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Posts Tagged ‘critique groups’

As I’ve said time and again, I love critique groups. They provide a writer with that most valuable of commodities, feedback. Not all of the feedback is good, mind you, but even lousy feedback can tell you something. I can still remember when I started critiquing, though, and I remember the biggest problem I had—what do you say to good writers?

Figuring out what to say to somebody with difficulties isn’t usually an issue, although figuring out how to say it without bruising the writer’s tender feelings may well be. But what do you say to somebody who’s smokin’? “Love it, keep up the good work” may be accurate, but it may not be what the author’s looking for. This is particularly tough for someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in critiquing others’ work before. After a while, you learn how to see minor problems even in well-written things. But at first, that’s hard to do.

However, a frequent response to this problem is to manufacture weaknesses so that you have something to comment on. You change the wording (becoming a dreaded Rewriter), you  tell the author you need more information on a character’s background (although you’re reading chapter four in the book and can pretty much guess that background has already been provided somewhere else), you make global assumptions without much basis in the MS (I once had a reader tell me to change my story to M/M because she didn’t think the hero really cared for the heroine—who didn’t appear and wasn’t really mentioned in the pages she’d read). This kind of thing is almost guaranteed to piss off the writer, while not providing her with much in the way of useful advice.

So here are some things to keep in mind as you, a very new critiquer, approach those pages:

1. You may not have done much critiquing, but you’ve undoubtedly done a lot of reading. Approach the MS as you would a book. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? Some of that will probably be personal taste, but even so the writer might like to hear about it. Chances are other people in her potential audience will share the same tastes. On the other hand, telling a writer “I hate paranormals” won’t be much help.

2. Be aware of where this particular set of pages is in the total manuscript. If it’s chapter one, then you can talk about whether you need more backstory or whether the backstory is too dominant. But if it’s chapter five, you can’t really complain that you don’t know the hero’s background—although you can make a comment to the effect that you assume this background was covered earlier, which implies it should have been.

3. Don’t make changes in the writer’s language unless you can explain the reason for making them. Some changes are legitimate (repetition, for example—but that may be handled better by simply highlighting the repeated words), but some are just a matter of your style differing from the author’s style. If the only reason you have for making a change is that it “sounds wrong,” it’s probably best to let it alone.

4. If you don’t have many comments to make, don’t worry about it. If nothing else, that tells the writer she’s on the right track.

And good luck. Trust me, the more you critique, the easier it becomes.

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When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.

Adverbs Bad!

Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.

Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).

In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.

Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.

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The Rewriter

I’m a big believer in critique groups, as I’ve said many times and in many posts. Most of us have trouble looking at our writing objectively. Critique partners can give you an outsider’s take on what you’re doing (or not doing). So nothing I say here should be taken as an attack on critiquing in general. Just a comment on what is probably the most annoying thing a critiquer can do—unnecessary rewriting.

If you’ve been part of a critique group, you’ve probably encountered the chronic rewriter. You get your pages back and they look like they’re bleeding. The rewriter has gone in and changed every paragraph, redoing your tight, concise sentences so that they sprawl across the page or changing your baroque regency prose into something that sounds like Mickey Spillane. And the really annoying thing is that her rewriting hasn’t made the pages any better. She’s just made them totally different.

Now all of us are guilty of the occasional clumsy sentence (some of us more than one). But if a critiquer finds herself rewriting paragraph after paragraph, and she can’t really explain what’s wrong with the prose in the first place, chances are she’s falling into the “make it sound like me” trap. I used to teach a course in copyediting and this was one of the most common problems beginning students had. They couldn’t exactly understand what was wrong with a manuscript, so they’d start rewriting until they’d turned it into something that sounded like them rather than like the original writer. That didn’t necessarily make the MS any better, and it didn’t get the students many points from me.

My rule of thumb was to tell them to try to explain exactly what was wrong with the original. Sometimes they could: the writer had problems with grammar, or overly long sentences, or inflated vocabulary. But sometimes there didn’t seem to be anything specifically wrong. It just didn’t “sound right” to them.

The problem is, the writer’s prose may not “sound right” to me just because it sounds different from mine. It doesn’t sound like it would if I wrote it. But that doesn’t make it wrong or bad, just different. Copyeditors have to learn how to change things, but they also have to learn how to leave things alone. Otherwise, they’ll have a lot of pissed-off clients on their hands.

Let me interject here to point out that some things do, in fact, need to be changed. If the writer has grammatical problems, for example, or problems with punctuation, you probably need to point them out and perhaps suggest a revision (although I’ve also had people take sentences that were correct and make them into something that wasn’t). However, grammar and punctuation are different from style.

Now maybe you, as a critiquer, don’t like a particular writer’s style much. But I’d suggest dealing with that problem by using comments (“Your style seems a little stilted here” or “Why does he suddenly sound so much more formal than he did on the previous page”) rather than by rewriting whole paragraphs. The writer probably needs to know that some readers aren’t reacting well to the way a particular passage sounds. Then she can decide what she wants to do about it—rewrite it (in her own style), cut it, or leave it alone.

On the other hand, if you rewrite a manuscript to make it sound like it would if you wrote it, you’ll probably only annoy the writer and make her less likely to listen to anything else you have to say—believe me, I’ve been there! One perky critiquer even cautioned me not to get too downhearted when I saw what she’d done to my pages—she suggested I read through all her rewritten paragraphs so that I could learn how to do things better. I managed not to write her a scathing response, but it was a near thing.

So here’s the point: Allow the writer her style. What you might do if you were writing her book may well have no bearing on what she’s done. And who knows, maybe her version is as good as yours would be if you were working in her genre.

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I used to be a writing teacher in my other life. I never taught creative writing but I did teach freshman composition, technical writing, and writing for the Web. One of the most useful things I picked up in my years on the front lines was an introduction to the writing process.

A little background here: back in the old days (i.e., before 1970), nobody ever talked about how people actually wrote. They just told you what to come up with—for example, a “description essay” (and how many people outside of freshman comp classes ever write essays that do nothing but describe?). Then some composition researchers started looking at the way people actually went about writing. They found that the process went in phases that they divided into, roughly, prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Prewriting involves all the things you go through before you actually start writing—if you’re a planner like me, it means brainstorming, charting, maybe using the kind of question and answer structure you get in a software program like Dramatica, and so on. If you’re a pantser, it probably means doing a lot of thinking, both conscious and un-, about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to work.

The drafting phase is pretty straightforward—it’s getting the words on the page. And revising means going back and making those words say what you really want them to say. It’s those last two phases I want to talk about. I think a lot of beginning writers run into grief because they get these two phases confused.

Let me give you an example. I know a writer, a very talented writer, who can never seem to finish any of her manuscripts. She writes a couple of chapters, takes them to her critique group, lets the others in the group look at what she’s written, and then goes home and tries to make it perfect. And that’s where she freezes up. It’s not perfect and she can’t go on writing that particular book.

Now my finished stuff is far from perfect, I know. But believe me when I’m drafting it’s even more imperfect than the finished version! That’s because when I’m drafting, I’m drafting. I spend all my time getting words down on the page—not always the right words, or the words I’ll ultimately end up with, but words nonetheless. And I don’t really go over them from one day to the next. I’ll read what I wrote yesterday, and maybe I’ll fiddle with it a little, but for the most part I’ll move pretty quickly on to the next scene I’m going to work with. It usually takes me a couple of months to do a complete draft because I write longer books (around 90,000 words), but I don’t stop moving forward during those months unless something seems catastrophically off. Whenever I’m tempted to go back and clean things up, I end up muttering “Just get it down, just get it down.”

And that’s the point I’d make here. In writing more than in some other pursuits, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Nobody starts off with a perfect draft, trust me. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, have claimed that their masterpieces came to them fully formed. They’re lying. The first time through, the words in the dialogue won’t be quite right for everybody. You may not have enough detail in the descriptions. The action may seem too abrupt or too drawn-out. But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Think of your writing as a party (maybe that will make it less painful!). You get the house set up before the guests arrive, but once the guests are there you just let ‘er rip. Maybe you’ve got a few things planned, like a meal or a TV marathon you want to watch. Or maybe you’re somebody who just likes to let the party develop the way it’s going to develop. Anyway, as long as the party’s going, you’re going with it, just letting the whole thing flow along. You wouldn’t stop a good party to run the vacuum sweeper just because somebody spilled a little popcorn on the rug. You might gather up some dirty glasses, and you’d probably refill the chip and dip bowls, but you’ll save the major clean-up until after the party’s over.

The main thing here is, don’t let yourself get hung up on revising before you’re ready. Don’t keep rewriting that paragraph to get it absolutely right. Get it good enough and then keep going. The great thing about the writing process is that you’ve always got a chance to clean it up later. Let the guests go home, let yourself put your feet up and take a rest, let your brain relax.

And then get out that vacuum sweeper and go to work.

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