Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to Deliver a Thoughtful Critique

Think trip. Foray. Fun. Your destination is CCC, a meeting place reserved for Competent, Confident Critics. Since you're traveling with others, and groups vary, be ready to tailor these tips to fit your organization's arrangements.
Inexperienced? Don't let that deter you. You are a reader, right? You don't need to drive the bus to move along the road. Get on board and join the conversation. Your comments count.
Essentials on Your Packing List
Like the toothbrush and clean underwear in your bag, you need to pack your mind with a few essentials before starting out.
  • Respect. When you regard each person in your group with professional dignity, it will be easier for you to criticize fellow members' writing. You will make purposeful comments even when a genre is one you don't normally read, or an author's opinions differ from yours.
  • Friendliness. When you are a team player, you'll find a place to draw a happy face on each manuscript, and be compelled to compliment each writer when it's your turn to speak.
  • Flexibility. When you understand the author's target audience, and what kind of critique s/he wants, your notations will be more appropriate and concise than they would be otherwise. (To save time, the author should provide a brief note stating background to the piece, audience, and the degree of thoroughness wanted in the critiques. It may be anything from an overall impression to as detailed a critique as time allows. If you need clarification of the term "audience" do the exercise below. It illustrates audience differences.
Stuffy Nose Stuff
 Instructions: draw lines to match the words to their owners
1. Exudates                 a. A six-year-old
2. Mucous                   b. A Medical professional in formal writing
3. Snot                         c. An adult in polite company

A Time to Be Picky
If a manuscript's next stop is an editor's desk, mark anything you think could hamper its sale. Look for errors that discredit the writer, such as improper agreement between subject and verb, an extra space between words, a comma accidentally left in when a sentence was changed. Watch for what a computer's spell-check may not catch: peer/pier, foreword/ forward, and so forth. Your careful inspection might give the manuscript the extra horsepower to beat traffic on Publication's super highway.

Pick Three
Try to make three comments about each manuscript you read. Do you need ideas? Below are a baker's dozen. Need more help? Use the "Comments" space below the blog to request it.
  1. Awkward construction. If you read a section more than once, sentence construction may need improvement. If you can't think of how to fix the problem, indicate how many times you read it. "read 2x, 3x," etc.
  2. Cliches. These are fun. For your own writing practice, make a list of cliches and your original substitutes. Be ready to replace the nondescript tires with the best on the road.
  3. Descriptive phrases. Did you find one you liked? Give it a diamond.
  4. Dialog. Comment on the dialog. Does it reveal character? Is it easy to follow? Where, if at all, do you think dialog would improve sections of narrative?
  5. Echoes. Is a word or phrase repeated several times? Circle them.
  6. Flow. If the piece read smoothly, say so. If not, can you spot what interrupted your reading flow? Remember to mention it in your verbal critique.
  7. Hook. Do the opening sentences grab the reader? If not can you suggest a better hook?
  8. Inconsistencies. Look for characters out of voice, time discrepancies, illogical elements or even contradictions to known facts.
  9. Interest. Mention specifics that made the reading interesting to you.
  10. Purpose. Does a piece fulfill its purpose? For example, does it instruct, entertain, provoke thought, or soothe your soul?
  11. Setting. Does a scene lack (and need) a stronger sense of place? Comment on details that enliven the setting.
  12. Verbs. Applaud the superlative. Check your thesaurus for active, expressive verbs to replace the passive or nondescript.
  13. Zingers. Hopefully your group members are closing chapters with zingers. Give them a "Like" in fancy letters.
During the oral critique, direct your comments, prefaced with a positive word of two, to the writer. In a well-attended meeting, limit your observations to three points so others can have a turn. Be honest. Be compassionate. But remember the session's purpose: writing improvement. You should not, by your omissions, steer a writer down Rejection Road.
*Answers to Stuffy Nose Stuff: 1. b, 2. c, 3. a.

Excerpt from an unpublished book, CRAFT: Create, Rewrite, And Fine Tune

(c) 2011, Bernice Simpson

Monday, November 14, 2011

Round and Round We Go -- by KittyCat

“One thing leads to another,” Mom says. And it does.

The phone interrupted Mom’s reading. I pretty much know what’s going on with a conversation by listening to her side of it. But this time it was, “Oh, no. That’s just terrible.” She listened for a bit, then threw in another comment, “Oh, my... and the expense.”

Mom walked into her office, and while Mystery Somebody talked and talked, Mom put her basket of note cards on the ironing board. I couldn’t see what card she picked cuz I was on the floor, and I don’t get up on the ironing board. Well, not when Mom’s right there.

“I presume they have insurance,” she said. “Of course, it just covers so much—”

She listened while signing the card. “Right, and absolutely zilch to compensate—”

I couldn’t tell if someone flushed their false teeth down the toilet, got hurt when they drove through the garage door, or died and maybe weren’t headed for heaven. And I didn’t get to see the card she chose, cuz she put it in an envelope and walked back to the living room while the conversation went on some more. If you can call it a conversation.

I jumped up on the ironing board to see if my favorite card was still in the basket. I might want to send it to a sick kid someday.

“KittyCat! Get off of there! NOW!”

I would’ve heard Mom coming If she talked that loud on the phone. And I would’ve stayed off the ironing board, so wouldn’t have got scared by her yelling at me. And my foot wouldn’t have hit the basket as I jumped down, scattering cards all over the office floor. It was Mom’s own fault. But guess who got yelled at? Again! 

She griped, “I wanted to relax with a book for five minutes, but now must pick up after you instead.”

I started to help. I pushed a real pretty card toward its envelope.

“KittyCat!” She snapped at me.”You’re scratching the card!”

“I wasn’t either,” I meowed in protest, “—this is a scratch.”


I’m outta the office and under the king-size bed faster than Mom finished saying... well I won’t tell what she said. Like, she is my Mom, and I’m still alive to tell this story.

Mom’s a writer, and they have thick skin, she says. But she also says as people get older, their skin gets thinner. I didn’t mean to make her bleed. I guess she’s more older than writer.

(c) 2011, Bernice Simpson

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Small or Local Writing Group: Reasons to Join It

Last week, Hang Tough outlined how to receive a critique. Next week’s topic will be how to give a critique. But to give and receive critiques, you must have interaction with at least one other writer. Preferably though, you are part of a critique group. Why? Consider these benefits.

·         A little push. Writers must be self-starters. No boss tells you when to work or what to work on. Your regular meeting provides impetus to finish that scene, chapter, poem or proposal.

·         Free proofreading. Your five-minute read by a fellow writer whose eagle-eye catches a simple spelling error is worth a dollar or more. That's what a professional reader charges for red-lining each of your careless mistakes.

·         A reader's reaction. Writers are readers--magazine subscribers, library patrons and book buyers, especially in their own genre. Most of them develop a feel for the market--the what's in and what's not. Where can you find a better bunch to respond to your work?

·         Truthful comments. Your mother and best friends don't want to hurt your feelings. Your writing friends don't want to be hurtful either, but they know their honesty is important to you in making your work the best it can be.

·         Professional style. Correctly written is not synonymous with well written. You may have excelled in English classes, but have you developed a fine, professional style? A focused critique group will help you define your voice and put punch in your prose.

·         Writers’ techniques. Most writers take writing courses, attend author's seminars and read books about writing. When armed with knowledge, they’ll not only tell you what works, but why it works, and how to employ techniques to overcome your manuscript’s flaws.

·         Editor-like input. Writers develop expertise in different areas. One writer is dynamite with dialogue while another can recite grammar rules and give the reason for each. Collectively, your group can equal one experienced editor.

·         Support. It takes discipline to spend long hours in front of a computer, only to shred your hard copy and start again. A writer knows how it feels to be rejected when he believes his manuscript is finally perfect. Critique groups give their members what money cannot buy—camaraderie and encouragement.

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writing Your Profile

Last week I rejected an article submitted by a talented young writer whose fantasy novels will surely gain a publisher's interest in the future. But her personal profile article was dryer than a grocery shopping list. This is for my self-effacing young friend, and any others who need to put excitement into their personal profiles. -- BWS

Writing Your Personal Profile

What writer couldn't ace an assignment like this: “write a 500-word human interest story about a person you find interesting.” You wouldn't begin with “born on...,” followed by where, and then names of parents and schools attended. That’s boring and encyclopedic, right? Make sure you open your own personal profile—your own human interest story—with more punch than a list of dull facts.

As with any article, you start with facts—in a list, on index cards, connected circles, or whatever method you use to outline. They should include the basics:

  • The focus of the profile. It’s the subject, which in this case is you.
  • Purpose of a profile. Showcase the subject (you) to your readers, or audience.
  • Identify the reader of this particular profile. Several may need your profile: an agent or editor who receives your query, a program chair who will introduce you as a speaker, a committee member putting bios together for an organization's yearbook. Pick one. You can write profiles for the others another day.
  • Describe the reader. In your outline, write a brief description of your audience for the present profile. Be realistic. If your profile's true purpose is to promote your amateur clown act performed at birthday parties, your audience is local, and not New York's party planners.
  • Decide on the slant. To reveal the dominant theme for this particular profile, try this role-playing exercise. Close your eyes. Imagine you are the reader. What prompted you to read this personal profile article? Is there specific information you want?  
  • Examine yourself as the writer. In your mind's eye, step away from yourself, and try to see yourself objectively as the writer of your subject's profile. Why should a publisher hire you to write this profile? Why do you want to write it? Does writing it excite you? As a writer, how can your unique perspective of the subject influence the reader?
Completing the six activities above takes time, but unlike preparation for other articles, you can skip research and interviews.

This final note-making activity may spark a particular memory that jolts your muse to its expressive best. Visualize being interviewed by a journalist who wants to profile you for the audience you chose above. This professional is prepared with a list of questions based on research as well as visits with people who know you.

Next, think like a journalist who will be paid $0.50 per word, and sketch an outline. Concentrate on the body of the profile. Then come back to the hook and close.

Think like a journalist while you write. What is the result of “Name was born on February 3, 1978?” At best the editor’s cut slashes $3.00 from your check. More realistically, the article is not published, and the editor adds your email address to the “delete before reading” or spam list.

But when you ace your self-assignment with a sparkling profile, readers will want to know you better. Your compelling story will pique their interest in your personality and your writing.




Monday, November 7, 2011

Mouse catching Season -- by KittyCat

Fall is play-with-mice time. Once, I almost got to play with one in our house—and could’ve, too, except I’d caught it about the same time Mom saw it and told Dad. Ha, ha...told? So I headed for the door thinking Dad would open it and I’d take my toy outside. But he’d gotten instructions by then. Mom isn't bossy very often, but when she is, Dad doesn't even take the time to say “yes’m.” 

He grabs me to take the mouse. I turn to hiss, and drop the mouse. It runs in Mom’s direction. She screams—at me, Dad, the mouse or—I pounce and pick up the mouse. It’s so scared I can feel its heart beating like a dozen drums tapping my teeth. It drops teeny poops on the carpet. Mom goes crazy—totally bats. Shocked, I drop the mouse. It runs under an easy chair. Dad tilts the chair, and the mouse is off again. Using Dad for a springboard, I give chase, but this time the mouse runs up the wall. The wall’s too smooth for me. The mouse zips across the wall; then it bolts down into its hole where two baseboards meet.   

Since then, mouse hunting’s no fun at my place, so yesterday I crossed the street to our friend, Chris’ yard. I sniffed out a mouse family’s hiding place, and stared at their entrance until my eyelids and head dropped. I woke up with a cold wind ruffling my fur. I climbed a tree and got on the roof of Chris’ house where it was sunny, and warm, and from up there I’d check out the whole back yard for critters...after my nap. 

I woke up more interested in food than play, but soon saw how it was easier getting on the roof than off. Luckily, Chris was in his back yard, and I cried out to him. He quit his work and went over to my house.

Soon Mom, Dad and Chris were all looking up at me. Dad said I got myself up there, and could get myself down. Mom gave him that look. He ignored it. I called up a heap of courage from somewhere, and after a few starts, managed to jump to a half-sturdy tree limb. I made it to a crook in the tree, but it was too steep to step down, and too far to jump. Chris found a box to stand on, and started to reach for me, but Dad took over. He picked me up, and handed me to Mom.

Maybe Chris helped because he’s Dad’s buddy. But I think he likes me too, cuz he invited me to mouse hunt in his yard whenever I want to. I think that’s where I’m headed next cuz fall won’t last much longer. Unless they're scampering around the garage, (at our house that's not likely) the cold winter is definitely not play-with-mice time.

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hang Tough

November is more than turkey-and-stuffing month. It is also the National Novel Writing Month. Go to, where the event’s organizers will challenge you to stuff a computer file with 1,670 words per day toward a 50,000-word novel. It’s not too late to start. How about using the weekend to catch up on missed days? The activity could help Ranger fans take their mind off....Well, they can try.

According to his critique group’s blog, Rory Craig Keel plans to give it a whirl.

Critique groups. That’s where friends do their best to help each other write better. To help you with the critique process, here are tips from my unpublished book CRAFT: Create, Rewrite, and Fine Tune. 
·         On a separate piece of paper—single spaced, because it is not part of the writing “to critique,” give your readers a heads up on what you’ve brought for the session. For example, if it is your manuscript’s first chapter, clear up possible confusion from the start. What do your readers need to know--its target audience, the overall setting, genre, --what?
·         If you want to know something in particular, spell it out: “Please concentrate on the hook—I know it’s weak,” or “I’m having trouble weaving in the back story—suggestions?”
·         Don’t expect others to know past details of your story. On your “heads-up” sheet, update the group each time you bring something, even if it’s a rewrite. Why waste valuable meeting time while each member explains what he or she has brought?
·         If you write fantasy, sci-fi, or the action takes place in unconventional settings, make sure your reader understands uncommon terms.
·         Use a readable font, double-space the lines, and leave at least a one-inch margin all around. At the very least, paginate your work. Line numbers are best. By default, in word processing applications line numbers are off. Computer programs differ, but to turn line numbers on, this should work: turn on Help (usually F1); write “line numbers” in the pop-up menu’s blank space; press enter. Click on the selection that indicates line numbering instructions.
·         Remember group members may not be great writers yet, but they are readers. The least talented writer may have a super suggestion. Listen.
·         Listen without interrupting. Wait for a person to finish a critique before asking for clarification or making comments—that is relevant comments. Why argue? Thank the member for the critique. It’s your piece; simply ignore advice you disagree with.
·         Certain people may have issues with material presented. Examples are extreme violence, vulgar language, or sex scenes. Use your “heads-up” sheet to warn them. If everyone considers your manuscript X-rated, either heed their advice on toning it back, or realize you are in the wrong group, at least for the piece being critiqued.
·         Be professional and stay positive. Hang Tough. Misunderstandings happen, but members of your group are merely stating their opinions. If they did not want you to succeed, they wouldn’t even read your work.
·         Remember these are your peers who may be rushed to finish in the allotted time. Expect them to miss things an editor wouldn’t. Appreciate their efforts, and they’ll appreciate yours.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Attempt to Profile KittyCat, the Writer

Writing their own profiles is difficult for speakers and writers when their audience is described as “general.” Before they begin to write or give a presentation, they define their audience.
Even KittyCat does that. Originally he and his friend Snook wrote letters, one page or less, either on, or enclosed, in a card to Matthew, a child who had a medical problem. I think KittyCat envisioned the young boy’s mother handing the unopened envelope to him, and then once opened, mother and son would read the letter together. Now, with minor changes, KittyCat posts copies of those letters to my blog. He also writes new material. Maybe he imagines other children sitting alone in their rooms who would delight in receiving a short note tucked inside a card that’s addressed especially to them. 

During that time period, while supposedly catnapping, KittyCat was also eavesdropping on a critique group with the intent to organize snippets he gathered into a book and publish it. It is a gift book for writers, written primarily in light verse. In A Cat in the Corner: Conversations Overheard at a Writers’ Group, KittyCat managed to write primarily in the voice of human adults. It was easy enough, I suppose, because that’s who he mimicked throughout the book. In his asides, readers can catch glimpses of KittyCat’s true persona—

Well, now what? The thing is, a rule for profile writers is to stress the positive. A cardinal rule for writers of nonfiction is to tell the truth. KittyCat’s profile? Well, he’s a cat. He would add “a handsome tuxedo cat.” For character insight, you’ll just have to draw your own conclusions from his blogs. In his favor, he is warm-hearted toward children. If you want to copy one of his blogs to read to a child, I'm certain he'd grant permission (with limitations regarding attributions) if you ask him.

© 2011, Bernice Simpson