone; was that on purpose?)
  3. Characters are a huge part of any story. Feel free to write your impressions of all the characters (but if there are a lot this might take too much time!). At least pick out two to three main characteristics (both protagonists and antagonists). Again, avoid the flat statements like “I didn’t like…” Feel free to state some of the obvious. It’s important for the writer to know how their character is coming across. Questions are also very helpful.
  4. Pick out a favorite scene (or two or three!). Talk about the strengths of the scene. (The dialogue was witty. The action had you jumping out of your seat. The imagery struck you. etc)
  5. Pick out a least favorite scene. Try and think why that scene didn’t work. (Was it confusing? Was it superfluous? Did it change your perspective of a character in a bad way? Was the dialogue dead?)
  6. Plot holes. Plot is a big deal for a marketable novel. And you don’t have to be an expert to recognize plot holes. Just think back to any parts that didn’t make much sense or seem to lead to dead ends. Can’t think of any? Then say that!
  7. Introduction. Did it hook you right away? Was it confusing? Did it take a little long to get rolling?
  8. Conclusion. What impression were you left with at the end? Were there any lingering questions? Was it anti-climatic?

Hopefully that gives you some guidance! Feel free to add in encouragement. Writing is hard! If your friend is brilliant, don’t assume they already know that! Tell them how great their dialogue was, or how thrilling their plot was. Tell them to keep going!

P.S. If you are a fellow-writer out there and you would like me to critique your work shoot me an e-mail at ebdawson@ebdawsonwriting.com

 

3 Things People Don’t Understand About Writing

1. 10 Failures to 1 Success.

I almost titled this point, “There is no such thing as bad writing.” But I just couldn’t do it. Because there is such a thing as bad writing. In the last five years some terrible writing has come out as mainstream, but I won’t name names. My point is this: I used to be really hard on myself. I loved writing. As I started investing more time into I would write twenty to thirty pages and then look back over it in horror. In my mind I would stamp it as terrible and flirt with throwing it in the recycling bin. But usually if I took a break for a few months and came back to it I would see some of its redeeming qualities. I’ve had a lot of failed attempts, but looking back now I wouldn’t call it “bad writing.” I would call it, “young writing.” Or “immature writing.” Or maybe “unfulfilled potential.” I had to pass through those stages of trial and error to get to where I am today. Everybody wants instant results but…

2. It takes TIME.

Granted, there are probably some freaks of nature out there who can whip out novels every other month. But I think it’s fair to say they are the minority. I am very proud of how far I have come as an author. With very little shame I can say that some of my earliest attempts were simplistic. The only reason I have improved is because I have invested hour after hour, week after week, year after year. Failure after failure, I kept pressing on. I learned from my mistakes. In fact, I can pinpoint what I learned from each project. The summer before my ninth grade year I started working on my first novella without my sister and I learned heaps about dialogue. The story was pretty boring and unrealistic, but some of the banter was really good. It encouraged me to keep going.

Not only does the art of writing take years to perfect, but each writing project takes a good deal of time. It would be very difficult to calculate the hours I have invested in each of my novels. There is the time taken to actually write out the narrative but there is also research, plot development, proofreading, and editing. In all honest, “The Creation of Jack,” probably has several thousand hours of time invested in it. I reworked the novel at least three times over a span of six years. Its sequel has taken much less time (probably only a couple hundred hours).

3. How to give feedback.

In high school a friend of mine stumbled upon some scenes I had been working on and made fun of them. I was incredibly hurt. I knew they weren’t good material, but I was trying to learn how to write humor. There’s a common perception that artists are super sensitive about their work. I know that it is true for me. My first couple of projects didn’t have a lot of emotional value, but as I grew as a writer I began to pour more and more of me into my work. If the scenes strike an emotional chord, it’s probably because I’ve experienced those emotions. My characters and my stories are important to me and it’s hard to submit them to criticism.

But of course good criticism helps me grow as a writer. That’s why I’ve had to branch out, bite the bullet, and let people read my work so I can gain feedback. What I’ve found is that very few people know how to give good feedback. I have had some of my smartest friends read my manuscripts and come back with, “It was good. I liked it.” That’s literally all they had to say. I finally came up with a feedback survey that asks some specific questions that I would like answers to and also gives them a safe way to put in some criticism. (I have just decided I’m going to write a follow-up post about how to give feedback to a writer in case you are interested)

 

The Power of Words

Books and a coffee cupI’m not going to go super profound on this one. I’m not talking about the emotional impact of good writing. I’m talking about some of the less recognized impact that even simple words can have.

For example:

After “The Chronicles of Narnia” became my favorite series in elementary school I adopted a number of British spellings like colour, saviour, and towards.

Right now I am finishing up “Typee,” by Herman Melville. I guess it was his most popular work while he was alive, but I personally enjoyed “Moby Dick” more. (Stay on target) He spells coconut “cocoa-nut.” And no matter how hard I try, it forces me to change my mental pronunciation. It’s a little bit infuriating.

Sometimes the simplest words can make a great impression on your audience. Joss Whedon comes to mind. I remember the first time I watched “Serenity.” I loved how he threw words out of context to create his futuristic slang. (Shiny)

As an author it is easy for me to focus on the narrative, the action, the plot, and the characters without slowing down to examine the words I’m using. I have my pet vocabulary-the words I default to. A large part of my proofreading process involves a thesaurus. That was another thing that struck me about “Typee.” Sometimes I glorify the vocabulary of authors from two hundred years ago simply because it is so different from mine. But Herman Melville had his vocab pitfalls too. Once I actually started paying attention I noticed how he could overuse words like “capacious.”

And the truth is that sometimes the tone of my story won’t allow for me using words like “capacious” without sounding pretentious. There is a time and a place for big words, but I think in general it is more important to keep a uniform tone.

Plot Twist

So I’ve been in the proofreading stage of my third novel, “Into the Void,” the sequel to “The Creation of Jack.” Since I taught myself how to write, I know that I don’t always do things in the right order. I suppose by now most professionals would say all major plot edits should be complete. But my novels tell me when they are incomplete. I stopped working on this guy completely for the last few weeks because I just felt like I had hit a wall. I had been adding in what I call my “writer’s cornstarch” to thicken up the whole dish: some character development, tying up loose plot ends, etc. But there were a couple haunting questions that I couldn’t answer. So I just took a break from the whole thing.

Well, the other night the answers came exploding into my head like the fourth of July! One of my characters stood up and got my attention. He said, “You’ve been ignoring me and keeping me shallow, when really, I am the key to this new plot progression.” It blew my mind a little bit.

The best part was that it fits in with my first novel perfectly. It’s one of those open-ended moments of genius that I wrote about a while ago. It’s like I had some intuition about this character so I lead him down a particular path, but I’ve been keeping him at a stop sign for years. Now I realize the perfect destination for him.

Needless to say I am excited and a little intimidated. I think this could solve most of my problems, but to be honest, it’s going to take a little work. I have my December deadline looming closer every day. Some days it really scares me. But I can totally pull this off.

Seasons

I grew up with two seasons: rainy and dry (less rainy). My parents moved to the land of four seasons about eight years ago. I started visiting them for holidays. The snow during Christmas was pleasant and magical until about four weeks in and then I was ready to migrate again. But a couple of years ago I moved here myself and I am quite surprised at how much it has changed me.

The first two winters were like emotional marathons. January and February were the worst. I would wake up and get these urges to run outside in shorts and bare feet until I looked out the window and remembered it was twenty degrees out. My heart would shrivel up into a sad little almond and every day it seemed like winter would last forever. When spring came I always felt a new surge of hope in my soul.

But after the first couple rounds of seasonal changes I noticed something bizarre…I was starting to anticipate them. I started looking forward to fall even winter (gasp!). Now I consider myself a fully adjusted seasonal woman. I even have seasonal wardrobes. Granted, I still struggle sometimes on the coldest days of winter. But I have learned there is something beautiful in each season and in the constant change.

Seasons are like a free scene change. You don’t have to go on vacation, or get your hair cut, or switch jobs. You may be thinking, “Why would I do any of those things? I am a well-adjusted American adult with community roots!” Well, dear reader, I am not. I have self-diagnosed permaphobia: the fear of permanence. I moved every couple of years when I was a kid and traveled even more frequently. I get secretly distressed and depressed when my life stays the same too long. I have found it healthy to initiate change in my life every few months. I have done the hair cut (always regretted it), I have quite jobs prematurely, and I have moved across country for almost no reason.

I am trying to teach myself to make healthy changes and be wary for the impulsive ones. The seasons help. Just when I think my life has hit another rut, just when I think things will never change, or all of my dreams are dead, a new season starts to creep in. I feel renewed hope that a new chapter is coming. This may sound strange, but it even helps that I have to start wearing different clothes and drinking different beverages. (That’s a lie. I drink hot Americanos all year)

Fall is coming. A couple of weeks ago I went camping in the mountains and was a bit flabbergasted to see the aspens turning yellow. It was still August, after all. As I drove down the mountain the change in foliage was undeniable. The undergrowth was full of yellows and reds. Even here in the valley trees have been slowing turning yellow.

Granted, I know we’ll still have our weeks of warm weather. But no one can deny that fall is coming. And I am encouraged by it. There may be newness just around the corner. Who knows what fall will bring? Who knows what next year will bring?

To all you northern latitude dwellers, happy Fall! Make the most of it. And to those who live in the eternal summer, go live your life the way you see fit. We’ll always be secretly jealous!

10 Reasons Why I Love Star Wars

Film SlateIt’s a little hard to believe that the new Star Wars comes out in a few months! Frankly, I’m afraid to be excited. I think I’ve pretty well braced myself to be disappointed…but regardless of how emotionally satisfying they are, they’re sure to be a fun ride. In order to protect my hopes I have been keeping myself distant from all the run up hype and rumors (we won’t talk about the year before Ender’s Game). So I really don’t know much about what this new film will be like. But I’d like to take this time to reflect on the greatness of that first trilogy.

1. My parents are big fans. I remember them trying to describe the plot before I saw the movies. We were still living in the remote jungle at this time. I thought they were lunatics (in the best way). The world they described was so far beyond my imagination that the one thing I went into the movie remembering was that it was about a princess somehow. Granted, my movie taste is now different from my parents. But watching Star Wars was truly a family experience.

2. Lightsabers. Obviously. Futuristic sword fighting except way more dangerous! (And it’s hard to get more dangerous than a sword fight). Not only do lightsabers duel in the traditional manner, but they can fend off energy weapons, effectively fighting swords and “bullets!” (Plus they come in fun colors!!!)

3. John Williams’ score. Yeah, I don’t think I need to explain or defend this point.

4. R2D2. What a sassy little robot. I don’t need you to agree with me on this one–it’s a very subjective choice. We played Star Wars when I was a kid. My older sister of course won all rights to play Princess Leia. So I was R2. Frankly, he’s the real hero of Star Wars.

5. Extraordinary setting. From Cloud City, to the ice world Hoth, to the deserts of Tattooine, Star Wars has got it all. They can choose any landscape and terrain they want. They are working in a Universe of thousands of habitable worlds! It’s a multi-disciplinarian’s playground: writers, anthropologists, make-up artists, set designers, linguists all get to play around and have fun!

6. The Jedi Knights. The original superheroes. (Alright, not the original superheroes, but one of the first superhero movies!) They’re like a cross between ninjas and monks. They practice self-control and can tap into the most powerful force in the Universe to accomplish superhuman feats, all in the name of justice. They’re pretty cool. I want to be a Jedi.

7. The Millennium Falcon-the ultimate underdog. It’s old and beat up, but it “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.” And there’s something about its design that is pleasing to the eye. It makes the story interesting that they don’t have a fancy new ship, and adds validity to Solo and Chewy’s outlaw characters.

8. The Skywalker family. I may not approve of how they told their story in the prequels, but this family has some interesting history. Anakin Skywalker, the powerful Jedi Knight lured to the dark side who became one of the most infamous villains in T.V. history. Luke Skywalker, the impulsive, emotional kid whose entire family history is a lie. Leia Skywalker (her family history is also a lie) the fighting diplomat. Of course many consider the father reveal in Episode V to be one of the most dramatic plot twists in movie history. And despite the kiss controversy, the fact that Luke and Leia were twins was one of the most satisfying resolutions of the series for me.

9. The opening sequence. What other movie that isn’t a 1950s Western expects the audience to read the first lines of the story? When the music starts and the slanted title letters come into view everyone starts applauding. It’s a signature move and you probably either love it or hate it.

10. Han Solo. My father pretty much places all the success of that first film on the shoulders of Harrison Ford. He is one of the best actors of the franchise. His renegade, smuggler character adds great depth and contrast to the character spectrum. He’s grumpy, he’s smart, he’s selfish, he’s charismatic, and deep down he’s a good guy.

It was a fun trilogy that didn’t take itself too seriously. It sparked the imagination and took us all on an adventure. I hope this new trilogy will return to its roots and not take after the step-brother prequels. (Although I loved the music and visuals from those films, Padme Amidala and Anakin just ruined the whole thing)

5 Awesome Advancements

You may know that I tend to rant like an old man when it comes to technology. I launch enthusiastically into “when I was a kid” speeches without invitation. And let’s face it: the SciFi industry has capitalized on apocalyptic visions of the future. I’ll be the first person to admit that it’s a whole lot of fun to explore a future world that is troubled or even warped. And most of us are able to look at our own history and admit some of the negatives that technology has brought into society. So this post is about the positive fruits of advancing technology!

1.Connectivity. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming how connected we are to the world. I mean, should you really be trying to keep up with all 400 Facebook friends? But it is pretty miraculous how you can move across the country and still be provided glimpses into the lives of the people you left behind. Plus cell phones, Skype/Facetime, e-mail and on and on.

2. Transportation. Cars. Airplanes. Railroads. The ability to travel all over the world. Need I say more?

3. Movies. Don’t judge me for this one, but I am a storyteller at heart! When you think about it, it is pretty amazing that we can create stories in such an immersive way. Although there is a lot of fluff and wasted million-dollar-budgets floating around out there, I could list a number of movies that have positively impacted me. Movies can raise awareness about unknown issues, they can give us a glimpse of how our fellow humans on another continent live, they can encourage and inspire us, and they can convict us to change our lives or the way we see other people.

Two recent examples for me were “The Life of Pi” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I wasn’t super impressed with Pi up until the very end when it struck a resounding gong inside my heart. I used to work with broken teenage girls who would make up stories and cause a whole lot of fuss just to avoid dealing with the past traumas in their lives. And Mitty just may be the best movie ever made. Full of fun, adventure, beautiful scenery, and thoughts about what living your life should look like it comforts and inspires me! Movies are pretty awesome. I wonder what comes next? I’m not gonna lie, I’ve always been inspired by the holo deck on Star Trek. Would I like to live out an adventure?

4. Music. Music is balm for the soul. I rarely think about this, but back in the day, music was more of a privilege for the upper class and even for them it wasn’t always accessible. Now I have music from all over the world and several hundred years back in time at my fingertips! Maybe in the future, in my holo deck, I can have a five piece string ensemble constantly serenading me while I write.

5. Medicine. These days there seems to be a lot of debate about different developing medicines, or even well-established ones. But I don’t think anyone can deny that it is miraculous how much modern medicine can assist those who are handicapped/disabled. Wheelchairs. Prosthetics. Surgery. Quality of life is increasing for so many people.

If you could invent one thing to make life better, what would it be?

Overstimulation vs Real Life

My family went bowling the other night. It was a new bowling alley. My parents had never been on a Friday night and I hadn’t been at all. We were all a little taken aback when we found gigantic TV screens everywhere, lights turned down, and loud music pumping. Granted, half of the building is a sports bar. But even the bowling section seemed more dedicated to TV and food than bowling. Our biggest complaint was that the guide arrows half way down the alley were invisible in the dark (I will put in here that my family has a long bowling tradition. We take it pretty seriously). We all bowled terrible. The noise and flashing images were completely distracting.

After one game we abandoned ship to go watch a movie. Appropriately, my dad chose “Star Trek: Insurrection.” The movie itself was a bit of a flop. But the content was interesting. At the center of the plot was a community of people (the Ba’ku) who was as technologically advanced as Starfleet, but chose to abandon that technology for a simpler lifestyle.

Those who know me probably know how often I get frustrated by technology saturation. (This may well be the first of many rants) But I can’t deny how attractive it is and how easily I get sucked into it. Not only is it alarmingly easy to binge watch T.V. shows on Hulu, waste hours on Facebook, pretend you are living someone else’s life on Pinterest, and watch tutorials on YouTube, but there is significant peer pressure to do so.

When I do take breaks from social media, people guilt trip me for not keeping up with them. As soon as I take a break from Pinterest my friend tells me all the practical ways its changed her life for the better. And then there’s the fact that if I cut out social media/technology from my life to spend time with people, most of those people are spending time on technology themselves. So I am left alone and disconnected from the world and I inevitably feel like I am missing out on life (as if life were now defined by the internet). That’s why a “coordinated attack” is probably the only really viable option. As with other things, it’s important to find people in your life who share the same values.

But I am not saying that all this technology is necessarily bad. It just changes how you live your life. Like anything, it can be unhealthy when it is abused. Through it all, make sure you have real connections with real people in your life.

Review of A Passage to India

I’ve heard E. M. Forster’s name thrown around in the literary world, but didn’t know much about him. I finally picked up a copy of “A Passage to India” in a used bookstore because I’ve seen it often pop up on those “100 books to read before you die” lists. But to be honest, I was expecting him to be pretentious and overbearing (especially when writing about colonization). I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Take a look at two of his quotes from the book:

“Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.” E.M. Forster

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually. Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.” E.M. Forster

The book was peppered with small insights like this that increased its interest for me. In addition to that, I thought his characters were very well thought out and patiently exposed.

All that being said, it wasn’t my favorite book. But it was definitely one that lodged itself in my mind. His fascinating three-fold division of the book from Mosque, Caves, and Temple as a typification of cross-cultural relationships is pretty brilliant. As I understood it:

“Mosque” is the honeymoon stage. It is the stage when you see similarities and are delighted by differences. It is the stage when you see the mistakes your countrymen have made and determine to be different.

“Caves” comes after some time has passed. Usually some larger event helps you to see the insurmountable differences between your two cultures. You become disillusioned. Your loyalty returns to your home country and the familiarity and protection it affords. Emotions like frustration, anger, bitterness, and judgment crop up. Sometimes this isn’t one big event, but a lot of smaller events.

“Temple” is the final phase, which I might say that not everyone reaches. It comes after more time has passed and you have re-established your identity with your own culture. Some of the fondness for the new culture returns. You reunite with old friends and are now able to establish a mutual respect without demanding that each other change. You both acknowledge the degrees of separation between you and are able to be respectful of each others’ culture.

At this point in the book, however, “India” and “England” separate because they are unable to be friends. But I think if he had changed the ending there would have been a fourth stage although I’m not sure what it would have been called.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book and I salute the author.

Oh the Drama

Portrait of little girl crying with tears rolling down her cheek

So this post kind of springs off of one I wrote a few days ago about conflict. Not long ago when I actually started researching tips about writing I came across a common piece of advice, which I like to call, “Amp up the drama!” It boils down to this: Find a scene dull? Pour in tension. Ask yourself how the situation could be worse. Throw in miscommunication, bad weather, terrible timing, etc.

Now, as a reader I had already picked up on this. There are so many times when I recognized, “That was the worst possible moment he could have asked her that question.” Or think about the scene from “The Princess Diaries,” where Mia runs away, her car breaks down, it starts pouring rain, and her convertible top won’t go up. I’m surprised they didn’t have her slip and sprain her ankle. The audience isn’t dumb. They can usually tell when their emotions are being strung along.

And that’s kind of the problem I have with this advice. I understand the value of tension and difficult situations. They often show a different side to your character and they keep the reader interested. But if your book is made up entirely of super dramatic, unlikely situations then I personally feel that it loses a bit of substance. Sure, it’s a thrill to read–and these types of books are often the ones that keep you up all night on an adrenaline rush.

The books that stick with me and become my favorites are often “quieter.” Sure they have good conflict dashed in there, with a couple of wonderfully crafted dramatic scenes too. The difference is the bulk of story surrounding these moments. Usually, there are people that I can relate to who are facing relatable situations in life. I recently read “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte after my sister recommended it. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I really did (although I can’t say it made it to my favorites list). Lucy is a quiet, ordinary character. I very much related to her thoughts and feelings as she traveled abroad as a single woman for the first time. She goes to France and manages to get a job as a nanny. Eventually she is given the opportunity to teach English. Although there are definitely some dramatic and unusual scenes in the book, the majority of it describes the day to day life at a girls boarding school. The driving force of the book is the characterization.

So basically, yes, you can write a flashy, dramatic piece and it might sell well. But there is this extra element-I’m not sure what to call it-that turns the ordinary into beautiful. Those books stay with me because I feel like I can integrate them into my life, and I can have a place in their world. They become friends. There’s enough drama in life. Just spend an hour with a group of teenage girls. Life is so very much deeper than pomp and flash. I’m not going to lie, though, and say that I have never used pomp and flash to move my stories along. I have. And I think it’s been a good step for me as an author to understand how plot and character moves along. But I am striving to be better.