Monday, February 25, 2019

REPOST: Battle of the Critiques

This a post from almost 4 years ago that I came across accidentally while searching for something else on the blog (go ahead--ask me how many bunny trails I go on every time I do a search!). With an influx of new readers here, I felt this might be timely for some of you.

Critique is such an important part of our journeys as writers--we simply cannot grow without it. Our stories will never be the best they can be without the eyes and words of others. But what happens when we receive conflicting opinions? How do we sort out the good from the bad? What does it even mean when we receive feedback on opposite ends of the spectrum?

I hope this article will offer you some clarity--and encouragement!

Battle of the Critiques

Anyone who has sent out a manuscript to a group of readers (which may or may not include your agent) knows what it feels like when those critiques start to roll in.  Each one that lands in your mailbox makes your stomach do this weird, twisty thing that's a combination of excitement and dread.  You're dying for the feedback, but you're not too excited to have your work's flaws highlighted in lime green for all the world to see.

Okay, it's not all the world.  But it can sort of feel that big.

The collective wisdom of the critiques--assuming you're sending them to the people who should be reading you--can either gently or not-so-gently open your eyes to inherent flaws in your story.  A gaping plot hole that you might have missed will be easily spotted by those who've never read the story before.  A protagonist who does a big Thing without having a believable motivation is going to be crucified by those who just aren't buying it.  Good readers will ask questions like, "Why is she doing this right now?" and "Could this have believably happened in the time frame you've outlined here?" and "What the heck did he do that for?"

And, too, there's the ever-useful "Huh?"  I've used it myself.  Sometimes it's just that the reader missed something she shouldn't have.  But more often than not, it means "this thing you just wrote makes absolutely no sense and I'm not even sure how to address it".

I see you nodding.

As your writing matures, the nature of the critiques shifts.  It's likely you've learned, at some point, how to avoid plot holes, and how to write dialogue that doesn't sound like Lord of the Rings fan fiction.  Your critique partners will pull out things that are more subtle, like a protagonist whose arc isn't strong enough, a supporting character who doesn't add anything to the story, or information that is being shared too early or too late.

The key to knowing which advice to hold onto is twofold: 1) You need to be hearing it from more than one person, and 2) It needs to resonate with you and with your vision for your story.

So, if one person says "Ed the Janitor has no real purpose in the story, and I think you should delete him", and five people say, "Ed the Janitor is my favorite supporting character", then probably Ed's role in the story is safe.  But if more than one critique partner is pointing out the inherent weaknesses in Ed's character, then you need to listen.

It takes an open heart--a combination of vulnerability and teachability--to be able to receive what people are saying so that you can then move toward allowing it to resonate with your story.  That's when you start asking questions like, "Okay, what does Ed really accomplish?  Do I need him?  Is that scene in chapter 12--the one I love so much that it's going to be engraved upon my tombstone--really adding to the plot?"

Those questions can be painful!  But so it goes.  As a general rule, if more than one set of eyeballs sees the same problem, YOU'D BETTER PAY ATTENTION.

You probably know all this already.  I certainly know it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, earlier this week, I received two critiques on the same day that were polar opposites.

I'm talking, there is no way that these two people read the same story.  

Reader #1:  "...spellbound and incredibly invested in the characters"
Reader #2:  "I had no sense of any of the characters...there was nothing to like about them."

Reader #1: "I had a hard time putting the book down and I feel like you hit all the really big moments beautifully."
Reader #2:  "...there was nothing to hook me..."

Now, before you make the assumption that Reader #1 was my mom--she wasn't.  Both of these readers are highly qualified to critique a manuscript.  Both are talented and experienced.  Both are honest and forthright.  

Reader #1 went on to point out (beautifully) all the areas she felt needed work (I agreed with every single one).  So it wasn't all cotton candy and fairy wings, for sure.  And Reader #2 made it clear that she was this level of honest because of our relationship and her belief in my abilities.

Meanwhile, my head kept spinning.  Counterclockwise, rapidly.

So I sent a mildly frantic message to Reader #3, asking if she had time to read my first chapter and tell me everything she hated about it.  (Yes, those were my exact words. I wanted all the ugly up front.)  This reader is also highly qualified and experienced.  And knows how to be brutally honest.

Reader #2: "The biggest problem I found was no real worldbuilding."
Reader #3:  "Your world is solid...but almost too detailed."

So I did what I always do when I don't know what's going on -- I asked Jodi Meadows, who is bossy and likes to always be right.

Her response?  "It's probably a good sign, actually."

I had no idea what she meant.

So she clarified, and it made sense:  People are having different reactions.  They're not all pointing to one inherent flaw, like a broken plot or a superfluous character.  They are reading the same words and seeing different things.  Some of them pointed out similar flaws (like too much telling when I should be showing, or a lack of clear motivation for my main character), but there was no single, enormous flaw that ALL or MOST readers have pointed out.  (Others have read, too, besides these three.)

Know what's most encouraging of all?  I am incredibly motivated to revise this based on ALL the feedback, including the heart-knotting response from Reader #2.  Which speaks well for my ability to get slammed with conflicting (to a high degree!) critique and to move on quickly.  Already, I've done work on the first chapter with which I'm really happy.  As in, I am eager to pull it out this morning to continue fine-tuning.

Honestly, I'm sitting here thinking, Who am I?  I'm so thankful to be not only emotionally stable this morning, but incredibly excited to write today!

Because, oh, this story.  It's on the cusp of becoming what I dreamed it would.  And I'm digging in and not letting up until I'm finished.

Reader #1: Thank you for your incredible support and brilliant insight.  You rooted for me all the way through the first draft, and you're still working your magic.  It is my intention not to let you down.

Reader #2:  Thank you for your courage, and for honoring me with raw words that you self-admittedly would not have sent to someone with whom you didn't have a relationship.  Thank you for loving me instead of fearing to offend me.  Because of you, I have discovered within myself depths that I didn't know existed.  And that's no small thing.

Reader #3:  Thank you for rescuing me!  And for your incredibly thoughtful and encouraging critique.  I covet your eyes on my work, because they've always produced good things.  You are kind, you are gifted, and you are appreciated.

Jodi:  You are bossy and you are beautiful.  And you, my very first critique partner, have walked me all the way through this journey--with grace, selflessness, wisdom, and humor.  You taught me that I could grow wings and fly.  And you're still teaching me.

To everyone:  We are all part of the same circle.  May you learn from me today as I continue to learn from those around me--and may you go on to share what you've learned with others.

And keep writing, no matter what falls down around you!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

First Kiss Critique Guidelines

Happy Valentine's Day! Ready for some smooches?

The number of entries was way down, but that just gives each entrant an opportunity for more feedback yes? Please read these scenes for the following:

*CHEMISTRY (between the two characters)

No two kisses are equal, and everyone has different taste; however, a well-written kiss scene transcends all that--so let's help our fellow scribes get that smooch just right!

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 3 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

First Kiss #9

TITLE: Something Only We Know
GENRE: YA Lgbt drama

This scene’s set in a hospital lounge where Jayden and Jude are taking a break from the impending losses awaiting them  

“One of my mom's books, it has a whole lot about making sure your loved ones know that you will be okay and that you can let them go,” Jayden said, tearing up, “so when I'm alone with my dad, I tell him, it's okay, and I'll be okay, that he can go.”

“Wow, I don't know if I could do that,” I told her.

“You could if your brother was really suffering, my dad is suffering when he is awake,” Jayden said.

“I hope I can be stronger, like you,” I said.

“It's not strong, it's that I don't have a choice. I can't beg him to stay with me. How could I?” she said.

We sat a bit more and she suddenly shoved me.

“What?” I asked.

“I'm just glad you are here,” she said.

“So you hit me?” I said, pretending to be really hurt.

“I didn't hit you, ya baby!” Jayden said.

“You shoved me!” I insisted.

“A little bit, gosh!” she said, smiling.

I looked her in the eyes and smiled too, “I'm glad you are here too. I mean I'm--. also sorry, for why you are here--”

“Yeah, I know, shut up, or I'll put that on the list too,” Jay said.

It felt so strange that I was having the best conversation and I felt like I had met a new best friend. Here of all places. Something just clicked with her and I knew we were supposed to meet, not to sound all spiritual or weird, but I felt like there was something with us that was really cool.

And then Jay kissed me.

First Kiss #8

TITLE: Diplomatic Immunity
GENRE: Adult Thriller

In her safehouse in Vermont, Diana worries about her life while the sniper is still after her and at large. As she's recovering from the wounds from the shooting, her feelings for Wesley, her bodyguard, are deeper.

“What’s on your mind? You’re so quiet lately and a bit solemn. I’ll keep your safe here. What you need is a good distraction and try to relax like this…” He sat closer to her and leaned in for a big kiss on her lips.

A jolt of heated electricity sent shockwaves coursing through her body. It flushed her cheeks and curled her toes. Talk about explosive fireworks! Her heart raced while she had fluttering butterflies in her growling stomach. She didn’t know she would feel this way about him and vice versa after knowing each other for a day. What was he like in the bedroom? She told herself not to go there.


“I’ve been wanting to do that yesterday for the longest time.”

She cocked her brows and controlled her heartbeat into a steady rhythmic pace. “Even if I was in pain?”

He smiled. “Yep. But I wanted to wait until you were feeling better. Don’t worry. I won’t rush things and take things slow with you.”

“Thank you.” For a couple of minutes, she marveled if he fell in love with her photo at first sight in her dossier for his assignment. “What did Adrian tell you about my case this weekend?”

Wesley opened and then closed his mouth shut. “Adrian made the call Friday night and had arranged for me to come to your hospital room right away. He told me you were in grave danger and needed immediate protection from a sniper.

First Kiss #7

TITLE: All that's Holy
GENRE: YA romance/fantasy

Holy Maiden Ysabel is injured during an attempted kidnapping by foreign country coveting her healing powers. When she thought she was about to die, she regretted never kissing Kaine, her bodyguard. Kaine is currently looking after her while she recuperates.

Nestling my feet in Kaine’s lap as I lay back on a pile of pillows, I said, “I’m bored.”

He massaged my feet. “Then let me know how I can serve you, my lady.”

I was just going to ask him to bring me a book, but the way he said that sent heat pooling in my belly. “How about you massage my back, then?” I rolled over.

“I’d love to.” He straddled me and kneaded my shoulders. Mmm, he had heavenly hands. I could feel my tension drifting away. Every so often his chest touched me, feather-light. I started to inch forward to let him access my thighs. “No, don’t move, let me,” he whispered, gently repositioning my legs. He stroked softly at first, then applied more pressure, focusing on each individual muscle.

I cracked an eye open. “You know, I promised you a kiss.”

“You did?”

“Inside my head.” Leisurely, I sat up and stretched.

His breath hitched. I planted my hands on either side of his head, trapping him against the wall. I wasn’t sure which of us moved first. Our lips locked. He tasted like sugar, the glutton, and he ate me alive like one of his pastries, probing with an inexperienced roughness and a gratifying eagerness. My hands wound in his hair as he also grabbed the back of my head. He sucked too hard in his eagerness, so I nipped him, then took over the reins, guiding his tongue in a tantalizing dance.

First Kiss #6

TITLE: Heart of Fire
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba has fallen in love with a demon named Kryptos, but she’s forced to banish him in order to protect her world from a demonic invasion. He detects what she’s doing and appears partway through the ritual.

Kryptos materialized behind her, a frown on his face. “Ebba, there’s something wrong with the Veil.” Alarm colored his voice.

Sweet Anabiel have mercy. She hadn’t counted on him being able to detect what she was doing now he controlled the entrance between Hell and this world. If only she’d had time to read more of The Testament of Saint Jhaarth. The same book slipped from her frightened fingers.

Probably, she was going to die. At least it was too late for him to stop the ritual even if he took his fire back from her. She ought to say the last words and let it be finished.

Instead, Ebba grabbed the front of Kryptos’ shirt and kissed him.

Her decision was spontaneous and entirely self-centered. She did it because she wanted to. A kiss had been promised to her, and she would have it, even if it tasted bitter instead of sweet.

To her surprise, he kissed her back. He must have known something was wrong. Yet he didn’t break away. He devoted his full attention to the kiss. His hands went to her hips, his wings hugging her. There was a clumsiness in the thrust of his tongue, which he didn’t quite know where to put, but Kryptos kissed with singular focus, as if the only thing in the entire universe was her.

Their embrace only broke when Kryptos’ body started to fade away.

First Kiss #5

TITLE: The King's 100
GENRE: YA Sci-Fi/Romance

When Piper’s partner for the traditional court NYE kiss leaves the stage sick, the maestro replaces him with the one boy she has tried to avoid kissing since she set foot in the enemy kingdom.

Maestro shouted through a smile. “Kiss her, dammit! Kiss her!”

Ari looked down at Maestro, then back at me, wrestling with his next move. He dropped my hands and placed his palms on my waist. He closed the distance between us and I felt the heat of his body through his tuxedo. His fingertips tensed against my dress as his eyes darted back and forth, searching for answers on my frozen face.

No, I pleaded without speaking. Please don’t make me kiss you when all I want to do is leave this kingdom and forget you.

But then he sealed his decision by pressing his lips to mine.

I closed my eyes, shutting out the light of the room and drinking in the taste of Ari’s lips. Feeling lighter than air, I curled my fingers around the smooth satin of his lapel, anchoring myself to his body.
Ari pulled away and looked at me with a soft gaze and his mouth parted slightly open. The magicians released silver foil confetti, cloaking us in our own private sanctuary. The sounds of the outside world were dampened by the rhythm of our breathing as we stared into eachother’s eyes. I finally let go of the thick rope of the curtain within me, letting it fly open to expose my naked, vulnerable self to the boy on the other side.

Then Maestro shouted something, causing Ari to step back and dissolve our sanctuary.

First Kiss #4

TITLE: Skyline
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Sammie's struggling to balance her brother's growing issues with her own life. Finally she allows herself to hang out with a girl named Jade. Soon Sammie realizes she likes Jade as more than a friend, but is the feeling mutual?

Then I feel a hand lifting my chin back up. Jade's way closer now, and I can see every eyelash surrounding those amazing green eyes. Her hair curls around her face, the black melting into the green like grass through fresh dirt.

Jade takes my hand. "Nice nail polish."

And then I really do know.

Jade leans closer, and I close my eyes.

My first thought is, I'm kissing a girl.

My second thought is, holy crap! I need to start kissing more girls!

My third thought is I should just keep kissing Jade, because there's no way anyone else could be better.

Our hands are still entwined. I tangle my other hand in her hair. She reaches around my waist, holding me tight, not like I'm planning on going anywhere.

For a glorious minute--hour? Day?--I forget about Riley, and Josh, and everything else. All I know is Jade's lips on mine, and how soft her hair is, and how warm she is pressed up against me. I can't see her, but I can feel every inch of her, and I want to stand like this forever and never have to worry.
But eventually, she breaks free, and I want to ask how she got so good at kissing. I want to ask if this means we're a couple now. I want to ask if we can do it again.

First Kiss #3

GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Tala and Terran are humanoid aliens living on earth. They’ve been kidnapped and are being kept in a cave with a force field barrier guarding the entrance. Tala has assembled a device that will allow one person to pass through.

“Tala, wait.”

His voice was tense. She turned back, wondering if something was wrong. He swept toward her, placed his hands on her waist and, after staring for a fiery moment into her eyes, pressed his lips to hers.

Her mind whirled in surprise. Great fires of all the Volcanos. He was kissing her. And, she realized with a start that almost made her pull away, she was kissing him back. For once she didn’t think, didn’t calculate, she just let herself live in this one perfect moment.

And then, far too quickly, it was over. He pulled away and gave her a gentle push through the barrier.
She stood on the other side, breathless, a little confused, and still not sure what to do with her hands. He gazed back at her with the most serious expression she’d seen on him yet, pressed his hand against the barrier and whispered, “Good luck, Tala.”

She bit her bottom lip.

“Terran, you realize I’m not leaving without you, right?”

“You don’t have time to worry about getting the barrier down. Go. Get to the ship. Save the humans. You can come back for me when there aren’t other lives depending on you.”

“No, Terran. When I said the device would only let one person through, I meant only one…at a time.”
She held out the device, pushing it through the barrier toward him.

“Oh, right,” he said, taking it with an embarrassed grin that made her heart beat faster.

First Kiss #2

TITLE: Stoking Hope
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction

Frances and Joe are college students, dating for two months. They take a walk after their chemistry class on a cold March day in 1941.

Frances scanned the treetops, searching for signs of spring but the trees were bare, the glass spires of the conservatory clearly visible.

Joe stomped his feet. “Let’s go inside.” He emptied his pocket, handing the coins to the gatekeeper.
She opened her mouth to protest. Joe being indulgent with his scant funds filled her with guilt, but the warm and perfumed air was so enticing. She closed her mouth. They wandered through damp rooms overflowing with exotic plants and flowers, pausing to read the small identification tags and trying to pronounce the long names aloud.

“Glad I’m trying to be a chemist, not a botanist,” Joe said, squinting at the words printed beneath a tall plant with leaves as large as elephant ears, hairy vines snaking up the trunk. He pushed open the door to the Orchid Room.

“Mmm,” Frances mumbled, overwhelmed by the intoxicating scent. Dozens of blooms in dozens of colors, quivering atop rubbery stems. She bent, her nose inches from blood-red petals. Two women approached, the only other people in the room, and Frances murmured a greeting, straightening to let them pass. She worked her way into the tight space, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Feeling Joe at her side, she opened her eyes. The women had disappeared; they were alone. She raised her chin and Joe leaned down, his eyes a brilliant green, mimicking the lush plants. Her first kiss. Everything was as she dreamed—heart pounding, lips tingling—except it wasn’t Mickey.

First Kiss #1

TITLE: Windcaller
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Tlanis, one of the oppressed dwellers of a rain-less land, has learned that naShola was only pretending to be a heartless noble. In secret she was the veiled windcaller who used her powers to bring rain to his people.

His gaze softened. “Do not blame yourself, Arris.”

A tremor ran through her at the sound of her secret name. She took a hesitant step toward him. “You’re too kind. Life in the Aridlands should have made you hard as stone, but here you are.” She blinked away her tears. “I love you, Tlanis.”

Once more his brow crinkled up. He had not expected this. naShola could not bear to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry. I wanted you to know. I won’t say it again.”

She started to go, but he caught her hand, pulled her closer. “Say it again,” he said quietly.

naShola gave him a wondering look, her heartbeat quickening. “I love you.”

“I love you, Arris.”

While she stood there, too stunned to believe it, Tlanis smiled and brought her face to his. Their lips met.

A thousand sensations enveloped her. She was so happy she thought she might drown in them. His soft mouth, his warm calloused palms on her cheeks, the ragged cloth of his sleeves as she clutched his arms, the scent of rain all around them…

It was raining. They broke apart and looked up together at the gentle mist coming down from the sky. Far in the west, the setting sun was a spot of pink through the pale gray clouds. Tlanis laughed and gripped her hand tight. naShola whispered to the wind, urging the clouds to spread and carry the hope of green beyond the Plateau.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Call For Submissions: FIRST KISS Critique Round

You know I had to do it--because VALENTINE'S DAY!

Does your novel have a first kiss scene? Would you like some feedback on it? This is the critique session for you!

The details:

*The submission window for this critique round is NOON to SIX EST on TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12.
*This contest is a lottery; at the close of submissions, the bot will choose 20 entries to post on the blog.
*Your first kiss scene may be from a novel in any genre EXCEPT erotica or erotic romance.
*Please note: the rating for this blog is PG-13. If your scene doesn't fit this parameter, it will be disqualified. (Final word is mine.)
*The First Kiss scenes will post for critique on--when else?--THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14.
*Enter HERE.
*IMPORTANT: Please format your entry as follows:

A brief lead-in to help set the scene and give it context. (40 words max)

Followed by your maximum-250-word first kiss scene.

If you fail to include a lead-in and your entry is chosen, you'll still get to be part of the line-up; but please know that it is more difficult for people to effectively critique a scene out of context. PLEASE INCLUDE THE LEAD-IN!

Questions? Ask below!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Street Team for STORMRISE

We're a little more than 7 months away from STORMRISE's release (how can it be??). I've established a street team to help spread the word, and I'd like to extend the invitation to you.

If you're interested in being a part of my (secret, super-powered) Street Team, PLEASE CLICK HERE. It's a brief form that will let me know how you'd like to be involved. That's it!  I'll be in touch with everyone who signs up.

Thanks, everyone!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Friday Fricassee

Can it actually be that I'm writing 2 Friday Fricassees in a row?

In its heyday, this blog boasted 10 Secret Agent contests a year, the grand Baker's Dozen Agent Auction in December (5 stellar years, lots of success stories), and ongoing in-house critique sessions. It was hard to keep up that pace, though, and I gradually cut things back. Then, when I sold my book and was suddenly faced with my first deadline, I realized I had to cut back even more.

I'm not promising a return to the monthly Secret Agent contests or any end-of-year hullabaloo, but I do want to be mindful of offering more in-house critique, because IT IS SO HELPFUL. So if you're not subscribed to this blog (see right side bar) or following me on Twitter, do it now! Then you'll always know what's coming up next.

Which leads me to this fun announcement: Our next Secret Agent contest is officially scheduled for April! Keep your eyes on the blog for early info, to determine whether your genre is a fit for this agent.

Honestly, this past contest was so filled with positive energy, and the agent was such a delight to work with, that I found myself thinking, "So, why haven't I been doing as many of these lately?". Which, of course, works in your favor. :)

As my release date looms closer (September 10!), I'm sure I'll go a bit dark again. But for now, while I've hit my stride with "Untitled" (I mean, it actually does have a title, but that's just for my eyeballs right now), I feel like I can give a bit more here.


And now I need to make myself a cuppa coffee (pour-over--my new love!) and sit down with my erasable marker (who knew that was a thing??) and the first-pass pages of STORMRISE. I've got 2 weeks to go through this thing word by comma by emdash. And that'll be the last time I see it until it's an advanced review copy!

(My stomach just dropped. Again. Wouldn't it be great if we burned calories every time that happened? I'd be at least 5 pounds lighter by now.)

Have a joyful weekend!