The mystery of the critique

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says the secret to his success as a detective is simple: “Order and method.” We writers could use a bit of that ourselves.

Elizabeth George, author of the Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries, has two criteria for evaluating fiction: strengths and inconsistencies. In other words, what did the writer do right, and are there any inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, tone, or language.

At the risk of second-guessing the author of 28 books, many of which have made it to TV, I’d like to add one more metric to the list: clarity.

Why is clarity important? Because what’s in the author’s head doesn’t always make it onto the page. Finding the holes in our story is like using a single mirror to see the back of our heads. We need a second opinion.

What about George’s criteria? I believe they are essential to good critiquing. Simple, but not widely practiced.

Consistency means the characters behave in a manner that is congruent with the personalities we’ve created for them. The language and tone should do the same.

The idea of strengths is simple but its application is often misunderstood. If we focus on the good parts of a manuscript, the writer will, too; hopefully the better work will crowd out some of the lesser stuff. That runs counter to some people’s philosophy—I’ve been stopped after class by those who want to know why I encourage a tiny piece of good writing in a sea of struggle—but that’s the exception to the rule.

What should writers avoid when critiquing a manuscript? In her work of nonfiction, Write Away, George urges us to forget about our own tastes. After reading or hearing a piece, many writers will say they liked or disliked the writing, characters, language, or plot. A typical response from even the most educated is, “I couldn’t get into it.”

That kind of critique doesn’t give the writer enough detail to improve, and might discourage an emerging talent. As George points out, it’s not our story. We’re not there to rewrite the work but to call out the strengths and flag the confusion. Did the writer mean to change point of view in mid-chapter? Is she experimenting with time by switching tense in mid-sentence? Those inconsistencies are concrete, measurable, and susceptible to improvement.

All of this boils down to a single question: are we critiquing the construction of the work or the content? If we develop a system that relies on order and method, we’ll know. And so will the reader.


A book by any other name . . .

Allusion Books logoThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved the registered mark of my publishing company, Allusion Books. Right now I’m only publishing books that I write, such as Peak Season, Riding with the Blues and a new crime series, Mr. Mayhem, due at the end of November.

The examining attorney for the USPTO did have to amend the identification of goods and services in my application to state that no claim is made to the exclusive right to use the word “books” apart from the mark as shown.  All you folks at the Big 5 publishing houses–Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster–you can breathe now.

Breaking the writer’s blockade

Today I’m working on the sequel to Peak Season and I’m stuck. The sequel’s called Tourist in Paradise. Someone is hunting visitors in the idyllic beach town of Spanish Point and CW McCoy will either solve the murders or wind up a victim of one.

The first 11 chapters went fairly well, with a bit of a rough patch during an open house at her new real estate office. I struggled with that scene for weeks until I hit upon the solution: cut the chapter. And like an ice-breaker in the arctic, that cleared the path.

Synopsis and scribbling

Until I got to Chapter 12, the bar scene where two of the Three Stooges (you remember them from the first novel) reappear to menace our heroine. Well, maybe I hadn’t paid attention to motive or maybe I hadn’t laid the groundwork for the scene, but it just didn’t work. And it went on forever. So, where is the ice-breaker when you need it?

When in doubt, think it through. Why is CW at the bar in the first place? What does she want to know? What would she logically do in the preceding scenes that would place her there?

I need a scene before this one. I actually have a scene I can use, one I’d placed further on in the book, one that addresses the logistical issues. What if I move that one? Chapter 12 becomes lucky Chapter 13, and now things makes sense.

Or will, whenever I get around to rewriting the new scene. Right now I need a break. My drink is warm.

I need some ice.

V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

Knucklehead or knuckleball? 3 tips on perfecting the PR pitch

When New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball, no one is sure where it will land. As a writer I’m not too proud to admit I’ve done the same thing at times—tossing ideas at editors without knowing how they’ll land.

To be more precise, we’ve all done as PR professionals what we dislike as editors: pitching without analyzing the audience. We’ve done it because we’ve lacked the time or patience to pull the editorial calendar or contact the blogger to determine her needs. I see it every day in my capacity as editor for The Builder Buzz, a social media newsfeed for the building and design trades. Mountains of releases clutter the inbox with appeals for coverage. Most of them are wobbly at best.

How do you ensure your pitch is on target? Here are three tips to crafting a more perfect PR pitch:

1. Know your audience’s audience. It’s basic but often overlooked: to create a better pitch you have to know your audience—what they like and how they prefer to receive their information. With editors and bloggers you need to know your audience’s audience. Examine the editorial calendars to determine what the editor wants. Then read the website, publication and blogs to determine what the readers, viewers and listeners want. As Amy McCarthy of says, “If you’re pitching a . . . product, say how it can help my demographic. Don’t just carpet-bomb everyone in your Vocus database and cross your fingers.”

2. Provide news both audiences can use. Editors know that to retain readers they must provide news those readers can use—service pieces with information the audience can put into practice. Don’t send a pitch or release announcing a website or asking a journalist to follow your organization through social media. Strive to provide something of value to the journalist and her audience.

3. Know the difference between internal and external news. Here’s where life gets difficult. Your boss wants you to pitch a story idea to an editor because it makes senior management look good. You sense the subject won’t matter to people outside the organization. Sarasota, Florida PR professional Heidi Smith has some advice. “Above all, answer the question, ‘Who cares?’” she tells BIZ (941) magazine. “If only your organization gives a hoot, it’s not news—it’s just an item for internal atta-boys, not the media.”

By following that advice you may not win a popularity contest at work. But at least you won’t feel like a knucklehead.

Jeff Widmer

A legacy worth preserving

The best part of judging a contest is seeing the large number of talented people in the communications field. The worst part is choosing among them.

When I was asked by Linda Koehler of the Times-News in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, to serve as one of the judges for the 2010 National Federation of Press Women Communications Contest, I thought the assignment would prove an easy one. Read the entries, create a rubric that encompasses the objectives and rate the contestants.

Simple but not easy. Reading the entries was a pleasure. Creating the rubric was fairly easy. It was the last part, rating the contestants, that proved a challenge.

The NFPW looks for the best writing and production values in virtually all forms of communication, from public relations and advertising to blogs and books. The organization requires entrants to submit a one-page summary of the project with details on objectives, audience and budget. Contest organizers provide judges with clear instructions to rate the entrants on whether they met their own objectives, not on one-size-fits-all standards. So far, so good.

Healthy Partners cover v1 issue 1There were 13 entries in the four-color magazine category. They included university, healthcare and tourism publications. All were very good, the scores on the rubric close. The winners were: Chelsey Baker-Hauck, Colorado, first place, the University of Denver Magazine; Heidi Jameson, South Carolina, second, Healthy Partners, a publication of the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System; and Andrea Cranford, Nebraska, third for Nebraska magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Alumni Association. The Virginia team of Laura Beck and Mike Freeman shared the honorable mention for the Official Richmond Region 2010 Visitors Guide.

All of the strong contenders had one thing in common: they focused their coverage on the people who benefited from their organizations’ services and not the services themselves. The Richmond Guide showed portraits of successful residents engaged in enjoyable activities. Nebraska used people-centric articles to illustrate larger trends. Healthy Partners packaged those kinds of stories in a clean, accessible design.

Denver magazine cover Our Wild West Jun 2009All did well. But my favorite was Denver Magazine. Under the guidance of Baker-Hauck, the managing editor, the magazine met its objectives with style, producing a themed issue in the summer of 2009 that contained some of the liveliest writing I’ve seen in years. Much of the credit goes to Baker-Hauck for helping to develop the theme — the Western legacy — and hiring the people to execute her strategy. The rest goes to writers like Richard Chapman, whose pair of articles, “Colorado’s College War” and “At Home on the Range,” kicked like a bronco. His two opening lines: “University Hall crouches like a stone lion” and “It’s a chilly January morning five days into the 2009 stock show and the president and CEO of the National Western is pausing to chat with a hobo.”

Peer-focused stories, lively subjects, descriptive writing. And to top it off, Denver Magazine included the results of a readership survey that defined the target audience and showed that editors were meeting their needs. Good marketing as well as editorial.

I’ve saved the best for last. It’s Baker-Hauck’s Editor’s Note, in which she explained the reason for the themed issue and grounded it in personal experience. Here’s the first paragraph:

“My West — the West of my youth — was one of blue-ribbon biscuits baked for the county fair; gathering eggs, still warm, from under the cushion of a hen who would peck you ferociously on the back of the hand if you didn’t move fast enough; stalking through a silent, frosted autumn forest with my dad during black powder season; waking up to find the neighbor’s prize bull looking in our picture window, and later having to scrub the thick track of bull slobber off the glass with vinegar and newspaper. There was ample time for running wild in the nearby Uncompahgre River bottom land, tossing rotten duck eggs from the hayloft, wading irrigation ditches and baking mudpies in the mailbox.”

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t get much better than that. Except maybe the Editor’s Note in the next issue, where she writes about getting her face licked by a wolf. Why is this good writing? Because it’s detailed and vigorous? Yes. But above all, the work captures the spirit of a person, time and place. The details illustrate a larger truth. That’s a tradition NFPW honors, one that writers, publishers and clients can, too.

It’s an easy choice.