Tag Archives: Critique

Library Writers Group: Don’t be Afraid to Share

30 Jun

Another month, another great meeting of the writers group at my library. I really enjoy this group and the people I’ve met being a part of it. Our topic for the month was giving and receiving constructive criticism.

Many of you probably heard about the latest Goodreads blow-up between an author and a reader. Author Dylan Saccoccio was none too pleased with the 1-star review left on his book and, well, you can read about it here and here if you want. Saccoccio’s account was deleted after it was found out he bribed people for 5-star reviews so the rest of the conversation is still on Goodreads but without the author’s comments. So this becomes a good teaching point. How to we respond to negative criticism?

If you look, the reader’s comments aren’t very bad. She was objective, didn’t attack the author personally and was specific about what she didn’t like. It didn’t work for her, she’s not saying it’s a bad book no one should read. But as a writer, that’s our fear. We’re afraid people will hate our book and tear us apart for what we’ve written, destroying the small kernel of self-esteem we still have. As a result, many of us are afraid to show our work to others. Our one piece of advice on this is to wait a few months after writing something before having it critiqued. It feels less ‘fresh’ that way.

Most people benefit from group critique but having a critique partner is another good way to do this. Some people in the group had found helpful communities online, but most of us had people in our lives who were helpful. I have a few friends I’ve met through other writers groups and other had workshop groups or friends themselves. One thing we advised is that if you walk into a group and continue to talk about how you need someone to read your work, it’s not going to happen. Most people want a critique partner they trust to read their stuff and who won’t burn them by stealing ideas or not reading in return. It’s best to build a relationship before asking someone to read your work. But not too close, because then they won’t say mean things to hurt you.

Our little grammar nugget for this week was the passive voice. There are some good times to use the passive voice! Three we listed were when the subject is unknown (The church was built in 1507), there are several actions (I was arrested, released, and ticketed) or to create suspense (The door was opened). One piece of advice I can give is to turn on your Readability Statistics if you use Microsoft Word. It will run after every spell check and tells you what percent of your sentences are in passive voice. Look online for a target for your genre/reading level.

That’s it for this month! We’ll be back in August with more.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Good Critique and Ice Cream

16 Jun

The writers’ group at my library met a few weeks back and I wanted to put together a short summary of what we talked about. We didn’t have anything to discuss this week so we talked about good critique. First, how to give critique.

Even if a piece is not for you and you would not read another world if your life depended on it, there’s a way to say that without being a jerk. “Your main character sucks” sounds better as “I didn’t believe your main character.” “Your writing is so choppy I couldn’t read it” could be “I found your sentence structures distracting.” Boom; done. It’s that easy. This kind of comes from some feelings I expressed in my Negativity #2 post a few weeks back. I don’t want to repeat that again. When something in the book really upsets you, recognize that it’s the circumstances and characters that have upset you, not the writer. Maybe the writer wanted to upset you and make you think and they’ve accomplished their goal. Direct critique at the story and characters, not the writer. As writers, we’re voluntarily putting ourselves into an industry that will perpetually tell us we’re not good enough and we’ll never make a living off of it. Why would we do that to each other when there are agents to do it? We should be a support system for each other and build each other up.

Taking critique is much harder. There’s no doubt you’ll get critique you don’t like or don’t agree with. Think about it for a few days before you disregard it. Maybe some thought will tell you it’s not such a bad idea to kill off the protagonist’s dad. However, not everything you get is useful and you can choose not to make some changes if it’s best for your story.

We read the article Shitty First Drafts by Anne Lamott taken from her book Bird by Bird. This book is sitting on my shelf and I will read it soon…. I hope. The article talks about how Anne goes about getting her first draft on paper because you can’t edit what’s not there. We all found this really relieving to hear. If you haven’t read the essay yet, please try to find a copy.

To end, we did a prompt. Mine was, “Takes place in an ice cream shop, one character is a doctor, involves new shoes.” Enjoy.

 

An ice cream to celebrate another test done. Sprinkles to celebrate the end of the semester. Hot fudge to prepare myself for a residency I’m not sure I’m ready for.

I’m sitting at the high bar stool because it makes me feel ready to run out of the door. I allow myself to half-slip off the seat as a test and only succeed in dropping my napkin. I need a new one to fight the fudge monster who’s trying in vain to drown the sprinkle villagers as they escape down Vanilla Mountain. I rescue a few perishing souls with my spook and look down again at my proximity to the floor. My toes almost graze the mound of books and notebooks in my backpack and I notice an almost hole on the left toe of my blue Keds. My mouth crews up in the same way I imagine the sprinkle-men did while evaluating their escape from hot fudge. Med school budgets don’t account for new shoes before a residency. They don’t consider Vanilla Mountain either. I sigh, knowing I’m facing another month of American cheese sandwiches for lunch and bananas for breakfast. Doctors really are the least healthy people.

 

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Saturday Writer’s Group: Revising, Critiquing, and Noobs.

9 Jun

I’ve come to really enjoy my Saturday Writing group. The critiques are really good and the writing quality is already high, which makes it fun to give some really good critiques.

Before we got started, I told everyone I was about to embark on the U.S.S Editing and asked for some advice for a safe voyage. I got some great advice!

  • Cut it into sections and re-arrange them on the floor. (For a novel length piece, write the plot points on note cards and rearrange them on the floor to see what works best.
  • Read it aloud
  • Write the plot as you remember it after reading
  • Think about how it relates to your original goal and adjust plot or goal as necessary
  • Think about the main conflict and how it relates to each scene

Thanks to my group for grounding me in this advice!

There were a few points that came up from reading other member’s critiques. One man shared a piece that was writing like a personal essay, but was not about a personal experience. Before he told us this, I thought the piece was a reflection of something that had happened to him and wrote my critique with this thought. When he told us that the plot was fictionalized, I had the desire to re-critique it. I felt that I would have different suggestions if I went into the piece knowing it was fiction. Do you critique differently when something is a memoir or personal essay? What kind of things would you avoid saying? Off the top of my head, I would avoid suggestions for additions or changes to characterization or dialogue. If those things really happened, how truthful is it to change them? I might also leave out some personal opinions about the characters that I might normally give. If they’re real people, I wouldn’t want to offend their personalities!

There was one thing slightly off about our group at this meeting. We had a new member. This group has been really good about new members before so we didn’t think this would be an issue at first. However, it soon became obvious that this member did not understand what our group was about, how we worked, and hadn’t read the pieces we would be discussing. He continually tried to push his (outlined) novel and couldn’t provide a lot of feedback because he was unfamiliar with our pieces. After he left, we considered adding more security to the group website. Our moderator requires that someone submit a sample before joining and this person had not. We were wondering how he was able to see our meeting location.

For those of you in writing groups, how do you handle new members? Do you require writing samples? What do you do with unwelcome new members or people who don’t follow the group rules? I’ll be running the next meeting and he’s promised to return with a friend! I need to be strong and stern looking, and that’s not normally my specialty.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Negativity #2: The After Effects of an Outburst

27 May

After much delay, I’m ready to do part 2 of my negativity series. I posted Negativity #1: Reply Letter to a Hater two weeks ago. This is something else that happened to me on that Wednesday that fought to bring me down but I’m not going to let it. Please note, this one was a lot worse.

About a year ago, I joined a writing group that meets on Wednesday evenings once a month. I really enjoyed the group for a few months and was sad when my second job stopped me from being able to go. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a situation that let me quit my second job, thus freeing up my Wednesday nights. I was excited to dive back into this group.

The group discusses three pieces at each meeting which are distributed ahead of time for members to read. I like that the members of this group are usually brutally honest but offer really great advice to fix anything they find fault with. It’s good to get such honest feedback from these people.

However, I had an issue with it this time. One member shared a piece he wrote where a non-native English speaker is having a conversation with the protagonist. We discussed the scene and offered feedback and were ready to move on when one member spoke up. It was the first time she’d said anything the whole meeting.

She said that the writer was making huge mistakes and glaring errors and went on to highlight one example. The heavy accent that the character had spoken in had contained a few grammatical errors, indicating that the character did not have a strong grasp of English. This member of our group had presumably taken offense at this because she attacked fiercely. She did some research and was able to find articles on Wikipedia that the language structure of the character’s native language would not have lent itself to him making mistakes in English the way that he did. For example, he wouldn’t have dropped a definite article and would have been more likely to mess up certain phrases. She ended her feedback by saying that these mistakes tell her as a reader that the writer is lazy, doesn’t care very much about his story, and that she felt she shouldn’t bother reading if he didn’t care enough to do this research.

I was struck dumb. Her words were so pointed and obviously directed at the writers ability to write well and not at the writing. She crossed the line that critiquers have to be sure to avoid and went after the person, not the art. This was something he was bringing forward for critique, obviously looking for advice like what was at the base of her attack; that he should research the language structure of his character’s native language. But I’m shocked that she went where she did instead of, “You should look up language structures for these characters. I found information on Wikipedia that will be helpful.” Why the parts about his personal character and ability as a writer?

As writers, we’ve voluntarily decided to participate in an industry that is already against us. Paying to submit work that you get paid very little for in exchange for the hours of work that went into your pet project. Why in the world would we want to discourage each other from doing something that requires so much dedication? Why would we ever tell someone that their work isn’t what it should be and discourage them from trying again when we pay editors to tell us that and they do it in a nicer way? You’re giving a free critique and the writer’s publication opportunities are not riding on what you have to say so he doesn’t have to listen. If you have a real suggestion, phrase it in a way I might listen to instead of yelling at me. No one responds well to being yelled at.

Here’s the worst part of the situation; no one told her to stop, myself included. I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything and it wasn’t until the writer snapped back that any of us were able to move on to something else. So we did another critique and were ready to leave when a member brought up what had happened and said we should talk about it. His message was not to take things so personally. I think that’s very fair advice. HOWEVER, you can only ‘not take things personally’ when they’re not personally directed at you. The critiquer’s comments were pointed, direct, personal. The member who brought this up saw more fault in the writer than the critiquer. I completely disagree.

I’m trying to decide if I ever want to go back to this group. I’m bothered that this woman thought it was okay to say what she did, that other members found fault in the writer’s reaction, and that from the conversation surrounding it, I get the feeling that this has happened before.

There seems to be a culture in the group that I can’t get on board with. Even when I hate something that someone’s written, I find a nice (or at least emotionless) way to say what I think needs to change. I would never say those things to anyone because I would never want them said to me. I’m thinking of giving the group one last try, but I’m really tempted to never go back. I’m considering another activity that would conflict and it’s easy for me to decide what to drop. I don’t feel comfortable enough bringing my work to the group so what benefit can I get from attending?

One of my faults my entire life has been to not quit something when I should. It leads to unhealthy relationships and commitments that I’m reluctant to make. I’ve been trying to work on this opportunity so I can focus my efforts where they count and I’m seeing this as a test of my strength. Maybe I shouldn’t give it another chance to be sure, but maybe I should make the cut.

Reader, I hope you’ve never dealt with such strong negativity, but I’m curious to hear your experiences if you have. How do you deal with harsh critiques? Have you been a part of a group whose culture was not supportive? What did you do?

Here’s to moving past this negativity and finding light and encouragement!

Until next time, write on (and never stop).

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Small Writers Group: Readings, Poetry, and When to Workshop

2 May

I went to my second meeting of my small writers groups, previously called A Small Group of Strangers Workshop. I’m changing my name of it because these people are starting to feel less like strangers. I really enjoyed this meeting of six and we covered three pieces.

Before we started, our moderator passed around some fliers for prose and poetry reads in downtown Detroit. It was the weekend of Easter (yes, it’s taking me a long time to write this) so I couldn’t attend, but it got me thinking. There are so many different types of readings. I’ve been to a Poetry Slam, a ‘Story Slam,’ and author signings, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that could be strictly classified as a reading. But really, what makes something a reading and why is that better than just hearing the author speak?

You can have readings for poetry, prose, essay, anything really. And it can be combined with Q&A or just author speaking, or only the reading and they can be held just about anywhere (though I feel an independent coffee shop is the stereotype). What kinds of readings have you been to? What kind do you most enjoy?

Our moderator brought a poem for us to critique. Besides helping Nicole with a poem once, I’ve never critiqued poetry before and I wasn’t really sure how to do it. Simply because of that I’m thinking of taking a poem to the group to see what kind of feedback I can get. Our biggest critique was about a line break and how the poem flowed with stanza breaks. Besides that, I wasn’t able to contribute much other than my interpretation of what the poem meant. How do you critique poetry? What kind of feedback is helpful when you submit a poem to be workshopped?

One of the men in our group brought the first chapter of his novel.  As I’m still planning on re-writing my NaNo, this is something I’ve considered doing with this group as well and he asked a question that I didn’t have a good answer to. How much of a book should you write before bringing the first chapter to a workshop? When I started going through my first manuscript with the Novel Girls, I was about 2/3 of the way done with it. With the speed I’ll be re-writing my NaNo, I might bring it in sooner, or maybe wait a little longer, I haven’t decided yet. Is there a good point to bring it in and see if it’s interesting before you commit too much? Or is it best to get through the whole thing first so you don’t realize that something you already had workshopped needs to be critiqued? Does anyone know the right balance?

I hope you’re all enjoying my writerly musings. I love hearing from you.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Novel Girls: Two Writer-ly Questions

9 Sep

Today, Nicole and I met up at a Starbucks to do some writing reviewing.  I think we picked the world’s smallest Starbucks.  There was one free table when I got there and there were only five tables total!  Add in a co-ed bathroom and my vote is in for smallest.

Anyway, it’s good having someone to chat with who’s going through some of the same writer-ly problems.  I thought I’d enumerate a few here.  Leave a comment if you have some similar problems or any advice on overcoming them.

  1. Feedback from critique groups: This was a problem I proposed to Nicole.  I recently took the third chapter of my novel to a monthly critique group.  (Nicole has read my manuscript in whole and is usually the person I bounce changes off of before doing anything drastic.)  One of the critiques I was given at the group meeting was to change the ending of the chapter.  The father of one of my protagonists reveals a big plot element at the end, and the critique group said that he gave up the information too easily!  They were shocked that he would reveal this information to his high-school age children and a trusted family friend.  In the meeting, I told them that the children are going to help him solve the problem created by this plot element and their reaction was that these characters are children and they are too young to help.  I was appalled!  In the 1920s, most teens over 15 held a job and not many went to college.  Getting married at age 18 was common and many people were working in their career at the same age.  At 16 and 17, my characters are practically adults.  All the same, this group recommended I change it so that the father does not as quickly divulge said information.
    I had an issue with this.  If the father knew that his children were going to be helping, why would he hide the information from them?  Nicole knows what happens a few scenes later and agreed with me that I should keep it as is; it makes sense in the grand scheme of things.
    So this brings me to my problem, Do you ever get feedback from a critique that you completely disagree with?  Does it make you feel compelled to change something in your story?  When do you decide to ignore it or change your plot based on it?
  2. Planning a story:  This is something I’ve been toying with.  My completed novel, I wrote out a multi-page outline, complete with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what was going to happen in each part.  I’m working on a similar outline for the story I’m going to write for NaNoWriMo.  Just to be different, there’s a novel I’m working on casually right now that I’m not outlining and trying to ‘fly by the seat of my pants.’  Nicole is in the middle of one story with an outline, and she hasn’t yet started outlining her NaNo, and isn’t sure if she plans to.
    Question number two: Do you have better luck outlining a novel before beginning, or figuring the plot out as you go?  Do you ever write yourself into a corner without an outline?  Do you find you lose plot points?  With an outline, do you find writing point-to-point is too boring and lose interest?

I’ve love to hear any and all opinions on these questions!  Dealing with feedback and planning are probably the two hardest points for me as a writer.  Thanks for taking the time to read!