Posts Tagged ‘critique groups’

Since this is a writers blog, and many of us have already discussed the value of a writers group, I’d like to express what this means to me. What Stonehenge has done for my writing, how, and why. And how you can start your own. Maybe even join ours.

I’ve often expressed that I wrote a book before I knew how to write, but how did I learn? Well, with a solid group and a little dedication, it could mean the equivalent of a free MBA, and practical world experience. Many of us have degrees in various arenas, some of us are subject matter experts. All of this helps, but is it all necessary?

What’s important is you find a solid group of writers with similar goals. Certainly, the quality of the writers is valuable, but what matters more is the feedback. The ways critiques are expressed, the format of the meetings, their frequency, and measurability of improvement.

Here’s the way we do it. Of course, this doesn’t mean this is the way it must be done. Certainly, there are other formats that work better for different people, but I would highly recommend starting with something similar.

  • Frequency: We meet every week. Some believe this is too often, but I’ve found that a small core group of people show up every week, and everybody else will show up when they can – some every other week, a few only once per month. Personally, I attend every week. It keeps me motivated to write, gives me a reason to get out of the house and socialize, allows me time to meet with friends and professionals of the same mind, and always forces me to improve upon myself.
  • Reading Aloud: This is one of the most valuable tools any writers group should use on a regular basis. I stated above that different formats work for different people, but all writers groups should read each others’ submissions. Aloud. Why? The flow of the language, the clarity of ideas, realistic dialogue, pacing, word choices, the sound of grammar and sentence structure, transitions, and simply to catch anything that otherwise would be difficult to uncover. This alone has been worth its weight in platinum.
  • Submissions: This can vary from group to group, but here’s what works for us. Depending on the tenure of our writers, volunteers bring in a 2-6 page submission to be read aloud by peers. We have nights where longer submissions are preferred, and they are detailed below. But why, do you ask, are they so short? Well, it is amazing what can be intuited about the rest of a piece by a short slice of it.

Advantages of Short Submissions: The writing style of the author can be quickly determined. Have they developed their voice? How is their pacing, sentence structure, formatting, grammar? How do they show emotion? Action, reaction, interaction? Does the short piece capture the attention of the reader? What is the driving force of the scene? Does it move the plot? Short submissions can be read aloud, which aforementioned, is one of the most beneficial experiences a writing group can have. More often than not, focusing on short submissions, (especially if brought in consistently), will also indirectly affect the next section.

Disadvantages of Short Submissions: Here are a few things that short submissions cannot directly capture. How does the overall story flow? What are the main plot points? Are they consistent? Does the story follow an overall structure – such as the three-act structure? What are the overall themes? Are the questions posed at the beginning getting answered in the end? What are the character arcs? How does the protagonist change? What about the antagonist and supporting characters? And the big question, how are all of the aforementioned points addressed in a group that works primarily with short submissions? Keep reading, we’ll get there.

  • Format of Meetings: There are usually 10-15 writers at each of our meetings, and 5-7 submissions total. The submitter brings a copy for each of us, (sometimes we need to share), and the submitter chooses somebody else in the group to read it aloud. While the piece it read, we mark up our copies. Some of us are strong with grammar. Others – pacing and flow. Others still – word choice. Tense agreements, dialogue flow, clarity, brevity, transitions… When the reader is finished, each of us take a turn expressing our overall impressions of the piece. And because time is a factor, our finer points are left on the page, to be read by the submitter at a later time. During this time, the submitter must allow the rest of us to express ourselves, but it is very important that we do this correctly. Writing is personal. For many of us, it’s difficult to accept criticism. We are a self-conscious bunch, and when one of us musters up the courage to bring something in, it is the responsibility of the rest of us to be aware of that when offering criticism.
  • Difference Between Opinions, Qualitative, and Quantitative Analyses: Writing is an art, first and foremost. But as with any art, there are rules – well, more like guidelines. Grammar and spelling are mostly quantitative – meaning they are hard, measurable rules that do not vary much, except over the span of decades and centuries. (But that’s for a different post.) It is important to know the rules before we can break them, but since writing is an art, there are many opinions on the matter. These are more qualitative analyses, and as close as we can come to becoming scientific, it ultimately comes down to opinion. So this point is important when discussing others’ work. They might not have the same opinion as you, and that’s okay. When offering criticism, speak in a positive, encouraging manner, but always be truthful. Some of us prefer a more blunt method, others need a lighter touch. And it is the responsibility of those who submit to listen. Listen. Do not speak unless clarity is necessary, of if there is a misunderstanding. Our group is a little more open about this than others, as I believe healthy, respectful debate can oftentimes root out the real issues, and get to the bottom of a problem, but this needs to be managed by a facilitator. Someone needs to be in charge who will keep the night rolling, keep the meeting from getting bogged down. This is a must. But still, every member of the group needs to understand that most of what we say is based on opinions and experiences. And we have a variety of members who come from many walks of life, which is fruitful because of the differing number of perspectives. And now, after the critique, it is up to the writers to decide which suggestions they approve, and which ones to discard.
  • Change It Up: As mentioned above, short submissions are highly beneficial, but are not the keys to everything. We have featured author nights – where one author submits a long piece ahead of time, and is critiqued before the meeting. There’s the option of choosing Beta readers for finished manuscripts that are discussed outside of meetings. Make a night of discussing outlining, or industry evolution, or story structure. I find that once per month, changing up the format of the meeting keeps the members challenged, increases learning, and sparks highly interesting discussions.

So if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of a writers group by this point, try to join one and see for yourself. It might take some time to find one that works for you, or one that has the right mix of fun and work, or even one that offers critiques in the right manner, but if you haven’t tried, or if you haven’t yet found the right one, keep searching. I recommend searching meetup.com to find one in your area, or start one yourself. And if you haven’t already, check us out at meetup.com/Stonehenge.

Writing is a journey. It’s work, but it is also a passion. Be consistent, know your value as a writer, be realistic about where you’re at in your journey, but keep those passions and goals alive. Never lose yourself, never lose that spark of life you infuse in your work. And most of all, have fun doing it.

I’m a nice guy. I like fuzzy critters, love my wife, and get all squishy when I think of my first child who is on the way. I can watch a Disney flick and feel uplifted or a comedy and laugh. Friends are awesome, and I live for a good hug.

But I have a dark side.

Despite my sweet disposition, I’ve always been pulled toward the shadowy, lurid, and nasty in literature. Don’t ask me where my fascination with the horrific comes from because I can’t tell you. I do know it’s been there as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child, the one that now haunts me in implication, was an obscure Dr. Seuss with a melodramatic black and red cover. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a simple story really. A poor boy in a long ago kingdom must remove his hat in respect for the king. Unfortunately, every time he takes his hat off another appears on his head. Well, there’s a serious downside for young Bartholomew. People who don’t remove their hats for the king get their heads chopped off. Green Eggs and Ham it ain’t. Why was I drawn to such a dark tale? I don’t know. My attraction just is.

Now, the biggest problem with loving horror is that most people don’t. They wonder why you want to feel bad when you read. Or they think you perverse as they imagine you entertained by death and gore in the same way they are entertained by American Idol.  Being a horror junkie is right next to porn perv on many people’s list of, “What the heck is wrong with you?” It can really get a gorehound down.

With reading, it’s not a huge problem. Reading is private. Reading is safe. When I’m asked about the nature of the book in my hand, a simple, “It’s horror,” is enough to send the majority of folks on their way with just a vague feeling of unease. And if they stay? Well then, they’re probably my people. They’ll get why I keep a list of the best, most awful books I’ve ever read (Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door tops it, by the way). The point is, when reading there’s only minor risk of judgment.

Writing is a whole different animal.

Your writing marks you in a way that reading does not. The words on the page are yours. They are fed by your experience, cobbled together in your mind, depend on your fingers for their existence. Yours. And when people judge it, they point a finger squarely at you. When I present images of torn panties and severed heads, strangled pets and devoured infants, incestuous mothers and child beating babysitters, well, I’m forced to own them. And there is risk in that. People conflate artist and art. Sick art means a sick mind, and illness makes many close the door. When I present my work I tend to wonder, “What must they think of me?”

But here’s the thing. Not everyone sees the art as sick, twisted, and wrong. I’ve had the same depiction of sexual assault derided as disgusting fantasy and praised as aggressively feminist, and I’ve had the same gore soaked scene called excessive and tame.

And therein lies safety.

Art only belongs to the artist until the moment it’s released to the world. From that point on, it belongs to the audience. It doesn’t matter if I intended a tale of bloody infanticide to create rumination on the nature of evil or just to shock the hell out of people. Once the audience has it, the rumination is theirs, the shock is theirs, the judgment is theirs. If they think your work is brilliant it’s because it appeals to something in their head, their heart. Alternatively, it’s their sense of perversity that makes your story excessive, not your excess as an artist. People may be angry at your story and furious at you for writing it, but that affront is their responsibility. The writer generates. Interpretation belongs to the audience.

So, here’s my advice on the choice to write extreme fiction. Be a channel for the stories that choose you as parent and stay secure in your own sense of who you are and what you intend. If you think you’re the next Richard Laymon, go for it. Forget about judgment. It’s out of your hands.

To quote Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

I couldn’t agree more. It is through reading that we grasp how the written word brings other worlds to life. I think it’s safe to say that storytelling has existed just about as long as language has. Every time we tell someone about an experience we had, we are essentially telling them a story. Granted, they aren’t always good tales, but none-the-less, they are still stories.

In just over the last year, I’ve started listening to audiobooks while I work, since it doesn’t interfere with my job. It’s actually how I revisited Stephen King’s On Writing. But here’s the question. Does listening to an audiobook count as actually reading?

I say yes, and no. I think if you have a good grasp of how the written word is properly used, then yes, it can count. Maybe not wholly, but at least a fraction, say 1/3. I often find myself imagining that I’m reading the words as they’re spoken. I also say yes, because you’re exposing yourself to the art of storytelling. However, the reason I say no, is because even though I see the words in my mind, I don’t see the way they are on the actual page with all their punctuation and style. This is why if I have the print copy, and the opportunity, I occasionally like to follow along by reading while I listen.

One of the first audiobooks I listened to at work was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The reason why I listened to the audiobook in the first place, was because I couldn’t stand the writing style employed in the print book, which doesn’t contain quotation marks, and with certain contractions, doesn’t include the apostrophe. I should note that this is intentional by McCarthy, and is part of his unique style which he employs in his other books as well. Many of which have been made into movies. Unfortunately for me, I find I dislike reading his works. However, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Road, as it is a great story. I will add though, that some liberties were taken with the wording in the audiobook version, as certain parts were changed so that it read easier.

In my own writing style, I tend to use a lot of commas. It’s my way of setting the pace and cadence of my writing. I know I don’t always follow the proper rules on the use of the comma, but I’m aware and acknowledged it. It’s my style, and, as much as I’m disheartened by the thought, I’m sure that there is someone out there who won’t like my style, just like I don’t like McCarthy’s.

It’s often been said when it comes to writing, that first you need to learn the rules, so that you can properly break them. Many authors have said this in some fashion or another, and even the Dalai Lama has a similar quotation attributed to him. I’ll admit, in high school, English wasn’t my favorite class. I just couldn’t seem to care what the difference was between a participial phrase and a prepositional phrase. My teachers always praised my writing, so I figured, what did it really matter if I didn’t know all the terms and their differentiation. But when I started taking my writing seriously, I realized that I needed to bone up on my English. I still don’t think you need to learn all the rules, as there are quite a lot of them, but I will admit learning the basics is essential, and any extra beyond that helps. This is where I think reading a lot comes in handy. The more you read, or even listen to audiobooks, the more you absorb how language is properly used. You subconsciously absorb what sounds and looks right on the page.

One of the main things I’ve come away with from being a part of this writing group, is seeing how others interpret my style while reading my works aloud. As a member of Stonehenge, when we submit our works for critique to the group, the author chooses one of our fellow writers, sometimes several, to read aloud what we’ve written. We do this in order to see, or rather, hear, how others interpret our written word. I find this to be extremely helpful.

So, even though my advice isn’t brand spanking new or even a good twist on an old theme, here it is. If you want to be a serious writer; write, read, and listen to audiobooks. And, learn how to properly use the English language so that you can improperly use it effectively.

Stephen King recommends the classic, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I would add to that, A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker. I will also add, that one of the many beauties of the internet, is that almost anything can be found online. If I feel something I’ve written just isn’t quite right, it generally only takes a minute or two of searching to find myself saying, “Doh, that’s what I meant to write.” There are a good number of grammar based sites out there on the web, but one that I find the most helpful is by Mignon Fogarty, AKA, Grammar Girl @ http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

What makes Grammar Girl so great, at least in my opinion, is that it’s also a podcast, which means I get to work at two things at once.

So there you are. Now you have my not so sage advice  to being a writer.

P.S. Since this is a blog based on a writers group, I would feel amiss not to add another little bit of advice. Check out a writers group, at least a few times, and even few different ones. They aren’t all the same, and you may have a hard time finding one that fits you, but they can be beneficial. I will say though that they aren’t for every writer. As a matter of fact, some of my favorite authors are against such groups, believing that the cons outweigh the prose. Yes, that’s an intentional pun. But if you don’t ever give them a shot, how will you ever know? Unless you live rurally, I’m sure there’s one local, and if not, there’s plenty online. And if you’re in the Sacramento area, pop your head in some time.

This post is part of my ongoing series inspired by my revisiting Stephen King’s On Writing. To check out the rest, visit my personal blog @ rienreigns.wordpress.com