Manuscript Crit

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I just found this in my draft folder…from back in January. It’s appropriate to post now, though, since Midwest Writers’ Workshop was last weekend.

In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a manuscript (first five pages, really) critique at the Midwest Writers’ Workshop. I submitted the opening of my current WIP and waited impatiently.

In addition to the paid critiques, everyone had the opportunity for an open critique: putting your pages on a table in the library for anyone to read and critique. I tossed those same pages into the ring.

As part of the weekend, I signed up for an all-day intensive workshop with the same published author who was doing the paid critique. I figured I needed to learn more about him so I could better weigh his comments.

One of the first thing he said was that authors need to name their character right away so readers know who they’re dealing with and aren’t confused when the names are finally mentioned. My first person narrator wasn’t named until the end of the submitted pages. Strike one.

Then he said when he’s reading he wants a description of characters’ clothes. If not, he has naked characters running around his head. Strike two. Plus, the two main characters in the first five pages were college girls…kind of icky to have them running around naked in readers’ heads.

As the day went on, my Strike List got longer.

I wasn’t looking forward to the critique session. However, I figured that since I knew what he was looking for I could at least steel myself for my pages to come back dripping in red ink.

Except they didn’t. He liked the pages. He liked my characters. He liked where and how I’d started.

“But, the clothes!” He hadn’t noticed.

I was elated. I’d managed to break “the rules” and get away with it.

Meanwhile, the open critique of my pages had comments that contradicted each other and the comments from the paid critique.

I’m not surprised. For good writer’s karma, I critiqued a few of the manuscripts (too many to read them all). There was a range of genres, but most of the manuscripts I picked up were fantasy. I was out of my depth, but tried to give helpful feedback anyway. I’m sure that many of my comments were written off because it was obvious I didn’t read the genre.

Ask five people, get five different opinions.

Looking back, on this post, I would say that the real take away is that all comments aren’t created equal.

An incredibly important part of a writers group, or any critique, is learning how to decide if a comment is good or bad. It’s not easy, but it’s an important skill to hone.

More on that next time…

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Writers Group and Copies

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What I’m about to complain about didn’t happen tonight, but just having writer’s group made me think of it.

In two of my writing groups, the author brings copies of their work. It’s read aloud while group members have a copy in front of them to write comments on. After the piece is read aloud, there is time for silent note taking. It’s a time to expand those notes you jotted down or to check certain things (did he really use “totalitarian” 5 times in 2 paragraphs? I thought it said that Sarah did that…did I read that wrong?) or even to write a wrap up.

I think this is a great system, but sometimes the author doesn’t have enough copies of their piece for everyone. Hey, it happens and it’s not a big deal. Two critiquers can easily pair up and write their comments on the same paper. Not ideal…do we bump pens and elbows trying to write at the same time, or does one person write and listen while the other has to remember where certain word choices irked them so they can go back and comment during the silent time? But, like I said, not a big deal. If I team up with someone, I may not be able to write notes as detailed as I’d like, but I get my main points across (and some authors may actually prefer that!).

So, what am I complaining about? Sometimes, some writers will come up short and yet still keep a copy for themselves.

A R G

I understand how it can be helpful. You hear something that doesn’t work and the page is right there for you to mark up. BUT you know the piece. The others around the table don’t. Personally, I find it more helpful when new eyes and ears make comments. I can jot down notes on a separate piece of paper and go back afterward to add my notes on someone else’s copy. I feel that by hogging a copy for themselves, those writers are tying the hands of their fellow group members and, in turn, won’t get as detailed or helpful feedback.

Is this a “I don’t do it that way so no one else should” problem that I alone have or does anyone else feel the same way?

Go Ahead, Make My Day

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If you like someone’s writing, TELL THEM! This is not a plea for stroking my ego, I promise.

In Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, she says to write charming notes, physical letters of appreciation you send to people whose work you admire. The idea of doing this was mortifying to me. Sure, I know that the person on the receiving end would probably appreciate it, but the idea was just so daunting. I can’t put my finger why, just that it was so daunting that several years after reading her book, I still haven’t written a single charming note. I think that will have to change.

After writer’s group tonight, I told someone how much I enjoyed his story. He said he couldn’t wait to get home and read my comments (we write comments on the print-outs in addition to discussing the pieces aloud)…that he read my comments first and then again after he finished reading everyone else’s. I was flabbergasted.

I thought that he didn’t like my comments. That, because his own writing is so fluid and beautiful and literary, he’d look down on my pleas for more pedestrian explanations as terrible and coarse and commercial.

My surprise must have shown because he explained he had a little writer crush…and then he dashed out of the room before I could say anything.

That put a spring in my step!

And it’s about time I start complimenting people I admire.

I’d Research That

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Wooden figure model reading a book while sitting in the bookshelf

Doing Research by viewoftheworld http://www.flickr.com/photos/view/142745616/ / CC BY 2.0

I’m annoyed. I’ve had to sit on this post for a little bit so my seething stops…or slows.

“You’ll just have to research that.” This is a little gem I’ve gotten of at writer’s group and it irks me.

The first time I got the comment, it was regarding a story that involved a will. My main character was reading one page of a will, not the whole thing, and this really bothered Commenter. He informed me that wills were multiple pages and included signatures and dates, and that I really needed to research wills. Signatures on a will? Imagine my surprise that a legal document would require a freakin’ signature…well I ran right out to research, oh wait, I already had prior to writing the piece. In fact, I’d also read several wills.

The fact that the main character only had one page of the will was significant to my story, but not that particular scene…its importance would come later. Part of me was glad that Commenter had picked up on that, but really, assuming that I knew nothing about wills or what I was writing about was insulting.

Another time I heard those cursed words was in regards to the disease a character had. Granted, the disease isn’t well-known, so I couldn’t expect the group to know symptoms were A, B and C, but to tell me that I “should really research that disease” was, again, insulting. Yes, I randomly give characters rare diseases that I know nothing about and assign them symptoms that aren’t connected. When I was 10? Maybe. What budding author didn’t give a character some exotic or unexplained disease after *spoiler alert* Beth dies in Little Women. But now? As a grown adult writer? Please.

A better comment? “Can you find a way to let the reader know about symptoms A, B and C?” or “I’m not familiar with Acme Syndrome. You need to find a way to educate the reader about it.”

I suppose what really irks me is that what I actually hear is: you don’t care about your writing.

No, I don’t go on sabbatical for six months to immerse myself in the legal field or disease control, but I do educate myself. I care enough about my writing, my story and my characters to invest some time in research. Did I miss details? Yeah. Could I invest more time? Sure. However, I care enough to not haphazardly toss words on a page before giving it someone else to read.

Several group members have mentioned how great the group is for deadlines and how they were writing furiously the night before. Perhaps I’m just mad that they don’t invest the same amount of time that I do.

Or maybe I’m just pissed that I wasn’t clear enough in my writing to begin with. *sigh*

Letting the Snark Out

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Another writing group is next week, and last week I happened upon several critique posts (Merrilee Fabber of Not Enough Words: The Yin-Yang of WritingHow to Interpret CriticismHow to Apply Criticism), all of which got me thinking about my own critique process…or rather, how I process critiques.

In January’s writing group, there was an overwhelming flood of newbies. We were one person shy of breaking fire code…oooh, us wild writers. But this new influx meant that the group facilitator had to give her writing group rules spiel. Rules isn’t exactly right. Guidelines and tips, more like. She explained that another person reads the piece; we chime in with the good first; use I statements; focus on the writing, not the writer; etc. She also gave her mother-in-law speech: Criticism is like a gift from your mother-in-law. You take it and say thank you because you know it was a well-intentioned gift, but then you take it home and evaluate it. Does it go with your decor? Is it your style? If yes, then keep it. If no, give it to Goodwill.

Then she cautioned not to read the criticism right away. I disagree.

When my writing is being read, I don’t look at a copy, I just listen. If I hear something that makes me cringe, I jot a note. In the critique session itself I also take notes. Then, when I get home, I read everything. After that, I rewrite everything (my notes, their notes, comments I remember but didn’t write down) onto one copy of the story. Why? With the good, the bad and the ugly all in one place, I can see if there are contradictory comments, if more than one person felt the same way and, if I’m starting to feel like I suck, I can find a positive comment to boost me back up. That and it allows me to let the snark out.

You would think that.”

“Any moron with half a brain would get that.”

“I already told you that two paragraphs ago.”

Then I put it away. For a day, a week, a month…it depends. When I do come back, I heed the mother-in-law advice and weed through the comments. It’s much easier to be fair to that moron with less than half a brain when I’ve already used my dazzling wit to cut him/her down to size…and had time to cool off.

Even in the middle of my snarkfest, I can tell that some comments are absolutely spot on (she can’t lisp if she doesn’t say anything that includes an s) and other are just dumb (“never use a semicolon in fiction”…click and scroll down). After all, Mary Sue always demands that I use more adverbs and Johnny Walker always says that one word dialogue just doesn’t work. Regardless, I write them down, snark and reread them later. You never know when they might be right.

Everyone has their own way of tackling comments, but the let-it-settle idea is pretty pervasive. What do you think? What’s your process?

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische.