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Critique Partners & Showing/Telling

For those of you about to enter #PitchWars, and for writers not used to working collaboratively yet, here is a post about Critique Partners.

You'll find them referred to as #CP on Twitter. You can search #CPMatch hashtags or the like to find them. You'll also find them by simply using the hashtag and by checking out the #PitchWars dashboard. Take advantage of this.


What is a CP?

What can you expect from a Critique Partner? Unlike Beta Readers, most of the CPs you'll encounter know a thing or twenty about writing a book (though writers often volunteer to Beta Read, too). Most of the time you share pages through Google Docs, where you can post comments for the author to accept or reject. The writers you critique are going to want your truth and you should want the same. But you are all free to disregard the points made.


What do you do?

When you are reviewing your CP notes, how do you know what to do? Believe it or not, this CP review and practice will help prepare you for agent and editor reviews. It's hard, sometimes even gut wrenching. That's why it's best to read the notes and sleep on it. Your second or third reading pass will make most necessary edits clear. When it doesn't, then take the time to weigh all the factors, then make the best editing decision for your book that you can.

It is an accepted norm in this business that if you get several comments that are the same, you should pay attention. Still, ultimately, you know your book better than anyone else.


Be prepared: Show v. Tell

There is one big subject matter that you should be prepare for, and that is "Show vs. Tell" critiques, or comments on Exposition. Look, we writers know what that is. We can see it in another's work as if it is lifting and dancing off the page. But excising exposition, or showing vs. telling isn't as black and white as you'd think.

Sometimes authors need to tell. Let's face it, most of the time showing takes longer than telling (though not always).

And when it comes to critiquing exposition, the truth is that there are multiple levels of skill in "showing" vs. telling. You can show what happened very much like a script shows direction, with action. But when you drill down and show through a character's emotion, through stronger verbs and nouns, through senses, that is when you'll really hit

a home run.

So what do you do for showing vs. telling? As a CP, do you always point it out? Or do you simply point it out when the showing could make the emotion better? On the flip side, how do you take a CP note about it?

These things are for you to decide, but don't go into it blindly. And don't accept the comment without thought.

When I CP, it depends on the strength of the manuscript and what is wanted, but I will definitely point if the author is missing a chance to show more in an important moment. More detail, more emotion. Yes, opening pages need to show off a writer's talent, as well as capture an agent, editor, and audience, so too much exposition there must be pointed out, also.


Alright, let's dive deeper. Here is an example taken from one of my unpublished manuscripts. This is from a first draft of a thriller set in the '80s that I haven’t yet picked back up to edit. It’s a good passage to demonstrate the differences, both big and little.


Matt had thrown his hands up, motioning for John to calm down. He even said it, calm down, friend. But Joe’s eyes blinked and cleared, as if he’d made a sudden decision. Then he walked to Matt, hands held in front of him. “It was me. I did it. Arrest me, I was lying to you to try to get away with it.”

They all began talking at once.

While John said, “Pops?” Matt told his friend: “Shut up, Joe. It’s not like that.” And Kitty cursed behind them: “Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch!”


The above passage is verbatim how I wrote it. I try to write fast, seeing details and committing them to paper, knowing I'll go back and stretch the scene, the tension, the emotion. So given that I was writing fast, (especially fast because this was for #NaNoWriMo2018), this does the job and isn't terrible, as it doesn't have a ton of exposition.

That kind of telling would have been like this (with a bit more facts added).


Joe was angry about the situation. His best friend Matt, his high school buddy turned sheriff, was here, accusing his son of murder. It had to be that woman’s fault, she thought she was something now that she was a hot-shot lawyer. Matt had always had the hots for her, maybe, now that she was back, he’d do anything to get in her pants. John hadn’t done anything, Joe knew it, regardless of what she said. John knew better than to take his dad’s prize possession for a spin. He couldn’t have done anything. And, yet, here they were, clearly accusing the kid.

Even in his fury, Joe could see Matt’s hands waiving at him, see his mouth moving, calm down. Well, he’d tell Matt a thing or two.

Then, he saw dirt on the usually pristine tires. He blinked. His son! What had the fool done?

Without thinking, he raised his hands and told Matt to arrest him instead, he’d confess to the whole thing. That’s when they all started arguing, John in disbelief, Matt telling him to shut up. Funny thing is, that lawyer girlfriend of his was cursing like a pro.


The above is exposition, even though it is "close" telling, which saves it a little bit. It is told through Joe’s POV, so the reader is in his head. But the he tense situation has more distance. It’s not as easy to read and is less compelling. It’s even more wordy. The reader doesn’t necessarily see what is happening unfold, and has to work harder to imagine it.

Alright, let’s go back and clean up that first draft a bit, so it’s easier to read and "show" more (also I'll make a name correction). We are going to use stronger nouns and verbs to dramatize, refrain from having a character tell us in his head what is happening, except by active dialogue, use the senses to show what the characters are experiencing, and dramatize the scene.


Crap! Joe’s going to blow. Heart hammering, Matt threw his hands up, motioning for Joe to: “Calm down, friend.” But Joe ignored him. inspecting the classic Camero, instead, fists clenched and breaths hard. Then, Joe’s eyes blinked and cleared, as if he’d made a sudden decision. He turned to Matt and thrust his hands in front of Matt’s face, voice trembling.

“It was me. I did it. Arrest me, I was lying to you to try to get away with it.”

They all began talking at once.

While John said, “Pops?” Matt told his friend: “Shut up, Joe. It’s not like that.” And Kitty cursed behind them, kicking the dirt like a two-year old: “Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch!”


Though Matt’s inner voice is telling us that Joe is about to blow, it gets us closer to the situation through a dramatization of his thoughts. Next, we see Matt's feeling with the active “heart hammering.” Then I paired down the repetitive sentence and used the motion at the same time as the dialogue, making for a quicker read. As to Joe’s hands, in order to show his feeling, he makes the motion with the dialogue and his “voice trembling.” Also, instead of just holding his hands out, he thrusts them, a stronger verb that shows much more of his feeling. I'd like to also show that his hands were cold, but if I did it would have to be through Matt touching him (since we aren't in Joe's head), and that would slow it down, so I left it out.

The dialogue after that is strong, so though I could show more of what they are feeling, it will slow the scene down and stop the intensity. Instead, where it ends is a good moment to slow it down, so we see Kit’s character shining through a bit more, with her stomping the ground and cursing. Yes, it's a cliched example, but it works for draft 2, especially for Kit.


Hopefully that helps a bit. I'd encourage you to study this, though, especially if you are about to go through some CP rounds.

I'm currently reading "Understanding Show, Don't Tell: (And Really Getting It)," by Janice Hardy, which dives deep into the subject.

For another writing tip, see my blog on Dialogue, from an actor's POV.

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