A Writing Weekend

Last weekend, my writing group did our 3rd annual writers’ retreat. We pick a location and go spend the weekend at a condo far away from our homes and families. It is all about hanging out with the people who feed our creative juices. We write. We talk about writing, and just overall, have a stress free weekend dedicated to talking about what we do, what our next steps are, etc.
It is not all writing. People volunteer for different meals, we take walks on beaches (when we’re near the beach), spend some time in hot tubs and the like.
But none of us have to be spouses, or parents, or whatever else we are in our regular lives for that weekend. We just have to be writers.
While not every group may have the resources we do (access to timeshare condos in multiple locations), I have to recommend the writing retreat to all groups who can stand to spend that much time together.
We all come away from it energized, with our creative juices flowing and new ideas for what we want to do, or at least new ways to look at the challenges we face. To have that time where we are all writers and nothing else is invaluable.

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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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