Friday, October 24, 2014

Advanced Critiquing: Using Facilitative Feedback

Erin's post yesterday offered a great primer on effective critiquing. Today, I want to build on her ideas to offer some specific strategies toward becoming an outstanding critique partner.

One of the most rewarding parts of the writing community is the support writers give each other, often through feedback and critique. I have been humbled and awed by the generosity of my fellow writers, time and time again.

2012 06wwfc lettinggo v2 600

But critiquing can be intimidating, particularly if you're new to writing. It's scary to give your precious words to someone else. It can be even more daunting to try to respond to someone else's words--especially when you're not sure what to say. Or how to say it.

That's precisely what this post is for.

In my other professional life, I'm a writing instructor at a university. I spend a lot of time giving student feedback. I've also taught classes to writing tutors, helping them learn how to give feedback to others. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time thinking about and researching effective feedback.

Here are some things I've learned.

Strategies for Successful Feedback

1. Pick your battles. You don't have to comment on *everything.* In fact, getting a story back that looks like this often makes writers want to go and hide--not read your detailed feedback.



Choose those things that are going to help the writer the most. When I comment on student papers, I try to focus on 2-3 things per page, and then a closing comment that highlights two or three things I liked about the paper, and two or three suggestions for revision. This is a useful rule for beginning critiquers as well.

2. Focus on big picture issues. Since, in theory, our feedback will help the writer revise his or her work, it's not always helpful to focus on surface issues or line edits. Instead, in early drafts, consider issues of pacing, characterization, plot, setting, and so forth. Word choice and punctuation can wait for the final edit.

3. Use Facilitative Comments Instead of Directive. What do I mean by this? Keep reading.


Directive Feedback

Directive feedback tells the writer what to do. It's often brusque and dismissive, and research studies have shown that it's far less effective than other types of comments.* Three common kinds of directive comments include

Negative Evaluation: This is pretty self-explanatory. Any comment that gives a value attribute to the writing: "This passage is boring." "This prologue sucks." "Your writing is awful."

These kind of comments are easy. But resist them. Every time you make a comment like this, you wrack up negative writer karma points. And trust me, no one wants those.

Imperatives: Imperative statements tell the author what to do. Cut this sentence. Page break here. Format your paper with 10 point Comic Sans. Of course, sometimes writers do need to be told what to do--but phrasing your comment as a suggestion rather than an imperative often comes across much better.

Corrections. "Fixing" the prose. Sometimes writers do get things wrong and need readers to help them out. And that's fine. But the majority of your feedback should not be simply correcting the text. That doesn't help the writer in the long run.


Facilitative Feedback

 On the other hand, facilitative comments focus on helping the writer help themselves in future revisions. If you're not sure what kinds of things to tell your writer friend, consider these options:

1. Advice: If you have ideas, couch them as a suggestion instead of an order. For instance, "What about starting your story here?" instead of "This story starts in the wrong place. Start here."

2. Praise. Erin mentioned the importance of positivity yesterday, but I think praise is often underestimated. My students are often as ignorant of what they do well as they are of their mistakes. Sometimes we don't know our strengths until someone else points it out. I heard an author once talk about the first time she got feedback from her agent. He didn't praise anything, so she assumed he didn't like the things he hadn't commented on and changed the entire story. Don't do this to your friends. Tell them what you like.

But for praise to work, it has to be specific. It doesn't help a writer to know they have a great character. But it might help them to know that the character is effective because she is funny and relatable, and to point to specific passages in the story where we see this about the character.

3. Questions. If you're confused about something in the story, ask! Questions are often a non-threatening way of indicating a problem with the story--consider the difference between asking "Why did the MC decide to act this way?" versus responding "This is totally out of character. I don't believe it."

4. Reader Response. Probably the most valuable thing any beta-reader or critique partner can do is simply articulate their response as a reader: "This scene confuses me because . . . " As authors, we can't always gauge how readers are going to respond. If readers are responding in unintended ways, this may indicate a problem in the story.

5. Interpretive. In addition to articulating your emotional response as you read, sometimes it's helpful to describe what you see happening in the story. For instance, "This character strikes me as moody and arrogant here, but that seems at odds with other presentations of this character. Was this intentional?"

The image below shows some of these facilitative comments in action (though you may have to zoom in to read them!)







 Giving good feedback takes work and effort--but it's definitely worth it. Not only does it let me invest in writer friendships that make my life richer, but I have learned nearly as much about writing from giving feedback as I have from actually writing.

What kinds of feedback do you personally find most helpful? What about most annoying? 








* VanDe Weghe, Rick. "Awesome, Dude!" Responding Helpfully To Peer Writing." English Journal 94.1 (2004): 95-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Lunsford, Ronald F. "When Less Is More: Principles For Responding In The Disciplines." New Directions For Teaching & Learning 1997.69 (1997): 91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.




 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Five Things You Need to Be Awesome at Critiquing

Critiquing someone else’s words can be daunting. 

A crazy lot of years ago, when I was writing loads of picture books and poetry and before I finally gave in to the itching insanity of trying to write a novel (which had started to pester me, but I was still attempting to ignore), I sat in on a critique group led by a friend of mine who is a successful novelist. She and a few others were reading and critiquing the pages of writers who had paid for written critiques. 

I watched my friend open an envelope and listened to her read the first few pages. “I don’t even like her,” she said about the main character. “I don’t care what happens to her.”

Oh. Hmm. Yeah, the reader should probably like the person they’re reading about, right? Or, at least, care about what happens to them next.

Interesting. I hadn't ever thought about that before. (Yeah, I'm slow.) 

Sure, the story hadn't pulled me in. And I definitely wasn’t sad when she stopped reading. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why that was. 

Fortunately, I didn't remain completely clueless. 

But I do wish I'd learned these five things sooner. 



#1: You need experience. 


Read, read, read! Read published novels, read your writing friends’ manuscripts, read scenes and pages and chapters of anyone and everybody who asks for new eyes to read them.

And then....form opinions!

I'd only critiqued picture book manuscripts and poetry. I didn’t know a thing about writing novels. Sure, I read a lot of books, but I hadn’t taken the time to notice how the author did it. I just enjoyed the story.

But over the year as I read loads of manuscripts written by friends and members of critique groups and workshop attendees, I learned. I learned what seemed to work and what didn't. Experience takes time. Be patient with yourself. 

#2: You need trust. 


(This is one I still struggle with.)

Trust yourself! If you’ve read a lot and written a lot then you probably have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. 

When you critique a manuscript you might hear a little voice every now and then say, “Something seems off.” Or maybe you’ll get a weird nudge or, who knows, an electric jolt in your elbow. There are so many times I hear that voice telling me something is just not working in a manuscript, but I ignore it, thinking it’s just me that has a problem with it. But then I’ll meet up with my critique group and someone else brings it up. And I always think, I should’ve listened to that voice. (Sometimes this voice also tells me things about my own writing that I ignore. Luckily, my critique group says it again. And I usually pay attention the second time.)

You are the reader. If something seems strange (and not in a good way), doesn't fit or doesn't make sense, make a note of it. 

#3: You need the knowledge that you are NOT the writer. 


At least, you're not the writer of the manuscript you're critiquing. 

Now this is a tricky one to remember. 

Sometimes when we critique someone else’s words we find problems we want to fix for them. We want to tell them what we think should happen next or suggest how to up the tension or point them in the direction of where we think they should find the love interest (ok. I’m totally guilty of that one. Right, Rosalyn?)

But that’s not your job when critiquing. You don’t need to tell them how to fix their words or their story or their characters. Your job is to tell them what you think does work and what you think doesn't work. That's it. It’s their job to then take your input, choose what they want to use, and make their story better.

Now maybe the writer will ask for suggestions or want help brainstorming and that is, of course, a completely different kettle of fish.

#4: You need positive words. 


I’ve been in critique groups where people have burst into tears and bolted from the room. Sometimes I've been the one who's given an overzealous critique and then realized later I was much too harsh. And I’ve also been on the receiving end of critiques where I am left feeling as if I’m the absolute worst writer in the whole entire known and unknown universe. (This also includes all alternate universes, realities and dimensions.)

Don’t forget to tell the writer what's working in their manuscript. Yes, you need to keep your critiques real. False praise isn’t going to help anyone improve. But, if you can, find the good. Where are their strengths? do Do they excell at world building? Is their magic system unique? Do you love the concept of the manuscript? How's their dialogue? Maybe...eh...they're really good at punctuation? Find something!

I've been in groups where each critique starts with people sharing a few things they liked about the manuscript. What a great way to support each other! 

Now I have to say, I've never intended to be unkind when critiquing. And I would venture to say others don't either. But I think we often get so wrapped up in finding the problems with the story that we forget to shine a spotlight on what the writer did right. 

Mother Teresa said, "Kind words can be easy to speak. But their echoes are truly endless." 

It's never a bad thing to have kind words echoing around in your noggin'. Especially when you're up late at night trying to make a scene work, right?  

#5: You need time. 


Critiquing someone else's words is an effort. It requires you to read and then often reread. And maybe even read it again. You have to think about their characters and world and plot arcs and language and...yeah, it's a lot. 

But if you want to be good at critiquing then do it right. Put the same amount of effort and time into critiquing others' manuscripts as you would want others to put into critiquing your manuscripts. (This is called The Critiquing Golden Rule. Yep. It's totally a thing. At least...it is now.) 

What do you think it takes to be awesome at critiquing? 

-----------

Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Books, Passion and Friendship

Please welcome Megan as our most recent guest blogger!

I want to tell you a story.

Hi, my name is Megan. I am mildly willing to admit I may have a problem with books. Problem is probably not the best term for it. I have an obsession, a mania, a philia. Some might call it a Gentle Madness.

In my home I have over 5,000 books. Books that I have never read. Waiting in piles for me to find time and energy for consumption. These piles around me used to be piles of guilt, but it was fairly recently that I discovered, even on the day I die, I want plenty of books to choose from. There is a certain sadness in thinking about only having one book left to enjoy in this mortal world.

But these piles of books are not my story.

Or not the story of today. Once, in my dark past, I used to be a person with lots of piles of books and a blog. These things were the entirety of my book passion. I was silent in my love for books until I was able to start describing them with poorly chosen sparse words. It was through my blog and twitter that I was able to connect with  other passionate book lovers. It was through these connections that I was really able to hone down what type of books I loved to read and talk about.

There is something a little hipster about it, but I loved dystopian fiction before it was cool. Before anyone even knew the term as a concept or genre. And that was how Lenore and I "met". Lenore Appelhans is a dystopian reading, cat loving, book person. We blogged about LOTS of books and read and discussed a few together. But Lenore lived in Germany, so opportunities for our physical lives to cross paths were slim.

One day I up and bought a bookstore, and one day she announced a book deal.

 The way the world converges is just fascinating to me. My bookstore has at least 15,000 books piled up around me. The guilt is gone and the hope that these books will go to homes where they will be enjoyed, loved, devoured, consumed fills my daily life.

The special honor of  selling the books by friends who weren't published when we first connected. As it happened Lenore's first book was a dystopian young adult novel (these are my favorite kind of books) AND I now owned a bookstore where I could push it upon the masses. In a nice synchronicity of it all, Lenore's book came out on my birthday.

This weekend we were able to meet in person for the first time.

And that is my poorly written, meandering story. The way that life can be kissed with kismet and that the form of realty can have completion like that of a fiction.

------------------------------

Megan O’Sullivan realized her life’s dream on May 10th 2012 when she purchased a used book store in Cedar City, Utah. Born and raised in Connecticut, she moved to Cedar City in 1999 back when she was young and foolish. It is still, to this day, one of the best bad decisions she ever made. You can read her rarely updated blog at poseysessions.blogspot.com and find her on Twitter at @poseysessions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Quality Characterization

I recently saw the play Wicked while on a quick girl's trip to Vegas. There were all sorts of things that sent my writing brain on fire, from the layout of the theater, to the people attending the play (including the woman who had *significant enhancements* and wanted to share with all in attendance), to the production itself.

But each time I think back over the experience, I find myself marveling at the characterization.

If you have seen the play, you know that it centers around two women - Elphaba and Glinda. They are as opposite as two people could be, but as the play progresses, the audience can't help but laugh and long with them. The whole first act, Glinda has energy and popularity to burn with significant over-dramatization of ditziness. And Elphaba is quiet and reserved because of her (spoiler alert) green skin that has made her an outcast, but we get to see her in quiet moments depicting incredible compassion.


One of the reasons I like to go to plays is because the characterization has to be spot on. Sure, there are some tricks of the stage, but if the character can't carry the play, there is no play. Take your favorite play and think of your favorite character. Then ask yourself how many other people, in how many other countries, like that same character? Does the play have five years of success? Ten? More?

Why?

If we think about well known play characters - Phantom, Val Jean, Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle, all of them have qualities that make us love them, and things we wish they would do differently (I hate that Mary Poppins leaves Bert).

It would have been incredibly bizarre to see Elphaba in pink just as it would be ridiculous for Glinda to suddenly lose touch with fashion. Phantom will never dance at a disco, Val Jean isn't a practical joker, Mary Poppins would never pop a hip while walking away and Eliza Doolittle won't be releasing a rap album at the conclusion of any play. The characterization we envision for our characters needs to be the same - and strong enough that someone proposing something that goes against our character's nature will be completely clear.

That doesn't mean a character won't undergo changes - they will because people do. But it needs to stay true to characterization in a way that keeps the change plausible.

What are your favorite sources for character inspiration? What are your favorite character transitions?

-------------------------------

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Meeting Your Daily Writing Goals: Accountability

You have a deadline coming up.You know how many words you need to write each day to meet that deadline. You have your headphones and your beverage of choice on hand. How do you stay accountable to those daily writing goals?



Accountability and group reporting

My writing group and I have a Facebook message thread that we use to bounce ideas back and forth. This month, we started an accountability exercise. It's simple. At the end of each day, we report in our word counts or progress with other writing-related goals (e.g., writing a synopsis, working on an outline, revising a chapter). I am speaking for the others based on their daily reported progress -- having to report in to the group on a daily basis has been highly motivating for all of us.

Some suggestions to make group accountability exercises work:

- Celebrate each others' successes.
- Provide encouragement when others don't meet their goals.
- Be honest with your self-reporting.
- Don't make excuses.
- Give yourself allowances for those hard days. You're only human.
- Don't give up.


There are other daily/regular writing groups that can you may utilize to accomplish the same sorts of things as my group's message thread.

Write Club: A Twitter-based group where writers band together from all over the world on Friday night (or at other times throughout the week) to do 30 minute sprints. Word counts are reported in using the hashtag #WriteClub. Follow the Twitter account @FriNightWrites for sprint prompts and visit their website for schedule of sprinting times.

5amWritersClub: Is morning writing more of your thing? Reporting your daily word count using the hashtag #5amWritersClub will connect you to a group of highly motivated morning writers like yourself! Check out their website for their story and the history of the hashtag.

Do you have a writing community that helps you stay accountable? Please comment below!




Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read all of the books on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty backdrops of her stories. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

50 Questions for Your Outline

I have been working on the outline for my WIP for the last month. 

Actually (*cough*cough*) it's been...more than a month. 

Anyway, I'm using Tasha's brilliant technique and I'm LOVING IT. Seriously. It has changed the way I think about EVERYTHING. (Ok. Maybe not everything. I hated pickled beets before. Hate them now. How can my husband even put those near his lips?!) 

But I’ll tell you what, I’m still struggling with this plotting beast, trying to make all these scenes and characters and THINGS combine into a satisfying story that makes sense? And keeps moving? And changes the main character? And is full of emotions and all the senses and... And! And! And!

Wow. It’s a lot, right?

So, I went through loads and loads of notes in my WorkshopJournal. I scanned a few articles online. I got some advice from other writers. And I put together this list of questions to ask myself about my outline.(These would also be excellent questions for a cruddy first draft.)

 


1: What is the conflict?

2: Can you deepen the conflict?

3: Can you suck other characters into the main character’s problems, thereby broadening the conflict?
 
4: How do you hook your readers on page one?

5: What are the mysteries in your story?

6: Do you have a foil character which exposes the main character’s flaws and/or strengths?

7: Does your main character start in a hole wanting something?

8: What is getting in her way?

9: Why does she want what she wants?

10: What is the inciting incident?

11: What are the sub-plots?

12: What character flaws are stopping the main character from getting what he wants?

13: What external forces are stopping the character from getting what he wants?

14: How does the main character try to fix her problems?

15: What are the consequences of her attempt?

16: How does she try to fix it the next time?

17: And then what are the consequences?

18: How does she attempt to fix the problem for the third time? Is her attempt an all or nothing goal?

19: What mistakes does your main character make?

20: What is the mood of your story?

21: What is your setting?

22: Is your setting unique?

23: Is there a way to push it, to make the setting different?

24: Do you have misdirection in your story? Any red herrings? Will your readers think they know what is going to happen? But then you trick them?

25: What are the surprises and twists in your story?

26: Does your story start with action?

27: What kind of plot does your story have?

28: Are each of your characters unique?

29: What makes them special?

30: What are your characters’ secrets?

31: Have you created a sympathetic main character? How?

32: What do your characters fear?

33: Is your story building up to something big? Can you make it bigger? 

34: Is every scene more exciting/interesting than the scene before?

35: Who/what is your antagonist?

36: Why is he/it doing what he’s/it is doing?

37: How can you make your main character’s voice unique?

38: Is the story constantly moving forward? How?

39: Does every character serve a purpose?

40: Do you have any characters you could combine in order to lessen the chance that you're creating character soup?

41: How do the events affect and change the main character? 

42: What tools does your main character have to gain in order to win in the end?

43: How do you make the climax the big thing?

44: Do you have a ticking time bomb? If so, what is it? How does it escalate the tension? 

45: What are your characters’ back stories?

46: How do their back stories affect their actions?

47: What is the history of your setting?

48: How does it affect the story?

49:  What mistakes does your main character make? And what does he learn from them? 

50: What is your story's theme?


What questions do you ask about your outline or first draft? 

--------------------------

  Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Failure and Knowledge

It takes me about 7.62 times of starting a story to get it close to right. It will feel a little right, but then not, repeat, repeat, repeat. I'm normally not a fan of go back and edit because progress gets thwarted, but if the beginning is really, really off, there isn't enough in the middle or end to get it back on track. 

I spend a LOT of time in the beginning thinking, researching, reading, thinking. And each time that I have to start over, the whisperings of failure start appearing in my mind. 

"What if I never get this on track?"

"What if this isn't really a story?"

"What if my characters are meh?"

"What if I'm not really a writer?"

"What if I'm the biggest fraud that ever lived and my family has had to deal with me ignoring them and I have put all this time into something and cried tears and laughed joys and all of it ends up with me being a great big sucking loser?"

Ahem. That last one may be an exaggeration. Maybe.

Image Source
My high school writing students are finishing their second story of the year and they are starting to know enough to understand the story isn't where they want it to be, or to feel that something isn't working, but they don't know (or read) enough to know what and why and how to fix it. We do a couple days in class of what we call "Decrapification" where they have the chance to edit and tweak and fix and ask me questions before the final is due. I can see the stress on their faces as they recognize what they just wrote might not be the next multi-million dollar novel. 

My daughter recently performed a piano duet with her cousin for some judges. They felt their two pieces were where they needed to be, played reasonably well, bowed, and sat down while the rest of the students in the session had their turn to perform. One of the other partners played a piece that was the same as my daughter's. 

They played it better. 

And I'm so glad they did. 

As she was sitting there, my daughter commented on dynamics, speed, enjoyment in the performance, etc. She is starting to know enough about music to understand the elements in her performing that weren't as good as the second one. She saw where she did some things better, but how those some things didn't count as much when the bigger elements (playing up to speed for one) weren't present. 

I can't think of a single author who, either while writing or going through their first edit, doesn't make comments about how it is splotchy, or too big, or too vague, or, or, or. Sometimes they can identify on their own what needs to be fixed, sometimes they have to rely on supporters/editors/readers to point it out. 

But all of them learn something during every single book.

But for most of us, that failure that lingers in our minds is an invitation to learn - learn more about the craft, about the characters, about the business, the writing life, the time it really takes to accomplish a goal, what we, as the creator, need to do to pursue and not punish. Those doubts that creep in should be greeted with a "Well, so and so does it well, and I might not know how, but I know they do." Self-degradation isn't the highest form of productivity and bemoaning that something is wrong doesn't make it better. It is dedication to continually improving that makes well-known authors well known.

What do you do when failures arise? Any favorite resources when the learning needs to be amplified?


-------------------------------

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here