Tag Archives: critique

Now You’re Cooking…er, writing!

Eldest just got home from a twelve day trek with two of his closest buddies. I barely heard from him the entire time he was gone–I guess it’s hard to call your mom when you’re cliff jumping and deep-sea fishing. Next year when he goes to college, I’ll probably hear from him even less.

“Oh, he’ll be home to eat his favorite meals,” many parents have claimed.

Yeah, right.

The only time he called and actually talked to me versus texting me a picture and a quick quip was to say, “Hey, mom, I’m making my favorite hot dish and wanted to make sure I had all the ingredients.”

He named them all except garlic. Not bad for a seventeen-year-old boy. And since he did the lion’s share of the cooking, I doubt very much he’ll be home for me to feed him. He’s way ahead of many young men who have never lifted a spoon before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

To this end, there are two kinds of critiquers. Ones who give advice in hopes of teaching and ones who rewrite entire passages.

There are also two types of writers. Ones who want someone else to rewrite and ones who want to learn how to do it themselves.

I’m a firm believer in teaching, not providing. In doing, not letting someone else do it all for you.

There are no shortcuts in writing–nor in life.

 Are you a teacher or a provider?What are the benefits of both? How do you hold back and teach when you’d really like to give? Vice versa? When is it okay to provide?

Impressed Much? What our words really say.

An early morning phone call and an unexpected death have me pondering those trace impressions we leave behind each and every day.

Eldest headed out of town today with friends for a much-anticipated concert.  My Dear Hubby headed out of state shortly after I dropped my youngest three off at school.  My big sister lives 21 hours away, as does my little brother.  My baby sister is the closest sibling at nearly three hours away.  I have extended family spread out across the continent and very close cyber friends who live very far away.

During the course of any given day, I interact with a handful of different people–sometimes well into the hundreds depending on what I’m doing.  In other words, my meager presence in this world still impacts thousands of lives all over the globe.  I bet yours does, too.

You know what really scares me about this thought?  I’m terrified that my last impression will be one of anger, disappointment, frustration or indifference.  Secondly, I’m terrified of the lasting impression others will make on me–because I acted out of anger, disappointment, frustration or indifference.

  1. Should I die/discontinue a relationship after walking out the door (or commenting on a blog post, or hanging up the phone) with a final unkind remark, I will leave behind the legacy of anger, crabbiness and frustration.  This is not how I see myself (most of the time), nor is it how I want to be seen.  I don’t want to negatively affect others’ lives for all eternity.  And I certainly don’t want anyone to carry the bonds of my disappointment based on the words I’ve said.
  2. Should someone else die/discontinue a relationship after I walked out the door (or commented on a blog post, or hung up the phone) with a final unkind remark, I will leave behind the legacy of anger, crabbiness and frustration.   As well as guilt.  You see, if my negativity preceded another’s last moments, I would be crushed by guilt.  Guilt that the last thing someone felt in connection to me was the sting of my disappointment.  Guilt at knowing I could have, should have and would have changed the words I used if I only knew.

But since I don’t know, I have one job in life–to carefully consider every moment as a last moment.  I want those around me to feel loved, appreciated and cared for.  This falls on my shoulders alone, as only I can change the way I deal with the people in my life.  Only I can choose my reactions to a given situation.

I, alone, am responsible for the impression I will leave behind.  On others as well as on myself.

My husband greatly respected Doug.  His loss is deeply felt this morning, and my heart goes out to everyone who was touched by this kind and gentle man.

I wonder if his greatness was inherent or if it was carefully considered.  I wonder, does it really matter?

Parents, spouses and friends, how did you take leave of your loved ones this morning?  Is it how you wish to be remembered?  Writers, critiquers and co-workers, how did you last interact with your peers?  Will your behavior foster a stronger working environment or will your words cause unnecessary strife?   Teachers, principals and students, did you start your day with respect toward one another, or did your attitude sour the atmosphere for those around you? 

We alone control the power of last impressions.  What do yours say about you?

Write Like A Man

Sooo, I’m in two separate writer’s groups.  I love the feedback from the men in particular.  Not that I don’t love and value the critiques I get from my kindred women-folk.  It’s just that men and women write VERY differently and the male perspective intrigues me.

Women may say “turned” whereas, a man will often say “swiveled.”

Men generally don’t write touchy feely, but they sure notice when women do.  I can almost see my writing partners make faces when reading some of our womanly words.  Especially when we pen our male MCs.

One writer in particular–you know who you are–will trounce on us gals to man-up our protags.  He has in innate “feminine” radar when it comes to dialogue.  And don’t get me started on our apparent inability to write a male’s thought process.

I usually end up in stitches while reading his comments to our manuscripts.  And I also end up a better writer.

Yet the adage, “a good man is hard to find” holds true in both life and writing.  For some reason, we, of the softer gender, tend to outnumber our male counterparts by a bajillion to one.  Or maybe it’s just that women are more apt to seek help and support whereas men tend to go solo.  Whatever the reason, I feel blessed to be part of two groups boasting male memberships.

How do you think dual-gender writing groups can be beneficial?  Do you think some genres require this more than others?  Why or why not?  Have you participated in writer’s groups with mixed species?  If so, share your most valuable cross-gender writing tip with the rest of us.

Curious minds want to know.

 

Table Talk in Writing

Friday night Dear Hubby and I played Sequence with Eldest and a handful of his friends.  Even though the kids cheated horribly, DH and I kicked some kid butt. 

The reason, at least to my way of thinking?  The kids were so busy trying out their secret table talk that they failed to keep their heads in the game.

Writing is a bit like this.  Okay, A LOT like this. 

Just yesterday, one of my crit buddies and I chatted about how we–insert writerly name here–have the tendency to defend and explain our positions during a critique session. 

“But,” we might say to some feedback, “this is why I did it.”

Or, “I know this sounds confusing now–insert explaination–but it makes perfect sense later in the manuscript.”

Oh yeah, we are masters at defending our positions.  What we should be doing, however, is keeping our heads in the game. 

While we may have the luxury of enlightening our crit partners with extracurricular table talk, we do not have this same advantage when our readers include agents, editors and the paying public.

In the future, we may be able to insert a little chip in our digital editions that says, “Press button here to understand this section of the book.”

Until then, our manuscripts better speak for themselves.  And this means no table talk.  Because whenever we do this, we cheapen our writing and cheat our readers out of a delightful experience.

So, what do you do with critique commentary?  Have you had to pull out your cheat sheet and explain your writing to your readers, or do you just sit back and keep your head in the game? 

Mob Mentality

It’s been a crazy day.  A simple link leading to a knock-down, drag-out war popped up everywhere I turned today.

A self-pubbed author received a mildly bad review and majorly blew it out of proportion.  It was simultaneously hideous and humorous.  Yet after seeing the same fight replayed over and over again got to be wearing. 

Even more troubling were the reactions of the readers and commentors to the numerous blog posts, tweets and forum threads.  In no time at all, people hopped on the attack wagon themselves. 

Exhausting to say the least.

Then a writer friend of mine PMed me about the psychology of critiques in a thread.  And I paraphrase: Doesn’t it seem like the tone of the first comment sets the outcome for all comments that follow?

Absolutely.  100%.  Without a doubt.

Yes, yes and yes.  People feel empowered when they have the seeming support of others.  We forget to think for ourselves and let the ideas and opinions of others influence how we react.  Especially if we were wishy-washy to begin with.

People used to get hanged by mobs.  Innocent people had nooses slipped around their necks and the rumps of horses slapped out from under them simply because the mob mentality is so strong.  Going against the grain of popular opinion can almost be a death sentence in and of itself.  So bystanders either shut their mouths and allow atrocities to occur around them, or they jump on the back of the mob and shout their support regardless of how right or wrong a situation is.

We see this in schools, at parks, during rallies and on the internet.  Everywhere a group of people meets and intermingles, the potential for us to lose our independence and fall in favor of the mob is there.

Have you ever been a part of mobbing?  Wrote about it?  Read it?  What is an effective way to curb this behavior, if any?  If not, how can we protect ourselves from getting sucked into this very explosive game?

What does this mentality mean to you as a writer and the way you handle yourself in the public view?

The Seven Degrees of Beta Readers

Manuscript critique is an integral part in a writer’s journey from rough draft to polished manuscript.  When we critique our own work, it’s called editing.  Each manuscript usually goes through any number of self-critiques by the author.  However, somewhere along the line, we need an extra set of eyes and a fresh perspective to help us really see the nuances of our writing: what works?  What doesn’t? 

I am a firm believer that Beta Readers of all ilk are desirable.  Even the least likely person to articulate their thoughts can make a tremendous impact on a manuscript’s direction–as long as we’re willing to listen.

And so I bring you The Seven Degrees of Beta Readers.

  1. White Belt: Those Who Love You.  Moms and grandmas make great White Belt readers because they boost your ego and encourage you to write more.  White Belts give great back pats and say things like, “Wonderful.  I loved it.”  What they really mean is “I’m proud of you for actually stringing all those words together.”  This is valuable feedback–not on the manuscript, but about you as a writer.  It is encouragement to reach for the stars.
  2. Orange Belt: Friends.  Find the ones who love you enough to read your work, but not enough to lie to you.  Orange Belts can be the first real feedback on your story as a whole.  However, be specific about what you want these Orange Belts to do.  In the past, I’ve handed mine a clean copy and said, “Jot down questions as you go, let me know where you’re confused and certainly please note the typos if they jump out at you.”  This is a great process for finding those niggling plot problems like “How long does it take for maggots to infest a dead fish?” 
  3. Yellow Belt: Expert in the Field.  If you’re writing a religious piece, hit up your clergy for a take on realism.  For a psychological thriller, find a willing psychologist to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t regarding mental health.  Kids make great Yellow Belt readers.  Have middle graders and teens stop reading when they get bored and mark the spot.  Watch the eyes and actions of younger kids when you read aloud.  When attention is lost, your manuscript needs work. 
  4. Blue Belt: Critique Partner.  These can be difficult to find, but they earn their belts by slogging through manuscrips of writing buddies and receiving critiques in return for their efforts.  The internet has made it possible to find like-minded writers anywhere in the world.  Face to face groups are a little more difficult to organize, but can be found by hitting the library and writing conferences.  Keep in mind that this arrangement is the only Beta Reader that is a partnership.  Balance is key.  Critique and be critiqued.  Respect and be respected.
  5. Green Belt: Mentor.  Writers come in varying degrees of experience.  Finding a mentor with experience, time and committment can be magical.  Having a Green Belt on your side makes your learning curve in the writing industry much shorter.  These relationships are more one sided, with the mentor doing the critiquing, guiding and cultivating.  Mentorships can be awarded at writer’s conferences.  That’s how Kate DiCamillo got her start.  They can also be found via social networking.  When something clicks, go with it.
  6. Purple Belt: Writing Instructor/Coach.  Colleges often offer creative writing classes, while some seminars or writing institutes offer correspondence courses.  Freelance coaches can also be found online or at conferences.  With Purple Belts come fees.  The coach is paid to read, critique and shape you as a writer.  Before signing up, make sure you know what you’re getting out of the course and who the instructor is.  You don’t want a bitter failed-writer-turned-teacher to coach you. 
  7. Brown Belt: Freelance Editor.  These Beta Readers should be skilled in the English language and the art of story telling.  Check them out before committing and forking over your hard earned cash.  In return for your money, you should receive professional advice on your manuscript.  Just remember, they don’t love you like a White Belt and they will not lie.  Make sure you are ready for the hard truth before sending out your baby.  If you’re unprepared, dreams can die in the hands of a Brown Belt.  The flip-side is that dreams can also be realized if you’re willing to gut out the process and take yourself seriously.  This degree of reader is not for the faint of heart.

And finally, when your manuscript has gone through various types for readers, each nitpicking their own thing, you are ready for the Master Ninja.  The Black Belts of the writing world.  The highest Beta Reader of them all. 

Your agent or editor. 

These Black Belts love your writing enough to take a gamble on your book.  They offer time, expertise and committment–as long as you are willing to work hard with them on rewrites, marketing and self-promotion.  It is a partnership, a mentorship and, if you’re lucky, a friendship. 

Like all things in writing, The Seven Degrees is not set in stone.  Beta Readers can be fluid.  They can put on different belts depending on the project and earn higher belts as they mature and grow.

The most important thing to remember about Beta Readers is this: every time someone reads your writing, they are doing you a favor–whether you like the outcome or not.  Getting back a less than stellar critique doesn’t negate the time and attention put into it. 

Be specific about what you want and realistic about what you’ll get.  Advice is yours to take or ditch.  Consider the critique carefully and learn what you can from the input, even if you don’t agree with it. 

And always, thank your Beta Reader with a smile, no matter which belt they wear. 

~cat

Honestly?

Well, no.

Usually we don’t want the honest answer.  As writers, we don’t want to hear that our “perfect” manuscript is still in need of a great deal of work.  As moms, we don’t want to hear that our skin is squishy and we have gray hair.  (Yes, I’ve heard that and much more, as I apparently have one foot in the grave.)

My Youngest has a knack for telling it like it is–in his mind.  At five, he can be somewhat excused for this behavior.  Espcecially when he doesn’t mean any harm.  It doesn’t help that I laugh– he has the most sincere and charming way about him.  And if I really look at it from his point of view, it’s as much about him as it is about those he comments on.

As an example: Last night we attended DD’s choir concert.  Part way through, he leaned into me and said, with the utmost sincerity, “It’s amazing that an old grandma like that can play so fast.”

In his own way, he was paying the pianist (who, incidentally, is not an old grandma) a very sincere compliment.  To him, he was commenting on the fact that he could never hit all those keys and make such beautiful music.  (And no, Pam, it wasn’t you!  Your compliment was given in a dreamy voice, “Mrs. K is so talented.”) 

In defense of him, our perch from the upper level did not provide the clearest perspective.  Also, as I’ve mentioned before, my body is falling apart in his eyes.  But that’s because he’s five.  His body is young and fresh.  His world is vibrant.  Everyone older than his big brother is OLD. 

And the older we get, the more we learn to temper our versions of reality.  We realize that calling it like we see it can hurt feelings, even if the intention is good.  In time, Youngest will say, “Wow, she is an amazing piano player.”  Which is exaclty what he meant the first time around.  Just in different words.

How does this impact us as writers?  It gives us a fresh perspective on giving and receiving critiques.  It allows us to temper the way we phrase things without compromising the meaning.  As the critiqued, it should teach us that everyone has a different opinion and that we need to listen to what is intended, not always how it is said.

Sometimes in life we hear things we really don’t want to hear.  Even if we specifically asked for an opinion.  (Honey, do these pants make  my butt look fat?  Never mind, don’t answer.)  Writers, in particular, share this affliction.  We ask for critiques–which is hard in the first place–and put ourselves out there for someone else to judge. 

It’s easy to take critiques personally.  It’s easy to focus on the negative and ignore the positive.  It is extremely easy to get defensive and withdraw from the process. Yet if we walk away from this post believing that most commentary is given out of love or respect, we can better focus on the critique itself, and not necessarily the way it is given.

We can also learn to frame our words in a way that helps rather than hurts.  We can give specifics.  Playing a fast piano can translate into a novel that has good flow.  Squishy skin and gray hair can signify the excess use of adjectives and adverbs.  Talent can mean good character development. 

The best critiques are the ones that say, “I liked the way you used transitions to carry me through the novel.  You did a nice job with the flow and nothing felt abrupt or out of place.  However, since I know word count is important, you may be able to tighten up some of your passages by eliminating extra adverbs.  I specifically noticed the use of “suddenly”.  But that’s okay, my word is “that.”  It pops up everywhere!  I particularly liked the way you developed the antagonist in this story.  Making him a vet who really loved the animals he saved made him so real to me that I almost hated to hate him.”

Those specifics mean something.  It helps us learn our strengths and weaknesses.  And, it reads much better than this, “I liked the story and the antagonist, but your word count is way too high for an editor to ever touch this manuscript.”

In essence, they say the same thing.  One is just more useful and less hurtful than the other.

Fellow scribes: Share your best and your worst critiques in terms of helpfulness.

My fave: a little smiley face by certain words or phrases.  It lets me know that my humor is working where I want it to. 

My least helpful critique was for an entire middle grade manuscript.  In its entirety: That’s nice.

Honestly?!?!?

*If you want to read a professional opinion on critiquing, check out Maeve Maddox.