On Making Sense of Critiques

Let’s be honest: taking critique can be tough. It’s something every writer needs to learn how to handle, and it only happens with experience.


Sometimes I go in to a critique knowing that there’s something—an exchange of dialogue, a transition, rushed action—I need to work on. It’s encouraging when readers agree it’s an issue without my prompting them. I trust myself as a writer more because I’ve identified a valid problem. Simply hearing my readers put the problem into their own words can get me closer to a solution than I would have reached on my own.


Other times, I learn that readers aren’t connecting to the part of the work that means the most to me, or that they don’t understand what the piece is trying to be about. That stinks, but when I accept it, it always makes the piece stronger.


There are two important things I’ve learned recently:


  1. You can recognize the issue a critique presents, without agreeing with the proposed solution.
  2. Sometimes the reader isn’t the right one for your piece.


Some of my critiques have given me great ideas for how to remedy issues in my manuscript. Others have clarified where the problems lay and I’ve decided not to use the suggested solutions, because they were not aligned with the larger purpose of the novel.


This is not a decision that can be made emotionally or reactively. It’s not about whether or not the critiquer was “right”—it’s about what best serves the novel.


I usually still change something, since there was something disengaged the reader. It may be a sign that I need to rethink what I believe the novel is trying to be about.


The farther I get into my current novel, the more I understand what it is—not just what I want it to be. In the years I’ve been working on this manuscript, some elements have stayed the same, but become sharper. Others have changed dramatically. The more willing I am to let go and let the thing move on its own, the faster I make progress toward a more cohesive and more engaging novel.


As far as point 2, consider that my novel falls into the category of “foodie fiction.” Early on, I had a reader suggest I cut a scene in which the main character is cooking a meal. This reader thought the scene went on too long and wasn’t important for the rest of the story. In fact, it is a pivotal scene in establishing the character, and one I’ve gotten good feedback on from my first round of submissions.


Was the scene not right for my novel? No, the novel wasn’t right for that reader. And that’s okay. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d read before, and he didn’t connect with it. That doesn’t mean much of anything other than that.


By learning to make better use of critique, I am gaining confidence in my ability to identify and fix issues in my writing. My novel doesn’t need to be for everyone. It does, however, need to be the best version of itself for its audience.


Writing is good for you. Editing is better.

I have a dear friend who is artistic, creative, and a voracious reader. Earlier this year, she took her passion for self-expression, and for words in particular, to a new place and starting writing a blog about her dating adventures. She was hooked pretty much instantly. She writes honestly and well, and I’m always delighted to see another entry has been posted.


Last week she told me she’s seriously thinking about taking an adult writing course. We’d discussed the possibility before, and in our recent conversation I egged her on again. Whether it’s a memoir workshop, a course on nonfiction essay-writing, or a seminar on some other form of creative writing, I am of the opinion that learning to write better (read: learning to edit better) has myriad benefits—both personally and professionally.


Learning to write better does not necessarily mean making better words hit the page the first time around. It might mean experimenting with prewriting exercises or figuring out the critical, if painful, questions one needs to ask of oneself to improve a draft.


Before, during, or after the writing itself, learning the craft is about figuring out what’s important—plot points, characters, phrases—and what’s not. In a story, a business email, a personal letter, better writing is about communicating clearly. And that means clearing out the junk.


Likewise, sometimes we need to be critical of our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. What’s really important to us, and what extraneous stuff are we letting get in the way of our goals? If we call ourselves writers, are we making enough time to write for where we are in the process, or are we letting our fear holding us back?


Moral of the story: Writing is good for you. Editing is better.

Writers’ Group 101

I am convinced that if you want to get serious about writing, joining a writers’ group is the single most important thing you can do. It gives you deadlines, other people to hold you accountable to meeting said deadlines, free (at least in terms of money) editors, and material to improve your editing skills.


Getting involved with a group, as the professor of my undergraduate fiction workshop advised, is not something to take lightly. Having started my own group a few years ago (which disbanded once too many people moved away) and now being a sort of replacement member in an already established group, I feel qualified to offer some experience-based tips on getting off on the right foot.


1. The most important qualification for a prospective group member is how committed s/he is to the group. Our group comprises writers of adult fiction, young adult fiction, and nonfiction personal essays. Some of us have worked in publishing; most have not. One has an MFA; others have no formal training in writing. What we have in common is that we prioritize submitting our pieces on time and responding to others’ submissions at our meetings (or via email later, if we can’t attend the meeting). Though a group of all fiction writers or all young adult writers would be great, too, for us, the diversity in where we come from and what we write makes the group richer.


2. Meet often. We meet every two or three weeks. It might seem like a lot, but it keeps us in touch with each other and always moving forward. We have a large enough group that there’s enough time between submissions for each individual to make use of her notes before bringing something else—new or revised—to the group.


3. Consider your numbers. Our group is eight, which is as large as I’d want to see a group go. Because it’s hard to schedule with that many people (some prefer weekends, other prefer weeknights), we’ll often have one or two members missing. Even then, there are enough people to keep things moving, so there isn’t too too much pressure to make every single meeting no matter what. Though this may seem to contradict #1, we all have young kids, so this is reality right now. We’re all committed, but we also understand when family takes precedence.


On the other hand, I wouldn’t want fewer than five in a group. The discussion is so important to build off of each other and see more than we did in our own private read-throughs.


4. Stick to a format. Our group begins each discussion by going around the room and having each person say something they liked and something they think needs improvement in the piece. This balance keeps the criticism constructive, and usually helps us pinpoint which issues need to be delved into more deeply in our discussion.



In both of the groups I’ve been in, we’ve used a traditional format, in which the author of the piece does not speak until the conversation among the rest of the group has ended. Then the author has a chance to ask questions or explain things that were vague. It can be hard to keep your mouth shut sometimes, but the beauty of the group is that you hear what other people frankly think of your writing. Plus, sometimes it can be really funny to see where they think your piece is going—or really inspiring!


5. Watch the time. We’re all busy people, and as much as the group can be a nice escape from the rest of life, we all do have lives to get back to. Everyone in my group is a mother (we meet post-bedtime), so none of us can stay too late, as we have little ones, if not full-time jobs as well, to carry on with. Our meetings are generally one and a half to two hours. It’s good to have that expectation, and even better to stick to it.


What else might you advise for someone looking to start a new writers’ group or improve an existing one?

Tweet, Tweet

I have a confession to make.


When I signed on to Twitter for the first time a few months ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know much about programming, but I consider myself otherwise tech-savvy. When I launched Twitter, though, it was like someone had taken my computer and switched it to a foreign language (and not German, because I’d get that). It took a full day for me to start to feel like I had a handle on it . . . and that day felt like a week.


Fast forward to the present, and I’m loving all the great articles on writing, editing, and publishing I discover every day, courtesy of the editors, writers, and agents I follow. In case you haven’t been following my feed (it’s over there, to the right), today I’m sharing links to some of the best articles I read this week—pieces that got me thinking, reading and most importantly, writing!


Why Editors Focus on Page One: http://janefriedman.com/2013/06/10/why-editors-focus-on-page-one/#.UbX6mOtEbh8.twitter


Sarah Dessen and Regina Hayes: The Slate Book Review author-editor interview: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/06/ya_author_sarah_dessen_and_her_book_editor_regina_hayes_of_viking_in_conversation.html?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=sm&utm_campaign=button_toolbar


How Do You Find Your Next Read?: http://thepioneerwoman.com/homeschooling/2013/06/how-do-you-find-your-next-read/


What did you find on Twitter this week? Share in the comments, please!


Watching TV Is Good for Your Writing

Being in a writers’ group is great because:

  1. You get feedback on your writing.
  2. You practice your editing skills by giving feedback on other people’s writing.
  3. You get book and article recommendations from folks as serious about writing as you are.


Today I’m sharing “Six Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television” by Matt Debenham. There’s gold in here, readers. Six elements of good television writing that can easily be transferred into a mini-workshop on prose writing. Take a look and see what you can apply to your current WIP.


I tend to get stuck on Item 2. My characters, especially my protagonists, start out really nice and well adjusted. I have to work to mess them up. A number of the writers I’m working with now seem to have the same problem. None of us wants to write about characters we’ve all seen before, some textbook psychology that we can all see playing out from page one. We want to create relatable characters, put them in challenging situations, and then have them behave unexpectedly. But at the same time, there must be a believable (not necessarily logical) motivation behind every action of every character for the writing to work.


Debenham says it well,


Active doesn’t mean always happy, or manic, or illogical. Active means a character who wants something, who does things relating to those wants — oftentimes when that is exactly the wrong thing for them to do.


That’s where tension, conflict, and just plain good writing come from.


Which piece do you have the most trouble with? How are you working through it?

What a Writer Needs: Humility

Thanks to the new pope, Francis I, variations of the word “humble” have been all over the news the last week. It’s not one that often comes up in popular media, and I imagine that’s largely because the term is misunderstood. But it’s a term that matters, especially for writers looking to make it to the next step.


Humility is not self-denigration; rather, as Erasmus says, “Humility is truth.”


No one wants to be the guy who boasts about his accomplishments, only to find that no one else is as impressed as he himself is. At the same time, what use is it to so underestimate your work that you never give it a chance to see the light of day?


The key to real humility is knowledge—objective knowledge of the quality of your work (see You Really Do Need an Editor) and realistic knowledge of the competition.


If aspiring authors saw what I saw every day as an assistant at a literary agency and at a publishing house—reading manuscripts and writing rejections every day—I have to believe most of them would take more time to polish or even rewrite their manuscripts before submitting them. In your own home, on your own computer, to your family and friends, your manuscript probably looks phenomenal. But what happens when it journeys out into the world to fend for itself? Are the characters really fleshed out? Do the logistics of the story make sense? Did you proofread—like really, really proofread? Have I heard this story before? Will anyone else want to hear it? Is it going to stand out, or is it going to blend in?


Practically, how does one get that perspective, without working or interning at a literary agency or a publishing house?


Step One: Join a serious writers’ group. If you write children’s books, check out your local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). If you write for adults, get in touch with local colleges and the professors of their writing workshops. Post an ad on campus or in a local paper.


If you are starting your own group, be discerning of how you grow your community. You might ask for writing samples or have trial workshops before you solidify the group. Not everyone needs to write within the same genre, but everyone does need to be equally committed to the group. Set standards for when work is to be submitted, how often you will meet, and how feedback will be provided. Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns. Make sure your fellow workshoppers are aware of what they’re getting into and are prepared to contribute.


For me, at least, the act of getting the words down on paper is a solitary activity. I need time and space to dive into the world I’m creating. But once the words exist on the page, it’s time to involve a community I trust to help show me my strengths and weaknesses—and to encourage me to grow through both. A good leader can take advice while continuing to make her own choices. Be the leader of your own craft.