Little Sis & I: Inside the critiquing process

Little Sis and I are offering not one, but two joint critiques for auction:

Brenda Novak online auction for Diabetes Research

Get Bria Quinlan to RWA

In conjunction with that, I wanted to give a peek into what the critique and writing process is like between us. I’ve posted before that I think Little Sis has killer instincts and knows how to take something I’ve written and guide it to a stronger, better place. She taught me how to critique and thus, pretty much how to be a better writer.

The blog this week will go through a recent opening I wrote, how Little Sis responded, and then my revised opening based on her critique. Throughout each step of the way, I’ll discuss my reasoning and commentary on her critique. I’ll cover what makes a good critique for me and how I know to trust feedback — as I actually get many readers in addition to Little Sis. P.S. Bria Quinlan is another one of my trusted readers.


Breaking Good Writing

In workshops, I talk about how the most important lesson I learned was that good writing wasn’t enough to take you to the next level. The hardest part of the game is when your pages are good, solid, workable– but how to make them better?

Here was an example of an opening that I thought was good. I thought it achieved its purpose and hit all the notes I wanted to hit. It made it through several rounds of readers as well, but Little Sis eventually gave some feedback that turned things around.

This is a risk for me because this hasn’t been accepted by my editor yet. So the caveat is it may all change in the final version. You, the blog reader, may also find that you don’t like this opening at all or you would have totally written it differently. Or that my writing isn’t THAT good. That’s all fine. Please don’t take this as an example of how to write a good opening. I’m trying to illustrate the critique process and I hope to learn something myself by deconstructing it in this way.

Version 1:

This is a draft of an unpublished manuscript, prior to any professional editing or copyediting. This is how the story opens.
Tang Dynasty China, 824 A. D.

Chapter 1

Fei Long faced the last room at the end of the narrow hallway, unsheathed his sword, and kicked the door open.

A feminine shriek pierced the air, along with the frantic shuffle of feet as he strode through the entrance. The boarding room was a small one. The inhabitants, a man and a woman, flung themselves into the corner with nowhere to hide.

His gaze fixed onto the woman first. His sister’s hair was unbound and her eyes widened with fear. Pearl had their mother’s thoughtful features: the high forehead, and the sharp angles that had softened since the last time he’d seen her. She was dressed only in pale linen underclothes. The man who was with her had enough daring to step in between them.

Fei Long glanced once to the single wooden bed against one wall, the covers strewn wide, and his vision blurred with anger. He gripped the sword until his knuckles nearly cracked with the strain.

“Bastard,” he gritted out through his teeth.

He knew this man he’d come to kill, this boy. At least he’d been a boy when Fei Long had last seen him. And Pearl had been a mere girl. Now she was a grown woman, staring at him with a fearful question in her eyes.

“Fei Long.” Pearl’s fingers curled tight over her lover’s arm. “So now you’ve come.”

The soft bitterness of the accusation cut through him. Pearl had begged for him to come back a year earlier when her marriage had first been arranged. He’d dismissed her letters as childish ramblings. If he had returned then, she might not have thrown herself into ruin. Their father’s spirit wouldn’t be floating restlessly between heaven and earth.

The young man stretched himself before Fei Long, though he failed to match him in stature. “Not in front of Pearl,” he implored.

Though he trembled, Han fought to keep his voice steady as Pearl clung to him, hiding just behind his shoulder. At least the dog managed to summon some courage. If Han had cowered or begged for his life, he would already be dead.

“Step away, Little Sister” Fei Long commanded.



“I’d rather die here with Han than go to Khitai.”

She’d changed in the five years since he’d seen her. The Pearl he remembered had been obedient, sweet-tempered, and pleasant in all things. Fei Long had ridden hard from Changan to this remote province, expecting to find the son of a dog who had stolen her away.

Now that she stood before him with quiet defiance, he knew she hadn’t been seduced or deceived. Zheng Xie Han’s family lived within their ward in the capital city. Though lower in standing, the Zheng family had always maintained a good reputation. His sister had turned to Han because she had no one else.

The tension drained out of Fei Long, stealing away his rage. His throat pulled tight as he forced out the next word. “Go.”

The two of them stared at him in disbelief.

“Go,” he repeated roughly.

Fei Long lowered his sword and turned away while they dressed themselves. Shoving his sword back into its sheath, he faced the bare wall. He could hear the shuffle of movement behind him as the couple gathered their belongings.

The bleakness of the last weeks settled into his gut like a stone. When he’d left for his assignment to the northwestern garrison, Fei Long had believed his home to be a harmonious place. Upon news of his father’s sudden death, he’d returned to find his sister gone and debt collectors circling the front gates like vultures.

His father’s presence had been an elaborate screen, hiding the decay beneath the lacquered surface of their lives. Fei Long now saw Pearl’s arranged marriage for what it was: a desperate ploy to restore the family honor-or rather to prolong the illusion of respectability.

When he turned again, Pearl and Han stood watching him tentatively. Each of them had a pack slung around their shoulder. Off to face the horizon with all their belongings in two tiny bags.

Han bowed once. “Elder Brother.”

The young man risked his temper to deliver the honorific. Fei Long could bring himself to return the bow. Pearl met his eyes as they started for the door. The heaviness of her expression struck him like a physical blow.

This was the last time he would ever see his sister.

Fei Long took his money pouch from his belt and held it out. The handful of coppers rattled inside. “Here.”

Han didn’t look at him as he took it.

“Thank you, Fei Long,” Pearl whispered.

They didn’t embrace. The two of them had been apart for so long that they wouldn’t have known how. Fei Long watched their backs as they retreated down the long corridor of the country inn; gone like everything else he had once known to be true.

* * *

Yan Ling moved from table to empty table in a restless circle, wash rag in hand, as she wiped away at wooden surfaces rubbed bare from long use. The tea house conversations had quieted hours ago. The crowd had cleared away except for a single patron.

He’d been there for hours and he wasn’t even drinking his tea anymore. Instead, he had taken to staring into his cup. He was seated at the center of the room, drawing attention in every way.

The man had set a sword onto the edge of the table upon arriving. That was when Yan Ling had first noticed him. His robe marked him both as an outsider and a man of high rank. It was of fine woven silk and richly dyed in a dark blue. He wore his thick hair long, the front of it pulled back into a knot in the style of aristocracy. She was stricken by strength of his features; the hard line of his cheekbones and the broad shape of his face which narrowed slightly at the chin.

In lieu of money, he’d shown a jade seal to the proprietor. Her master and his wife had nearly broken their backs bowing and welcoming him. Government official, they’d guessed in the back room. Though he traveled without any escort and had a sullen expression that sunk lower with each hour. Her guess was that he needed something stronger than tea.

After a day that had begun with the first light of the sun, Yan Ling simply wanted to sit. She envied the proprietor, who was seated quietly in the corner, tallying up the day’s cash. The wooden beads of his abacus clicked together, signaling that the day should be done. Her feet ached and no matter how much she wriggled her toes in her slippers, the feeling wouldn’t quite return to them.

The clang from the kitchen meant that the cook and his boy were cleaning their pots. A mountain of cups and bowls and little plates would be waiting for her. And yet this one patron was still hoarding his cold tea. One more customer and she could rest for just a moment. The tea house was so humble that it couldn’t ignore any earnings, not even a few coins from a traveler who wanted to nurse his tea for hours.

She guessed him to be twenty-five years. With a slight crease between his eyes that she imagined came more from deep contemplation than age. Really too young to be muttering to himself out of senility. Yet he was doing it. Again.

Gingerly, she approached the table. “Does the honored guest need anything?”

She reached for the clay tea pot only to have him wave her back with an irritated scowl. For a gentleman, he was uncommonly rude, but she supposed wearing silk and jade gave him that privilege. He propped his elbows onto the table, shoulders hunched to return to his vigil.

He was never going to leave! Occasionally the tavern at the other end of the street would need to throw out drunks, but it had never been an issue here. She stood a respectful distance away and looked to the proprietor for help.

Her master was deep into his coins. His wife was shouting orders back in the kitchen. No help was coming. Defeated, Yan Ling turned to wipe down her already cleaned table once more when the stranger spoke.

“I need a woman,” he mumbled. “Any woman would do.”

Her stomach dropped. She swung around, her mouth open in shock. The stranger raised his head. For the first time, his eyes focused on her, looking her up and down.

“Perhaps even you.”

If his tone had been leering, or his look more appraising, it might have been less offensive. But the coldly pensive way he’d said it-and then the addition of ‘perhaps’ as if to plunge her worth even further.

Yan Ling grabbed the teapot and flung the contents onto the scoundrel, expensive robe and all.

Suddenly there were plenty of people crowding the tea room. Her master jumped up from his table. His wife had come like a windstorm from the kitchen, rag in hand as she apologized profusely. Even the cook and his boy were gawking through the curtained doorway.

The stranger had shot to his feet. The front of his robe was stained dark with a splatter of tea.

“Get out!” The master’s wife shrieked at Yan Ling before turning to fuss at their precious patron. “We are so sorry, my lord. So sorry.”

Yan Ling was still clutching the tea pot while she stared.

The nobleman reached up to swipe the tea leaves from his chest in one angry motion. His eyes remained fixed on her the entire time. He had lost that distant, brooding expression he’d worn all day. Heat rose up the back of her neck as she stumbled a few steps back.

What had she done?

“That know-nothing, good for nothing girl,” the proprietor railed.

Her ears rang as she ducked into the kitchen through the beaded curtain. The steam enclosed her, but the clang of the pots couldn’t block the nobleman’s deep voice as he complained about her. She could hear her master agreeing wholeheartedly, accompanied by the cooing apologies of his wife.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been taunted before, but over the last years the teasing had taken on a different tone as her bone-thin figure had curved its way into womanhood. She’d learned to deafen her ears and stare ahead, never meeting any of the not-so-subtle glances thrown her way. Yet to suffer such insult from someone who appeared so refined-it was unbearable.

Ignoring the curious stares from cook and the kitchen-boy, she slipped through the back door. Her palms were damp and she wiped them restlessly against the sides of her gray tunic. Fear set her heart pounding.

One moment of hot-headedness. She’d lashed out at a well-dressed gentleman, of all people. She wasn’t even a servant when it came to this man. She was the humble servant of humble servants. Who was she to be outraged? She wasn’t allowed it.

She would certainly be scolded by both her master and his wife, each separately and then together. Yan Ling could hear them already. She was too much of a burden to feed, to clothe. She wasn’t even pretty enough to bring in more customers.

They might even be angry enough to take a bamboo switch to her. A beating was all she’d have to suffer, if she was lucky.

Jeannie’s Commentary:

Now I know the pages have to stand on their own. The author never gets to explain why they did things to the reader. So I’ll just say I felt this opening was solid when I sent it on to beta-readers and Little Sis. It set up both my hero and heroine as sympathetic and interesting characters (hopefully!) and also eased readers into my world. Nothing says wuxia and adventure like a good ol’ tea house, you know?

Tomorrow I’ll post Little Sis’ comments with more discussion.(See feedback on opening.)

In the meantime, check out my auction items at Brenda Novak’s auction which opens today:

For writers: Joint critique with Little Sis

For everyone: Butterfly Swords fan pack (the one-of-a-kind annotated copy is included)

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.