Since 2002, I've been helping writers develop and refine their book-length works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as their short stories. I'm pleased that many of those writers have gone on to land agents, get book contracts, and publish their work.
Please keep an eye out for workshops offered through writers.com. You can also read what writers have said about my critiques there.
In addition to writers.com, I sometimes offer private classes for Outlining the Novel, Continuing Workshops, as well as individual manuscript critiques.
For private classes with weekly assignments, please contact me for rates.
Manuscript critiques for both book-length works and short stories run $60.00 per hour. I can help with in-text work (sentence-level comments and line editing), global work (overall structure, plot formation, characterization, point-of-view, dialogue, setting, and more), or both global and line-level work, depending upon your needs. I can help with the publishing process, from submissions practices to query letters and finding appropriate agents. I'm more than happy to work within the context of your needs.
Typical critiques for short stories run about one-to-two single-spaced pages. Novel and non-fiction critiques generally run five-to-seven single-spaced pages.
SAMPLE NOVEL CRITIQUE
Below is a sample critique for a book-length manuscript. PLEASE NOTE the title of the work has been "XX"'ed out, and character names have been shortened to single letters, in order to keep anonymity.
There’s plenty of excellent work in XXX XXXX XX. I admire the expansiveness you’ve demonstrated, in terms of ideas. The submission has broad scope, emotional commitments, fated lives, and a generous touch of imagination. Coupled with the immigration themes and the current plight of many, as well as the clash over borders and worlds, the book is topical. And with its interesting characters, philosophical ponderings, and lovely (though oftentimes brutal) depiction of landscape and place, XXX XXXX XX is full of possibility.
Many of your lines are just gorgeous. I noted them while reading, both for their beauty and depth. You definitely show off your skills here when it comes to lyrical writing. You’ve also shown quite a knack for dialogue that feels appropriate and, for the most part, authentic to the plot and characters. You write about other cultures so well, which speaks to your natural empathy as a writer. Brava.
On a fundamental level, the structure here is pretty straightforward. You stage the scene and move forward in time, filling in some background information on S’s and L’s past (sometimes as backfill, other times as dialogue). In a few other places, we get other characters’ histories (such as I’s), sometimes in backstory/summary and other times in dialogue.
I will pause here to say I would suggest cutting, completely, that backstory about D and S’s history that takes place on (my page) 34. In the end, D isn’t all that important to the overall pages (i.e. minor character), and he drops out of the narrative after S leaves the vineyard, only to be mentioned once more, toward the end, as a possible suspect in M’s murder. But that’s not worth the development of a distracting backstory, even if a paragraph. It’s clear enough from the present-minded scenes that S trusts D, has history with him, and thinks they are close. The scenes and dialogue already convey that.
Similarly, with regard to the backstory strategy in the forward-moving plot: I would also advise against breaking up S’s backstory about the killing and what happened with Uncle I and L later. While it’s generally an okay strategy to break up backfill in a little dance across pages, doing that here means we have to reconsider things as new information is introduced—L’s rape or molestation, who did what, who took revenge, etc., and I’m not really sure what tension or expectation you’re adding by giving the information to us this way, particularly with S’s memories of the murders, beating, and rape. Best to just tell the entire story and be done with it, or tell it in one lump of data and then repeat references to one or two events (like the killings or the rape, etc.). Specifically, the information around page 149 threw me off. I would have liked this information sooner.
Again while I’m here, and with regard to L’s molestation: Having S witness this would most assuredly be traumatic, yet narratively it’s handled with relatively little detail and quickly glossed over. How about instead you have S focus on some bizarre detail that he can’t let go of—something small that he notices during this event. Overall, too, I would have the incident be horrific—not a “molestation” but a full-blown rape. Then slow down the scene in order to convey its intensity. When people experience traumatic moments they register things more than usual, sense-wise, and time often seems to slow down, not speed up. Writers often play up this fact by recording highly dramatic moments with unusual detail and focus. In doing that—using deceleration, registering unusual details, etc.—you’ll create the sense of intensity and trauma. You already do this quite well with the parents’ deaths.
The remembered sections with Uncle I. telling the story of night and day, good and evil are repeated at least twice, and pretty much with the same information. Consider having the story told only once, then just repeat a reference to it in a line or two later, here and there. No need to rehash the same long-ish narrative. Also, while I love the story for its poetry and mythical qualities, I’m confused by it, given that many bad things do happen at night in this book. (The rape of the drunk woman, the prostitutes, even the coyotes, the calves being orphaned, placed in danger, etc.) So the key thematic lines got a little shaky for me as I read. L even points out how the story isn’t true, given what happens to women at night. You might want to revisit these sections for overall clarity. Easy enough to tweak things, should you agree. You want to nail it, given that it seems to be tied up with the story’s core themes.
Really, though, my main areas of concern have to do with creating more narrative tension by exploiting plot points to greater degrees and also getting the various narrative threads to align more tightly so that it feels events are truly creating conflict and driving the plot forward to an inevitable climax in an active, dynamic way, one often fueled by your protagonist and his deliberate actions.
I noted quite a lot of what I call “irony of invention” when it comes to S’s actions, where you write into the work what it is actually lacking: “He’d known no one and had no plan” (175); “He couldn’t help but think that this was another random event” (175); It didn’t matter that his enemies were gathered outside searching for him (170); “Remember this, I chose this life for myself knowing what it meant. Your life was thrust upon you. My cause is my family. What is your cause?” (169); “What was foremost in my mind, what forced me to do what I did, was fear for you. I didn’t think through beyond that” (169); S had no plan when he came here, only to find and warn L, and escape himself (165); He had to think about his next move for tomorrow, not worry about this woman and what she did with her life (86), etc.
In light of the previous paragraph, and in terms of action that forms the backbone of plot, one thing to consider and define more solidly is S’s need or goal and to hold it consistently in mind, all while making sure, in the process, that the subplot threads (love interest, R thread, gang cartel thread, etc.) are working with the main plot and not against it. A few deft strokes would increase both emotion and tension.
Right now S leaves the vineyard because he’s shot M, and M says the drug lords will go after L. For all we know, he may or may not be lying, but at least S’s goal is defined early on (save L), and it sets things into motion: S needs to find his sister at all costs. Excellent! But then when he gets caught up with R and I that focus grows more diffuse as we get his developing romantic interest, as well as his distrust of R’s (and I’s) intentions, and as he’s caught up in bar bouncing, tire deliveries, cockfighting rings, and so forth. Yes, he wants money to get to L, but why wouldn’t he just ditch R when he can, money or not, given that the pressing need is to reach his sister, and R’s standing in the way of that with his stupid game playing? In the scheme of things, there’s no reason to stick with R. He’s currently pretty ancillary to the main, overriding goal and plot.
But then L comes on stage, regardless, with very little effort on S’s end. There’s no real impediment in the way of M or drug dealers, and we find out she’s been okay all along. In fact, L’s even better than okay. She emerges as quite strong, all while S seems to lose his drive and focus as the pages unfold. We end up finding out M has died and presumably was never after either S or L—his body is discovered right where we left him, more or less—at the vineyard. The police are on S’s trail, but there’s no fallout with them, either. They are all just sort of phantom figures in the story.
In light of that, one might argue there’s a descending, not ascending, tension as the pages unfold, which of course affects the climax, which ideally should function to pull together the primary characters (protagonist and antagonist) into one last “big” scene and “big” action where the overall driving question/initial action of the plot is resolved, and where the heart/moral/theme (whatever you want to call it is fine) of the story is basically laid bare. Other players— “subplot” or secondary players—might be present for the climax, sure, but the bulk of the action is still resolved between protagonist and antagonist.
But because the goal gets muddied and stalled out, and because your initial threat (drug dealers personified in the character, M) dies at someone else’s (unnamed) hands, we end up with no real climax. Instead we shift gears to stories told to us, the emphasis on family, S’s semi-wishes for a new family, his taking up causes (building houses, smuggling needed medicine to poor areas in Mexico), and in the last lines, his idea of going to a new vineyard (where he will become that cause fighter L wants, or not? I was unclear).
In all this, I’m not really sure how S’s not going to get caught by the police or drug lords, given that he’s now wanted for a murder he didn’t commit and botched an expensive operation (poppies). I’m not sure what the end fallout is with I…he thinks about a family but then seems (?) to let her go. And I don’t know what happened exactly with M after S left. C is a bit muddy, too: He seems to be getting a little better each time S talks to him, but then in the end S imagines him among the dead.
To some extent my confusions at the end have simply to do with resolving the narrative lines more and spending a little more time with them on the page, laying bare those outcomes in hard, rather than abstract, terms. This requires extending the scenes and final pages. But I have some other suggestions for strengthening the overall backbone of the story, all while hopefully creating more tension and aligning your subplots and minor characters with it. As always, please take or leave these suggestions, as you see fit.
One idea might be that L is in very real danger, not just potential danger. So maybe because of all her cause fighting, she’s crossed paths with the drug dealers and has already been taken by them at the start of the novel. She can still be at the cemetery, and she can still be feared as a witch by even the drug lords (hence they give her wide berth), but maybe she’s being kept there in some way and/or threatened. Or maybe she’s been keeping tabs on S even though they’re estranged and somehow it’s leaked to M that L’s brother tends a large vineyard, M’s people take L captive, and set out to blackmail S in order to grow their poppies on C’s land. Or maybe some combination of both.
That will, in turn, thrust S on the horns of a dilemma. He loves C like a family member, but he loves his sister, too. More than that, he feels guilt for leaving L. So in that version of slightly, differently cast plot point(s), you’ve upped tension, maybe even forcing S reluctantly to agree and turn his eye the other way with the dope planting, all in an effort to save his sister. So he’s already gotten in trouble at the outset, by his own (however reluctant) choice.
Then he’d be thrust upon a new dilemma, wouldn’t he? Because he’d feel guilty about betraying C, too. So maybe he ends up telling C (again, however reluctantly), because fundamentally S is an honest man. Then you’ve got a new dilemma: Will C fire him? Turn him in? What is the consequence of S’s DIRECTED actions? Or maybe you can have it as you do now: He’s angry, sure, but C understands S was trying to help family and they unite around that idea, because lost family is important to both of them. Then together they do the right thing: They burn down the crop.
It’s sort of there already, but plot points can be tightened and strengthened even more to both up tension and make S more active and directed. The dead body can still be there with a note from L (might need to be modified if she’s in danger/being held). The cops can be sniffing around. Things might get even more out of hand while S is away (new plot points—up the tension more), and so forth. But S will emerge stronger if he’s more dynamic—if he acts more than he is acted upon. And there’ll be more at stake for S if L is in the hands of drug lords already, and there’s more trouble that S gets into, all while trying to do the best he can, given those choices.
Then, in order to sustain tension, I would suggest M be kept alive. So if S shoots him and burns the crop, now M’s really ticked off and L is worse off for it. And we know that for sure, because he already has her. Time might be running out. Maybe they are expecting the poppy delivery or they’ll harm L. Action needs to have consequences, not imagined ones or random ones. Play around! You can invent better than I can.
Regardless, I’d like to see S square off against M more. We’re told V and C are at the cockfighting ring now, but nothing really happens. What if M is there? What if he is in charge of the ring? Let’s get these two facing off more. Keep the pressure on.
If you do moves like that, you might begin to see ways in which you can more tightly align your subplot of R and I to the main plot. R partakes in cockfighting (and maybe even some illegal drug smuggling, though that’s currently unclear). So maybe R is involved with M and knows all along who S is, and maybe even I does, too. R might be reluctantly involved with M, too, which might make him more sympathetic, a man who can turn into an ally for S. This would work if M held something over R, too…maybe something to do with B? I? Or both? Or R might genuinely be a weaker version of M and an enemy. Either could work. But what I hope you see is that having all these players more enmeshed and connected solidifies the primary and secondary plots, melding them together more, and keeping the pressure on. Hell, I might even be M’s lover and the father of B. Again: I’m spinning possibilities. Take what makes sense to you.
I also wonder if you might up the tension with the police sooner. If C has the stroke that night of the crop burning, and if M is alive, maybe that leaves M to tell the story of how S shot him, planted the poppy crop, and maybe even got C upset (enough to cause physical harm). Maybe M recruits D and the guys to back up his story. Maybe they even pin the murder of the dead guy on S (which would effectively use the body more). There’s lot more tension M can add if alive and not dead. It’s good if you can get all these elements interrelated and in service to the one overriding conflict.
Without more tightly unifying the causality around the threads, I’m left perplexed as to how R even finds L at all, or why he would need to or want to. Right now we’re told there is only the cryptic text from R saying he found her, but I’m not really sure why or how he would be on her trail. Having R at least tied more tightly to M could open up exciting new plot twists.
Another way you might be able to play it is if I is somehow attached to L. Maybe L helped get her out of trouble—maybe something with B, maybe a life of prostitution and not exotic dancing. You raise good questions about both I’s and R’s integrity and trustworthiness. Have the plot actually answer those questions and resolve them.
And of course if M is kept alive and tied even more closely to L, R, and I, then things might escalate to a final confrontation over L, where something happens between them that resolves the initial goal or need and conflict. But right now because we lose the antagonist, the ending feels anticlimactic, or the focus somehow misplaced as we drift to more abstract ideas and images. I’d still like to find out how things resolve to fuller degrees—with M, with I (love thread), and even with C.
You could further tighten in other ways. When I was working with Albert, we talked a lot about how plots are tightened by collapsing characters. So right now S has (essentially) three fathers: his real dad, Uncle I, and C. I can understand C being a surrogate father for S in America, and I like the bond they share. We don’t get a whole lot of S’s real dad, who I assume he loved most. That said, the stories and plotline of political resistance that you give Uncle I might be given to S’s father instead. Maybe he is the leader of a resistance and tells the stories of night and day, good and evil. Maybe, though a farmer or whatever, he is larger than life in his community, as is Mom.
If you made S a little older when the deaths happen, Uncle I and Dad might be collapsed without really changing much of the content, as you have it. There’s only one line that makes I critical now, and that’s delivered late in the narrative by L when she tells S that he was raised by a man other than his father (this line is delivered with regard to B). But given that it doesn’t seem S stays with I (? Still a bit unclear on that), the line seems less pressing. I don’t know…just something to consider there.
POV: So we’re in S’s head for most of this book, but when we get to L somewhere around page 150 or so, we jump into her head. I am of two thoughts on this. The first is that we’ve spent a lot of time in S’s consciousness so the shift is bound to feel jarring. Also, there are ways we can get L’s thoughts without slipping into her head, many of which were addressed in our class together. I just read IMPROVEMENT by Joan Silber not too long ago, and though I love her work, I found all the introductions of new characters/POVs jarring and didn’t feel invested by page 130 or so. So that’s always a risk with a move like you’re doing. Even there, though, Silber employs this technique consistently in the text, so it’s a strategy & contract with the audience.
That said, I also favor ‘getting away’ with things on the page. To my mind, too many writers function under really mistaken ideas about what literature is, and can or can’t do. Often these mistaken notions can inhibit, hobble and confine writing. So the other part of me might make a case for L being such a strong woman that her POV takes over the text once she’s on stage. That would work best if the main point of the entire story has to do with women empowerment/women being the real warriors—in other words, if it aligned with the story’s overall progression and themes. There are some themes of this empowerment now, but I’m not sure it’s the main theme (otherwise it would be enacted more fully with I, too, I’d think).
These are things you have to weigh. It’s chancier to mix it up, to my mind. But you will always hear about what people think ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ (and, as I said, opinions vary, even at NY houses). But that doesn’t necessarily prohibit a work from being published or from getting away with something that causes the reader to ponder the choice.
And both things said, if it was just an unconscious slip and you didn’t intend it, then just clean it up in those pages and stick to S.
Really, XXX, you’re a gifted writer with great ideas, and I do believe you’re on the right track with this. The more passes (in terms of revision), the more you can refine things even more.
I wish you great success,