There is Value in All Critique

I feel bad that it has taken me this long to write this post. While I do believe there were parts of the critique I got at NorWesCon that could have been better, I did get value out of it. This post is specifically about that value.

The 9,400 words the panel got included probably the most boring 8,000 words I’ve written for my novella. I am very bad at beginnings, especially for sci-fi or fantasy worlds when I feel the need to get explanations about the world in. The very first thing they read was essentially a guy reading an encyclopedia entry. BORING! So I need to re-write my first meeting scenes, the ones where the reader first meets each character and the one where the main characters first meet each other. There needs to be action, not just expository.

To go along with that, readers now a days are much more picky about their science fiction worlds. I need to make sure the science of my world, climate, ecology, how the moons, work, etc, is possible. Even if my work is a tribute to a style of fantasy that was popular in the late 1970s and early 80s, I need to write it for today’s readers. I cannot get away with the same shortcuts.

Each of my main characters has a secret, something they are trying to hide from each other. And there is a consequence to others finding out their secrets. However, their secrets are, in no way, on the same level. One is personal and one is the fate of the world. That means they do not balance, and while the characters do not know each other’s secrets for most of the story, I need to find a way to make the lesser secret have a deeper emotional impact so that the readers just don’t write it off.

To go along with that, in the critique of my synopsis, it was pointed out that in some ways, I let my characters off the hook. I was not making them face the full consequences of their actions and their secrets. I cannot do that. I cannot go easy on my characters. That does the reader a disservice. I must make them face their fears. The consequences of their actions must be real, they must be felt by the characters and by the readers. That means they must be felt by me. I cannot go easy on myself. Authors have to make hard choices. I have to make one here.

These are important notes to make. Notes I probably would have come up with eventually, but in all honesty, in some cases it is easier to get them before some of those scenes are written. As it is, I’ve already rewritten the first scene of the story. It still has a bit too much expository, but it is much better than it was before. I think I want to get the rest of my first meeting scenes rewritten, too, but after that, I need to hold off on the rewrites.

I need to move forward with the novella as I now want it to be. I need to get a complete first draft, even if there are inconsistencies between early scenes and late scenes. I will know the inconsistencies exist, and I will fix them on second, third, and later passes. The important part for me is simply to get the whole thing down, beginning to end. Because the truth is, I’ve never completed a story over 10,000 words before.

If I can write the whole thing, I can edit the whole thing. But if I start editing the beginning too much, the rest may never get written.


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A Critique of a Critique

Months ago, I submitted the first 9,400 words of the novella I am working on to the Fairwood Writers for critique at NorWesCon. It was the first time I had submitted something for critique outside my classes and my critique group. I’ve submitted pieces for publication, but not for criticism. I was excited and nervous. And on Friday evening, I had my critique.
I am going to follow my own rules, and start with something positive. I did get some very valuable critique out of the session. The members of my panel were not trying to mean, but to honestly give me their feedback. And it is useful, some of it very useful.
Despite all of that, this was not something I would have called a successful critique session. If I did not have over 10 years of having my writing critiqued, if I had not had the wonderful training from Pam Goodfellow’s classes (just smile and nod), I would have been able to get through this session. The fact that I was able to get value out of it is a testament to me as a critique subject, not a testament to the critique I got.
That sounds absolutely snobbish and even a little mean, and I feel kind of bad about that. But let us be honest- when at the end of the session, you feel the need to compliment author on not shutting down, on being able to listen and process what you said, there is, in fact, a problem with what you did. The point of critique is to help the author improve. That can not happen if they stop listening to what you say. Which means, you need to structure your critique in such a way that they author gets some kind of praise in addition to all the criticism.
Pam taught us to always start with something positive, that no matter how many issues you had with a piece of writing, you always needed to seek out the positive and start with that. You’ll notice that that is one of my rules for posting critique here, too. My experience this weekend truly validated the need for that rule.
I have seven pages of notes from what my panel told me. On those seven pages, I have 4 “+” marks written down. In my notes, a “+” indicates something that the critiquer liked. The first of those did not come until the second page of notes from the first panelist to critique me. The next ones came at the bottom of the first page/top of the second page of notes from the second panelist, and the last one on my last page of notes.
That’s write, before telling me anything positive, each critiquer essentially gave me a page worth of notes about what I had done wrong. The positives were buried in the middle of their comments, and often spoken of mostly in passing, or (in the case of the first positive) used to tell me what was wrong with the rest of the scene. In fact, my critique session opened with the first panelist telling me my work was derivative and that he did not care about my characters. That is honestly the very first two things he said.
I also find it pretty amazing that I managed not to shut down and to continue to engage in the process. (I want to note that it is a very important piece of critique to know that a reader does not care about your characters. That’s huge, but it’s not a way to start off a session if you want the writer to keep listening.) And I will admit to being annoyed by being told this was derivative- not because I do not think it is, but because I know it it is. It is purposefully derivative. And the cover letter I remember writing to go with my submission made that very clear. Now, there is the possibility that all the panelists were not given my cover letter, but then that would be a problem with the writing group that sets this up. Why have me write a cover letter if you are not going to share it with the people who are going to read my writing?

A couple other notes about the session.
They claim they use a modified Clarion process. If you do not know Clarion, it is a hugely well respected writers’ program that you must submit and be accepted to, and then requires you to spend like 6-8 weeks away from your life in an intensive writing workshop. They have major authors as part of their panels. (This year’s Clarion West panel, situated here in Seattle, include George R.R. Martin and Connie Willis.) I will be honest, I doubt I will ever be able to afford the time away from my life to even apply to Clarion (forgetting whether or not I would be accepted), but, if this is how they run their sessions, I do not know that I would ever want to participate anyway. If you want people to keep writing, you have to give them some reason to hope.
The other impression I got, from talking to my panel and to others at the writing meet and greet they had, was that some people continue to submit every year, and that first time submitters, like myself, tend to get the harshest critique, because the next year, the panelists get to comment on how much the author has grown. And I guess that does give positive reinforcement for being a repeat customer, but you can not get repeat customers if you shut the author down in the first session.

Will anyone from the Fairwood Writers see this? I do not know. But I hope they do, or that someone else running critique panels like this sees it. You need to have rules, and you need to make sure your authors have a reason to keep writing, and specifically to come back to your event.


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I’ll Go First

Here is a piece of flash fiction I wrote a few years ago. It does not have an intended word count at the moment, so it can go longer or shorter.

It filled the air.  Even when no one was saying anything about it, it was all they were talking about.  The notices had been posted.  The auditions were to be held tomorrow at the Royal Theater.  The Director was going to put on “the Play.”

No one could remember the last time the play had been staged, but its words and music lived in the heart of everyone.  The whole town dreamed of being in the play, of performing some role, no matter how small.  No one could resist the urge to take part.

Once the day’s labors were done, everyone went home to practice.  The Director went out to walk the streets.

It started with the soft strains of the opening piece, coming from a cellist on her balcony.  Soon, a violin joined in, then a clarinet, and then a whole orchestra filled the air.

The director continued walking.  The boy lighting the street lamps gave the opening monologue.  A mother, cradling a babe in her arms, sang the heroine’s first song.

Through each neighborhood, down every street, the director walked.  Everywhere, different voices played the same familiar roles.  Musicians picked up their cues, children added their voices to the chorus.  From beginning to end, the play progressed through the town, with the director following it. 

 The next day, the sign at the Royal Theater read “Auditions Cancelled. Last night’s performance cannot be topped.”

 

Tell me what you think. What works? What doesn’t? What questions do you have?


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Caution: Experiment in Progress

This is an experiment. How long will it go? Will it be even remotely successful? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but that’s why I’m experiementing- to find out.

You see, I am a member of a long standing critique group. We’ve been meeting roughly every other week for close to seven years now. We have had some additions and subtractions and even some temps, but the core remains. My writing group is one of the best things in my life.

I am now, and always will be, a major proponent of in person writing groups. The work and the friendships that come out of sharing our creative works, at all phases,  are beautiful. The support we each give and receive, about writing and life, are an integral part of my life.

However, I realize that not everyone is able to find a writing group like mine. Whether it is because they do not know enough other writers, or do not come from a similar background, so have a hard time establishing rules, I do not know. I just know that a number of my friends, out there in blog and twitter land, often talk about wanting to work on more creative projects, or needing help with writing their doing for things outside of their blogs. I can offer to be a reader, but I am only one person. The point of a critique group is to get the opinions of multiple people and use those to feed your own work.

So here we are. I have a goal of creating an online critique group. I want The Prose Passage to be a place where writers can come and share their work and their frustrations and get help to get them past the hurdles they face. I want this to be a place of growth and positive reinforcement, even as we give honest critique.

This is an experiment in expression, and one I cannot complete on my own.  I hope you will join me.


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And so it begins…

Rules

1. The work you see here is the exclusive property of the original author, whether they post it themselves or I post it for them. All copyrights will be maintained by the original author.

2. Be positive. Find something you like in every piece presented for critique and begin with that.

3. Your critique is all about you. That means couch your criticisms in terms of how it made you feel or react. Do not accuse or attack the author. Your reaction was not necessarily their intended one.

4. Not all posts will be pieces of work meant for critique. Some will simply be discussions of the creative process, of the nature and the business of writing. Feel free to share your opinions and your expertise.

5. If you like the concept behind The Prose Passage, participate. The experiment will not succeed if it is just me here.


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