Saturday, June 23, 2012

Guest Blogger from Bookshelf Muse--Top 5 Issues I Find When Critiquing

I am SO EXCITED to have our guest blogger with us today. Angela and the Bookshelf Muse (links at the bottom) has been one of my writing staples for a long time. My copy of the Emotions Thesaurus sits safely in my desk within easy reach. Just reading the lists helps me come up with my own ways of describing the emotions of my characters.

Angela has been gracious enough to share with us a Top 5 topic.

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Top 5 Issues I Find When Critiquing

I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with revision. I love seeing my story evolve into that bright, glimmering object that I hoped it would become. But the actual process of revising for me is a bit like taking a dust bath in an ant hill--painful.

Luckily I have a secret weapon...critique partners. If it weren’t for these brave soldiers of the pen, I would be utterly hooped. They have the distance I lack, and they see what I cannot. I depend on them, and they in turn, depend on me.

As a moderator at The Critique Circle and avid critiquer, I have written thousands of critiques. Sometimes, I notice certain patterns in what I read--scene-by-scene problems that can weaken a manuscript overall. Any patterns I find go on a mental checklist for my own work. Here’s a few of the issues I often come across:

Too Much Back Story Opening The Novel
Backstory is attractive because it’s an easy way to show who the character is on a deeper level and what motivates them. Often built into the opening chapters of a novel, this pattern is definitely one worth breaking. Every time a writer brings up backstory, it stops the forward momentum with a giant info dump or dip into the past. Not all backstory is bad, but in those important opening chapters, you want to hook the reader and pull them deeper into the character’s current world, not their past. Show who they are by what they do NOW, not by what they did or experienced before the book began, and use hooks to hint at the past for later development.

No Sense Of Movement
In dialogue heavy scenes, another problem I see are characters who interact verbally, but not physically. To add a sense of movement, characters should interact with the setting and each other as they speak. Dialogue should flow quickly, but not so fast that there are no indicators of what’s happening to or around the speakers. Setting is not just a backdrop for the dialogue to take place in--it should be chosen deliberately and have specific meaning to the characters. Balancing dialogue with body language and movement will show emotion, reveal character and remind the reader that the conversation is not taking place in a vacuum.

Physical Description That Gets In The Way
Sometimes as we try to weave in details about our character’s physical appearance or setting description, we go to far. For example: I crossed the grimy black and white tiled kitchen floor, pausing to swipe a burnt piece of jam-spotted toast off the chipped countertop where Gram had left it for me. My blond hair slid forward over my left shoulder as I...etc. etc. Not only is this bloated description distracting, it leaves a mechanical, play-by-play taste in the reader’s mouth. Show the scene with sensory detail, but make sure the prose is tight, especially in places like this where the character is simply in transition, not deep action.

Pacing
Pacing is worth studying closely, because it really is an art form to get right. So many things can interfere with the pacing of a scene--too much description, dialogue that rambles, info dumps, too much internal thinking from the POV character, too much narration, unfocused action, etc. To keep pacing on track, know your goal as the author for each scene. Once you know what you must achieve, go through the scene with an eye on description, dialogue, action and information, and ask yourself if what you’ve written really needs to be there. Sometimes it’s just a snippet of savvy description that sounds great but has no purpose. Other times, a whole conversation that does nothing but exchange information can be cut entirely. For a scene to be compelling, the pacing must match the intensity of the events unfolding.

A Distanced POV
Something that will keep readers from being drawn into a scene is when they feel like they are watching the scene happen rather than experiencing it for themselves. Usually this means the writer needs to delve a bit deeper because the emotional intensity is lacking. Everything in the scene--description, emotion, beliefs, attitudes, judgement--should come through a defined POV. Thoughts, visceral sensations, body language and action should work together to reveal emotion, and all description and observations should be filtered through the main character’s POV senses. In this way, a reader is brought inside the Point of View and it becomes a more direct, intense emotional experience.

What patterns do you noticed as you critique? Do you ever discover patterns in your own writing that lead to an ‘AHA!’ moment and fresh perspective?

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. This show-don't-tell brainstorming tool contains lists of body language, thoughts and visceral sensations for seventy-five emotions, ensuring writers will find the right description for any emotional moment. Enter our Goodreads giveaway for a crack at winning a print copy of The Emotion Thesaurus!
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