Saturday, December 17, 2011

Say Something Good-

I’ve been seriously pursuing this writing thing for about six years now. One of the first things I did when I decided to take my notebooks from under the bed, was to join a critique group. I guess I was lucky in that my first experience was positive.

I remember how nervous I was the first time I brought a short story to a meeting. I had no idea what Point of View was, but evidently I had messed it up pretty bad. Someone did say the title was amazing, another person wrote that my sense of place was strong and someone else said my historical detail was woven in very well. At the end of the pages another person recommended a book on POV and even though it stung a bit to hear what I needed to work on, I left feeling pretty happy with my story.

Since then I have heard the horror stories of aspiring authors who have had their stories so torn apart they wanted to throw in the writing towel and never pick up a pen again. Now that I’ve learned a few things about craft, and been asked to critique pages I try to make sure that I am not one of those overzealous writers, who with good intentions, accidentally crush the dreams of any newbie in the group.

I start with something good to say, whether it’s, “Great title!” or “I love Civil War stories!” I draw nice big smiley faces next to the comment. J Then I make sure I put them all through the pages I’ve been given. Even the little things matter, like “Fantastic verb choice!” J next to word like amble.

What is the author looking for from the critique? If they have specific questions, like, “Do you like the characters?” or “What do you think of the plot?” those are the issues I stick to. Unless the author is looking for a clean copy to send to an editor, I don’t worry about every punctuation and misspelled word. In a general critique try to stick to the characters, the plot and the pacing. If I’m reading along and hit a passage I naturally want to skip I might write something like, “This section seemed slow to me.”

Sometimes I might offer a suggestion like, “I had trouble keeping track of the characters in your fight scene. Is it possible to cut the number from five to three?” I’ve also found that phrasing things as a question rather than a statement make them seem less dogmatic. Using phrases like “I wonder…” instead of “You should…” also softens any suggestions I might write. My intention is to make the writer think about why they chose to write their sentence or paragraph the way they did and how they can make it better.

I try to write my comments and suggestions politely, in a friendly tone, that doesn’t come across in an, I’ve-written-X-number-of-books-so-I-know-everything manner. When I write my comments at the end of the pages I try to start and end with the positives so that my suggestions are sandwiched in the middle.

Sometimes it’s easy, especially in a new writer’s work, to see the excessive back story, the POV issues, and the long paragraphs of telling. These larger issues may tend to overshadow an interesting premise or intriguing character.

I try to take what I’ve learned and pay-it-forward. After all the purpose of a critique group is not to mark up everything that’s wrong with the pages you’ve been given, but to give enough feedback to help the author make their writing stronger and to keep them motivated to keep writing. J

Here is an excerpt from the first short story I brought to my critique group.

Blurb: Trying to redeem himself for the death of his fiancee's brother, Wesley Cole has put himself in the front lines of every battle he's fought in the Civil War, until hours before his next major battle when he accidentally meets the one woman who's love and forgiveness can offer him peace.


"Stop right there.” Though she tried to sound tough her southern drawl softened the hard edge of her command. “Put your gun down and leave this house.”
“Ma’am, I mean you no harm. I don’t know why you’re here but it isn’t safe.”
There was a long pause then from behind the door came an incredulous question. “Wes?”
Nonplused he stared. “Who are you?”
Slowly the barrel lowered, and the door swung inward. A young woman stepped out from behind it.
His mouth dropped open in shock. “Abby?”
She wore her wheat blonde hair pulled back into a simple long braid. Her dress was faded and patched, and hung loose on her too thin body. Her eyes were the same soft brown, but a few tiny lines around the corners lent her an aura of maturity he found more appealing than the bright-eyed innocence she’d had at sixteen.
He almost reached out to embrace her, but checked the impulse. Instead he latched onto the memory of Manassas, flogging himself with haunting images of the battle, grinding them like salt into his wounded soul, making certain he would never forget that what he’d done that day had torn their love apart forever.
She took a hesitant step forward, her brown eyes searching his face. “You’ve been well?”
She gasped and stepped back as though he’d struck her. “Oh, Wes, can you ever forgive me for writin’ that hateful letter? We were all so young. We didn’t understand what war was. It was all supposed to be so glorious. Our boys were goin’ to fire their guns and send the Yankees runnin’ back north. No one was supposed to die. It wasn’t your fault. Matthew would have died even if you had been standin’ right beside him.”
“But I wasn’t was I?” Self-loathing laced his words with bitterness. “No, I ran to the rear and hid behind a tree snivelin’ like a Goddamn baby.”
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Tina Donahue said...

I've never been part of a critique group. That said, I agree that well-meaning authors can dash the hopes of a newbie or confuse the hell out of an established author. It's difficult to remember that these are only opinions, not the gospel and written in stone. Look at any reviews for any novel and you'll see a variety of takes on what's good and what's bad. If a writer allowed that to sway her, she'd never get the novel written in the first place.

If you have basic grammar and story construction down, write from the heart. That, more than any advice, will show on the page. Your story will move and entertain readers, which is what this is all about.

Individuals who write long enough come to know what's correct and incorrect about their story. They don't need a second/third/fourth opinion. They know. And they fix it.

jean hart stewart said...

If I'm asked to critique a book I'm damned careful about the sensitive author. Yes, all authors are sensitive, sometime painfully so. But I do wonder if the professional reviewers always remember that. They should. Jean

Kathy Otten said...

Hi All,
So sorry. Today was a work day and I was in such a rush to get out the door this morning I didn't have time to leave a greeting.

Thanks Tina and Jean for stopping by and sharing your insights. :)

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I have been a part of a critique group--twice--and neither of those ventures helped me very much. In fact, one group sent me into the throes of the dreaded writer's block. I found that the group either goes into snarky-ville or they make only positive comments with no helpful crits.
I would rather work with a writing partner who writes similar genres to mine.
What else is under that bed, Kathy? Drag it out and write it up because I love your stories.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Sarah,
Another long shift today. I just got home and saw your comment. I am currently working on a novel and a shorter novella. I fluctuate between the two depending on my mood. Hopefully one or both will be done soon.