what to do when you have to critique yourself
One of the great truths about writing is that it’s much easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than it is to pick them out in our own. That’s why critique groups are so helpful, particularly to the beginning writer.
But sometimes you just have to do it yourself.
How can a writer take a long honest look at her own writing? It’s difficult—because when we go back to read the words we’ve put on the page, we not only read the actual words, but we relive the emotions we felt as we were writing. We see the characters in our minds. We hear them speak. Unfortunately, our reader doesn’t have access to our emotions, our vision, and our inner ear—so she can only read the words on the page. That’s the advantage of a critique group. (At least until the group reaches the point where each member knows the other’s stories so well that it’s just like working on her own.)
So how do we judge whether we’ve truly conveyed the scene to the reader? How can we tell whether the story works?
If you can, put your story away for a few days—even a few weeks – before you start to revise. When you read it again after a break, you’ll be better able to judge what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll be more likely to see whether the words on the page actually evoke the meaning you intended to share with your reader.
When it’s time to take a look at what you’ve written, to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and to create a plan of attack for revising, here’s a sort of checklist to use as you reread your work.
This in-depth checklist covers all the main sections of the romance novel, and it will help you spot areas where you’ve lost the thread of your story, told too much too soon, or left out crucial information or steps in the development of the plot or relationship.
You can use this list at any stage in the writing process to help keep you on track, or as a guideline when you’ve finished the manuscript.
The more you can distance yourself from your story and pretend that someone else wrote it, the better this checklist will work for you. Try pretending that you’re a book reviewer and you will have to give not only your reaction to the story but the reasons for your opinions.
1. How does the story start? What do we know about the main character by the end of Chapter One? What do we not know and want to? What do we know that we don’t need or want to?
2. How many pages into the book does the plot action begin? When do we meet the second main character?
3. What forces the hero and/or heroine to stay in the situation? If being around each other makes them unhappy, why doesn’t one of them just go away?
4. What keeps the hero and heroine apart? Could their disagreement be solved if they sat down for a real conversation?
5. Is the conflict personal? Concrete? Sympathetic? Important to both characters and to the reader? Can the reader picture herself or someone she loves caught up in a similar difficulty?
6. Is the disagreement between them strong enough to keep them apart despite their attraction?
7. How much does the reader know about what both hero and heroine are thinking? At what point in the story does the reader know that the heroine is seriously interested in the hero? At what point in the story does the reader know that the hero is seriously interested in the heroine? After this point, is the excitement level in the story maintained, or does it drop off?
8. Does the reader get to savor the excitement? Listen to the arguments? Watch the action? Or is the dramatic potential of the story summarized?
9. By the halfway point of the book, have we met all the major characters? If they haven’t actually come on stage, have we been told about them?
10. How many secondary characters are there? Can some of them be eliminated or combined? Can some of them be reduced to labels—the waitress, the receptionist—instead of names and descriptions? How much do we know about secondary characters, and is this information important to the story?
11. Are the main characters’ actions and words consistent with their personalities, their professions, their upbringing, and their previous experiences?
12. Is the point of view consistent throughout the story? If a second or third point of view is used, does it appear early and with some regularity throughout the story? Does the point of view of secondary characters creep in where it shouldn’t?
13. Does each scene and each chapter begin by setting up the location and time frame, identifying the viewpoint character, and creating an interesting hook? Does each scene and each chapter end at a point of interest where the reader will find it difficult to stop reading?
14. Of the total number of pages in the manuscript, how many show the hero and heroine interacting together? How many show them in the same room but not interacting?
What is the longest time (in page count) that the hero and heroine are separated?
15. Does the reader see a relationship developing between hero and heroine? How much time—how many pages—do they spend kissing/flirting/making love? fighting? just talking? Do the hero and heroine get cozy too quickly?
16. Are the love scenes appropriate to the type of romance? To the personalities of the characters? To their circumstances (for instance, the amount of privacy the couple has)?
17. Is sexual tension maintained throughout the story? When do we see attraction between the characters? Is the sexual tension diminished or increased by the love scenes?
18. Do the main characters themselves bring about the ending without the interference or manipulation of other characters? How do they do so?
19. Is the ending satisfying? Are the good guys rewarded and the bad guys punished? Are all the loose ends tied up and all the puzzles solved?
20. Will the reader care what happens to these characters?
WHY HAS MY PROJECT BOGGED DOWN?
Every time I’ve had a project bog down (and after eighty books I’ve had plenty of experience in the swamp), it has been for one of five simple reasons. Furthermore, in every unsuccessful, unpublished romance novel I’ve read in contests or classes, at least one of the Big Five has poked up its head.
So if you’re having doubts, or your story doesn’t seem to be working, take a look at these five possible causes.
There isn’t really a conflict, or the conflict between the main characters is a misunderstanding rather than real disagreement about substantial issues.
The romance is not the plot—and so a story which features two people who are fighting an overwhelming attraction to each other, but doing nothing else, is unlikely to hold up for the necessary number of chapters.
Real conflict involves important issues. What’s at stake? What do both hero and heroine want, but only one can have? What do they both want so badly they have to work together to get it?
When you have real conflict, your characters have lots to talk about. When you don’t, they may argue till doomsday but their conversation doesn’t lead anywhere.
Symptoms of this malady include:
Circular argument. A real discussion will develop, and the characters’ convictions will waver and change as the antagonists explain their positions. (If it’s only a misunderstanding, explaining their positions would solve the problem in chapter one.)
Characters who argue but don’t simply talk to each other.
Coincidental interruptions. Just as hero and heroine are about to get to the truth, the phone rings or someone comes to the door or another character happens to say something that perpetuates the wrong impression—so the misunderstanding lives on for another day. While it’s a common plot device, if you’re using it regularly, the underlying conflict is probably too weak to support the story.
Not enough at stake. The characters’ goals aren’t important enough to make the reader believe that they deserve a story. I know women who get bent out of shape about their husbands’ shirts and ties not matching, but I don’t want to read about them.
Unrelated disasters. Throwing in earthquakes, car accidents, and broken bones fills space but seldom develops conflict or advances the plot. Does every incident move the story forward?
The hero and heroine aren’t realistic and sympathetic characters, or they aren’t behaving in realistic ways.
If the heroine’s past experience with the other woman has shown that the other woman is a liar, but the heroine believes her anyway, we have a main character who is not only illogical but downright aggravating. If a character is a cop who, when he’s off-duty, doesn’t observer his surroundings, he’s acting unrealistically. If hero and heroine act on their very first meeting as if they’ve known and hated each other for years, they’re not believable characters. If they behave badly toward each other throughout the story, especially without adequate reason, they’re not sympathetic. If they show nothing but distaste for each other until they fall into each other’s arms on the last page, they’re neither sympathetic nor believable.
Symptoms of this malady include:
A heroine you wouldn’t want to befriend. If she isn’t someone you’d want to know, odds are your reader won’t either.
A hero you wouldn’t want to be married to. (Notice that I didn’t say a hero you wouldn’t fall in love with. Being attracted to someone is one thing, but he has to be more than handsome and sexy to have lasting appeal.)
Characters who are out of balance. If the hero is aggressive and the heroine weak, or the heroine is pushy and the hero passive, the story is apt to trail off. In a good pairing of characters, the hero and heroine will be roughly equal in strength and assertiveness.
Telling the reader about the characters instead of showing them in action. If they’re not realistic, sympathetic, and believable, it will be difficult to bring them to life—and thus easier to write about them rather than show them interacting.
Unmotivated opposition. The hero shouldn’t try to prevent the heroine from getting what she wants (or vice-versa) simply to be nasty. Both characters are more sympathetic if there’s a good reason for their opposition to one another.
Wandering or unclear viewpoint. It’s hard to identify with more than one character at a time, especially if it isn’t clear whose head we’re supposed to be in, and the result is often a lack of sympathy for all the characters.
Too much internalization. We hear all about the character’s thoughts—more than we want to know—but we don’t have any reason to care.
Cutting sarcasm, or arguments which are filled with anger to the exclusion of opinions and logic. When name-calling takes place, it’s hard to like any of the people who are involved.
There isn’t anything forcing the main characters to stay in the situation.
If he dislikes her (even though he thinks she has a great body), and she detests him (even though he’s quite a hunk), why doesn’t one or the other of them just walk away? In real life, when we encounter people we don’t like, we tend to avoid them unless we’re forced by such things as business or family ties to deal with them. The same is true of heroes and heroines.
What makes it necessary for the hero and heroine to stay in contact long enough to discover their attraction? If you can’t state in one sentence why your hero and heroine need each other, perhaps the force needs redefining.
Symptoms of this malady include:
Hero and heroine who have little to say to each other. If they’re talking about nothing, maybe they need more of a reason to be together.
Characters who are motivated to oppose each other by petty irritation rather than by real issues. Are they just sniping at each other rather than discussing a substantial problem?
Characters who are too cozy and comfortable together. If they get along so well, what’s keeping them from solving the main problem?
Hero and heroine are often separated. If they’re not in the same physical space, they’re not forced to interact. If the hero and heroine are apart, thinking about each other rather than being actively involved, how can their feelings for each other develop?
The romance is not kept at the heart of the book.
The other parts of the novel—the mystery of the missing money, the child in need, the past history of hero or heroine, the sub-plot involving secondary characters—are sometimes more fun and are often easier to write than the real-time interaction between the main characters. But the reader wants to see a developing relationship—fondness, trust, liking—between the characters. The rest of the story, crucial as it is, serves as the background for the romance.
Symptoms of this malady include:
Main characters who don’t seem to have anything to talk about, or who argue rather than ever just talking.
Hero and heroine are often separated by the circumstances of the plot.
The plot is over-complex. Too many events or too much space spent explaining the details of the missing money or the child in need means less time for developing the relationship.
There are too many people in scenes. Even in a packed auditorium, you can isolate your two main characters by moving them off to a corner or letting them carry on a whispered private exchange. If they aren’t alone together, it’s more difficult for feelings to develop.
Getting off the track. Side issues become more important than the main story, and everybody—author, characters, and reader—forgets what the goal of the scene was. Or we get the family history and in-depth views of secondary characters, distracting us from the main story.
Interference by other characters. Whether this is intended to create trouble between the hero and heroine or to bring them together, it takes the focus off the main relationship. The hero and heroine should solve their own problems.
The story isn’t well-told.
The author hasn’t been able to put words on the page in a spellbinding way. The actual words on the paper do not convey to the reader the images which the author saw as she wrote.
She may be summarizing her story, telling it instead of showing it. Or the sentences may simply not be clear, so the reader has to deduce what the author meant. Or she’s left out details necessary for the reader’s understanding. Or the action may be shown in the wrong order, leading to reader confusion.
Symptoms of this malady include:
Slow starts. The first chapter might consist of the heroine reflecting on her past and what has brought her to this stage in her life. Often this is valuable information, but it’s in the wrong place. By starting with action instead, you give the reader a reason to care about the character, and then she’ll sit still to hear about the roots of the problem.
Peaceful endings. Chapters or scenes which end with the heroine drifting off to sleep without a care are a wonderful place for the reader to do the same thing.
Rushed dramatic action. Watch out for clues like “later”, “after a few minutes”, “when she’d had a chance to think it over” and other indications that the reader is being told rather than shown what happened.
Wandering viewpoint. The POV shifts back and forth for no good reason, or it’s difficult even to figure out who the viewpoint characters is.
Random dialogue. Instead of giving important information, the dialogue focuses on everyday detail (lots of “Hello” and “Goodbye” and “How do you like your coffee?”)
Below-standard grammar and mechanics. Anything which takes the reader’s attention off the story and forces her to figure out what the author really meant makes it easier for her to put the book down.
THE SELF-CRITIQUER’S TOOL KIT
When it’s time to actually do the work of revising, here are some techniques to try.
Give yourself a break. Don’t try to write and edit in the same session. The two jobs are very different, and trying to switch back and forth can drive you crazy and make you think that there’s something wrong with a section that in fact is perfectly fine.
Give it a rest. Let your writing sit for a few days, if you can—without looking at it—before you try to decide what’s good and not-so-good about it. The more distance from the writing, the more able you’ll be to forget the wonderful things you were thinking while you wrote it and look at it from the reader’s perspective.
Use hard copy. A few rare people can edit efficiently on the computer screen, but for most of us the words have more reality when they’re printed on paper. It’s more final and more important—and difficulties (not only typos but story problems) stand out more clearly in a hard copy.
Read it fast. When in doubt about whether a story is working, lock up your pens and just read it straight through. You’re trying to absorb the whole story so that inconsistencies and plot holes can’t elude you. I often take the manuscript onto the treadmill—since I can’t make notes while I’m walking, I’m forced to just read, without fiddling and getting distracted by details.
Read it onto tape. The act of reading a section aloud will tell you whether your dialogue is natural (if it isn’t, you’ll find yourself changing the words, or else you’ll feel stiff). Listening to the tape will help you tell if the story pacing is good, if the characters are likeable, and if the point of view is straight. If you were listening to this tale as you drove across country, would it keep you on your toes or put you to sleep?
Get out your colored markers. The more the merrier. Highlight dialogue with one color, introspection with another, narrative with a third, attributions with a fourth, description with a fifth. You’ll quickly see whether you’ve overdone the story-telling, internalization, attribution, or description, and whether the proportions of the manuscript are right. If there’s a lot of dialogue in the first half but less in the last half, you may have shifted from showing your story to telling it.
State your conflict in one sentence. What exactly do your hero and heroine disagree about? If you can’t state their major reason for opposition succinctly, you may have a lack of conflict or a misunderstanding instead of a real conflict.
State your force in one sentence. What’s keeping them from walking out on each other? Why do they need each other?
Keep a time sheet. The longer I work on a section of the story, the more boring it seems. But sometimes it’s not the action that’s getting tired, it’s just me getting tired of the action because it’s been taking up so much of my time. By keeping track of the actual time I spend on each scene, I can keep myself from getting discouraged when the story doesn’t move along as fast as I’d like.
Leigh Michaels is the author of 80 contemporary romances published by Harlequin Books and is a six-time RITA finalist in Best Traditional. She is also the author of On Writing Romance (Writers Digest Books, 2007) from which this workshop is adapted. She teaches romance writing classes on the Internet through Gotham Writers’ Workshop, www.writingclasses.com.