Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups III

Okay, so in the last post about critique groups, I mentioned ground rules and that I would do a post about the afore-mentioned ground rules in critique groups. There’s plenty out there on this topic, but I’m going to talk specifically about those that I felt helped everyone get the best out of critique, and gave everyone a fair shot at both receiving and giving critique.

Before I get into ground rules, I just want to mention the obvious, which is that critique groups work best when they meet regularly and face to face (whether online or in a coffee shop.) It adds a level of accountability and helps everyone maintain a level of momentum. I recommend once a week or once a month at a set time. How much time you spend can vary, but generally, the groups I’ve been in settled on an hour of focused work. In those groups, we exchanged work a week prior to the meeting, to give everyone a chance to read thoughtfully and make notes and comments. (If the author has specific questions they’d like the group to consider, it’s good to include that with the work when it is shared. ) This seems like a small thing, but it leads to a better, more thorough critique, though I’ve known of groups that read the day of the meeting. Here I’d just like to leave a reminder that I’m talking about what has worked for me.

Some folks prefer to handle the process of critique organically. But the best experiences I’ve had is when ground rules have been established. Ground rules can be as extensive or as general as the group needs, but I think the more basic the better.

The first ground rule about critique is that work shared within the group is not meant to be shared with anyone outside of the group. Obviously, this is to help establish trust. No one wants their word-baby exposed to the world before it’s ready.

The second ground rule, generally, has to do with structure. At the beginning of the meeting, the group will choose which piece to go over first, and then go in a circle, allowing everyone to offer critique. It’s best during this time for the author not to interrupt the feedback, to just take it in and then ask for clarification at the end. This helps to eliminate cross-talk, which is the biggest criminal in terms of sucking up time. Cross-talk is going to happen no matter what. In CLAW, with Rune Skelley, we came up with a safe-word to get everyone back on topic when this happened. It is possible we had way too much fun with that…

Anyway, at the end of that first round robin, it’s usually time to pick the next vict… er… piece and start over.

The third ground rule that we developed was to leave grammar and spelling out of the discussion to focus on the content of any given piece. Largely this was because the author generally received a rough or digital copy with those things already pointed out, so for purposes of the meeting it was redundant.

Last was not so much a hard and fast rule as it was a suggestion, and that was to remember the management technique of “the compliment sandwich.” You know what I’m talking about, when the person says, “Well, I think you do a really good job with x, but y needs some work. This z, however was really great.”

Obviously, due to the nature of what a critique group does, that y section takes up a lot more words. But it is as important to note what is working about another author’s work. Sometimes that can point out a solid direction for rewrites as much as the rest of it.

It would sometimes happen that in a particular week we didn’t have work to look at. When that happened, we’d choose a topic regarding writing to discuss and sometimes we’d pull out writing prompts to do, just to get the idea engines moving.



Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Waiting for the Muse

Ah… the muse. This is an idea that comes from Greek and Roman mythology wherein there are 9 goddesses who inspire. Usually personified in the singular, the muse is responsible for providing inspiration. While it is certainly a seductive notion and it can sometimes feel, during the process of creation that some magical force is guiding the work, there is no muse. The muse is you. The magic happens during one of those rare moments when all of your accrued skills are working in tandem more beautifully than you think is possible on your own. But it is still you.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is another excellent way to prevent you from finishing things. I’ve said before in this series that not every moment of the creative process is joyful. Sometimes its painful, sometimes, the words are sluggish, or you feel distracted, or some other activity seems more promising. The idea of the muse, though, is pervasive and there are ways that this notion hurts writers beyond preventing us from finishing drafts, which I’ll get into later.

I repeat, the muse is you. Inspiration or story ideas come from everywhere, overheard conversations, a news story, a science article, something you and a friend were talking about, weird notions that present themselves to you in dreams, that guy that made you angry at work, or any number of things. The point is that inspiration comes from the real world around you, it is what happens in the creative person’s brain that turns it into magic, but it doesn’t turn into magic unless you roll up your sleeves and turn up at the page regularly, prepared to work. Working writers often have a host of rituals, tips, tricks and processes to court ideas that lead to craft. Rune Skelley has two awesome writing prompt generators to help get the creative juices flowing. If you use them, you might not end up with a story that works, but you will be working on craft and generating ideas that are new to you and could lead to something greater.

There are books out there that contain nothing but writing prompts if you need a jump start. There is no quick and easy fix to courting inspiration, but my advice is to try new things and most importantly, pay attention when you are out in the world. You never know what will capture your imagination in a useful way. If you wait for the muse to strike you might never reach your goal, which is a finished draft. When you do have one of those moments where a story arrives in your brain, seemingly complete, embrace it, celebrate that, but recognize that it is still coming from you, and don’t wait for the moment to arrive. Chase it down, make it happen. And that’s all I’m going to say about the self-sabotaging aspects of the muse idea.

The muse is a pervasive myth about writers and artists, that I think is detrimental in a couple of other ways. Everyone knows that there are frequent, and necessary, conversations in writing communities about paying the writer. (I would extend that to paying the artist, just to broaden the conversation. It is a bad problem in the arts. I should note that my fave business blog can be found here.) There are a lot of factors that lead to writers and artists not getting paid for their work, but I think that this notion of the muse has something to do with how art and the work of art is perceived.

The idea of the muse adds to the perception of non-creatives that art itself is not actually work, or that if it is work it isn’t hard work. If the perception is that all creatives are inspired by some genius that comes from outside of their own effort, that makes it easier to justify not paying artists. And that, my friends, is just disgusting. Those of us in the trenches know that creating is fraught with challenges and difficulty and it is a hell of a lot of work, sometimes with very little material reward. Yes, we do this because we love it, we can’t imagine not doing it, but it isn’t magic. It takes time and effort. A magical muse did not dump a story or painting whole cloth into our laps and say, “Sell this and reap the rewards!” To be honest, I don’t know if I would be interested in this work if it was that simple.

Anyway, that’s my perception of the muse. What do you guys think?

Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Chasing Markets or Shiny New Ideas

Another way that writers prevent themselves from completing a first draft of a project is by chasing things that are a) moving unpredictably or b) new and more interesting by virtue of being new.

Chasing the market is when you start paying attention to what everyone else is doing/writing/selling and the ambitious side of you adopts the seductive idea that if you write towards trends that you’ll have a better chance of producing publishable material that people will want to represent or buy. The problem with such a strategy is that by the time you are hearing about a trend, the trend is either already changing or there are writers out there who have completed drafts of work that speak directly to the trend. You also might want to consider whether or not you have a genuine interest or accrued knowledge about the trend in question. The bottom line here is that if you stop work on something that you’ve made real progress on in order to write to a trend, you are killing a project before you’ve given it a fair shake. Finish the thing you started.

Consider why you were drawn to writing fiction in the first place. For most of us, it’s because we fell in love with stories and wanted to start telling our own. I’m not saying that in the process of creation you will love every minute of it, but do the thing that personally as a reader and a writer excites you. Check trends when you have something finished and see if the finished piece matches. Chances are you will, by virtue of talking to readers and writers, be aware of trends already, regardless of whether or not you happen to be tracking them.

There are many roads to publication, but crafting with trends at the forefront instead of placing the story at the forefront is a good way to keep you second guessing yourself, and to keep you from finishing. This is one of those areas that I advise trying to compartmentalize. When you are working on fiction, work on the fiction, and if you have to, carve out some time to stay updated on the publishing world and consider your goals. Do not let that distract you from making progress on the work. You have to put the work first or none of the other information about publishing will matter. Keep in mind I am talking specifically about first drafts for novels. Things with short stories can be a bit different with calls out for themed anthologies. Do it if the theme and genre excite you, don’t just do it to be mercenary about submitting to as many places as possible.

The second thing I think is one that we all, at some point, fall prey to: the shiny new idea that hits you just as you are gaining momentum on a project. I think this happens to every writer. We’ll be working on a piece and then something tangential to the main story will suddenly grab hold of our imagination and give birth to a new idea. Because the new idea is new, unexplored territory and we haven’t hit the point where that new thing feels like work, sometimes we’re tempted to chase it in favor of the thing we’re working on. The advice here is not to disregard the shiny new idea, but to write it down and come back to consider it later.

Something that has started to happen for me, when I put that into practice, is that while I’m working on the current draft the new idea sort of percolates when I’m doing other things not related to writing. Details about the new idea will arrive when I’m at the day job or doing daily household maintenance. It doesn’t hurt to write those down when they arrive, but keep working on the current project, and hang on to those notes. The notes for the shiny new idea will help give you direction when the current project is done and you can dive right into the next first draft when it is time to let the current project sit for a few days or weeks which will enable the critical distance needed for editing. Doing this instead of abandoning the current project is a habit that will help you maintain momentum in writing fiction. It also prevents you from scrambling for ideas on the next project because you’ll already have something you can build on.