Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Week of the Critique

I’ve nearly overwhelmed myself, but I’m plowing through. This is the official “Week of the Critique” for me.

Monday night in my novel writing workshop, I was critiqued by the group and it was my first time. It was a very productive and helpful session. The group talked about my first chapter for about 20-25 minutes and then I got ten very detailed written critiques. I was really impressed with how thorough and how thoughtful all of the critiques were. The best part of getting so much feedback is that I can easily read through each of the ten write ups and find consensus about things that did and didn't work for these readers.

It was a very positive experience and I feel fortunate to have such a great group of people in my workshop. One of the other writers compared the experience to a focus group, and it really was. It was interesting to sit quietly while people debated aspects of character, or discussed interpretations of relationships and dialogue. Charles Gramlich at Razored Zen posted the other day about an article he’s planning to write about the differences between online and actual writing groups. I learned Monday that it’s a huge benefit to listen to several people discussing the work, because many of the things discussed didn’t necessarily come across in the written critiques. This tends to apply to situations where people have made assumptions and find that other readers didn't interpret what they read in the same way.

I’d also gotten a detailed written critique the day before from another friend, so I have a total of eleven critiques of my first thirteen pages!

But now it’s payback time. I need to critique a piece for our next session on Monday, but before that, I have to finish critiquing eight excerpts for a conference hosted by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers this weekend. I’m auditing an agent workshop on Friday afternoon, so the eight actual participants will get critiqued by each other, the agent and five auditors.

I found it interesting that without a specific format for the critiques, everyone does his or her own thing. All of the pages had writing on them, some people chose to write summaries on the backs of pages and some typed up comments in their own format, broken down into categories.

For the sake of standardization, I decided to use the form that one of my critiquers used for my feedback and it seems to be working well. The eight excerpts I’m reading are a really mixed bag. There is one humorous piece, set in post WWII New York City, a historical peace that spans a lifetime, starting in the Ante-Bellum south, there is a modern YA tale with a premise based on technology and computer hacking, a cozy mystery, a coming of age, a historical romance, a thriller, and an action-adventure. Each also has a one page synopsis and it’s interesting to note the differences. One synopsis left me flat, but the excerpt is written extremely well. One synopsis is really good, but the excerpt wasn’t nearly as promising as the synopsis and the rest all fall all over the map. I can't imagine how agents deal with reading and assessing all the queries they get.

The weekend starts on Friday with the start of the Colorado Gold Conference, hosted by the RMFW. I registered for it months ago, so I didn't know it would coincide with The Lighthouse Writers Workshop Tobias Wolff events, which include two workshops and a fund raising dinner! I double booked myself and will have to make choices between sessions and events all weekend and dash between venues all over Denver.

Monday night I’ll be back in workshop, detailed critique in hand.

Whew! I’m looking forward to the weekend, but I’ll be relieved when all of my critiquing duties are behind me for another week.

For those of you who have had experiences on both sides of the critique, what are your thoughts about giving and receiving feedback?


Ello said...

I love receiving critical feedback that shows me what didn't work in a piece. Part of my book is placed in WWII Japan and I just got back a full critique from a Japanese native who corrected all my mistakes, wrong references to cultural aspects, use of wrong names, etc. It was truly eye opening and thank goodness I had the foresight to do that!

Patti said...

when the group is of the same mind, meaning that everyone there is in it to learn, then it can be a very rewarding experience. it can expand a writer like nothing else.

i left a group once because the attitude was of tearing down as opposed to building up. i actually told them at the end of the evening that they made me want to overturn the table in frustration. uh, yeah, that didn't go very well...

i am part of a small online group now that is wonderful. glad you have found a great group.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like you have your plate full for this week. In my experience, the most important part of a critique is how the writer takes it. I try to be thorough and 'not' make any personal judgement statements, but some writers get very hurt and defensive while others are happy for the feedback. I try not to get defensive when it's my turn to take criticism. It can be hard sometimes if you've really worked on something.

kristen said...

I gotta say, I've been surprised to find I NEED the feedback. The trick is to get it from the right sources--the readers who have walked a mile or two in shoes just like mine and who understand the value of being completely honest, but also kind and encouraging.

I'm discovering that it's difficult for me to move on to writing the next chapter if there are big holes or major problems in the one that comes before. I feel like I have to address the gaps before I can proceed (and I'm not talking about minor edits or changing a word here and there, I'm talking about big huge oh-my-god-what-was-I-thinking kinds of mistakes.)

As for giving...well, it depends. There has to be a lot of trust, on both sides, and I tend to tread lightly, but honestly, unless I've been asked to do otherwise. But honest. Always honest.

Sphinx Ink said...

Kudos to you for submitting yourself to this necessary process, and to your group members for what sounds like real, sincere, and valuable evaluations. It takes courage to be a writer, because you must be willing to accept and act on criticism of the work, while staying true to your vision of your book.

Lisa said...

Ello, I admire anyone who does period/historical writing or writing set in other cultures because it takes an enormous attention to detail to keep things accurate! Good for you for having an expert check your work.

Patti, you are so right. I think the key is to have like minded people who all genuinely care about helping each other.

Charles, it is full! 6 1/2 critiques down, 3 to go! I don't know how teachers do it. I think there's a way to convey even personal opionion -- which is to say, "this is only my personal opinion", so that it doesn't come across as a definitive pronouncement. I thought I'd feel more defensive, but when I saw how much work went into the critiques everyone did, I just felt grateful. I think attitude and delivery is everything.

Kristen, I NEED it too! Now that I've gotten some great feedback (thank you Kristen), and I know there are things I'm blind to, I know I'll always want it. I agree that honesty is essential. Once critiquers are comfortable with each other and there is trust, I don't think that should be a problem. It's just getting past that first hurdle.

Sphinx, you've touched on an important point that I neglected to mention. I think good critiques will indicate whether the vision is coming through. If the critiquers seem to be getting something different or urging changes that stray from the vision, it would tell me that I need to regroup and figure out why that vision doesn't come through.

The Writers' Group said...

I've been holding my breath waiting to hear. Good for you!


Larramie said...

Like Amy, I've been waiting to hear as well but only to verify that you were grounded and confident enough to make this a positive experience. And you are! Um, now about your over-scheduling tendencies... ;)

Anonymous said...

Good work, Lisa. I believe that a good writers group who know how to debate an issue without getting personal, who bring a diversity of outlook--and therefore, input, and who understand the process and are genuinely interested in helping is priceless. Not only does it offer valuable help, it offers inspiration and the camaraderie that the lonely writer truly needs.

susan @ spinning

reality said...


i wish I could have my work critiqued right now. I am at that point with my WIP.
Now do tell us what were the general comments you received on your piece. Was there a lot of difference between the comments you received.

Go girl.

Sustenance Scout said...

You're on a roll, Lisa! I love to have my work critiqued but I know what you mean when you're facing a stack of excerpts that require all your attention; it takes a lot of time and energy to provide really useful feedback. So glad your current group is offering up just that. Enjoy your busy weekend! Maybe I'll see you at one of the Lighthouse seminars. K.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been in a critique group since college, but I have occasionally asked writer-friends to read over sections of writing that I am having trouble with...and yes, it helps a LOT.

As far as the giving feedback goes, I think I am better at that aspect of it, because I used to work as an assistant editor, and as a reader for an agent.

Lisa said...

Amy and Larramie, you're the best :)

Susan, I really think I got lucky. I've been amazed at how great everyone has been. In the novel writing workshop, it really helps that it's structured and we have an instructor who's very experienced and keeps everyone focused.

Reality, have you checked into online critique groups? I don't belong to one, but I've seen a number of people on and off on different blogs comment that they do, so they seem to be pretty popular. With your travel schedule land location, it seems like that would be the ideal way for you to get some feedback.

Karen, I will definitely see you!

Mardougrrl, that job must have really given you some great insights!

The Anti-Wife said...

How wonderful that you are able to accept the critiques as positive feedback. You must have a very supportive group.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

creechman said...

"Perfume" reminds me of a song by Pam Tillis.

Sounds interesting though.

Nice left sidebar photo by Scott Mattlin. :)

Ello said...

Hey Lisa,
Thought you would be interested in the book review and interview that I just had with Pat Wood of Lottery. Check it ouf! Pat is a wonderful author and it was fun to interview her!


liz fenwick said...

Be specific as you can......Good luck:-)

Kelly Parra said...

Good for you, Lisa! It really takes guts to share your work like this. I'm glad its working out for you!

Patry Francis said...

Lisa, I can't access your blog very often (some blogger or computer quirk --I'm not sure which) so let me just say how excited I am by all you've accomplished since you first wrote to me and said, "I think I'm going to start a blog."

Wow! You sure did. Congrats on the thriving community you've started, on the writing group (which I'm feeling very envious of right now) and the novel in progress. I can't wait to read it.

Lisa said...

Anti-Wife, they really are a great group and I feel really lucky.

Creechman, thanks for stopping by!

Ello, hey I checked it out and it is a really good interview -- nice job!

Liz, that's good advice -- I know I like very specific feedback myself.

Kelly, it's really been great! Thanks so much for stopping by and congratulations on your book!

Patry, I think it may be a blogger thing -- I have trouble now and then with certain sites too. Thank you so much for saying such nice things and for always being so encouraging. You have been such an inspiration to me from the beginning and Simply Wait is one of the best blogs anywhere. I wish you could come out and hang with my writers' group! Someone always brings wine :) The one here in Denver really came together nicely and once our formal 8 week workshop ends, I hope some, if not all of us will continue to meet. I am so glad to hear from you!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf