Tag Archives: Critique

Sometimes You Just Have to Get Away

Sometimes You Just Have to Get Away

My husband and I don’t travel much. The last trip we took together, in June, 2012, was absolutely fabulous—to Oahu! But we’re very content to stay in our comfy little home.

Nevertheless, a change of scene can reinvigorate your creativity.

When my friend Shonna Slayton invited me to the Arizona Dreamweavers writers’ retreat the last weekend in August, I jumped at the chance. It was held at the fabulous Breath of Life retreat house in Pine, AZ, up in the mountains. The change of scenery (and temperature!) from the Phoenix area refreshed us. (Click on the smaller image for enlargements and to see captions.)

When the thirteen female writers arrived at the center, they chose their bunks and got started making dream catchers. Throughout the weekend, writing and non-writing activities were scheduled: a critique group, appointments with a massage therapist, kick-start writing prompts, a hike, brainstorming, and an expert panel. Each attendee could participate or not. Some chose to write undisturbed.DSC02822

Friday dinner, three meals on Saturday, and Sunday breakfast were provided, as well as unlimited access to decadent or healthy snacks, coffee, and soft drinks. And the food was delicious. How wonderful to be able to write without meal preparation intruding on your thoughts.Retreat

I passed up on the massage, but I did go on the hike to Tonto Natural Bridge. It was challenging for me, but oh, so worth it.

The highlights of the retreat for me were the critique session and the expert panel.

Six of us participated in the critique group. It focused on the first 10 pages of our work-in-progress. We each emailed our manuscripts to the other critique partners in advance so we could read everyone’s work and make notes before the retreat. I sent in my first pages of The Unicornologist. The consensus of the group is that my story starts in chapter two, which I subconsciously knew but have been resisting. Hearing it out loud, along with suggestions about how to include the first chapter info later on, gave me the courage to work on revamping my opening.

At the panel discussion, two authors shared their publication stories, a publicist shared how she assists authors with their marketing, and a reader for a publishing house explained what happens to manuscripts in the slush pile. Their talks opened my eyes. Did you know that publishing house readers are unpaid, even though most have degrees in creative writing? The one on our panel signed on so she could see for herself the criteria that publishers use to mine the gems from the unsolicited submissions. Only the top 5% ever reach an editor’s desk. Agented manuscripts have a better chance, because they’ve already been approved by a gatekeeper.

The major drama of the retreat was provided by a centipede that invaded one of the bedrooms. Thanks to technology, it was immediately determined that this was a venomous centipede. I decided not to be part of the team that dealt its demise.

Another perk of going to a writers’ retreat is making a lot of new friends. Although everyone knew at least one person there, no one knew everyone. Yet they were an incredibly nice collection of people to share quarters with—fourteen of us in three bedrooms. (And everyone strove to be very quiet after 10:00 pm.) We’ve all promised to keep in touch—and come together again next year.

Retreat 2

Sometimes you just have to get away, learn something new, experience a change of scene, hang out with a group of women you’re not related to, and decompress. It refills the metaphoric creative well, so you have some depth to draw from again. Lots of ideas were generated at the retreat, and we all went home refreshed and inspired.

How about you—have you gone on a writers’ or artists’ or crafters’ retreat? Would you like to hold a retreat for your writers’ group? Share in the comments below.

Monday Morning Wisdom #62

Monday Morning Wisdom #62

Found on Facebook:Question

In the Meme Time: Why Listen?

In the Meme Time: Why Listen?

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Soliciting (and Offering) Feedback

Soliciting (and Offering) Feedback

frustrated-writer-2How do you know if what you are writing is any good? Too often I reread something I wrote years ago (or days ago) and discover it’s shamefully incoherent.

Writing is a mostly solitary profession. We craft the words while we are alone. But we send them into the world at our peril if we don’t get some feedback first.

I am blessed. I belong to a critique group called Tuesday’s Children, a collection of women who meet weekly to read each other’s work and pray together. Tuesday’s Children began almost 25 years ago. I dropped out for about a decade while I worked a full-time job, but the others welcomed me back when I resigned from teaching last year.

I know I can trust these women with my “babies.” They examine them carefully and give me well-reasoned evaluations. Sometimes they change a word or suggest a restructure of a section. Other times they cross out unnecessary passages or propose taking a completely different direction. Although I am not bound by their input, I consider it carefully. My friends have proven the value of their expertise.

So, what if you’re a Lone Writer? How do you get the perspective that honest feedback brings?

Step 1: Join a Writers Club.

I live in a major metropolitan area. If I use an internet search engine to find “writers clubs near Phoenix AZ,” dozens pop up. Twenty-five years ago I didn’t even have internet, but I found a writers club meeting announced in the newspaper.

If you live in a remote area, you’ll have a more challenging hunt. But writers gather in senior centers, book stores, coffee shops, libraries, and church basements, among other spots.

Writers clubs function in a variety of ways. Some offer how-to presentations or hands-on prompts; others celebrate submissions and acceptances, or offer prizes for the most rejection slips (hey, they’re proof you’re putting your work out there—sort of a red badge of courage). They are a source of information about possible markets for your work and what editors are looking for. They spread the word about professional writers’ organizations and conferences. And most eventually get around to critiquing a few short manuscripts each meeting, usually by people voicing their comments after an out-loud reading. The advantages to this approach are you get to hear what others are contributing (and you get to listen to your own words spoken, which is so different than looking at them on a page), and you hear everyone’s take on the work being critiqued. You also learn how to offer encouragement and constructive criticism by observing others.

By the way, don’t be offended by the feedback you receive. Don’t take it as a personal attack. If it feels like one, let it roll off your back. But write it down anyway and reconsider it tomorrow. There might be a germ of truth in there.

If you are unable to find a writers club, adult education programs and community colleges often offer inexpensive writing classes geared to particular genres: fiction, screenwriting, memoir, journalism, etc. You can interact with writers there.

Step 2: Grow Your Own Critique Group.

Writers Clubs are an excellent place to start getting feedback, but most can only take you so far. Clubs are often large groups, and if everyone brings a manuscript, time won’t allow them all to be read, unless the group breaks up into smaller groups. Also, some clubs are made up largely of beginners, with a few experienced writers who sincerely want to help the initiates get to the next level. Sorry, but that makes for a pool of limited expertise. Additionally, many clubs only meet once or twice a month. People are busy, and it’s not easy to find the time.

Yet true growth is only made when you commit to putting in the time. (See my post Sit. StayClick HERE.)

I would recommend you continue attending the writers club for six months to a couple of years. Meanwhile, look for the participants whose work you admire, and also those who give perceptive feedback. They should also be people with whom you feel comfortable. When you can identify six or seven such people, ask them if they would be interested in forming a critique group with you. Set a time away from the club when you can discuss the logistics and agree on expectations. My group meets weekly for about 3 hours, and I would recommend that. The more frequently you meet, the more rapidly you will improve. (Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule—see my aforementioned post.)

3: Give Quality Feedback.

Do for your group mates what you hope they will do for you—carefully review their work and determine how to make it even better.

At our group, we bring a paper copy of our manuscript pages for each of our attendees (usually five or six of us). We mark our suggestions directly on the paper. The optimum length of a passage to critique is 1000 words, about 4 pages double-spaced (please double-space—it’s so much easier on the eyes), but we vary on that as needed.

Try to bring something to critique every week. But even if you have nothing, go anyway, to support your colleagues. Hold each other accountable. Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write. (Family first!) But if someone is being lazy, call them on it. If they’re stuck, help them get unstuck. (Have them write anything—to do lists, childhood memories, anything. The act of writing cures writer’s block—but that’s a post for another time.)

When you read your partner’s work, go through it more than once if necessary. Get the overall feel of the piece, then go back and look at specifics. Try to catch the author’s vision for the piece. What has to happen for the vision to be achieved?

  • If the writer has done something particularly well, be sure to mention it.
  • Correct the typos you see.
  • If any section is unclear, mark it. If you have a solution, suggest it. If not, write a question about the content, so the writer can address it.
  • Cross out unnecessary words.
  • Replace passive words with active ones.
  • If the passage would benefit by organizing it differently, suggest that.
  • Point out redundancies and inconsistencies.
  • Write a word of encouragement.
  • If you know of a potential market, identify it.

I have written this essay from the point of view of a writer, but feedback is valuable—if not crucial—to all artists. What suggestions do you have for finding/giving feedback for your art? Please enter your comment below.