My Secret Weapon: Little Sis tells all

Before we get down to Little Sis’ critiquing prowess: Over this last week, I picked up some additional writing assistants:

Baby Peregrine likes to do his work early in the morning. Very early in the morning.

Ollie cat sits on my manuscript for a while before getting back to me

In addition to my new companions, I also got a chance to interview Sis about her reading process. Sis has killer instincts and I would pay for her feedback, but since we’re blood relatives, she seems to be willing to help me out of love and the occasional babysitting session.

To give you an idea of how clueless I was, I actually remember asking this question before I started seriously writing for publication: I asked Sis if it was possible to really learn how to improve writing. Don’t you just have to write and improve with practice? Her answer was that you can definitely study the craft of writing and that her writing had noticeably improved from the work in her program.

Huh. Writing as craft versus art. A light bulb moment for me, just to show you how helpless I’d be without Sis, who is my Secret Writing Weapon #1.

Sis is the one who taught me how to critique, but I realized that I usually go through the process instinctively, just modeling myself after the sorts of comments I’ve gotten from her many a time. I’ve always been fascinated that she actually took a class in her MFA program where the professor taught them how to critique. In her words, they would turn in one page writeups and receive feedback on whether their critique was good enough. How cool is that?

This professor will henceforth be referred to by the nickname Winky (don’t ask) for anonymity’s sake. Professor Winky was intent on teaching writers how to read critically and to give feedback that was usable–or as we say in the corporate world: actionable. He also believed that learning how to critique and “read like a writer” was essential to, well, becoming a better writer.

I’ve often said that my sister gives me feedback that elevates the manuscript. She tells me what the manuscript can become rather than pinpointing minor bugs. It helps me take what’s there and make it better. Often her comments will help me turn a whole scene or a whole section on its tail for the better. The feedback is deep, on point, sometimes requiring major rework on my part–but amazingly keeps to my intent for the manuscript.

I often feel that feedback that’s doing bug fixes really can’t take me anywhere beyond the frame I’ve set up. My manuscript doesn’t get better, it just gets spit shined a little. But when my Little Sis is done, I know how to break it out of its mold and make it bigger and better. (This is what my editor does as well, which has led me to respect Little Sis even more)

Professor Winky had a system for developing strong critiquers and my sister left her MFA program with those secrets in hand. It turns out the system revolved around one key question that I think we often overlook when giving feedback:

What is the author trying to accomplish?

Without this one guiding question, feedback is often piecemeal, spurious, disjointed — LAZY. Professor Winky was out to eradicate lazy critique just as much as he was out to eradicate lazy writing.

We had to do this in interview form since Little Sis had a bouncing baby in her arms, so here it is. From the mouth of my secret weapon herself.

Jeannie: You talked about rules that Winky set out. What were they?

Little Sis: They were pretty basic. You had to answer the question “What is the author trying to do?” You then had to identify a couple of things the author did well to achieve that goal and then give a couple suggestions on what they could do to improve on that goal. Also you couldn’t use “you” at all or refer to the writer. It had to be “the writing” or “these pages” or “this paragraph in the manuscript”.

He never said don’t do line edits, but it was implicit because it wasn’t in the questions.

Jeannie: Tell me about the process Winky would use in his class.

Little Sis: Well, every week someone would be assigned to turn in their writing. Everyone else would read it and turn in a one page written critique with the questions above before the session. Winky would collect the papers so they couldn’t just read it out loud in class.

During the critique session, the author would listen to everyone’s comments and wasn’t allowed to speak so there was no explaining, “But I meant…”

After the class, Winky would read through the one page critiques and call you in during office hours to comment on what you did that was useful. But he would also point out things that weren’t useful.Like blanket comments like “What’s at stake?” That’s what lazy critiquers throw out when they have nothing else to say. It’s a dead comment to a writer because they’re left to guess what they’re supposed to change to address it. The critiquer should be able to describe why it’s important they know what’s at stake for that particular scene, why and where do they feel it’s lacking, and provide some suggestions for improving it.

Jeannie: Oh yeah, the one I hear all the time is “There’s not enough conflict in the scene.” Definitely a problem, but not very useful as a standalone comment.

Little Sis: Yes. What do you feel is missing that would contribute to the conflict? What sort of conflict needs to be there? What’s another one that Winky was really peeved about…Oh yeah, “Show, don’t tell.”

Jeannie: *snickers*

Little Sis: As a blanket statement, it doesn’t mean anything. We had a professor who sat us down and said you’ve all heard so much about “Show, don’t tell” that you’re afraid to write a sentence like “He was afraid” when sometimes, that works perfectly.

Jeannie: People have heard “show, don’t tell” so much that writers try to substitute some convoluted way of showing emotion that ends up being artificial and is STILL TELLING.

Little Sis: Rob (BIL) mentioned once how a group was doing a critique in a scene where a guy was changing a tire, but the group just got all caught up on the details around changing a tire and the discussion just veered off into that description instead of focusing on something that was helpful. I told him that the instructor should have stopped that thread. They didn’t ask themselves, “What is the author trying to accomplish?” Is he really trying to write a scene about the technical details of changing a tire? If not, then you can make a brief remark about how this detail threw you off, but the critique should focus around what the author was trying to do.

Jeannie: Can you describe your approach when you first get a manuscript to read?

Little Sis: I read it through once for first impressions. My second read through is when I give comments because I know where it’s going and what it’s trying to do.

Jeannie: Do you do any sort of assessment for the level of where the manuscript is at?

Little Sis: That’s what the first read is for. If the manuscript is almost there, the next read will be for line edits. You don’t want to fix and change things if it’s really close.

Jeannie: (As I must have totally misconstrued my meaning there) The most common issue is people say there’s so much that needs fixing, they don’t know what to say.

Little Sis: If the manuscript is really rough, I’d start with character and motivation.

Even if the plot is ridiculous, ignore it for now. Once the characters are fixed, then they will pull the plot along. So next you can start talking plot and themes and sub-themes. Then after that, maybe pacing.  That’s if you get a manuscript that’s very elementary and need to break it down. If you have someone pretty good, then you’ll address all of these at once according to what they’re trying to accomplish.

Jeannie: Line edits would be the last, last thing you do?

Little Sis: Yeah, cause that means it’s all fixed. The chapters are going to remain where they are. It just has to go from good to sparkly.

Jeannie: Where would you fit conflict under that? Character or plot or both?

Little Sis: Character. Maybe the author is allowed one or two freebie plot points to twist the story. If there’s more than that, the reader feels yanked around. Most of the plot should be that the characters made these decisions.

Jeannie: What do you think is the biggest shortcoming when people are critiquing?

Little Sis: They concentrate on grammar. Many people don’t realize that revising is not changing words. If the story is not working, you may have to change everything, take away maybe everything except for the central idea.

Jeannie: People hang on to words. They’re very hard to come up with.

Little Sis: I know. But the words are not written in stone. Use the delete key. 🙂

Also this happens a lot: when you give people comments and they argue or try to explain, “No, no…you don’t get it. I’m trying to do this…” They think that if people understood the reasoning, then the critique is no longer needed.

They don’t understand that 90% of the time, I know what they’re trying to do. I’m not giving the feedback because I don’t get what they want to do. I get it, but the writing didn’t accomplish its intended purpose. There’s a small percentage of the time when I didn’t get their original purpose and have to reassess and give different feedback.

And I’ve also learned (for some writers) that if they don’t give me a complete manuscript, I just say, “That’s good. Keep going.” (To not stop them in their tracks)

Rob: What sort of person are you a good reader for? Because you’re not for everyone.

(I stay silent as I sense some possible friction here. BIL and Sis met in the same MFA program.)

Little Sis: The person who thinks writing is a craft and a skill like any other. That there’s no mystique or talent about it and you can get better. Not a sensitive person.

I prefer someone who’s strong enough in their writing ability that they won’t take it personally. Or strong enough to consider feedback and decide whether or not it does help them. Strong enough to decide that my suggestion might not work, but maybe they can take it in another direction that’s even better than the original suggestion.

Back to Jeannie:

I think the coolest thing is we have conversations like this one all the time. Isn’t she smart? But she’s my Little Sis. Mine! And you can’t have her. Please let her know what you thought of this seemingly simple process that puts the onus onto the reader.

Worldbuilding at its best: Interview with R.F. Long


One of the hardest things to do as an author is create a living, breathing world in which characters can grow and interact. When an author tries to force an unnatural setting onto the page, it becomes obvious and the effort falls flat in the worst way. Fantasy author R.F. Long, author of the upcoming book The Scroll Thief, has an amazing ability to spin out magical worlds with effortless grace in every story. I am pleased to have been able to interview her for this blog.

Tell us about your inspiration for Scroll Thief. What made you want to tell this story?

For a long time I was working on a very traditional epic fantasy and associated stories. I love this sort of thing but there are a lot of them around. The Holtlands were born from this first novel, so was my novella The Wolf’s Sister. But one day I was wondering about the other lands surrounding the Holtlands – what they might be like, what their history was and how they interacted with the people and lands about which I was already writing. One of my characters, Bareda, starts off that epic, in Klathport which also set me thinking about what her life was like there. She’s a minor character in The Scroll Thief, but that story was never destined to be her story.

Mdina, the "silent city" of Malta. According to the author - "It captured something of Klathport for me, the way I imagine a once opulent, desert city."

Mdina, the "silent city" of Malta. According to the author - "It captured something of Klathport for me, the way I imagine a once opulent, desert city."

I’d always loved stories like Arabian Nights, spent my honeymoon in Andalusia in Southern Spain and everything started to gel together once I came up with the character of a young thief with far too big an opinion of himself. Initally Malachy was going to be hired to steal a religious artifact by the Mahailian sect, the only way the peaceful worshipers of the Goddess could get it back, but then… well frankly, he wouldn’t take the job. It was going to take a fair amount of bullying to keep him in line. Halia fitted the bill exactly. Malachy’s older sister, the former courtesan and sometime criminal mastermind, was initially intended to be killed off, but my husband, on reading the first chapters, wouldn’t let me.

What was your process for research?
Mainly I tend to look things up as I go along, getting the information as and when I need it. However, because of my great love of the art and architecture of Andalusia and the mythologies upon which I often base my writing, I sort of spend my life in a perpetual state of research. I work in a library, so I don’t find research of any kind onerous. I also really enjoy and make use of television documentaries as a quick way of gathering information which I can later build on. I love Celtic legends particularly, but I’m starting to read up on Norse legends of late. The Internet offers a vast array of information, some sites more reputable than others, so I feel it is important to check the sources and follow up on references. Cross referencing is vital. I have a few books at home which I use constantly – Rollestone’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Everyday Life in the Middle Ages etc. I’m always on the lookout for things like that – books, sites, artwork, music – anything that will provide both research possibilities and inspiration.

Many authors stay in one world for an entire series after they’ve created it because it takes so much effort and research. I’m always amazed, however, at your ability to recreate a world with each new story. How do you do it?

The lost village of Iliz Koz in northern Brittany - swallowed up by sand in the 15th century and rediscovered in 1960.

More inspiration: The lost village of Iliz Koz in northern Brittany - swallowed up by sand in the 15th century and rediscovered in 1960.

Well, The Wolf’s Sister, its sequel, The Wolf’s Mate and The Scroll Thief are set in the same world, but only the first two in the same land. I think its important in any fantasy world that the countries and races are not just carbon copies of each other, or indeed exact copies of our world in the middle ages with extra magic. My forthcoming novel Soul Fire, is set in our world and the world of the Sidhe of Irish folklore. I love playing with new ideas, and with worldbuilding, even at the most subtle level. Whether building a new world with landscapes, history and mythologies of its own, or altering our own world to allow the magical and fantastic to creep through, the key thing for me is a combination of consistency and believability. I always ask myself why a character might do something, and so by extension why a country might have a law banning magic, or why iron might drive away faeborn people. Once I have a reason for something, I make sure I stick to that reason throughout the novel and treat it as a fact of existence, rather than something I’ve made up.

You live in Ireland which to me is a magical place in and of itself. How much does that play into your creative process?

I think very much so, for a number of reasons. Ireland has a long tradition of story telling – you just have to sit down and ask someone how their day has been in order to get a story out of them. Its a recognised entertainment. Ireland’s mythology comes from an oral tradition and many stories, particularly when you reach the folklore, were written down from oral sources and that tone has carried through. “Once of a time” many of them begin, a small step away from “Once upon a time”.

As one of my inspirations is music, particularly Irish traditional music, much of the rhythm of my writing and the songs to which I listen as I write tie together.


Colimore Harbour with Dalkey Island in the background. Dalkey is the author's hometown.

I’m a nut about the craft of writing. Can you give any pointers on specific techniques or devices you use? (Don’t feel like you have to spill all your secrets, just a little hint)

I plan out a plot, but only lightly – no more than a paragraph for a chapter, a line or two per scene. It gives an overview of the story arc, but still allows me the freedom to let the story take me where it will. Usually if I get stuck with a story, I’ve tried to push it in a way it didn’t want to go. I have found that I need some sort of guideline (otherwise the story just runs on and on and I end up rewriting an enormous amount) but it still need fluidity and freedom to go where it will.

One technique I find particularly useful in constructing scenes, particularly in a fantasy setting, is to try to engage all five senses. The human sense of smell is one of the most evocative tools, so if I describe Cerys the healer’s hands smelling of lemons, the reader instantly knows what that is. Some readers will also know of the antisceptic properties of lemon juice, its use in early medicine, and that too is consistent with the character. She has both a reason to smell of lemons, and a scent that readers identify easily.

Following on from that, the same is true of sound, taste and touch – as writers we often overuse sight descriptions, whereas if you take a moment out of your busy day to just stop and experience the world around you, you will hear traffic or birdsong, or a conversation in the next room, of the hiss of a gas fire beneath the noise of the television. You will feel the cushion at your back, or the breeze running through your hair, or the blush of heat in the cheek turned towards the sunlight. You may taste the remnants of that chocolate you had earlier, or the slight aftertaste of berries in a glass of wine. There is more to experiencing the world than what we see. I think its important to bring that in to writing as well.

The vacation pictures were a lovely bonus and they have convinced me that I absolutely must travel to exotic locations as part of my Adventures in Romance. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Thank you for the interview and the tiny peek into your creative process!

The Scroll Thief is available February 24, 2009 from Samhain Publishing. I know I’m clamoring for a copy.  More information about the magical worlds of R.F. Long can be found at: