One mistaken assumption that I've noticed some newbie writers making: Sending out their writing too soon, assuming that the editor who buys their short story (or novel, etc.) is going to be helping them polish the piece anyway.
DO NOT DO THIS.
Never, ever send an mss out just after you've finished it. Put it away for a few days (a few weeks at least, for a novel). That way you'll be able to reread more objectively, without the rosy glow of "omigosh this is brilliant just wait until publishers see this."
I'm a foodie, so often think in terms of food analogies. In this case, it would be sort of like a first-time restauranteur opening before they've perfected their dishes. Turn off the restaurant critics early on, and you make it tougher for yourself longterm.
If you're a new picture book writer, this is even MORE vital. Why? Because I've noticed that many non-pb writers assume that writing a picture book is easy because there are fewer words, that it's something they can do on the side for extra money while they work on their "real" books.
Vaguely related side note:
Others may differ, but I also advise NOT giving it to your critique group to read too soon. Why? Because there is a real value in getting feedback from someone who is reading the piece for the first time. Yes, there's a value in getting feedback for a rough version so you can polish it before sending it out to an editor. Be aware, however, that after the first critique, your crit partners will likely be giving feedback on your revisions rather than an overall first-time impression.
Respect your readers, before and after publication.
A big "thank you" to all who entered our latest giveaway. We enjoyed learning about your favorite chocolate treats. :-) The winner of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market
Sandy blogs at Unpacking the POWER of Picture Books
. Congratulations, Sandy! And thanks again to Mary Kole for her guest interview
And now to wrap-up our current TeachingAuthors'
topic: critique groups, and critiquing in general. Last Friday, Jill opened the discussion with some excellent tips
for when you're critiquing a manuscript in a group setting. Mary Ann focused on advice for one-on-one critiquing
. Jeanne Marie emphasized the importance of looking at first drafts at the "global level,"
instead of nitpicking them. And both Mary Ann and Jeanne Marie talked about the value of asking a writer: What made you decide to write this particular story?/Why did you choose to write about this topic? Today I'd like to share a bit about what to do when you receive conflicting feedback.
In the facilitated critique workshops that I teach, we follow the critiquing model I learned at Vermont College. The format is described in this guest post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
. There are two unique aspects to this format that are specifically designed to help keep the writer from getting defensive:
1) The author remains silent while others discuss his or her work.
When you think about it, this makes sense. When you submit a manuscript to an editor or agent, you're not there to explain the choices you made. The manuscript must succeed on its own. Also, an author who remains silent is more likely to really hear
the feedback because he or she isn't sitting there thinking about how to respond to what's being said.
2) After a round of sharing positive feedback regarding what's working well, instead of telling an author what's "wrong" with the piece or what needs "fixing," critiquers share questions about the manuscript.
I've found it takes some practice for my students to learn how to express their comments in question form, but here are a few examples:
“Is the narrator a boy or a girl?”
“What time of day is it? What season?”
“What happened to the dog?”
“How did the narrator feel when that happened?”
“Why did the mother react so strongly to such a minor accident?”
“Why didn’t the mother react more strongly?
I do allow my students to preface their questions with an “I” statement to indicate points in the story where they were confused or found something unclear. For example:
I was confused here. I thought the narrator was a boy. Is the narrator a boy or a girl?
I couldn’t picture this scene. Is the main character sitting or standing here?
I didn’t understand exactly what this sentence means. Could you clarify?
However, not all questions are appropriate. I discourage critiquers from trying to tell the author how to "fix" the story via their questions. As critiquers, we may not see or understand the author's goals. Therefore, I believe questions like "Why don't you get rid of the mother character?" aren't as helpful as "What purpose does the mother character serve?" The first question puts the author on the defensive. The second question leads the author to think more deeply about the story. It may be that the mother is
important, but the author hasn't shown why clearly enough yet.
When I facilitate critique workshops, I remind students that all feedback is subjective, including mine. Just because I'm the "teacher," that doesn't necessarily mean my comments are "better" or more valuable than anyone else's. I also encourage students to share their opinions even if they disagree with me and/or with their fellow students--it's important for a writer to know different readers may react differently to the manuscript.
So, when you're the author, how should you handle contradictory feedback? My advice is to latch on to the feedback that feels "right" or "true" first. For example, let's say that while drafting your piece you wonder if a section of dialogue sounds too mature for the character's age, but you leave it as is. Then, when you bring the piece to critique group someone asks: "How old is this character? I think his dialogue sounds old for a 9-year-old." Even if another critiquer responds, "I disagree. His dialogue sounds just right to me," I'd go back and revise the dialogue.
On the other hand, if you're not sure which feedback feels "right," you can go one of several ways. You may decide to go with "majority rules"--what do most critiquers agree on? OR, if there's someone in the group whose opinion you particularly respect or tend to agree with, then you might go with that one individual's response, even it it's the minority opinion. In the above example, if the person saying the dialogue sounds "just right" is a third-grade teacher who works with 9-year-olds on a daily basis, I wouldn't revise. OR, you may decide that the contradictory feedback is a symptom of a deeper problem that requires you to go back and revise something earlier in the story. Perhaps your character is precocious, and mature dialogue is part of his personality. In that case, you may want to go back and check whether his dialogue has been mature for his age from the very beginning. If his precociousness is important to the story, you might want to include other signs of it, besides his dialogue.
Keep in mind that the more critiquers you have, the more likely you are to get contradictory feedback. Sometimes, that's a good thing, but not always. I've seen writers revise over and over again thinking they will eventually satisfy all their critiquers. The problem is: You can't please all your readers all the time
. If you don't believe me, go to Goodreads
and look at the reviews for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
. Alongside this bestseller's many 4- and 5-star ratings, you'll see reviews with only 1-3 stars.
As I said earlier, reading is subjective. While critique feedback can be invaluable, in the end it's your
story, and yours alone.
Happy writing, and Happy Poetry Friday! Today's Poetry Friday round-up is at hosted by Ed DeCaria at ThinkKidThink
I have used this space many times to lament the fact that I am a writer on an island -- critique group-less, feedback-less, buddy-less. But as I'm sure most of us know, one thing worse than having no input is having input that sends us astray.
We've all been there, right? We've seen critique groups whose members are too intense, too lax, too hoggish; they are too vague; they are too nitpicky; they don't "get" your stuff, or you don't get theirs. They have more time to devote to their writing than you do, or perhaps they have less. They live too far away; they meet too frequently or infrequently.
Even worse is the damning critique experience: the editor at a conference who treats you like a clueless newbie; the teacher who gives you a bad grade for trying something a little different. My friend, an actress, says at least when someone is critiquing your writing, he or she is not critiquing YOU. But still, when we write, we are exposing our souls to the world. And our writer psyches must be treated with care. (The cardinal rule of critiquing -- always start and end with something specific and positive to say!)
With my community college students, I introduce a vocabulary word in each class. The first word we discuss is "subjective." I want them to understand that as a teacher, the worst thing I could ever do would be to crush their creativity or confidence. In a required class, many students do not come to learn, and they do not care to revise. For those who do, individual feedback is the most important component of our coursework. But students must learn that I am not the final authority; they have to be the chief arbiters of what is right for their work and what is not.
When it comes to peer review, some student writers are terrific critiquers. On the other hand, some do not take the job seriously. Some are just dead wrong. As a teacher, I may often myself be dead wrong. Thus I try to approach first draft revision on a mostly global level. I find myself constantly asking my students, "Why did you choose to write about this topic?" The answer is often the key to a successful essay.
In TV writing, we are advised to distill our pitch into a one-sentence "log line." Fiction writers should be able to do the same. In expository writing, of course, this summary is called the thesis statement.
My classes are currently working on research essays and developing working theses for an essay that is supposed to propose a solution to a societal problem. One of my students, a Navy veteran, read his to the class this week: "Military body armor is responsible for a vast number of injuries to personnel." I found this quite a startling statement. In search of more detail and a proposed solution, I probed further. HOW was military body armor inadequate? My student stated that in fact, it was overly adequate; that many soldiers who would have died in previous wars were surviving attacks with grievous, lifelong injuries. "So," I asked, "Are you saying it would be better if they died?" He looked me in the eye and said, "Sometimes." It was easier to talk about body armor, of course, than it was to talk about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
I asked him what he proposed as the solution, and he said more drone strikes and less hand-to-hand combat. In short, his essay was not really about body armor at all. What he really wanted to say was, "Please send fewer men and women into harm's way."
As writers, we often lose sight of the main thread of our story; as critiquers, we often get hung up on details that should be dealt with later. A good first draft critique is about distilling a story to its essence -- nothing more, nothing less. --Jeanne Marie
I've been in critique groups over the years, but for various reasons, I'm not in one right now. That doesn't mean I'm not critiquing. I still teach my young adult writing classes and occasionally will critique adult writers for hire. So I'm taking a slightly different path in this discussion, non-group critiquing. Here are my suggestions in working with one person at a time (some of them also work in group situations, so I am not really getting off topic.
Being critiqued can be a traumatic experience. I've had people (professionals who should know better) literally treat my work as if it were bird cage liner. On the other hand, I've had critiques that said that my work was the best thing since Harry Potter. I suspect the critiquer gave my work a once-over-lightly if they read it at all. And, as my husband says, you don't learn anything by being told how great you are.
This is not to say that critiques have to be all negative. They do have to be specific. Saying "I like your protagonist" is all well and good but really doesn't tell the author anything. Why do you like that character? Is it their personality, the way they think or talk or their relationship with another character?. Be specific. It's always good to know that something is good and why
The same thing works in reverse. Saying "This scene just doesn't work for me" tells me nothing. Often the author already knows that scene doesn't work. They are looking to you for suggestions. My rule of thumb is if I don't have any idea how to fix something, I don't mention it. Or, if the author backs you in a corner and says "The scene by the old mill stream isn't working, what can I do?" I throw it back in their lap. Why do they think it isn't working? Talk about it a little back and forth. You two will either come up with what is wrong with the scene (or character or whatever) or you will decide the old mill stream scene isn't moving the story along. One of all time favorite movie scenes comes from Tootsie. Bill Murray is a playwright working on a piece called Return to Love Canal. Throughout the movie he keeps spitballing ideas with his roommate Dustin Hoffman for one particular scene that comes to be known as "The necktie scene." (By the way, the movie audience never learns what the necktie scene is about.) At last, Bill tells Dustin, "I've solved the problem of the necktie scene. This time I'm writing it without the necktie." Great writing advice. Sometimes if something is giving you that much trouble, it doesn't belong in your story (or play) to begin with.
Asking someone their opinion of your work is a lot like asking "Does this outfit make me look fat?" I have tried to take as much fear and loathing out of the process as necessary. At the start of a session I remind the writer that he is already a writer; working together, he will become a better writer.
I always ask if there is something in particular the writer wants you to look for in their work. Do they want to know if their characters are believable, the plot plausible, is it overwritten? I learned to ask because I have a tendency to point out every little inconsistency or flaw when all the writer wants to know at that point is if the main character is likable/interesting enough that you want to read the whole story.
If your author doesn't have any particular questions, I try to stick to the Big Picture items...inconsistencies, missing transitions, failure in logic, vague characters etc. As I said before, if you don't know how to "fix it," don't bring it up.
Most importantly, respect your author's vision. I read a lot of stuff that left me wondering "What were they thinking when they wrote this?" So I ask, "What made you decide to write this particular story? Hopefully the answer is not "because pirates/werewolves/dystopian fantasy is hot right now." If they really like and want to write about one of those topics, great. Just remind them that by the time their manuscript has wound it's way through the publishing labyrinth, that topic will probably not be quite so surefire.
What I've often discovered is that the story the author has written (and isn't very good) wasn't the story they meant to write. Don't get me wrong. I'm not playing Freud here. I try to approach the subject as gently as possible. I once asked someone why they had written a picture book about talking organic vegetables. After a little conversation, it turned out that what the writer wanted to write about was the sense of community after 9/11. She wanted to write about a community garden and the sense of healing that it gave the gardeners. I don't know if she ever went back and wrote that book. I hope she did.
You know the best thing about critiquing? It is so much easier to see the flaws in your own work by recognizing them in someone else's. You are not only helping someone else improve their work, you are helping yourself as well.
Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway of the latest edition of Children's writer's and Illustrator's Marketplace.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman