Monday, June 20, 2016

Giving Your Critique Group an Overhaul

I’ve been in a number of writing workshops and critique groups (and have led some as well) and, in general, I think they’re valuable for getting feedback on your writing. We all need constructive comments and suggestions at some point as well as moral support, and a good group can provide this. Sometimes you might outgrow your critique group or find that the members become less and less objective about your work the more they get to know you personally. And of course there can always be growing pains where writing levels among members end up differing dramatically.

If things aren’t going so well in your writing workshop or critique group, or if it’s just at a standstill or kind of stuck in the mud, here are some possible changes to consider that might shake things up for the better.

~ Regularly Scheduled Meetings – Employing a definite schedule will go a long way in taking your writing and all members’ writing seriously. It will also help with writing discipline since members will commit to submitting their pages by a certain date and use that as a deadline.

~ Regular Attendance – Members who often skip meetings or pull out from submitting their writing at the last minute can put a damper on the group’s morale. Make sure all participants are on the same wavelength and replace those who aren’t dedicated or share the group’s vision.

~ Arriving Early – Set the time of the meeting and make sure that when it begins it will start with the manuscript critiques. If people want to socialize first, have them come thirty or so minutes earlier for chit-chat and catching up.

~ Read Manuscripts Ahead of Time – I’ve heard of some groups where participants bring in 10 pages or so and read them out loud and then get “instant feedback” from the group. In my last blog post I celebrated the art of reading your work aloud, but that was in the context of self-editing and revision. I don’t know about you, but I have a very hard time articulating much useful feedback when I’ve only heard something for the first time and haven’t read it on the page. Since most of us are looking to have our work read on the page by agents, editors and general readers, I think it makes sense to submit work ahead of time so members can read (and re-read) and think hard about what they want to say, and then write comments on the hard copy. Another good practice is to have everyone write a cover sheet attached to the manuscript that offers a summary of general reactions to the piece.

~ Select a Leader – This can be a person who is the ongoing leader or someone who can be changed at each meeting. Meetings will be more focused and will run smoothly if there’s a person in charge who can pay attention to the time and cut off discussion if need be in order to move things along.

~ Organizing the Verbal Feedback - Consider having the leader begin the group with each participant giving their general reactions from what they’ve written on their cover sheet. After that’s done, the leader can then lead the group in a page-by-page analysis. An example could be:

Leader: Who wants to comment on page one?
Greg: The opening paragraph really hooked me with the protagonist’s strong voice and the issue she was grappling with.
Melinda: I liked the opening too, but I was confused as to who was talking when the dialog started in the fourth paragraph.
Leader: Anyone else agree or disagree with that?
Riley: Yes, I was confused as well.
Leader: Anyone else? Ok, let’s move on to page two.

This type of approach is more efficient than a freewheeling style. It’s also specific, which will probably resonate more with the author and hopefully will avoid pointless digressions.

Author Silence – I think it’s important to make sure that the author of the piece does not respond to any of the feedback until after everyone has finished giving his or her reactions. The writer can take notes while this is going on and then ask questions afterwards or offer clarification of unclear areas. An author “arguing” back or wanting to explain things or make a point in the moment will only bog down a meeting. And sometimes things can go so downhill that they will never recover.

When a critique group is working well, the writers will be inspired to go home and write more and look forward to the next meeting. In your critique groups and workshops strive to create an atmosphere where everyone can take themselves seriously as writers, enjoy the process and sincerely help each other.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Improve Your Writing By Reading Your Work Out Loud

I’m always surprised at how many writers, both novice and experienced, confess that they never read their work out loud. They say it’s embarrassing or a waste of time or that they don’t like the sound of their own voice. But whether you’re working on an essay, a short story or book-length work, this can be one of the most helpful methods of self-editing. It doesn’t cost a thing and is a highly instructive exercise.

Reading your writing out loud can uncover the smallest errors on up to major plot point issues. It can also improve your rhythm and pacing and make you aware of wordiness and over-writing. And if you stumble or skip over a passage while you’re reading, chances are it needs rewriting or perhaps cutting out altogether. You may even discover things about your characters that will help you flesh them out in revision. Try using different voices for different characters. Imitate what you’ve heard on a great audio book. Have fun with it!

You can also try recording your voice and listening back or reading out loud to someone else. Or have someone else read your work to you (but make sure they’re a decent reader!).

Here’s a list of just some of the things you’ll be attuned to when you read your work out loud:

~ using the same word(s) in close proximity
~ stilted or unnecessary dialog
~ boring or dead descriptions
~ incorrect use of words (“illicit” when you meant “elicit,” or “inherit” when you meant “inherent”)
~ awkward language
~ calling a character the wrong name
~ plot holes
~ dropped characters
~ places where you don’t provide info
~ places where you provide too much info
~ overuse of the same style of sentence
~ discovery of your “pet” words and phrases
~ inconsistent or “head-hopping” points of view
~ scenes that tend to take place in the same type of surroundings (e.g., restaurants, coffee houses, etc.)
~ characters talking in similar styles

and more.

If you find that you’re making edits on your hard copy (or on the computer) while you’re reading out loud, you’ll know that it’s working.

Give it a shot!