The Under Ground Writing Project

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And Another Thing...

Posted by Debbie Meldrum on May 3, 2014 at 10:40 PM Comments comments (0)

I learned aboutwriting from my critique group.


5. Listen to all the feedback.


Even if you disagree. Violently.


This can be a hard one--it is for me. But even if you don't agree with the feedback, you should listen. Because something didn't work for that person. It may be a style thing, which you don't want to change. But the thing is, what they may have given as the reason in the critique may not be the real cause of their discontent with your story.


I'm not saying that anyone is lying to you or purposely obfuscating. But sometimes a piece of a story doesn't gel for us, and we can't quite say why. So we might look at the things we can identify: sentence structure, pronouns,adverbs--anything to try and help the author.


So do yourself a favor and try to figure out what really went wrong. Remember that one reader in your group represents a lot more potential readers for your finished work. Do you really want to lose that many people for something that you could have fixed without giving up your personal style?



What I Learned About Writing From . . .

Posted by Debbie Meldrum on April 15, 2014 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Critique Groups

I have been a member of three different critique groupsover the past 12 or so years. Which, I hear, makes me pretty lucky. Somewriters bounce around a lot more than that. I met all the members of my second,Creek Writers Council, at the first one, Colorado Springs Fiction WritersGroup. Right now I’m working one on one with another person who was a member ofboth of my previous groups. Many lessons were picked up along the way. Here aresome of them.


1. If you have to explain it . . .


I've been on both sides of this one. A reader will say, "I don'tunderstand how George went from standing on a hill in Italy to hanging from a flagpole in Quebec." Once the writer starts explaining that, "Well,you see, he boarded a blimp in Tuscany, then he flew to Madrid where he hopped a train for Calais . . ." Yeah. But if it's not on the page, the reader doesn't know this. And you, as the writer, don't get to sit down with every reader to explain that. At least you hope not.


Jenny calls it "getting it on the page." What I see left off the page most often is setting. Where am I? What's it like there? How's the weather? All things that the writer has in his head when he's writing, but that he needs to show me as the reader.


I'm tried my best to overwrite my submissions. Most of my critique group found it easier to show where to cut than trying to figure out what was left out. I didn't always get there, but it was great exercise


2. Don't assume everyone knows what you do.


Not everyone has the same specialized knowledge. And the terms from that specialized area may not be easy to decode for someone not in the club.


Dancers, musicians, computer programmers, accountants, teachers, doctors, etc.all use terms that people outside of those realms may or may not know. Or it may mean something different to other specialties. A paradiddle in dance sounds like a paradiddle in drumming, but one is executed with the feet and the other with the hands.


This is a hard one, because once you learn something, it can be difficult to remember that you didn't always know it. This is where critique groups from diverse backgrounds are essential.


3. No two people read exactly alike.


Everyone approaches submissions in his own way. Some read straight through the first time, then go back and dissect. Some mark as they go and only read once. And each person has his own focus for critiques.


I've seen puns be a pet peeve for one reader and a delight for another. Some will add a comma to your sentence and others are just as likely to mark one out. I once had a woman tell me that I had a male character describe a room as only a woman would. The scene didn't bother the man in our group at all.


All of this can be really frustrating. But it is good practice for when your work goes out into the wider world. Get used to people misreading your work, your intention.


I'm learning to weed through the feedback so I can determine what to act on and what to leave as is. Notice I didn't say "ignore." I do listen to and read all feedback. I just don't always agree with all of it.


4. It's your work.


That's the biggest lesson from working with critique groups. Your work has to reflect you. Your voice. Your story. Your style.


We shook up how we ran the second critique group, because the original format was no longer working for some of us. It's not that it was wrong, just that we are at a different place in our writing. The strength of the group was tested and held. We discussed the issues and made a change that everyone could work with.

And even though we don't meet as a critique group any more, we're all still friends, which is huge. And we still read each other's work when asked.


I've learned that I need to speak up when something isn't working. Because of Lesson #3. It's my work, and I'm the one who needs to take responsibility for making it the best it can be.

With the help of my friends.



Seven Steps to Surviving a Novel Critique

Posted by Ali on November 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

So, you're about to get your novel critiqued by a big group of people. Take a deep breath and chill out, it's going to be fine. No, really, I promise. The first thing to keep in mind is that a novel is long and you have a lot of people offering feedback. Add the two up and that means you're going to get a LOT of criticism. Don't be scared. Embrace this. Because the only reason you're getting the criticism is because your writing group actually cares about making your novel better. With that in mind, here's my practical how-to for navigating a big critique.


1. Take notes. Your lovely critiquers have written lots of comments on your draft that you can review later. When someone's talking, sometimes they can explain something better with a hand gesture than they can in text. Then, you write it down in a way that makes sense in your own brain for when you go back later.


Also, writing notes is a way to process feedback without having to deal with it right that second. You're recording, so you can go back later and sort out what you think of that feedback. (Since I'm a visual person, this also helped me "see" the themes in comments, which helped me with the #2 on this list.)


2. Look for areas of consensus. You're going to get lots of diversity in the feedback you receive. One of the important things is to focus on the biggies. In my critique, some people thought the main character was too abrasive. Others thought she needed to be tougher. On the surface, this seems contradictory. However, the bigger theme was that I needed to flesh out her motivations. If I do this well, then people in both feedback camps will be more satisfied because she'll be a stronger character, which is the root of the problem.


3. Keep it big picture. Look, you're working on a novel. You need to get the macro issues fixed first. Your writing group is going to do their best to be super helpful. So, you're going to get feedback on everything from plot, to character, to line edits. Whew! That can be overwhelming. The thing is, once you dig into revision, you have to skip the line edits for now and start with the foundation.


When you revise to strengthen plot and character, you're going to make a lot of large scale changes. A new chapter gets added, another chapter gets deleted, this character now does X instead of Y, and, by the way, the climactic fight scene is now set on a yacht instead of a museum.


As all of these things get changed, they're going to change the smaller scale things like word choice, descriptions, and typos. Right now, the feedback that addresses the macro issues is more important than the comments about smaller scale problems.


4. Prioritize feedback. In any writing group, there are some critiquers who think more in line with what you're trying to convey. It's okay to give those critiques a little more weight. When someone's saying, "Here's what I suggest to fix your structure," and you're thinking, "Yes! I need to fix my structure and that solution totally makes sense to me!" go ahead and underline & highlight that comment.


5. Find time to clarify. At the end of the group critique, you should have a chance to ask your group a few questions. This is not the time to argue with feedback. However, by now might have a couple of questions that the feedback brought up. Maybe you're already toying with some of the changes you might make.


It's okay say something like this to your group, "I was trying to show the character's deep seated fear of monkeys, but it seems that wasn't clear. Do you have suggstions on how I can bring that out?" Or, you can say something like, "Based on what you've said, I thought I might make the character a detective instead of a librarian. Do you think that would work?" Use the gang as a sounding board and you'll get a pretty quick feel for if your planned changes would be a good fix.


Just remember, this is not the time to say, "You're all a bunch of idiots because you obviously missed that the main character is actually a computer with artificial intelligence."


6. Give yourself some decompression time. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll walk out of the room with your head spinning. You've just gotten oodles of information thrown at you. You may want to jump right into revision to fix everything right now. Don't do this.


Your brain needs some time to filter. You want to let a few weeks go by and see what sticks in the front of your mind. Chances are, the suggestions that stay fresh are the suggestions you should start with. It will also give you some time to align the feedback with what you really want to do with the novel. Yeah, the idea of rewriting the novel to make it into a space opera may sound cool, but if the story you really want to tell is a comedic murder mystery, the two aren't really going to mesh.


The other reason to let it sit is that it allows you to get over the initial emotional rush of the critique. A little bit of time means you can tackle revision in a more objective head space. You're no longer in panic mode, and you can be more thoughtful about how you're going to dig in.


7. (Optional, but highly recommended) Treat yourself to something nice. Go ahead and be extra nice to yourself. You have just opened yourself up and made yourself super vulnerable. Also, you've finished the rough draft of a whole novel. Celebrate that. It's not a perfect novel yet, but now you're armed with a lot of ways to make it better. So, go ahead and take yourself out to dinner some place you like. You've earned it.

Critique Cookies

Posted by Ali on October 31, 2012 at 11:00 PM Comments comments (0)

When you bring cookies for your writers group, I recommend chocolate spice cookies.  Not only do I recommend them, I also provide you with the recipe below.


3/4 cup butter

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons water

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp cloves

1/4 tsp ginger

2 eggs

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a microwave safe bowl, microwave butter, sugar, water, and chocolate chips.  Go slow and stir often, you want the chocolate just barely melted.  Once everything is melted, add cinnamon, cloves, and ginger and let mixture cool (you want everything melty, but not hot).

Once the mixture is cool, add eggs and mix thoroughly.  Add dry ingredients.  Put cookie dough in the fridge for about an hour to chill. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Roll dough into balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake 8-10 minutes.  (Makes a couple dozen, depending on the size of your cookies).

The Whole Shebang

Posted by Ali on October 26, 2012 at 2:15 AM Comments comments (1)

This Sunday is going to be a very interesting day. Back in August, I gave the group copies of a full novel draft and Sunday is the day they're going to critique it.


So, how do you do a full novel critique with a group of about a dozen critiquers? The answer: you chunk it. The plan is that each person has organized their feedback into a few key overall categories, like plot and characters. That way, hopefully, it'll be easier to spot the trends in feedback, i.e. character X is unlikeable and needs to be tweaked.


It also lets me as the writer get specific feedback. With this draft, one of the things I want to make sure works is the world building, so that's one of the areas I asked everyone to focus on.


On Sunday, we're going to do a round-robin and everyone is going to give me their key comments, one at a time. Then, we'll follow that with a more informal session where it'll be more conversational. I'll have a chance to ask everyone questions and they'll be able to talk back and forth with me and each other.


Oh yeah, and there will be a bathroom break somewhere in there. Also, I'm bringing cookies to bribe everyone into saying only nice things. Or, I mean, to show my appreciation for all of the time everyone has put into doing the critique.


Part of me is a bit nervous about Sunday, but more of me is excited. With a group this size, and such a diverse group, to boot, I know I'm going to get a lot of helpful feedback. It's also always interesting to see how, in such a diverse groups, consensus arises. It's always cool to me to see so many people pick out the same thing(s) that are or aren't working. It's like crowd-sourcing and it always churns up good stuff.


Going into this critique, there are a couple of things I anticipate coming up in the feedback. Some bits need help and I wasn't able to figure them out on my own. The part I can't anticipate is what will come up that I didn't expect. Sometimes, those are the must fun comments to get. As the writer, you're too close sometimes to see the things that are glaringly obvious to a reader. Then, as soon as a critiquer points it out, you want to do a forehead smack and say, "Duh!" Those moments are the moments where you're incredibly glad you have a critique group.


Well, I'd better get to work on more cookies tonight. They're not going to bake themselves.


Posted by Ali on September 13, 2012 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (1)

On Monday, Jenny talked about bullying. She said some really good things and I knew right away that I wanted to build off of her post. I want to talk about group dynamics.


Since our group’s last meeting, I’ve been thinking hard about patterns. Most of us have been in the gang for years. When you’ve been reading someone’s work for five years or more, you start thinking in terms of “Susie’s writing is X” and “Rodrigo’s writing is Y.” That means it’s really hard to critique a story on its own, without remembering all of the other stories, all of the other critiques over the years.


This is bad.


If you’re the one giving the critique, it’s bad because you’re losing focus. You’re seeing what you expect to see from Rodrigo, which may or may not always be what’s there on the page. It means you may be missing stuff. It can also mean that many of your critiques for that person are really similar, even when the stories may not be. Broken record much? Also, this is a personal sin of mine. More on that later.


If you’re the one getting the critique, it’s bad because you want to work on this story and make it perfect. You don’t want to hear residual critique from that piece you submitted way back when. This story is the one you want to talk about now. Getting that patterned critique might even make you feel a bit… chewed up.


As a writer, I’m fortunate. I’ve pretty much got rhinoceros hide when it comes to feedback and I’ve yet to be bothered by any critique I’ve received from the gang. Also, kudos to the gang because a big part of this is a great reflection on the quality of feedback I consistently receive from them.


As someone critiquing, rhinoceros hide is not the best thing to have. I have been known to be a bit, well, since I’m the one writing this, I’m going to say blunt. There are some who, I believe, might use more colorful language. But, you see, at the end of the day, I’m genuinely trying to offer helpful feedback so the writer can improve their piece and make it awesome. I come from a good place, I swear, but sometimes a tap is better than a sledgehammer.


Also, I’ve been having a difficult time separating pattern from individual piece. So, this month, I changed the way I construct my critiques. It’s a simple, yet effective, structure. In the past, I’ve just written out comments. I write down what strikes me, as it strikes me, then do a summary at the end.


Well, no more! This month, on the back of each piece, I made a big t. On one line, I wrote “Stuff that pulled me in” and beneath it wrote specifics that grabbed me. Cool details, neat world-building, interesting characterization, whatever. On the other line, I wrote “Stuff that didn’t” and beneath it went the things that pulled me out of the story.


Bam! Simple, focused, balanced, and just about that specific piece. I think it provides better feedback to the writer than what I’ve done in the past, and I know it made me think harder about my critique and be a better reviewer. I’m hoping the others in the crew like my new approach as much as I do.

How to Handle a Bully Writer (And How to Tell It's Bullying)

Posted by Jenny Maloney on September 10, 2012 at 7:30 AM Comments comments (1)

For the most part, people looking for a writers group are looking for certain things:

  • Support. Writing is a lonely business. We sit down at a computer, or with a notebook, or with a tablet and chisel, and we tell a story. There's no guarantee that the story makes sense - so there's no guarantee that we haven't wasted a year of our time. We need to know that we're not the only ones who are psycho enough to go for it.
  • Accountability. Personally, this one is a biggie. I need to know that someone cares- or is at least interested in - whether or not I've done something. I need to answer to those people.
  • A desire to improve. This is probably the most popularly cited reason for joining a group. After all, groups are cheaper than professional editors and, between all the eyes involved, will nail the major issues...thus saving you from some embarassing moments when you approach the higher echelons of the publishing world: the readers.


Now, just like when any group of humans gathers together, there is ample opportunity for harmony and communion in a writers group. Friendships are forged. Marriages arranged. Wars averted. Sometimes there's singing. And all is well.


But...sometimes...let's say...just like when any group of humans gather together....


Shit happens.


For example.


I once submitted the first couple chapters of a book that I was working on - years ago, in another group. (The book isn't that great, FYI, but that's beside the point.) Everyone went home, read the chapters, marked up the pages, and gathered again for the discussion. The critiques start off, well, rough.


One of the first people to speak said, "I am disappointed in you."


Not, "I'm disappointed in the story." or "I'm disappointed there wasn't more mayhem or sex or literary-navel-gazing."


No, he said he was disappointed in me. He continued and said that I was "capable of so much more."


Look, everything we write will not be beautiful. Nor will everything we write be a reader's favorite. Different people have different tastes and that's perfectly fine. And expected. What is not acceptable is commenting on a writer as a person - their talent or capability.


Because I'll tell you this - you as a critiquer have no inkling of what one writer is capable of. You don't know the amount of work they're willing to put in. You don't know what they're willing to study, explore, or imagine. And telling someone they are capable of more, is telling them that they are currently sucking. It is not nice and it is not constructive. There is nothing a writer can do with that. All you're gonna do is piss off a writer who might be outselling you years from now.


If there is someone in your writing life - whether in a writers group or not - who makes you feel like your writing isn't good enough, isn't worthy, then it's time that person is extracted from your creative space. There are a few ways to do this:


1.  Call them on it. Sometimes people don't know they're delivering these proclamations - sometimes they think they're being constructive. I believe that's the case with the person who said he was disappointed in me. I don't think he intended to be insulting or hurtful. A side word or two - or maybe even a written note when you hand over your critique of their work might be enough to stop it.

2. Tell the teacher. Most groups have a moderator. Someone who - while they may not call all the shots - delivers the shots. (In case you're wondering, in UGWP that's John. [email protected]. :D) If there is someone who has been making disparaging comments, either out loud or in the written critiques, let the moderator know. A good moderator should be calling off damaging commentary from the get-go, without any kind of prompting.

3. Remove yourself. In a group situation, you should only participate if you feel like you're getting something out of it. Groups are not for everyone. If after every critique it feels personal, no matter what person says what comment; if you're not going home raring to go write another chapter or with your brain revving with new approaches - then a group might not be for you. (Not that all groups are bullies, just that critiques can sting. No joke.)

4. Write them into a story and blow them up. See how disappointed they are with you then.


But...and here's where it gets do you know that the person critiquing you so harshly is actually a bully?


In a critique group - or even an MFA workshop - there are differing levels of expertise. There can be writers who have never been published, writers who have been published, writers who have only written in personal journals, writers who have taught, and writers who have never done much more than doodle in the margins of notebooks.


On more than one occasion, something that seems like bullying is actually a lack of expertise. This especially shows up when the critiquing writer is learning a new concept or has internalized a new concept and really, really, really wants the writer they're critiquing to understand the concept.  The critiquer doesn't have the vocabulary to express what they've internalized yet, because they just figured it out.


So the critique can come out like this, "You should really learn how to write a sentence."


What the hell is the writer supposed to do with that?


Keep in mind that the critiquing writer was trying. That's not bullying.


There are ways to distinguish a real bully from the pack of other critiques-that-sting. And it goes back to why people join writers groups: support, accountability, and a desire to improve.  A bully will have disregarded one or all of these.

  • Support. A bully will have no empathy. He will have no desire to support other writers' needs or desires. This manifests itself in a lack of positive comments - either verbal or written. A bully will have no interest in your writing style, voice, or genre. They probably won't ask questions to determine your motivation for writing a certain scene a certain way - they'll just use their own 'criteria' to pass judgment.
  • Accountability. A bully does not need accountability - which will manifest itself in attendance. They'll show up late, leave early, or not show up consistantly. Yes, life does happen - but a bully doesn't have any interest in how his behavior interrupts the group's flow. His time is more important than your time. Critiques will probably be short because he only half-read (if you're lucky) your work. I'll tell you this, and I'm 100% certain: if your critiques are marked up and there are long notes, editing marks, and commentary then you aren't dealing with a bully. They wouldn't waste their time on you. As for his critiques - he'll be around for those, don't worry.
  • A desire to improve. A bully is not coming at his own work with the right attitude. He will argue with critiquers. (Part of the reason we've instigated a no talk-back policy.) He will be defensive about his work instead of open to constructive criticism. He may badmouth certain critiquers - generally the ones more successful in publishing or whatever because a bully is all about taking people down to his level.


The bottom line, for me, is to treat people how you want to be treated. It's called the golden rule for a reason. If you want people to critique your work in a constructive fashion, then you should do so. If you want support, you should be supportive.


How about you guys? Ever been on the end of a bad critique? Ever had to deal with someone who was being inappropriate or rude? Ever delivered a critique where you thought you were too harsh?



So You Think I Should Change My Setting, Characters, and Plot?

Posted by Shane on August 10, 2012 at 6:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Have you ever had a critique that seemed supremely unhelpful? Before you stab the offending reader in the parking lot (the only real benefit of which will be all that freed up time to write in jail), or throw the story in the trash, consider that the real problem might be one of translation. It's one thing for a reader to be able to identify an issue in a piece of writing; however, it's another thing entirely to always know the best way to fix a problem. Perhaps the reader didn't get engaged. Or perhaps the reader was genuinely confused. These are legitimate responses. And while their solution may be valid, it may not be best for that writer, or that piece of writing.


For example, if the critique on a particular story is that it doesn't explain enough, and there were pieces that didn't make sense, the reader might suggest adding more description, more pages, more words. I know I've said this almost verbatim in the past. Yet, when the writer looks back on that story, he or she should ask, "Are these details truly important to the story?" In some cases cutting can bring clarity to a work better than adding more.


Readers' reactions are often better taken as hints towards identifying real problems in a story, rather than as prescriptive answers on how to fix the story. It occurred to me recently that one of my critiques of a fellow writer had been far less helpful than I intended. In trying to articulate what was causing me problems in her story, I believe I pointed to how she should focus her rewrite. But what if I missed the point? What if the intention of the story was different than what I took away?


Even if I was off base, it should be helpful to a writer to see where I was focusing. If I’m not paying attention to what the writer wants me to pay attention, then that’s an issue that needs addressing. When I say, “Cut this part,” I am responding with my interpretation of what the piece should be. The section in question may need to be cut, but the writer needs to come to that conclusion because that decision serves the story, not because I told her to cut it.


Stories are like maps. Sure, maps allow us to get places, but they also have the ability to take you away from the known and to focus your attention on things you might not otherwise experience. If your only goal is to get to your destination, then a very utilitarian map may serve. But we rarely appreciate stories that follow this model. It’s like freeway driving: fast, but boring. So, we need stops to see that interesting rock formation, or to get a bite to eat at some unexpected dive with fabulous chili.


Ultimately, when I told the aforementioned writer that she should cut certain parts, what I was really saying was that her map had too many random stops, and that the final destination seemed too unclear. There were lots of elements to her story, but only some of them were grabbing my attention, and not all of them seemed to support one another. There’s a fine balance between a trip that is fast and boring, and one that makes you feel lost on random side streets.


Readers are naturally going to try and sort out the maps given them based on what they see. Writers have access to a lot more information about what went into making the map/story. Keeping this in mind might lessen some of the bristles I know I get when a reader tells me something I don’t like about mystory. A reader’s advice may be wrong, but it can still point a writer in the right direction.

Going the Distance

Posted by Ali on August 8, 2012 at 7:45 AM Comments comments (1)

About a month ago, I did a very sillly thing. I signed up to submit a full novel draft to the the writing group. Luckily, I had a rough draft. Unluckily, I had not yet started revising it. So, off to the races I went.


Jenny's post on Monday had me thinking about what I think are important writing rules. I came up with some clever ideas. I started drafting a clever post. Then, in the midst of working on the novel revision, I realized there's just one that seems to be the biggest. It's like Newton's Law. It's physics. Undeniable and constant:


It's always easier to spot the problems and figure out solutions for someone else's work.

Bam. Epiphany. Wait, you're thinking that's obvious, aren't you? Let me flesh it out a bit. Last week, I went to see the Total Recall remake. Spoiler alert: it's pretty terrible. The best part, by far, is the scene where Kate Beckinsale is doing her very best to murder Colin Farrell. Awesome. The worst part, by far, is, well a lot of parts of the movie where it felt like the writers had gotten too attached to a plot device/image/silly idea that made no sense. They got so sucked in to a little piece of the story that the story as a whole suffered. Classic forest vs. trees situation.


For my novel revision, one of the first things on my list was going through the chapters as they were and plotting the chapters as they should be. It was a quick outline sketch, but a couple of things became obvious to me along the lines of "What was I thinking?"


In my rough draft, there is a part toward the end where one of the characters gets kidnapped. I wrote a whole scene where the heroes jump to a conclusion about who the kidnapper is and have a confrontation with the wrong person. When I wrote it, I thought the misdirection was cool and would build suspense by keeping the reader guessing.


Now, I can see that the whole "mystery" aspect was a tangent that didn't really serve the story as a whole. Snip, snip, that part's gone. Now the plot's going to be tighter. I couldn't see it when I was drafting, because I was too caught up in creating something from scratch. Now that I have the raw material on the page, it's easier to see what should go where.


Getting distance makes it easier to kill your babies. Baby killing, in the writing sense, is key. So, do whatever works for you to get distance. Listen to feedback from others, give a piece time to sit, write something else at the same time, write your manuscript and sign it with someone else's name... Whatever works for you, do it. When you get to the point that you can hear a critique without arguing back, you're in a good place. If you're not there yet, then you're not ready to revise.

Brandon Sanderson on the Benefits of Writers Groups

Posted by Jenny Maloney on April 18, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

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