The Message of the Cross

 

Wishing you a blessed Easter weekend!

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Easter Corinthians

(Consider clicking on graphic to enlarge)

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“For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have eternal life.”

John 3:16

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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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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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Lessons from a Lenten Rose

 

HelleboreThe Royal Horticultural Society says, “Hellebores … are perennial garden plants with elegant flowers, perfect for brightening up shady areas during late winter and early spring. Some species are grown for their striking evergreen architectural foliage.”

When purchased sixteen years ago, these two plants were simply labelled “Helleborus Orientalis (Lenten Rose)” and I intended and expected they would be identical. Not so. One is a dark pink with red spots, and looks like it might be ‘Rosina Cross’, but the other is a lighter pink, almost white, with dark pink spots, much like a ‘Cherry Davis’. Since neither was named, however, I’m not sure what they are, except that they both have down-facing blossoms.

Hellebore 2Some nurseries insist there is no such thing as an up-facing Hellebore but others advertise them, suggesting the blooms face outward, rather than down. All I know is that mine are regularly battered and spattered by mud whenever it rains hard, as it did last week.

I wonder if I should be taking a lesson from them — something about keeping my head up through any storm if I want to come through the downpour unscathed.

It sounds reasonable until I think about facing the wind with head down, chin tucked into my scarf, the only way to stay warm as I walk.

Hellebore 3

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Maybe there isn’t a lesson at all. Maybe it is enough to remember that these beauties have survived here sixteen years; they’re sturdy and persistent, returning to try again every winter, always bringing me a smile when I discover them unfurling despite rain, mud and snow.

Then again, maybe there’s a lesson in that!

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“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

[Samuel Beckett]

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Helleborus Orientalis

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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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Keeping an eye on the goal

The last day of March! That means it’s also the last day of my month-long March Madness and Speedbo projects. All the other participants will likely be joining me in a last-minute dash to the finish line, hoping to reach or exceed the goals so publicly set out before the start of this endeavour.

What then? Do we heave a sigh of relief that it’s over, and walk away? I don’t think so. I think you’ll find those who have persevered through the month will still be working on their projects tomorrow, or moving on to new ones. I know I will be. When one goal is reached, there’s usually another waiting in the distance. Keeping an Eye Out I think one of the main differences between those who succeed and those who don’t is the determination to push on… to keep eyes focused on a long-term goal despite failures or successes, challenges or disappointments along the way.

March is just one month out of twelve. April will return me to my Monday and Friday posting schedule, but in between I’ll continue to write the story that has kept me occupied this month. I didn’t get the first draft finished and I’m anxious to see how it ends.

What about you? Besides Easter, what’s on your horizon that’s enticing you forward into April?

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Chickadee Black-capped

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Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection,
not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.

[Martin Luther]

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