Saturday, September 28, 2013

Critique Groups Are a Necessity

Writing a book? Then start finding readers now. I'm not talking your mom or your cousin or your best friend's brother. Yes, I asked all of them to read my first draft, but a necessary part of the writing process is finding a good critique group.

A few pointers, because now that I've been doing this a few years, I've also been with a couple of groups and through several types of crit processes. Writers come in many shapes and skill levels, so matching yourself with a compatible set of people can be tricky and emotional.

Critique Group Hint #1

Be open-minded but selective. One of hardest jobs is actually finding a group of people who want to be part of a writing group. Pulling together a motley gang is okay, at first. I've done it through conferences and friends of friends and professional clubs. Give your group a few sessions before you decide whether the members are a fit for you and you for them. If you all write the same genre, that may be good, but it also can suffer from not having a fresh perspective. An exception: if you write poetry, better find a few other poets. By session two or three, you should know if your group feels right. If it doesn't, FOR ANY REASON, then don't be afraid to back off.

Critique Group Hint #2

It's best if each member receives a critique at every meeting. If you meet once a month, everyone should get a turn in the hot seat. If you don't, your incentive to attend/read/critique will be low. Time management techniques during the meeting should allow everyone to receive attention on his/her work. Don't underestimate the importance of this suggestion. A critique group is sometimes the ONLY place a writer will put out his/her work for others to read. It's important each writer get individual feedback every time. Otherwise, critiquing just feels like homework with no pizza party at the end. Set limits on page counts or time for each writer, and stick with the limits so everyone has a chance. 

Critique Group Hint #3

How the session is run is less important than good feedback. I've been in groups that don't require writers to read the other members' work beforehand; I've been in groups that give both written critique and verbal critique; I've been in groups where each member must read aloud before the critique; I've been in groups that set no limit on the number of pages submitted. I've lived with timers, eaten desserts, carpooled, and gone one-on-one. Whatever your method, the most important piece is that your partners give HONEST feedback. Honest is better than glazed over, or too general, or falsely positive. You want to hear what they really think. In detail. How this process unfolds is less important.

Critique Group Hint #4

You will hear criticism. This is the place to hear it. If you can't take it now, you sure won't be able to take it when you receive poor reviews. Granted, people are opinionated. People are mean. People are downright snakes in the grass. But if you listen, really listen, to critiques of your work, it will get better. Themes about how you execute your stories will float to the surface. Maybe they won't be such great messages, but ignore them with your eyes wide open. And keep writing. I do believe that there is no WRONG writing. Don't ever believe that what you've written is something to be ashamed of or makes you a lesser person. It's your creative output. Be proud of it. Be humbled by it. And, if you listen closely enough to your heart and your critique partners, it can be great.

Now, many thanks to my critique partners, Marlene, Linda, D'Norgia, on Tuesdays and my downtown ladies, Sally, Alice and Judy. Thank you for having me in your writing lives.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Moby Dick: The Challenge

My daughter recited the first two lines of Moby Dick to me on the way home from school this week. She's determined to read it this year. She's in fifth grade.

A little background here. I tried reading Moby Dick last year. Valiantly trudged through the first 200 or so pages. Then decided that even as a writer, I'd let myself off the hook. There were other books I wanted to read, not had to read to be "serious."

I blogged about it. Received some flak about it. Shrugged and moved on.

But now. My ten-year-old is upstaging me with her determination. Generally, I try to keep my family life out of my blogging life, but I just can't let this slide.

One reason she's reading Moby Dick is because her class at school is participating in a Critic's Circle and each child must propose a book to read and critique once finished. She's almost to the part in the book, which she started in May to my surprise, when Captain Ahab finally makes an appearance.

It doesn't seem to bother her that the book is written in wordy prose and a series of essays. She isn't that concerned whether the plot keeps her interest. She admitted that she doesn't care if she even understands it. She just wants to read it. Maybe that's the element that was missing in my own attempt, not feeling like I needed to be entertained or fully comprehend the subtext.

Truly, I'm flattered that a little of my influence has rubbed off on her. She's an active reader and sees me reading often. Her project to take on Moby Dick is charming and inspiring, and I have no doubt that she'll have more success at reaching the end than I did.

A few days ago, I finished reading out loud to her The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a book equal in length to Moby Dick, but with a less-daunting intellectual bent. We'd spent about six months reading it off and on at night, and we closed in on the ending a few weeks ago. And what an ending it was! A couple of lines in the last chapters stopped us cold with lumpies in our throats. Maybe she'll share her lumpies from Moby Dick with me, whether it takes her six months or a lifetime to finish.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore ...

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Writers: Whether to Blog or Not

To blog or not to blog? This topic frequently pops up on writers' blogs. I'm supposed to write about this subject because I'm a writer AND a blogger. I'll fan the flames a little and declare that I'm firmly in the camp of don't blog if you don't feel it. If you write fiction, don't go fumbling around to start a blog. Why? Am I a turncoat? Let me be stingy for you. The fact is, if you have time to write, write your novel. Don't blog.

Why do I blog? Because sometimes it's just easier to jump on this little wagon than pull out the novel. "Ah," so you say, "I'm a procrastinator." Nope. Easily distracted, but not much of a procrastinator. I write every day. Maybe not fiction. But I do write. Does that count? Who's judging here?

But save yourself! Don't start a blog because the social media gurus and the indie-wonks demand that YOU MUST. That's a pile of fartooie (on a blog, I can make up words. You can do the same in your books. Give it a whirl. See if it drives your crit partners crazy).

Write because you love to write, whenever and wherever you have the space and time. It's Holy. A skyscraper H. Find your center in your words. Share them and make the world better. Uplifted yet? I'll share this, too, from Verlyn Klinkenborg, who wrote at the end of a piece in the NYT last June:

Whenever I teach older students, whether they're undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn't acquire earlier in life. They don't call that skill the humanities. They don't call it literature. They call it writing -- the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn't merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it -- no matter how or when it was acquired -- knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.