Working with a Critique/Feedback Group

The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) runs a winter and summer writing ‘challenge’ programme. This is an opportunity for small groups of members (3-4) to meet online once a week to read and offer support and feedback on current works in progress. The aim is to produce a first draft manuscript over a 3-5 month period.  Currently we have an 80% completion rate and interest in the ‘Challenges’ continues to grow.

For those of you who have never been a member of a critique group, what kinds of things should you consider before taking the plunge, either with ARWA or with your own writing group?

Being a member of a critique group involves both Giving and Receiving.

GIVING:

1) Tread with care. It seems to be human nature for us to remember the negative things people say about us rather than the positive. There’s a line in the movie You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” She responds with, “It’s PERSONAL to ME.” Writers who offer their work up to peers for review are putting themselves on the line.  If you flat out say ‘I don’t like it,’ that’s as good as telling someone their baby is ugly. If something doesn’t work for you, try and figure out why.

2) Focus on the positive. My personal creed is to preface my feedback with at least 2-3 things I liked about the manuscript and also end on a positive note.

3) Ensure your comments will help the writer tell the story s/he wants to tell, not how you would write it.

4) Try to find out what the writer wants from a critique.  If they ask for something specific – eg I think my hero might be too unsympathetic – then focus on instances where a little tweaking of a word/action could turn that around.

5) If you feel the writer has a lot to learn, don’t try and overwhelm them with feedback. Concentrate on the one thing you feel is most important to address in that week’s particular submission – eg POV, passive voice etc.

6) Try to give at least one checkmark or ‘nice’ on each page –  eg. for a piece of dialogue/description etc.

7) On a personal note, if I’m critiquing a hard copy of a manuscript, I prefer to use a pencil rather than a pen.  If I’m commenting digitally, I will use a grey font colour rather than a coloured one.  (Never use red – too much like school!)

 

RECEIVING:

1) Make sure you take note of the positive things people say about your manuscript.  Sometimes we only hear the bad things, so be very careful you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if/when you decide to do a rewrite based on the feedback you receive.

2) Most feedback is subjective.  (Remember the dozen or so editors who turned down Harry Potter?) However, if you have two or more people saying the same thing – eg POV/weak characterisation – then that’s maybe something you should look at.  However, you might also get into a situation where 2 people like something and 2 people don’t. Who is right and who is wrong?  It’s up to you to decide. It’s your story.

3) Don’t defend your manuscript or get into an argument over it. If someone doesn’t get what you’ve written, they don’t get it.

4) A discussion is not the same thing as an arguement. Discussions can be very useful.  For example, going back to the unsympathetic hero, I might make a suggestion which the writer doesn’t like – eg what if he helps an old lady across the street –  but that might trigger a comment from someone else which does work for the writer, or at least sets the writer on the path to find his or her own solution.

5) Remember, this is YOUR story.  It’s up to you to decide whether or not to use the feedback you’ve been given.

 

Advertisements

Everything I know about writing… Part Two

Most writers can usually come up with a great beginning to a story and a cracking end, it’s all that muddy stuff in the middle that’s the problem. Yes, yes, I’d read all about three act structure, rising action blah-blah-blah, but I just wasn’t getting it.  And then I happened to go to a workshop given by Michael Hauge.  He described structure in a very particular way, and…  Ping!  ON went the lightbulb.

All of his information is on his website and in his books – but it was his description of the important mid-point of a story that really captured my attention.  He describes the midpoint (50%) as The Point of No Return (PONR).  In an airplane, the PONR is when the plane does not have enough fuel to return to its point of origin but must complete the journey or crash. (Assuming that it’s flying over ocean with no other places to land available.)

A story consists of two journeys: The Outer Journey (plot) and Inner Journey (hero’s transformation). Once you reach the PONR, neither the plot nor the hero can go backwards.

In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan and his team come to town to investigate a rumbling volcano. He tells the mayor (Linda Hamilton) that the volcano might blow or it might not – he’ll only know for sure if sulphur leaks into the water system.  (Outer Journey/Plot.) In his personal life, his former girlfriend was killed in a volcanic eruption several years ago and he’s not had a relationship with a woman since. (Inner Journey.)

Close to halfway through the movie, Pierce takes Linda back to her house after a date.  At 50%, they kiss in her kitchen. (Not a commitment, but this is the first time he’s kissed another woman since his girlfriend died.) They’re interrupted by her son, who wants a glass of water.  When he turns on the tap, guess what he finds?  That’s right, sulphur.  The mountain is going to blow.  In both outer and inner journey, they’ve reached the PONR.  There is no going back for mountain or man.

But that’s what works in movies.  What about books?  Literature?

Jane Austen is one of the most accomplished and beloved authors of all time, and I doubt she ever read a How-to writing book in her life.  Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, is about a man who must overcome his pride, and a woman who must overcome her prejudice.  Open the book halfway through (or check out the 6 part BBC TV series at the end of episode 3 and beginning of episode 4) and what do you find?  Darcy proposes to Elizabeth – the most insulting proposal ever – and is shocked when she, quite rightly, refuses him. With what she knows about him, she vows he’s the last man she’d ever marry.  His pride several dented, Darcy returns home to write Elizabeth a letter in which he acknowledges that some of the things she accused him of are true, but he also puts her right on some of her mistaken beliefs.  On receiving the letter Elizabeth then begins to question her prejudices.  This couple still have a long way to go before the story is over, but from this point on, neither is able to regard the other – or themselves – in the same light as before.

The PONR is a powerful tool in structuring your story.  Now click on Michael Hauge’s website and check out what he has to say about Opportunity, Change of Plans, and Major Setback.

Happy writing.