Category Archives: Story development

Criticism: How to Handle What People Say

Criticism isn't always helpful

Writing is hard and writing is personal. There is nothing quite so crushing as mom’s faint praise unless it’s frank, harsh, lacerating criticism from someone who thinks “truth” is a blunt weapon.

What you write reveals a lot about you—your ignorance, your unorthodox approach to spelling, your secret principles, what you dream about, and all your worrisome complexes. It takes a whopping load of courage to share the fresh, raw pages of a novel manuscript with others. Fear of exposure, however, should not prevent doctor visits or editorial review.

Criticism and Conflict of Interest

Rule No. 1 of receiving criticism is: Consider the source. Mom, Mrs. Kravitz, and your subordinates at the office cannot under any circumstance give you an unbiased appraisal. Period. In sharing your book with the people in your personal universe, you should not be looking for the unvarnished truth. What you really want from what I will call critics of the First Circle, is encouragement.

You are blessed if “I loved it!” is followed by “I was a little confused in the fourth chapter when Shirley called her boyfriend Jason—wasn’t his name James?”  1) You have a fan, and 2) It’s nice that error was caught by a safety reader and not an outsider.

Sometimes, however, Uncle Bob will tell you that you lost him when you went into that girlie stuff, or your brutally honest BFF will confess that she’s just never going to find time to read it, or Grandma may return it with all the errors marked in red pen but without a single positive note in the margins.

The fact is, these people—who love you dearly—may feel like you’ve given them an onerous chunk of homework and may not be comfortable with the pop quiz they know is coming. They are almost certainly not trained to see the finished diamond in your rough manuscript, and they may not even be inclined as readers toward the kind of book you have written. Glean any constructive criticism you can from the first circle and all the encouragement offered, but don’t sweat it if they aren’t able to tell you what you need to hear.

Peer Pressure and Constructive Guilt

Rule No. 2 is Test the Authority of Your Peers. Before there were writing workshops, there were coteries, coffeeshops, salons, and milieux. Artists were thrown together by society kingpins who specialized in fostering culture, or else an artist fled society with or without his friends and drew followers to his little sitting room where booze and bonhomie went round with the sharing of works in progress. This is the Second Circle.

As a modern equivalent, you can join a writing group or assemble a panel of beta readers. You can blog your progress. Workshops operate on the Weight Watchers principle that if you are being monitored for progress, progress you will make. You’ll receive encouragement and advice from those engaged in a similar struggle.

But things can go wrong: If your Pynchonesque epic is turning into a domestic comedy or the dry sardonic wit has been drained from your warrior princess, it may be that the influence of your peers is having a counterproductive effect on your work. If a beta reader informs you that the brassy heroine with whom you closely identify is a brainless floozy, the rest of his/her critique may be colored by a worldview or literary aesthetic that is out of tune with your own. Seek criticism that takes your book on its own terms and helps to refine rather than re-envision.

Comments from Your Editor

Rule No. 3 states, Choose Your Editor As You Would a Godparent. You may think the world of your brilliant and charming Aunt Kate and still not want her helping to raise your children. By the same principle, a good editor is not necessarily the right editor. Any good editor will find errors and spot problems, but not all good editors will spot the same problems or even consider as problems the same things. If you are fond of wordplay and rogue punctuation, you may not be well served by a strict constructionist; if you have produced a delightfully Dickensian doorstop, you may not be in the right corner with a faithful adherent of the Elmore Leonard school.

An editor who understands your authorial intent will provide feedback—yes, criticism—that will make sense to you, illuminate your own dim ideas, and tell you when you’ve gone off the rails. Yes, if you write a 2,000 word conversation full of impassioned dialog and crackling atmosphere that basically repeats a previous—and better placed—conversation, your editor may point out that readers will find it tedious. Don’t be hurt, even if you worked really hard on that scene and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. Your editor (the Third Circle) may have a suggestion for incorporating what you love about this scene into the earlier scene, or you may have an ingenious solution of your own—either way, the book is suddenly better, stronger. And if your editor tells you something you don’t agree with—say, that your protagonist is a bit whiny—there may be something deficient in your presentation of that character. Consider whether you have supplied a full and true picture of the character before deciding that if Hamlet can be interpreted different ways your character can be too.

Stand by Your Book

Rule No. 4, the Golden Rule, is, It’s Your Book, You Can Do What You Want. Even an editor who is otherwise totally on the same page with you can make a lame suggestion, misinterpret a regional idiom, think your hero is a jerk, or tire of your narrator’s drug-induced circular reasoning. If you wrote it that way on purpose and stand by your original decision because it is integral to the work as you envision it, keep it. The book is entirely yours, and criticism is always yours to cherry pick—ignore it or make use of it, but don’t be afraid of it.


Narrative Pace: Too Much Information

Even a thriller can drag.

Knowing how much information to provide is one of the skills a writer hones to get really good at his or her craft. A love scene may require a different set of data—light, scent, the nuances of sound, the shape and degree of moisture present in a human eye. A torture-style interrogation may also use light, stink, noise, and the amount of white showing in a human eye, not to mention the beads of sweat. However, not only is the choice of details different in the two scenes but also the choice of words. Furthermore, the rate, number, and length of words controls the pace—scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

The Slog

For example, a scene in which the gumshoe is cornered by a dangerous thug and his two wing men:

Heroguy eased himself back into the Herman Miller Aeron chair Magda had given him as a little joke last Secretaries Day.

“True Black,” she had said, referring to the proprietary color of the ergonomic chair, a private dig at his preference for public radio in the afternoon.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said. He waved vaguely at the open door, and Mutt strolled over and closed it while his boss stood tensely looking out the window at the ninth floor view of the Miracle Mile. Mutt rejoined Jeff and the two of them settled their hind ends on the dusty surface of Magda’s credenza. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over. Mutt and Jeff looked at Badman for some direction, then seeing that they would not be needed immediately, they began examining the various objects in the room. The unused vintage coat rack kept for effect, the mini-fridge, the sharp edge of the tape dispenser.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

“What can I do for you?”

“The question is, what am I going to do to you?”

“I dunno. I need a little more information on that. For example, what do I have that you want, and how bad do you want it?”

“I think you know,” he said, and Heroguy did. He knew it all, and he was counting on there being more than a single helping left in the Scotch bottle. Badman turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.”

Ugh! Wit aimed at a public radio audience. The problems pile up from the beginning: Heroguy should be thinking fast and furious about how to defend himself and what he can learn from this encounter. He should be on heightened alert because he is about to get beaten to a pulp. (The scene continues with a brutal assault upon Heroguy that leaves him scarred and humorless. The leisurely comedy is an inappropriate lead up.) The writer may be developing his character by building his radio leanings and relationship with his secretary into the scene, but this is sooooo not the time. The details are mostly random, as is the movement of the chess pieces around the room. The repartee is imitative of noir cinema dialog, but here it just feels like the racehorses have lined up at the gate and started to graze. Good films don’t have bad dialog for the same reason good novels don’t, but with this difference—an actor can sometimes infuse meaningless speech with subtext using face and voice and body language. In novels, dialog and its accompanying cues must be precise in order for the reader to supply the mental imagery that brings a character in a scene to life.

Stepping Up the Narrative Pace

[Move details desccribing  Magda and her reasons for giving Heroguy an ergonomic chair to some earlier, more appropriate character building scene.]

Heroguy eased himself back into his chair.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on the liquor cabinet, his back to the window. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

He turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.” Meaning, everything he wanted to know.

All the aimless wandering is gone. Badman’s character is sharpened by making his position the anchor and giving his placement a bit of subtext—he sits with his back to the window, so that his comment on the view refers to his being able to watch the forthcoming beating. He is laconic (though not quite the silent type—he does engage the protagonist) and goes directly to his business. His thugs are shadowy and undefined—mere fists in pockets with no details to distract the reader from the nature of the threat. Heroguy’s wry humor is preserved without the cumbersome brand names and inside jokes.  Badman sits on a liquor cabinet instead of the pointlessly pretentious credenza, a perfectly fine word that will nevertheless make the reader hesitate.

Narrative Pace and Point of View

One further refinement would increase the immediacy of the action and more closely identify the reader with our Heroguy: Make the POV first person.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on my liquor cabinet, his back to the window. I thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much I was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

This is not a generalization. First person POV is for when you want the reader to be the protagonist.


By extension, the practice of not cluttering up scenes with unimportant movement and detail should be applied to the book as a whole. How important is it that Heroguy’s chair is a Herman Miller and was a gift from Magda? It may be very important (only the author knows), but in weighing whether to build a whole scene around the origins of Heroguy’s chair, the author should consider whether Heroguy’s character and his relationship with Magda have already been pretty well defined—is the scene redundant? And can Magda afford to buy a Herman Miller chair on her salary? Does she like her boss that much? Does she often make exorbitant sacrifices for him? Is the author deliberately targeting a niche audience? Does the brand of chair somehow tie into the resolution of the mystery? Or is this level of detail, however funny or sublimely described or minutely researched, a drag on a story that should simply crack on?

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Outlining Your Novel: Spreadsheets

Outlining a novel helps to structure the plot and keep the time line straight. There are many methods and forms. The goal is not to freeze-dry the plot before it is even composed, but to prevent the writer from losing sight of the universe he or she is constructing.

Spreadsheets for Outlining

There are a variety of strategies for outlining aside from the I., A., 1., a., method. Spreadsheets are an excellent way of visualizing the structure and flow of a novel. Below is a spreadsheet created by J. K. Rowling, jotted down by hand, wobbly lines and all, on a sideways piece of ruled notebook paper.

J. K. Rowling spreadsheet outlining The Order of the Phoenix

I lifted the image from the Paperblanks blog.

Rowling made columns for chapter number and title, with the corresponding month, a column for plot (overview), and columns for the different plot strands. At a glance, she could see when a character is introduced, at what point critical events take place, and importantly, what else is going on around the same time. She could see how the various subplots were flowing and how they were intersecting with each other and with the main plot. The chart is full of scribbles, arrows, scratches, and insertions. Rowling maintained it as a live document as the writing progressed.

The spreadsheet is a very handy writer’s tool, even for novels with only two or three subplots. Rowling worked with a pen and notebook paper, but a writer working in Word or WordPerfect can use the table feature. Scrivener also has tables. And there is always Excel. The virtue of Excel, aside from the ability to build very wide documents, is that you can get pretty OCD with colors and formulas and subworksheets. Here is a link to How to Get a God’s-Eye View of Your Story in Excel from Jeffrey Scott’s blog post on Animation World Network. His example pertains to scriptwriting but is adaptable to novel writing.


Style Sheet: A Key Writers’ Tool

Keeping a style sheet as you write will save headaches for everybody later on.

Writing is often an impulsive task, and momentum should not be sacrificed to detail if the result is inspirational derailment. At some point, however, you will reread what you’ve written. You will revise. The moment is yours to choose, but you will make choices about this and that. Record those decisions.

A sharp editor will compile a style sheet if you don’t provide one. It will list names of people and places, dates and chronologies, brands of significant objects, preferred spellings, the special treatment of anything.

Here is an example:

My Style Sheet

style sheet

If you look carefully, you will see that certain details raise questions. Sid’s last name doesn’t match the rest of his family. Probably the writer changed the family name but missed Sid because he is only mentioned once. Karrie was 8 when she gave birth to Sid and 13 when she had Henry. This is because in the first draft Karrie was 48, like her husband, but in the second draft the author decided that she needed to be younger, which means Henry should have been made younger too, but the revision slipped between the cracks. The problem is compounded because Sid was moved from younger son to older son to explain the father-son issues between Henry and Carl.

All sorts of details become easier to keep track off with a style sheet. Henry’s Tacoma is frequently mentioned—a kind of defining trait. This is an indication to the editor that the Tacoma deserves heightened attention—its color, model year, dings and scratches, or anything that might come up later. For example, if the dent on the rear quarter was caused by a collision on the driver’s side, it doesn’t make sense for it to be on the left side. If Trixie is only 4 months pregnant, she should not be stumbling off curbs yet; if we meet her 8 months later and she is about to give birth, there is clearly a problem with the chronology. If the writer had to look up the spelling/styling of a brand name, chances are the editor will have to look it up too. If you have to look it up twice, you have your style sheet to refer to.

Story development means errors are almost inevitable. Maintaining a style sheet will help you keep track of all the changes you make. And your editor will love you if you provide a copy of your style sheet with the manuscript. It will save the editor time (and you money).

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