Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Diagramming a Critique

I've been critiquing with Maggie Toussaint for more than ten years. Maggie writes cozies set on the Georgia coast. We write nothing alike. My books lean toward dark suspense and thrillers. They have "language" and sometimes sexual scenes if the story calls for it. Our strength as critique partners is exactly because we don't write in a similar manner. We trust each other, and though we may not always take the other's advice, we usually do. I thought the best way to explain our partnership was to show a critique Maggie did of a book I never finished. I might some day.
It's a follow-up to my Kindle Scout winner, Indiscretion and The Last Heist, sold separately or as one of four novellas in Low Country Crime.

A little background: my main character, Paul Swan, has lived on the other side of the law all his life. He's a diamond thief, and a very good one. The line from the Godfather comes to mind: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Paul has decided to go straight, mainly because of the female character, Zoe, and his teenage daughter, Lily, whom he hadn't met until recently. Someone wants Paul to steal a diamond, and he kidnaps Lily to force him to do it. Paul would do anything to prevent Lily from getting hurt.'s the critique. Maggie's comments are in BOLD

Though you are in Paul’s POV, the reader isn’t grounded in his POV for another page, which leaves us floundering. What could you add to the very first paragraph? Just a beat of something is all that’s needed. Maybe something about his gut wrenching fear for Lily? Or maybe he feels ashamed that he’s feeling the “thrill of the hunt” while he’s also scared out of his gourd? Or maybe he’s upset that everything is so out of control and he’s been so controlled his whole career?

The temperature had dropped, so Paul put up the top on the Jaguar for the ride home. “I’m glad someone is thinking straight,” he said. “My thoughts are all (tied) 'Tied is good, but KNOTTED gives a better visual' up with Lily, imprisoned somewhere, helpless, and at the hands of a man Cat described as liking them young. If that wasn’t enough to tempt me into calling the authorities, I don’t know what would. So help me God…”

“(Maybe it’s time you consider that,) Zoe said. By having her mention this here, when she says it 2 or 3 pages over, it weakens the impact. What if she turned it into a question? “Are you considering the cops?” Zoe asked.

“Then what? If you were Nicolaides and had kidnapped a girl who could put you in prison for the rest of your life, what would you do? I’ll tell you. He’d kill her.”

“I don’t want to (put) rub salt on your wound, but he might do that anyway. If he lets her go, he has no guarantee she won’t talk, your deal notwithstanding. Then there’s Byron Mitchell to consider. He’ll make sure you’re all outed.”

“I have considered him.”


“Byron Mitchell is not a good man.”

“What does that mean?”

“In my business―” he glanced in Zoe’s direction just long enough to catch her eye (you need him to get his eyes back on the road, otherwise he’ll wreck)― “my former business, when you want to control the problem, you control the source of the problem. I think Mitchell might have something he doesn’t want exposed. It’s my job, or maybe your job, to find out what it is. It might be a business practice or a personal one.”

“What personal one? What aren’t you saying?” [this is a good place to slow down the dialog. You could do it and add a beat of setting and reaction to what he’s thinking. (you have NO SETTING on this page.) Add something as simple as: Paul’s grip tightened on the steering wheel.) “He has a nasty temperament. I saw it last night directed at Sarah and their boy.”

You think he’s abusive?”

Paul shrugged. “Maybe. I think he’s worth deep scrutiny.”

Zoe paused. “I’m just a writer, Paul. I don’t have access to what a detective would, or the police. If he is abusive, Sarah would have to press charges, and even then I doubt I could find proof. I’ll do my best. I have groups I belong to that might help.”

“What groups?” he asked.

“Writers Groups. Writers can ask questions about anything (in the context of book research), and someone with the knowledge answers. That (still -DELETE) (kind of generic query) won’t get into anyone’s police files.”

“I’ll call Cryptic again. He shouldn’t get in trouble digging around there.”

“So, to keep Mitchell under control, you want (to find something DELETE) leverage to use on him?”

“Yes, long enough to get Lily back and to keep my word that we won’t expose what Nicolaides did.” He felt Zoe’s eyes searing into him.

“You mean you’d keep your word to him?”

“A man’s word is all he has. But if his story’s a ruse, or if anything happens to Lily, all bets are off, because he lied.”

“If he did this to one of my sons, I’d want to kill him, word or no word.”

“Then you wouldn’t have lasted thirty years in my business. Don’t forget, I was on the other side. Revenge has no place in the life I’ve lived. But this time, my daughter is in danger, and that makes me even more determined to get this bastard. But it has to be within the parameters we set.”

“If that includes Byron Mitchell,” Zoe said, “so be it, right?”

Zoe’s conclusion felt like a slap of reality. This wasn’t a quid pro quo game. It was serious business, dealing with people used to playing dirty. Mitchell was another story. If they found out he was corrupt, it: Comment: This “it” doesn’t add anything, and I was confused. If Paul and Zoe found out Mitchell was corrupt how would that destroy Sarah’s marriage? I’m surprised he would consider Sarah as part of his “they”. He begged her to take him back. He begged her to let him be part of Lily’s life. If he is still in love with her, that’s okay, but he shouldn’t be with Zoe. That would make me hate him. He could still want to look out for Sarah so that Lily’s life wasn’t screwed up.

Could you do something like this?

If they found out he was corrupt, Paul wouldn’t hesitate to tell Sarah, even if it destroyed her marriage. He didn’t like Mitchell, and he didn’t want a loser in Zoe’s life. Any reason he got, he’d use it. To drop Mitchell’s sorry ass

could destroy Sarah’s marriage. Paul had already experienced the man’s ugliness. He would have to tread lightly. But Lily’s life was at stake, and he’d do whatever it took to get her out of Nicolaides’s control and to keep his word at the same time, even if he has had to destroy Mitchell to do it. He didn’t want an aftermath of revenge to follow his daughter and her family.

“So be it,” Paul responded. “Just because Nicolaides frees Lily doesn’t mean she’s safe. Remember, Mitchell doesn’t know what I’m supposed to do for Nicolaides, and I don’t want him to find out. If he did and he exposes the kidnapping and the theft of the diamond to get some sort of twisted revenge against me, you can be sure Nicolaides will counter. And it won’t be pretty. We have to prevent that from happening.”

“By getting something on Mitchell.”


Zoe was quiet for a long moment. “Maybe it’s time to think about calling the police.” (this is much more powerful if she doesn’t suggest it several pages earlier. With that earlier prompt in the story, this seems like she’s nagging him.]

The cold, hard statement stopped Paul. Was he risking his daughter’s life to protect his own? Could he be that self-serving? “Nicolaides said he’d kill her,” Paul said. “I’m afraid he will.”

Zoe stretched her arm across the console to stroke his shoulder. “He gains nothing by doing that. All he wants is his diamond.”

Just then his phone chimed. Unavailable. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t answer a call from an unknown, but he answered this time. [I think it would add to the story to know what he said. Or didn’t say to answer the phone]

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

A scientist by training, a romanticist at heart, award winning author Maggie Toussaint loves to solve puzzles. Whether it’s the puzzle of a who-dun-it or a relationship, she tackles them all with equal aplomb and wonder.

Maggie writes cozy mystery and suspense under her own name, and science fiction under the pen name of Rigel Carson.


  1. I hope you dig this book out again. I love the complications and layers to Paul and you are so good at pushing characters to their limits that you keep us hanging on the edge of our seats! I must've been hyped on caffeine when I did that critique! To be fair, everyone, Polly does an amazing job on my first draft messes too. Yes, we only critique first drafts as she has other beta readers, so you can see how clean her first drafts generally are. Critique isn't for everyone, but when strengths add value to your fellow author's work, it's true serendipity.

    1. Actually, I don't have beta readers. I do have manuscript swaps though. We also sometimes pass through a section we've redone to see if it flies.

  2. What a powerful post, Polly! It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, and this article demonstrates that to the full. You show your critique partner's actual comments and suggestions, which is the best way to describe the benefits of your collaboration. Thank you for sharing!
    P.S. I agree with Maggie. This story should be resurrected. :-)

    1. Thanks, Linda. Actually, I stopped because I didn't think the guy who wanted the particular diamond had a good enough reason for stealing it. I'll have to work on that. Maybe starting over will give me the right motivation, both for me and my character.

  3. Excellent post, Polly! We (in my group) also use that technique of yellow highlights on repeated or similar words. We all grab onto words that show up over and over.

    1. You can bet I went through my current work and got rid of all the BUTs at the beginning of sentences. AND too. I think it's a sloppy habit that has become too readily accepted.

  4. I really enjoyed this a lot. Last year was the first time I found a face-to-face and online critique group where I feel I get a TON from them and I am able to give back too. I've noticed my writing changing and I feel I'm growing which is amazing. The value of the "right" partners and people you trust and feel confident working with makes all the difference!

    1. Thanks, Jodi. One thing about our partnership is that we have opposite strengths and weaknesses, which really helps to create better stories and better prose.

  5. Critique partners can be awesome as your post readily proves. Kudos to you and Maggie for your decade of collaboration.

    1. You have some pretty good ones yourself, Linda. I enjoyed our partnership in the early days.

  6. Great post, Polly, and I agree with Maggie in the hopes you will finish this book. The process the two of you use is very similar to one I had with a critique partner several years ago. It was very helpful and beneficial for both of us. She is no longer writing fiction, so we don't help each other any more, but I think it would be good to find someone else.

    1. It works for us, Maryann. We swap 20-30, sometimes more, every two weeks. If we need a read of more, we do it. Whatever helps the others.

      I have about half a dozen books with more that 100 pages I never finished. One is almost complete except for a part I removed for another book. One day. (yup, right.)


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