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How Do I Critique My Own Work?

By Leigh Michaels

Can writers take a long honest look at their own writing? The answer is yes, but it's difficult. When we go back to read the words we've put on the page, we not only read the actual words, we relive the emotions we felt as we were writing. We see the characters in our minds. We hear them speak. Unfortunately, our readers don't have access to our emotions, our vision and our inner ear -- they can only read the words on the page.

Whether the book is done or you're stuck in the middle, it's perfectly natural to be suffering the heebie-jeebies about whether the characters are right, whether the story is working and whether you're ever going to slay this monster. There are two places in a manuscript where the self-doubt bug is most likely to bite: when you're one-fourth of the way into the project and when you're three- fourths finished

The first of those spots makes perfect sense when we stop to think about it. By the time we've written two or three chapters, we're past the first flush of excitement and start to realize that maybe we haven't thought this all out as well as we believed we had. We've written the exciting first scenes (the ones that might have been hanging around inside our heads for months, being groomed by our subconscious minds), and we're into new territory. And, like new shoes, a new story can start to pinch.

The other place where you're most likely to suffer a crisis of confidence is when you still have one-fourth of the story to write. It's too soon to start drawing all the pieces together, but it's too late to add major new elements. You may feel as if the story's going to fizzle out altogether, or you'll never be able to fit in everything that's still supposed to happen. In either case, the result can leave you paralyzed.

If you're in either of those places, and you're plagued with doubts about whether your story is worth pursuing, the best move is often to grit your teeth, push the doubts away and keep writing. Ten or 20 pages down the line you may find new life springing into the story and new enthusiasm into your writing -- because there was nothing really wrong to begin with.

But sometimes that just doesn't work. The joy doesn't come back, the characters won't cooperate, and everything you write continues to feel dull and trite and... well... stupid. So then what do you do?

Every time I've had a project bog down (and, after 70 books, I've had plenty of experience in the swamp), it has been for one of five simple reasons. Furthermore, in every unsuccessful, unpublished romance novel I've read in contests or classes, at least one of the Big Five has poked up its head.

So if you're having doubts, or your story doesn't seem to be working, take a look at these five possible causes. Although my comments will draw specifically from my experience as a romance novelist, you may find that they are helpful in almost every story- telling context.

~~ 1. There isn't really a conflict or the conflict between the main characters is a misunderstanding rather than real disagreement about substantial issues.

The romance is not the plot, and so a story featuring two people who are fighting an overwhelming attraction to each other, for example, but doing nothing else, is unlikely to hold up for the necessary number of chapters. If the hero, on the slimmest of evidence, jumps to the conclusion that the heroine is a slut, while the heroine reacts to his first statement by writing him off as a bully, and they continue thinking of each other this way throughout the story, we have a misunderstanding, but not a conflict.

Real conflict involves important issues. What's at stake? What do both hero and heroine want, but only one can have? What do they both want so badly they have to work together to get it?

When you have real conflict, your characters have lots to talk about. When you don't, they may argue till doomsday, but their conversation doesn't lead anywhere.

SYMPTOMS OF THIS MALADY INCLUDE:

* Weak Convictions -- A pointed discussion will develop, and the characters' convictions will waver and change as the antagonists explain their positions. If the characters' convictions are so easily swayed, or it's only a misunderstanding, explaining their positions would solve the problem in Chapter One.

* Characters who argue, but don't simply talk to each other.

* Coincidental interruptions -- Just as hero and heroine are about to get to the truth, the phone rings or someone comes to the door or another character happens to say something that perpetuates the wrong impression -- so the misunderstanding lives on for another day. While it's a common plot device, if you're using it regularly, the underlying conflict is probably too weak to support the story.

* Not enough at stake -- The characters' goals aren't important enough to make the reader believe that they deserve a story. I know women who get bent out of shape about their husbands' shirts and ties not matching, but I don't want to read about them.

* Unrelated disasters -- Throwing in earthquakes, car accidents and broken bones fills space, but seldom develops conflict or advances the plot. Don't forget to pose the question: Does every incident move the story forward?

~~ 2. The hero and heroine aren't realistic and sympathetic characters, or they aren't behaving in realistic ways.

If the heroine's past experience with another woman in the story reveals the woman to be a liar, but the heroine believes her anyway, we have a main character that is not only illogical but also downright aggravating. If a character is a cop who, when he's off- duty, doesn't observe his surroundings, he's acting unrealistically. If the hero and heroine behave on their very first meeting as if they've known and hated each other for years, they're not believable characters. If they act badly toward each other throughout the story, especially without adequate reason, they're not sympathetic. If they show nothing but distaste for each other until they fall into each other's arms on the last page, they're neither sympathetic nor believable.

SYMPTOMS OF THIS MALADY INCLUDE:

* A heroine you wouldn't want to befriend -- If she isn't anyone you'd want to know, odds are your reader won't either.

* A hero you wouldn't want to be married to -- (Notice that I didn't say a hero you wouldn't fall in love with. Being attracted to someone is one thing, but he has to be more than handsome and sexy to have lasting appeal.)

* Characters who are out of balance -- If the hero is aggressive and the heroine weak, or the heroine is pushy and the hero passive, the story is apt to trail off. In a good pairing of characters, the hero and heroine will be roughly equal in strength and assertiveness.

* Telling the reader about the characters instead of showing them in action -- If they're not realistic, sympathetic and believable, it will be difficult to bring them to life - and, thus, easier to write about them rather than show them interacting.

* Unmotivated opposition -- The hero shouldn't try to prevent the heroine from getting what she wants (nor vice versa) simply to be nasty. Both characters are more sympathetic if there's a good reason for their opposition to one another.

* Wandering or unclear viewpoint -- It's hard to identify with more than one character at a time, especially if it isn't clear whose head we're supposed to be in, and the result is often a lack of sympathy for all the characters.

* Too much internalization -- We hear all about the character's thoughts -- more than we want to know -- but we don't have any reason to care.

* Cutting sarcasm or arguments that are filled with anger to the exclusion of opinions and logic -- When name-calling takes place, it's hard to like any of the people involved.

~~ 3. Nothing is forcing the main characters to remain in the situation.

If he dislikes her (even though he thinks she has a great body), and she detests him (even though he's quite a hunk), why don't they just walk away? In real life, when we encounter people we don't like, we tend to avoid them unless we're forced by such things as business or family ties to deal with them. The same is true of heroes and heroines.

What makes it necessary for the hero and heroine to stay in contact long enough to discover their attraction? If you can't state in one sentence why your hero and heroine need each other, perhaps that force needs redefining.

SYMPTOMS OF THIS MALADY INCLUDE:

* Hero and heroine who have little to say to each other -- If they're talking about nothing, maybe they need a more powerful reason to be together.

* Characters who are motivated to oppose each other by petty irritation rather than by real issues -- Are they just sniping at each other rather than discussing a substantial problem?

* Characters who are too cozy and comfortable with each other -- If they get along so well, what's keeping them from solving the main problem?

* Hero and heroine are often separated -- If they're not in the same physical space, they're not forced to interact. If the hero and heroine are apart, thinking about each other rather than being actively involved, how can their feelings for each other develop?

~~ 4. The romance is not kept at the heart of the book.

The other parts of the novel -- for example, the mystery of the missing money, the child in need, the past history of hero or heroine, the sub-plot involving secondary characters -- are sometimes more fun and are often easier to write than the real-time interaction between the main characters. But the reader wants to see a developing relationship -- fondness, trust, liking between the characters. The rest of the story, crucial as it is, serves as the background for the romance.

SYMPTOMS OF THIS MALADY INCLUDE:

* Main characters who don't seem to have anything to talk about or who argue rather than ever just talking.

* Hero and heroine are often separated by the circumstances of the plot.

* The plot is over-complex -- Too many events or too much space spent explaining the details of the missing money or the child in need means less time for developing the relationship.

* There are too many people in scenes -- Even in a packed auditorium, you can isolate your two main characters by moving them off to a corner or letting them carry on a whispered private exchange. If they don't have a chance to be alone, it will be more difficult for feelings to develop.

* Getting off the track -- Side issues become more important than the main story, and everybody -- author, characters, and reader -- forgets what the goal of the scene was. Maybe we are getting too involved in the family history, and in-depth views of secondary characters are distracting us from the main story.

* Interference by other characters -- Whether this is intended to create trouble between the hero and heroine or to bring them together, it takes the focus off the main relationship. The hero and heroine should solve their own problems.

~~ 5. The story isn't well told.

The author hasn't been able to put words on the page in a spellbinding way. The actual words on the paper do not convey to the reader the images the author had in mind.

The author may be summarizing the story, TELLING it instead of SHOWING it. The sentences simply may not be clear, so the reader has to deduce what the author meant. The author may have left out details necessary for the reader's understanding. The action may be shown in the wrong order, confusing the reader.

SYMPTOMS OF THIS MALADY INCLUDE:

* Slow starts -- The first chapter might consist of the heroine reflecting on her past and what brought her to this stage in her life. Often this is valuable information, but it shouldn't be in the first chapter. If you start with ACTION instead, you give the reader a reason to care about the character, and a reason to sit still to hear about the roots of the problem later.

* Peaceful endings -- Chapters or scenes that end with the heroine drifting off to sleep without a care are wonderful places for the reader to do the same.

* Rushed dramatic action -- Watch out for clues like 'later,' 'after a few minutes,' 'when she'd had a chance to think it over' and other indications that the reader is being told rather than shown what happened.

* Wandering viewpoint -- The POV shifts back and forth for no good reason, or it's difficult to figure out who the viewpoint character is.

* Random dialogue -- Instead of giving important information, the dialogue focuses on unimportant detail (lots of 'Hello' and 'Goodbye' and 'How do you like your coffee?')

* Below-standard grammar and mechanics -- Things that take the readers' attention off the story and force them to figure out what the author really meant make it easier for them to put the book down.

Conflict. Character. Force. Romance. Structure. In my own first six books -- the six I ended up burning -- I made all of these mistakes, sometimes all in the same manuscript. I've found that experience is no guarantee I won't fall into the trap again. But I take comfort in knowing that every time I collide with one of the Big Five, it's a new variation. Someday, maybe I'll have exhausted them all -- but I'm not betting on it.

* The Self-Critiquer's Tool Kit:

~~ Give yourself a break -- Don't try to write and edit in the same session. The two jobs are very different and trying to switch back and forth can drive you crazy and make you think that there's something wrong with a section that, in fact, is perfectly fine.

~~ Give it a rest -- Let your writing sit for a few days if you can - - without looking at it -- before you try to decide what's good and not-so-good about it. The more distance from the writing, the more able you'll be to forget the wonderful things you were thinking while you wrote it and look at it from the reader's perspective.

~~ Use hard copy -- A few rare people can edit efficiently on the computer screen, but, for most of us, the words have more reality when they're printed on paper. It's more final and more important -- and difficulties (not only typos, but story problems) stand out more clearly in a hard copy.

~~ Read it fast -- When in doubt about whether a story is working, lock up your pens and just read it straight through. You're trying to absorb the whole story so that inconsistencies and plot holes can't elude you. I often take the manuscript onto the treadmill -- since I can't make notes while I'm walking, I'm forced to just read, without fiddling and getting distracted by details.

~~ Read it onto tape -- The act of reading a section aloud will tell you whether your dialogue is natural (if it isn't, you'll find yourself changing the words). Listening to the tape will help you tell if the story pacing is good, if the characters are likeable and if the point of view is straight. If you were listening to this tale as you drove across country, would it keep you on your toes or put you to sleep?

~~ Get out your colored markers -- The more the merrier. Highlight dialogue with one color, introspection with another, narrative with a third, attributions with a fourth, description with a fifth. Of course, if you're married to your computer, you can also achieve this effect with your word processing program. If you're real savvy with your software, you can set up style sheets that have colors attached to paragraph style and see how it develops as you work. Either way, you'll quickly see whether you've overdone the story telling, internalization, attribution or description, and whether the proportions of the manuscript are right. If there's a lot of dialogue in the first half, but less in the last half, you may have shifted from showing your story to telling it.

~~ State your conflict in one sentence -- What exactly do your hero and heroine disagree about? If you can't state their major reason for opposition succinctly, you may have a lack of conflict or a misunderstanding instead of a real conflict.

~~ State your force in one sentence -- What's keeping them from walking out on each other? Why do they need each other?

~~ Keep a time sheet -- The longer I work on a section of the story, the more boring it seems. But sometimes it's not the action that's getting tired, it's just me getting tired of the action because it's been taking up so much of my time. By keeping track of the actual time I spend on each scene, I can keep myself from getting discouraged when the story doesn't move along as fast as I'd like.

Meet the Author: Leigh Michaels