Critiquing #2: Writer Bashing (or, What Good is a Bad Critique?)

This is a second of two posts from the archives, revisiting the topic of bad critiques.

A critique can be either a beneficial or a devastating experience, and the difference doesn’t always depend on the person giving it. The attitude of the writer on the receiving end also has an effect.

Last Friday I blogged about harsh critiques.  Today I’m offering some practical suggestions based on critique experiences in some of the writing groups to which I’ve belonged.

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FOR THE GROUP

  • If you are in a group where reading of manuscripts is done during the session, you may have to limit the word count of each reading and set a time limit for each critique so that everyone that wants to participate will have sufficient time to do so.
  • Having copies of the manuscript for each person allows people to mark typos and grammatical errors directly on the paper, thus leaving the group free to discuss larger issues. The author can collect the copies to use later for line edits.
  • After reading is complete, allow a moment or two for reflection before beginning the first critique.
  • Some people find it easier to respond than others. The group can easily develop a dynamic in which the same people always respond and others remain silent. Agree ahead of time that every person in the group will respond once to the entire piece before additional input is allowed.

FOR THE INDIVIDUAL RECEIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Participating writers may be at different stages in their manuscripts — still working on early drafts of a first novel, doing revisions, or preparing for submission and publication. When providing your material for critique, consider advising others members of the group what stage you are at and the type of feedback you are seeking.
  • If asked, feel free to clarify why a particular point has been made, but don’t try to rationalize your choice of words or argue with those offering their opinions. You may not like the suggestions but you are not obligated to put them into practice. If you feel too defensive to accept possible negative input, don’t submit the piece for critique.

FOR THOSE GIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Critiquing the work of others is a balancing act. First practice active listening. Then respond pleasantly, don’t attack. Be helpful and honest but not harsh, providing positive feedback in a polite and respectful manner. Consider what you like about the manuscript. What did the author do well? What were the strengths?
  • Only then mention the things that did not work for you. Do not critique the choice of genre or subject matter. Be specific about what you didn’t like about the writing and why, but remember that your opinion is only that… an opinion. You may offer suggestions for changes, but realize that your wording may not be right for the author and he/she may not opt to use your suggestions.
  • This isn’t the time for a line by line edit. Mark any glaring grammar problems, word choice, spelling or syntactical revisions on the manuscript. Then move on to consider the following points:
  1. Opening – good hook, active not passive scene
  2. Characters – strong, MC motivated to solve dilemma
  3. Point of view – consistent
  4. Plot/Story line – credible, interesting, flows well
  5. Narrative – show versus tell; no author intrusion; minimal backstory
  6. Language – “purple prose”; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; passive tense
  7. Dialogue – conversational and not artificial; not used for info dumps
  8. Conflict – builds throughout
  9. Ending – satisfying and logical; not necessarily happy
  10. Style – suited to the genre and theme

The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger. Remember that newer writers are often exceptionally sensitive about their inadequacies. Without a tactful approach, a thoughtless critic can do irreparable damage to a fragile morale.

The reverse of this, of course, is that the purpose of putting one’s work out for critiquing is to obtain opinions and suggestions. If the possibility of a negative response is unnerving it may be that the writer is not ready for this stage quite yet.

A bad critique is worse than no critique. Setting out the ground rules first lets everyone know how to proceed and what to expect. In a one-on-one critique encounter this is especially important.

Now it’s your turn. Have your critique experiences been positive or negative? What would you add to the above criteria to make them more useful?

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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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Cover Design in Less Than Two Minutes (a reprise)

We’ve been sharing information here on the designing of book covers and I remembered a related post I wrote three years ago that I thought you might enjoy seeing again. (More accurately, I seized this opportunity to use something from the archives because I forgot to write a post last night. There! I’ve admitted it… but it fits in so well with my last few posts that I don’t feel one bit guilty.)

Here’s a time-lapse video that cleverly utilizes the process, condensing a six hour process into less than two minutes. It’s fascinating, albeit dizzying. In it, the Creative Director of Orbit Books, Lauren Panepinto,  displays her process for designing the cover of Gail Carriger’s Blameless. While vampires and werewolves aren’t my genre of choice, I thought the resulting cover was a good example of what Rachel Cole said in Friday’s post, that the cover design must reflect the genre, or potential readers won’t pick it up.

There’s more about the the making of this video on the Orbit Books website, and a further detailed commentary by Lauren Panepinto on the Design Related website.

It all goes to show that creating exactly the right cover isn’t a simple process.

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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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The squeaky wheel… or bird!

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Depending on where you look, you can find various definitions of raucous:

  • making or constituting a disturbingly harsh and loud noise;
  • loud and unpleasant to listen to;
  • behaving in a very rough and noisy way;
  • disagreeably harsh or strident;
  • hoarse, screeching, squawky, grating, jarring, brassy;
  • boisterous and disorderly.

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DSC04699The Steller’s Jay is a raucous bird. There’s no doubt he fits every definition. But he’s bold and he’s beautiful. I love watching him. He tears in, settles on our deck railing and makes his impatient presence known. Soon he’s squawking, “Get away from my suet!” to any other bird who may be enjoying a quick snack. If he’s ignored, he flies up and flaps in the other bird’s face. He’s quite outrageous. He gets heard. He gets results.

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I’m not suggesting his behaviour is something to emulate — after all, nobody wants to be labeled unpleasant or disagreeable —  but there may be a lesson to learn from him. If you want something badly enough, you have to make an effort to get it. You have to put your determination into action.

Fellow writers, I think there’s a writing analogy tucked in here, don’t you?

How determined are you to reach your goals? What might you have to do to achieve them?

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Therefore, my beloved brothers,
be steadfast, immovable,
always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord
your labor is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:58

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Reprise: At the Heart of the Story

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I am still on my blogging hiatus, but in the interim here is another post from the archives. I hope your weekend is filled to the brim with thankfulness for the moment-by-moment joys hidden in the ordinariness of life.

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If you use a little imagination you’ll find this Anemone offers another illustration of story building, starting with the heart of the story, the central idea, and building around that with a tight outline of supporting basics, and finally writing the gorgeous details, layer upon layer. You don’t see beauty in the bud, only its potential. The glory of its creation is evident once it has reached full maturity.

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Anemone “Whirlwind”

Just sharing one of my “something to think about” moments. :)

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In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

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Emerging into the light

“For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time,
I’m surprised where the journey takes me.” 

Jack Dann

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When I lived in Toronto years ago, the subway system wasn’t as extensive as it is now, but it moved people quickly from the area of the city where we lived, north to where we wanted to go. It has since been expanded to serve more areas of the city in conjunction with other above-ground rapid transit methods. I hated the subway.

I don’t like tunnels either, but in big cities they’re often as much a part of the transit system as a subway or bridge. On Sunday we attended a special church service on the north side of Burrard Inlet… just over an hour’s drive from our home in the Fraser Valley. Getting there required travelling over multiple bridges and through a long tunnel.

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At one time when entering a tunnel I would clench hands together, hold my breath, close my eyes and pray there would be no interruption to the traffic flow until we emerged on the other side and I could breathe again. I’m a little claustrophobic, and through the years I’ve found better ways to deal with the accompanying panic. Sometimes that means avoiding the provoking situation… like finding a different route; but other times it means facing the fear, taking deep breaths and focusing on the exit.

On this occasion, as we approached the exit I focused on what was to come — several miles of highway construction.

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Last week we travelled this same route to reach the Horseshoe Bay Ferry for a trip to visit family and friends on Vancouver Island. On the Island, the highway didn’t bore through the mountains. It wound up and around them. I prefer it that way. I like to see my surroundings and appreciate the journey en route to the destination.

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Writing can be like that, too. Sometimes we’re moving blindly through a story, not sure of the destination but willing ourselves forward, confident that eventually we’ll emerge into the light. Without claustrophobia we might not mind navigating the darkness. For me, although I’m not a plotter, a little route-planning is a good idea. It helps me avoid the panic of  wondering what I’ll do if the flow of words comes to a sudden standstill. Without following a detailed map, however, it also gives me the opportunity to enjoy times of discovery, even occasional surprises, along a slightly familiar road.

How much planning, if any, do you do before embarking on your writing? Do you ever have times of panic in the middle of a manuscript? Would more preparation have helped avoid them?

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“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

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Contemplating blog changes…

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Our marsh in the late evening is a quiet place. The birds are silent, geese and ducks have hidden away for the night, and the tree frogs haven’t begun their chirping. The stillness is only broken by the occasional buzz of a passing insect.

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It’s changed a lot in the time we’ve lived here. Sixteen years ago it was a pond – it even has a name on municipal maps – but through the years wild grasses have filled in the shallow areas. Now in the summertime the only visible water is in the deeper parts where a stream runs through.

Life’s full of change; nothing is totally static. If it were, it would become stagnant.

As I flipped my calendar to another new month it occurred to me that later in June I’ll be marking this blog’s fifth birthday. Eight hundred posts in five years – a consistent average of over three posts a week – and nearing one hundred thousand views. Whew! I wonder if anything I’ve said has been of any real interest or value, or if I’ve simply been occupying myself with my “mental meanderings”.

Musings have a way of taking my thoughts on a journey. I start out with an innocuous seed of an idea and before long it’s shot up into a gawky plant that branches out all over the place!

That happens in my novel writing, too, and during revisions a lot of ruthless pruning has to take place. Pruning can be hard, but it clears away deadwood and makes for a healthier plant (or story) in the end. So I’m thinking it might be time to tackle some pruning here on the blog.

Watch for changes later this month. Let me know which ones you like… and yes, which ones you don’t. :)

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Who do you depend on?

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Our five-year-old granddaughter wanted to go for a family walk last night. It might have been a bedtime delay tactic, but in the end we agreed. She was determined we should go down the trail “through the forest to the pond,” so we did, and discovered a few inhabitants who haven’t been around for the past couple years.

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You have to look carefully to see my favourite…

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Yes, it’s a Canada Goose nesting on top of the beaver lodge. For years we had two pair of geese in the marsh each spring, and one goose always returned to patch up her old nest and settle in until her brood hatched, confident that few predators could bother her. Then one summer a few years ago, after a group of homes went in on the other side of the marsh, the water level dropped. The beaver did their best to dam up the creek, but in the end they abandoned the lodge. After that the geese nested elsewhere, out of sight in the tall grasses.

Now they’re back. I don’t know if their presence indicates the beaver have also returned, but the lodge has again found favour as a secure nesting locale. Nearby, the gander patrols, ensuring the ducks, hawks and coyotes keep their distance.

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It’s fascinating to see the interdependence of the wildlife. The beaver’s home provides security for the goose, while the gander’s honking and squawking warn her and the beaver of anything intruding into their space.

There’s a parallel of sorts in the writer’s world. Each of us has a job to do as we nurture and deliver our stories. As much as writing is a solitary task, we’re dependent upon others for critiques, editing and publication, to help us reach our goal of providing a good story for readers. At the same time, those same people, including the readers, need writers to keep writing if there are going to be books to produce. There’s interdependence in the industry but there is also interdependence at the grass roots level.

Who do you depend upon when you need story advice, editing assistance, agent recommendations and the like? Or are you a true loner? :)

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Are you motivated by the destination or the journey?

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There were just two daffodils in our entire yard. I know better than to plant tulips because the deer consider them a gourmet salad mix. But I’ve planted dozens of deer-resistant daffs and narcissus through the years, carefully selecting varieties said to be good naturalizers. The first year several bloom; the next only a few; and from then on I’m lucky if there are any. I just don’t seem to have any luck with them. But I noticed these two daffodils a couple days ago, gamely working their way up through the protection of a rhododendron branch, and I smiled.

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Yesterday my hubby handed them to me. We’d had an exceptionally heavy rainstorm, and he found both of them broken, with their sunny faces resting on the ground. I rinsed them off and tucked them into a vase. The sun came out briefly during the afternoon and shone through the window. I couldn’t stop admiring how the flowers looked, basking in the glow. Naturally I reached for my camera and took shots from every angle.

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It was only as I reviewed the photos on my computer that I noticed something. I had selected a vase based on its appropriate size, and not paid a lot of attention to which one it was. But the sun’s rays made it glisten, and now my attention was drawn to the beauty I’d overlooked.

We often chuckle at young children who get more pleasure from the box than from the gift inside. Other times we may go overboard and labour over gift wrapping until the exterior of a package is worth more than its contents. In my case, I found joy in sunshine through petals, and only later gleaned equal pleasure from the casually chosen container.

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How often do we miss seeing the obvious? And when we miss seeing, we forget thankfulness. And without thankfulness there is no joy.

Not long ago I printed out “A Year of Graces” from Ann Voskamp’s website — a perpetual calendar with lines on which to record those things for which I am thankful each day. On the first page is this statement:

“Joy is always a function of gratitude –
and gratitude is always a function of perspective.
If we are going to change our lives,
what we’re going to have to change
is the way we see.”

Later there is this:

“No one gets to joy by trying to make everything perfect.
One only arrives there by seeing in every imperfection
all that is joy.”

And in that was my analogy, just waiting to be found… the link to writing. I have always affirmed that I enjoy revising my writing. There is such satisfaction in refining to bring forward the best a story can be. Yet many times I struggle with revisions, trying unsuccessfully to find exactly the right words, too often becoming frustrated and disheartened. In retrospect, I think it’s because I’m seeing my failure and overlooking the process… focusing on the results instead of how I achieve them.

I love writing. The thought of not writing fills me with anxiety. I’ve always been better at putting words on paper than in speaking them. How would I express the chaos of unuttered thoughts if not on paper? What would I do with all the story ideas and blog posts if I didn’t let them flow out through my fingertips? Fulfillment comes from the doing, from creative expression, in wrestling thoughts out of the void into a finite place. I’m grateful for the ideas, for the ability to put them into words — however imperfect they may be — for the desire to communicate and the freedom and time to keep trying.

My gratitude prompts thankfulness, which in turn encourages joy to blossom. In those moments when I gather together my efforts and raise cupped hands in a gesture of thankful praise, it is the uplifted hands that are important, not the quality of their less-than-praiseworthy contents.

I have a new work-in-progress that I put aside in favour of revising something older. Lately both have been preempted by a church history project, but it doesn’t matter what I’m working on as long as I approach the task with that attitude of gratitude. There will be joy in the doing.

What small everyday joy will bring thankfulness to your heart today?

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“I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving.”

Psalm 69:30

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