Critique night at my local RWA chapter

has become an annual tradition.  We call it Chocolate Critiques, but the refreshments are optional.  Most of our members have regular critique partners or groups, but this event serves a particular purpose, the evaluation of the first two pages of a manuscript, the all-important hook.

In order to finish at a reasonable hour, we limit entries to the first eight or nine received.  Members email their pages to the coordinator, who removes the author’s name and emails the files to someone with access to a copy machine.  Along with the two-page manuscripts, we print evaluation forms with 1 to 10 rating scales for several points:  Opening Hook (does it grab your attention?), Characterization (do you know this character?), Setting (do you feel a sense of place?), Tone (is this romance? mystery? young adult? or whatever is appropriate for your group). and Do you Want to Read More?  No strict rules, though: we write on the manuscripts, circle numbers on the scales, make notes on the evaluation sheet, whatever seems best.

Last night we had three readers, published members of the chapter who took turns reading the openings aloud.  Then we took a few minutes to go over the pages, mark them up, fill out the evaluation sheets, etc.  No discussion, and signing is optional.

This is a different approach than most writers use in their regular critique arrangements, and it can be quite useful.  This time around we did nine openings.  I didn’t have a horse in the race last night (not that we include any element of competition), but last year I picked up some good suggestions for fine-tuning my opening paragraphs.

This year’s batch varied in content and quality, as you might expect, but all were serious efforts.  I thought one or two started about a page too early, and one did not seem to be in any particular point of view (but it wasn’t quite omniscient either).  We didn’t have much trouble figuring out that the story about the professional basketball player came from our only male participant.  Young adult and/or paranormal stories were popular this year.

In a relatively small group like ours, we find ourselves guessing at the identities of the writers, not always successfully.  The process can remain as anonymous as the group, and the authors, prefer, and it’s a particularly good way to try out something very different from your usual style or genre.

Adapt the Chocolate Critique method to your own writing group, small or large, any or all genres.  You may find help with your own manuscript, and who knows what you’ll learn from someone else’s.

Getting my writing back on track has not been easy.

When I learned back in March that Paper Hearts had made the Golden Heart® Finals, I kept going on my work in progress, Bathtub Jinn,  for a few days, largely because I was in the middle of a love scene.  Those don’t come easily to me, and I didn’t want to leave one unfinished.  So I toiled away over my notebook for a few evenings until the scene came to its logical conclusion.

Then I decided I’d better read through Paper Hearts again, in case an agent or editor asked for it.  That took me through the middle of April.  Surely I was entitled to a little break, although by then I’d started blogging–that should count for something, shouldn’t it?  Maybe it does, but it isn’t getting Bathtub Jinn finished.

So yesterday, when I had a day off, I typed up the languishing love scene, updated my scene chart, and printed those pages out.  160 pages, 41,000 words, half a novel.  My critique group met last night, so I printed out the next run of pages for that: pages 121 through 127.  Oops–if I don’t get this manuscript moving again, my critique group will catch up with it.

Many of my romance-writing friends critique with other romance writers, which has its obvious advantages and often works extremely well.  I can point to more than one local group that has managed to get all its members published over the years.  But I belong to a small mixed group–none of us write the same genre–and that has advantages as well.

Barbara Ewing, the only other woman in our group of five, is a mystery writer at heart (her novel Till Murder Do Us Part is available at Amazon), but she also writes short stories and is currently working on a biographical project about her mother, an aviatrix back in the day when pilots of any description were unusual.  She’s our sharp-eyed line editor, and a terrier when it comes to rooting out cliches.

Carl Miller writes mainstream fiction, and has published two books (Belize and Panama) based on his family background in Central America and two (Stroke and French Quarter Danny) about the world of competitive pool.  He’s great at keeping track of plots and watching for those potholes our characters sometimes drive themselves into (even if he does insist that the black cat in my current story is really an orange tabby).  Carl’s been working on and off on a philosophical project, but he hesitates to read it to us because we start arguing about the content instead of the writing.

Jim Stanton writes elegant tales often set in his home state of Indiana, spooky and atmospheric, with a bit of Bradbury and a touch of King, and in his current project a whole lot of Lovecraft.  He’s very good at asking why our characters do whaqt they do, particularly in those embarassing spots when the only answer is, “Well, I thought it made sense when I wrote it.”

Our non-fiction writer is Charles Russell, whose biography of Elise Waerenskold, a Norwegian woman who settled in Texas in the 1840s, was published in 2006.  He’s now working on a biography of Elise’s husband.  Charles always opens his remarks with, “Now, this is only my opinion,” and then gives us all spot-on suggestions.

We try to meet every other Monday night (Jim travels for business, Carl covers pool tournaments for several magazines, Charles is retired and travels for fun), as we have been for the last few years, and we’ve seen several manuscripts through to completion.  We each have strengths to contribute and lessons to learn.

And I figure if I can entertain this diverse group with a romance, I’m doing something right.

My critique group laughed at me last night,

thank goodness.  Humor is so dreadfully subjective.  That may be why some of my contest results have been so strange.  I’ve had my share of East German Judges who seem to hate everything, but I’ve also had honest comments from well-meaning readers who simply did not share my sense of humor.

Fortunately the members of my critique group find the cast of my current project, Bathtub Jinn, amusing:  the good-hearted incubus, the smart-mouthed talking cat, and the confused woman who has just learned that she’s not exactly human.

I don’t write jokes, although I hope my dialog is funny, and I don’t write slapstick, although one of my heroines once spent the better part of a chapter trapped in her own corset.  I try to put my characters into situations where their unique worldview and attitude are their best defense.

Humor is not only difficult to write, it’s difficult to write about.  I’ve picked up books on the subject of writing humor from time to time, some helpful, some not.  My all-time favorite is The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, which I just pulled off my bookshelf.  I haven’t read it in quite a while, and I need to read it again.

Vorhaus discusses many aspects of humorous fiction, including the comic premise and a plot skeleton he calls the comic throughline, although its usefulness is certainly not limited to comedy.  But his description of the comic perspective has stayed in the back of my brain, the idea that a character doesn’t see herself as funny.  It’s her view of the world, the way she processes life, that makes the reader chuckle.

I’m definitely going to read The Comic Toolbox again.  And in the meantime, thanks to Carl, Barbara, Charles, and Jim, for laughing.