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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.

 

 


Patterns

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 confusing...how 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?

 

 


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