5 Guidelines for Critiquing The Rough/Discovery Draft

On Friday, I wrote about the writing process, and talked about the importance of allowing yourself to write a rough or discovery draft. Manuscriptpage

A question that comes up, and I've had quite a discussion about this lately with my separated-at-birth-sister Candace, is what happens if you are in a critique group and working on a discovery draft.  You want to bring your writing in to get some sense of guidance, and yet you're working on a rough draft, which is going to be, by its very nature, rough.  So do you go back and labor over every scene or chapter after the group has critiqued it? Or should you just not take your work in yet?

There's a fine line here.  I'm a huge fan of writing groups, I could not exist without the one I'm a part of, and I think you sometimes have to guard your work in the early stages.  Because far and away the best thing to do is write one entire draft from start to finish, without getting hung up on making scenes perfect along the way.  Why?  For a couple of reasons:

  • When you get to the end of the first draft, you know a helluva lot more about the story than you did when you started.  Guaranteed.  And part of that knowledge is going to involve rearranging things.  Once you get to the end, suddenly you realize that you have to change things up in chapter six.  And since you're going to go back and rewrite chapter six anyway, there's no reason to make it perfect along the way. 
  • Because it is just way too damn easy to get hung up on rewriting the first 50 pages until they are perfect and never make it to the end of the book.  I've seen this happen repeatedly.  Just write a  discovery draft all the way through to the end and get it under your belt.  You'll be thrilled with yourself.

Should you want to take your rough/discovery draft into your writing group (and I do this all the time), follow these guidelines:

1. Make it clear that this is a rough draft and that comments should be made accordingly.  In other words, readers do not need to dissect sentence structure and word choice at this point.  Have them comment on big picture things, such as if the plot is making sense and characters are acting congruently (which they probably won't until future drafts, but you can start to see where they go astray).

2.  Apply what you've learned from critiques to future scenes and chapters.  If readers say your dialogue sounds wooden, experiment with making in more natural as you continue to write new scenes. 

3. Consider presenting the work in bigger chunks, if the format of the group allows this.  It is often easier for readers to follow threads and throughlines if they can read several chapters at once, as opposed to reading one chapter in isolation.

4.  Take good notes.  I have one notebook dedicated to notes about the current project, and I take notes as I listen to the critique.  As soon as I can when I get home, I go over the notes and make certain I understand them.  I scribble a few ideas about how I'm going to utilize the changes.  And then I go back to making forward progress on the draft.

5. Don't take it personally.  It's about the work, not you.  If you internalize any commentary in a personal way, you'll not be able to carry on with finishing the draft.

All right, time for you guys to chime in.  How do you deal with writing a rough draft?  With taking criticism?

And stay tuned, because over the next few posts I'm going to be discussing each phase of the writing process in depth.

Photo from Photl.  Yes, I've found a new source for photos.  Don't fall over in your chair.


Friday Mini-Critique: Jessica Baverstock

And for the next victim person who has volunteered to have her work critiqued, welcome Jessica Baverstock.  You may remember Jessica from her wonderful guest post here a few weeks ago, or you may know her from reading her great blog, Creativity's Workshop, in which creativity herself speaks.  Jessica is a writer who recently moved to China, and you can read interesting posts about that and see the gorgeous color of her bedroom wall at her blog, too.

Excerpt #1

I dabbed the ultramarine liberally along my canvas, outlining the shore. Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby.

"In recovery?" I said, checking I had the facts right.

"Yeah." The tight red curls atop his head sat unfazed by his vigorous nod.

"In recovery after surgery?" I said.


I chewed the end of my paintbrush. "Sure you weren’t hallucinating?"

He dropped the burnt umber and scowled at me. "There was a bikie in the next bed chuckin’ his guts. If that’s a hallucination, I want stronger meds."

I shrugged. "I’m just saying: you were recovering from heavy anesthetic. You sure you weren’t –"

He dumped the vermilion and atomic tangerine on the small fold-out table next to me. "Annie, can we get past this and on to what I’m trying to say?"

I squinted at the view, and then turned back to my canvas. "Shoot."

"Thank you," he said. "So this mob boss in the bed across the room – "

I paused mid brushstroke. "How do you know he was a mob boss?"

Henry looked like a cat about sink his claws into a stray furniture leg. "Italian. Deep voice. Large man. Marlon Brando complex."

"Naturally," I said, finishing the swirling wave in my endless ocean.

Henry cleared his throat. "And he’s saying, ‘Buried jewels, by the shell, paperbark, Leschenaultia.’"

"Uh huh," I said. "Sounds delirious to me."

He sniffed. "Probably was. Ingrown toenail, I think. But he said buried jewels."

"Yes, I heard the first time."

My Comments

I love the energy and wit of this piece.  Jessica asked me if the attributions were clear and I think she got a good balance on that.  She leaves enough dialogue tags off that the conversation rips right along, but there are also enough to be clear.  Little things like that can make a huge difference in writing scenes.  She also wanted to know if she did enough showing (as opposed to telling) and the answer is a hearty yes.

My absolute favorite sentence in this excerpt is this one: "Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby." This sentence accomplishes so much.  For starters, it is always difficult to find original tics or physical actions for characters.  I've never seen a fictional character–or a real live human, for that matter–juggle paint tubes before.  It immediately tells us a lot, not only about Henry, but about his relationship with his cousin, Annie, as well.  The cousins are close, as he feels close enough to her to juggle her art supplies.  And he's irreverent.  It tells me a bit about Annie, too.  She's a confident painter, perhaps a professional, because she doesn't mind doing it around others.  (Or maybe this is just me, because when I paint, I lock myself away so that nobody seems the lame work I'm doing!) 

One thing I might change about this sentence is the word, "nearby."  It seems a bit vague and doesn't really help me to see where Henry is in relation to Annie.  Even something like, "in front of me" would be more descriptive.  Which brings me to another point.  Overall, I'd like just a little more descriptive grounding in the first paragraph, like one more sentence.  The energy of the dialogue is so great, I really want to know where I am while I'm experiencing it.

I also like the use of color throughout this piece. Henry has "tight red curls."  He dumps "vermillion and atomic tangerine," onto a table.  Color is a great way to make a scene pop, and in this case, Annie is an artist, so she would constantly be noticing and naming color.  Good use of viewpoint.

Second excerpt:

When driving with Henry, the journey is far more endurable if you divert your attention anywhere but the oncoming traffic. I quickly found a topic of conversation.

"What makes you think the mobster wasn’t just speaking random nonsense? I had a friend who came out of anesthetic singing The Star Spangled Banner."

Henry shrugged. "So?"

"He was Lithuanian."

Three empty Pepsi cans and a stray UBD were flung to the left as we rounded a corner. It took a minute before my seatbelt loosened enough to be comfortable again.

"I suppose you need my help to decipher the clues?" I said.

He smiled. "Nope. I’ve got them worked out already."

"Then what do you need me for?"

"You’re my sidekick. Treasure hunting is nowhere near as fun without a sidekick."

"Aren’t sidekicks meant to be younger than the protagonist?" I said through gritted teeth.

He thought about it. "Perhaps, but I’ve been your sidekick heaps of times when we were kids. It’s about time you repaid the favour."

"Yes," I muttered to myself. "But at least my adventures were plausible."

My Comments

The first sentence of this excerpt is great.  Not only is it descriptive, but it establishes the narrator as an authority.  She knows things about Henry and how to deal with him, and she's going to share them with us.  When they round the corner and the three cans of Pepsi fling about the car, I laughed.  And then there's another great, subtle detail–Annie's seatbelt tightens on her.  Who hasn't experienced that?  And yet not everyone would think to use it as a way to describe the wild ride.  Small details like these are what add up to a unique voice.  And we're all looking to find our unique voices, aren't we?

I also love that Jessica has a great balance of characters in these two excerpts.  There's the wild, whimsical Henry and the practical Annie.  I want to go along on their adventure because I know Henry is going to get us into some crazy scrapes, but Annie will be there to pull us through.

The one thing I'd really pay attention to is making sure the dialogue works hard.  In the first excerpt particularly, I felt some of the back and forth was done for effect.  Nothing wrong with effect–it is a large part of our craft.  But it has to feel organic.  In other words, it has to be invisible.  But overall, I loved these two excerpts.  Great job, Jessica!

***If you would like to read the entire piece that Jessica took this from, go here.

Friday Mini-Critique: J.D. Frost

For our second critique volunteer, today we have J.D. Frost, who bravely submitted to my eagle eye, even after reading the first Friday Mini-Critique.   J.D. is a loyal and long-time blog reader–thanks, J.D.!  He's also a mystery author, in case you hadn't guessed from the following excerpts.  Visit his website here.

Excerpt #1


    Stuart Blake had done his duty.  He had visited his mother.  His Thursday afternoon was off to a good start, and he expected more of the same–until he steered into his driveway.  Stuart's neighbor, Ferguson, was in his "garden,” a tilled bit of soil in a recess at the midpoint of the old man's house.  The narrow structure was tight against Stuart's drive, no more than six inches off the concrete.  Ferguson and his dog, Spider, were always there.  Stuart's foot had barely touched the drive when the old man and his dog set in.

    "What did she feed you up in Mountain Brook: caviar?  It took long enough to get your fill of it.  I wasn't sure you were coming back."

    Stuart didn't respond.  He was more concerned with Spider.  The dog's sharp, shrill barks threatened his ear drums.  Worse, he wasn't sure if Spider was on a leash or ready to come racing under the car with his spiky little teeth bared.  Stuart valued his ankles as much as his ears.  He moved cautiously along the fender. He peeked over the hood, hoping to spot the little terror–wrong angle.

    "Why doesn't your mother come here?" Ferguson asked.

    "How should I know?" Stuart said, still craning for a better view.  "She doesn't explain her every move to me."

    The area in front of the bumper was clear.

    "You should know.  Aren't you her only son?  It just seems strange that anytime you have lunch or visit her for a holiday, you must go over the mountain."  "Over the mountain" referred to Mountain Brook, home to Birmingham's oldest and wealthiest families.  "Don't the Blakes come to this part of the city?"

My Comments

I like the way this opening immediately sets up Stuart's situation for us.  Plus, in setting up enough information for a good starting point, it also creates more questions. We know that Stuart is from a wealthy family–and yet his mother won't come visit him where he lives.  Is she ashamed of his circumstances? Has he done something wrong?  Why is he living here on the poor side of town, anyway?  Is he the black sheep of the family?   Yet he said his Thursday had already been good, so what happened to make it so? A lot of questions, and that is good because it creates the impetus for me to read farther.

A couple of quibbles: it seems to me that the barking of the dog should be presented in tandem with Ferguson's first line of dialogue.  They are described as "sharp, shrill barks" that "threaten his ear drums," loud enough that it would be difficult to hear Ferguson talking.  There's a bit of a disconnect, with the line of dialogue, then a couple lines of description, then the line about the dog barking.  It feels a little awkward and that could easily be solved by pairing the two.

Second, I think the first two sentences could be stronger.  Each of them contains the word "had" which is an inherently weak word.  What I object to is the repetition of the word.  Maybe something like this would read a bit smoother: "Stuart Blake had done his duty with a visit to his mother." 

But overall, I like the way J.D. mounts this scene and moves people around.  It is clear and easy to read, and it compels me to keep going.

Excerpt #2

Midway in the story:

A waiter, as anglo-saxon as the young lady who had seated them, took their drink order.  Ferguson ordered water.  Stuart ordered an ice tea–large.

    “Would you like me to take your food order now?”

    They each ordered.  The waiter had barely turned away when Ferguson leaned toward Stuart.  “Why can’t you drink water?”  His eyes flashed.  “It’s free.”

    “You’re complaining about a glass of tea after you blow the budget on raw fish!”

    “Quiet.  You’ll attract attention.”

    “Why, is he here?”

    “No, he’s not.  Do you see a black person in here other than me, Detective?  If you must know, I will not have to rely on super powers like you, not after speaking with Deke this morning.  He knew nothing about a Mario but he painted a picture of Reginald Sharpe.”

    “Deke, the guy you gave twenty bucks?  You don’t think he was just telling you anything, what you wanted to hear?”

    “He wouldn’t do that to me.  He owes me too much. ”

    “A picture?  You mean he described Sharpe to you?”

    “Yes,” Ferguson said.  “Ut-oh.” He quickly looked away from the door.  He whispered, “Speaking of Satan himself.”

My Comments

Well, that's certainly a good last line of dialogue–makes me want to keep reading to find out who Satan might be, in the world of Stuart Blake.  Is it Deke?  Is it Sharpe? Overall, though, I have a harder time with this excerpt, through no fault of J.D.'s.  Because it comes in the middle of the story, we have little context for the conversation the two are having. 

A couple observations:  I'm pleased to see Ferguson have a big role in the story, as I liked him as a thorn in Blake's side from the opening.  And thorns are good in fiction, the more of them, the better.  These two apparently have a classic detective/sidekick relationship that intrigues me.

Second, let's look at the description that opens the scene: "A waiter, as anglo-saxon as the young lady who had seated them…"  I'm not sure that is a description that brings an immediate image to mind.  What I think of as anglo-saxon may not be how you of it.  And neither of us may have the same image as the author.  So it is an example of a place where J.D. could go another layer deeper.

That's it!  I'm ready to go read your mystery novels, J.D.! Great job, and thanks for submitting your work.  And for anybody else brave enough….here's the original post which tells you all you need to know.  And you can read the first Mini-Critique here.