On Offering Critique

'More idea critique' photo (c) 2011, Drew - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ I attended the monthly meeting of a writers group a few months ago and at the end, there was a critique session for members who had work to share. It had been a long time since I’d actively participated in a critique group with people I didn’t know well. In a perfect world we’d all share our well thought out opinions and the other person wouldn’t take it personally. Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world and we’re writers which means that every time we put fingers to keys or ink to paper, our heart pours out. It’s hard when someone stomps on a piece of your heart.

Since I’m relatively new to this group, I sought out the leader via email, after the meeting to inquire about the session. She gently informed me that, while I was not the only one, my thoughts were not as constructive as they could have been. Oh NO! The last thing I wanted to do was be hurtful. I was also concerned because I walked away from the particular story in question thinking “I like that, I can’t wait to see what will happen with that character.”

I sent an apology to the person I hurt. I wanted to own that I was hurtful without reneging on my critique. I stand by what I said, but clearly, I could have expressed myself more constructively.

The next thing I did, was reach out to writers I know and trust and ask for their thoughts on giving and receiving critiques. I got some great feedback. Today I want to share what I’ve learned about giving critiques as well as gather more intel from our readers. In a later post, we’ll discuss receiving critiques.

On giving critiques:

“Be kind first. Be positive second. Be honest third.” Karon Thackston

“Present your comments less as judgment and more as observation.” Jamie Wallace

“Honor and respect each other – givers and receivers. Respect the hard work that goes into a piece when you give criticism” – Susan Nye

“Think about the writer’s goals for the piece you’re reading, not your goals. Don’t pick apart someone’s horror novel, for example, because you don’t care for the genre. Determine what he or she is trying to achieve and incorporate that standard into your critique. Be honest, be constructive, be compassionate.” Tracy Hahn-Burkett

“Be honest, but generous in giving them. Find positives, not just negatives. Be aware your opinion is not necessarily fact.” Megan Hart

“My best advice is BEFORE giving criticism, to make sure the writer is willing to hear it without argument. If the person is going to debate with you about your feedback, you’re both wasting your time.” Lisa J. Jackson

What is your advice for offering constructive, criticism?

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. Her words have appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.

Short Story–Ready to Submit

I have a short story ready to submit. Isn’t that great?

I have never gotten a piece this long (5,000 words) ready for publication before so I thought I would share the process with you.

I originally wrote this short story for a local community college class assignment years ago when I was still working full-time. This class was “time out of time” and I loved every second of it!

A couple of years ago, a writing friend asked me if I had any stories already written. I remembered this one and pulled it out. I reread it and I was amazed at a) the crappy writing, and b) the complete story arc (I did that!) Focusing on what worked in the story, I started working on it again. And then again.

A few rewrites later, I submitted it to an online critique group and then put it away again.

This January, I decided this was the year—plus my friend said she’d beat me bloody if I didn’t submit the story already (I had said I’d do last year!) Isn’t it great to have supportive friends?

I brought the story to my critique group, and rewrote it again. Then I submitted a short scene that was giving me trouble (I can see it my head, but can my readers?) to an online chat. The critique was in some ways bizarre (how did they jump to the conclusion that one of my characters was a lesbian from the dialogue: “I do not date?”) but in other ways very helpful (I did not need the level of detail I originally wrote to show how two people were sitting).  I rewrote the scene, making it tighter and (hopefully) crystal clear.

Reading the story out loud to myself was painful, but necessary. I caught a lot of little words that made the dialogue sound stilted to my ear.

I gave the story to some friends to read. One gave me great “big picture” feedback. I had asked her to tell me if there was any place in the story that was confusing or didn’t make sense. She told me that never happened. Phew! Two other friends read it and said it was good. Not as helpful but reassuring, nonetheless.

One last edit to make sure the word count met the limit, and then I brought the story to my critique group one more time. No suggested changes. Cool.

I could keep tinkering with the story, but at this point I think I would be making it worse rather than better.

So, here’s what I’m going to do—today:

  1. Send my story (my baby, my heart) into the world.
  2. Let go of any attachment to how it will be received. (That’s not my business.)
  3. Start a new story.

What are you getting ready to send into the world?

 

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is currently a full-time mother, part-time life coach. She is a Master Certifiied Life Coach, trained by Martha Beck, among others. She is passionate about her son, her writing and using her mind to create a wonderful present moment.  Find her life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.

Finding or Creating a Critique Group That You Love

I am currently in a critique group that I love. It totally works for me. And it’s only me and one other person. I’d love to have more people in the group, but it’s not that easy to find someone who is on the same schedule as you, and who looks at critique groups the same way you do. My time and my writing are precious, and to spend a couple of hours giving good feedback, offering constructive criticism, and getting back, “yeah, I liked it,” or “that didn’t work for me,” is just not good enough for me these days.

Many years ago, when I rediscovered my passion for writing, I was lucky enough to live near Denis Ledoux, the author of Turning Memories Into Memoirs. I took a local class that he taught at the Lewiston Public Library every Tuesday, which just happened to be my day off from my medical practice. Coincidence? I think not.

One of the many gifts that Denis gave me during those classes was the ability to critique other people’s writing and the ability to hear my own work critiqued without taking it personally (at least, not very often!)

All of the writers in the group were writing about different periods in their own lives. We did not have a fictional character to hide behind. To this day, whenever I am asked to critique someone’s work, I use the format Denis gave me.

First, I say what I liked about the piece. I give concrete examples: I liked this word, this phrase, that sentence. I thought this metaphor worked well or that this last line is perfect, “because it brings us full circle,” for example.

Then, I say:  “If this were my piece, I might change this phrase…because…” Again, I give concrete examples, and I give a reason. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this phrase…” that’s just personal opinion and every other reader may have a different opinion. To say “This phrase didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story–I was trying to figure out who was speaking,” is a more concrete, helpful example.

The three years I spent with Denis and a small group of memoir writers many years ago and the lessons I learned there have stayed with me. I have been in multiple critique groups since, most in person but I’ve also tried on-line critique groups, and I always come back to those basic phrases:  I liked this… and: If it were my piece, I might change…x, y, or z.

Denis taught me to critique the writing, not the writer.

I was in a critique group once that fell apart because one writer was writing a novel that took place in Hungary. Another participant was from Hungary and didn’t like the way her countrymen and women were being portrayed. She took it very personally.

Another time I was in a critique group and shared a story about a difficult time in my life with one of my sisters (I am lucky enough to have three). Another participant in the group told me I was “giving away my power.” She was right, but since the story was about my 14-year-old self, I didn’t find the comment very helpful.

So here are the rules of my critique group (currently two members, but open to more!)

  1. Critique the writing, not the writer
  2. State what you like about the piece. Give concrete examples.
  3. State what you might change about the piece if it was yours. Give concrete examples.
  4. Be respectful of word count limits and time limits.

In other words, obey the Golden Rule. Give the critique you wish you could get for your piece.

What has your experience been with critique groups? Have you found them helpful?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is currently a full-time mother, part-time life coach, part-time writer. She is a Master Certifiied Life Coach, trained by Martha Beck, among others. She is passionate about her son, her writing and using her mind to create a wonderful present moment.  Find her life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.

Friday Fun – Writing Organizations and Groups

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, writing-related question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Do you belong to a writers’ group? Any organizations? What are the benefits you have found? Any drawbacks?

ANSWER:

Deborah Lee Luskin: In addition to the New Hampshire Writers’ Network, which produces this blog, I belong to the Vermont League of Writers, though I don’t make it to their quarterly meetings as often as I’d like. I also belong to a local writer’s organization, Write Action, based in Brattleboro, Vermont. And as I’ve written in a post here, I’ve benefited greatly from belonging to groups where we gather to write.

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Jamie Lee Wallace: I have participated in a few writing classes (online and in the real world) – mostly of a creative, stretch your writing muscles type. I have also been a member of a critique group, which I wound up leaving because I wasn’t really ready to be critiqued (though I wrote pieces for the meetings, I was – and still am – in the research and planning stage). I don’t belong to any professional organizations (other than this blog), but I intend to join Grub Street Writers – a Boston-based organization whose mission is “to be an innovative, rigorous, and welcoming community for writers who together create their best work, find audience, and elevate the literary arts for all.” They have an annual conference that I missed this year, but definitely plan to attend next year!

Julie Hennrikus: I belong to Sisters in Crime (national) and Sisters in Crime New England. I also belong to a subset of SinC called the Guppies, which stands for the great unpublished. These are all groups for mystery writers.  I am also a member of Grub Street, and have taken a few classes with them. There are meetings of the SinCNE, but the rest of these groups meet online (unless we plan meetups at conventions, which happens.) I have tried a couple of writers’ groups but for one reason or another they haven’t worked for me. I do know many writers who benefit greatly from them, and perhaps will find one that clicks at some point.

Susan Nye: Other than NH Writers Network I am not currently a member of any professional organizations. I was recently contacted by another food writer/blogger about starting a NH Food Bloggers group. I’m looking forward to meeting with her after the summer. I was a member of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and have attended their conference and one of their networking meetings. Both were valuable experiences and I will attend again in the future.

Wendy Thomas: I belong to this group, as well as,  a writers’ goal setting group (one of the most powerful tools in my writing toolbox IMHO). Coincidentally this weekend I’ll be leaving for a self organized writers’ retreat with 2 friends from that goals group. That will be the first time I’ve tried anything like that (and hopefully not the last.) I’ve taken many online courses (back in the day when Barnes and Nobles had them online for free) and read tons of “how to” books on writing. I don’t go to meetings (conventions) but it is my goal to make it to at least one by the end of this year.

To be perfectly honest, I tend to stay away from groups. Too often people are at a different place or stage than I am and I often get frustrated. I tend to work best with a small group of like minded writers with whom I can bounce ideas around.

Lisa Jackson writerLisa Jackson: I belong to Sisters in Crime (a national group for mystery authors, where I’m part of the membership committee) and Sisters in Crime New England (where I’m into my second year as treasurer). I’m a former member of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (I was their book review coordinator for a number of years) and attended their annual conference a few times. I find the more I’m involved in volunteering in an organization, the more I get out of it. I also belong to a small critique group which is weekly inspiration to keep me writing.

Writing book reviews – everyone has an opinion

A book review is part of an author’s marketing and promotion toolkit and if you’re going to write a review, to post on Amazon or any other venue, there are some items you should include in order to make it beneficial to the author and potential readers.

Let me start by saying, before writing a review, read the book. It seems an obvious point, but there are reviewers who do not do this.

After finishing the book, give yourself a day or two before starting the review. Let the story settle in your mind. It’s amazing how many ideas percolate to the surface if you give yourself some breathing room.blank book image

To craft a book review:

  • Have a recommendation. Would you recommend the book to others? Yes or no.
  • Open with a brief (1-3 sentence paragraph) summary that catches a reader’s eye. Don’t give away the climax. You want to entice a reader to read (or not) the book you’ve read.
  • In the next paragraph, expand a bit on the storyline, include blurbs from the story if they help give a feel for the story that you might not be able to articulate. Summarize some main events in the book, but avoid giving away the spoilers.
  • Include a paragraph that talks about the author’s writing style. Comment on what worked and possibly what didn’t. What you liked, or didn’t, and why. Sharing your why is what readers want to know.
  • Depending on where your review will be posted, include a bit about the author’s bio in another paragraph. Mention a previous or upcoming book, and perhaps a couple of personal (non-writing) details to give the reader a feel for the person behind the words.
  • Wrap up your review with your read/don’t read recommendation and a quick description of who the perfect audience for the book might be.

Everyone has an opinion, so if you read a book and have one you want to share, consider crafting a review that includes points you’d want to know if you were considering a particular title.

If you’re a reader and a writer, book reviews are a way to expand your writing experience and could generate some income.

Lisa Jackson is an editor, writer, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can, too! © Lisa J. Jackson, 2011

Wading In

We’ve written about the importance of finding a good critique group, and the difference between critiques and edits. We’ve also written about the damage that can be done by getting a bad critique, bad being harmful, not critical.

But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot, and you are doing the critique? Having done two manuscript swaps in as many months, I’ve begun to think it is more difficult to do a critique than to get one. Let me explain.

Full manuscript swaps take a long time, or at least they do for me. I read the ms once through for story. Then I read it again and markup the text itself for grammar, line edits, word choices, etc. At the same time, I take general notes. And then I read it again, and transcribe my markups to the document itself (with track changes on) and I add brief comments as well. And then, finally, I write up my notes with explanations about my thought process.

I take the line between editing and critiquing seriously. And that means you need to respect the other writer’s craft. The character, setting or plot may not resonate. But I have to dig deep, and decide whether the element doesn’t work in general, or whether it doesn’t work for me. I don’t rewrite, but I do offer suggestions about what isn’t working. Or I ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

But once I’ve waded in, I keep going. I remain kind and respectful, but I suspect I can be tough. Suggestions of “cut the first fifty pages” aren’t made easily. I do offer support for my suggestions. I also make it clear that my opinions are my own, and can be disregarded. I know that some people shy away from being too critical, but I want to offer some feedback that is constructive. And if the prologue isn’t working for me, I mention it in case others have as well. Or if characters confuse me, I feel like it should be addressed.

The process is exhausting. Sometimes I feel badly hitting send, but I want to give the critique I’d like to get–thorough and honest. How about you? Do you find it difficult to wade in and critique other work? Do you hold back?

And now I’m off to read the two copies of my own manuscript with notes. Not that I’ve been putting it off or anything…

 

What Do You Mean By That?

I had lunch with a writer on Monday. He is considering signing up for a workshop, his first. He asked my opinion on the class, which I gave. And then I gave him my thoughts about critiques, which I decided to pass on here. Critiques, giving and getting, are part of a writer’s journey. But I have found that the road both ways can be bumpy at best, and downright dangerous at times.

Good critiques should have rules. Some that I find work well:

  • If it is a verbal critique, the receiver shouldn’t speak until everyone is done (cuts down on defensiveness).
  • You should include positive criticism as well.
  • Negative criticism should be constructive.
  • Avoid rewriting for the other writer. In my opinion, suggestions as to fixes are OK, but let her do the work herself.

These are all fairly standard. But here are some of my own rules.

Only ask for criticism from a trusted source. By trusted I don’t mean best friends or mothers, neither of whom are likely to be harsh critics in my experience. A trusted source is someone who understands what you are looking for, will work on a timeline that is helpful to you.

Respect the genre or type of writing if you are going to critique it. The same goes for the person who is going to critique your writing. They don’t have to love it, or read it regularly, but they need to respect what you are trying to do. This is particularly true if you write genre fiction (mystery, sci fi, romance, horror, etc.) Finding your writing tribe will be helpful in finding good readers. And it can be very helpful to have someone outside the genre look at it. But a literary fiction writer whose idea of genre is Pat Conroy could be a problem for your thriller with sci-fi undertones.

If someone asks for your critique, do a critique. Don’t worry about hurting feelings. Remember, you are being kind and constructive. But at the same time, help the writer make the work better by offering your honest feedback. And then offer to reread the work after the next draft is done.

Don’t get defensive. If you get the same criticism over and over, consider revising. But if you don’t agree with what someone says, disregard it. They have their opinion, and you have yours. Just make sure you aren’t being stubborn. You won’t get better at writing without feedback.

Happy writing!

Writing routines – One size doesn’t fit all

This is a nice follow-on to Lee’s post yesterday about having deadlines.

Of course it’s good to have a writing routine. How else can we get our writing done? But just like with anything, moderation (flexibility) may be the best course.

There are all sorts of routines that work. Some examples:

  • Sit at the desk  for x minutes or x hours per day x days per week and hope the writing comes, or write and hope it’s usable
  • Have daily word count goals to meet, regardless of how much time it takes
  • Write x hours (or minutes) per day, with no word count goal
  • A routine that is based on type of writing – write blog posts on Mon, articles on Tuesday, queries on Wed, etc.

You get the idea. It all, of course, comes down to what works best and is the least stressful for you.

The writing routine needs to include e-mails, responding to blogs, posting to social media sites, editing work written, and any other type of writing you do on a regular basis.

For me, I’d love to find a large magnetic calendar that has lines and times like an appointment book. I’d like magnets sized into pieces to represent 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 1 hour. I want to be able to write on these pieces and configure them into any size time block (it 2 hours 15 mins). Then I want to be able to put these pieces onto the large calendar each day in the configuration that will work for that day, and lined up with the appropriate time slot.

weekly appointment page

Appointments and errands are best, for me, early in the morning, yet they aren’t a daily task, and aren’t even weekly or predictable (think sudden doctor appointment or ‘quick run’ to the store for toilet paper). So if my writing routine is 11-2 daily, there will be occasional interruptions and I’ll need to move that time, or a portion of it to earlier or later in the day.

If one routine worked for everyone, it sure would be a time saver. But we’re creative types whose writing requirements don’t fit nicely into little boxes.

Do you have a writing routine you can stick to? Does it depend on the type of writing you’re doing? How do you adjust for paying work versus ideas your are developing into a piece you can sell?

Lisa Jackson is an editor, author, book coach, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to chat with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can too! ©Lisa J. Jackson, 2010

Shutting Down the Critic

Lots of advice is given about shutting down your own inner critic in order to get writing done. But what about the critic who sits on your shoulder while you read other people’s work? We all have it—the part of the brain that goes into dissecting mode. I write mysteries, and read a fair number. But I’ve got to admit, some of the joy is gone, mostly because of the critic.

“Wow, she used a prologue.”

“Body didn’t drop till page seventy-five. That seems late.”

“Whoa. That is a lot of info dumping.”

“How many characters are there anyway? And do they all have names that start with the letter ‘H’?”

I am a member of the Mystery Analysis group, a part of the Guppies (the Great Unpublished—a subchapter of Sisters in Crime). Recently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was chosen. Coincidentally, it was also chosen by my book club. A friend suggested I get all three books, convinced that I would want to read them all once I started. I was less convinced. I had avoided spoilers, but had been reading about Stieg Larsson’s triology on different listservs, email threads and blogs for months. From what I could tell, my critic was going to get a work out.

On day two of an internet free vacation I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There was a ton of info dumping, a lot of Swedish place names I hoped I wouldn’t have to remember, and a ton of characters (many with the same initial). The critic started, and I grabbed a pad of paper to take notes. But then I dismissed her. I was on vacation. I decided to just read the book. Which I did, in about a day. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest took most of the rest of the week.

Having read all three books I can, will and do weigh in on discussions. But I am grateful I shut down my critic and just read for pleasure. I likely learned as much, and perhaps more, by letting Stieg Larsson tell me his stories. I watched his evolution as a novelist. I saw how well he structured the plot, particularly in the second and third books. I also met the girl with the dragon tattoo, and she will stay with me for a long time.

How about you? Do you enjoy reading as much as you used to, especially in your genre? Or are you constantly parsing the work? Or do you find your critic helps you enjoy reading more?

About the author: J.A. Hennrikus is an arts administrator, mystery writer, member of Sisters in Crime and Red Sox nation. Follow her on Twitter

Critiques versus edits – what’s the difference?

As a writer, you hear talk about having your work critiqued and having it edited. Do you the know difference between two tasks?

Critiques

Critiques are reviews of works; your assessment of what an author has penned. It generally includes an evaluation of good points as well as bad. I use ‘generally’ because there are reviewers/critiquers who only focus on the good elements in a work.

No matter what level your writing is at, I think you can benefit from a well thought out critique. Critique groups are a great place (if the group is a good fit for you) to learn how to improve your writing, as well as how to build your own ability to critique a piece of writing.

When you agree to critique a piece of work, you are saying you will give the piece the attention it needs and think about feedback that will be useful to the author. There is always something good to say about a piece of writing, but it’s usually easiest to identify what doesn’t work.

I feel comfortable saying that most writers are readers, and therefore know when a story works and when it doesn’t. The challenge in critiques is to highlight what works well so that the writer can adapt and fix the parts that may not work quite as well.

Edits

In an earlier post, I talked about the different types of editing. Different skill sets are required for the various types of editing. As examples: proofreading is not as comprehensive as a content edit, but both are needed when you are polishing a manuscript. A proofreader focuses on the technical aspects of writing. A content editor encompasses the entire piece and is more creative in regard to making sure all the details are consistent throughout the piece.

Critiques and edits

If you’re critiquing a piece and notice a typo, it would be hard to overlook it – at least it is for me. But knowing that pointing out a spelling error is not the focus of a critique will start you on your way to being able to give useful feedback to the writer.

Remember the sandwich: point out what works, give suggestions for what isn’t working, follow up with more comments on what works.

Analogy

An edit is akin to surgery, implemented to fix what needs repairing. A critique is an overall evaluation of the body of work before surgery is undertaken.

Lisa J. Jackson is an editor, author, book coach, consultant, Big Sister, cat owner, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, coffee ice cream, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to chat with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can too! ©Lisa J. Jackson, 2010