Critiquing: When You’re
At A Loss For Kind Words.

By PJ Parrish

I might have to kill the bird.

Emily Dickinson’s poem is heavily with me this week. You know the line: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

I might have to tell a writer to give up on her story and start over. And believe me, I know how that stings.

Over the decades, I’ve critiqued hundreds of manuscripts. I’ve read countless manuscripts and short stories for contests, including for Mystery Writers of America anthologies and the inaugural year of the ITW Thriller Awards. Shoot, back in my newspaper days, I was a preliminary screening judge for the Pulitizers.

I’ve also done maybe a hundred charity critiques for writing conferences. Since joining The Kill Zone, I’ve done quite a few First Pagers. And I’ve had, oh, maybe 30 or so friends or acquaintances ask me to read their stuff. Some of them are still talking to me.

Let me interject here. I am not saying this to set-up a woe-is-me whine-fest. I’ve done this willingly, happily, and in most cases, with true affection for the brave souls who put themselves out there. But here’s the thing:

You can tell quickly if a submission is good. I’ve heard countless editors and agents say this, and it’s true. Screenwriter Josh Olsen wrote about this in The Village Voice in his essay “I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script.” (Click here for link. Warning: his language is salty.) Money graph:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

I work hard on the critiques I do, whether it’s a full manuscript or 450 words for First Pagers here. I try hard to be truthful but constructive. I start with the notion that even in the rawest submission, there is something good to say.

Until there is not.

Every once in a blue moon, I get a manuscript that is truly hopeless. Such is my dilemma this week. I am critiquing a partial for a regional writer’s conference. And for the first time, I don’t know what the heck to tell this writer without coming off like a….fill in the negative noun of your choice.  I’ll go with arse because it’s the cleanest one I can think of.

So I will tell you guys. Because maybe it will help someone out there who might recognize, from this example, a misstep off their plot path or a failure of character construction. (Note: I have heavily disguised the details of this submission).

It runs five chapters and about 50K words. Quick synopsis.

Chapter 1: Opens fast with an already-has-happened abduction of two teenage girls. Opening line to the effect of: Greta could see nothing. They are blindfolded and bound, in the trunk of a car. Scene is all from one girl’s POV. Greta is thinking about where they are going and why. She hears one man say one line, “We know what your mother did.” Nothing else. Car stops, trunk opens. Greta senses bright sunlight creeping around the edges of her mask. End of chapter.

Chapter 2: Greta is sitting on a bench on a Miami Beach boardwalk, watching the sun go down. Lots of description of this. Her friend Ellen joins her. They talk about school and Ellen’s crush on a boy. They decide to go get something to eat then go to Club Salsa, sneak in with their fake IDs and meet some guys. They get in Greta’s VW and drive away from the beach. End of chapter.

Chapter 3: Opens at Mexican restaurant with long description of atmosphere. More dialogue about what they will do after school. Greta is upset that her mother expects her to become a lawyer like her. Ellen says she wants to go out of state to get away from family. They pay and leave. End of chapter.

Chapter 4. Opens with long description of Miami and Little Havana as Greta drives to the club. They sit in parking lot and a car with two guys pulls up. Description of loud music coming from the car. One of the boys tries to pick up Ellen as Greta hangs back. The two couples go into the club. End of Chapter.

Chapter 5: Opens with abductors ordering Greta and Ellen to climb out of the trunk and take off their blindfolds. Greta looks around at what appears to be desolate scrubland (The Everglades? She isn’t sure) and sees a small nondescript building. END OF SAMPLE

Okay, let me have it. Because I know you guys know exactly what is wrong here. Let’s hit the major points first, then I will get into more detailed issues.

First, the time line is screwed up. Like whiplash, screwed up. Chapter 1 is present-time action. But chapters 2-4 are all flashback, setting up “the normal world” of Greta and Ellen before the disruption (kidnapping). Second, in chapters 2-4, NOTHING IS GOING ON, PLOT-WISE.

I know what happened here. The writer fell into the trap that we (especially James) talk about often here. Writers want to create sympathy for their protagonists, so they feel compelled to world-build the characters’ nice lives before they get wrecked on the rocks. But this writer, in her heart of hearts, sensed the boredom of chapters 2-3, so decided to tack on a frontispiece frenetic action scene. Then she realized the plot corner she had painted herself into and three chapters later, jumped back to the present-time abduction scene.

I don’t know if she intends to keep moving back and forth between present and past. Gawd, I hope not. It’s exhausting for writer and readers.

The other issues:

Point of view: Except for a lapse into Ellen’s POV at the club for a few lines (yes, head-hopping in mid-scene), we are in Greta’s POV. Problem is, Greta not a very interesting narrator. The writer misses using what I call sensory logic when Greta is blindfolded. (For example, she says the car has moved onto I-95 but cannot see this).  Illogically, we get almost no feelings or thoughts from Greta about what danger they are in.

Dialogue: It is all trivial, banal girl chit-chat about college, boys, parents. Dialogue must do one of two things: Say something unique or say something uniquely. It should advance the plot and/or enhance character.

Description: The writer is in love with the sound of her own voice. Every chance she gets, she tells us what things looks like (hello, there are five senses!). Overwrought writerly imagery that does not sound true to a teenager’s sensibility.

Choreography: Moving characters through time and space is easy. Keep it simple and clear. This writer spends way to much time driving around (the abductors and the girls). The chapter should begin in situ: “The club was hot and crowded by the time they got in past the bouncer.” Not, they drove across the MacArhtur Causeway, passing through Overtown and finally reached Eighth Street, where they parked in a lot next to Club Salsa).

So I am sure you guys see the problems. My question is, what do I do with this? I usually try to suggest to struggling writers some possible solutions, some ways to get back on the true path. I don’t know, from a “mere” 50 pages what the nut story is. I’m guessing it involves something dark about Greta’s mom’s past that has caused the abductors to target Greta and Ellen. Geez, I sure hope so because we need some meat.

I truly don’t what to tell this person.

Actually, I do know. She has to throw this out and start over.

I’ve written often here that WHERE you choose to open your story is one of the most important decisions you make. You are parachuting your reader into a strange world and if you don’t pick the right moment, they will crash into the trees, the chute won’t open, or they will drift off into the ether. Most of the time, writers get into a scene too early. We get cops who are awakened by phone calls and told to come to the crime scene instead of opening with the cop at the scene. We get characters who think, ponder, muse and wonder before they finally act — Denise had long thought about killing Mark, but he had been a pretty decent husband for 20 years now. She remembered the day he proposed…

This writer, I think, got into her chapter 1 too late. By opening with the girls already blindfolded and “senseless” we have been deprived of an even juicer action scene of the actual abduction. So maybe open with them at Club Salsa and Greta notices a shady older guy following them. The creepy man disappears but Greta is shaken and tells Ellen they have to leave. Then, maybe in the lot, maybe in a dicey neighborhood, they are abducted.

What then? Well, we know, right? You stay in the present and keep your plot momentum moving forward. So how do you then rebuild the “normal” lost world? By switching perhaps to Greta’s mom’s POV after she realizes Greta is gone. By brief slashes of backstory via Greta’s memory. By bringing in other characters who can fill in the gaps. Action, then explanation.

Sigh, again. Back to my dilemma. I read and re-read this submission, trying hard to find something positive to say. I ended up in the same place Josh Olsen did. From his essay:

So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.

Hope is, truly, the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And, as Dickinson goes on to say, “Sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird.” I am at a loss for kind words.

Bird killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

p.s. I apologize for any typos today. Had cataract surgery Friday. Am fine but one-eyed until they get around to the other one. Argh.


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

34 thoughts on “Critiquing: When You’re
At A Loss For Kind Words.

  1. I’d put together a list (meant for true beginners) of books on craft, including plotting systems – put a checkmark next to the most egregious problems and the books that would help – and hope the writer has good intentions and the capacity to learn.

    Most people who say they want to write a book never do – this person will either keep at it and learn, write, and study – or not, more depending on what else they have in their life than anything you can say to them at this stage. But a list is somewhere to start.

    If they have a good grasp of some basic English skills such as capitalization and punctuation and spelling – mention that as a positive.

    It is not wrong to encourage those who you might deem hopeless right now – because SOMETHING is making them want to tell a story. Even applying for an award means determination, and we all know that’s the main requirement. So a couple of suggested books (and the full list) plus a couple of compliments if any are possible, and you’ve done what you can for this particular writer.

    • Good idea, Alicia. I have a good reading list on craft and will also tell her about our site and James’s books. Excellent suggestion. And of course you are right — the desire to tell a story is strong. I can make that passion a good point in her favor. Thanks.

  2. Greta may be blindfolded but she’s not senseless. If the writer must start there (I like your idea to start in the club), then she needs to rely on her other senses I.e., the bumpiness of the road, rancidness of the trunk, pebbles kicking up in the wheel wells beneath her, counting seconds to gauge distance. Inner dialogue should show confusion and hint at the pieces Greta remembers (the club, the strange guy, the talk she had with her millionaire father about abduction, where she could dribble in one line of backstory).

    It’s more difficult to exclude sight (I’ve written many abduction scenes) but it can also be a lot more powerful. The main point I’d stress is to hint, dribble, and tease. The reader doesn’t need answers yet.

    Then tell the writer to delete all the chapters in between the abduction scenes. It’ll be a great learning experience. 😁

    • Hint, dribble and tease. I like that. And you’re spot on about the senses that Greta (and the writer) should be using. She DOES seem to comprehend when the road changes from pavement to gravel but that’s about it. The smells, etc, of the trunk are underdeveloped. As is her sense of terror.

  3. An interesting discussion. I don’t view it as hopeless. What’s the phrase we’ve heard many times? Writing is re-writing? We know we have to revise our work. The question is–how much? Different projects require different amounts of rework. It’s part of the challenge.

    So as I read your description of the issues, I didn’t view it any differently than any other critique. Start with finding something positive to say, then bring to light the recommendations for revision. And I’ve been in positions where it’s difficult, but not impossible, to find something positive to say. Even if the positive isn’t about the writing itself–there’s the effort that went into writing the 50k manuscript, the interest in telling Greta’s story, etc.

    I always view it that it’s up to me to be honest in my critique, and up to them to decide what to do with it. That’s how I want people to critique me. How else can I learn? (and sometimes the learning feels like a slooooow process but I’ve never been able to give up no matter how long the learning takes).

    • Yeah, you’re right BK. Today, i feel less hopeless about my critique. Maybe it’s because I can see — literally — more clearly today and am not as crabby. Thanx.

  4. Heck, Kris, this post works as a spot-on critique. When I review a MS, I always give suggestions for craft study (a la Alicia, above) to deal with what I see are the major issues.

    As I read Ch. 1 I thought this is a good start, it could work like a suspense rocket a la Richard Laymon. Ch. 2 of course is confusing, unless there’s a time stamp, or a “Five Hours Earlier” deal which can work in skilled hands (which a new author rarely has).

    My suggestion would be to throw out chs. 2-4 and as the plot moves use one or both of the strategies you suggest: a POV switch and/or dropping in bits of backstory (I call these “backflashes” as oppossed to full-on flashbacks). Maybe read some Koontz, like Intensity, or the aforementioned Laymon, e.g., Endless Night.

    • Yup…you and the others are reinforcing my decision to tell her to junk the flashback chapters. Because, as you say, even in the hands of a seasoned writer, jumping back and forth in time is really tough. Will suggest “Intensity.” Haven’t read that one myself. Maybe I will DL it for my Italy vacation this spring. Am looking for good suggestions. Any good books set in Italy, BTW? I always try to read something set in the country where I am.

  5. Ugh. I feel your pain! I have done preliminary judging for a number of contests and have faced the same dilemma. “Good use of grammar and punctuation” works as the top of the hamburger. Then the meat, followed by “suggested craft books”. Good luck!

  6. “Good use of grammar and punctuation” — tucking that away to use! This sounds like a very new writer who has a good idea but doesn’t know how to execute it. I like Alicia suggestion of putting an appropriate craft book beside a problem.

    I often suggest this blog to new writers, particularly the first page critiques. There is so much to learn there.

    • Yes, I am going to give her a list of good basic craft books. And that she check in here. I always feel for writers who do have a passion and a good idea and then lack the skills to bring it to life. I was there once. 🙂 Luckily, I had an agent at the time who told me to throw away what I had written and go home and read PD James and Mike Connelly. (The latter of whom who threw away several MSs before The Black Echo.)

  7. From your description, I don’t think you need to tell the writer to “give up on her story.” She’s got a good basic idea — the kidnapping — but the timeline is jumbled and she’s got extra stuff that’s not helping the pace. Like someone above said, suggest craft books for her to read and some novels in her genre as well. It may sting, but she’s asking for a critique. The story doesn’t sound hopeless to me, but she’s definitely got work ahead.

    • In the past, I have often given a writer a second chance to speak with me about the critique because sometimes, you can’t quite get the point. Sometimes, it has worked out great — the writer and I can drill down on what needs to be done. But too often, I got alot of what I call “Yeah, but…” responses. Yeah, but if you only read three more chapters. “Yeah, but I want to be obscure here.” And my favorite: “Yeah, but you don’t understand my style.” I am not going to give up on this writer.

  8. Kris, “truthful but constructive” nails it.

    Instead of saying throw it out and start over, you could send her sections of the excellent critique and suggestions you gave here. You could call this her “discovery draft”, sort of like her outline and her personal notes to herself, where she’s getting to know characters and situation. But not all that background needs to go into the final story.

    Your suggestion of starting with the girls in the club is great. They’re already in a tense situation, knowing they’re underage and could be thrown out. Then there’s the shady guy watching them, following them. They try to leave but, bam, his cohorts jump them outside the door and shove them into the trunk.

    That idea may catch her interest and give her inspiration to start there instead.

    I’ve critiqued many stories like this. There are usually three possible reactions:
    1. The writer storms off and never speaks to you again. No matter what you say, you can’t help them b/c they don’t really want critique–they want someone to tell them their ugly baby is beautiful.
    2. The writer looks at your suggestions and decides this is too much work so they give up and instead try painting or needlepoint or cooking or….
    3. The writer listens…and improves.

  9. I don’t think we should ever discourage a new writer. (Are first efforts ever good?) Of course, that doesn’t mean we should encourage poor writing, and honest reproof is a writer’s friend.

    I agree with others who think craft of writing books would help. Specific suggestions for changes in the manuscript like where to start the story and more prudent use of flashbacks might give enough direction for a good second effort.

    (Good luck with the cataract surgery. I’m heading in that direction.)

    • Re the surgery. It was fast (15 mins) and I could see better immediately. Then I did something stupid (felt so good I worked out in the garden) and didn’t obey the doc’s orders to take it easy. Bad headache and blurry vision. Today, I am much better. Can’t wait to get the other eye done. Lesson: Listen to your doc.

      • Had my eyes done in October and even though there were cautions about results because I’d had LASIK (about 30 years ago), I’m more than happy with the way I’m seeing now. My first revelation … sorting socks. I could tell the beige from the blue REI smartwool weaves.

  10. Ouch, Kris. I’ve been there. Like Kay, I don’t believe in discouraging new writers, but this one definitely needs timeline help.
    I use this phrase a lot. “In order to make your novel commercially viable . . .”
    That way, if the writers see themselves as an “artist” they don’t follow the advice. Otherwise, they do.
    Good luck with the cataract surgery.

  11. It’s super difficult.

    The one thing I can think of starting with is “You have an interesting story here, and it leaves me with a lot of questions. Questions are good,, it keeps the reader flipping pages, but there are some basic things you don’t want them to be wondering about.”

  12. First, mention what you like. An exciting opening with two girls in danger, and the ominous comment about the mother which gives a motive for the kidnapping.

    I use the “All writers have been here as beginning writers and make the same mistakes you are making here.”

    I also say, “The first scenes and chapters are often written for you, not the reader. You are figuring out your characters and their lives, and that’s okay. But you need to cut out those figuring out parts before you give it to a reader. The information can be added in other scenes through dialog and action.”

    Give an explanation of viewpoint and character immersion. The five senses.

    Toss in a few craft books as suggestion if you want. End with “good luck on your journey” or similar nonsense.

    • “All writers have been here as beginning writers and make the same mistakes you are making here.” Including me. I will mention my first mystery where nothing happened for 40 pps. Which is why my agent told me to throw it away. 🙂

  13. Lots of great advice above. I’d definitely junk the flashback chapters, and advice the writer to take a good look at the big picture of the story, what I often call “the 30,000 Foot view.” What, in a paragraph, is it about? How does it end? Do you have a midpoint mirror moment?

    Hope your next cataract surgery goes well and you see clearly soon!

  14. I enjoyed reading this column and all the comments and suggestions. I came home with “bullet holes” in my psyche the first time I read my work at a certain group where they TRASHED my “baby” without mercy. It was a group I later found out, that liked to weed out any newcomers. Seriously. It took a year to recover. I’m not kidding.

    I’m old now, seasoned and able to bear the brunt of most criticisms unless you tell me I’m fat. LOL. But, they did me a favor. Got the bloody battle out of the way and when I joined other writers’ groups, no amount of criticism could hurt me. BTW, their criticism was said in patronizing, syrupy tones with snarky sarcasm and pretty serious negativity. I wish they’d just said “You can’t write, so give up now!” It would have been more honest.

    I love all the thoughtful ideas of how not to hurt a writer and great suggestions for how to proceed. You guys are the best!

    As it turned out, I wrote anyway, was much more careful who I let see it, and appreciate all critiques, because it means someone took time out of their life to read my work and thought enough about it to help make it better.

    • Oh dear. What a horrid experience. Critique groups can be wonderful and affirming. Some are just pity parties or excuses for intellectual bullies to gather. No one should be told, “Give up. You can’t write.” Geez. Glad you didn’t listen. Glad, also, you like our group here.

  15. Late to the party, but then that’s life in the fast lane.

    I expect to offend some (all?) when I bring up the subject of AI on this forum, but in the spirit of Kay DiBianca’s post from 1/29, I’m trying to maintain some level of situational awareness in this area.

    I currently have access to an AI model that perform critiques on manuscripts. It has been “guided” by a human editor. Current capacity is limited to 4,000 word blocks which it can analyze and produce a comprehensive feedback report in an astounding 10 to 15 seconds. The report covers strengths, plot/story, characters, tension, POV, setting, style/voice, clarity/cohesion, potential improvements, and conclusion. The managers claim the manuscript fed in is not used to teach the AI algorithm.

    I’ve run the AI program more than 3 dozen times feeding my current manuscript in piecewise which, as to be expected, produces some artifacts due to the limited block size. (A character flagged as underdeveloped in one block may have been fully developed earlier. If I took all the sensory advice, I would end up with a children’s scratch & sniff book.)

    Even when the AI model has been run on published bestsellers, it generates a critique with a list of potential improvements. When I read the bestseller and consider the recommendations, I have to agree they would nudge the story up a bit but not a lot.

    Good to know that as an author, I do not have to have a spotless critique before moving forward. It just has to be good enough, not perfect which would take more years than I have left on this earth.

    I like the concept of machine generated critiques. No worry that my feelings are being spared. I will submit my manuscript to my human editor for review first and then let him see the machine generated critiques.

    My manuscript is in its 16th major revision and the critiques are pretty good, but there’s always room for improvement. I think I will feed in a few blocks from my earlier versions and see what happens. Perhaps it will tell me to consider another occupation.

    • Wow. As a dedicated Luddite, I know little about AI and what I have heard I don’t like. But if you found the experience beneficial, hey, go for it. I think I would always prefer a human critic. 🙂 Good luck.

  16. Regarding author’s fears of being made obsolete by AI, I think this is unlikely in the near future. The 3 nanometer class chips required for useful AI are manufactured in only one facility on the island of Taiwan. Red China has threatened to invade Taiwan and the locals have threatened to burn their chip facilities to the ground if they do. Also the supply chain to produce those chips involve 9,000 steps around the world, many in the US. Any bets that we would help Red China in this endeavor? And no, Red China can’t operate those facilities without lots of western help. The limit of their capability is to build a smart refrigerator that will break down in short time. Their fix for this shortcoming has been to stand up the manufacturing plant manager before a firing squad. Yep that ought to work.

    The Ukraine war and sanctions have made the noble gases, think neon (needed to focus the etching lasers) very scarce and the refining facilities in Ukraine have bombed into oblivion. Many years to rebuild. Can we produce chips for AI, yes. Can we produce them at scale, no and it’s not likely in the foreseeable future given the conditions facing the world.

    In addition to grain shipments from Ukraine being disrupted, the war has also disrupted supplies of key materials used in fertilizer. Without heavy use of fertilizer, some large agricultural areas in S. America will see productivity drop to 1/4th or less. Think famine in many areas of the world, think another Arab Spring. The USA will be self-sufficient, but food prices will probably rise significantly. One possible solution is to use AI to tailor the fertilizer application to specific square yard areas to avoid waste. Faced with using the critical AI chips to avoid famine or displace writers, which direction do you think we will go.

    Lots more to say but I doubt anyone is listening. Off my soapbox.

  17. Hey guys, just wanted to belatedly thank you all for weighing in. This helped hone my thinking and I have already started my comments to the writer. Normally, I also red-line edit a manuscript as well, buti n this case, I won’t. It will be too discouraging for this writer at this point in her development. She needs big picture help. So thanx!

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