Friday, November 4, 2011

How to Deliver (and Receive) a Difficult Critique

So, by popular demand, I've decided to tackle this topic. Again, I'm not an expert by any means. And I'll admit, that while I try to present my critiques in a professional manner, I may slip up on my own rules from time to time. But here are some things I feel critters should and shouldn't do, especially when delivering or receiving a particularly harsh critique.

First, the delivery.

1. Watch your word choice. There are some words that come out of critters' mouths that make me cringe every time I hear them. One of them is "bad." "Bad," to me, translates to "unfixable," and that's not something I ever want to say to someone I'm critiquing. Because nothing is irreparable. It might take starting over to fix something, but it can be fixed. Better to say that something "could use work," or "doesn't work for me," or "in my opinion." It is all subjective, and while the entire group might agree that something isn't working, it's still just our collective opinion.

2. Also watch for flippancy. This is one that I know I need to work on some myself. It can get easy to forget the feelings of your crit group friends when you've been together for years and joke around all the time. You might have a member who always takes joking well, but he/she had a bad day. Or maybe this was a scene he spent hours on and thought he finally had right, only for you to tear it apart and make a wisecrack about it. Which brings me to number three . . .

3. Make eye contact and watch the recipient's facial expressions. If someone looks like he/she is getting upset, ease off. Remind the person that it's just your opinion and it's not personal. Perhaps apologize for being too flippant.

4. Share the pain. When I catch someone making a mistake that I often make myself, I'll share that. If it's something my agent has pinged me for, I'll share that, too, and also share how much effort and pain it cost me to fix it. Misery loves company, and it's nice to remember we're all on the same path together.

Now, on receiving a difficult crit.

1. Never, ever get defensive. Let the critter have his/her say. I think I do pretty well with this, though I'm sure I slip up from time to time. We all want to jump in and say, "But it's so clear. It says so, right THERE!" But to that critter, it wasn't. Now, maybe the critter missed something. But more likely, it's not clear. And so I follow . . .

2. THE THREE STRIKE RULE! I did not make this up, but I can't remember where I heard it first. I think I picked it up at a writers conference. Regardless, I follow the three strike rule. In other words, if one critter says there's a problem, I'll look at it. If two find the same problem, I'll consider it more carefully. But if three or more critters see the same issue, I can be pretty darn sure there's something wrong.

3. Consider everyone's opinion, regardless of where they are on the path to publication. Not every member of my group has the same amount of experience when it comes to writing and critiquing, and sometimes they know something is wrong but don't know how to pinpoint it. It doesn't matter. Your readers won't all be highly experienced writers, either, but if they are bored or confused, they will put down your book just as fast.

4. Admit mistakes. Very often one of my critters will point out a poorly written line and as soon as he/she starts to read it out loud, I'll want to hide under the table. This is similar to the "don't get defensive" rule, but it creates an even greater atmosphere of congeniality when people come out and say, "Yes, I did write like crap there. Good catch."

5. Last, but I think most important--Thank everyone! Whether you agree with a crit or not, your critters took time and effort away from their own lives, their own writing, to try to help you with yours. They may not know how to phrase things, and maybe they make some of the mistakes I've suggested above, but we all put work into our crits, and some are better at presenting them than others. By all means, you don't have to take everyone's advice, but nod and smile and say you'll think about it and thank them.

And that's it! Sounds easy, right? Not so easy when you've rewritten the same scene six times and that one critter says it still isn't working for him. But really, we're not in competition with each other. We all want to see each other succeed. Heck, if one of us succeeds, he/she may open the door for others to follow.

Happy writing!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The List

Some people have a "bucket list" of things they want to do/accomplish within their lifetimes, and of course, I have a mental one of those as well. Some of the items on it include getting published, traveling the world, speaking at writing conferences.

But I have a second list, and this one features famous people who've influenced me in some way. I want to meet/interact with these people, even if it's only for a brief time, like a greeting or a handshake, because these people shaped my worldview, gave me pleasure through their entertainment or writing, unconsciously contributed to characters I've created. And I want to thank them.

I created the list back in college. A few names fell off as they passed away or their public personae changed into people I no longer admired. Many got checked off as I met them.

I've always had this uncanny knack for running into or arranging to run into famous people. Starting at age fourteen when I ended up in a restaurant one table away from Michael Jackson, I've bumped into an unusually large number of famous people.

The best is when they turn out to be just as nice as you always imagined they would be. The worst is when they are egotistical, rude, or have hit such heights that they don't even have time to acknowledge their fans.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this now is that I've only got about four people left on my list (though more will likely be added as time passes). Recently, I got to rub elbows with Sir Patrick Stewart, and I am pleased to announce that he was kind and gracious.

Others who met my expectations or went beyond them include Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, George Takei, Armin Shimerman, Tim Russ, Mark Hamill, Davy Jones, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, and several more writers and performers.

I won't list those who treated their fans poorly.

So, four to go. Anyone know where I might run into Sam Neill, Harrison Ford, Anne McCaffrey, or Dick Van Dyke? :-)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Building Character

A topic that has come up in my classroom as well as my writing group lately is how one creates a believable, well-rounded character. Now, granted, I'm not the "end all and be all" in writing, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt, but I'd like to think my characters have depth and dimension, and here's how I go about creating them.

First off, in my opinion, a writer should know far, far more about his or her characters than the mere information that makes it into the finished manuscript. This knowledge adds layers to a character's personality and actions. It gives the character reasons and motivations for what she does.

Far too often, I read a character in a work in progress that does things seemingly randomly. Usually this happens because the AUTHOR needs for it to happen, and not because it is something that character would normally do based on what we know of the character so far. It doesn't work. If I can't accept a character's action, I can't accept that character. Either the action needs to change, or the author needs to include the character's motivations for doing the action.

Think of it like being a method actor. The actor is performing a part in a play that might show only a small slice of a character's life, but the actor might create background for that character in his head so that his emotions ring true when he portrays the character on stage. He tries to expeience what that character has experienced, tries to live the way that character might have lived. It needs to be THAT REAL to the audience.

It needs to be THAT REAL to the reader.

In my manuscript, we might not meet my protagonist until she is twenty-four years old. But I know that character's childhood inside and out. I know her childhood fears and joys, her desires, even details like her favorite colors and foods. Again, these facts might never make the final draft, but hints of them will. Subconsciously, if you know these details, they will find their way into the writing. The character might think back on these fears and desires when faced with something similar as an adult. It gives the character depth.

Now, granted, sometimes I take this character development to extremes. When I'm really into the writing, I will try to think like my protagonist, respond as she does, view the world as she might view it. Writing assassin characters, I can't sit in a restaurant with my back to the door without feeling like I have a target painted between my shoulderblades. I always try to go for the corner seat, much to the amusement of my husband and anyone else who happens to be dining with us.

Another component to good characters is what they say. Speak your character's dialogue out loud. Does it ring true? Does it sound like something a real person might say? Or is it stilted or out of voice for that character? Is it too intellectual in word choice? Too limited?

I recite most of my dialogue out loud to myself before it ever makes it onto the page. Often I'll repeat the same line three or four different ways before I get it the way I want it, the way that character should really sound.

Some writers keep index cards or files on each character. Others do what I do. Whatever method you choose, be consistent and true to your characters' personalities. Characters should be as multifaceted as any person you meet on the street.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why did YOU join a crit group?

I'm a big fan of crit groups for writing. I strongly encourage writers of all ability levels to belong to one. However, it needs to be the RIGHT one.

My group is awesome! We're a collection of writers at a variety of stages in the process, all with the goal of eventual traditional publication, all with different strengths and weaknesses, different areas of expertise, and different preferences and backgrounds. For example, we have a pair of teachers, several with extensive knowledge of the sciences, a former member of the military, an engineer, and so forth. My contribution tends to be character development and grammar/punctuation, another's is choreography and plot holes, and another is finding errors in our science/engineering elements (many of us write science fiction). None of us are afraid to tell each other where the problems in our writing lie, and though we will sometimes "negotiate" for our points, we all take criticism very well.

But we weren't always that way. We had to build the group to this level. We had to weed out those who weren't serious enough, those who got hurt feelings every time they were critiqued, those who just wanted to be told how awesome they were. Well, actually, they weeded themselves out. It takes about two meetings and one critique for someone to realize he/she isn't ready for our level of feedback and our somewhat fanatical drive towards getting published.

Now anyone can have a rough day, and a harsh critique can really get a person down . . . for a day or two. But the members of my group go home, shake it off, and come back gunning to be better, often with a piece of writing that takes it to the next level.

Which brings me to my title question. Why do some of these people join a crit group in the first place? Crit, meaning critique, meaning there will likely be criticism involved.

Our group president is very up front with new people. We are a serious crit group. We tell it like it is. We try to be polite about it, but if something is wrong with the writing, we will tell you. And if a piece needs to be scrapped and started from scratch because it has fundamental errors at the plot's core or the character's development, even a whole novel you wrote before joining us, we'll tell you that, too. Then we'll make suggestions on how you can fix it.

And people still come, and are shocked when their work isn't perfect the first time they show it to us. Um, if you thought your work was perfect, why did you join a critique group? Why aren't you sending it out to agents and editors? Or did you just jump in to get praise?

I've talked to people from other groups who complain about members who give any negative feedback at all, as this is "discouraging." They don't want to be told they aren't good enough, but if they were good enough right now, they wouldn't need a critique group. That's the point!

And quite frankly, if you can't take constructive criticism from a group of your peers, you are NOT ready to query agents and editors who will care a whole lot less about your feelings and send you enough rejection letters by mail and email that if you printed copies of them all, you could wallpaper your living room. They won't tell you how to get better. They won't say their comments with a smile. Most won't even use your name. They don't have time for that kind of hand-holding.

So the new question becomes, do you want to be published, or do you just want to play at being a writer? Because writers revise and rewrite and start over from scratch even fifty pages in, and consider everyone's opinion and choose the ones that make sense to them to fix. They listen to those farther along the path than they are. Heck, I hang on every word that comes out of my mentors' mouths. I have two friends who are published authors who give me feedback, in addition to my wonderful group, and if they tell me something is wrong, then 99% of the time, there's something wrong. And I try to fix it. Because I want to get better.

That's why I joined a crit group.