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Working (And Laughing) With a Critique Partner

By Victoria Bylin

This past year, I decided to stretch my wings. In addition to writing the proverbial “book of my heart” aka BOMH, I started working with a critique partner. I’ve written fourteen books for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical, but I’ve always worked alone.

I thought I was an experienced writer.
I thought I knew how to plot a story.
I thought I had a good ear for language.

Oh. My. Goodness. When I finished the first draft of the BOMH, I shared a chapter with my best friend, an award winning author. She had a few ideas. More than a few. Every one of those ideas-from word choice to plot shifts-proved to be valuable.

I didn’t realize it, but I’d fallen into a rut. Mentally I had incorporated every writing rule I’ve ever read, and that obedience had limited my voice. As we worked on that first chapter, I realized that my sentences lacked variety, and my diction wasn’t as precise as I thought. Adverbs? Nope. G.O.N.E.. But there were places were an adverb would have been stunningly useful. Use a semi-colon? Maybe, but aren’t they considered distracting? Not always. Sometimes they’re the perfect link between two ideas. (I used one somewhere in the blog. Can you find it?)

My CP and I have a lot of fun when we do a phone edit. She’s big on strong verbs. So am I, but my writing style is simpler. We had a good time playing with synonyms for “to walk.” This verb is particularly synonym-challenged. How many ways can you describe a person walking? Here’s where my mind went in a moment of hair-pulling insanity:

Annoyed, he walked to the sliding glass door and looked out.
Annoyed, he scampered to the sliding glass door and looked out.
Annoyed, he marched to the sliding glass door…
Annoyed, he did the cha-cha to the sliding glass door . . .
Annoyed, he sidled to the sliding glass door …
Annoyed, he crawled to the sliding glass door …
Annoyed, he bunny-hopped to the sliding glass door …
Annoyed, he kicked like a Rockette to the sliding glass door …
Annoyed, he said, “Forget it! I’m not getting off the couch!”

My hero told me in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to walk, he’d walk. No way would he march, pace, amble, shamble, shuffle, waddle, toddle or kick like a Rockette. He did consent to stride, but only after I convinced him I hadn’t used that word in the past two chapters.

The trick to better diction isn’t necessarily finding a synonym; it’s finding a different way to convey the action. I struggle with body language, but I’m learning to use it more effectively.

Let’s have some fun . . . Another synonym-challenged verb is “to gaze.” My characters all tend to stare and glare. What do your characters do with their eyes?


Victoria Bylin
writes about cowboys, outlaws and preachers. Check out her most recent story in Brides of the West,available now on Amazon. Vicki’s books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

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9 Responses to Working (And Laughing) With a Critique Partner

  1. My characters tend to lock their eyes/gaze/attention on things. There are regular keyholes in their eye sockets apparently.

    I hear you on the adverbs, though I have the opposite problem. My voice tends to be a little adverb heavy in a way that totally works in my head. I have a wonderful CP that challenges me on all of them so that I weed out any unnecessary ones.

  2. This is such a funny post. And so true. My characters also stare and glare. She gazes; he holds her gaze.

    Notice the semicolon? :)

    Thanks for a fun post. The simplest actions are so hard.

  3. Hi Kristi! I hear you on “locking” eyes, gazes, etc.. My characters also tend to narrow their eyes and furrow their brows . . . over and over!

  4. Hey, Johnnie, Love the semi-colon! Sometimes it’s the most perfect piece of punctuation (ohhh, such alliteration!) Other times it’s dreadfully dull and distracting :) Have a great writing day!

  5. Keli Gwyn says:

    What a fun post. I remember some gentle, generous contest judges back in my florescent green newbie writer days suggesting I use stronger verbs. My characters didn’t walk everywhere, though. They did a whole lot of heading this way or that. These days I cringe every time I see that word in one of my manuscripts and challenge myself to use something else. Ah, the joys of pet words. =)

  6. Hi Keli, In the read-through of an early draft, my heroine said, “I just don’t know what to do” about ten times. True meaning: *I* didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She reasoned it out, then I cut the dull stuff :)

  7. The first time I had a critique partner look at my prologue she pointed out that I tend to pick a word and use it more than once in each paragraph for emphasis (ex. the brilliant moon cast moon shadows on the dusty street…). She challenged me to use each word only once. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until she told me. Now that I’m aware of it, my writing is stronger. It always helps to have fresh eyes look over your work.

    P.S. I am a semi-colon happy writer; I’ve had to work on that, too!

  8. Last things first. That semicolon.

    “The trick to better diction isn?t necessarily finding a synonym; it?s finding a different way to convey the action.”

    Now to gaze:

    study
    review
    examine
    scan
    survey
    watch
    gawk
    gape
    inspect

    I have used each of these at least once. Survey and scan are special favorites.

    Finally. It’s amazing to me how God seems to present specific things to me multiple times. Might be because I have to hear or see or read the same thing several times before it takes hold. My blog post for this monring was on crit partners, too! I went back and added a link to this post on that post.

    Viva la repetition!

  9. Rachel says:

    Lol, my characters ‘glance’ an awful lot.