Critiquing II: Working with critiques

What do with a crit once you get it

Note: Hiding the critique (or yourself) under the bed, tempting as that might be, is not the right answer.

Just like you have to learn to give a critique, so too do you have to learn how to utilise the comments you get. Now’s the time to get out your surgeon hats—and knives.

A general truism about critting is: If five people point out a problem with a line or scene, there’s almost certainly a problem with it. However, all five people are probably wrong about how to fix it.

To understand how to use a criticism, you have to accept that you are the only person who knows deep down what story you are really trying to tell, and therefore what solution best serves that story. You’ll probably get all sorts of suggestions—many of which take the story off in completely different directions. Sometimes, these are just the bright masterstroke you need to fix a piece. But usually, they are more reflections of how that person would write the story.

But that doesn’t mean discard them out of hand. They contain valuable clues as to the problem. But how do you interpret critiques?

Initial reactions

First, simply read the crits to get an overall sense: are they mostly word/prose level? (We’ve already talked about how this is the least useful level of critting, unless it’s a final draft).

Are certain issues pointed out over and over: pacing? Confusion over who is speaking? Not understanding transitions or the flow of time? Do readers not understand why a character is doing something? Do you have POV glitches?

Understanding the big issues that are likely to be repeated throughout is a useful way to get a sense of how well the piece works overall—which can be a useful way of seeing how intense surgery it needs: Are we talking about a nose job, or a heart transplant?  

But also look at the comments themselves. Do they seem to get the story you are trying to tell? If you are telling an action story with a fast pace, comments that ask about more character depth and say it’s too fast might be completely off base, or might be spot on, because even action stories need an emotional element. How do you know?

This is where details in giving crits help. If they’ve explained why they feel that way, great. But if not, you have to ask yourself, for example, if a scene is critiqued as too fast paced, why might they feel this way? Have you been clear about the stakes of the action, what will happen if the characters fail? Have you skimped on description in an attempt to keep things moving? Have you forgotten about your characters and slipped out of their POV into omniscient? You have to try to understand various reasons why your story came across that way.

You also have to be aware that the best solution might not even target the area critiqued. Does a scene feel too fast paced because it’s the third action scene in a row, and the reader needs a moment to catch their breath first? If the stakes aren’t clear, maybe you need to go back a few scenes and set them up so the events in the critted scene have more subtext.

Diving deeper and finding fixes

Let’s stick with the example of “This action scene felt too slow.”

First, you need to figure out why it is coming across as too slow in order to know the right fix, which almost certainly isn’t simply “add more action”.

Reread the scene, paying attention to:

  • Is it a complete scene, or is it all flashback or tell, rather than show? Do the events happen in real-time in front of the reader? One way to tell this: could a film crew film the scene as is? Look for too-long chunks of prose.
  • If yes, then take a hard look and ask yourself: are the actions interesting, or are they predictable? The most fast-paced scene can seem boring if nothing out-of-the ordinary happens, if it is a re-tread of the most basic elements of that type of scene, like a gun fight that the reader has already read almost exact copies of in a million other books and seen in a million movies. Could the reader write it themselves and not miss out anything? If you were to ask a reader after the first paragraph what will happen, would they get it 100% right? Then you have a predictability problem, and it feels slow because the reader has mentally skipped ahead and knows what will happen. Reader anticipation is working against you, because mentally, they finished the scene already so there is no reward to them for actually reading it line by line rather than use the summary in their head. Solution: make sure something unexpected happens, add something original-humour, character moments, an unusual setting that elevates a traditional chase scene, for example, into something new. Think of all the car chases you’ve seen. Think of how writers have spun them into something fresh. Different types of vehicles, terrain, off-road. Chases where people can’t go fast, to not attract attention. Ones where the person can’t drive that type of vehicle. Etc, etc. etc. Come up with an interesting fresh twist on the premise.
  • Lack of emotional engagement. Even the most exciting series of events can seem boring and feel draggy if the reader doesn’t care about why they are happening, if they are not invested in a particular outcome happening to those particular people. Even action scenes need an emotional payoff. Think of the difference between Silence of the Lambs, and the glut of serial-killer novels that spent more time on coming up with different obscure killing methods than spending time on character.

Does the action actually flow? You might have a fresh twist and emotional engagement, but if the actual flow of events are difficult to follow or don’t make sense, the reader’s own confusion will slow them down, making it feel slow.

Try acting it out with a friend, or by yourself, using only the actions described. Are they actually doable? (I did this once and realised I had a character holding a guitar in one hand the entire scene—oops. Another friend did this and realised he said a character “started shooting in the air”, but never said he stopped. So for the rest of the scene, in the reader’s head, that character was still in the background, shooting in the air.) Too much confused jumbled action comes across as slow.

Then, you repeat this with all the comments to dig down to what issues they are really pointing at. It can be helpful at this stage or next to do a reverse outline or character arc outline (The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is really helpful for this) to check your pacing and that your plot has all the necessary/expected scenes.

And remember…

This is just to start. The good news—as you become aware of these things, you start to solve the issues in the writing phase, right as you conceive of scenes. This is why giving crits helps as much if not more than getting them, because it’s the analysing the story that improves your own story-generation process that solves problems before they occur.

I know I’ve found that my projects need less “big picture” editing with each one, because I can solve problems as I’m writing, so overall, drafting becomes quicker and more streamlined.

Critiquing: A foundation of editing skills

I know I promised some blog posts on writing skills, and the summer has gotten away from me, so I apologise! And upon reflection, the thing I really want to talk about is critiquing because learning how to read as a writer and identify issues with writing is the best skill you can develop to improve your own writing.

This is really long (and what else is new when it comes to me?) so I’ve broken it into two parts. This part goes over the whys and hows of critiquing. The second part talks about how to interpret (decipher?) the critiques you get and turn them into actionable steps of self-editing.

But before we talk about learning to give critiques, lets go over why critiques are good to get, first and foremost–and then how giving critiques, not getting them, is a really good way to sharpen your self-editing skills.

Why get critiques?

First drafts are shit. Hemingway said it—actually, every writer before him probably said it too, but he was first to write it down, so he gets all the credit. So I’ll say it again. First drafts are shit.

But somehow, those reeking heaps get turned into polished gems. How? Editing. And one essential step of (self) editing is knowing what parts of your story work and which ones don’t. An external critique can help tell you this because you know your story inside out. You know what should be there, not simply what is only on the page—a difference that makes all the difference.

Chuck Wendig in his classic post “25 Steps To Edit The Unmerciful Suck Out Of Your Story” says this about needing outside readers:

“Other human beings are essential to the editing process. Essential. Otherwise you’re operating in a vacuum. You’re floating in the amniotic goo with just a swollen cord connecting you to the story.

You need eyeballs. You need hands. You need the doctor with the ultrasound to be all like, “This baby has three legs, hooves, and Tilda Swinton’s face growing up out of its back.” This other person might be an agent, an editor, a friend, a spouse, a beta reader, a stoned dude on the highway selling oranges, whoever. Just have them read it. And get their notes. Pay them if you must. Sob plaintively. Embrace blackmail.”

Writing a story is like being bewitched by elven glamour, the imaginary landscapes of your imagination are shimmering perfection. A critique can help puncture this veil, show you what is only on the page, how readers without access to that Platonic Ideal story in your mind see what’s on the page. For example, it can be near-impossible to tell if you’ve set up clues properly, because you know how they should add up. Same with backstory: when you know all the details, it can be hard to tell if you have given readers enough to infer the whole picture.

Why Learn How to Crit?

Okay, so getting critiques are good. But to get those excellent crits that tell you all this, at some point, people need to learn how to crit. After all, in the crit-4-crit economy, the better everyone crits, the better all the stories get.

But reciprocity isn’t the only reason to learn how to crit.

You also need to know how to critique because knowing how to critically appraise a piece of work in terms of what doesn’t work—and why—is essential to knowing how to fix your own. Learning how to critique is the single biggest thing you can do to improve your own writing.

Critiquing, first and foremost, teaches one essential skill that writers need to know, one that can’t be acquired through butt-in-chair or powering through that first draft. Critiquing, in essence, is how you learn the art of revision: how to gauge what works and what doesn’t in terms of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, voice, tone, description—all those things that make up a work of fiction.

And I’ll let you in on a secret. The real way you gain mastery in learning how to fix any of those elements in your own work is by giving critiques, not getting them. One wonderful piece of writing advice I wish I’d received earlier: first you learn to see the problems in other people’s work, then you learn to see them in your own.

Other people’s work, being emotion-neutral to you, enables you to see story issues without (1) arousing protective instincts and (2) (more importantly) teaching you how to judge a story solely by what’s on the page, not the shiny perfect image you have in your head. After all, if you are going to improve your story in the editing phase, you need to see it as-is, right?

And crits are not to be feared, even if it does hurt sometimes. But a chef doesn’t (hopefully!) cry if told soup is too salty, and it’s not a big deal to say, “hey, does this need more salt?” Getting a crit on a story is essentially the same thing. You know what you were trying to do, and now you need fresh eyes to help you gauge how well you accomplished those aims. If you weren’t entirely sure what you were doing (very common among beginning writers), then this information can be very useful in helping you understand the effect on the reader that your words have.

What Makes a Good Crit?

What exactly should a good crit entail?  How can you make sure it is useful to both you and the recipient?

First, a few don’ts.

  • No bashing. Nothing is “stupid” or “terrible”. Those are your value judgements and belong only to you. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t point out things that aren’t working, but those things are simply that: parts of the story that are still learning to walk.
  • No “I couldn’t get into it/I have nothing to say/I loved it—no problems”. Your personal preferences as a reader, whilst they can help inform a good critique, are not a critique. However, they can give you a starting point, but only that.

In sum, a good critique respects the author’s intentions and doesn’t try to rewrite the story the way you would write it. A good critique identifies weak areas of the story, both overall in terms of structure, plot, and character arc, as well as on a sentence and paragraph level, looking at word choice, dialogue, POV, pacing, etc. A good critique does not, surprisingly and well as blessedly, expect you the critiquer to solve all these problems. That’s up to the author. You’re more the diagnostician—Dr House—not the surgeon. That’s the author’s role.

How to Crit

Critiquing is a skill.  That means that not only can it be learned, but also that, like any skill, there is a definite learning curve. Think of it like learning to be a doctor. Trainees aren’t simply handed a hacksaw and an unconscious patient and told to “go figure out brain surgery. If you’re meant to be a surgeon, it’ll come naturally”. The stages of learning have a specific order designed to build skill sets in progression.

Critiquing, too, can be broken down into such a series of interlocking skills: learning to recognise symptoms, figuring out an accurate diagnosis, and treatment.

The first set of critiquing skills one needs to learn, then, is simply symptom recognition. This entails becoming self-aware as a reader to learn to recognise when parts of a story aren’t working. The good news: you already have the skills to do this. The bad news: those skills are probably unconscious, i.e., you’ve felt them but probably not examined them for the useful information they could impart to the writer. How do I know you have these skills? If you’ve ever read a book that you didn’t 100% think was absolute perfection, then you do. If you’ve ever felt bored, confused, or annoyed by a book, then you have.

Obviously, critiques offer more detailed comments than a blanket “I found it boring in spots.” But pointing out specific instances where you were bored is actually really valuable information to a writer. As such, then, for a more in-depth critique, you can simply start with becoming aware of your own reactions as a reader. Where, for example, did you lose interest? Where were you confused by what was happening? Where were you surprised that a character had been in the room all along, or by how much time had passed? Where could you not picture the setting, or did you find an explanation or a sentence hard to understand?

There’s a difference between being insightful and being mean, however. “It was really boring, therefore it sucked” is simply mean, in addition to totally unhelpful. “I didn’t like it and therefore found it hard to stay engaged in the story” isn’t very useful, although not actually vindictive. “I didn’t like it because I hated the main character” is better, but only a start. “I didn’t like it because I hated the main character so much that I didn’t care what happened to him” is actually starting to be useful. “I hated him because he was too self-centred and despite it being a love story, I simply couldn’t believe she would ever fall for him” is actually a very useful bit of feedback. And it all began with you simply noting your own emotional reactions as you read.

After all, insight into the eventual reader’s reaction is not just useful in itself, but is also the whole point of a critique: giving the reader an insight as to how “real” readers will perceive the story.

Don’t forget to notice the things that are working as well. Where were you really engaged in the story, leaning forward, pulse racing. Where were you really rooting for a particular character? Where were you surprised and pleased by a plot twist? When did the story’s emotions strike a particularly realistic note or the description paint a particularly vivid picture?

Once you’ve critted a number of stories, you’ll find that you start to recognise patterns and make finer distinctions: “I’m bored here because this scene is a rehash of people talking about things I already know, with nothing new happening, while in that other story, I was bored because it was all description, with nothing happening”. Both of these insights start with the recognition of being bored, then asking “why?”

This is where the learning curve comes in—you might not recognise why until you have a range of emotional reactions to different stories to draw upon for comparison. But it will come, almost automatically. You’ll find yourself noting that “I had trouble feeling engaged here because nothing interesting seems to be happening”. Which is really good at recognising a symptom: you’ve noted your reaction and figured out why.

That means you are ready to move on to diagnosis. You’re bored because nothing interesting is happening. Time again to try to figure out why. This involves looking at the story at a deeper level. Is it a stakes problem, a pacing problem, a character problem, etc.  Don’t worry. Again, this is a matter of starting with the question “why”:

Did the events not seem engagingto you, for example, because you didn’t know why the characters cared so much about what was happening; why didn’t they do the sensible thing and simply leave the problem for someone else to solve (motivation)? Or did events fall flat because you didn’t really know what would happen if the character’s failed, or the consequences didn’t seem that bad (stakes)? Because you already knew everything and nothing new happened to move the story along, or everything that did happen was too predictable (plot)? Because this is the third fight scene in a row, or second intense conversation on a train in a row, or fifteenth cup of coffee and pause to think about what to do in two chapters (pacing), or because the character’s goals don’t seem realistic, or their actions to achieve them don’t seem in keeping with what we know of them (character)?

Understanding if you are facing a plot problem versus a pacing problem is important because that leads on to the third stage, remedies. The solution to a stakes problem, for example, might involve not just editing the scene where the critique flagged the problem, but earlier, so then the actions in that scene have better grounding and deeper meaning. Some problems might be structural and require changes throughout the manuscript, while others might only take a word or two to fix.

And again, noticing issues at this level will come with sufficient practice and build-up of a storehouse of previous critiques that you can compare against. As in all things, practice makes perfect.

And this is how critiquing helps you as a writer. Because seeing problems in other people’s work, and figuring out how you’d solve them then lets you apply these skills to your own work.

Here, it’s worth noting that a good critique can stop at symptoms or diagnosis. But for you the writer, you need then to be able to take other people’s pointing out the symptoms and learn to diagnose your own stories, and should never simply rely on other people’s diagnoses—especially because you will likely get two critiques that say the exact opposite thing! You need to know how to determine if you have a plot problem or a character problem, for instance, in order to know how to fix it.

And even when you do get critiques that agree, you are sill the one that has to determine the solution depending on the type of story you want to write: “flat characters” isn’t nearly the same scale of a problem in a fast-paced thriller as in a contemporary relationship drama. In the former, the solution might involve picking up the pace of the story or adding a subplot, while in the latter, it might require slowing down the pace so events can unfold in more depth, or adding a subplot to show more sides of your characters. Same problem, opposite solution.

So you can see how critiquing other people’s work gives you so many valuable skills to learn to assess your own–and that’s even before working with crits other people give you.

Part 2, which I’ll post next week, will go over what to do with a crit once you get it.

And so…the decision is made

Okay, hold on to your hats, guys, because this is gonna be a long one: a deep dive view of my process and thoughts as I went through my WriteMentor subs (spoiler free as to the actual choice, of course). If you want the behind the scenes demystified, well, here we go!

First off, wow! These subs were pretty much amazing. Each one was unique and bursting with creativity and a passion for the story it was telling. It’s become a cliche to say you wrote a book so celebrate so I’ll add something new: you wrote damn good books. Thank you for making the choice so hard!

So…how did I make the choice? First, for each entry, I read the opening pages first to see if it grabbed me, then read the query. Then I went back and re-read at least the first 5 pages/first chapter and made notes in a spreadsheet plus marked Yes to the second round or Maybe. I didn’t rule anything out on that first read. I also didn’t read any synopses at that stage because I didn’t want plot spoilers for whatever fulls I read.

So, what made me say Yes or Maybe? Not quality, I can tell you that! Everything was too good! Rather, it was more other factors that ruled subs out. Another mentor instantly fell in love with one, so I took that off my list. Quite a few seemed much more New Adult or Middle Grade than YA, so my main comment would have been “have you considered aging this up/down,” which isn’t the best use of a YA mentor, and also something I couldn’t really help with. Quite a few other mentors also mentioned seeing stories that seemed to be pitched as the wrong age range given either the character ages or the themes, so that’s definitely something to be aware of.

A few had elements too similar to my own work, one seemed pretty much query ready, and one seemed to only need a polish, not a 4-month intensive mentorship–again, nothing to do with “quality”. There were also a few where the authors seemed like they’d benefit from sweating the basics of storytelling a little more, but that doesn’t mean bad—I loved these premises so much, and if I had more time, I’d have been tempted. But we have 4 months, and spending 2 of them going over basics of show versus tell or what is or isn’t a scene isn’t the best use of a mentor. They seemed like they could make more progress on their own or with a crit group/beta readers, and I was looking for someone who’d really hit a wall. Again, absolutely nothing to do with quality! Having less technical mastery is a step on the journey and in NO WAY indicates a bad writer.

So after sorting my Maybes into Nos and Still Maybes, I re-read all the queries plus synopses of the remaining Maybes. Here’s where subjectivity really started to come into play. Some simply didn’t grab me in a way that meant I could crawl up inside the story, want to live in it, that I could not only see its flaws but also fixes, and be excited about it. A few Maybes got bumped up to Yeses at this point, for an updated longlist of 10. I then reread the first pages and winnowed that down to 8. Interestingly, these were all ones where I instantly had started making comments in the margins and big picture notes.

I then sent emails to those 8 asking for background info on the book and some more details. And then I read. Five fulls and three partials, which gave me a final shortlist of 5. And again, it wasn’t so much a case of saying No than Yes, But Not as Much as Others.

So what was the deciding factor here? Again, not quality or “talent.” I wasn’t looking for perfection, to start, and while each of the books at this stage had something that made it sing, they all also had “big” issues that meant I thought it could actually benefit from 4 months intense revision with a mentor. So the factors I looked for now were less to do with prose or technical skill than arc and stakes and pacing, so as I read, I was asking “What items are underutilised here and could be developed more to heighten tension and deepen character and create plot complications?” and “Is the arc wobbly vs non-existent?” and “How well does the author seem to understand the story they are trying to tell, all its moving pieces, and which are they struggling to control or letting drop?”

Thus, my assessment here again wasn’t about “good” but totally subjective: me looking at stories whose premise and characters stood out to me to now see (1) what help it needs and (2) if that is something I can help with. The emails helped here in terms of giving a sense of what the author saw as the issues and their roadblock in bringing it to the next level, and if my perception matched. Not a dealbreaker if it didn’t, but it gave a little more insight.

But it was also important how pulled into the story I got. The final 5 were all ones where I started making notes as I read, but then got so pulled into reading that I pretty much finished the fulls in one sitting and stopped making anything but the barest notes.

Then I went back and rechecked all my subs, even the original Nos and Maybes, in case they hit differently a week later. I came away confident in my choice of my final 5, and set out to come up with my top 3 to enter on the spreadsheet.

I knew I wanted to take on a book that could need a fairly big overhaul, so here again, the answers to my emailed questions were really helpful in terms of understanding working style as well. But in the end, the top 3 were ones where I simply loved the characters and voice and premise that little bit more, and my vision for the fixes were that little more clear.

So final 3…and in terms of ranking, my top one… I not only inhaled it on my first read, but then instantly wanted to scroll back up and read it again. I hopped right on the mentor chat to see if anyone else was considering it. I could see so clearly what could be developed more to make the most of the amazingly cool and unique premise and the characters. According to their answers to my email for more information, my diagnosis of the issues seemed to fit with the author’s own intuition, but they just don’t know how to solve them–but I know they have the skill and technical ability and talent to take my comments as a springboard and starting place to come up with the best fixes for their story. I’m so excited to help in that brainstorming process. I’m fizzing with energy and excitement over the world they created, and it’s so cool to think I get to help shape the next stage of this amazing story. So in the end, it was the one that grabbed me from the first read but also fit in so many other ways as well.

I hope this helped demystify how at least one mentor approached the process–and highlight how rejections really are subjective in so many ways. That’s something a lot of mentors were saying behind the scenes.

I truly loved so many (okay, pretty much all) of my subs, and I could have happily worked on any of my top 3, top 5, or top 8… This one just…had my heart, and my vision for it felt really clear. But that doesn’t mean the others were rejected. We were all sharing our “near misses” in the mentor chat, and one of my top 5 found a home with a different mentor they hadn’t applied to because I kept screaming about how hilarious it was it, which again goes to show how subjective it is.

Please keep writing, keep getting feedback, keep submitting. With three different manuscripts, I applied to Pitch Wars three times, got asked for fulls twice. Never got in. I applied to AMM three times, also got asked for fulls twice, never got picked. I applied to WriteMentor twice, got in once, and now two years later, here I am, agented, getting ready to go on sub, and a different book out with a small press. All it takes is one yes, and you never know which time will be the one where your work is the one that resonates that extra bit. So please, keep writing! I want all of the stories in my inbox to be shared with the world!

Something to fill the wait

Looking up from WriteMentor subs to say hope everyone waiting is holding up okay! It can be such a weird in-between!

So… a suggestion and a way to prepare for whatever type of editing comes next, here’s a lesson from my own mentee experience in 2020.

One of the first things my mentor had me do was a reverse outline. It’s basically a roadmap of your story written after the draft, not before, including characters, plotlines, settings, conflict etc. for each scene.

When my mentor and I started talking big-picture edits, it was sooo helpful to have that scene-by-scene breakdown to know quickly exactly where something happened and how one change would cascade and which plotlines would or wouldn’t be affected and how.

So what is a reverse outline and how do you do it? Editor Jeni Chappelle has a great explanation on her website.

If you are better with worksheets, the Story Genius ones are good too (and Lisa Cron‘s website is a treasure trove).

I add to my outlines metadata like Inciting Incident, Act 1 Break, Midpoint, Act 2 Break, All Is Lost, and Climax so that it’s easy to see pacing as well.

A reverse outline is the first thing I’ll ask my mentee to do, but no matter what, it’s a great tool for whatever editing you do next.

And…Subs are Closed

The submission window to the 2022 WriteMentor mentorship programme is now closed—which means now the work begins.

Having been on the other side and applied to many mentor programs before being accepted, I’m so aware of how life-changing this decision will be. And to be honest, I love that opportunities like this exist—but also hate how necessary they are increasingly being perceived as. It breaks my heart that for so many writers, progress feels locked behind some gate where only other people have power to open it.

So while I know I can’t pick everyone, I want to help swing that gate open for y’all, even if only a little. To that end, I’m planning a series of blog posts over the summer about the different things that were the most prominent issues in my submissions (not using examples from any specific subs, of course). I hope that it will help shed light on the issues I kept seeing, along with some steps to take for fixing them.

We are all writers in this together, and the learning—and the journey—never end. I hope you’ll let me be part of your journey even in a more limited way. I wish I had more time so I could offer more to everyone.

WriteMentor 2022 wishlist

Hello to everyone here to find out more about the 2022 WriteMentor mentoring programme and considering me as a mentor. I’m so looking forward to reading your words and working with one of you! So…let’s get started!

Hi! I’m Deborah Bailey, a 2020 WriteMentor mentee who’s absolutely thrilled to come back as a YA mentor and pay forward the amazing help and support I received. That also means I know exactly what it’s like to be in your shoes, poring over wishlists and trying to decipher every single word to find the best mentor picks. So I’ve tried to be really clear, but feel free to ask away if you want clarification on anything. I’m on twitter at @4GreenSquares.

I also want to say that I’m aware of the long journey of writing, and I’m sure that, like me, many of you have been working for years at perfecting your craft. Another reason I applied to be a mentor was because I know how much a mentorship can help in levelling up. I’m honoured that you are considering me, and I can’t wait to help you along your writing journey and hopefully get you closer to your dreams.

What I’m looking for

I’m looking to mentor YA contemporary, contemporary fantasy, thrillers, and mysteries. That’s a pretty broad range, I know! So I’ve broken down some of my fave (and not so fave) tropes and themes, but even if something isn’t included as an element I’m drawn to, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sub to me. If it’s fast-paced and high concept with characters to root for and fall in love with, I want to see it!

Elements or tropes that I’m most drawn to include

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Snark as banter
  • Self-deprecating but not self-loathing
  • Hidden hearts of gold
  • Found family
  • Parents who are 3D and complex with lives of their own instead of existing simply to Cause Problems
  • Long-buried secrets and lies coming to light
  • Messy sibling relationships—but also only children!
  • Romance as a subplot, not the main plot
  • VOICE!
  • Sex positivity
  • Atheism
  • Unconventional formats/use of webpages, texts, etc.
  • Betrayal by the ones you love—especially when they think they are doing the right thing instead of being selfish or deliberately hurtful

I’m not being specific on the types of crimes or mysteries I’m looking for because I’m wide open to whatever you guys bring to the table: murder, blackmail, disappearances… surprise me! In general, I love a fast-paced story with twists and turns that pushes characters to the brink and forces them to grow. While I do also love slower, more character-driven stories as a reader, for this, I’m more looking for a story with a strong external driving plotline, a la mysteries or thrillers. However, character is still super important, and I’m looking for well-rounded characters that have flaws and are challenged to grow and grow up.

LGBQT+ welcome. Neuro-diverse characters (and writers!) very welcome too. (No need to disclose either of those identities beyond your comfort level.)

I’m open to all types of mysteries and thrillers, both contemporary and contemporary fantasy, although ones with Evil Corporations and/or Chosen Ones will have to be extraordinary to catch my eye as I’m overdone on those tropes. I’m more drawn to unexpected evil disguised well and lying close to home.

For fantasy, I prefer contemporary or urban fantasy rather than epic fantasy. I won’t 100% rule out epic fantasy, but I will say that royalty and courtly life are not things I’m particularly drawn to—but I do love stories of ordinary people caught up in larger than life events. Ditto science fiction. I love it as a reader (and a writer—I went to the Clarion workshop a while ago!) but I’m not as familiar with the state of it in YA currently to feel I’m the best mentor. However, again, I won’t rule it out on that alone, but do be aware that other mentors could be a better fit.

And one last thing—voice! I think this will have a big impact on my selection, so I want to talk about it a little more. I’m not looking to pick someone who writes in a voice like mine (in fact, that would make it hard to mentor and be weird), but I do like characters with larger than life personalities that pop off the page, like Exact Opposite of Okay, and Red, White and Royal Blue. I’m also a fan of Raven Boys (the whole series, in fact) and Cemetery Boys, and I LOVE Holly Black.

Given how different all those stories are in terms of voice, you can see that to me, it’s less about the specific tone of the voice or prose (i.e., voice is way more than having a character be snarky), but more about feeling drawn to stories where everything is filtered through the character’s opinions and frame of reference in a deeply immersive way. Give me a chance to sink deep into someone else and leave my life behind for your story, and I’m yours—I’ll follow you anywhere.

Not for me

These elements are not things that I’m a fan of or looking for (but feel free to reach out if you need more clarification):

  • Books that are heavy on physical fighting or centre around war. War as an event in a book is fine, but if it’s all about battles and being on the front lines, it’s not for me
  • Psychics (too similar to a WIP, although other types of paranormal powers/magic are fine, as are witches and other paranormal creatures or events etc.)
  • Organized crime/criminal underworld (again, too close to a WIP)
  • Rape or sexual assault (minor mention of something that occurs off the page is okay, but please not as a main character’s backstory or a major plot event)
  • Panic attacks (too close to a WIP)
  • Sex shaming
  • Heavy religious themes
  • Poetry/novels in verse (love them as a reader but I’m not the right mentor)
  • Stalkers or stories where a character being stalked is the main plotline

My style as a mentor and what I’m offering

If you apply to me, be ready to work hard and learn loads. I’m perfectly happy taking on a work that might need some overall structural edits, so don’t feel that your story has to be perfect (if it was, why would you need a mentor?)—but also be prepared for what could be a big edit. My notes will combine line edits and margin comments giving reactions to the prose and plot and characters as I read, plus a long edit letter where I cover character arcs, plot, structure, tone, dialogue, setting, and pace, and anything you flag as wondering about. I’ll also help with the query letter and preparing for the showcase–and afterwards too.

So, if you want to work hard and aren’t scared of (possibly) making big changes, then I’m definitely your type of mentor!

But working hard doesn’t mean I’m a horrible task-master or that I think my vision should prevail. We’re working on your book, and my intent is to guide you and equip you with a set of tools for identifying what isn’t working, breaking down why, figuring out possible fixes, and then understanding the implications of those options in order to choose the best one—the best, according to you. And along the way, I love to laugh, rant in the margins (as well as squee extensively when I love something), brainstorm (every bad idea that doesn’t work still gets you closer to figuring out the one that will), and even just listen when you need to talk aloud to figure something out. I’m here to chat about writing in general, the publishing side of things, querying–anything. I’m available on Zoom and email/DM or just the latter, whichever you are most comfortable with.

About Me

I’m represented by Sera Rivers of Martin Literary Management, who I found through cold-querying the book I worked on as a mentee in the WriteMentor 2020 summer programme. (You can hear more about my writing jourey in my interview for the WriteMentor Rejection Diaries podcast). I’m a US expat (South Carolina by way of New Jersey) currently living in the UK, and I work as a freelance editor and copy editor with a focus on academic non-fiction. I’ve been a vegetarian since college, and I can turn any recipe, no matter how complex, into a one-pot meal that I can wander away from and burn after forgetting it exists while writing. In fact, I think I should write a cookbook next: Things that Stay Edible after Being Burnt to a Cinder. When I’m not writing, I like to read, watch anime and crime TV (and true crime), and play video games badly (I think I’m the only person to die in a cut scene). Final fun fact: I don’t have a car because I never could get the hang of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

Fave media other than books

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (LOVE—all-time favourite), Attack on Titan (the season 2 opening sequence is still The Best), Fruits Basket (I even have a cat named Kyo Kyo), Ouran High School Host Club (who doesn’t love the Ouran morons?), The Mentalist, Burn Notice, The OC, The Untamed, The Witcher.

The Matrix, Contact, and Amadeus are my three all-time fave films.

Final Fantasy, not Fire Emblem (I will fight you on this, lol!). One of these days, I will finish Persona 5, and I will never be bored of taking over the world in Civilization. And of course, Genshin Impact!

I hope this gives you enough information about me to know if I’d be a good fit, but feel free to reach out if you need clarification on anything. Best of luck and I can’t wait to read your words!

And don’t forget to check out the other amazing mentors!

Fundraiser for Ukraine

To help support Ukraine, I have donated a critique of a query, synopsis, and first three chapters to the BookAid for Ukraine Auction, which opens for bids tomorrow, Monday March 7, 2022.

You can go right to my item auction here, but be sure to check out the other items too! Definitely for a good cause.

I will say that tomorrow is shaping up to be a very busy day, writing-wise, with more news to come very soon!

Change is in the Air

I’m over the moon to announce that I’ve recently changed agents and am now repped by Sera Rivers of Martin Literary Management.

Her vision and enthusiasm for my story about mothers and daughters and murderers and love took my breath away, and I know it couldn’t be in better hands.

This book has been part of an amazing journey of growth as a writer, from Rachel Caine and @YA4YA right back at the first draft in 2018 to a huge revision under the mentorship of Brandy Woods Snow and WriteMentor in 2020. That’s where I met the 2020 group of YA mentees, who have become the best support group a person could ask for. I am so grateful for everyone’s encouragement and belief in my story.

Thanks also to all my 2021 Tin House YA workshop group. You gave me so much good insight—but more than that, your enthusiasm for the idea kept me going! Thank you so much!

Here’s to the future!   

Introducing… the newest Write Team Mentor in Residence for 2022!

I’m very pleased to be able to share that I’ll be a Write Team Mentor in Residence for 2022.

They have a great programme of events, including an open “ask anything about writing” inbox for a chance to pick all our brains and Zoom events including a panel on applying to and getting the most out of mentorships. Plus, some mentors—including yours truly—are offering crits on queries and opening chapters for people who want detailed, thorough feedback.

I’m so excited about this opportunity. The writing community, especially on Twitter, has been such a great resource and support for me over the years, and I really want to pay it forward. So hopefully, I’ll get to meet even more amazing writers at all stages of the journey, because at the end of the day, we are all in it together!

So. Much. News

Yes, I’m here. Alive and well, thankfully. And with so much amazing news to share. Last summer, I was lucky enough to be selected as a mentee on the 2020 WriteMentor summer mentoring programme, and then accepted onto the 2021 Tin House YA workshop. In both, I put my YA contemporary thought the paces–and I am very happy to say that I’ve been signed by an amazing agent for that book!

I discussed how it all came about–and my whole writing journey, on the Rejection Diaries series. A podcast is coming soon, but the video is already up on YouTube and you can watch it here. Enjoy and I hope it helps people feel less alone and down about their own writing journeys. It can be such a long process filled with so many setbacks, but keep at it!

UPDATE: The podcast version is now up here. It was strange going back and listening, and there’s one thing I wish I’d said: When I would wander in a bookstore or library and browse Amazon and see how many other people managed to write a book, achieve what I’d struggled to for so long, the other thing I told myself, besides “If they can, so can I” is that “If they found a way, then there’s a way. I just have to find it. Find the way that’s right for me.” You can’t follow someone else’s path, but know that there IS a path, and it’s yours, and it will get you where you want to go if you just keep walking it.