Wordsmith Wednesday–Giving and Receiving Feedback

Group Discussion

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An important part of my writing experience and growth has been the process of giving and receiving critique. The first time my novel was accepted for work-shopping in a Writer’s Conference I was so sure I had passed a significant hurdle–if accepted, it must be that it was really good. Whoa, was I surprised! After that experience, I put the manuscript away and began think of an alternate plan for my second career. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to realize the value of honest feedback and I began the painstaking task of rewriting. When I revisit that initial draft I shudder to think I was oh-so-proud of it.

In this post I’d like to toss out some suggestions for giving and receiving feedback about your writing. Whether you participate in a Writing Critique Group, an Internet Forum, one-on-one sharing, working with a professional editor or workshopping through a University or Writer’s Conference, open yourself to enjoy…yes, enjoy the opportunity that such give-and-take provides.

In General:

  • Prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for the process of critique. Don’t go into a session expecting universal acclaim of your brilliance and form the intention to help your fellow writers.
  • Familiarize yourself with the process established by the group. If it includes pre-reading the work of other participants, be sure you have read and written comments on their submissions.
  • If required, have copies of your manuscript available for all participants.

Receiving Critique

  • Listen with an open mind to the comments of other members of the group.
  • Ask clarifying questions after the reviewer has completed their analysis.
  • Avoid becoming defensive. If requested, explain your point of view.
  • Take notes on all remarks.
  • Watch for similarities. If more than one member express the same idea, take a good, hard look at that suggestion.
  • Brainstorm with the members for solutions to problems with plot etc.
  • Do NOT make significant changes right away. However, go ahead and correct grammar and typos..
  • Remember that this is your work. You may be the only one who has the whole picture. Be careful about taking every suggestion to heart or you may lose your story or poem in the process.
  • Return the favor and give a well-thought-out review to other members of the group.

Giving Feedback

  • Preface the session with what you like most about the work.
  • Ask the author how they feel about their work, if they can identify strengths or areas needing improvement.
  • Be specific. Don’t just say, “This doesn’t work for me.” Give examples of where improvement is needed and how it can be accomplished. For example, “This would work better for me if, instead of telling me she feels scared, show me how it affects her using sensory detail.”
  • Give the author a chance to ask questions and/or to explain his point of view.

Now, for some discussion:

  • Do you participate in some sort of critique forum? What kind?
  • Does your group have any rules of engagement you would like to share?
  • Can you add suggestions to those I have outlined?
  • Do you have any anecdotes you would like to share about your experience with critique?

I hope you will join in with me helping your fellow writers and poets. Please leave your observations or suggestions in the comments section of this post. Happy Writing. Enjoy the process.

Monday Morning Writing Prompt–Exploring Opposites.

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A useful skill for a writer is to be able to enter into the mind of his or her point-of-view character. Empathy and imagination combine to create a richness that would be absent if we remained content to parrot our own way of seeing life.

For today’s prompt, I’d like to challenge you to write flash fiction, poetry or essay in which you “become” someone who expresses life in a way that is opposite of your own experience. For example, if you are progressive in your thinking, write from a conservative point of view. If you are religious, try to imagine life as an agnostic. If you’re male, female. And vice versa for all of these and anything else you can think of. And try not to slam that contrary way of looking at things–truly espouse it.

For my second novel, I decided it would be fun to write from a male point-of-view. I haven’t shown it to a man yet, but let me put a small excerpt out there. I truly welcome your critique…especially from you men out there.

This begins the second scene. The protagonist, Matt, has just attended his mother’s death in a nursing home. Before she died, she confessed to him that she had lied to him about his father leaving her when he was a baby. She told Matt that he had been conceived in an act of rape.

 From The Sin of His Father:

Matt leaned against the rough bark of an ancient oak tree. Employees were beginning to make their way into the building through the glass door across from where he stood. He watched them slide ID cards into the time clock then scurry down the hall to the nurses’ station for report. One woman, an aide Matt knew, heaved her bulky frame onto the park bench to sneak in a few puffs from her cigarette before heading on in to learn at report that Ellen Margaret Maxwell had died a couple of hours earlier.

 Across the lawn, large crows helped themselves to bread crumbs. Matt knew that it had been Edward Riley, a resident of the facility, who’d scattered them. One of the birds interrupted breakfast to stare at Matt—Matt would have sworn it was so—and his skin tingled at the thought of stories his mother used to tell him of dead people coming back as black birds. Beside the predator, strewn feathers told of a smaller bird that had lost its struggle to keep on living. Matt’s grief came pouring out. That it was because of a fragile creature stunned him at first before he recognized the similitude. Like the wren, his mother fought her whole life for food and survival. She’d known a dark monster, too. Not one that would destroy her suddenly, mercifully, but one that most likely haunted every moment of her adult life. One that tore her down from the inside-out and in the end defeated her

The sadness Matt felt for his mother weighed heavy in the pit of his stomach. He swallowed air then swallowed again. The taste of the bitter coffee he’d sipped a few hours earlier crept up his esophagus and caused him to gag. 

Then another notion caught his attention. Why hadn’t she ever told him? Why had she borne this pain alone? Anger had always come easily to Matt but this was different. This was an energy that blinded him like the sun that shone with full force now, burning its way into the core of his being. His rage at his mother’s deceit caused his whole body to shake. Matt took a long draught from his pipe and felt the effects of nicotine spread inside him. He tried to go with it and relax, but couldn’t avoid the sense that everything in his life was a sham, a lie. He sank into the grass at the base of the tree and leaned against the rough bark.

It wasn’t long before guilt joined the fray. His mother had left him before he had a chance to absorb the full impact of what she’d just revealed. She’d died without his absolution, without his even being able to feel forgiveness.

Matt took in another mouthful of smoke and let the flavors roll around on his tongue. He blew it out slowly and smelled the slightly nutty aroma of the Cavendish blend. The crow had flown into the branch of a near-by tree and waited, perhaps for another victim. Matt watched the bird as it sat frozen in time. When, at last, it swooped off into the horizon, Matt caught his breath in fear.

 What if he was like that crow? What if he was a predator? What if he, too, carried genes that could cause him to be violent? Or deviant, like his father?

Now his mother was dead. He hadn’t had a chance to ask the questions that pressed him for answers. Before he could even name the deception that snaked among the crevices of his existence. Before he could understand the enormity of its impact on her life and on his own. Before he could forgive her deceit.

I look forward to reading your response to this prompt. Please leave your link in the comments section of this post so we can share what you’ve written. Have a happy, productive week.



Wordsmith Wednesday–Getting the Most Out of a Writing Critique Group

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 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 (in my opinion and from my hands-on experience).

  • Don’t submit your work before you’ve finished the 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?
  • 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!

Happy writing. Enjoy the process.

Wordsmith Wednesday–“Righting Wrongs”

Woodward’s History of Wales is shown open to t...

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I’m reading the latest issue of “Writers’ Digest.” They have a top ten theme and in the tradition of Letterman, have compiled all kinds of top ten lists for writers, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Pardon the cliché. Because I’ve just begun to read it, I don’t know all that will be covered. How useful is it? So far, not too. I’m guessing that will change as I plow my way through the pages. But, it’s fun. For this week’s discussion, I thought I’d list five “wrongs,” that is, blatant errors, things that can turn off the reader, or writing faux-pas that will dissuade an agent or publisher from looking further.

Two disclaimers:

  • Writers have the right to break rules. It’s your work; you’re the creator. No one can really tell you what to do. (I believe this applies in a particular way to poetry)
  • The opinions I express are mine. They might not apply to the agent you’re querying or your target audience. So, “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say in 12-Step programs.

Here are my thoughts/opinions:

  1. Purple prose. Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.  (Wikipedia)
  2. Frequent Point-of-View Shifts. Don’t confuse your reader by frequent changes in POV or by shifting POV within a paragraph. I suggest using a space for a scene change or starting a new chapter if you have more than one POV character.
  3. Long rambling paragraphs of description. Sure, John Steinbeck or Jane Austen got away with it. But today’s readers, with their ADHD wants a plot that moves. Don’t neglect description but intersperse it with dialogue or action.
  4. Long blocks of dialogue that give information dumps. See my previous blog on this topic.
  5. All showing. Okay, okay. I know about “Show, don’t tell.” And I espouse the idea wholeheartedly. But….there are times when you need a summary paragraph. Honest. If your novel covers months or years, we don’t need to know everything that’s happened from beginning to end. But we need to know enough to understand how the character got where he is. So, summarize!
  6. Characters who are either completely perfect or totally flawed. You want your reader to sympathize with you protagonist, but in order to identify with him, please give him a flaw or two. On the other hand, your antagonist should have a good trait or two, something that will help us understand him just a bit. Now, if you’re writing about Hitler….I don’t know.
  7. Lack of editing, revision or critique. Don’t send out those query letters yet. Spell check is inadequate. Read your manuscript aloud. Take it to a critique group and/or professional editor. I’ve posted a few articles on revising and editing. You may want to check them out.
  8. Blatant factual errors. Even fiction requires research. If there are too many factual errors, the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief. If you are writing a novel set in Chicago, you better know the place, visit it or research on the Internet. Get someone in the know to check out your facts. If you’re writing a medical thriller, know the basics. Even as a nurse and transplant recipient, I had to do more research on transplantation for “Winter is Past.” And I even ran a few things by my nephrologist.
  9. Obfuscation. I love that word. It’s got class. Basically, it mean anything that confuses the reader. Think of things like frequent flash-backs, too many characters, inconsistent point-of-view, switching from first to third person, too many adjectives and adverbs…you get the idea. Think: clarity and brevity.
  10. Finally and most important: giving up. Whatever you do, don’t say “The heck with it.” Keep on writing. Send out more queries. Try different genres. If you’re called to write, you gotta write or you won’t be happy.