Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

In past years I’ve written a few posts on the topic of critiquing which generated several comments. Now that I’m back in another critique group, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to the critiquing styles of a new group of writers. It takes time to get to know and trust each other… time to understand what kind of feedback each one needs and desires… time to determine how best to provide individualized and constructive criticism that’s truly helpful.

In an April post five years ago I said, “Good critiquing is as much an art as good writing. Anyone with a modicum of editorial ability should be able to go through a manuscript and highlight problems with its plot, characterization, structure and grammar. I believe it takes someone who has also experienced a writer’s journey — who has survived through the creation of her own fictitious world and thus understands the exhilaration and desperation that is a part of the process – to be able to offer advice in a way that is both helpful and welcome.”

During this next week I’m going to dig into the archives and re-issue two posts on the topic of critiquing, Here’s the first…

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How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Does he/she sincerely care about me and want to help me improve my writing, or is he/she using the opportunity to dish out personal opinions and humiliate? Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear not only about my manuscript strengths, but also its weaknesses. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to be told that large chunks of the story should be deleted or rewritten because “it will sound much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

In mid-September (2010) Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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National Poetry Month, a Novel, and Now

Throughout the month of March many of us took part in a literary version of March Madness, daily working our way toward an assortment of writing-related goals. Now April has arrived, bringing with it National Poetry Month, and a new daily challenge — reading a poem a day.

Sunny Tree

The challenge was dished out to me by Sandra Heska King and her allies at TweekspeakPoetry.com. Who can deny having time to read just one poem each day? I already read a portion of scripture and the poetry of the Psalms. How hard could it be to fit in a few more verses? Of course, one could jump in with more of a commitment and write a poem a day, but that would stretch my poetry moments into poetry hours, and end up overshadowing the other writing I want to do. I know my limits.

Each day I spend a chunk of time working on the new novel I began last month, but my tortoise-like progress reminds me of how easy it is to let other activities obscure that priority. I have writer friends who hold down full-time jobs, homeschool their children, and still cope with the deadlines of multiple book contracts. I’m always in awe of Ruth Logan Herne who daycares a houseful of children, prepares material for and monitors two daily group blogs (in addition to her own website), has chickens, and dogs, and goodness knows what else, but is consistently up and writing by 5:00 a.m. every morning, getting her couple hours in before the rest of her household awakens and her ‘other’ workday begins. My days are mostly empty, but I get much less done. It’s all about priorities, having goals, and not letting them become lost behind other attention-grabbing pursuits. Oh, and knowing how to juggle a bit doesn’t hurt.

I watched a video yesterday and one statement in it really hit me: “It is always now.” Yesterday is an unchangeable memory. We may wait for tomorrow, hoping for our situation to get better, easier, or improve in some other way, but each moment we live is our NOW. We will never get this moment back to do over. What we want to accomplish tomorrow will only happen if we work towards it today… beginning right now.

Do you have any desires or goals that are being eclipsed by other things? What are you doing to try and achieve them?

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March Madness 3: Fragile Reflections

Bubbles 1A couple weeks ago a granddaughter was here for the afternoon. One of her activities of choice was bubble blowing with Grampa. There are various soapy solutions and different shaped tools that all seem to work, although some produce better bubbles than others.

This particular afternoon the bubbles were very fragile. After blowing them she would try to recapture one, hoping it would balance on the wand. Each time a bubble was touched, however, it popped with a splat and splatter into the air.

Left alone, the bubbles were light enough to catch the breeze and soar away.

Bubbles 2

Thinking back on this I was struck with the similarities between those bubbles and my new WIP. One of the reasons I lean towards the ‘seat-of-my-pants’ kind of writing is because I like the unexpected pleasure of watching a basic idea develop into a beautiful story. I don’t generally talk much about it during the first draft because the concept seems fragile, and too much poking around can easily destroy whatever beauty my spontaneity may be creating. If I try to wrestle it into position, something that at first seemed exciting, begins to lose its appeal. The bubble finally pops and a rainbow idea disappears.

I’ve been moving gingerly into this new story, and now that we’re half-way through our March month of Madness it’s clear my original goal of a complete first draft isn’t realistic. As other MM hosts have suggested, it’s not a bad thing to step back periodically to evaluate what we’re doing, to redistribute our efforts over the remaining available time, and possibly even tweak our goals.

There is no shame in adjusting our goals, only in abandoning them. March 31st is only an arbitrary deadline. Do whatever it takes to stay focused on your destination but also retain joy in your writing. Don’t let anything burst that bubble!

Just sixteen days of this madness left. How are you faring? I hope you’re soaring!

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March Madness 2: Making a Noise

The brown and grey Song Sparrow isn’t very big. The Cornell University’s Ornithology site describes song sparrows as medium-sized but bulky, and says they are one of the most familiar sparrows in North America. If I sit quietly down by our marsh on a summer day, I’ll sometimes hear their chip-and-trill song from somewhere in the bushes, but I never get to see them.

Song Sparrow, Pacific Northwest form (Melospiza melodia)

Song Sparrow, Pacific Northwest form (Melospiza melodia)

This little guy is the only one that ever comes out of hiding, and he reappears every year during late winter, travelling with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. He’s a ground forager but visits our deck to snack on seeds spilled from the feeder by other more messy eaters. I’m assuming it’s the same one every year, since I’m told they can live ten years or more, but of course I can’t know for sure.

I’m not a great birdwatcher, but I’m learning to identify the birds that frequent our property, most by sight but some by their song. Each species emits a specific sound. You can hear the Song Sparrow’s here, if you desire.

SongSparrow2It’s surprising what you can learn from birds. Today I’m reminded of how important it is to have a distinctive voice. For this Song Sparrow, hearing him and knowing he’s around means I’ll be sure to toss out a few handfuls of his favourite seeds.

For those of us who are writers, our voice, according to Wikipedia, is “a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” A lot of words, but what exactly does it mean for us?

Donald Maass, in his book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (if you haven’t read it, you should), says:
“What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.”

So, fellow Wipsters (or March Madnessers… I kinda like that term of Shari‘s), as we launch into this second week of pursuing our goals, I’d like to suggest we give some thought to what makes our work stand out. Whether blogging, writing stories or illustrating, have you put any effort into developing a unique voice? Do you think it’s important, or just a literary accoutrement? And if you’re a reader, do you prefer certain books because of the author’s voice, or are you more attracted to the theme or story?

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Before  moving on, I’d like to give away another prize from our huge prize arsenal! Today’s winner is…

Trudi Trueit!

Congratulations, Trudi! Stop by our goal-setting post, and choose your prize from those still listed. Then email Denise at d(at)denisejaden(dot)com with your choice and we’ll get it out to you as soon as possible.

And if you didn’t win, there are still LOTS of great prizes to be won, so keep checking in each day. Tomorrow’s check-in location is at Angelina Hanson’s blog: http://yascribe.blogspot.ca/

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Blog Tour: Denise Jaden’s FAST FICTION

p1053859691-2-177x260Rather than doing a traditional interview-filled blog tour, Denise Jaden is celebrating the release of her new nonfiction writing book, FAST FICTION, by dropping tips about writing quickly at every stop of her blog tour, and offering some awesome prizes for commenting on any of these posts (including this one!)

The more you drop by and comment, the more chances you have to win these great prizes.

Denise’s Fast Fiction Tip: Don’t Beat Yourself Up!

As writers, I think you’ll agree this phrase almost sounds like an oxymoron. Beating ourselves up is often what we’re best at! And that, faster than anything, will stilt our creativity. Either we don’t feel like we write well enough, or fast enough, or consistent enough, or commercial enough.

In order to stop this, first try to think of which phrase you beat yourself up with most often. If it’s that you don’t write well enough (or perhaps a more negative phrasing of that sentiment), try to find something that will help you remember the opposite about yourself. There must have been a time in your life that you did think you wrote well enough, otherwise you would not be a writer. Was that from a certain piece of writing that you crafted a few years ago? If so, print a piece of that writing out and place it somewhere prominent in your writing area. Or was it from compliments you received on your writing via email? If that’s the case, keep all of these “happy” emails somewhere in one place where you can find them easily when you need them most.

Battle all of your negative voices, and you’ll be sailing through your next draft!

The Prizes:

  • Compliments of New World Library: They will be giving away A BOX of copies of FAST FICTION by Denise Jaden and GET IT DONE by Sam Bennett (US and Canada only):
  • Compliments of Denise Jaden, TWO BOXES of great fiction (US Only). Details on Denise’s blog.
  • Audiobook copies of NEVER ENOUGH by Denise Jaden!
  • A critique of your first five pages, compliments of Denise’s agent, Michelle Humphrey from The Martha Kaplan Agency!

All you have to do is comment and then enter the rafflecopter for a chance to win (at the bottom of this post, I’ve included links to all of the other blogs where you can comment for more chances to win).

About Fast Fiction:

Writers flock to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November because it provides a procrastination-busting deadline. But only a fraction of the participants meet their goal. Denise Jaden was part of that fraction, writing first drafts of her two published young adult novels during NaNoWriMo. In Fast Fiction, she shows other writers how to do what she did, step-by-step, writer to writer. Her process starts with a prep period for thinking through plot, theme, characters, and setting. Then Jaden provides day-by-day coaching for the thirty-day drafting period. Finally, her revision tips help writers turn merely workable drafts into compelling and publishable novels.

 A portion of publisher proceeds will be donated to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Praise for Fast Fiction:

“Fast Fiction is filled with stellar advice, solid-gold tips, and doable, practical exercises for all writers who want to draft a complete novel.”

— Melissa Walker, author of Violet on the Runway

“Being a ‘pantser’ I have always resisted outlining, but I have to say that Fast Fiction changed my mind! Denise Jaden takes what I find to be a scary process (outlining) and makes it into an easy and, dare I say, enjoyable one. Fast Fiction is a hands-on book that asks the right questions to get your mind and your story flowing. I know I’ll be using Fast Fiction over and over again. Highly recommended for fiction writers!

— Janet Gurtler, author of RITA Award finalist I’m Not Her

“Fast Fiction is full of strategies and insights that will inspire and motivate writers of every experience level — and best of all, it provides them with a solid plan to quickly complete the first draft of their next novel.”

— Mindi Scott, author of Freefall

“Fast Fiction provides writers with the perfect mix of practical guidance and the kick in the pants they need to finish that draft. This book is a must-have for writers of all levels.”

— Eileen Cook, author of The Almost Truth

Practical and down-to-earth, Denise Jaden’s Fast Fiction makes a one-month draft seem doable, even for beginners, any month of the year.”

— Jennifer Echols, author of Endless Summer and Playing Dirty

“One of the greatest challenges any writer faces is getting a great idea out of one’s brain and onto the page. Fast Fiction breaks that process down into concrete, manageable steps, each accompanied by Denise Jaden’s sage advice and enthusiastic encouragement. And anything that helps streamline the drafting process is a-okay by me! Fast Fiction is a great addition to any writer’s toolbox — I’ve got it in mine!”

— Catherine Knutsson, author of Shadows Cast by Stars

“Forget the fact that this resource is directed at those wanting to complete a fast draft — if you’re out to get your novel done, period, Jaden’s Fast Fiction will be the kick in the butt that gets you there, from story plan to ‘The End’. . . and beyond.”

— Judith Graves, author of the Skinned series for young adults

Where you can find Fast Fiction:

Blog Tour Stops:

To be entered to win prizes galore, comment on any of the following blog posts celebrating Fast Fiction’s release! Then to get credit for each comment, click the Rafflecopter link and follow instructions.

(All Fast Fiction blog posts should be live by March 9th, or sooner. Contest will be open until March 15th. If any links don’t work, stop by http://denisejaden.blogspot.com for updated links.)

GCC Blogs:

Additional Participating Blogs:

Remember, all you have to do is leave comments to get lots of extra entries to win some great prizes. Don’t know what to comment about? Tell us the name of your favorite writing book!

Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway here

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People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

I spend more time than I should just staring out windows. It’s not that there’s a lot to see here, but you never know what you’ll miss if you don’t happen to be looking at the right moment.

Watching 3

You can observe a lot by just watching.

[Yogi Berra]

Watching 2

You may get real tired watching me,
but I’m not going to quit.

[Harrison Ford]

Watching 1

Discipline is just doing things
the right way
whether anyone’s watching or not.

[Michael J. Fox]

While I’m watching I try to put into practice what my father once told me when we were out hunting: “Look for what doesn’t belong.” Of course, that had us checking out a lot of stumps on hunting trips, but it’s true — a movement, a shadow or shape that wasn’t there before is often what alerts me to the presence of a visitor in the garden.

I like to people-watch, too. In a stadium or on a bus, train or plane there are wonderful opportunities to study the people around me. (I try not to stare, especially in church!) Some of the characters in my novels bear the traits of people I may have seen during one of those times. A few well chosen quirks or tags can make a character memorable.

My characters are totally fictional, not modelled on anyone specific. Seeing them in my head and developing them into believable people within a story may end up with them being a composite of people I’ve seen or known, but it’s important to me that they behave true to their personalities. I can’t combine a random assortment of personality traits and expect the resulting character to be credible. People may act in peculiar ways, but there’s usually a good reason. The writer’s challenge is to find that reason.

One resource I’ve found valuable for ascribing appropriate traits to my characters is the WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS: Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD.
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So, I’m curious. How do you develop your characters? How do you select the key personality traits that govern their actions and reactions? Oh, and are you a people watcher? Do you have a method for camouflaging your observations… or do you just go ahead and stare? ;)

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Is it perspective or point of view?

Driving into town one day last summer I saw the pale moon hanging low on the horizon. I had to check the calendar later to learn it was a “waxing half moon”.

MoonSet

Then, after midnight on Christmas Eve, while returning home from a late candlelight service at our church I saw the half moon again. This time, however, it was a bright “waning half moon”.

XmasEveMoon

I’ve never studied astronomy… never thought much about waxing or waning. But I was curious enough to Google for lunar information. I learned that what I saw from my location in the northern hemisphere is not the same as a person viewing it from the southern hemisphere, but the opposite…

“Assuming that the viewer is in the northern hemisphere, the right portion of the Moon is the part that is always growing (i.e., if the right side is dark, the Moon is growing darker; if the right side is lit, the Moon is growing lighter). In the southern hemisphere the Moon is observed from a perspective inverted to that of the northern hemisphere, so the opposite sides appear to grow (wax) and shrink (wane).” [Wikipedia]

A friend’s recent Facebook post bemoaned the lack of doors in her home where previous occupants had knocked out walls to create an open floor plan. (Yes, this really does have something to do with the previous paragraphs.) She likes smaller rooms and likes being able to close off certain rooms. In the comments someone else said, “Love our open floor plan! It’s great for family gatherings and entertaining.”

It really IS all in the perspective, isn’t it?

For a time when I first began writing fiction, I thought perspective and point of view were the same thing. Eventually I learned that perspective depends on which character will tell the story, while point of view depends on how it will be told. That’s where First Person, Second Person, Third Person (Limited) and Third Person (Omniscient) points of view come into play. There are advantages and disadvantages to each but since this isn’t meant to be an in-depth lesson on POV, I won’t go into them.

On New Year’s Day I finally finished the rewrite/revision of my current work in progress. Although I’ve changed many things during my revision, point of view (POV) wasn’t one of them. A previous novel went through three POV changes before I was satisfied. What a headache that was! It taught me to make the choice before starting future manuscripts.

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Writers, when and how do you decide what POV you’ll use? And readers, does the choice of POV affect your enjoyment of a story?

Super Moon

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Writing ‘ho-hum’ fiction

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Vancouver is the city of my birth. Its population today is much larger than it was all those years ago, but even then I considered it big. Still, my parents never hesitated to let me roam our neighbourhood to play with friends in the evening darkness, or as a young teenager to take a city bus into the downtown core by myself for weekly dance and baton lessons.

It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist. I recall hearing of a body being found in a wooded vacant lot next to my primary school — a lot in which most of us regularly played hide-and-seek games during recess and lunch hours. I was in Grade Three, and for the remainder of that school year there were more than the usual reminders not to talk to strangers. The P.A.C. had the lot cleared as a precaution, but the murder was seen as an exception… an isolated event.

Approaching Vcr 2

As I returned to the mainland from Vancouver Island via ferry earlier this week, the setting sun bathed the city in a rosy glow. But no amount of ‘viewing through rose coloured glasses’ can eliminate the statistics that prove how much it has changed over the years. It is now an area of about 2.3 million inhabitants — the third most populated metropolitan area in Canada. While it ranks as one of the top places worldwide for livability, there are also more homicides — to date in 2013 34 of them in the metro Vancouver area — as well as organized crime and drug-related gang activities.

It’s a beautiful city, but high-density living in the twenty-first century has its drawbacks. Many Vancouverites lock their doors even when they are at home, accompany children to and from all their activities, and never go for walks alone in secluded areas, especially at night. Although people don’t live in fear, nevertheless suspicion and caution are frequent bywords of our time. “You can’t be too careful.”

This week I was passing through Vancouver on my way home. I no longer live in the city, but when I consider how much things have changed in half a century, I understand why people are drawn to historical novels, seeing them in an almost nostalgic light. There has always been crime in the world, but we tend to believe earlier generations enjoyed a simpler, safer lifestyle.

Which brings me to my writing application. You knew there would be one, right? My genre isn’t historical fiction, although I occasionally enjoy reading it. Whatever I read, I respect authors who thoroughly research the eras in which their stories take place and whose characters and setting feel authentic.

Unfortunately there are some who are writing contemporary fiction, only because it’s what they know. They might believe no research is necessary, but in my opinion contemporary fiction requires a broad knowledge of present-day lifestyles. For instance, with over fifty percent of Vancouver’s residents having a first language other than English, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada.  Even when our personal lives might be limited in experience and exposure, our characters may need thorough researching to be realistic in today’s society.

If we aren’t careful, writing “what we know” could tell our readers we’re lazy writers!

Do you read or write contemporary fiction? What keeps some stories from coming across as ‘ho-hum’?

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Blame everything on the weather!

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Streaks of clouds in pre-sunset peach and charcoal-purple cut through a cerulean sky. The weather is changing. There’s been intermittent light rain interspersed with brief sunny breaks through much of the past few days, but flurries are in today’s forecast.

I don’t fuss over the weather. There’s a saying here on the west coast, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Some folks also say, “If you can’t see the mountains, it’s raining. If you can, it’s going to rain.” The more optimistic of us point to how green everything is, thanks to the rain.

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My mood isn’t affected, whatever the colour of the sky. There are people whose mood is, and some who even experience S.A.D. — Seasonal Affective Disorder — during low light seasons. I tend to forget that it’s a very real, clinical disorder, and I can sometimes be insensitive to those who complain about the weather, or display negativity, discouragement and depression because of it.

During November’s NaNoWriMo my project was to rewrite the ending of a recently completed manuscript. As I rushed headlong through the words, instead of resolving my protagonist’s dilemmas, I ended up heaping more upon her. Nothing seems to go right for her, and I’ve realized a lot of the time it’s because of her negative perspective. The story happens between November and February. I’m beginning to wonder if she has S.A.D. That would explain a lot, but it complicates the plot.

The story is taking off in a direction I didn’t intend, and I’m not sure I like this feeling of losing control.

If you’re a writer, are you always in control of your story and its characters? What happens when your control slips away?

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Skipping the present to get to the future

There’s frost here this morning. Our shake roof glistens white in the sunshine, and trails of mist play at the edges of the marsh. An e-mail from family in the southeastern corner of the province brought photos of their first major snowfall — 22 cm that delighted the children but required plowing at 5 a.m. to ensure everyone could get to work and school.

I love the early fall, when bright colours dapple the landscape. It’s my favourite season.

Geese on the go in the Fraser Valley

Geese on the go in the Fraser Valley

Fall on the Fraser River

Fall on the Fraser River

Mist on our lake in BC's Cariboo

Mist on our lake in BC’s Cariboo

I’m not so enamoured by late fall. We west coasters know that many weeks of grey skies and constant rain are on the horizon. But if I dwell on what is to come, I won’t fully appreciate the present.

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When it comes to my writing, during November if I’m not revising one particular manuscript I’m working on the first draft of another. That one is still new and I don’t have a clear view of its ending. As I work on preliminary scenes I’m sometimes tempted to skip ahead and try to figure out exactly how my characters solved their dilemma. However, to do so would mean missing the excitement of discovery along the way. For now, I plan to focus on the present and worry about how the future unfolds when the time comes.

There are many different ways of constructing a novel. What’s your process during a first draft?

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