Tag Archives: critique groups

Critiques, Hummus, and Lattes

Youreawesome  I’ve talked to writers scarred by the critique process. I’ve heard horror stories. We all have. I’ve also heard from writers frustrated by feedback that is kind but not helpful. “This is wonderful. I like it.” The big issue is no one takes a class in how to critique. Honestly, I went through an MFA program and while I learned a lot about what NOT to do in terms of critiquing it was through watching not through classes teaching us. It’s a shame because while you cannot teach someone talent, you can teach them to critique. It’s not a difficult skill, but it is fraught with delicate lines. We need to know when and under what circumstances we can cross those lines.

1. Trust – never  work with writers you don’t trust. If you wouldn’t be caught on a sinking boat or in a burning building with these people, do not trust them with your life’s work. Period.

2. Honesty – brace yourself because this is one of those double-edged swords. Criticism does the writer NO good if it is not honest. Never tell the writer something that is NOT true. If the pacing in a scene is off, the writer has to know that. If you have an idea of why, share that. If you don’t, brainstorm it as a group. If you know of possible solutions, offer them with the understanding that the author does not have to use them and your idea may spark a better fix in their head.

3. Compassion – we are writers and as such sensitive. Never offer that honesty without an equal dose of compassion. Regardless of how many rules that writer broke, no matter how many issues of syntax got on your last nerve, you must remember this is their baby. Be kind.

4. Positivity – always start with what works in the manuscript. I don’t care if you have to resort to complimenting their formatting or the paper they used. Just never leap in with what isn’t working without first saying what is.

5. Consistency – as a group (or critique partners) pick a style guide to follow so that your edits are consistent across the group. It will save you all a lot of headaches and unnecessary markups. For people writing series, keep those bibles updated so the group is aware of odd spellings and unusual verbiage.

Of course, deliver all critiques with a dose of hummus and lattes, and did I mention chocolate?

What’s important to you in a critique partner?

Check out Natasha and Leatrice for their take on critique groups.

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Conventions, Classes, Degrees, Oh, My!

My dad once said I would be in school forever. He wasn’t referencing my inability to learn but my total love of it. And he was right. I became a teacher so I have been “in school” my entire life, either behind the desk or in front of it. The best thing about being a writer is that it feeds into my curiosity as well. Every day as I sit down to write I’m driven by inquisitiveness as all writers are. It is what sends us to the internet on research missions that last hours on end. Regardless of what people say, those trips to Pinterest are research, right?

A lot of people question the importance of education for writers. Let’s take these one at a time because each is unique. Conventions are a huge thing for writers for a couple of reasons. They provide opportunities for learning, marketing, and networking. Writing can be a pretty lonely proposition so take advantage of these chances as much as possible. Maximize by making sure that you choose conferences based on price, location, and offerings. These basics are important in determining how best to spend those hard-earned author dollars. Make the use of your writing connections. For instance, our group attends conferences together so we are able to split a lot of the costs. Expand your circle of influence by meeting new people and fostering those relationships beyond the conference. Today’s technology makes that possible no matter where you live.

Most communities offer classes in writing, plus these days the online offerings are endless. Again, it’s important to research before selecting something. Local universities often offer these types of classes. In person classes are good for meeting writers in your region, especially if you are wanting to start a critique group. A variety of sources offer online classes. They range from free to holy cow! Make sure you’ll get the most for your money AND that the instructor is reputable. If you belong to a critique group, share what you learn in these with each other. It’s another way of stretching your money.

Not every writer wants or needs a degree. It doesn’t guarantee publication. What are the reasons for seeking a degree then? I think those are as unique as there are reasons people write. For me, I had a couple of reasons I chose the degree route. As an educator, the degree offered me an opportunity to teach writing at the university level something I’d wanted to do all my life. Another perk of the program? I’d written most of my life, and I loved doing it. I’d written a couple of novels before I ever considered the degree. I’d never accomplished a short story successfully though. And I wondered if I was missing something in my writer’s tool chest. Spending four semesters with accomplished writers as my professors was exactly what I needed. Some writers will thrive in that environment. Others won’t.

University of Nebraska MFA in Writing

University of Nebraska
MFA in Writing

Of the three, a degree is the most personal choice. The first two are things every writer should do. But the degree is not for everyone. However, as a writer, never stop asking yourself questions. That curiosity feeds your art.

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Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Under the Influence

IMG_0870A young friend of mine is in one of life’s worst situations through no fault of her own. She must make a heart wrenching decision, and it is her’s to make. If you’ve lived long enough, you know that people scurry out of the woodwork to tell you what to do. Often well-meaning, but not always, these ‘it’s the best thing’ advice givers serve only to wreak havoc unnecessarily. This is no ones  business and no one else can or should help her. The words “butt out” come to mind.

While I was in grad school, we had a professor who ranted against this same mind-set in writing, only it is in our heads, set in place by a society full of rules and judgments. I can’t write this or say that because it might offend this group or that group. What if it lands my book on a banned book list? By the way, have you seen those lists? Some impressive books are on it. We would be hard pressed to find our books in better company.

The problem is we allow societal standards and norms to dictate to us as we write. This is what I call writing under the influence. It’s the worst for a writer. Beyond hindering creativity, it skews reality. If you want your fiction to reflect our daily lives, then it better be messy and chaotic and yes, offensive to others. Because that’s what life in a free country is all about.

This guy smokes and it offends me, I can cuss like a sailor and it offends this lady, a woman over here prays and it offends the atheist, who offends the Muslim, who offends the…you get the point. Life here is not pretty and dainty. If your writing is, no one will buy it except maybe someone who lives in a bubble. Our fiction must have some basis in reality. Therefore, you must write with all your flaws exposed, unfettered by that judging muse on the shoulder telling you to stop.

It’s important never to fall victim to the ‘what if this offends’ question. This is where your writer friends come in. Friends, don’t let friends write under the influence. Ever. If that nasty judgmental muse is sitting on your shoulder telling you that you can’t have a gay character because the Bible Belt won’t read your book, call your friends for an intervention. And let me know when your book comes out. I live in the Bible Belt. I’ll help you promote it.

That professor? Pope Brock. If you haven’t read his books, you should.

Have you ever written under the influence? How do you handle it?

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Five Ways to Focus Your Writing Time

Horses are majestic creatures and being around them has only increased my respect for them. As a city kid, however, my only memory of horses was seeing them wearing blinders. I thought it looked cruel, but my dad explained it protected the horse from being startled or scared by traffic and other distractions. The dictionary definition for blinders is: a pair of leather flaps attached to a horse’s bridle to curtail side vision. It focuses the horses vision strictly on the road ahead. This was on my thoughts a lot this week. We are so ADD anymore – thanks to technology – that we are unable to see the path ahead because of distractions like; the iPad, the iPhone, the iMac, the HiDef TV.  The list goes on but you get the idea. How can a writer ever stay focused? Put your blinders on.

Of course, you can’t bridle yourself to keep out the iPad, iPhone, etc. There are things you can do, however, to keep our social media world from derailing your writing.

1. There are a host of applications out there that will block you from the internet. Find a good one and use it earnestly. Yes, social media can be important to your career but only if you write long enough to have one.

2. Set specific times for social media and specific times for writing. Make these times known to everyone you know and never under punishment of death (you think I’m kidding?) break your own rules.

3. Schedule play time when you hit milestones. You want to hit 50,000 words by next Wednesday. If you do, have a luncheon planned with a friend or do it spontaneously. Just celebrate that you pulled it off. Overdoing it, by pushing on, can cause you to break down later.

4. Make sure you have a support system. It can be writer friends or a critique group or a supportive spouse or family member. Just engage them in keeping you honest. There’s nothing like having someone say, “Aren’t you supposed to be writing?”, to get you back to the desk.

5. Set timers. This is totally old school, but we are also very auditory today. Blame that on technology or music or whatever but sounds get our attention. You’re only going to linger on email for 30 minutes. Set the timer and set it with a truly obnoxious noise that will repeat until you get off and get busy.

While writing with blinders on isn’t a good idea as another definition of it is: something that serves to obscure clear perception and discernment, it is important to approach writing time with it. It allows you to remain focused on your goals and your work. And in the end it is all about the work. Don’t let the iPad, iPhone, iMac world we live in blind you to the importance of the story you are trying to tell.

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