Grace's Mosaic Moments

Friday, January 28, 2011

Guideposts for Critiquing

WELCOME to Grace's Mosaic Moments.

Today's blog is aimed at authors and their colleagues, friends, and family who help them put a book together. If you write, judge writing contests, or are part of a critique group, I hope you'll find the following helpful. These notes are created from ten years of judging c. 400 RWA chapter contest entries, with an assist from many years as a RITA judge, and twenty years struggling with my own work. The intent: help you edit your own work, make you a better contest judge, make you a better critique partner. (For non-RWA members reading this post, RWA is Romance Writers of America and the RITA is their annual "Oscar" award.)


1. Always find something good to say.

2. Encourage author to develop his/her own voice (i.e., don’t try to superimpose your own).

3. Yes, grammar, punctuation & spelling count*. That doesn’t mean a fiction author has to use schoolroom English. Fragments, vernacular, natural dialog are all good. Keep in mind that romance pretty much ignores the academic semi-colon & colon. Most editors were English majors. Do you want them to be blown away by your book or wincing over your mistakes?

4a. Nix on Storyteller mode. This is that old bugaboo, Show v. Tell. I’ve seen a lot of contest entries where the author uses “storyteller” style to present their story. This is, in fact, the opposite of what romance readers want. They do not want someone sitting on the outside telling them a story. They want the author to show them the story through the eyes of the hero and heroine. They want to see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. They do NOT want to be told about it. They want to experience it.

4b. More on “Show v. Tell.” It is harder to “show” than to “tell.” It takes more effort, more words.

4c. BUT do not be afraid of “was” & “were.” These words have been raised as such warning flags for “Tell” that some authors are terrified to use them at all. “Was” and “Were” are perfectly legitimate words. Yes, if an author has used a lot of them, he/she should probably see if they can find a more interesting way to say those sentences, but if not, it’s not the end of the world. Many multi-published authors use these words all the time. So do not be a lazy judge and criticize an author for “was,” “were,” or any other so-called “Tell” buzzwords. Be more intelligent than that. Judge the writing on whether it is Active instead of Passive, not on the kind of words the author used.

5. Did the author put all the backstory in the synopsis and forget to put it in the book? Always remember that only an editor or agent sees your synopsis. Everything you want the reader to know must be on the pages of the book itself.

6. Character introduction. Identify, identify. Not just the hero and heroine, but all secondary characters (with the possible exception of the second footman) need some sort of ID. Some physical description plus background information. Who is this person, what does he/she do? I so often see manuscripts that read: “Mary said” or “Lord Exmouth said,” and the reader hasn’t the slightest concept of who these people are. Without identification, characters become that fiction horror, “talking heads.”

7. Set-up. In a similar fashion, enough background must be given to make action in the story believable, whether it be a simple quarrel or a big plot-changing moment. Books where the hero or heroine are worried about some possible event that has never been described or explained sets readers’ teeth on edge. Example of no set-up: heroine is anguishing over some scandal involving herself, but at no time (over maybe 25 pages) does the heroine let the reader know what that scandal is. Always remember that readers need to understand what is going on. Save mysterious circumstances for a mystery or suspense plot.

An example of good set-up: leading up to an act of heroism, hints are given that the hero or heroine fears heights or water, etc. Then, when he/she rescues someone from a great height or in water, the heroic act is that much stronger.

8. Point of View. Just when I thought publishers were getting away from the old Hero, Heroine & maybe the Villain POV, conservatism is rearing its ugly head again. Simplicity seems to be the name of the game. Ten years ago, e-publishers were taking chances, publishing the mainstream-style books New York wouldn’t accept from beginners. But in these hard economic times e-publishers have also cut back to bare bones - 2 POVs preferred, up to four if it’s absolutely necessary, for the simple reason that one-on-one stories without the distraction of multiple POVs sell best. So any unpubbed author should be very careful about inserting too many POVs.

9. Are the hero and the heroine hostile for no apparent reason? A negative for both of them. Always counsel an author that this kind of thing is not “conflict.” Conflict is much greater than simple bickering. It’s perfectly all right for a couple to disagree if there’s ample reason, even better if it adds a touch of humor or true drama to the story. But don’t let the h/h come across as rude and/or negative. Readers want to empathize with them, root for them, love them. They can’t do that if the two of them are acting like naughty children for no justifiable reason.

10. Justify, justify, justify. (In case you missed the point in #7). You can get away with almost anything if you can explain to your readers how such an incident or behavior came about. Romance plots are frequently “over the top.” It’s up to the author to find a way to make them plausible. You can’t just write an outrageous action scene or situation and say to your readers, “Here it is, take it or leave it.”

11. Setting. Has the author included enough setting to add color to each scene. Or has the author wimped out, using nothing but dialogue because it’s easier? Is the author’s story told against a rich background like a work by a famous artist? Or is the author’s story told against a blank canvas? Is it set in nothing more than an unidentified room - the reader doesn’t know if it’s in the city or the country, the US, Europe, or China. Is it a single-family home? A condo? A gated community or the ghetto? It doesn’t take a lot to make a setting come to life, but the story is dead without it.

12. Does the author have too many characters in the opening scenes? I’ve seen many a contest entry ruined by including so many characters that the hero and heroine were totally overshadowed.

13. Plot. You may wonder why I’ve put plot last. Frankly, it’s because you can get away with almost anything if you take the time to justify it; i.e., give good reasons why this plot twist might be possible. Or so I thought until I read a couple of books recently that had me shaking my head. Yes, there’s a limit to reader credulity. Try not to stretch it too far. If you’re dealing with fairies or wizards, then waving a magic wand and having something totally incredible happen is okay, but otherwise, be careful you don’t strain readers’ “suspended disbelief” too far. As in #10 above, justify, justify, justify!

13. If you think an author could benefit from reading a book that’s helped you, or one you know helped others, then by all means recommend it.

14. Find something nice to say. Again!

*I recently ran across a new book on Grammar & Punctuation that might be helpful. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus.

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Thanks for stopping by. Hope you'll be back again next Friday.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Not to Drive the Grandchildren, Part 2

How Not to Drive the Grandchildren Home from the Singing Christmas Trees
Part 2

At the end of Part 1, you may recall, all seemed to be well. The three little girls and I had finally arrived home (one hour after leaving the church). We ate supper and were watching a movie when . . .

Mommy turned her phone back on and called to say that the concert was running longer than expected and could I please take the children home and put them to bed. I was still nerve-wracked to the bone, but food had helped, so I only twinged slightly at the thought of putting the girls back in the car and driving three blocks.

I loaded everyone back into the SUV and arrived at their gated community a few minutes later. I reached for the gate clicker I assumed was on the visor, and . . . oh-oh. No, the girls didn’t know where mama stashed the clicker, but they assured me I could punch in a code. Alas, I had to tell them that the code only worked until six p.m. After that, you have to have a clicker or someone has to be at the house to buzz you in. ( I recalled one memorable evening when my son-in-law climbed the gate, all eight feet of it, at 1:00 a.m.)

“We can go in your car, Gramma,” said the girls. So we turned around and headed back to my house. But as I headed back toward my house, it occurred to me that if I drove my car, we wouldn’t have the built-in garage-door opener on the SUV. Without which I’d need a key to my daughter’s house. And it seems that I no sooner have a key made than my daughter sends someone to borrow it. So if I drove the girls’ home in my car, we could get through the gate but might not be able to get into the house.

Believe me, at this point if I hadn’t already decided I had a few thousands words to say to my daughter when she got home, this would have been the final straw.

We pulled into my driveway and the 6-year-old said, “Gramma, why don’t you get the clicker from your car?” I sat there behind the wheel and gaped. Out of the mouths of babes! I told the girls to stay put, went back into my house, pulled the gate clicker off my visor, and back we went to my daughter’s house. Didn’t use the garage opener, after all, as the 7-year-old was gung-ho to try every key on my ring to see if she could open the front door. Which she did while the rest of us stayed in the car and watched.

She yelled for us to come in, and then proceeded to turn on the Christmas tree and the many other Christmas lights throughout the house so I could see them. Special moment after all we’d been through.

When my daughter and her husband finally got home, the girls were in bed, their halos still shiny, and I laid out the whole tale, woe by woe. My daughter looked at me and said, “Oh, I’ve been using the hand brake because the car keeps getting stuck in Park.” Not that she’d told me that any more than she mentioned there was no gas. I had, of course, been putting the car in Park all night. Sigh.

I’m not sure I’m going to the Singing Trees next year. The memories of 2010 may haunt me forever.

Grace Note: Next time a post on writing or travel. I'm hoping to post on Tuesdays and Fridays, if I can manage it. So come on back! And thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Welcome to my very first blog! Can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

Why the reluctance to blog? Simple. I’ve always been jealous of my time as an author. Put me in front of a computer and I just want to write fiction. Romance and mystery, where I have the fun of getting up each morning and saying, “Wow! I wonder what’s going to happen today.” As you can guess from that, I’m an “out of the mist” author. If I created a 10-20 page synopsis ahead of time, I’d know what was going to happen and be too bored to actually sit there and write the book.

But at the end of 2010, I decided to take a hiatus from writing new books, draw a deep breath, and look around at some of the huge changes in publishing—foremost, Amazon’s Kindle, which sparked Barnes & Noble’s Nook. So along with beginning to adapt some of my backlist for Kindle and Nook, I’m joining the modern world with Grace’s Mosaic Moments, a blog dedicated to writing, publishing, travel, significant events, little nothings, family, friends, fun, and speculating about anything and everything. “Mosaic” allows me to cover topics from Why Read Romance to my visit to the CIA, to my adventurous trip home from the Singing Christmas Trees with my three grandchildren.

I hope you’ll stop by frequently and offer comments.

Today, I’d like to inaugurate Grace’s Mosaic Moments with a true story from December 2010. I dedicate it to all grandmothers and mothers who have ever found themselves and their young ones in ridiculous situations that just shouldn’t have happened. But did. The title of this very true tale:

How Not to Drive Your Grandchildren Home from the Singing Christmas Trees

My daughter is a blonde. She is also CEO of a Real Estate Investment company. This does not mean she does not have blonde moments.

Each Christmas my daughter and her husband take the extended family (about fifteen relatives and employees) to First Baptist Orlando’s Singing Christmas Trees, a truly superb presentation in a church that seats about 5000. This year, my son-in-law also bought tickets on the same night for a concert in downtown Orlando. So it was arranged that I would drive their three girls, ages 4, 6 & 7, home. Sounds simple, right? I even had help from others in the group to get all three little ones into my daughter’s SUV through the crush of 5000 people attempting to leave at the same time. So far, so good.

By the time the girls were settled into their seat belts, there weren’t many cars left in the lot. I buckled up, started the engine . . . and the car didn’t move. I tried again. No movement. My daughter had set the hand brake in flat-as-a-pancake Florida? I looked where the hand brake is on my car. Nothing. I looked where the brake was on my old car. Nothing. It was, by the way, nearly pitch black in the parking lot. The 7-year-old put on the overhead light for me, but I still couldn’t see any hand brake.

I got out of the car and called to the one couple still walking toward their car. They kindly came over, but they too could not find the hand brake. By this time people were getting into the car in front of me. We had a five-way consultation, the two couples and I, and the husband of the new couple gave it a try. Took him about ten seconds, while the rest of us stood by, red-faced. I like to think he was more familiar with Hyundai SUVs than I was. With profuse thanks to all, I climbed in. At last we could go home.

Figuring the couple who had been parked in front of me knew the way out better than I did, I followed them. Which took us out a different way than we’d come in. (Oops.) No problem, just turn right and right and . . . except in all the traffic I ended up in a Left Turn Only lane. (Double oops.) After two or three blocks I figured I’d better make another right and right and hopefully end up on the road I should have been on in the first place. Except . . .

We were instantly in a residential area, and that’s when I had time to glance at the dashboard and notice the Gas Light was on. Houses, houses everywhere, and not a sign of a thoroughfare with a gas station. And at that dire point, the 7-year-old said, “Gramma, do you know where we are?”

Uh, no. But of course I didn’t say so. I just kept doubling back until I saw—oh, joy—a stoplight. And at the intersection, a GAS STATION. Before pulling up to the pump, I tried calling both my daughter and my son-in-law. I was not happy! Lucky them, their phones were off. They were enjoying their concert at the new Amway Arena.

The children, fortunately, knew which side the gas tank was on, so we managed to pull up with the pump on the correct side. I popped out, stuck in my credit card, and the silly machine wanted to know if it was a debit card. When I said no, it cancelled the transaction. I tried again. Same result. To say my blood pressure was soaring would be putting it mildly. There I was with three small children in the car, and I had to go INSIDE. Fortunately, we were right in front of the door. I told the children to stay put and dashed inside, where the attendant managed the transaction while I kept looking out the glass door.

Put ten dollars worth of gas in my daughter’s car and headed out, the children completely angelic or I might have lost myself along with the car. We did a couple more turns, looking for lots of lights signaling a major road. And there it was. Kirkman, the road that runs past Universal Studios. I was so turned around by this time that I simply chose a direction, knowing either north or south would lead me to a major east-west road that would take us home. And, sure enough, in less than a mile there it was, the 408, Orlando’s East-West Expressway. Yay, hurray!

But, no, this isn’t the end of the story. The night’s “annoyances” will be continued in my next post on Friday, January 21, 2011.