Critique Group Question

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bcomet
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Critique Group Question

Post by bcomet » March 17th, 2010, 6:08 pm

If you are in one, then you need to be rooting for the other writers too, trying to help every member become the best writer they can be.

So what do you do when you have a writer in the group, who really HAS something going and it has gone off the rails? Say, you have their novel and you are suddenly like a developmental editor. You can see where it goes out of orbit and where it needs to go. And it needs, in your humble opinion, major surgery.

(And you could be wrong. It might just get published as is. There is lots worse writing. Yours is just one opinion.) (And you could be right too. With the needed changes, it could be better, maybe even WOW work.)

Do you dive into it with them or bow out?

tameson
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by tameson » March 17th, 2010, 6:27 pm

I think that you can comment on your viewpoint, but respectfully and humbly. Use statements that distance the criticism. "in my opinion" is a good phrase. Also, don't say this is the only way, this is the best way. Something like, when I was reading this, I thought, wow, it would be so awesome if the story did X, y, and z. Or the emotional resolution of this scene did not work quite as well for me- perhaps something like X. In this case, do not appeal to authority (according to fancy editor X the right way to write a story is X). I wouldn't even say I think this would sell better. Offer up your ideas, but without trying to force them.

As far as continuing to read, that depends on how your group is structured. In many cases, you have an obligation to read, whether it sucks or not. Not sure what your group has agreed to or has not. You might want to offer your advice and see if they like. If they do and plan to make major restructuring then continuing to read doesn't make much sense. Give feedback on that chapter and ask politely, but not demandingly.

bcomet
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by bcomet » March 17th, 2010, 6:41 pm

I totally agree. One must always critique with respect. Totally important.

But, after a heady rush to have completed a novel, a writer can sometimes be in a certain state of bliss.
It can feel delicate and awkward to be asked to critique in that moment.
Wondering how others handle such tender territory in their groups.

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Holly
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by Holly » March 17th, 2010, 6:41 pm

I would tell the person what I thought their work needed to improve. People in a serious critique group will welcome both "nits" and big-picture suggestions. That's why they're in the group -- they want their writing to get better. Just make your points in a friendly, polite manner. Mention something they did right, too.

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Holly
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by Holly » March 17th, 2010, 7:15 pm

bcomet wrote:But, after a heady rush to have completed a novel, a writer can sometimes be in a certain state of bliss.
It can feel delicate and awkward to be asked to critique in that moment.
Wondering how others handle such tender territory in their groups.
After I finished my novel this December, I gave it to a professional writer/editor friend to read. That reader said the novel has a structural problem. I tell the story from multiple POVs, and my reader said I need to make some POV changes closer to the beginning.

I did not feel a heady rush when I reached the finish line. Mentally, I've had it with The Novel from Hell and wish I could work on the next one. However, I want to write a good story, so right now I'm revising again, adding a few scenes and making some other changes.

I belong to two crit groups, online and in person, and welcome any and all criticism. Usually the criticism is right, but if I don't agree with it, I just ignore it. The sensitivity/tender territory issue is for people who don't want to be published.

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polymath
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by polymath » March 17th, 2010, 8:41 pm

Workshop critiques are actually intended more for improving critiquers's writing skills than improving writers' stories in progress. Writing workshops rely on taking best advantage of a human failing. Fault finding. We more easily see fault in others and others' works, while we're all too readily oblivious to our own faults and failings. Conscientious critiquers focus on positivity so writing skills improve and negativity doesn't become a single-minded, contaminating influence. It is no coincidence then when conscientious critiquers' writing skills leap forward.

A conscientious critiquer doesn't seek out fault for fault finding's sake, impose his or her creative vision on another's, or yield to the opposing temptations of indifference or overtreatment.

The First Principle of critique is; Do No Harm. Always address the writing, not the writer. Never give personal criticism or take criticism personally. A writer's creative vision is a fragile newborn being. Treat it kindly; the rewards will be returned manifold.

The Second Principle of critique is; weigh heavily in measure of substantive praise and light on negative criticism. Pose no condemnations whatsoever. Good premises but poorly executed is a judgment call that has no place in a critiquer's commentary. Editors, agents, and other screening readers, perhaps, but it's still a brutal, indifferent rejection and has no courteous place in a civil society.

Tempering a writer's disposition is no one else's business but the writer's own. "Thickening a writer's skin" is the most unsportsmanlike form of professional conduct. It's hazing--masking professional jealousy deliberately or unintentionally contrived to force competition out of the race. Critiquers ought to at least leave marketplace forces to temper a writer's disposition, where it rightly belongs. It's truly no one else's business.

The Third Principle of critique is; critiquing is for a critiquer's benefit. If a writer's creative vision benefits as a consequence, it's all good. A horse can be led to water; however, the horse cannot be made to drink. A lightbulb needing changing cannot be changed unless the lightbulb wants changing, then it might as well best change itself than be told how to change.

Seek out and comment substantively on virtues, at least avoid commenting on vices. The temptation is strong to find fault. Don't. However, don't overlook faults, make note of them, they mark trails toward virtues. Compose separate comments on faults, if necessary to get them out of mind, but don't share them.

Solely sharing commentary on virtues has a valuable benefit for both parties. From not commenting on vices, a writer or critiquer becomes better able to think for him- herself. Counterintutively, what's unsaid becomes obvious when what's said focuses on what's virtuous. Identifying virtues is like seeing a platoon of soldiers marching in precision step. An out-of-step soldier stands out to everyone.

Substantive commenting on virtues develops desirable skills for a critiquer's critical thinking abilities. It can't be emphasized enough that creative writing, like reading and literature study, has one unstated purpose in life. Fostering learning how to consciously, critically think for one's self. In that light, that's what critiquing's sole purpose is. Not for a story's writer, not directly. A conscientious critiquer acknowledges that he or she can't think for another, nor should, even if it were possible. That way lies unpleasantness and lockstep conformity and imprisoned creative minds.

The best writing and critiquing advices I've gotten come from writers of the past who've spoken of virtues they praise in gentle yet illuminating ways. Emily Dickinson's "Tell it Slant," suggests how to give bad news indirectly, also suggests how to convey information indirectly so it doesn't blind. Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," suggests the path not taken stands out from worn paths easily tread. And Shakespeare's "Sonnet No. 130" substantively praises an earthly goddess while criticizing in a courtly, ironic way his contemporaries' empty, effusive praises for their goddess-like lovers.
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bcomet
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by bcomet » March 17th, 2010, 10:14 pm

Polymath,
You are like an Angel.

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marilyn peake
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by marilyn peake » March 18th, 2010, 4:49 am

bcomet,

Since you think the writing has great potential, it might be very helpful to start out by saying that, then suggest changes and let the other person know that yours is only one opinion. That seems to work the best. Hope that helps.
Marilyn Peake

Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

Bron
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by Bron » March 18th, 2010, 6:12 am

That's great advice Polymath, and I will endeavour to take it in future. It's so easy to point out the faults in other people's work, not through a sense of malice, but because you can see what you think is wrong and want to help them fix it. But your post is a good reminder that there are many ways to give advice. And I agree with the 'play nice' sentiment. There's plenty of people who will make harsh comments about a writer's work, why would we do it to each other?

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polymath
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by polymath » March 18th, 2010, 9:37 am

Thank you, Bron, bcomet. I try because trial and error serve my purposes just as well as success.

I'm a battle-scarred veteran of writing workshops, in-person and online venues. I haven't always had a choice to walk away. Some have been like a boil of drowning rats fighting to stay on top of the groupthink pageant. I've seen the real thing, a boil of wharf rats drowning when a waterfront structure burned. It's not a pretty sight. They might have survived if they'd struck out on their own courses. No, they had to pile on.

Emily Dickinson was harshly criticized by her contemporaries when she first published. She then asked people she respected what they thought of her poetry. "Are you too preoccupied to say if my Verse is alive?" * She received kinder criticisms, but firm condemnation for not following expected poetry conventions. She retreated into herself after gving it a fair go and never returned to public life again.

A lover and publisher of hers was one of her harshest critics, saying about "women writers", "They receive the unvarnished truth as if it were a red-hot bullet." ** Whose unvarnished truth? I ask. Truth? Uh-huh. The world would have been a darker place if Dickinson hadn't kept on on her own. Fortuitously, her poetry enjoyed better reception soon after her death and lives on.

Dickinson's poetry is mostly bright, energetic, and alive. A few are maudlin or bitter. "Publication is The Auction of the Mind of Man" is one of the latter. She introduced a uniquely New World poetic voice that also lives on today in slant rhymes and free verse. My point being, there are talented, imaginative, sensitive writers who are turned away by the brutality of the process. The world is a darker place from their loss. Where would we be without emotionally damaged writers who did forge onward against a tide of brutal rejection? Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Vonnegut, the Brontës, Melville, etc.

Actually, I believe all great writers are damaged personalities writing it out for cartharis and therapy. Everyone's damaged, the only one I'm not sure about is me. No, really, I know I'm damaged. It's everyone else who's not sure.
"Publication—is the Auction Of the Mind of Man" by Emily Dickinson.

Publication—is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man—
Poverty—be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly—but We—would rather
From Our Garrett go
White—Unto the White Creator—
Than invest—our snow—

Thought belong to Him who gave it—
Then—to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration—Sell
The Royal Air—

In the Parcel—Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace—
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price—

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/i ... 2001/02/15
* Norton Anthology of American Literature, pg 2502
** Norton, pg 2501
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bcomet
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by bcomet » March 18th, 2010, 11:51 am

I appreciate this discussion and find it very helpful.

I think, Polymath, that you are absolutely correct in your guidelines and appreciate hearing them again.

What I think can occur, in critique groups, is the tendency for some to ask for severe editing from others (or to offer it), something that I am uncomfortable with, personally. It feels too much like it might cross that line/directive of DO NO HARM. (And even if the writer requesting it says bring it on, it seems like it might harm the bringer for doing so.) There are ways to champion writing and it too is an art form.

There are responses to the work that can help it and questions we can ask, and in this, true light can be shined differently. Yes, wiser and better to "slant" it from a positive angle.

I imagine professional editors have a honed skill.

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marilyn peake
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by marilyn peake » March 19th, 2010, 1:57 am

Very eloquent, Polymath. It's amazing how so many writers are rejected and criticized in their own time, only to be appreciated later on. Thank goodness the writers you named persevered with their writing.
Marilyn Peake

Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

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polymath
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by polymath » March 19th, 2010, 11:10 am

Thank you, marilyn peake and bcomet.

I crossed the Rubicon and saw the elephant. Translation: Passed the point of no return and saw the abyss. The view is glorious. The abyss isn't dark or light nor chiasocuro. It's the whole of creation.

Part of my writing study includes seeking out and studying author biographies. I've intuitively, now purposely formed rapport and want to know more about authors I read and in doing so find out more about myself and apply what I learn to my writing. Literature is the only puzzle that tearing apart makes it more alive. Curiosity didn't kill this cat.
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PaulWoodlin
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by PaulWoodlin » March 20th, 2010, 3:07 am

Actually, I did once purposely break the rule about addressing the writer as well as the writing. I had read the manuscript before going to the workshop and had nothing but contempt for the heroine, who would have made a fine villain. Then at the workshop, I met the author, who was intelligent, compassionate, and interesting. So when it was my turn to critique her story, I said words to the effect, "Why did you write this story about a spoiled, vain hypocrite, when you could have written a story about a real heroine who makes sacrifices in her life to raise a mentally challenged child while never quite giving up her dream to be a writer" which, of course, referred to the writer. I was more long winded about it at the time, but I really do think she needed to hear both.

Of course, it's really an exception that proves the rule.

casnow
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Re: Critique Group Question

Post by casnow » March 20th, 2010, 4:59 am

You've got to be honest with them - give them your opinion. That is what they are in the critique group for. Maybe everyone else in the critique group is thinking the same thing, but are waiting for someone to speak up so they can say, "Yeah, I agree. I thought it should go here and you went there."

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