Thursday, February 25, 2010

A New Tunnel for Critique

Well howdy, y'all!

Welcome back, didja miss me much? Yes, once again this has come a bit late, and I apologize. Work should be back on schedule for Wednesdays next week, after the Olympics.

So, I promised some feedback from the Young Writer's Workshop I attended last week, and, well, here it is... It wasn't all that helpful for me.

The workshop met at the local Powell's Bookstore (I could easily insert a long, loving review of Powell's, but to save time, energy, and space, just check them out at their site) and included about 25 guests ranging from around 12 years-old to teachers and librarians. The hosts were three published children's authors: Rosanne Parry (Heart of a Shepherd), Fran Cannon Slayton (When the Whistle Blows), and Edith M. Hemingway (Road to Tater Hill). The event was well miked, well insulated (they shut the larger of the doors adjoining the mall for less interruption), and well organized. It lasted about an hour, maybe hour-and-a-half.

The topic was "An Inside Look at Story Critique: How Writers Help Other Writers," which sounded really good for me. After all, not only am I interested in writing, but editing and/or proofreading is one of my main interests for an income as well. But the majority of what the three guest Authors spoke about was the importance of writing/critique groups.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't disapprove of writing groups. On the contrary, after hearing the pros and cons from the workshop, I think I would be interested in joining one, myself. However, I was a bit disappointed that this was the main topic when the title suggested so much more. I had hoped that the authors would have offered some useful techniques for critiquing, perhaps some suggestions on receiving critique, or perhaps on delivering it. But alas, that was to come only in the form of a handout.

Also, though I did suspect this to be the case (considering the use of 'youth' in the title), the overall tone of the workshop tended toward the younger range of the audience. Some of their suggestions involved 'summer camps' or 'asking your school librarian,' which obviously wouldn't apply to anyone above high-school age.

However, I did take some useful notes about Writing Groups:
  • Set up a regular meeting interval - once-a-month, every-two-weeks, weekends, etc.
  • If your schedule is such that you can't meet regularly, or if your group is spread across the country (college buddies), it might be better to set up a writer's retreat every year or so, while exchanging drafts via e-mail in the meantime.
  • If your group tends toward longer projects, it might be useful to set a page-cap on the work you exchange.
  • It's helpful to exchange work via e-mail, read, and review it before you meet. That way, you know what you want to say, or what is important to point out, instead of skimming it too fast at the meeting.
  • Make sure to pick a meeting place that is comfortable - coffee shop, otherwise empty house, library meeting room, etc.
  • Writing 'groups' can be as small as 2 and as large as 10, but be careful you don't have too many people that you can't read and critique all of their work.
  • Your group should have a similar goal. Put another way, scriptwriters should be in one group, poets in another. It might be useful to get the opinion of another stylist every once in a while, but more often than not, your writing expertise won't be helpful to each other. Even more specifically, fanfiction writers are aiming for a different media than short-story or novella writers.
  • Benefits of Writing Groups include:
    - getting help in areas that aren't your strength (dialogue, plot, female characters, etc.)
    - drawing off of others' reading experience
    - writing can be a long practice, receiving critique can help break up the year(s) into more manageable segments
    - your group-mates often offer encouragement
    - they can approach your story from a reader's perspective, tell you if it's working for them
    - they can help point out clichéd, weak, or lazy writing
    - reading work aloud (especially dialogue) often helps gain a new perspective
  • Writing Groups do have their pitfalls:
    - showing your work too early, and getting a bad critique, might leave you discouraged
    - over time your group-mates might begin to lose their objectivity toward your work
    - group dynamics, goals, and schedules change--you might have to move on
After the main lecture, the authors then split the audience into three groups; younger writers, teenage writers, and teachers/librarians. Though I, obviously, did not fit any of the three groups, I sat in on the teens and listened to a couple first-pages and critiques. Frankly, the readers weren't very loud, and I have a horrid memory, so I didn't make any comments.

The event ended with our group leader, Edie Hemingway (no relation, unfortunately, to Ernest), passing out a one-page sheet on How To Critique. Probably the most useful thing I got out of the workshop...

Guidelines for Critiquing Other Writers' Work
distributed by Edie Hemingway

  1. First, read the work as a "reader"--for the story (or content) itself and for your first impression.
  2. Go back and read again as a "writer." Look at the different craft elements the writer has used.
  3. Mark the areas you really like--maybe a particular description, natural dialogue, believable characters, etc.
  4. Are the basic writing skills--grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.--correct?
  5. Does the dialogue sound natural? Does it flow? Are there unnecessary words that don't add to the story?
  6. Are the characters believable? True to their ages, time, and setting?
  7. Does it have a clear setting? Neutral? Specific in time, place, atmosphere? Does it have an emotional setting?
  8. Are the verbs active? Is there too frequent use of helping verbs, such as am, is, are, was?
  9. Are there echoes of specific words (overused) throughout the piece?
  10. Does the author overuse "qualifying" words such as just, only, maybe, sometimes, etc.?
  11. If the work is fictional, does the plot make sense? Do the scenes drive the plot forward? Is there a climax and resolution?
  12. From what point of view (POV) is the story written? First person? Third person? Is the POV consistent, or does it change back and forth without notice? If the reader is in one character's head, other characters can show their thoughts only through actions and/or dialogue.
  13. When it's your turn to critique, always start with something positive. What is it that you particularly liked about the work?
  14. Be tactful, but be honest and specific when making negative comments or suggestions. Example: "I notice that there is a change of POV here. Was that intentional?" "I notice frequent use of adverbs. Maybe you could try using stronger verbs, instead."
*If you, as the author, do not agree with a suggestion, a safe thing to say is, "I'll think about that." Remember, ultimately, this is your work, and you have the final say about revisions!

Personally, I would put the last two points at the beginning, but that may have something to do with my recent experience with a poorly done critique.

In similar news, I have recently (today, in fact) teamed up with a fellow writer on DeviantArt! We were paired through the Adopt-A-Writer group, and have just exchanged our first communications. I'm really excited about exchanging critiques, so here's hoping for the best!

And, with that, I think I'll be saddlin' up and headin' off into that there sunset...

Until we next meet,