Friday, July 1, 2016

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

By Art Taylor

As a quick answer to this week's question—"Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons?"—let me say this: Almost nothing I write is ever sent out into the world without having been run past a trusted writer-friend or two and usually several. Short stories, my book, articles, reviews, sometimes even blog posts like this one, occasionally an email, sometimes even a Facebook post.

Do I count it as a critique group if a friend reads a Facebook post before I post it? Likely I wouldn't call it that, but I think that the prompt and the process are very similar. Is what I'm trying to say coming across correctly? concisely? cleverly? Is there any unintended message I might want to avoid? Does it work?

In part, my commitment to the idea of critique groups may have grown out of my experiences in two creative writing programs that were driven by the workshop format—NC State University and George Mason University—and then out of my experiences on the other side of the desk, heading up undergraduate workshops as an associate professor at Mason. Even in those latter workshops, where I'm supposed to be a leader of sorts, I find that the workshop format reveals its strengths: So often students in the workshop brings perspectives that I never considered to their peers' stories under discussion—finding strengths I underestimated myself, seeing potential trouble spots that I'd missed, offering suggestions that help to set the writer on the right path. It's a group effort, and it's the group part that helps the effort to succeed.

That said, there are—certainly—pitfalls to dodge, and any workshop benefits by the constant reminder that the discussion should always be in service to the author's vision, trying to bring that vision into clearest focus on the page; workshop participants should never try to rewrite the characters or the plot or the prose into their ideals. In fact, let's make that tip #1 here—and I hope the other suggestions below might help as well.

  1. Workshop participants: Never talk about how you would revise a work under discussion. Always think about the author's own vision first and how you can help bring that vision into focus. (Note: Everyone comes into a workshop with both reading and writing biases, but students who don't like science fiction can still offer some pretty savvy suggestions on a sci fi story, not just despite but sometimes because they aren't regular readers of the genre.)
  2. Workshop participants: Focus first on what's positive in a manuscript—where are strengths? what's working? why?—and then talk about trouble spots. In terms of the latter, don't simply point out what's troubled but make constructive criticism: Where might trouble spots be smoothed over? Don't just point to a pothole; offer up some ideas for patching it. 
  3.  Authors under discussion: Listen more than you talk—even if you disagree with what's being said. Don't try to defend your work in workshop. Take in the comments, consider and digest, address as needed. Remember: You will not be able to follow around your work once it's published and explain it to each reader along the way. So why bother trying to do that in the workshop itself? If what you were intending isn't coming across properly, don't explain what you really meant but revise the manuscript so it does come across properly. And remember: Even the criticism that may sting at first will often prompt productive thinking, profitable revision once you're able to get past the sting.
  4. Authors under discussion: Don't try to address every criticism or incorporate every suggestion. This way lies madness. Step back and think about what's being said; consider your vision; revise accordingly. I've often found that student writers who address every suggestion like they're going down a checklist end up with a mess at the end of a revision. 
There are a few other issues to consider generally—especially in terms of workshop format. I'm in two workshop groups right now—one that meets monthly in person, one that's more virtual with manuscripts being exchanged across email. For the former, we bring in short manuscripts and read them aloud in the meeting, and there are great benefits to that, including actually reading your work aloud, hearing it in a fresh way. But there are challenges too. Reading at such a solid pace and responding quickly doesn't give the workshop participants time to reflect on a manuscript before commenting; first impressions and reactions are everything. In contrast, having the text for a longer period of time, reading and perhaps rereading, allows time for a more thoughtful and in-depth critique; the downside there, of course, is that time element. Sending a manuscript email to a friend for feedback may end up with several days or weeks or longer before the feedback arrives. Reading aloud and discussing in a single evening means that you can dive back in the next morning, keeping up the momentum.

One last point. I've personally found that workshops work better when dealing with either a complete draft or at least a finished one—by which I mean that even if you can't submit a full draft for workshop (difficult to read a novel out loud in a single evening!), at least have that full draft at home before you start bringing in chapters. Discussion a portion of a whole can be difficult; imagine the number of suggestions/questions about a single chapter that would be easily answered simply by reading the next chapter. But reconciling that issue in your mind is still much easier than coming in with the first chapter of a new project when that's all you have—before your own vision has had a chance to find its way on the page at all. When there's nothing but blank pages ahead, a critique group can threaten to derail your vision, thwart your momentum, undermine the project completely even before it's begun.

Anything more to add that I've missed? Anything here that I haven't expressed or explained well? After all, like I said, I'm open to feedback—always.


Thursday, June 30, 2016

That Flying Zebra Has to Go!

by Alan

Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons?

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (some people might say I still don’t. H8ers!). So I took a few workshops (at The Writer’s Center—now I teach there!). They were EXTREMELY helpful, but were limited in scope. I took the advice of my instructor and, with a couple of fellow workshoppers, formed a critique group. My very first critique group.

Best thing ever.

Because I’d been in the workshop with them, I knew what kind of critiquers they were (excellent). I also knew what kind of things they wrote (very good things), how they handled criticism of their own work (like pros), and what kind of people they were (top-notch). We worked together for a few years and I learned A TON from them.

And valuable stuff, too. It’s one thing to sit alone in your dungeon room, hour after hour, day after day, pounding that keyboard, but eventually you’ll probably want to show your masterpiece to someone else just to see if you are “on the right track” (note: you are probably not “on the right track”). That’s why, for me, having a critique group is invaluable.

I learned what worked and what didn’t. I learned about things on a line-by-line level (too many semi-colons!), and on a big picture basis (“You need to change the main character from a he to a she and move the action to Ecuador. And ditch the purple flying zebra!”). Hopefully, I was able to help my critique partners, as well.

Eventually, one of us moved, and life got in the way, and yadda yadda yadda, and we transformed from a group into a beta reader-type arrangement (we still exchanged work, but didn’t meet regularly).

A few years later, I hooked up with another group.

Best thing ever.

And after that ran its course, I joined another group.

Best thing ever.

If you can’t tell, I love being in critique groups, mostly because I love LOVE LOVE my critique partners. So knowledgeable. So generous. So supportive. I know they’ve “got my back” and would do anything to help my writing or my career. I’d do the same for them.

Writing (actually, publishing) is a brutal business, teeming with pitfalls, detours, trap doors, roundabouts, betrayals, broken promises, dashed dreams, and the equivalent of cheese-covered Brussels sprouts, so it sure helps to have friends on your side as you run the gauntlet.

Because having a terrific critique group is the best thing EVER.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Writing Groups

By Tracy Kiely

I have a list of things I should do. Joining a writing critique is one item. Some other items on the list include learning another language, composting, growing my own tomatoes, and eating healthier. I know that all of these things would improve various aspects of my life. I also know that the chances of me ever doing any of these ranks up there with getting hit by lightening twice and winning the lottery.
The sad fact is that I am lazy.
I am fairly certain that I am missing what I like to call the Organization Gene. I am forever running behind schedule. I write long To Do lists, but never seem to finish anything on them. I get distracted and then find myself starting a completely different project. For instance, the other day I went to put my husband’s shoes away and 45 minutes later found myself arranging his shirts by color. This waste of time is all the more ludicrous when you factor in that my husband is color blind. Just until recently he thought peanut butter was green. There was no way that he was going to appreciate that that his shirts now hung from hues of white to blue to green to pink.  In fact, I don’t think he realized he had a pink shirt until I pointed it out on my freaking color scale.
So, even though I would love to get feedback from other writers on my work, I don’t belong to a group. I simply don’t trust myself to fulfill my end of the bargain. I fear that each meeting would be like that reoccurring nightmare where you suddenly find yourself back in high school, only to realize that you not only haven’t been to class in six weeks, but that today is the final exam.
Another problem I would have with being in such a group is that it’s really hard to for me to tell someone that I don’t like their work. Years ago I took a mystery writing class at the local community college. Each week, we’d bring in our chapters and sometimes we’d share them with the class. A few of us this kept up after the class had ended. We’d read each other’s stuff on line and offer suggestions.  I had a really hard time with some of these reviews, either because I really disliked the genre or I didn’t like the writing.  I eventually dropped out of the group because I didn’t think it was fair to ask others to read and honestly critique my work if I couldn’t do the same for them.
Now would I recommend others to join a group? Absolutely. Other writers can help you out of a plot hole, offer suggestions, listen, and sympathize with writer’s block and a host of other writing related insecurities. They can help make your writing stronger and you more confident.
They probably compost and grow their own tomatoes, too.  Some people are just good like that.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Can't see the book for the words.

By R.J. Harlick

Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons? If not, how do you get feedback on your writing?

When I started out on this writing adventure I knew I would need other eyes to assess my work before I sent my book off to an agent or a publisher. Like many new writers I was convinced my hard fought words had the makings of the next best seller. I just wanted someone to tell me that. So I passed chapters out to friends and family, none of them writers. Some did tell me it was good, but I ended up not believing them. I realized it was more a case of them not wanting to hurt my feelings because deep down inside I knew it wasn’t very good. Those who were more forthcoming were only able tell me what they liked or didn’t like. They couldn’t tell me why. I realized it was the why I needed to know if I was to improve my writing.

Shortly thereafter I joined a writers association and before long found myself becoming a member of a critique group of fellow writers. We met monthly with each of us bringing a chapter or two of our novel in progress or a short story for critiquing. I tell you, this critique group proved its worth many times over. I might not have always liked what my fellow writers had to say about my writing, but without their constructive criticism my writing never would have improved. It’s also likely that my first book never would have improved enough to be published.

I put the success of this critique group down to several things. We were small, only four, so could easily handle works by all of us in a single session. We were all committed enough with our writing to be able to offer something for critiquing at pretty well every meeting. We were all at the same level in our writing careers, the beginning. We had learned enough about creative writing and the writing process to offer useful criticism and advice.  We had a tacit understanding of offering good news along with the bad and not being overly critical.  We also endeavoured to make our criticisms constructive not destructive. No one ever went home in tears. We were also all mystery writers, so were able to offer advice pertinent to the genre.

I think we probably met fairly regularly for about seven years. But as some of us became published while others didn’t, we gradually grew apart.  By the time I finished writing my third book, I knew the monthly, piecemeal format no longer worked for me. I wanted the critique to be done on the entire book not a chapter at a time.

 At no time, though, did I consider giving up this critiquing step. I am one of those writers who can’t see the book for the words, so I need the critiques of others to get me looking objectively at my writing.

The critiquing approach I now follow is having the critique done on a revised first draft by two to four fellow authors who are published. I incorporate their comments along with my own into the revisions to produce the third draft, which is the draft the publisher receives. This approach has worked very well for me and as long as I don’t find myself in time constraints with my publisher I will continue to follow it.


What about you? What has your experience been with a critiquing group?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Help and Fellowship: The Pros and Cons of Writing Groups

 Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons? If not, how do you get feedback on your writing?

by Meredith Cole

Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.

When I teach writing classes, I use a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.

How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. If you ever find yourself in a critique group like that, you should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.

How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.

If I hadn't connected with a group of mystery writers in Brooklyn way back in 2005 (with Triss Stein, Jane Olson, Marilyn Wallace and Mary Darby), I don't think I would have ended up published by St. Martin's. Their feedback was invaluable, and they were incredibly helpful at getting me to see how I could make my book and my writing better. These days I meet 5 months out of the year (January to May) with the Moseley Writers Group in Charlottesville. It's a small eclectic group of writers who bring everything from personal essays to YA to mysteries in for critique. With their help, I have continued to grow as a writer and improve. And I leave each session energized and excited to return to the page, so it's definitely working for me.

Friday, June 24, 2016

So Many Books, So Little Time

Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?

by Paul D. Marks

No!

And ditto for movies.

I used to feel not only compelled but obligated to finish any book I started. (Okay, a little compulsive I know.) But as I’ve gotten older that just doesn’t work anymore. Life is too short. There’s too many books and too little time, as has been noted here all week. I won’t even say there’re too many good books, because I won’t claim that every book I finish—and even like—is a “good” book. It might just be something I enjoy. A guilty pleasure.

I read a variety of things, non-fiction and fiction and various genres within that. These days I don’t often read a non-fiction book cover to cover like I used to. I bounce around, sometimes looking at the table of contents or the index for subjects I might find particularly interesting. And sometimes I just open to a page and start reading.

Fiction is, of course, different. You really have to read it from head to tail if you want to get the full flavor and depth of it. I’ll usually give a book about 80-100 pages. But I have to admit that I might read beyond that even if I’m not enjoying the book because hope springs eternal. And I guess I still have that expectation that it will get better. Unfortunately on some books I’ll read all 400 pages until hope turns to despair.

For movies, I’ll give them about a half hour. That should take me to the end of Act I, give or take. If it doesn’t grab me by then: bye-bye.

However, when I’ve been a judge for various competitions I have felt obligated to read every story from stem to stern. And I’ve pretty much succeeded at that, though it can be extremely time-consuming. But I have to admit there was one story that I just couldn’t finish. Because it wasn’t a “story” but more of a political diatribe disguised as a story and the characters were just mouthpieces for the author. But one clunker out of the tons I’ve read for various contests isn’t a bad batting average I’d say.

There is one very well-known book that I have been unable to finish. Three times. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I really want to read this book and I really want to like it. But I can’t seem to get past page 100. But maybe the fourth time (if there is one) will be the charm. Or maybe I should just read Gravity’s Rambo instead (and no, I didn’t make that cover).



And like Catriona mentioned yesterday, sometimes I’ve started a book and for one reason or another just couldn’t get into it. Picked it up later and wow, what have I been missing.

A book doesn’t have to be a fast-paced, rip-roaring page turner either. One of my favorite books is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, about a soldier who is stationed at a remote outpost and spends his life hoping and waiting for the glory of battle. Though that’s really just what it’s about on the surface. Now, I admit this book is a slow read, so you’d think I would have stopped at some point. But I just loved it and it’s well worth the slowness in my opinion.


On another note, I don’t always finish novels or stories I start to write, but I guess that’s for another time.

***
Here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:


And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Buried in Books (and it's a lovely way to go).

By Catriona

Do I always finish a book I've started? And if not, what makes me lay it down?

No. Ever since I first got my three orange library tickets, I've now and then failed to finish reading the books I've chosen. (Below is the picture the internet gave me when I Googled "orange library card UK".)

It's a card, with an orange thing, held in a library collection.
Where were we? What's changed is whether I feel particularly guilty. See that last paragraph? See that word "failed"? That's as neutral as I can get it; "flaked out" and "fell short" went through my head too. Oh, I used to beat myself up something chronic about not finishing books. The BR pile (being read) was as tall as the TBR pile. And the BR pile was big lie. All it did was use up bookmarks, as I kept my place year after year in books that I was never going to go back to. These days I admit it and reshelve the books. (Why not donate them? Keep reading and see.)

As to what makes me give up? Well, I think joyful reading is a three-legged stool: there's the book, the reader and the moment.

I'm sure there are bad books. Somewhere sometime a book must have been published that no one liked enough to finish. I don't think I've ever stopped reading because I was turning the pages of a bad book, though. I turned thirteen pages of 50 SHADES OF GREY and gave up on page fourteen. But 46,472 and counting people liked it enough to tell Amazon.

And I'm not a perfect reader. I'm uninterested in some things (Middle Earth, for instance). My heart sinks when faced with some things (long poems, for instance. Anything much longer than a sonnet pretty much makes me glaze over. Poems that go over the page to the next page leave me behind.)
But I'm not self-regarding enough to think The Lord of The Rings and Paradise Lost are no good because they're no good for me. So I wasn't that surprised when I used Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and The Green Knight as a bookmark park for a year and a half.

But then there's that third thing - the moment. The season, the day of the week, the time of the day, what you read last, what you're writing, whether the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart all around you and no one has noticed . . . there are so many ways a reading experience can be derailed.
And the proof of it is when a book I tried and failed with (Failed I tell you! Failed like a big honking FAILURE) comes back in another guise and shows itself to be delightful.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been handed a moderating gig , or even an interviewing gig, and on my bookshelf is something by one of the panelists (or the sole interviewee) that I started and laid down unfinished. I pick it up again and adore it! Devour it! Buy the backlist and bore everyone on Facebook with how fantabulous this author is.

Nothing ever makes me feel like a bigger idiot than realizing that I had treasure on my bookshelf and didn't know.



Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Of final chapters and zombies by Cathy Ace



 "Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"

Once upon a time, the answer to this would have been – “I always finish what I’ve started” but, recently, I find I’m having to allow myself to not finish a book I’ve begun. It’s a pretty alien concept to me – like not clearing my plate. Ingrained absolutes are tough to shake.

Books were so precious to me for most of my life (and still are, don’t get me wrong!) that it would be anathema to me to not work through to the end of a volume to complete the journey the author planned for me to take. Now? Not so much. Now I find my reading time is so much shorter than it used to be, and I have to read so much because of “authorly” commitments, that reading for pure pleasure has become something where I need to be grabbed by the book as soon as possible and not let go until the last page or – yes – I’ll wander off and find someone else who can give me that fix before I reach the final chapters
.
Waiting for a long vacation
 By week two of a two-week vacation I might be able to face a book with le Carre’s stately pace, but in week one I’m smashing through the Pattersons and Childs like a crazy person with smart characters, quite-but-strong types and high body counts littering my waking hours in a blaze of joyous entertainment-crime. Then I can stop, and allow the pace to slow into a panoply of nuanced ne’er-do-wells, all of whom shouldn’t be trusted further than I can dribble. Lovely!

Now all I need is a month off, and I’ll be enjoying Jane Austen all over again. (I recently watched the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and LOVED it! Yep, there were plot-holes, and the lines from Austen’s pen dripped slowly from the mouths of zombie-killing characters, but, overall, it was great fun. I couldn’t manage the book when it came out though. Yes, the zombie-version of Pride & Prejudice was too slow for me!)

Quick fix, in-flight fun!
And that’s about where I am with reading at the moment: if it ain’t grabbing me right away, I won’t finish it. But, oh, to have the time to luxuriate in the manners of the Bennet sisters without worrying that they gained their zombie-fighting skills in China not Japan? That will mean I’m having a real break! And finishing every book I pick up. But maybe not too many of them will be about zombies. 

Are zombies or spies your kind of thing? If neither - what keeps you turning the pages until you're at the back cover?

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at http://cathyace.com/