Wrecked by Critiques (and Dealing With It)

Original Picture: Sam Sanford
I know revisions are where good novels are made. I know it. But getting notes back from my critique partners always wrecks me. It's like getting punched in my fear of failure over and over and over and over.

Here's how I deal with it.

1. I have a rule: no reading critiques right before bed. Critiques either make me despair, or else drive my brain into a planning frenzy trying to fix things. Either way, I sleep terribly when this happens.

2. Read it all in one go. No sense in dragging out the torture.

3. Eat some bacon.

4. Write down the major things that need work. Once I see it as a list, I usually realize there's only a couple of things that will take more than a sentence-change to fix (granted, there's a thousand sentence changes, but . . . ).

5. Take a break. My brain needs time to process how to fix things. Optionally: repeat step #3.

6. Make a plan. I don't know about you, but by the time I have a plan (and some bacon), I feel all better.

What about you? Are you wrecked by critiques (and if not, who are you)? What do you do about it?

First Impact: BLOOM by Ranee Clark

HEY! We're done with August, but I have nothing to critique for September! If you want your query letter, first page, or back cover copy critiqued here, send it to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. Details here.

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember, if you share your thoughts in the comments, you are eligible to win a 10-page critique from Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

A big thank you to Ranee for submitting the query for her YA fantasy, BLOOM.

Remember all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it. Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

This part doesn't come across like
you'd think it would. Cut it.
In BLOOM, a Young Adult fantasy novel complete at 86,000 words, the comfortably sweet yet still sassy voice of Finna Claremont will captivate readers.

Not sure why the italics. Otherwise,
this is a decent start.
Born into one of the Big Three families of the Enchanter realm, 17-year-old Finna Claremont’s lineage—yeah, lineage—should mean she’ll make a great guardian…. Right.?
This is a big paragraph. Can it be
broken up?

I'm in for this whole thing until the
last two sentences. It gets vague, and
I don't see a compelling choice like
I want to.
Finna’s screwed up everything from transporting to blocking her thoughts since she was little, so when a fairy declares Finna has special responsibilities to protect her world, it shocks everyone, including Finna. To prove she can hack it as a guardian, Finna sets out to stop an evil politician threatening the rights of all Enchanters. She’ll have to trust the last person she ever expected to befriend (not to mention fall in love with) to pull it off. And trusting Liam Monroe isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because he’s a Monroe. They’ve hated the Claremonts for a hundred years, and the feeling is mutual. There’s a lot more than family honor riding on the line if Finna fails to measure up. She’ll have to count on her fledgling powers or else watch the world she knows disappear.

Brief and to the point. Good.
I am the president of my American Night Writers Association chapter where I volunteer my cold-hearted manuscript reviewing services. If you would like to consider BLOOM, I’d be happy to forward the complete manuscript to you.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Ranee` S. Clark
ANWA PM Writers President

Adam's Thoughts
This is a solid start. The story sounds cool, the character and conflict are clear, and you've got a strong, fun voice.

Which brings me to point #1: Don't tell us what the voice is. Show us. Don't say it will captivate readers. Captivate us.

I think you did a great job of showing the voice in the rest of the query, but it's funny how saying what the voice is has the opposite effect intended. Like if a guy asks you out and says, "I promise I'm not a creepy stalker who'll research your personal history on Facebook."

He might be telling the truth, but it feels weird.

Point #2: a compelling choice. I know I harp on this, but that's because it works. "Do or die" is not really a choice. We all know she's going to try, else there wouldn't be a story. What makes her situation impossible? What makes us think we have no idea what we would do in her shoes?

But all in all, this feels like a great start to me. What do the rest of you guys think? What would you change?

First Impact: Out of the Water by Deniz Bevan

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember, if you share your thoughts in the comments, you are eligible to win a 10-page critique from Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

To continue this feature, we need stuff to critique! Send your queries, first pages, etc. to firstimpactAE@gmail.com. Details here.

A big thank you to long-time reader Deniz for submitting the query for her historical romance, OUT OF THE WATER. (Also thank you for coming in well under the 300-word limit. My wife and children thank you.)

Keep in mind all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it. Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Query Letter
Maybe mention the year right away?

Not sure how I feel about this final
Eighteen-year-old Rosa becomes separated from her family as they flee their Spanish homeland, and the Inquisition. Now her one hope of reaching Constantinople and reuniting with her family lies with a stranger, Baha, an artist returning to the Ottoman Empire. As they travel together, Rosa's drive to find her loved ones is matched by a deepening desire for the man at her side.

I think we skipped the bit where she
reunited with her family.

Again, not sure about the last line.
Yet her family refuses to accept this man of a different faith. Constantinople was meant to be her family's refuge, but when janissaries arrest her father and brother, Rosa and Baha risk their lives to rescue them. Together they will prove that their love can withstand their differences... if the Grand Vizier doesn't throw them both in the dungeons first.

OUT OF THE WATER is complete at 115,000 words. I hope you find my 15th-Century historical romance a good fit for your interests.

Italicize the newspaper title?
I have lived and worked in Turkey, and my non-fiction work, including travel articles, book reviews and personal essays, has most recently appeared in the trilingual (English, French, and Turkish) newspaper Bizim Anadolu.
Not sure whether this is necessary.
Initial drafts of OUT OF THE WATER were revised through participation in author Barbara Rogan's invitation-only Next Level Workshop.

Thank you for your consideration.
Deniz Bevan
Adam's Thoughts
You know, Deniz, this feels really strong to me. You've got a strong character, goal, obstacles, and -- if not a sadistic choice -- at least very strong stakes. I'm just going to explain a couple of my comments up there, then let the commenters at it (who, of course, may have an entirely different opinion).

Last line of the 1st paragraph. I'm not sure what strikes me as off about this line. It's minor. Maybe it's the abstract comparison of her drive and her desire, when I want something more specific (but how can you get specific about love? I don't know).

Last line of the 2nd paragraph. I didn't realize it at first, but I think what I'm missing here is a choice. Their goal and stakes are strong (save her family, possibly die trying), but it's not as compelling as a sadistic choice. I kind of assume she's going to save them, so what's going to entice me to read on at this point, to say, "How the heck is she going to do that?"

The more I think about it, the more I think that's the big lack. Everything else is here.

As for nitpicking the bio paragraphs, they look pretty solid to me. I'm very much of the "less is more" philosophy of bio paragraphs, so I do question things like whether you need to talk about your non-fiction work (though writing for a Turkish newspaper is cool) or whether agents are likely to care what workshops were used to revised it (even prestigious ones). Your story is strong enough for me that I don't think you need those things, but it's your call.

What do the rest of you guys think? Does it need a choice? Am I being too picky about the bios? Should "15th-century" be hyphenated or not? (I'm kidding. The answer to the last question is "yes.")

Connecting With a Character (and Dr. Horrible)

One of the most important things we need to do as writers is help the reader connect with the character. But what the heck does that mean?

It means the character is sympathetic. We like them and want them to succeed. They don't even have to be a good guy. They can be a villian, like Dr. Horrible.

Dr. Horrible is one of the most sympathetic villains I've ever seen (and I won't spoil the series except to say he gets even more sympathetic). What makes us root for him can work for any character, good or bad.

Dr. Horrible: "Ok, dude, you are not my nemesis.... I'm just trying to change the world, ok? I don't have time for a grudge match with every poser in a parka. Besides, there's kids in that park..."

The traits we like in real people work just as well for our characters. They're honest, nice, noble, brave, humble, funny. They play fair and sacrifice for others.

Dr. Horrible isn't all of these things, but he strives not to kill. He's self-deprecating. He really is working for the people (even if he sees those people as sheep, sometimes).

Dr. Horrible: "I got a letter from Bad Horse."
Moist: "That's so hard core. Bad Horse is legend. He rules the League with an iron hoof."

They might be pathetic or ignorant or victims of everything. They might not even succeed, but a character that excels at something is a character worth rooting for. Even if Dr. Horrible's inventions don't work perfectly, the fact is he has a (mostly) working transmatter ray, freeze ray, and he can remotely hijack an armored van. That's pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Dr. Horrible: "It's not about making money, it's about taking money. Destroying the status quo because the status is not . . . quo. The world is a mess and I just . . . need to rule it."

If we're going to root for the character, we need to know what they're striving for. It's hard to cheer from the sidelines if you have no idea how one scores a goal.

And it needs to be a goal we agree with. Ruling the world may not be the most sympathetic vision, but Dr. Horrible's motivation certainly is.

Dr. Horrible: "[reading fan mail] 'Where are the gold bars you were supposed to pull out of that bank vault with your Transmatter Ray? Obviously, it failed or it would be in the papers.' Well, no. They're not gonna say anything in the press, but behold! Transported from there to here! [pokes a bag of gold liquid] The molecules tend to . . . shift during the transmatter, uh, event. But they were transported in bar form..."

Once we're rooting for them, we feel every failure, and every step back makes the victory that much more awesome.

No, I'm not going to tell you whether Dr. Horrible succeeds. You have to watch it.

Seriously, go watch it.

A Tale of Two Johns


This is an old story from the computer game world, but there are lessons here for everyone, even writers.

In 1990, id Software was formed by two men: John Carmack and John Romero. Over the next 6 years, id redefined PC gaming and the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Romero is even credited with coining the term "deathmatch."

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about to this point, here's the summary: Carmack and Romero made really good games; they were kind of a big deal).

The PC gaming world was theirs. Carmack licensed the Quake engine to multiple game developers -- including Valve, who used it to make the even more groundbreaking Half Life. Professional gaming took off with QuakeCon. Everyone wanted to be id.

(Translation: They made lots of money).

But after Quake hit the shelves in 1996, Romero quit (actually he was fired, but he was going to quit anyway). His plans were ambitious, and he felt Carmack and the others were stifling him. Carmack, meanwhile, felt that Romero wasn't realistic.

(The two Johns parted ways).

Carmack -- the technical powerhouse of id -- pushed the envelope with Quake II and Quake III: Arena. Good games, well-received, and very, very pretty. But where they pushed things technically, their general design stayed the same. To the point where Quake III was little more than a deathmatch arena with no substance.

(Carmack's games were technically beautiful, but not very compelling).

Photo Credit: Michael Heilemann
Romero's company released this ad
months before Christmas.
Romero, meanwhile, now had the freedom to be as ambitious as he wanted. He proudly announced his masterpiece, Daikatana, would hit the shelves by Christmas the next year. They would use the Quake engine, so the technical aspect would be taken care of, leaving him and his designers only to design.

(Romero thought he didn't need Carmack's technical expertise).

Christmas came and went with no Daikatana. Carmack had released Quake II by then, and Romero realized his masterpiece looked dated. He grabbed the new engine, not realizing it was so different from the one he knew it would require an entire rewrite of his precious game.

(Romero realized technology mattered. He tried to catch up and failed, badly).

Three years later, Daikatana had become a joke. It was made worse when the game was released with outdated graphics, crappy AI, and unforgivable loading times.

(Romero's game was super late, ugly, and impossible to play).

Carmack thought that technical expertise made a game. Romero thought it was creativity and design. The truth is both are necessary to make a quality game.

It's the same in writing (told you there was a lesson). Technical expertise -- your skill with prose, structure, and grammar -- can make for a well-written story, but one that is thoroughly boring to read.

Creative design -- compelling plot, characters, and conflict -- can create a brilliant story, but if the technical aspects aren't there, it will be an unreadable mess.

Don't sacrifice one for the other. You need both to succeed.