Art, I made this

Art I Love: Prompt Sticks

A few years ago I made a set of art prompt sticks. Prompts are a way to take a work in a new, often unexpected, direction. When I get stuck, I pull a stick at random and think about using what’s described on the stick in the piece.

For the makers among us:

Container is a plastic vitamin bottle with the top cut off. Cover in air dry clay. Score with a blunt tool to incise a pattern. Paint with acrylics. Add a round of craft felt on the bottom. Sun emblem is also air-dry clay, painted with acrylics.

Sticks are colored craft sticks. Tape a piece of tissue paper to a piece of plain bond paper. Type as many prompts as are wanted, leaving enough space between them so there will be room to cut. Print the prompts on the tissue/bond paper combination by running it through a printer. Cut the prompts apart. Attach one prompt to each stick with gel medium.

By the way the blue stick should read “Add a contrasting color,” though there are ways to add contracting colors to make something look smaller.

This is a project that’s a lot of fun to make and use with children.

2014-06-28 PromptSticks

Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: wading through the critique-bog

Critique partners are essential. We need to have other eyes look at our writing; need to hear other voices say what works and what doesn’t. Getting the critique is often fun — at least it is in the group I’m currently a part of. Processing the critique and using it to make a difference in our writing, that’s hard work.

If at all possible, go for electronic comments over handwritten ones. Once a while someone will be running late and print off a hard copy to critique in long hand, or comes to critique group having read the material, but not written any comments. It’s not unusual to come home with some comments waiting for me in my e-mail, some in longhand, and some scribbled on pieces of paper. The day after the group meets I try to enter those longhand comments into my computer file. It’s so much easier to do that right away instead of trying to remember, weeks later, what were those comments about that pesky Chapter 3?

It is so much easier to locate patterns with an electronic format. In Word, we have a choice between insert comments and track changes. It helps to know the difference.

  •  Track changes means that every altered key stroke is shown. If we have additional spaces between two words, and one is removed, we get a box in the margin showing that. If we mistyped word when it should have been work, and our partner corrects it, that shows up as well. And so on.
  •  Insert comments means that the person doing the critique selects Insert – Comment, and types in a comment.

Personally, I find track changes too distracting. There is also a slight possibility that I’ll accidentally click Accept all Changes, at which point everything my critique partner did disappears. Not something I want to happen.

It’s also important to have a folder set aside for returned critiques, and to name files consistently. The naming format that works for me runs like this

2014-06-22 SharonWalterCTBChapt01-05.doc

that is, date I received the critique-my name-name of the person who did this critique-book title abbrevation-material covered.

One of the mistakes writers make is to revise based on critiques too early in the draft. We get a critique on Chapter 1, so we revise Chapter 1. Ditto, Chapter 2. Ditto, Chapter 3. Only because of what we revised in Chapter 3, Chapter 1 now isn’t right. We go back and re-revise Chapter 1. It’s entirely too easy to get lost in the re-re-re-revision circle when what we should be doing is continuing to move forward to the end of this draft.

I try not to look at critique comments with the idea of doing a rewrite until I have at least 10 chapters critiqued. The one exception is a scene or chapter that is a complete disaster. If it’s that bad I have another go at it and send that revision back for more comments before moving forward again.

So now I’ve collected

  • 2014-06-22 SharonWalterCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-22 SharonCathyCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-22 SharonMargaretCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-24 SharonGeorgeCTBChapt01-05.doc

That’s about 50 pages x 4 people, or about 200 pages I have to look at. Fortunately, Word makes it possible to combine several similar documents into one. What I’ll end up with is 50 pages, with comments from 4 people all in one file

If you’re not sure how to do this, check the Word help feature for directions. If you’re really stuck, send me e-mail and I’ll help you navigate through the process.

I save this combined file with a new name, such as

2014-07-06 CTBChapt01-05allcritique.doc.

Then I read through the entire critique, looking for places where there is

  • positive agreement (everyone loved the way Connie and Todd meet). These are so nice because I don’t have to do a thing, except pat myself on the back.
  • negative agreement (four people said they didn’t understand why Connie’s did what she did in Chapter 2).
  • reaction is all over the place (love Todd, don’t like Todd, don’t understand Todd’s motives. Todd is a mess).
  • a repeating pattern of the same kind of problem (needs more sensory details was mentioned in chapters 2, 3, and 5)

I work on repeating patterns first because this will clear up more of the material in the quickest way. This is obviously a place where I need help.First step, find an article or book reference on adding sensory detail. After I’ve regrounded myself in the basics, I’ll go through all of those 5 chapters and add sensory detail everywhere that looks appropriate.

The second thing I try to work on is places where reactions are all over the place. What’s wrong with Todd? Maybe the problem showed up in Chapter 2, but once I fix that, I go through all of the chapters and look at each place Todd appears. I’ll probably need to tweak him a little in other places, and I might as well do it now.

Finally I’ll look at that consistently negative reactions. In many cases because I’ve already done repeating patterns and reactions all over the place, I’m likely to have affected these negative situations in some way. Ah, now I’ve fixed that Todd was abysmally failing at trying to use humor to cover his nervousness, I see how that affected Connie actions in Chapter 2. Since Todd is now a stronger character, I can use that strength to improve Connie as well.

What I don’t do until the final draft is worry about line edits. Line edits are things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, word order, etc. The reason I don’t correct them on every draft is I’m likely to rewrite over a lot of this stuff that needs correction as I do subsequent drafts, and the problems disappear on their own.

The one exception to which I do pay attention, is the real corker of a mistake that changes the meaning of the sentence.

  • This was all her mother’s fault. changed to read
  • This was not all her mother’s fault.

Hope to see you back again on Tuesday, July 1, for Write the Novel — Moving into the first draft. You’ve written all the way through Draft Zero, the unfinished manuscript. You’ve got a completed manuscript in your hands. Congratulations. Now what?

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: book killers – major flashbacks to wishy-washy

This week we conclude our list of book killers. Some of the sneakiest ones hide in the back of the alphabet.

Major and minor flashbacks

Flashbacks at the beginning of the book confuse the reader, who hasn’t had time to settle into the story. As a general rule, there shouldn’t be a flashback for the first third of the story.

Minor flashbacks are a fews sentences long. This brief visit swoops the reader out of the current time and place and then swoops them back. They are very distracting and may actually make the reader dizzy.

Mundane details

In real life we get up, go to the bathroom, look at ourselves in the mirror, do personal grooming, go to the kitchen, plug in the coffee pot, decide what to have for breakfast, ad infinitum.

Characters get to skip all of this. Go from important action to important action. “At 8:52 I rolled out of bed; at 9:47, I was sitting in Collier’s office. I’d had far too little sleep and far too much coffee. I doubted this was going to be a productive interview.”

Passive voice

  • Active voice: subject-verb-object: Rachel smashed the piggy bank.
  • Passive voice: object-verb-subject: The piggy bank was smashed by Rachel.
  • Combining passive voice with prepositional strings is especially deadly: The piggy bank was smashed by Rachel in the hope of finding the key to the old door on the top floor of the house.
  • Clear up both problems: Rachel smashed the piggy bank. Nickels and dimes cascaded around her feet. No key. Blast, the pig had been her last hope.


Pauses are used to show that a character is thinking or is uncertain or doesn’t want to deliver the next line of dialog. What really happens is that pauses slows pacing. Turn a pause into a confrontation.

  • “I—” Wilfred paused. The grandfather clock in the next room ticked. The gardner made another circuit, closer this time, across the wide lawn.
  • “I—”
    “For God’s sake, Wilifred, spit it out. I have a Woman’s Institute meeting in fifteen minutes.”

Personal writing weaknesses

We all have them, and like dandelions, no matter how vigorously we weeded them last season, or in the last book, they are going to pop up again. We have to be kind to ourselves when they reappear. This is part of the learning process. However, we may want to make a list and work on correcting them as we write them in the next book.

Place holders

There are times when we haven’t names a character, or need to do research, or simply can’t think what comes  next. It’s a good idea to develop a consistent marking system. I like brackets, but highlighting them also works. This makes it so much easier to find those notes to ourself, such as [name this character], [When did the War of 1812 end?], or [add something here to show that Theresa misinterprets the reason for George’s visit.] All we have to do is do a global search for [.

Plateaus (places where the book stops)

Good book arcs should be jagged, with lots of ups and downs. Don’t give our characters any resting places.

Rambling, redundancies, repetitions, and echoes

  • Do we or don’t we know what we want to say here?
  • If we’ve said something once, the next time it, or something similar is said, it should have a slightly different meaning.
  • This includes lists. Remove all lists.

Telephone conversations and written material such as newspaper articles or letters

  • Essentially, these are information exchanges. Pare down the information to the absolutely minimum that needs to be conveyed.
  • Add a character reaction that makes getting that information make an immediate change in the character’s life.
  • Omit the social chit-chat on phone calls.
  • Use ambient sounds or include the character knows is going on at the other end of the phone line.
  • Be careful of copyright. If we reproduce a newspaper article, poem, or other non-original printed material, we’ve violated copyright.


  • Track time: is the reader kept informed of when the action takes place? Does the action happen in a reasonable time frame?
  • Track place: is the reader kept informed when the location changes? A throw away place is one used for a minor event, but the characters never return there. Change any throw-away places to ones that reappear several times in the story.


After a while we stop seeing these. We need critique groups and beta readers to spot them.

Using summary words to tell what a character feels rather than show it

This is the obligatory warning against telling instead of showing. Some time in the future there will an entire blog about stop telling, start showing.

Weak verbs

Replace them with active, vivid, engaging verbs.

Wishy-washy descriptions, or the other side of the coin, descriptions that go on for pages

  • Avoid too much physical description, especially early in the book
  • “If we can’t say something in two sentences, four paragraphs won’t help.” ~ William Lashner, mystery author

That concludes my list of book killers.

I hope to see you on Thursday, June 26 for Level Thinking: How to deal with multiple critiques.

Next Tuesday, July 1 (Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians), we’ll move on from draft zero (the unfinished manuscript) to the glorious Draft 1, or Goodness, now I have to write the whole thing over again.

Art, I made this

Art I Love: my first quilt

First Quilt


Today we’re going way back in time to 1991. A couple we knew was expecting their first child, so my husband and I decided to make the child a quilt.

Both parents were gamers so the logical quilt would be a twin-bed size quilt of a hexagonal gaming map, with geographical features and a river running through it.

There was one small problem: neither of us knew the first thing about quilting. Well, okay, I knew quilts were often made out of cotton fabric, and they had 1/4” seams, and that was it.

First we made the pattern. Then we cut out hexigons and sewed them together — by hand. All quilts are made by hand, right? Especially ones big enough to fit a twin-bed. Then we quilted it by hand.

It took us hours, days, months. We ended up giving it to the child on her first birthday.

Then we went to the library and checked out books on quilt-making, which just goes to show, if you’re not certain how to make something, dive it. Learning by doing is often the best way, except of course if what we’re working on involves fire, hazardous chemicals, or instructions that begin with “do this in a well ventilated area.” In those situations, for gosh sakes, go to the library first!

Happy Solstice, everyone.

Art, I made this, Writer's life

Level Thinking: 168 hours; 15 minutes

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking a course with Melissa Dinwiddie. All of the participants came with unfinished projects. In my case one thing I brought to the course was a project I last worked on in June 2012 – a whole two years ago. The idea was that through a combination of goal-setting sessions, rally calls, and encouraging one another we would complete these projects. It worked.

Everyone finished something, though a lot of people were surprised to discover they really wanted to finish something totally different than they thought they wanted.

One of the biggest topics we talked about was time. Many of our discussions centred around two time time constraints: 168 hours and 15 minutes.

168 hours

This is 24 hours a day x 7 days in a week. No matter how we slice or dice it, it’s all we’ve got and all we’re going to get. We might think of it as the ultimate time constraint.

And no, multi-tasking doesn’t add hours to the week. In fact it subtracts them. We now know from all those peek-a-boo machines that can look at our brain in motion that multi-tasking doesn’t exist. It is really very rapid shifts, sometimes measured in milliseconds, from one project to another. These rapid shifts decrease concentration and memory and rapidly fatigue the brain.

As a reminder, I made a mini-quilt to celebrate the number 168. It’s called 168: butterflies, birds fly and time flies. I’m going to hang in my writing area.


15 minutes

All creative people get behind, and we have a devil of a time getting started again. Those same take-a-peek at the brain machines tell us that fear is the reason restarting is so hard. This isn’t fear that we won’t do the project well; it is fear and guilt about starting. We should have done this earlier. Because we haven’t done it according to some magic time frame we are weak, lazy, bad, and not really worthy of the title artist or writer. The longer we keep from starting, the more fear about not starting builds and the harder it becomes to start.

Here’s the secret to starting again: touch the materials. This is where artists have a  heck of a lot easier time than writers. It’s a lot more tactile to touch fabric or paints or beads than it is to touch paper or keyboards. This is the time that we need to write with a pen in a journal or notebook. Here’s how it works.

  •  Find a notebook or journal; pen; and timer. Yes, we really need a timer. Don’t try to wing this without one.
  • Promise ourselves we’re going to touch the materials for 15 minutes.
  • Set the timer for 15 minutes.
  • Play with the materials. Run our hand over the notebook. Look at how it’s lined or not lined. Feel the shape of the pen.
  •  Remember back when we wrote our names, or the name of someone special, over and over in our notebooks. Or drew flowers in the margins? I have it on good authority that boys drew tanks, cars, or airplanes. Whatever. Do some doodling. Practice Zentangle.

Two things are going to happen, likely before we write the first word.


The first is an outpouring of guilt. We should have done this earlier. We’ve wasted so much precious time. We are bad, bad people. We are crap as writers.

In fact, we are doing what we’re doing at exactly the right time. Every coin toss has a 50% probability of landing on heads; 50% probability of landing on tails. Had we not procrastinated, had we started at some other arbitrary point, what we’re writing would be different, and not necessarily better. There is an even chance that if we’d started on time, what we wrote then would have been a disaster.


The second is an intense, almost obsessive desire to do something else. Anything else. Wash the kitchen floor. Organize a high school reunion. Research the War of 1812 for that book we intend to write some day.

This is like a dog in the park being distracted by every squirrel she sees. It’s where, as writers, we need to exercise our concentration muscles. We promised ourselves 15 minutes. We’re counting on ourselves. We’re learning to trust ourselves. Fifteen minutes is not that long.

If we can ditch the guilt, and ignore the squirrels, and keep touching our tools, the writing will start. Guaranteed, absolutely, 100 %.

When the timer goes off, if we haven’t written much or anything, stop. When the time goes off, if we’re deep into writing, stop.

We promised ourselves fifteen minutes and, today, we have to honor that promise or we won’t trust ourselves next time. “You promised me fifteen minutes, and you’ve been writing two hours. I’m tired and hungry, and we should be in bed, and getting up tomorrow is going to be a real pain. Next time you promise me only fifteen minutes, I’m not going to trust you.”

Baking in the habit

The second step is what we called in Melissa’s course, baking in the habit. Do fifteen minutes at a time until it becomes a habit. For some people three or four sessions will do it. For other people it takes longer. We know the baking is done when the task feel almost second nature. At that point, we have two options:

  • Lengthen the time and keep baking. Move from 15 minutes to 30, or 30 to 45, but still stick with the timer and stop when it goes off.
  • Negotiate with ourselves for a long time period. I’m going start with 15 minutes today. If it’s going well, I plan to continue. Is that okay with me?
  • Keep in mind that Jonathan Fields says in his book Uncertainty, that — here come those sneaky machines again — the most productive length of time to do creative work is 45 to 90 minutes at a time. Longer than that and the brain is too depleted to do good work.

This is an especially hard idea to swallow if we have limited creative time. “The only time I can write is when my son takes a nap.” or “I’m getting up at five in the morning so I can write before I go to work. I have to squeeze in every minutes of writing possible.”

How to squeeze in more creative time

  • Work for 45 minutes.
  • Get up. Stretch. Drink water.
  • If we meditate or do yoga or tai-chi, do a couple of poses or concentrate on breathing.
  • Have a slice of fruit or 12 raisins: this is equivalent to about 3 grams of carbohydrates, not enough to send our blood sugar soaring, but enough to replace the glucose our brain has used.
  • If possible, go outside, even if it’s just stepping out on our balcony or into our back yard. If we lack a balcony or the weather is crappy, look at nature photos. There are plenty on the Internet.
  • Don’t talk.
  • Absolutely don’t check e-mail, look at Pinterest, make phone calls, start a load of laundry, or feed the cat. This is still creative time. It’s just creative time devoted to a different kind of activity.
  • At the end of 15 minutes, we will likely be ready to go for another 45 creative minutes.

There’s a companion 15 minute quilt in progress to go along side the 168 hour quilt. This is how far I’d gotten when my last 15-minute touch-the-work session ended. When It’s finished, I’ll post an updated photo.

15 minute quilt

More art photos this weekend in Art I Love.

Tuesday, June 24th, Write the Novel will be part 3 on book killers. We’ll be looking at those killers lurking at the end of the alphabet, from major flashbacks to wishy-washy.

Hope to see you again soon.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: book killers: filter words to lack of attitude

Last week we started an alphabetical journey through book killers. Book killers are the things for which agents and editors watch. Spot too many of them, and a book is dead. They are definitely things we want to edit from our books, but why wait for the editing phase? If we don’t put them in, in the first place, we don’t have to take them our later.

As they say on Sesame Street, this week’s blog is brought to you by the letters F through L.

 Filter Words

Filtering is when we place a character between the detail we want to present and the reader. The term popularized by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing. How often do our characters see, hear, think, touch, wonder, realize, watch, look, seem, feel, feel like, can, decide, sound, sound like, or know?

The reason we don’t need these words is that we are inside the point of view character’s head. We don’t think, “I realize I have forgotten my purse,” and neither should our characters.

This passage is filled with filter words: Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse, and Melanie’s photograph, at the cafe. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection toward the pedestrian crossing she’d spotted on her way to the cafe.

Here, the same action with filters removed: Nausea rolled in Sarah’s stomach. Her purse, and Melanie’s photograph, were at the cafe. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked. Could she make it across the road before someone took her bag? Heart pounding and her breath coming in short, painful pants, she ran past the impenetrable traffic stream toward the nearest pedestrian crossing.

 Flying eyes and other body parts doing impossible things

My favorite one came from the science fiction writer,Vonda N. McIntyre. At a science fiction convention years ago, she heard the line, “She strained her eyes through the view screen,” to which Ms. McIntyre responded, “Yuck.” A character doesn’t drop her eyes, she drops her gaze.

 Head hopping from one point of view to another without warning

“The success or failure of our narrative passages … depends entirely on our clear under-standing of point of view. Whoever has the most emotional involvement, the most at stake, in a scene gets the point of view. Give our reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before we yank them out and pull them into another mind.” ~Beth Anderson, writer

“There’s no secret to changing perspective. We must be clear and courteous to the reader, just as we would be to a guest.” ~ Jerry B. Jenkins, novelist and biographer

Information Exchanges

Information exchange is neutral. Neutral is boring.

“You’re telling me that Carla isn’t as dumb as she pretends.”

“Carla graduated with honors in chemistry, and no one remembers seeing her at the charity dinner Thursday night.”

Essentially the writer is telling the reader that Carla has means and opportunity. Boring. Having a secondary character have an agenda can add movement to an information exchange scene, but use this sparingly.

“Why do you hate Carla?”

“I don’t hate her.”

“You spied on her.”

“Checking someone’s LinkedIn page isn’t spying. It was right there. Department of Chemistry, University College London.”

“I bet you even looked up University whatever?”

“I went to their site, yes.”

“You’re so nosey.”

“All right, how’s this for nosey. Not a single waiter remembers seeing her at the charity dinner Thursday night. Long blond hair, tight black dress, diamonds and not one guy could place her?

Find a way to make the information itself or the characters’ reaction to it ambiguous or contentious. Force information exchange scenes through a funnel. A funnel means that this place, and this time is the only way the information can be exchanged.

Place the exchange in an ambiguous or contentious setting. Standard scene: set it in a bar, restaurant, or even a kitchen. Characters sit across from one another and talk. Boring. If characters must do this in a restaurant or a bar, there should be a reason that it is the only place they can exchange this information.

 Information Exchange Cliches to Avoid

  • One character can’t hear the other character because of a bad phone connection
  • A character says, “I really can’t tell you this,” then tells the other character anyway
  • A character says, “Meet me at the deserted warehouse at midnight and I will reveal all.” Raise your hand anyone who thinks that character will be alive by midnight?

 Lack of character attitude

What’s happening inside the character’s head and heart is more important than what’s happening to the character. Let’s turn this one over to a  master.

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. ~ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Chandler could have written. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, looking like rain. The client I’d come to see was worth a lot of money. I rang the doorbell.” Fortunately, he didn’t.

Next Tuesday, June 24th, we’ll complete our trip through book killers by looking at major flashes to wishy-washy descriptions.

Thursday, June 19, will be Level Thinking, our continuing journey through what it means to be a writer. I’m not sure about the topic; I’m playing with a couple of ideas, so the topic may be as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.

In case you missed it last weekend, I’ve added a weekend photo blog called Art I Love. Each weekend I’ll post a photograph of art that I’ve made, art I’m in the midst of making, or occasionally, art I wish I’d made.

Looking forward to having you back frequently.

Art, I made this

Art I Love: Pea Pod Fairy


We’re working hard on this blog on Tuesdays with Write the Novel and Thursdays on Level Thinking, so I decided on the weekends, we need to relax and look at the pretty pictures. Welcome to the first posting of Art I Love. It’s a once a week feature of art I’ve made, art I’m working on, and occasionally, art I wish I’d made.

All gardens, whether they cover several acres or flowers pots in a windowbox, need garden fairies. Here’s a pea pod fairy I made after reading one of Salley Mavor’s books. If you aren’t familiar with Salley’s wonderful miniatures, treat yourself to a visit to her site.

For the construction minded among us: embroidery floss wrapped wire, air-dried clay face, embroidered wool felt clothes, Kool-aid dyed wool roving for the hair, knitted wool cap. Pea pod is embroidered wool felt and air-dried clay peas, painted with acrylics. She sits 4″ tall.

Pea Pod Fairy

Pea Pod Fairy

My point of view, Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Critique Nightmares

If we lived in a perfect world, critiquing other people’s work would be a joy.

A writer asks me to critique her work. We exchange e-mails, and things look good as far as a match between our mutual expectations. Her piece arrives when I have free time to work on it. Her first sentence makes me groan with delight. I am immediately jealous. How come I can’t write this well?

Several paragraphs into the story I find not only material I like a lot, but things that can be tightened, improved, etc. Now I’m no longer jealous and I can look forward to the task ahead. I read the piece and make comments. She respects my comments, but doesn’t slavishly follow every one of them. Goodness knows I’m wrong as often as I’m right. We exchange a few other e-mails and both walk away from the experience satisfied.

In my dreams.

Here’s critiquing reality:

A writer asks me to critique her work. Yes, I know I said I’d read her stuff. I thought twenty, maybe fifty pages. It never dawned on me she’d send her entire 400-page novel, AND expect a critique by next Tuesday. My husband has the flu, my car’s transmission died, and my editor wants a rewrite a whole subplot three weeks from now.

I plunge into her book. Not only is it horrible and likely unfixable, but she confides to me in an e-mail that her main character, Bob, is based on her brother who committed suicide when he was sixteen. She’s adamant that changing a single word pertaining to Bob would be a travesty to her brother’s memory. This whole experience is likely to turn out terrible for both of us.

Here are some preventive strategies and first aid for when you’ve said yes to critiquing, but have this horrible feeling you should have said no.

 Start by asking questions

  •  How did you come to write this story?
  • What stage is the story at for you?
  • What was the most fun about writing this?
  • What was the hardest thing about writing this?
  • What is your timeline?

Agree on what will be critiqued, by what date, and to what level. Confirm all of this by e-mail, so you both have something in writing.

I will usually do 20 to 30 pages (or close to it – If a chapter ends on page 33, I really do want to see the entire chapter) for free. The writer gets to pick which pages she wants. Over that, I have a sliding fee scale depending on what critique level the author expects, and how long the total work it.

 Critique levels

  • Does this book work? — a fast read, in the same way I’d read a library book — with a few comments. Those comments include if the book interested me; why or why not; what I think are the strongest and weakest points.
  • Fix this/keep this — what works and what doesn’t with some suggestions about how to approach what isn’t working. No grammar, spelling, or punctuation comments. Most writers like this level of critique best.
  • In general, I don’t do extensive edits or line edits. An extensive edit would be what an editor at a publishing house does. A line edit is tidying up every bit of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I’d have to charge so much for these that no one would take  me up on the even if I had the time to do it.

Working through the questions and agreement for critique level and deadline are often enough to identify three common critique night mares: the Painting Book Writer, the Writer in Therapy, and the Wouldn’t Turn it Down Writer.

 The Painting Book Writer

Let’s start with a line from Dylan Thomas’s, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “ . . . a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.”

The Painting Book Writer writes for the sheer love of story. Grammar doesn’t matter, nor spelling, nor those pesky “writer things” like motifs, themes, character development and so on. To be a Painting Book Writer means to tell yourself a story on paper.

In fact, this is one of the easiest writers to critique because both of us can have fun with it. I’m not going to try to whip her story into shape for publication because that’s not what she’s after. She wants to share her story with someone else, so I know that my comments can concentrate on how well the story is told. I can usually end with something like, “If you ever decide to publish this piece, there are some things you’ll need to work on. Get back to me any time if you’re interested in going further with this.”

Likely, she’ll never get back to me. I’ve saved myself the experience of tearing my hair out over something that’s nowhere near ready to be published, and she’s gotten some positive strokes about her story.

I believe that all of us need to keep a corner for our own Painting Book Writer. No matter how good we get at the technical details, how well we come to know the writing business, we should always have at least one story that we are writing just to tell ourselves an enjoyable story. In the past two years I’ve written two novellas— a Steampunk adventure and one Harry Potter fan-fic — which are unlikely to ever move beyond an audience I can count on the fingers of one hand. But I had a great time writing them.

 The Writer in Therapy

Unlike the Painting Book Writer, who is often fun to work with, the toughest critique to do may be one written by a Writer in Therapy. Basically, this person has something impossibly difficult lurking in her past. She’s using writing as a way to make sense of what happened and to search for a firmer mental health footing than she currently has.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to jump the queue from healing to publishing. When a person achieves the first hard-won insight into abuse, alcoholism, rape, or a relative’s suicide, there is often a tremendous need to share that first insight with other people. By writing for others, she doesn’t have to continue to work on her own issues; her mission now becomes bringing the recovery she hasn’t yet experienced herself to others.

Writers in therapy are fragile. When writing is therapy, the writer needs to write; she does not need to publish. At least, not yet.

For a writer at this stage, I would never do more than a Does this work critique. She’s simply not ready to rewrite. At the same time, I’d keep telling her how important it is for her to keep writing and encourage her not to try publishing for several years.

 The Wouldn’t Turn It Down Writer

Like the Painting Book Writer, the WTID Writer pays little attention to grammar, spelling or those pesky writer things. She often writes the same story over and over, and has trouble finishing anything. If asked about her intention to publish, she says shyly, “Oh, I’m not good enough be published, but I won’t turn it down if it happens.”

Secretly she means when it happens because she knows, just knows, that what she writes is so wonderful that a famous publisher will come along, recognize her hidden talent, and give her a beneficent contract.

The hardest part about critiquing the WTID Writer is that she can’t yet hear comments such as, “You need to get a basic grip on plot, character development, managing tension, grammar, spelling, and how to format a book.” Her likely responses are, “Oh, I don’t have to worry, when I get an editor, he’ll fix all of that.” of “That doesn’t matter because I’m going to self-publish.”

Sometimes all I can hope for is to suggest that she focus on one thing, such as, “Let’s concentrate on how you developed Nancy as a character. As a reader, this is how Nancy affected me . . .” Truthfully, who am I to say she’s not right? Maybe that publisher will come along. Maybe she’ll get a terrific contract. If she does, I’ll try hard not to be jealous.

There’s a hormone secreted into the bloodstream of most writers that make them hate their own work …. This, coupled with the chorus of critical reaction from those privileged to take a first look, is almost enough to discourage further work entirely. ~Francis Ford Coppola, director

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, June 17th, for Writing the Novel – Book Killers – Filter Words to Lack of Attitude as we explore what deadly book killers reside in the middle of the alphabet.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Book Killers: adverbs to equivocators

Keith commented recently that he finds starting a book easier than editing it. I think both are hard. One is hard writing hard; the other is hard editing. Before leaving on a long journey, it’s helpful to collect information: look at a map, check out the weather, talk to people who’ve been there before.

Think of beginning a novel as a long journey. As we write, we need to be aware of book killers. Leaving them out is often easier than finding and removing them later. Of course, this same list can be used during the editing process.

I call these my mouse in a corner lists. They are tips I’ve collected by listening to dozens of writers at conferences, workshops, in e-mail postings and blogs, and other places that writers speak. This is the first of three lists; the other two will be posted next week, and the week after that.


Adverbs are shorthand. We writers think they telegraph information to the reader without us having to write it out. They don’t. Instead of writing, “He touched her face lovingly,” write out the sensual details of this man touching this woman’s face. If the word ends in -ly, ditch it.

Author intrusion

Whose POV shines through, the character or the author? If the answer to the question “Why is this here?” is “Because we need or want it here,” that’s author intrusion.


Word cliches are bad, but plot cliches are worse. We learn plot cliches by reading other writers, especially bad writers.  If we’ve seen it in books before more than three times it’s a cliche. Examples of plot cliches include the protagonist forgetting to charge her cell phone or a character being interrupted just when he’s giving the protagonist the clue he needs to crack the case.

Confused or weak sentence structure

  • Read sentences out loud. If the tongue trips over it, rewrite it.
  • The last word(s) in a sentence are the most important; the first word(s) are the second most important. Don’t put the powerful words in the middle.
  • Clean up anything that dangles. Dangling modifiers, participles and prepositions are dangerous enough as book killers to spend a little extra time here.

Dangling modifier

A dangling modifier is a word order and/or punctuation error that leads the reader to get lost in a sentence. Readers who come unprepared are likely to die of thirst while wandering lost in the sentence, trying to determine it’s meaning.

VanHouten was arrested Saturday night in a small town with a briefcase containing half a million dollars. [If the town had half a million dollars in a briefcase that should certainly help the budget.]

Fix #1: Put words that relate to one another as close to one another as possible in the sentence. Who had the money? VanHouten had the money. Therefore, “VanHouten” and “money” need to be as close as possible to each other in the sentence.

VanHouten had half a million dollars with him when he was arrested Saturday night in a small town.

Fix #2: Split the information into different sentences.

VanHouten was arrested Saturday night in a small town. The briefcase he carried contained half a million dollars.

Dangling Participle

A participle is a word formed from a verb and used as an adjective. Many of them end in -ing. A dangling participle is an adjective intended to modify a noun that is not actually present or is poorly placed in the text.

  • Specializing in antique linens, her bad advice harmed my aunt. [Who gave bad advice is missing.]
  • Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the football player watched the bee. [Dangling participles often conjure up funny images, but obscure who is doing what.]

Fix: Try not to begin a sentence with an -ing word. If we must do so, ask who or what is doing that action and make that person or thing the subject of the sentence.

  • Mrs. Roberts, a specialist in antique linens, gave my aunt bad advice.
  • The bee, flitting gaily from flower to flower, attracted the football player’s attention.
  • Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the bee attracted the football player’s attention.

Dangling Prepositions

Look for strings of prepositions, particularly multiple uses of same preposition. In some cases, preposition overuse is easy to identify because it produces a run-on sentence.

We made a bad decision to go to a picnic on the pier in the seaside resort at the end of the deserted road.

This sentence has 6 prepositions, including 2 uses of to very close to one another.

Fix: Turn some prepositional phrases into adjectives; eliminate repeated prepositions; use descriptions in place of prepositional phrases. Often the run-on sentence works better as two or three shorter sentences.

We went for a seaside picnic at the deserted resort. It was a bad decision.


  • Every dialog is a contest for power; avoid too much agreement. Make our characters obstructive, manipulative, argumentative and disagreeable in conversations.
  • Question and response is symmetry; it dilutes tension. Question and evasion is asymmetry; it changes the power dynamics of the conversation. If two characters must agree, look for the “but” in the situation because it is the “but” that moves the situation to the next step.
  • Generally we want our point of view character to be in control of conversations, but sometimes that character losing a conversation  (as in lose versus win) can lead to learning something about the character, such as how he handles anger.
  • People who share the same culture make certain assumptions. Misinterpretation of culture can be used for either comedy or conflict.

Dialog tags and beats

  • In the skeleton draft: use said only and use it only when necessary to avoid confusion about who is speaking. In later drafts, we might thow in some variety, but chances are we’ll discover that we don’t need to do this.
  • We can’t laugh a line of dialog. Try it; you’ll choke. Nor can we chortle, guffaw, hiss, etc. dialog. We say dialog. Period.
  • Use beats instead of dialog tags whenever possible. A beat is a description of action, placed either before or after the dialog. They are a great replacement for adverbs. He said slowly, “Chloe is back in town.” versus He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. “Chloe is back in town.”
  • Beats at the beginning of a conversation set the dynamics; beats at the end of a conversation change the tension. His voice was quiet. “I’m sure you have your reasons.” versus. “I’m sure you have your reasons.” His voice was quiet.
  • Beats are rarely needed in the middle of a conversation. Allow the characters (and the reader) to experience the conversation as is.
  • Strengthen characters’ voices and make them so unique that neither beats not tags are needed to identify who is talking.

Avoid pseudo-beats

  • Common pseudo-beats in dialog include turning, running a hand through the hair, tapping a pen on a table, gazing at another character, taking deep breaths, and smiling. Think of them as fillers. They contribute nothing to character development or plot advancement.
  • Smiling is particularly bad. If our characters are involved in the aftermath of a murder, we do not want them smiling all the time. It makes them too happy for the story.
  • Common pseudo-beats in settings include eating or having a drink, taking a walk, driving from one place to another, or doing a background activity—picking up dry cleaning, going to the library—that people do in real life, but which has no relationship to the story. Having a character shove his coffee cup across the table for a waiter to refill it is a pseudo-beat. Having a character shove a cup of coffee so hard that coffee splashes on the table at the moment he makes a decision is a real beat.


Words that end with –ness, –ize, –ly, or –ingly words often dilute a story. Use these words sparingly. Sometimes, our word processing program or writing software can do a search for these endings. For example, if we can look for “ize” – not full words, we need to go to each place this appears and think about changing it. Repeat with the other work endings.

Equivocators and wishy-washy phrases

Avoid words such as about, maybe, sometimes, likely, and so on.The myth is that these words indicate a character’s uncertainty or an unwillingness to commit. In reality, they dilute both dialog and description. Make characters decisive in dialog and action. “Maybe John is a little irresponsible, but he would likely have been worried when Matilda didn’t show up for work.” versus. “Face it. John is irresponsible. When Matilda missed work, he didn’t even phone her.”

I hope to see you again on Thursday, June 12, for Critique Nightmares – what to do when our friend’s manuscript that we agreed to critique turns out to be bad, oh so bad.

Thursday, June 17, we continue with Book Killers – Filter Words to Lack of Attitude.

My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Getting Finished with Getting Started

Writing a first novel is like being pregnant, or getting a university degree, or becoming a good enough athlete to qualify for the Olympics. It’s long, hard work.  A first novel should take about three years to write, and (maybe) another two to be published. That’s if we’re on the fast track. Ah-ha, we say, we are going to churn out a draft in six months, and publish on the Internet.

If I can give you one word of advice, that word is don’t.

I’m not saying don’t publish on the Internet, I’m saying don’t do it in six months, after writing only one draft. Whether we have degrees in writing, or have read a zillion books, or our high school teacher told us we’re the best writing student she ever had, we are all going to be shocked and dismayed by what we not only don’t know, but don’t know we don’t know as we write our first novel. If you don’t believe me, ask any successful writer for one or two of his/her “If only I’d known . . . stories.”

This is not because they or we are bad writers. It’s because when we write our first novel we’re beginning writers. Even if we’ve had careers in journalism, or turned our flawless technical manuals for work, or written scads of poetry, a novel is a different kind of critter.

A few weeks before I graduated from nursing school, the Dean of the school came to speak to the senior class. She said, “You are not good nurses. What you’ve learned in the past few years is enough to pass your state boards and be safe nurses. In about three years, if you keep your eyes and ears open; if you ask other good nurses for advice; if you keep learning; you will be good nurses. In five years, you’ll be great nurses. Turned out she was right.

New writers run into a chicken and egg problem. We need to finish our first draft. We need to have other writers read and critique our work. Which comes first, finishing the draft or getting critiques? Waiting to join a critique group is like a pregnant woman delaying getting pre-natal care. Some women do okay without it, but a lot of women don’t. Even those who do okay would likely have done better than okay with a little help from others. Get into a critique group as soon as you can. If there isn’t one where you live, or maybe even if there is, find an on-line group.

If you’ve been at your novel longer than three years, I’ll bet you’ve encountered one or more of these ten situations. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order because there’s no way to rate which is the most destructive. They are all writing stoppers.

  • A family or personal crisis happened.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with having to deal with others’ needs and having no energy left for writing.
  • Knowing there are problems with the story, but not how to fix them.
  • Knowing there are problems with the writing, but not how to fix them.
  • Losing interest in the process of writing.
  • Losing interest in the story.
  • Losing track of the story.
  • Realizing more research is needed.
  • Talking the story to death.
  • Wondering if we’re real writers.

Critique groups, classes, and other writers can help us make it through a lot of things on that list, but what about those real life issues, whether it’s a crisis, or just fighting for enough time and energy to keep going?

These barriers divide into two groups: problems we can’t fix and problems we don’t fix. Where that can’t/don’t line happens is different for each of us. We need to get help — whether it’s professional, medical, or legal help — for the crises we can’t fix. We owe it to ourselves not to try to go it alone. Our writing is important, but even more important is ourselves and our own health and safety.

For the “don’t fix” situations, the first step through them is, almost always, ditch the guilt. We don’t have to earn the right to be writers. We don’t have to meet all of our childrens’ needs, and our significant others, and our parents and other relatives, and our boss, before we can be writers. When we find ourselves in a fixable situation, but one that isn’t being resolved for whatever reasons, the most important thing is to keep writing.

Even if it only for fifteen minutes a day.

Writers who temporarily abandon their novels until the kids are older, our parents’ don’t require so much of our time, our jobs settle down, we sell our house, we decorated the new house, etc. have one thing in common. They rarely get back to that novel.

Get out there. Start that novel. Finish that first draft. The world needs more great novels. The world needs more great writers. The world need us.


Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.

~Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), American playwright and the inspiration for Nora Charles in the Thin Man stories