Writing Critique–Monday Meanderings

Two People - Business Meeting

Since the first writing conference I attended (2004, I believe) I have been involved in writing critique groups. It was for that conference that my work was first accepted for work-shopping and I was sure that I had arrived. A well-known published author led the two-day process and there were about nine of us who submitted work to the other members of the group for critique. It became a turning point for me as a writer. I came to accept the fact that my novel was not quite as brilliant as I perceived it to be.

A few of us from that group went on to meet on a regular basis. Since then I’ve participated in several other critique groups. Here are a few things I’ve learned that have been helpful.

  • Don’t submit your work before you’ve completed your first draft. It is important for you to have a clear idea of your story line before opening it to critique.
  • As a group, decide on guidelines at your first meeting. How many members will you have? Will you submit your writing before the meeting? Will you read work aloud at the meeting? How many manuscripts/how many pages will you discuss? (Don’t forget a “group” may be as few as two people).
  • Be sure to balance your positive and negative feedback. Your goal is to build up one another, not destroy. One time a fellow-writer told me, “I would never read this novel.” That discouraged me to the point that I gave up working on it for a few months until I figured out that she was trying to tell me that the prologue was a turn-off.
  • Give specific advice. For example, instead of saying “This moves too slowly,” try something like “Consider using active verbs instead of passive voice,” or “That long sentence drags down the narrative–maybe if you wrote that paragraph in a few clipped phrases it would be more suspenseful.” Avoid general statements such as, “That just doesn’t work.”
  • Learn to listen to suggestions without trying to defend yourself. One group that I have been a part of had set the rule of “silence” until all critiques had been given. But take good notes while you listen. I bring a copy of my manuscript and jot down helpful advice in the columns.
  • Understand the differences between genres. If you write literary fiction, for example, don’t expect the same complexity of characters from your friend who writes sci-fi. And visa versa.
  • Don’t revise immediately after your meeting, except for grammatical and spelling errors. Definitely do not make significant plot changes. Remember, your story is YOUR story.
  • At the same time, be open to suggestion. My writing has been much enriched by plot twists or questions posed by members of my critique groups. Ask clarifying questions if needed.
  • There is a time for critique and a time to write. Understand what works best for you and realize that your needs change at different points in the writing process.
  • And finally, be grateful to your fellow writers. It was through this process that I have met some of my dearest friends. Don’t forget to celebrate one another’s successes!

While these insights apply to fiction writing, it’s possible to extrapolate and apply them to any genre, including poetry and non-fiction.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process.

Continuing Education for Writers

When someone asks me what I’m reading, they better have a while to listen to my answer. At any point in time I’ll have a pile of books nearby that cover my many areas of interest: fiction, spirituality, non-fiction, poetry, writing how-to, magazines…and on it goes.

In order to renew my nursing license, I’m required to participate in 30 hours of continuing education evey two years. This same expectation holds true in any area of professional practice and I believe, as writers, on-going reading about writing should be a part of our lives, even if not a formal requirement.

Since I’m not at home to access my library, I went to amazon.com and searched under “writing fiction” to jog my memory so that I could share some of my favorite titles with you. There are no fewer than 19,280 entries available–way too many to browse–so here are a few (about fiction or the writing life) I gleaned from the archives of my brain. I’ll follow up with some more on poetry and non-fiction at a later date.

  • The “Write Great Fiction” series from Writers’ Digest. One that I remember is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. There are others on dialogue, character and emotion, description. Check them out. Very hands-on with exercises included.
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (my personal favorite)
  • Page After Page by Heather Sellers. Includes exercises, if I remember correctly.
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. (another favorite…inspirational)

Please, please add your comments with suggestions for writing how-to that have helped you. Thank you.