Critique to Inspire

I’m one-fifth of the way through my fifth draft! That has to count for something, right? It’s totally a milestone everyone should celebrate, isn’t it? Four solid chapters out of twenty! Woo hoo! We’re coasting now!

Just kidding.

In many ways, this week has felt the opposite of celebratory. In “grading” my scenes last week, I got a little depressed. Why? The voice is off. All. Over. The. Place. And voice is a nemesis of mine.

It’s so intangible. When organization is off, you outline and physically move sections around. When voice is off, you go sentence by freaking sentence “listening” as hard as you can for something impossible to pinpoint. Sort of like thumping a watermelon. Is that the right thump? Is that what’s it’s supposed to sound like?

Yeah, there’s a lot of that uncertainty: Is the voice off in this sentence? Is it better or worse now that I’ve changed it? Does it match the earlier chapter where the voice is working? Because it is working there, right?

Um, yeah. Is it telling if I admit I’ve been a little grumpy this week?

But then I stumbled across something amazing. It was a comment I discovered in the margin of my fourth draft — a comment written by a writer friend of mine who read through that draft last summer:

Just a random thought. I don’t know Wendy well enough to decide if this scene is believable. And in her previous POV sections we don’t get a deep enough penetration into her emotions and thoughts for me to feel that she’d be into a summer fling. . . . I just keep going, yeah right.

Maybe you could make it more clear somehow that she’s shocked by her own emotions, the intensity, the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all and have her yearn for more because she’s never had this. Ever. And she wants it. Bad enough to throw caution to the wind . . .

Go deeper into her POV. Let us live through her emotions, not just her surface thoughts.  Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.

Today’s post is in many ways a thank you.

This comment is beautiful. It challenges me to do better by inspiring me to want to. I love the line “Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.” It’s been running through my head all week.

Besides, what’s not to love about “the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all”? Of course I want my story to be all those things.

Thank you, Leisha, for fearlessly writing how you felt while reading my draft. You are the epitome of constructive criticism, as I’ll be gushing to my students the next time I’m trying to define it for them. Constructive criticism, I’ve now decided, points out weaknesses in ways that motivate the writer to make them strengths.

Voice might be a weakness in my fourth draft, but by the end of this fifth draft I’m determined that the voice will be vibrant, thrumming, alive and singing.

Sometimes the most important thing a critic can be is inspiring.

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Three Tugs to Lure Me In

ONE: cracking open the paperback copy at the used bookstore over Christmas break to peek at the first page —

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.”

Oh, that voice! I would have kept going and going, transported, turning page after page without realizing the passage of time, I’m sure, except that it was my husband’s purchase, so I had to let him read it first. And by then, even though he raved about it, I’d moved on to other books.

TWO: receiving a comment from a colleague on my post about nonfiction binges at the end of January—

“I just decided over the weekend that the NF binge is over. Now for some good old fiction. I think it was rereading The Road by McCarthy for an independent study I’m doing with a student — absolutely beautiful again.”

His comment made me remember the sweet pull of that first page in the bookstore, but unlike Ron my nonfiction binge wasn’t quite over yet.

THREE: reading my sister’s review on Goodreads yesterday —

“Loved it. It was sad and honestly frightening at times but I thought the dialogue — though very simple — was incredibly telling and moving. And depending on how you look at it, it ended well.”

It’s time. I’ve missed fiction. And I need something like this — “absolutely beautiful,” “incredibly telling and moving” — to help me remember how much I crave the best literature. I’m full of happy sighs just anticipating this book, and my plan is not to set it down again until I’ve committed a bookmark into a crease however many pages in I can pull myself away.

Does it ever take three tugs to convince you to read a book you knew you were going to love anyway? What books have you sighed over lately?

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Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part II

Voice and Word Choice

Have you ever thought about how movies teach you how to write well? There’s the screenwriting itself, but there’s also so much else to explore! Start with the intro segment to this series, if you haven’t already, and then let me show you some of my favorite examples of voice and word choice.

Juno, which won an Oscar for Diablo Cody’s brilliant screenwriting, is, I think, the perfect way to begin pairing movies and writing in regard to voice. Just check out the trailer!

Juno MacGuff has a voice like no other, and if you’ve ever struggled to pinpoint what voice in writing means, I think watching Juno is a decent way to help figure it out.

Voice, to me, is pretty much viewpoint, personality, and tone squashed together. It’s what gives a piece of writing its overall feel. When we tried to break it apart, my intermediate students and I came up with four traits of what good voice is:

  • strong
  • appealing
  • appropriate
  • consistent

I’ve heard a few dissenters claim that Juno‘s voice is too unrealistic, too exaggerated, but I actually think over-the-top can be awesome, so long as it meets the four criteria above.

For example, many of my students chose to do a satire for their third writing assignment, and satire is meant to be over-the-top. When I gave them feedback, I pointed out things like whether or not satire was appropriate for their topic, whether or not the way they handled it was appealing, whether or not it was a strong way to make their point, and whether or not they maintained a consistent tone throughout the piece so as not to throw off the feel of it.

That’s not to say that being consistent means you can’t pull off the whole range of emotion from funny to tragic. Juno manages to do exactly that. I cry every time I watch it, and I get angry at a certain character who will not be named (since it’d be a spoiler), and I laugh my head off at so many things Juno and other characters say. But somehow all of those disparate emotions still seem to fit in the movie because they’re all brought together from the same sort of quirky, complex point of view. Juno’s point of view.

Obviously, voice involves word choice. When you watch Juno, the choice of words stands out and creates the unique texture of the voice. It’s why Juno is possibly my favorite movie to just listen to, like if I want something on while I crochet. That’s one of the reasons that even though voice is one of the big, global considerations (along with ideas and organization), I chose to pair it with word choice for this movie series.


Separating voice as the overarching feel and word choice as the specific, detailed bits of texture is what helps me distinguish the two. Big considerations have to come first, and then you can have fun sprinkling the details.

Think about the wardrobe in a movie. I don’t know a ton about the process, but I’d imagine you can’t create the costumes until you have actors chosen to wear the costumes (so you know sizes!), and you choose actors based on the feel you want for the piece, and that feel is then reinforced by the wardrobe.

The actors (& their acting skills) create the voice; how you dress the actors (& the sets, etc) is like the word choice.

So, just like voice, word choice needs to be appropriate for the piece. You don’t want gladiators wearing tutus or Eliza Doolittle wearing a swimsuit or Juno MacGuff wearing a frilly dress and enormous hat covered in bows (unless you’re creating a parody). You have to find the words that fit, the words that create the texture you’re looking for.

my fair lady

Take these examples from some recently published young adult novels, and notice how the word choice pulls us into the texture of the setting the same way wardrobe and sets pull us into a movie scene.

maze runnerFrom James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009):

He heard noises above — voices — and fear squeezed his chest.

“Look at that shank.”

“How old is he?”

“Looks like a klunk in a T-shirt.”

“You’re the klunk, shuck-face.”

“Dude, it smells like feet down there!”

“Hope you enjoyed the one-way trip, Greenie.”

“Ain’t no ticket back, bro.”

Octavian NothingFrom M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party (2006):

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.

I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.

By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frockcoats of asbestos.

Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.

How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

blackbringerFrom Laini Taylor’s Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer (2007):

“How you holding up, my feather?” she asked the crow she rode upon, stroking his sleek head with both hands.

“Like a leaf on a breeze,” he answered in his singsong voice. “A champagne bubble. A hovering hawk. A cloud! Nothing to it!”

“So you say. But I’m no tiny sprout anymore, Calypso, and sure you can’t carry me forever.”

“Piff! Ye weigh no more than a dust mouse, so hush yer spathering. ‘Twill be a sore day for me when I can’t carry my ‘Pie.”

In each of these, as in Juno, the voice and the word choice pull me in. Just reading these excerpts makes me want to keep going! That’s the power of voice and word choice. They bring ideas to life as surely as actors, wardrobe and sets in a movie.

life-of-piAnd sometimes words can be so beautiful that you fall instantly in love. I still remember exactly where I fell in love with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001): page 19, where he says, “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

Yes! That’s exactly how I’ve felt about the way religion is viewed. And he found the words to express what I didn’t know how to before: the problem is “certain illusions about freedom.”

Now, of course, as Siamese Mom points out in her comment on Part I, “well chosen words alone do not make good writing.”

It’s like Will Ferrell’s character in Bewitched blaming the wardrobe department for the failure of his latest movie. Yeah, maybe the sherpa hats were ridiculous-looking, but even perfect costumes wouldn’t have made up for his terrible acting (the character’s, not Will Ferrell’s).

That’s why I love the six traits: they tell you what to focus on first but also what not to forget. You have to perfect ideas before you organize them, and then organize them before you can perfect the voice, and then perfect the voice before you can choose every word, etc. You have to go in order and make sure each piece is just right!

Any examples of voice or word choice from movies or books you’d love to share? What words have made you fall in love?

Click here to read the third installment: Sentence Fluency and Conventions.

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