Monday, August 26, 2013

Critiquing Without Losing Your Mind

Today, my writing friend and fellow blogger, Kristin Nador, is guest blogging her thoughts on how to find a critique group, share your writing, and give critiques without losing your mind. She offers a lot of great tips. So glad to have her here! Enjoy her insights, and be sure to visit her blog. (I've included links below.)

Thanks to The Chipper Muse for letting me share today. I love writers who have the heart of a teacher, helping writers be their best with positive encouragement. The Chipper Muse is all of the above.

My first experience being critiqued in a writers’ critique group:

After pushing aside my social anxiety, I attended two meetings of a local critique group (no longer in existence). It seemed my speed: beginning and intermediate writers eager to improve their craft.

The third meeting, I brought a short story for critique. My voice shook as I read my piece. My knees knocked during the five or so minutes of silence while the group studied it. 

A man sitting across the table from me, who I’ll call Attila, looked up, slammed his fist on my handout, and bellowed, “You’ve got to show, not tell! There’s too much telling, not enough showing. Show, don’t tell!” Then he lectured for ten minutes, spit flying and landing in his writerly beard, as he proceeded to ‘teach’ everyone this lesson. No one else commented, then they moved on to the next victim, I mean, critique.
Sometimes, critiques make
us feel this way, don't they?

I wanted to crawl under the table. Somehow I kept my composure. Afterwards someone patted me on the back and said “That’s Attila. He’s very intense about writing.” They added in awestruck whispers, “He’s a published author, you know.”

Did I need to do more showing and less telling? Definitely. Did I need to be told like this? Probably not. 

I’ve grown as a writer since that meeting, but I’m glad Attila ranted that day. It taught me the importance of researching critique groups, and of learning the proper way to give and receive critiques.

Some tips to finding the right critique group for you:

1) Be willing to ‘try out’ different groups before you commit.

Don’t keep going if the group doesn’t meet your needs. Be honest but polite with other members if you decide to move on. Critique groups are not a ‘one size fits all.’

2) If you think you might like to join a critique group, listen, observe, and ask questions:
  • What is the average writing level of the group - beginner, intermediate, or seasoned?
  • What happens at a meeting? Small talk or critique? Are they lions, lambs or owls: do they tear a piece apart, only give pats on the back, or impart wisdom when needed?
  • Is there an established structure?
  • Do the writers submit consistently?
  • Is there an atmosphere of encouragement, or is there tension and competition?

3) What are YOUR expectations? Do you need an objective eye or are you just looking for validation?

True story: ‘Reb’ attended our critique group for the first time. Instead of the instructed
5-6 pages, he brought 16 pages for feedback and insisted we read the entire piece. His work was haphazard and lacked continuity. Even with the gentlest of critiques, he became defensive, rejecting it as ‘not understanding the genre.’ He stormed out before the meeting ended.

Don’t be that writer. 

If you aren’t ready for true critique, try a class at your local community college. Writing classes teach students about craft as well as how to receive critique in a safe structured environment. Good critique groups aren’t there to stroke your ego, but to challenge and stretch your writing skills.

In some critique groups, the trouble is not with the structure or level of critique, but with lack of respect or selfish attitudes. 

At one critique group meeting, ‘Mimi’ proudly passed out her piece for critique, and asked that she be allowed to read it aloud, as she ‘knew where to emphasize for emotional impact.’ As she read, each of the writers in attendance, a mixed group of men and women of various ages, began to shift in their seats.

The reason: the piece was a detailed description about an event of sexual abuse of a child, written in a very seductive manner. The writer had not warned anyone of the nature of her piece. One woman left the room. Worse, a group member’s child was in attendance and heard the entire thing. (Another tip: don’t bring young children to adult critique group meetings.) The rest of the meeting was spent debating the inappropriate nature of the piece. No other critiques happened.

Want to avoid being an Attila, Reb, Mimi, or other critique group drama queen? Here are some tips:

When giving critique:
  • Be honest, but use the sandwich method: note something positive, then something that needs improvement, then something you like or that they’ve improved upon.
  • Be specific. Not ‘Good job’ but what about it makes you like it. “I like how you show how John is feeling by the look on his face.”
  • Don’t ‘rewrite’ the story. That’s their job.
  • You are critiquing the writing, not the genre. Maybe it’s not your favorite genre, but that doesn’t figure into a critique.
  • Critique as you’d want your piece critiqued.
  • If your critique skills need improvement, don’t let that deter you. Practice.
When receiving critique:
  • Be prepared. Print enough copies for everyone. Don’t expect a detailed critique when you read the piece out loud from your computer. If your group has a critique sign-up, show up when you sign up.
  • Brace yourself. Some people are less than tactful. Develop a thick skin. You’ll need it if you intend to pursue writing as a career. Agents and editors are not in business to spare your feelings.
  • Ask if the group will consider R-rated or controversial subjects first.
  • Don’t defend yourself. Listen, take notes while people share their thoughts, and remember they want to help you. If you defend yourself, you are basically saying that the person’s opinion is irrelevant and you aren’t interested in it.
  • Thank everyone for critiquing whether you agree with the opinions or not.
  • Come to a meeting with an open mind. Look for helpful suggestions, but stay true to your vision. As a wise man once said, “Chew up the grass, and spit out the sticks.
Today I’m part of a small critique group that helps keep each of the writers in it challenged, accountable, and encouraged. It’s possible to find the critique group for you without losing your mind.

Happy Writing!

In 2007 Kristin Nador's desire to be a published author, left dormant for many years with a busy life as a military wife and homeschooling mom, sparked again with a simple statement from a writing teacher: "NOW is the best time to write." Since then she has had a short story published in a national magazine and had two short stories and a poem win prizes in writing contests. Kristin is currently working on a contemporary suspense novella. She is a member of Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. and the current vice-president of Tulsa NightWriters. On her popular blog, kristin nador writes anywhere, she invites other creatives to journey with her and discover their best creative life through posts on writing, creativity, and blogging. Kristin lives is Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, with her husband and Pinkerton the Cat.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Top Rules for Writing

Not long ago, one of my critique groups did a fun exercise:  We all came in with our top 3-4 rules for writing, and then shared them with each other. As you might expect, some of the rules overlapped. But not all of them did. We had some interesting ideas come up during the discussion. So, I thought I'd share these rules with you, and see what you think. Here they are:

Look! We all have a philosophy, don't we?
My own rules for writing:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Write what you love.
  3. Write what you want to read.
  4. Edit later.
Bill's rules:
  1. Nothing is ever "finished." You just
    stop working on it.
  2. Be true to your genre, and stray
    from it at your peril.
  3. Do not edit or proofread on a
    computer. Use a printed copy.
Renee's rules:
  1. No limitations!
  2. Write when it works for you to fit it in.
  3. Let the story write itself, and then edit it.
  4. Always keep paper by your bed (to capture ideas).
Peter's rules:
  1. Unless I see it in my head, beginning to end, I don't write it.
  2. When I write something, I have my target audience in mind.
  3. When I'm writing creatively, I don't interrupt it with editing.
Casie's rule: Write in the environment that works for you (quiet, etc.).

Dorothy's rule: Set aside a specific place to do your writing.

Gloria's rule: Always write something.

Proof that I really did
write these ideas down
That's a lot of rules...but I think they all have their uses. I don't use all of them, and some of them I don't agree with. For example, I write in a variety of locations, rather than a specific location like Dorothy. But still, it's worth thinking about what works for other people.

Now, you share:  What are your personal top rules for writing? What do you think of the rules that other people shared in this post? I look forward to hearing what works for you. It's always interesting to see how different we can be, yet how we can all get writing done somehow anyway. The life of creativity, eh?

Until next time, happy writing!

Copyright (c) 2013 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 12, 2013

5 Good Things You Can Get from Critique Groups

Last week, I posted some negatives about critique groups. But in the interests of fairness, I want to talk this week about some of the positive things a critique group can do for you.

This is how I feel after
a great critique session!
Of course, it probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway:  The better the group of people you're working with, the better the experience will be for you. It's not just a matter of having strong writers in the group. What you need are people who can be both honest and diplomatic, who have your best interests at heart, who are open to receiving from you as well as giving to you, and who love the craft of writing and their potential readers enough to be humble in the face of critical feedback. A group like that is a blessing from the heavens, and when you find one, hold onto it, because not all groups are created equal.

But assuming you have a good, solid group of caring, committed, honest, dedicated writers to work with, you'll get some very good advice:

  1. They'll tell you what they love about your work. This is important because we can get blind to what is actually working in our writing. We can edit to death if we're not careful. Good readers will tell you what NOT to fix. Take that advice seriously.
  2. They will kick their own jealousy (if they have any) to the curb. I've had someone tell me they were jealous of my work. But this person was so kind about it and so honest that it was easy to forgive, especially when she kindly said I should get back to what works in my own fiction, because she kind of wanted to be jealous some more. We all appreciate, admire, and even envy others for doing certain things well. But the mark of a mature person is to be able to recognize our envy and put it aside.
  3. They'll tell you what isn't working. This is the number one reason to belong to a good critique group, or at least to have some strong, honest readers. That passage we think is brilliant...well, it may not be that brilliant after all. It might be confusing. It might be overwritten. A good reader, a good critiquer, will tell you how much they love you...and then they'll tell you to fix your crap anyway. Because they love you.
  4. They'll listen to what you need and see how they can meet that need. Sometimes we know what we need, don't we? We need to know if the fight scene is easy to follow. We need to know if the character's motivation seems believable. We need to figure out where to go next with the story. A good critique group is capable of taking your questions and then answering them in ways that help you write better and move forward, instead of confusing you, discouraging you, or keeping you blocked.
  5. They'll inspire you to keep writing. We all get discouraged at times. The creative process has ups and downs. But a good critique group knows that, and they will help you through it. They'll remind you in the down times that you are a good writer. When you want to throw away everything you've ever created, they'll say, "Well, why don't you just hold onto it? Maybe you'll be able to use it again someday." In other words, when you feel a little insane about it all, they'll remind you that you are, in fact, very sane and you should just take a deep breath and relax.
And your critique group is how you make it, too!
Now, you share:  What other good things has your critique group done for you?

Next week, I'll share a list of rules of writing...that one of my critique groups shared with each other. Until next time, happy writing!

Copyright (c) 2013 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Do You Really Need a Critique Group?

I've been asking myself this question for more than a year now, and I blame Steven James.

Steven James is the prolific author of more than 30 books, including the popular Patrick Bower thrillers, which I have mentioned before on the blog. He was the guest of honor at the 2012 OWFI conference, which I was able to attend. In a Friday night "rap" session with many writers, including me, James told us he doesn't use a critique group. When we asked how he improved his writing, he said (paraphrased since I can't recall his exact words):

"I send it to my editor."

His editor is a professional editor-for-hire that he respects, works well with, and yes...pays...for her services.

(To paraphrase again, more loosely this time), James also said some things about critique groups that many people that Friday night found to be very controversial:
  • that critique groups do more harm than good
  • that you can't rely on critiques to improve your writing
  • that many critique groups leave writers confused, making their writing worse
  • that you'd be better off hiring a professional editor, who makes a living helping people improve their books than talking to people at your level
  • that, don't need a critique group.
His thinking was reasoned. He wasn't just spouting off at the mouth, and he was definitely firm in his opinion. And I've come to think that in certain circumstances, at least, James is right. You might be better off skipping the critique group.

Now, I'm not saying your work needs no editing. In fact, no matter how good a writer you are, you still need an editorial eye to catch the things you can't see anymore because you're too close to what you're writing. (This applies to both fiction and non-fiction, by the way.)

But critique groups can be tricky. To make one work for you, I think you have to be sure you have good writers, smart readers, and people who are mature enough to set competition and jealousy aside, as well as the stubborn voice inside that tries to scream, "You just don't get it! My writing is perfect as it is!" And that group, trust me, is kind of hard to find.

In just the past few weeks of meetings with two different critique groups that I've been attending, I've seen:
  1. A strong disagreement between a writer and two critiquers (including me), who gave that writer very good feedback, and two follow-up emails from that writer insisting that I didn't get what she was trying to do. I did get what she was trying to do, and it wasn't working, which is why I gave her feedback. Feedback she clearly didn't want. So, why was she even present at a critique group, whose purpose is to critique?
  2. An author insisting that the "clever" little joke with which she'd started her novel was consistently making her novel funny all the way through page 40. (I disagreed on the principle that no story functions on a single joke for more than a few minutes, and after those few minutes, you have to do something else to keep it funny, or the joke gets old and people stop reading.) Again, this was unwanted feedback.
  3. A freelancer who always writes wonderful stuff admitted to me that she was a little jealous of my work because it was so strong. This was a compliment, even though it came in the wake of sharing something of mine that was apparently weak and needs some work. I admire the things others write, even and especially when it's something I don't do well. Am I the only one who feels that way? Is everyone else jealous, and I'm just too nice not to feel that way?
  4. A couple of people whose writing needs significant edits, but they received only positive feedback even though they could benefit from more honest feedback. I'm not talking about ripping something to shreds but pointing out the things that do strengthen a piece (like adding more sensory detail here to a scene). Did they get only praise because they're favored, or because people secretly don't want to help them improve?
  5. Two writers, who apparently are also friends, came to our group to visit and proceeded to talk mostly between themselves for the entire meeting. Being polite, I asked them to join us afterwards for drinks and snacks at a local restaurant. They agreed to come, walked in, and then immediately ditched the group. Rude!
I know critique groups can be good, especially when they function as they are meant honest places where writers can hear both what they're doing well and what they're doing poorly. Where you can share something with people hearing your piece for the first time, as paying readers will do. Where you'll get questions that you suddenly realize you forgot to answer in your piece, but you need to. Places where you can really learn to improve your technique and really help others, with integrity, truth, and respect.

Some people seem lucky enough (or smart enough) to be in a group that is truly able to be excellent, supportive, and challenging. The writers of the Writing Excuses podcast, for example. They're all published, and they know how to critique each other effectively.

But for those of us who find ourselves in groups with people who only want to be heard without listening, who want to take without giving, who don't know how to offer feedback and aren't working hard to learn how... Yeah, I think maybe Steven James has a point. Maybe a professional editor is a better option in some instances.

So, what do you think? Controversial topic, controversial viewpoint... Surely you have an opinion, so go ahead and share it below. And if you have a critique group that's really working for you, let me know how you found it, or how you formed it.

Until next time, happy writing!

Copyright (c) 2013 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.