Criticism or Ridicule?

Free speech is a beautiful thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and has the ability to express it.

But, sometimes, I wonder what the point of expressing an opinion in a certain way is. I love to read. I love to write. I love this form of expression – and many of you who follow me on Google+ or Facebook will have noticed the YouTube video Words Are My Sandbox.

I learned from reviewing other authors and from working in critique groups that often it’s good to sandwich the bad stuff inside the good things you find about the piece. There are some where it can be difficult to find something nice. There are also venues with spoken-only reading and critique where it is easy to focus on just one flaw and miss all the rest of the beauty of that segment. Many groups implement rules about how to treat other writers and others try to focus on how professional the advice may be – but nearly all of them are not about tearing down an amateur. I know I never would want to be the reason someone decides to stop expressing opinions through words.

How does that change when someone becomes a big name professional? Why is it that I hear conversations where people discuss only the bad aspects of some series and trash the author for it? There are so many examples, but here are two:

1. Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series seems to take a bad rap from a lot of people. I know many who love the novels and read them again and again. I read them and enjoyed them, but they’re not something that will draw me to read them 50 million times. I’ve heard people call them nothing but a teenage romance and think it’s awful for a 110 year old man (or however old Edward’s character was at the time of publication) to be after a 17 year old girl. Whatever else you say about them, didn’t Meyer make some interesting characters?

2. J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series has throwbacks to the British boarding school novels. Sure. I’m sure there were other critics, possibly about the whole good versus evil thing. But there were rich things in the story, too, that some of the amateur people won’t admit.

Maybe it boils down to jealousy or something else I can’t easily name. I don’t think a single novel will fit every reader out there – which is why we have so many different genres and subgenres and points of view on everything. I wonder if that’s how you know you’re successful – that there are people out there trying to trash your accomplishment. Perhaps I’m just too thin-skinned and I worry what people will say about my work if it’s out there more. It hasn’t stopped me from pursuing publishing yet, and it isn’t likely to in the future.

I can acknowledge that many of the authors I read and enjoy have flaws. Some of them take much less flack than others, but some are much better known than the rest, too. It doesn’t make anyone more discerning to burn another in effigy.

Next time you want to stomp all over someone else’s expressed art, think to yourself- did I even try to see the good in it? What is it about this that so many people find fascinating? We don’t have to “agree to disagree” (don’t get me started on the wrongness of this phrase) or agree on anything at all, but it might be nice to acknowledge that not everyone who disagrees with you is completely wrong. And, also, that the tired, worn-out, dog-eared copy of whatever your favorite novel is has its own baggage. Peace!

To Critique

Sometimes the deadlines just make whooshing sounds as they go by. I had a personal goal to try to get the notes made on a story for a critique partner today. I’m not sure I’m going to make it because my schedule keeps changing. [Seriously, who would drive 4 hours away for the weekend and not leave at naptime if given the choice with a rowdy toddler? However, naptime is generally when I catch up with all my personal goals.]

I read the story and enjoyed it. I marked a bunch of places where I want to make more comments. I’m close, but I’m also afraid if I don’t finish it before I leave for the weekend that I won’t work on it when I’m away, and it’s always good to give it back to someone on a weekend, especially if that other person has a day job.

On the other hand, I really don’t want to rush it. I want to take some good time to dig into the story and tear it apart the best I can to help the author make it awesome. That does take time. It really help that I’ve marked the places to comment, but on the overall I keep losing my train of thought. No excuses there – it’s an off week around my house and I’m doing good for what I’ve managed for the week.

Just don’t check it against my to-do list. That thing always spirals out of control with the number of things that need to be done. It’s like that old saying, “Man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” Not that it’s necessarily man’s work versus woman’s work, but somehow the domestic chores are never completed.

Probably because they get in the way of the writing.

I’m sure that’s not true for every household. Not everyone is a writer tucked away masquerading as a housewife. (Or not, I have too many part-time jobs for that as discussed previously.) But there’s always something.

I’d much rather critique a story than do the dishes, which is why my sink is piled high again. And while I catch up with them, I’ll be trying to get my larger comments in order to type in before I leave, if I get a chance.

Sometimes it amazes me how many ways we try to critique stories. Most of the groups I have attended take the position of reading the piece aloud, or part of the piece during each meeting, and then taking notes or simply remembering the parts to critique. The turnaround is immediate and there is often little time to think. It took me a long time to get accustomed to the process, and listening actively for that amount of time can be a challenge.

I’ve also had trouble not grimacing when someone makes up a word like “scramblingly.”

Over time, I have learned a bit more from dealing with people online for critiques. Somehow the written word comes through very well and there is plenty of time to figure out exactly the parts that need to be tweaked. It’s also easier to take larger chunks at a time without worrying as much about the time requirement for the room.

There are groups out there who hand out pages each meeting, take them home, and discuss them at the next meeting. I haven’t been part of that to see how it works, except for the Summer Writing Festival, but I’d like to see more of that in action. The other issue with some of that is finding people who are good at your genre and also local in geography. The in-person group I attend now has very little experience in speculative fiction, as well as a few other things like poetry and children’s literature.

What do you do to critique? How do you manage to get around the daily obstacles to get it done? Is it in person? Is it a group? Do you find people online? How have you worked with others within your genre and outside it to make the best of the criticism you receive?

Description

How do you know when it’s too much or too little?

I usually err on the side of ‘not enough’. I work while I revise to make certain the world, the character, and the actions are shown enough for the reader to make sense of it. Sometimes I keep too much of it in my head in the first draft.

There are exercises to work on description, but they don’t change what I do as I write. I’m getting better at finding the line where the descriptions are needed, but I never want to put in too many.

I’ve never been a fan of purple prose.

When I find those overflowing, descriptive passages, they’re in other people’s work. It can be very pretty, except when it gets in the way of the story. It’s so hard to tell someone, “You know, I don’t think this is working for your story. What’s actually happening here?”

I get the “show, don’t tell” references, but precious few references tell you how to go about that. And they don’t say a lot for when you think you’re showing it all, only to find out you’re on a tangent that doesn’t advance the plot.

Wait, they do have a saying for it: Kill your darlings.

It doesn’t tell you how. Or where. Or why. Is it measurable between dialogue beats, narration, emotional response of character to events?¬†I doubt it will surprise anyone to say I’m reading a book about it to understand more and critique better, partly because I can’t just say, “This is the point where my mind wanders away. Fix it.”

Writing is such a harsh business. We have to be critical to each other, critical of our own work, and submit to the critique of editors and agents we may never meet.

And Add an Inch

It’s odd advice that I received from a non-writer friend of mine, but it’s very pointed and helpful. I need a little bit of extra on one part of the short story, but not a lot. She¬†guesstimated it would add an inch to the story (which is less than 1000 words).

I find it very interesting to get advice that way. It was more specific than I thought it would be, and it’s great.

It’ll be submitted in no time. Sometimes it’s better to get an opinion from someone other than another writer. [Though I’m not knocking writers- they give me wonderful help.]

Getting Critiques

While this isn’t the most fun part of writing, it is a useful tool to move on the way to publishing. (Or, at least, a better final product.)

I got a critique yesterday, as I mentioned, at the SCBWI-Iowa Spring Conference. It wasn’t all good, it wasn’t all bad, and it held at least one gem from my critique group. I knew they had a point when they brought it up, but I was hoping I’d solved it enough to keep going.

The answer is, I haven’t. I need a satisfying resolution to the puzzle. It’s not quite a Rubik’s Cube where you can just take the thing apart. (Note: I was never a fan of removing the stickers. Eventually they’ll stop sticking. Plus, it’s noticeable.)

So it’s not- quite- back to the drawing board. I just need to explore the other avenues that I had originally drawn up during my brainstorming phase and see in which direction my characters gravitate.

They (my group) will probably be glad to know I’m listening to them.

February’s End

And I got another rejection today.

I wasn’t surprised – I expected it. I knew seven other authors who also received rejections for this particular magazine’s round of submissions. It’s part of a group of authors who are trying to help each other get published. It’s an online critique group, but we don’t have a set meeting time.

I’m a recent addition to the group, and I’m not close with many members yet. However, I find the advice fascinating and I’m glad to have a contribution to the group.

One of my favorite things is sharing things I’ve learned. I started this with my mom and other writers when I get the chance. (Yes, my mom is a writer, too, for those of you who didn’t know. One day I hope to be able to point you in the direction of her published work.)

Next month I’ll begin again, sending more things out. I’m signing up for an SCBWI-Iowa conference in April, and I’m going to be working on my submission for the manuscript critique this weekend.

Critiquing, Continued…

I think part of the thing about critiquing is understanding your style as a reader. You read the same things you write, so it just makes a lot more sense as you re-read.

The same is not true for others, but by learning the different styles and expanding our horizons, we can give and receive better feedback.

I’ve found it’s also helpful to identify problems before asking others to read, because it helps both of us get what I want out of it. 1. You get to help where you know the problems are and 2. They often will agree those are where the trouble spots are, but if they find others, they can bring them up.

The most important thing is to critique the piece, and not the subject (why would you write about that?) or the author. The most important part of getting a critique, is to know it isn’t personal. It has nothing to do with how good of a writer you are or aren’t; it is a personal opinion about the piece you wrote. We all have good days of writing, and we have bad days. We don’t nail every subject as well as we could the first time.

That’s why we edit, polish, and get critiques.

Critiquing

This really makes me think. How does a writer become better at critiquing? It’s a fine art to pull a piece apart constructively, but it’s rare to find someone who does it well.

There are a lot of different ways to do this. Listen aloud while the author reads and provide critiques. Read a piece and provide suggestions. Read along while it’s read aloud. Do you look for things that throw you out of the mood, or verb tenses, or something else entirely?

I use a variety of these options, and I am learning more with each attempt. I have my weak points – especially in poetry.

There is no way to improve writing without critiques of your own work, and while an author needs to know her weak points – she also needs a level head from outside to tell her what’s good and bad. “Uh, you know you said the word ‘window’ four times in the last two sentences?”

Time to begin reading aloud, I think. Even though it sometimes seems weird to read aloud to myself.

Writing Meetings

I attended my writer’s group this week. Usually my mother is there, too, but this time she didn’t make it because the weather kept her out of town an extra day.

These are wonderful tools for writers for many reasons. First, I get read something to the group and listen to their feedback. They started me on editing my latest project, the novel I finished last month with the working title Dreams. Second, I get to listen to all of their submissions and critique.

Listening to their writings requires a good ear. The first time I went, I was amazed how well they could do that. I’d never tried to offer opinions on something I’d heard aloud. I’d always been able to read the piece and then mark it up. Unfortunately, my brain still wants to mull things over and I often don’t catch things I might have if given more time. I have learned to add more to discussions and I’ve noticed it gets easier. I’m starting to hear things in my own pieces when I’m reading them, as well. It makes me understand why people tell you to read it aloud before sending it somewhere. I haven’t always done this, and I still struggle with reading aloud to myself at home.

I have learned it isn’t the same to stare at the writing on the paper and just say the words in your head. I think it’s something about actually speaking the words into the air and making your ear hear them. It’d be an interesting experiment to run if we had a way to see how the brain worked while doing both.