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Category Archives: Critique Partners

A Goal

I had a goal. Okay, I still have a goal – to finish my story this month. Not as a part of NaNo, I want this to be good – not something I have to try and decipher later. I’m so close. Two chapters to finish. And I’m stuck. I know what happens. I know how it happens. I know the last line. I know this story. So why can’t I write it? This may come as a surprise. but I have several theories about this.

The first one is feedback. I know, kind of weird, isn’t it? We all need feedback on our writing. It’s how we get better and find our mistakes. But, from personal experience, I’ve found that letting someone read my work before I’m done is a huge distraction. I always say I won’t let anyone read it until I’m done, but I always cave. Once I do, my writing stalls. I ask people to read because I want to know if my writing and storytelling is any good. In my head, this is the greatest story ever, but all writers think that about their work. I just want to know if it’s interesting, readable, etc. I crave the feedback. However, it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is positive or negative, it stalls me. In this case, I had both positive and some not so positive – which leads me to my next theory.

Critique partners. Ergh. Except for one, I’ve lost contact with my old critique partners and a lot of them have either stopped writing or changed directions. So. I have to start at the beginning. Once I got some feedback, I started panicking about critiques. I joined several writing sites, posted my first chapter, chatted with a few people and exchanged first chapters privately for critique purposes. One word: disaster. Have you ever received a chapter for critique and you know it’s not going to work as soon as you open the document? That’s happened to me twice in the past few weeks. In looking for a critique partner, you want someone who’s at about the same level as you or above. I’ll gladly help anyone as much as I can, but I won’t write someone’s book for them or let someone try to intimidate me to cover their lack of experience. In any case, I got so wrapped up in finding a perfect critique partner, that I got distracted from my story. Finding a critique partner is difficult. You have to get to know the other person’s writing and build a relationship of trust, based on honesty.

My final theory is a result of the other two theories. My confidence in my story and writing has been shaken. Not shattered, just shaken. As much as I wanted feedback, I wasn’t ready to address all the other issues it brought with it. I will finish this story, but I’ve learned this lesson again – I can’t share my work before it’s done. I was on such a roll there for about three weeks. I wrote almost sixty thousand words during that time. I love the story and wanted to share it, to see if it was as good as I thought and hoped. Don’t worry, I didn’t send out the full story to anyone. I’m not that green. Just the first chapter which has been revised many times and polished. The majority of the feedback was good, really good, but it didn’t matter. I broke my roll because I wanted to jump ahead. Now I have to find my way back to the story… after I go check the writing sites to see if anyone has commented on my chapter.

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It Takes a Village

Back when storytelling first began, it took a community to write a tale. One person started it and told it to another, to groups over a fire. It got passed on to friends and family members, generation after generation. Each time the story met new ears, the telling got smoother. Each person augmented it with their own knowledge, improved it with their own experiences. And now, those timeless stories are the flawless fairytales and legends we know today. The ones that still speak to our hearts, even after all this time.

Today, it seems we’re pulling away from that connection and group mentality. We hide our writing lives from our families, we’re cutting out editors and publishers, and getting critiques is such a blow to the ego. We’re holding so tightly to the idea that somehow, the art of writing will be compromised if we allow others to give their input. We fear being “commercialized.”

When I first started writing, I hoarded it. I chicken-pecked it out on my parent’s computer, which I think ran Windows 97, and saved it on a Floppy Disk so they wouldn’t find it on the hard drive. I was terrified that if they found it, they would think I was silly, writing these unbelievable love stories. They’d point out everything wrong with them and I’d never want to write again. But it didn’t matter. They were just for me and my girlfriend to giggle about in class. Nothing more.

As I became an adult and began to write more in-depth stories, I wanted them to reach more people. But when I started to share them with others, their comments quickly taught me that my reality was not the same as others’ reality. My experiences and views were completely valid, but if I wanted more people than my best friend (who grew up in the same neighborhood I did) to relate, I had to open myself up to understanding other people’s realities and experiences and knowledge. I had to embrace the fact that writing a great story–one that would last through the generations–wasn’t just about me and my own thoughts.

I joked with my critique partners a couple of weeks ago that I would have to put their names on the cover of my novel next to mine, and while I doubt they or my future publisher would feel it necessary, I did mean it. They add more to my story than they will ever know. Every week we get together and tear our stories apart. Yes, willingly. I love nothing more than seeing them as deep into it as I am. I’m filled with such hope for my novel when they have conversations about my characters that don’t even include me, and then tell me how they think it should end. I have an outline but I always take their thoughts into account and, more often than not, I do make changes based on their suggestions. Not because I’m not an artist that values her own work, but because I’m an artist that values her own work…all ego aside.

As our culture becomes more isolated by the decade, I think it’s even more important to have a community for your story. Not just people cheering you one to get it written, but people who believe in your story, people who put pieces of themselves into it. I think that’s what makes stories whole. What creates a writer is the desire to change someone’s mind with our words. Maybe even change the world. How else can we do that if we don’t understand the struggles of the people we’re talking to, or let them have a say?

I won’t lie and say I don’t feel nervous every Wednesday night when I send my work to my critique partners. Who knows where it might lead? But come Saturday morning, after we’ve spent time hashing it out, talking about everything we know to be true, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing, falling in love with each other’s characters, hating each other’s characters, and scaring the poor people that work at Starbucks…that’s when I feel like my story has finally come to life.

Because my story is my baby. And everyone who loves it, and challenges it, and helps it grow, is my village. It takes all of them.

Photo by McKay Savage

 

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We Don’t See Our Own Writing

Writer envy. Yep. I recently discovered Barbara Freethy and experienced a serious case of it. How does she write such flawless story? How does she keep consistent tone? I’m reading The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue by Barbara Samuel right now and I am in awe by how mature and experienced her writing is. Why can’t I seem to create such diverse characters with such detailed backgrounds?

During a meeting last month with my lovely writing partners, we sat around having this exact conversation.

You are so great at world building! I don’t know how you do it. I could never invent such realistic places like that.

But you have such a fun tone. Every time I try to be funny, it feels so fake.

But you are great at layering your story so that all this foreshadowing comes back around at the end. How do you do that?

No, we did not have a group hug.

As much as we do love each other’s writing, what was really happening was a little bit of writer envy all around. The funniest part is that as these compliments were flying around, the person receiving them usually responded with, “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is just how I write.”

I don’t know about you, but often when I write, it feels so simple. I’ve experienced these things a million times. Nothing truly invented here, just rearranged and placed for optimum impact. Wait, didn’t I use that scenario in another story I wrote. Crap. Better take it out just in case and start over. Grab the thesaurus! I think I used “attended” five times on the same page.

What a mess.

Send it to the writing partners to see if there is anything salvageable. They’ll know how to fix it. They are so much better at writing then me. Drag my feet into the coffee shop and wait for the firing squad.

And then…

You are so great at world building! I don’t know how you do it. I could never invent such realistic places like that.

But you have such a fun tone. Every time I try to be funny, it feels so fake.

But you are great at layering your story so that all this foreshadowing comes back around at the end. How do you do that?

Laugh. Really? I thought you were going to hate it.

Because we don’t see our own writing. We don’t think what we have to say is unique. We don’t think our style or voice or story is different than the same stuff we’ve all read a million times. But it is.

All those things we’ve experienced that seem like old news to us are unbelievable to others. The voice that just comes out and sounds like everything else we’ve ever written is different than the voice of every other writer out there. The style that we don’t even think we have is born of years of cultivating until it is so natural it’s like breathing.

Just like when we look in the mirror, we’re so busy focusing on our flaws, we look right past the little points of beauty…so we do with our writing. But what seems mundane to us, is perfection to someone who doesn’t know how to do what we do.

Let’s prove it–what compliment do you receive most about your writing?

Photo by Evil Erin

 

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Training Tools – Websites for Creativity

El grito de la gaviota – Seagull Scream by Dani_vr on Flickr

I’ve wanted to use that image since I first saw it. Not sure how it applies to today’s post, but hopefully it made you smile 🙂

I’m coming off my post-Olympic high. I miss coming home and watching elite athletes fulfill their dreams. I don’t know about you, but I found it inspiring. It gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling in my core. Those people worked hard, sacrificed, trained, and look where it got them. Writers aren’t that different. We have to go through a lot of the same things (but with more wine and chocolate and less laps and pushups).

Our minds are constantly being pushed, our imaginations stretched. We’re honing our craft. If you’re like me, you’ve pretty much given up sleep. Learning, we’re always learning. And what is this “free time” you speak of? Yet we do it because we love it. We have goals and dreams, and we won’t stop until we make it.

What does all this have to do with creativity? Well, as writers, creativity is kind of important to the whole process. I have a bookmarks folder titled, “Websites for Creativity,” and I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites. Think of them as training tools. (There, I totally tied this back to the Olympics 😉 Sneaky, right?)

Critters is a part of Critique.org but for horror (here’s looking at you, Brian), fantasy, and sci-fi writers. How awesome is that? It can be hard to find critique partners for genre fiction; thankfully critters helps writers connect.

Creativity Portal – If you want to read articles about creativity, and I do this sometimes to better understand the creativity process, then creativity portal is a good resource.

Easy Street Prompts – Like writing prompts? Check this one out.

Six Sentences – This website invites you to tell a story in six sentences. Kind of interesting.

Plot Scenario Generator – This is one of my new favorites. The whole website is really good.

Five Free College Level Writing & Lit Videos – Who says you have to pay to learn?

InkPageant – A collection of blog posts for writers.

80 Journal Writing Prompts – I’m a sucker for journaling and writing prompts. What more could I want?

That should be enough to keep you busy for a while. What about you? What are some of your go-to sites for creativity?

 

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Giving and Getting the Most Out of Critiques

Best critique partner ever — Sebastian

There are so many awesome blog posts out there about critiquing, and I encourage you to read all of these posts–you won’t be disappointed. Earlier in the week, Jamie posted about Being Emotionally Prepared for Critiques. I also have a wonderful friend, and fellow YA author, Sarah Ockler, who has written a few posts on critique groups: Evaluating Critique Groups: Six Crucial Questions, and Are you an Ideal Critique Partner?. Brian, from Descent into Slushland, wrote a post How do you Find Critique Partners, and I told him he inspired me to write a post about critiquing, so here goes.

Critiquing — it can be terrifying and exhilarating all at once. I love my partners like they are my own family. I’ve gotten to know them and know about their life, and the friendships I’ve made are everlasting. But no matter how much you love you partner(s) or critique group, it can still be stressful.

When critiquing, there are some things that are helpful, while others simply…aren’t. Writers are full of passion. Yes, you know you are. That passion is crucial to the creative process, but we oftentimes need to keep that passion in check when critiquing for others.

  • Keep it constructive. Sometimes we may not necessarily like a sentence, or maybe a character isn’t working…for YOU. Ask yourself, “Why isn’t this working for me?” Is it simply because you would have written it a different way? Is there a problem with character motivation? Does the wording read awkward? The sentence not tight enough? What kind of image does it bring to mind? Is it the image you think the author is trying to convey? Don’t just tell someone you don’t like something and not tell them why. That isn’t constructive. That is YOU giving a personal opinion.
  • Try to keep the word I out of the critique. Sentences like, “I hate this. I don’t like this character.” Don’t belong in a critique. A critique is serious business. You have to instill and generate a tremendous amount of trust in someone before you can take them seriously. The moment you stop being constructive, the moment the defenses go up.
  • Help diagnose the problem, don’t fix it. It is so easy to want to write someone else’s work for them, because, well, it’s not your work, and we can fix someone else’s work better than we can fix our own. That isn’t your job as a critique partner. If you think the author could say something better (and it isn’t working for you…don’t offer suggestions to something that is working for you), write something like, “Maybe you could try something like this…” Give a suggestion, and then tell them why you’re giving them the suggestion. Sometimes editors and critique partners are good at diagnosing an issue, but we may not have the best solution for fixing it.
  • Ask yourself, “Does this really need to be fixed, or is this just not how I would write it?” This is big. Sometimes we want to rewrite words/sentences/paragraphs/pages when they don’t necessarily need to be rewritten. Everyone has a different writing style–if we didn’t, then no one would read because reading would be boring if everything was similar. It can be easy to try and rewrite things because you think you could write it better. Again, not your job as a critique partner. Just because you would write something one way doesn’t mean it needs to be rewritten at all.
  • Take all feedback into consideration. Not all feedback will be useful. You’re the writer, it’s your story. Sometimes we read something from our critique partner(s) that we disagree with–and that’s normal. You have to have confidence in your work to know what feedback to use and what not to use. BUT, consider all feedback. Even if you’re not going to use it, think about it. Sometimes a comment can spark a thought that leads to an epiphany with your work. Maybe you never would have had the epiphany if you wouldn’t have read the feedback.
  • When two or more. Some people have one critique partner, some have more. Personally (notice I said personally, this isn’t what everyone does, but I’ll tell you why I feel it’s important), I have three (sometimes more–I’m fortunate to have some amazing ladies who read my work) people who read my work for me. Here’s why–when two or more people identify that something isn’t working for them, chances are, you need to go back over that particular thing and rework it. This ties in to taking in all feedback–if one person says something isn’t working for them, but the other two don’t have a problem with it, I still consider it, but I’m not as focused on it as I would be if two or more have a problem with it.
  • Keep a schedule. This is crucial to the success of your work and the relationship with your critique partner(s). Hold one another accountable. If you say you’re going to submit so many pages by a certain date, then make sure you do that. Next, make sure you both agree on when you’ll have them back to the other. Make a schedule that works best for everyone, and keep it.
  • Goals. It’s important to find someone who has the same goals as you. How can you expect someone you’re working with to take your writing serious if they don’t take their own writing serious? If you find someone who is also actively trying to seek publication, and you are actively seeking publication, you can do wonders for each other. You can motivate, encourage, and help the other prepare.
  • Be happy for each other. This is a touchy subject, and I know none of us do this intentionally, but keep that green monster in check. Chances are, you and your critique partner(s) will be at different stages in your writing. One may be further ahead than the other (in terms of being ready to query, not skill level or anything). Encourage them, be happy for them. Querying is a nightmare. There are rejections, second guesses, and lots of emotions to deal with. This is your biggest dream for crying out loud. Be supportive of one another. Offer a shoulder or an ear. Don’t bask in someone else’s misery because you aren’t ready to query yet. Be genuine. It makes a difference.
  • If you have an issue with a critique partner(s), talk it out. Don’t let something fester. If someone says something that hurt your feelings, tell them. They probably didn’t do it intentionally. You have to open up to one another in order for the relationship to be effective. It is a relationship. A big one. Just like any other relationship, you have to put some work into maintaining it. You’ll only grow closer when you do this.

Loki — Sleeping and critiquing

There are a million other things one could write about critiquing, finding critique groups, and being an effective critiquer, but I’ll stop here. What are some things you look for in a critique partner?