Critical Response Process

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

I’m hopeful that a new generation of writing workshops will offer the kind of meaningful and useful feedback that’s possible with Critical Response Process, the kind of feedback that fosters creativity and the desire to resume work, and not the kind that is so demoralizing the writer gives up in despair.

Critical Response Process is a dynamic method for both giving and receiving feedback on creative endeavors. Initially developed within the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, CRP is a process that can provide “useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.”

Last week it was my great good fortune to attend a two-day workshop in Critical Response Process with Liz Lerman, at Marlboro College.

I was there to learn the process, so I can use it in the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop I’m scheduled to lead at the Marlboro Graduate Center in the fall.

I was already all too familiar with the shortfalls of the workshop methods I’d grown up with, where participants generally tell a writer how they would rewrite the author’s work, which isn’t really helpful at best, and can be quite harmful.

As a writing teacher for more than thirty years, I’d already developed better methods, starting with praise, and limiting students’ comments to two simple questions: 1) Where did you get lost in the text? and 2) What questions do you have that rise from the text? Sometimes I’d start classes with, Have you ever had a conversation only in questions? These were good practices, but I wanted more, and I knew from others that Critical Response Process offered it.

The theory behind CRP is that there are ways to provide feedback that make the artist eager to return to work with new understanding and ideas; in practice, CRP enlarges artistic capacity for all who participate in the well-defined steps of the process.

Participants include the artist, the responders, and the facilitator. In a writing workshop the author is the artist, the other workshop participants serve as responders, and the workshop leader facilitates. In the narrative non-fiction workshop I’m planning, I hope to pass the facilitator’s role to each of the other participants, so that they can bring CRP back to their classrooms and writing workshops.

CRP coverAfter an artist presents their* work, Critical Response Practice follows four core steps.

Step One: Statements of Meaning. Following the artist’s presentation, the facilitator asks the responders what they found meaningful, memorable, challenging, compelling, delightful – or some other quality through which responders can filter their reactions. These are not simple affirmations, but statements of meaning that serve to establish what responders witnessed in the work.

Step Two, The Artist as Questioner, places the writer at the center of the process; it’s the writer’s chance to ask questions about the work. In Step Three, Neutral Questions from Responders, responders ask neutral questions of the writer, which the writer answers. A neutral question does not have an embedded opinion. For example: How are you hoping the reader will experience this passage? is neutral. How do you expect the reader to understand this passage? is not; it contains the embedded opinion, This passage is incomprehensible! (Example from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman and John Borstel.) Neutral questions allow the artist to think widely and creatively; they help artists define their focus and understand their intent and/or their presentation better.

After two days of intensive practice, I can confidently assert that learning how to ask useful questions in both Steps Two and Three are at the heart of this process, and this skill alone is transformative to both writer and responders.

Finally, in Step Four, Permissioned Opinions, responders are invited to ask permission to give an opinion about a specific topic. For example, a responder might say, I have an opinion about your use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Would you like to hear it? Only if the writer says yes may the responder share that opinion.

Throughout all these steps, the facilitator checks in with the writer, coaches participants to ask helpful and neutral questions, helps with follow-up questions, and keeps track of time.

The process takes time, and the more people in the group, the more time it can take. But as a group gains practice of CRP, it gathers group knowledge, skill and momentum. I witnessed this over the two days twenty of us spent together learning.

While Critical Response Process was initially designed for use in the dance world, it’s successfully used across the spectrum of creative endeavor. My purpose here is to prompt writers, teachers and writing workshop participants to know that Critical Response Process can make the writing workshop a positive, engaging, creative activity that fosters writing the story a writer wants to tell. But this post is necessarily just a thumbnail sketch of a powerful tool. I encourage you to learn more.

* This is a deliberate use of the Singular They.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, and an educator who has been teaching writing and literature to learners in a wide variety of settings, from the Ivy League to Vermont prisons. Her blogs include Living in Place and The Middle Ages.

What Do You Want from a Writer’s Retreat?

I’d like to talk with you about retreats for writers. The immediate answer to any of these questions can easily be ‘well, it depends’, but overall, I’m curious to learn what type of writing retreat you’d benefit from most within the next 12 months.

View from kitchen table of Maine cabin for retreat - many seating options!

View from kitchen table of Maine cabin for retreat – many seating options!

When you hear “writer’s retreat” what time frame leaps to mind? A few hours, an overnight somewhere, two or three nights, a week or more…

  • If your answer is ‘a few hours’, there are “write ins” popping up now where space is reserved for up to half a day, and you can show up for as much of that time as you like — it’s more for camaraderie in being with other writers at the same time than anything else — I like doing these during November (National Novel Writing Month)

How do you feel when you think about a writer’s retreat? Calm, happy, anxious, dread, excited, bummed, inspired, scared…

  • my feelings can run the gamut depending on what type of project leaps to mind — most generally, though, thinking about being around other writers makes me smile and outweighs any anxiety — if I had to pick 1 word, it would be ‘bliss’

Where do you search for information on writer’s retreats? Social media, ShawGuides, writing groups/organizations you belong to, libraries, book stores, general Internet searches…

  • sometimes too many choices result in choosing to not even look around at options — my favorite type of writing retreat is one combined with an adventure vacation (like rafting down the Colorado River [did it], or spending a week at a Wyoming dude ranch [did it], or learning to cook in Italy [on my bucket list], or camping in New Zealand [not sure if that one exists yet!]

What is important to you in a retreat? time alone to write, a group setting, critiques/feedback, sharing your work, instruction, mentorship, everyone working in same or multiple genres…

  •  All of the above, please! When working on fiction, a mix of genres works well for me. But when I’m focused on non-fiction I prefer everyone to be the same — there’s something different for me when crafting imaginative stories than truth-based stories/articles/essays/manuscripts.
Water view seating for same Maine cabin getaway. Variety is good!

Water view seating for same Maine cabin getaway. Variety is good!

If you’re new to writing, is it a feature to have experienced writers in the group, or a deterrent? And likewise, if you’re multipublished, does a retreat with newbie writers attract you?

  • As long as expectations for the group are stated and agreed to up front, a mix of experience levels can benefit all attendees.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on writer’s retreats.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

Weekend Edition – NaNoWriNOPE plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

NaNoWriMo – Maybe Next Year

I don't mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I'm going.

I don’t mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I’m going.

I think 2009 was my first NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. You know, the month of story-driven insanity where intrepid writers try to get 50,000 words out in thirty days. Today at the stroke of midnight, thousands of people sat down to keyboards, laptops, and notebooks and began to chip away at the word count. It’s an experience that is both exhilarating and exhausting. The camaraderie is contagious. Some might say it’s because misery loves company, but I think it’s more that insanity is better shared.

Whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo is a decision that plagues many writers this time of year. Despite being up to my eyeballs with copywriting deadlines and already overextended with a (fabulous) writing class at Grub Street, I was still tempted. There is something heroic about joining this crusade against the blank page. There is something comforting about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all those other literary legions, valiantly marching towards victory, one word at a time.

But, at the end of the day, I passed on NaNoWriMo this year for the same reason that I reluctantly turned my back on the writing frenzy in 2012: Larry Brooks. I explained my justification for bailing on this literary tradition in the post NaNoWriMo #fail – I Blame You, Larry Brooks. The short version is that I found myself unprepared (as in no outline) and unable to stomach the idea of writing 50,000 without a plan. Once upon a time, I might have just forged ahead anyway. I did, actually, in 2009, write 50,000 words with nary a storyline in sight. I embraced the No Plot, No Problem! spirit of the event 150%.

But, as I’ve learned more about story structure, characterization, context, etc., I find that – for better or worse – I only want to tackle a story if I’ve had the time to get a plan in place. Even for a short story, like the assignment I’m working on today for class, I need to have a roadmap. I don’t need to have every nitty-gritty detail lined up like so many tasks on a To Do list, but I do need a strong understanding of my characters, themes, and a general idea of how (I think) the story is going to develop. It’s okay if things evolve in new directions while I’m working, but I need that starting foundation before I can settle in to crafting actual sentences.

Am I just making excuses? I don’t think so, but I can understand why you might ask the question. At some point, the planning has to stop and the writing must commence. I get that. But, I’ve always found that the writing part goes much more smoothly if I’ve taken the time to do the prep work. Whether I’m writing a blog post, a column, a website, or a business ebook, the writing is much easier if I’ve put the effort into developing solid outlines that address everything from my topic to my theme, consider my audience, and even start to lay out creative elements like structure, presentation, etc.

But, maybe that’s just me.

What’s your take? Planner or Panster? NaNoWriMo Forever or NaNoWriNope?

 

What I’m Writing:

practical sandra

Smile, even when things may not go as you’d planned.

Last Tuesday, my fellow students and Grub Street instructor workshopped my “homework submission” for the Fiction I class I’m taking. I was a little nervous. After all, although I knew everyone would be kind, it’s never easy to be on the hot seat, or – as it’s called in class – “in the box.” On the other hand, there is something undeniably thrilling about having someone read your work. You feel naked, but you also feel heard. I knew that all the flaws and faux pas of my writing were there on the page, but it was worth it to have readers join me inside the world of my story.

I spent some more time last week and this working on further developing the idea and outline for the short story I’m hoping to submit for next Tuesday’s class. Once again, I had set a big, juicy block of writing time aside. That mini writing retreat was scheduled to begin a few minutes ago, but after a Norman Rockwell-worthy Halloween with my daughter, I got a bit of a late start on this post. And, I just learned moments ago that my daughter’s dad has decided to pick her up later than expected. A lot later.

So, once again, my writing window has shrunk down to the size of a porthole.

In the past, I would have railed against this development. I would have slid quickly from disappointed to angry to bitter. I would have written a slightly whiny post about how hard I was fighting for my writing life, and the whole world seemed hell bent on stopping me. In short, I would have pouted.

Not any more. It’s a cold, gray day-after-Halloween. I am just about to curl on on the sofa with my daughter and watch Practical Magic – one of my all-time favorite movies with her for the first time. And, you know what? I’m not just good with that. I’m delighted. Sure, it will curtail my writing for the day, but as important as writing is to me, life is more important. Life is, after all, what fuels the writing. Life is what makes the writing worthwhile.

 

What I’m Reading:

miniature booksAs you might imagine, I didn’t have a ton of time for reading this week, but what I did enjoy were a few short stories and essays. I’m beginning to develop quite an affinity for short form fiction. I’m even starting to get an itch to play around with flash fiction a bit.

In addition to reading the workshop submissions from two fellow students in class (submissions which were, by the way, excellent and so much fun!), I also read a wonderful essay by Jamie Passaro on Full Grown People, and a couple of appropriately spooky 19th century tales by Elia W. Peattie from Short Story Thursdays – The Room of Evil Thoughts and A Child of the Rain.

Though these pieces were short, they were fulfilling. They didn’t provide any sense of closure, something I usually like in a story. Instead, they raised questions and curiosity. They made me wonder what else might have happened. They reached into my writer’s mind and spun the wheels about a bit. That’s a good thing.

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin happy let go

Smile and enjoy your day, even if it doesn’t go as you’d planned. Write, read, live. 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Hourglass Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc
Country Road Photo Credit: fatboyke (Luc) via Compfight cc
Miniature Books Photo Credit: lamont_cranston via Compfight cc

Is the Right Writer Writing? – Guest post by Katherine Britton

We met Katherine at the Vermont Bookstock Festival where fellow Live-to-Writers Lisa, Deb and I spoke on a blogging panel. Katherine has already published two books and is currently working on a third. When she asked if we would let her do a guest post on Live to Write, Write to Live, there was nothing for us to say except “Yes. By all means, Yes!”

Enjoy.

Is the Right Writer Writing?

By Katharine Britton

I tell people it took me between two and fifty years to write my first book. The manuscript itself took two years, but I’d been gathering stories and getting to know my characters (the book was inspired by my mother and her sisters) for most of my life. What might it take to drive sisters apart, I mused, as I listened for years my mother talk about her childhood on the South Shore of Boston, in a weather-shingled house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. And what might it take to bring them back together? Her Sister’s Shadow was published in 2011.
blog2Then it was time to write another manuscript. What, I wondered, as I sat, fingers tensed, staring at a blank computer screen, could I write about? “You’ve used up every one of your good stories,” I heard myself say. “You’ve exploited every single foible a character could possibly possess and exhausted every topic of interest to anyone. (And all the good lines, too.) And, by the way, you don’t have another fifty years to come up with more.”

 

My fingers began to cramp; the page remained blank. “It was all a big mistake, that first novel. Eventually someone will figure that out. Not a chance you can write another one.”
Who Asked You, Anyway?
This wasn’t writer’s b–ck (that which must not be named). It was that the wrong writer was trying to write the first draft. Every author needs an internal editor. This persona is as important to subsequent drafts as a copy editor is to the final one. Just don’t let her “help” with the first draft. They say that writing is revising. But first you’ve got to get something down on paper. It’s a bitch to revise a blank page.
Have Fun for Heaven’s Sake
For the first draft, you need to employ your generative side. Invite your kid-self to climb up on your lap and bang away at the keys. Give her plain white paper and colored markers and watch her mind-map her way to a plot. Supply her with colored index cards and see how quickly scenes present themselves. (Pink for romance, green for adventure, blue for drama. Why not?)

 

 

Strew your desktop and office with toys, open the windows and listen to birds, take her for a walk down a city street or out into nature (maybe in the rain, why not!) and see what she sees, take her out for ice cream or to a movie, and listen to what she hears. Let her mind roam free. Start transcribing.

blog1
Later you will be grateful when that voice says, “That “fabulous” metaphor that you forced into a sentence on page 212, and then shaped into that really awkward scene? Take it out. It doesn’t work. Yes, the whole thing. Out. It. Doesn’t. Work. (Any more than Aunt Betty’s old armoire belongs in the dining room, where it’s blocking half of one window, by the way. Get rid of that, too, while you’re at it.”)
But for now, ignore her. Instead, sail blissfully through your first draft, your mind as open as a summer day. Be a kid, have fun. There’ll be plenty of time to grow up later.
Katharine Britton’s second novel, Little Island, came out in 2013. She is having fun with her third.

***

IMG_0014Katharine Britton is the author of two novels, HER SISTER’S SHADOW and LITTLE ISLAND (Berkley Books, Penguin, USA). She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and a Master’s in Education from the University of Vermont, and has taught at the Writer’s Center, Colby Sawyer College, and the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth. She was a Moondance Film Festival winner and a finalist in the New England Women in Film and Television contest. She writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

One Thousand Words at a Time

So it is mid-March, and I’m living the dream. I have a book contract, and a hard deadline. And so I have a book to write. 80,000 words total. I’m writing them 1000 words at a time.

Now, I’ve got friends who’ve written books. And I have taken classes, sat in on panels, and had conversations about the process. So I know what I’m doing, or at least I hope so. But as I was working on my schedule, working back from my deadline, it occurred to me that I know so much more about what it really takes to write a book than I did ten years ago. I thought I’d share my process in broad strokes. Throughout the year, I will check back on where I am in the process, and let you know how it is going.

First Step: The idea. What is the story you want to tell? Who are the main characters? If you are writing a mystery, what is the crime? Who is the victim? Who is the sleuth? Who is the criminal? Where are you setting your story? Who else is in the world? What does the world look like?

Second Step: The plot. I am a plotter, which means I think about the dramatic structure of the book, what needs to happen to move the story forward, what scenes are needed to do that? For each scene, what is the goal? Who is in it?

Third Step: First draft hell. This is where I write and write and write. I may go back and tweak scenes, or add some, but I don’t stop, or second guess, or go back and edit. I just let the characters tell the story, and try and transcribe it. This is where I am right now.

Fourth Step:  Rest. I need to give my brain time to forget the specifics, so I put the manuscript in a drawer right for a bit.

Fifth Step: Read it. How does it hang as a story? Does it make sense? Do I need to move scene around? Do I need to add some, or take some away? How is the tension?

Sixth Step: Rest again. And then dive in, and edit. Add descriptions. Elevate the language. Ratchet up the tension. Make it better.

Seventh Step: Go through it one more time. How close to perfect can you get it?

Eighth Step: Give it to someone else for feedback. Or a couple of somebodies.

Ninth Step: Read the comments, and either ignore them, or make the changes.

The loop of steps 7-9 can take a while, but that is fine. It should. Because before you hit send to your editor, or query the book to an agent, it needs to be as close to great as you can get it.

This takes TIME. 1000 words a day means an 80,000 word manuscript takes 80 days. Almost three months. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t understand steps 5-9 as being part of the process. That my first draft wasn’t perfect, and that fixing was part of writing. Understanding that, and giving it time, is critical.

So, this is my process. How do the rest of you tackle writing a book? Any tips you want to add?

***************

J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery Series.

 

What Do You Think?

My writer friends, beware of asking that question regarding your work. Or more precisely, to whom you ask the question. Because not all critiques are alike. Or even useful.

I have a friend who was on a deadline for submitting a manuscript. She had asked a (fairly new to her) critique group for feedback. Everyone wrote in the same genre, so she felt like the feedback would be helpful. What she was hoping for were plot problems, characters with the wrong name, bursts of unattributed dialogue, scenes that were in the wrong place or unclear. What she got was punctuation notes (some helpful, others contradicting the style guide of the publisher), suggestions to rewrite entire subplots, and one person questioning the premise of the book.

My friend freaked out. I finally wrote an all caps email telling her to IGNORE EVERYTHING. Because it was just too late (deadline) to make substantive changes to the plot. And her premise had gotten her a book contract, so somebody liked it.

It made me think about critique groups and critique partners. We’ve talked about critiquescritiquing, feedback and editing on the blog several times. I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on who you should ask to read your book when, and what a good critique partner does and doesn’t do.

My process is two write a lousy first draft, and then add research and shape it into second draft. I also try to give each draft time to sit, though deadlines sometimes get in the way. This is when the first critique comes in–usually my friend Jason. At this point I need someone to look at the big picture, the frame of the story. Does it hold together? How is the pacing? Was he surprised?

I then take his comments, and incorporate them into the manuscript. If they make sense, and work for the story. He may not love that the farmer’s son was guilty of the crime. But was he upset because the rest of the story didn’t support that (bad), or because he really liked the farmer’s son and was sad that he was guilty (good)? This critique partner needs to be a trusted reader who understands how delicate a book (and writer’s ego) is at this stage. Honesty and suggestions.

I then do another pass on the manuscript, looking for action, sensory moments, pacing, and every other editing technique I have learned after years of classes and workshops. When I am “done” I give it to the next level of readers. This round reacts to story (and usually Jason is a reader here too), but also looks at structure, grammar, punctuation, and overall clarity.

At this stage, I am easily confused. I have been working on the manuscript for too long, and have lost all objectivity. So I need to find people I trust. People who offer their ideas, but couch their ideas in support of my work, not a desire to write my story themselves. And I need to muster the strength to say “no” to some suggestions.

Any my final critique partner? Me. A couple of days in the drawer, and a read through of the entire manuscript. Straight through. And then I ask myself “what do you think?” and hope the answer is in the affirmative. And if not, I fix it.

How about you? Do you have readers or critique partners you trust? Or are you your only reader?

*********

J.A. Hennrikus is a mystery writer. She is the President of Sisters in Crime New England, on the national board of Sisters in Crime, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She also blogs with Wicked Cozy Authors.

Who and what is a literary life coach?

Today’s guest post comes from a friend; Lisa Allen, who is not only a talent writer, but also a Literary Life Coach.

Family lore puts four-dozen Golden Books on my bookshelf before I turned two. As much as defining my familial reputation as the bookish one, I like to think that such an early relationship with words and paper has also served as a subliminal guide towards my role as a Literary Life Coach. What is a Literary Life Coach? Well, it’s another way of saying book shepherd, book midwife, or writing coach. I like to include the word ‘literary,’ as it is my way of implying quality for the end-product.

1182178016_50870517afIn the excitement of seeing their names in print, it is easy for first-time authors to overlook fundamentals, such as grammar and spelling, before self-publishing or querying a manuscript. Although I do not proofread, copy edit or edit manuscripts, my Rolodex of publishing professionals includes others who do. It is my mission to ensure that my clients’ projects have integrity, from the inside out.

A writer creates their own work schedule. This is where I bring out my virtual pom-poms. The Literary Life Coach is a customizable cheerleader, a writer’s accountability partner, with a mutually agreed upon timeline and an eye on the end-goal. Those pom poms are shaking, twisting and shouting during every phone check-in. Working with an accountability partner is a writer’s tool for keeping a project on track, an ongoing source of encouragement.

Everyone has a book in them, I say, and have always enjoyed talking with people about their writing projects (you don’t have to be a professional writer to have a book idea or publish a blog!), problem-solving concept and/or structural issues, encouraging writers and following up on their progress. A cross-pollinator of people and ideas, it is thrilling to help others make valuable connections, so if you meet with me, be sure to bring paper and pen for note taking. As the Literary Life Coach I work with non-fiction writers, primarily business owners, who use books or websites and blogs to strengthen their visibility in the marketplace — to help them make noise in the world.

Recently, I had a call from a business consultant who described her current project as “writing hell,” although she is already the author of several books. With input from her team of advisers, she had three versions of the manuscript. She was absolutely stuck on how to organize the chapters and how to edit out some elements that should be used for a different project. How lucky was I that she was vacationing at her lake house, and that we could meet there for a day-long session?! Together we worked out the best flow of information for her book, and, the true test, after sleeping on it, she was energized and focused and back on track.

A very different kind of project is the children’s picture book biography of a famous historic figure. The manuscript has been edited, finely groomed, given the thumbs-up by important people in high places, yet the author needed regularly scheduled check-in sessions to override self-doubt. With the manuscript already in good order, we have brainstormed publishing options and marketing strategies. I will soon be meeting with the author and her illustrator, an accomplished artist. It is exciting to see this project come to fruition.

Writing can be a lonely process. Belief in a project’s completion can feel elusive. For the duration of a story’s journey, a Literary Life Coach is that guide with a headlamp, a reassuring voice in the dark.

 About the author:

web_Headshot_Lisa Allen 2013 150x200Lisa Allen Lambert first discovered the lure of writing while researching and writing travel news at Yankee magazine. Later, she wrote, designed, and self-published Eating Clean, a cookbook based on the healing and healthful benefits of unprocessed foods. Recently, an excerpt from her MFA memoir thesis, “Paradise Not Quite Found,” was a finalist in the anthology contest “Times Were A-Changing.”

As the Literary Life Coach, Lisa can help you with your nonfiction book or blogging projects. She is the managing editor for Tall Poppy Writers (website launching in Sept.), a new online consortium that connects smart readers with smart books, and is the assistant residency director for a low-residency MFA program in creative writing.