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.


  1. How about a critique? You made some very valid points and gave some helpful hints to the writer to keep critique partners from pulling out their hair.
    Good post!

  2. What a fabulous post. I wish I had something like this to read when I first started critiquing. It's hard to know what to look for sometimes. Thanks so much.

  3. Excellent Grace! I've printed your post and pinned it to the cork board above my computer.

  4. Thanks for these reminders, Grace. I've been judging the RITA and there are a couple of authors (and their editors) who should have read this post.

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    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery