Using Critiques to Rewrite

Okay, it took me awhile to rewrite the second scene because I was writing on in the book. The farther you go, the more you understand the beginning.

My first beginning, the first chunk I sent to Lani, was way too fast. Here’s our e-mails on that:

Lani to Jenny
I don’t think truly critical feedback at this stage in any project is a good idea, but I’ll give you my impressions as they come up.

–I like Chloe Button; that’s cute
–I also like that she’s chipperish. I choose not to be offended. 🙂
–I like Mort
–I like Nick and Nita; it has a Nick and Nora rhythm to it; a fun couple
–I like Nita’s edge; the idea that she might be an alcoholic, or at least Mort seems to be worried that there’s trouble there.
–I like that he’s hot and she’s cold and that’s weird
–I like Vinnie, and the uselessness of lies. I like that Nita can tell if someone is a killer by touching their hand, her connection to Death is neat. It’s a mystery, but the clues are much more interesting
–“Too late, but I admire your proactive spirit.” LOL
–Love the worlds colliding, the elasticity of reality
–Mitzi’s gonna be fun to play with

Okay, it’s not garbage. It’s just discovery writing. You’ve got a very, very cool world built here, and I love the details. You’ve set everything up and explained it for yourself, now you’ve got to anchor yourself in Nita and Nick and tell their stories. Slow it all down a bit and anchor it back in the characters. What does Nita want? What does Nick want? And then solve the murder (such a cool way to tell murder mysteries). It’s great!

Jenny to Lani:
Actually, I need truly critical.
Can you give me a paragraph on what’s wrong? I know a lot is, it won’t squelch me if I decide to do this. I really need the critical. Don’t read it again, just what you remember, if you can.

Lani to Jenny:
It’s too light and moves too fast. It reads like a sketch of the world, not a scene in a story. I think you need to be deeper in Nita’s POV. It’s 50 pages of explosive information, most of it delivered in dialogue as everyone suddenly reveals the world to Nita. I love the details of it, but it reads like discovery writing. You can afford to move slower, to have Nita investigate the reality of her world as well as Vinnie’s murder. Have her in search of the truth, rather than just passively receiving it.

For Nick, he doesn’t have a goal or anything really motivating him, at least not that I picked up on. I think he needs to need something from this world, maybe even from Nita. They’re both kind of passive.

It feels like your focus here is on revealing the world, rather than telling the story. And it’s an awesome world, I love it. But there’s no story happening yet.


So that was excellent, and I slowed down, realized that the first 14K I had was probably the first act, so that I had a lot more time to establish everybody and the world before I dropped the bomb in the bar at the end of the day. I went back and retooled and put up the second scene because we were talking about critiques. This is where I thank Kelly S, Office Wench Cherry, S, Micki, Amy, and Reb for their good work.

So one critique question at a time:

1. Who’s the protagonist and what’s her/his goal?
KELLY: Nick – find out who Mr. Lemon is; shifts to “become Vinnie’s partner so I can learn who Mr. Lemon is”; I feel compelled to note that when I read Nick, I found him to be laid back and amused. He didn’t seem overly bothered, put out, put upon or anything. Like he knew he’d get what he wanted eventually. Time wasn’t a thing for him even though I read he’d been there 2 days and had a reason to pursue Mr. Lemon that implied some urgency.
OFFICE WENCH: Nick. He’s got a problem and he’s pretty sure Vinnie has got a piece of the answer. He wants that piece.
S: Nick and he wants info. Don’t know what is at stake and he hardly seems desperate to get the info so it feels low-key and informational. Vinnie doesn’t seem to be in danger, defying Nick.
MICKI: Vinnie (because he’s not shaping any of the action) Goal: To Forget
AMY: Nick wants to get information from Vinnie
REB: Goal: starts at get info from Vinnie. Seems to be patiently determined about it. Goal morphed halfway through to include setting the bar right, not sure why. For the challenge?

So my protagonist is clear (Micki, we’ll review protagonist and antagonist later). That’s good. The fact that there’s no sense of high stakes for his goal is not. I want Nick in this first scene to be calm and in control, a literal master of a universe, because that gives me the place to start taking him apart. But that also means that there’s not a lot of arc in this scene: Nick knows he’s going to win, so he’s just patiently wearing Vinnie down. Must think about how to keep what I need for Nick’s character arc while still arcing the scene.

2. Who’s the antagonist and what’s his/her goal?
KELLY: Vinnie – get rid of Nick so he can mourn Joey and get his life back
OFFICE WENCH: Vinnie. He does not want to give Nick the puzzle piece because he’s scared of Mr. Lemon and he’s not scared of Nick, even though Nick is trashing his bar without moving.
S: Vinnie. Wants to be left alone to get drunk. Static – ‘leave me as I am.’
MICKI: Ol’ Nick. Goal: To get info about Mr. Lemon out of Vinnie. (But aren’t there easier ways, as the Devil? Proximity is good, too.) As the Devil, what can he do? Can he pop in and out of places automatically? Can he pop in and out of time? If so, he could instantly be in contact with other informants. Or even spy on Vinnie during the last time he was in touch with Mr. Lemon when Mr. Lemon was in the bar. (I suspect Mr. Lemon may be associated with the cleaning staff, and goes by the code-name “Lemon” when doing his evil deeds.)
Or, as Devil, can he cast runes? Read tea leaves? Burn whiskey and read the future or the past in the flames? With any kind of accuracy?
I didn’t even think of popping Vinnie on a spit and roasting him over some flames until I read the other comments. That absolutely isn’t right for the story. That would be a huge mistake for this story.
But, something needs to clarify why Nick can’t do that. But this problem will be easy to fix — Hell is such a bureaucracy. In ALL the stories, the Devil really is so confined in his dealings with living mortals.
AMY: Vinnie doesn’t want to give said information to Nick.
REB: Vinnie. Goal: peace

And the antagonist is clear. That’s really all I need from those two questions. Okay, the fact that there’s only two characters in this scene makes that easy but if there were more and people were picking characters who weren’t the central conflict, I’d know my conflict was screwed up.

3. What’s the conflict and who wins?
KELLY: Vinnie completely loses, but Nick only becomes his partner (secondary goal to get to the first) but didn’t find out who Mr. Lemon is. A step forward but not a total win.
OFFICE WENCH: There’s really no clear winner. Nick gets to be partner but he doesn’t get the information out of Vinnie because they are interrupted by Nita and company, so he’s only half way there.
S: Nick wins but it seems contrived. Not sure why the Devil has to become a partner to get info out of a human.
MICKI: Partial victory for Nick; he gets into a partnership (which is kind of like the metagoal — team these guys up together). He doesn’t get the info he’s seeking, but he’s a step closer — almost there before our Detective Dodd shows up with her posse.
AMY: The goal is the information but I’m not really sure what the stakes are. For either of them actually. Neither wins but a partnership is formed.
REB: Nick wins.

So my big problem here is clarity. I had another scene later where Nick explained things because I thought he wouldn’t tell everything right off the bat. This part of the critique made me take that later scene and combine it with this one. It’s a lot longer now, but I think the questions are answered.

4. What needs work (the part where you were bored, the parts you didn’t understand, the parts you didn’t believe, etc.)?
KELLY: Vinnie believes Nick broke the neon and burned the tables but not that he’s the Devil so how is Nick doing it? The liquor must be making him very apathetic. You do point out he’s dimmer than normal in this scene. I trust you’re trying to convene that Mr. Lemon is scarier than a man claiming to be the Devil who has started destroying your furnishings and could easily do that to you too.
OFFICE WENCH: Something about Vinnie’s reaction to Nick seems off. Why is he scared of Mr. Lemon and not Nick, who is trashing his bar while not moving off his bar stool? He’s not even batting an eye. (Not part of the critique: Has Mr. Lemon convinced people he’s the big boss and all of Nick’s antics are less than impressive?) This bit is hard because I have some ideas based on what you’ve said but if this were my first time in this universe, I’d be confused because, drunk and grieving or not, falling neon and flaming tables would get my attention.
S: Doesn’t seem believable that the Devil would have to put all this razzmataz into frightening a human. Would have to understand why he can’t just pop Vinnie’s eyeball in and out until he gives up the info. Nick seems to be constrained by rules that we don’t understand yet, that limit his powers. Also, if he is supernatural, then why doesn’t he just know the information? So maybe we need more insight into the rules of this story world, via Nick’s thoughts. You’d get great inner conflict if he wants to flame-roast the insolent barkeep but can’t. Vinnie is static – his constant response is ‘no’ until it’s finally ‘yes’. I think it’s because Vinnie doesn’t have an agenda/goal he is actively pursuing. So there isn’t an escalation in the scene – the ‘yes’ seems abrupt. I also question why the Devil has to tear stuff off the walls and set fire to things – seem like tricks for an all-powerful creature. Why wouldn’t he just slam the bartender up against the ceiling and peel his skin off, for example? Why does he have to contrive to become a partner in the business to get info – that doesn’t seem like the behaviour of a powerful creature? Is he constrained by rules that prevent him just wringing the info out of the human – if so, that would be really interesting to know more about because he’d be pretty frustrated at having to set fire to a table instead of the bartender. Also, doesn’t he mind the disrespect from the human? Nothing worse than being all-powerful and nobody takes you seriously. Would expect him to have a larger ego – would have comedic potential.
MICKI: I feel that Vinnie could back out of the partnership when he’s sober. What would make it more permanent? Also, there’s a lot of no-ing. I know there “should” be three refusals, but this doesn’t feel quite right. When the neon starts falling down, I’m not quite sure why it’s doing that. But attacking the light (and the bad decor) seems really right. Cultural memes for “magic going on here” are twitching noses, waving wands, waving hands/fingers, a blink, etc. Cheesy? Not cheesy? I’m not fully engaged until Detective Dodd comes in for the mini-scene at the end. This has nothing to do with the previous scene, but it’s great, snappy and full of promise. Looking at it, it’s actually three scenes. Vinnie vs. Nick; Vinnie vs. Dodd (for two paragraphs?), and then Nick vs. Dodd. Dodd is shaping that mini-scene at the end; Nick changes from mild interest to Wowza! (or demonic equivalent).
AMY: I’m probably just stupid but I didn’t get the reason for the neon lights falling at first, even though I knew going in that Nick was the Devil. The whole interaction between Nick and Vinnie is promising, so please, please, please don’t cut it, but right now it feels a bit cold. I don’t feel like I’m in Nick’s POV mostly because I have no idea how he feels about the interaction. Is he annoyed at Vinnie? Vaguely amused? Frustrated he can’t get the info on Mr. Lemon? Does Nick enjoy his powers? Or is he irritated that he can’t just snap his fingers and make Vinnie’s head pop and get the info he wants? Or maybe Nick is bored with his powers/abilities to scare Vinnie (same old, same old) and that’s why, when Nita enters, he perks up in interest? Because he senses she’s immune to his power? Hmm, this thought made me go back and read these lines again:
“She was cold and sharp, and there was something else, lurking beneath the surface.
You’re not entirely human, are you, Detective Dodd?”
Okay, maybe THAT’S why Nick perks up when Nita enters? Because he finally feels challenged because his power are limited when it comes to Nita?

REB: Agree that Vinnie was taking lack of reaction to an extreme. Need a little more context about why, though not a lot more. I also didn’t expect Nick to physically torture Vinnie, Nick just doesn’t feel evil like that. Extremely self-centred, yes. Evil, no. Also the name Lemon grated on me. It just felt fake.

Again, a clarity problem. I want Nick very calm, doesn’t get angry, but if people are wondering why, I have to make that clear, along with the constraints he’s under. Vinnie’s refusing to give the bar up because (a) why would he? and (b) he’s in shock from Joey’s death, feeling guilty. So that has to go on the page.

5. What must be kept (when I rewrite this, what parts must I refrain from cutting)?
KELLY: “who didn’t look anything like her” – it really emphasizes that the focus is on the average looking woman – “Spooky Dodd” aka Nita. I also really like Nick and Nita’s exchange
OFFICE WENCH: Loved the 30 pieces of ash, the Spooky Dodd, love, love, love how Nick changes his focus because it’s not based on Nita being a woman, it’s based on her being not 100% human. Love how Nita dismisses him out of hand. Love how competent Nita is, which you can see from Vinnie’s reaction and how she ignores Nick.
S: Like Spooky’s entrance and Nick’s interest in her. I like her hidden depths and her air of competence.
MICKI: Well, you are going to have to get Vinnie and Nick together somehow. Keep that. I love the tables and chairs turning to ash, like the march of time has suddenly accelerated. And that last bit? Dodd’s smart mouth? Oh, yes, yes, yes! Keep that!
AMY: I vote to keep it all – I like all the action, I just need more reaction on Nick’s part so I can connect with him better.
REB: Loved the dialog between Nick and Vinnie. Loved the way Nick thought death wasn’t a big deal and Vinnie thought that was religious crap. Please keep that line! Love Nita’s instant dismissal of Nick.

The interesting thing here for me is that everybody focused on the very end with Nita; makes me think the stuff with Vinnie might be boring? Must ask critique people.

6. What do you expect/hope will happen after this?
KELLY: I’m interested in the interrogation that Nick is about to watch. I’m anticipating a snarky, fun conversation where Nita is going to be horribly frustrated by a dimwitted Vinnie but will end up sparring with Nick. She’ll be intelligent. However, given that you’ve told us it is her world that breaks first, I expect she’ll lose the next round.
OFFICE WENCH: I’m not exactly sure what I’m expecting, but I know it’s going to be good. There’s a bunch of mysteries to be solved: How did Nick survive? Is he the Devil? Is he a bad guy?(He’s a POV character so probably not, but stranger things have happened. Raymond Reddington is not exactly pure as the driven snow and he always has an agenda and I lurv him.) If Nita’s not all human, what is she? (and from scene 1, is Morte human or not??) What’s the deal with Mr. Lemon? On a purely gleeful level, I’m expecting Nita to shoot Nick down at every opportunity and that there will be banter. And, eventually, sex.
S: I hope Nick finds Spooky attractive and it’s the start of a flirtation even if it’s destined to be one-sided. (I’m imprinting on a possible couple like a romance junky.)
MICKI: I hope for interrogation of both Vinnie and Nick by Our Detective Dodd — sharp and stabby and I hope they give up more than they really wanted to. I expect Nick to gain a great deal of respect for Dodd in the process, and find that respect is a quite sexy emotion.
AMY: I would love for Nick, who has been bored up to this point (because getting shot 15 times and trashing Vinnie’s bar without lifting a finger is Just Another Day In The Life Of The Devil) to be supremely amused by Nita’s interrogation of Vinnie.
REB: I expect Nita to get nowhere with Vinnie while Nick gets steadily more amused and eventually pisses her off no end. Then I hope she’ll turn the tables on him and start sneaking info out of him instead.

So the romance is set up–I love romance readers, they imprint so well–and people want to see what happens with the interrogation, which is the next scene from Nita’s POV. I may cut the bit with Nita at the end, but for now it can stay until I can see the whole book.

I think as you read through these, you can see the value of a pointed critique that says “This is where I had trouble” in specific terms without offering suggestions as to how to fix it. Every suggestion/example in here wouldn’t work for this book, but the critics had no way of knowing that because they don’t know the book. So all of that got skimmed over/deleted to find the problems I needed to fix. It’s not the critics’ fault that they don’t know the book, but it’s the reason any suggestions weren’t helpful. What was helpful?

• Vinnie’s weak.
• Nick’s stakes aren’t clear.
• No idea what Nick’s doing, so confusing.
• It doesn’t get interesting until Nita arrives. (This might be a romance reader thing in part, but I think it’s also a problem because Nick’s calm, Vinnie’s drunk, and the goals/stakes aren’t clear.)

Those are all great points, showing me where all my weak spots are. There will be more when I rewrite, but the rewrite will still be better (I hope).

Rewrite posted tomorrow.

13 thoughts on “Using Critiques to Rewrite

  1. You know, I love this way of thinking about critiques.

    My CP recently provided helpful, detailed comments on a WIP, which I happily incorporated before sending to the editor who’d requested it. The editor said she wasn’t wild about my opening and that I should start with the second scene. When I mentioned that to my CP, she said, “Yeah, I wondered why you didn’t start with scene two.”

    If I’d asked for comments based on this criteria (esp what needs work and what must stay), that slow start would have stood out. Lesson learned!

  2. I have a great critique partner, but I always enjoy when you show how a critique can be most helpful. I’m going to pose these questions to her when I finish with the rough draft revision.

  3. My last book sucked so much, if it wasn’t for feedback from my CP and some truly amazing first readers, there would STILL be no book. (As it is, I had to rewrite the first 32K twice, then throw out almost everything except the first 8K words. Argh. On the other hand, by the time it finally got to my editor, it needed very little fixing, so yay?)

  4. Excellent. You’ve taught me how to critique.

    I am having trouble with the name “Lemon.” I keep thinking of Liz, who is not so much Mr. Big or even related.

    1. I keep thinking Liz Lemon, too. I can hear Alec Baldwin’s oft-repeated comical exclamation of horror, “good God, Lemon” and I giggle.

  5. This was great! I love how you put all of this together and was able to see what wasn’t clear. I also love seeing the parts you scratched out, because the answer doesn’t lie in the suggestions, it lies with what what went wrong. I’ve just realized that my critique group needs to rework how we do things.

    Also, these are great questions to ask myself while going though a reread of each scene. 🙂 Thanks!

  6. As I was reading through the critiques I suddenly wondered if, since Nick and Nita are both not-fully-human, probably Mr. Lemon is likewise not all human, which is why what Nick doesn’t doesn’t make Vinnie cough up the information. (It’s 20% of the population we’ve seen, so it’s bound to be more.)

  7. Micki’s comment about cultural memes of “magic is happening here” reminded me of one of the goofier episodes of Burn Notice (a show that I love, but that sometimes had really goofy elements…). In this particular episode, ‘Friendly Fire,’ Michael is pretending to be the devil to get a violent gang out of a neighborhood… and when he snaps his fingers, things explode! (Thanks to pre-planted bombs, of course, but he does manage to convince the gang otherwise.) At any rate, it does take multiple explosions for the gang to be convinced/frightened enough to leave…

    Not sure if I can put images in comments, but I’ll try:

    That’s sort of how I’m picturing Nick as I read. Not handsome enough, I know…

  8. It’s really good to see this all in one place, with your reactions.

    I do want to point out that the Nick/Vinnie isn’t boring, per se. I’m frustrated with Nick because I don’t know what he’s doing, and while I understand and empathize entirely with what Vinnie is doing, getting drunk like this isn’t that exciting. But when Nita walks in — boom! Snap, crackle and pop. Maybe the Nick/Vinnie was just comfortable? I don’t know why, but even with decorations falling down and tables crumbling, I didn’t feel Vinnie was in any danger with Nick. (Which is a good thing for a romance hero, I think?) But when Nita came in, I felt like someone was about to lose an eyeball if he wasn’t careful. Lot of anger in Nita. Is Nick angry? (-: I guess I need to turn the page of the blog and see the rewrite!

    Also, going to reread your writing blog and my papers. I’m having a heck of a time with my short-story, not-a-romance WIP. My brain keeps returning to the idea that the antagonist is the hero of his/her own story. So, maybe I’m being a contrarian (as usual). Or maybe there’s some sort of narrative interference when I read other people’s stories. Or maybe I’m just feeling very sympathetic towards antagonists this month. Or maybe I don’t recognize Nick changing in this scene (until Nita walks in — then he changes significantly in a very short time. But I feel that’s a completely new scene, even though it’s extremely short).

    Anyway, I was a good example of a perverse and twisty critiquer, and that’s important for writers to realize. Sometimes critiquers are bringing their own issues to the story (sometimes? Maybe I should rephrase that to almost always).

    And that’s also one of the great benefits to being a critiquer — every single thing I’ve critiqued has helped me see my own work in a different light. I love critiquing for what it does for me.

    Continuing with the selfish theme, please tell me not to worry too much about scene protagonists/antagonists in a first draft unless something is going horribly wrong and my Girls are screaming at me or dead silent. Your reassurances that everything is permissible in a first draft has really kept me making progress this month. I don’t know why I have to hear that so often, but I do. Honestly, I should schedule it in my Google Calendar to remind me every three days that it’s OK to do anything when a story is in discovery.


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