Painfully Honest Critiques

Generally, I do not take criticism well.¬† It’s just something about being told I’m wrong that rubs against my grain, especially something I’ve been trained to do or something I’ve done out of habit for a long time.

The one exception to this is criticism of my writing during workshopping.  I handle criticism pretty well in workshops Рusually because whoever is criticizing me is right.  My boyfriend, for example, is also a writer and does an extremely thorough job obliterating my work into smithereens.

Not that I mind, of course.  When your work gets blasted to smithereens, you have the chance to go in and make extreme changes to radically improve your work.  Here are a few hints on giving painfully honest and incredibly helpful techniques.

  • If the piece doesn’t make sense, do not hesitate to tell the writer.¬† It’s extremely important, though, that you tell them precisely why it doesn’t make sense.¬† “I don’t understand” is not as good as “Stanzas X and Y mention this element, but then it doesn’t show up again until five stanzas after that at stanza Q.”¬† It would also be important to explain “I don’t see how element T connects to element Z in this poem.”
  • In a poetry critique, nit-picking over word meanings or word choice can make or break a poem.¬† An example: there is a huge difference between “click” and “tick” when referring to the sound a clock makes, and it’s important to tell the difference based on what you mean.
  • Always, always, always make sure you are providing a fair and kind critique.¬† Each criticism should be accompanied by either a suggestion for improvement or an explanation of what you like about the piece.¬† You should never tell a writer “I don’t like X” or “Z is not working” without also saying “…but I like Y” or “…and Q is my favorite part/line/word.”¬† Knowing what does work will help the writer – both by knowing what to change and knowing what not to change.¬† Fair and kind critiques also help ease the pain of a critique as well.
  • Remember: a strong critique should ultimately help the writer and the pain will only be temporary.¬† While it’s a bit disappointing to be told your narrator is flat and the least interesting person in the story, that’s a very important thing for the writer to know: nobody wants to read a story with a boring narrator.¬† Your purpose as a critiquer – or critter, as they’re sometimes called – is to help your friends and colleagues build on their foundation to develop a better piece.

Critiques should be different according to preferences.¬† If you’re not sure what is appropriate, ask the person receiving the critique how in-depth they want you to go.

When my work is being critiqued, I prefer to have the harshest, most painfully honest, and most in-depth critique possible because that’s how I learn and improve.¬† What do you prefer when you’re being critiqued?¬† When you’re receiving critiques?¬† Are painfully honest critiques important to you?¬† Share your thoughts on critiquing in the comments below.

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Workshopping: Long Fiction

Fifth in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines, the second about short fiction, the third about poetry and the fourth on scripts.

Finally, we’ve reached the pinnacle of writing workshop guides: a guide to workshopping long fiction, which means a novella or a novel.¬† Many writers want to focus on these forms, and for good reason: novellas and novels are highly likely to be profitable for the writer, much more so than poetry and even short stories.

For the purposes of this article, we will discuss novellas and novels separately, as they are very distinct and are workshopped differently.¬† We’ll discuss the difference between the forms and the different ways to bring them in or workshop them.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

When bringing long fiction, make sure you have it in the most basic manuscript format.¬† This means 8.5″ by 11″ paper – most often single-sided, but double-sided is okay too – in 12pt. and double-spaced font.¬† Typically, you should use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier/Courier New, since those fonts are easiest to read in long format.

If you want to bring in a novella, keep in mind that novella format is somewhat different from that of a novel.  It is more similar in format to that of a short story: typically, novellas have higher word counts Рover 7,000 or over 10,000 words Рbut are not as lengthy as a novel, which is typically over 40,000 or over 60,000 words depending on the type of novel.

You can also think of a novella as an extended short story: while there are typically section breaks, there are no “chapters,” and each section should transition fairly smoothly into the next without the harsh break a chapter would provide.¬† In that way, it is more similar to a short story, which transitions between section breaks in a very similar way.

When you bring in a novel, you are bringing in a piece of writing intended to be over 40,000 or over 60,000 words as a single completed piece with one plot running throughout it.  Novels are the most common and easily recognizable form of writing, since most well-known authors are primarily novelists.

The best way to give out your novella for a workshop is to give them the novella beforehand, as it might take a longer period for them to read it.  If you are bringing in an entire novel, you DEFINITELY need to give it out beforehand; bringing in more than one chapter Рor if the chapter is longer than about 10 pages in manuscript format Рmay also require handing out the story beforehand.

Long format can be a real tree-killer, so if you’re giving it out beforehand, try e-mailing a PDF to all of your workshop friends so they can either print it out on their own time or use their eReader or computer to get at it.¬† If the critiquers also bring their laptops to the workshop, you can even completely avoid printing out any copy other than your own.

And don’t forget to give them the copies as soon as possible!¬† They’ll need at least a week to get through it.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

When a friend from workshop e-mails you a novella or novel, it’s time to hunker down with a pot of coffee or a cup of tea and get reading!¬† In either case, your biggest hurdle will be finishing the thing.¬† From there, it’s all downhill coasting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no guidelines to reading and critiquing.¬†¬† Don’t forget to look for a few specific things in each of the two.

Novellas

Novellas are generally thought of as “short novels,” and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America consider a novella to be between 17,500 words and 40,000 words.¬† Others count anything from 10,000 words to about 60,000 words, depending on who you ask.¬† Two well-known novella examples: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Orwell’s Animal Farm.

When you read the novella, consider whether or not it can or should be read in one sitting.  The intent of a novella, like a short story, is that it should be read all at once: it should be treated like a short story in that it should have a continuous flow, though they do often contain sections.

Warren Cariou, a Canadian professor of literature, has a good summary of what a novella aims for:

The novella is generally not as formally experimental as the long story and the novel can be, and it usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view, and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.

From this description, it is easy to create a small checklist of things to look out for.  Does the novella focus on the personal and emotional development of the character?  Keep the other characteristics in mind, as well.

Novels

We can divide the critique of novel chapters into three primary groups, which should all be examined differently.  Please note that these examinations should and will differ based on genre and other factors, which may be discussed inf urther depth in another series of posts.

When examining individual chapters, focus on the characterization and development.  Can this chapter almost stand alone as a short story?  Each chapter, if brought in individually, should be understood on its own without the support of other chapters.  Bringing in a single chapter works best for the first chapter, but if the entire group is familiar with the novel, subsequent chapters will also work.

When critiquing multiple chapters, shift your focus slightly to examine the interaction between the chapters.  Is there a flow?  Do the chapters work together cohesively, if not chronologically, to tell a story?

If the writer has brought in an entire novel, I apologize.  After feeling my condolences warmly enough and reading the novel at least once all the way through, you should start by examining each chapter individually to look for characterization.  Each character, especially the narrator, should be distinctive and interesting.  You should also get a feel for inter-chapter flow and whether or not it works.  If not, you have a duty to inform the writer Рand explain why.

Most importantly, you should examine the overarching plot and the subplots of the novel.  Are they believable within the context of the story?  Do they work?  The plot, being one of the most important parts of the novel, should be treated carefully.

Conclusion

Giving a fair and in-depth critique for long fiction can be challenging.  The first challenge is looking at sentence structure to confirm that it is correct and well-written.  You also need to look at characterization and plot development to see if it has been appropriately done for a novel.

One more thing you may want to keep in mind is whether or not the characters and the plot are likable.¬† As the most marketed form of writing – and potentially the most successful – it’s important for the writer to know if he or she is creating something an agent or editor would be interested in picking up.¬† Provided that the point of your workshop is to help writers get published, this is extremely important.

With that, the series on writing workshops concludes.  Do you bring long fiction to a workshop?  Has it helped you at all?

Workshopping: Scripts

Fourth in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines, the second about short fiction, and the third about poetry.  The fifth will focus on workshopping and editing long fiction.

Scripts, including stage plays and screenplays, are quite a different genre to work on in a workshop, particularly if it is a general workshop without a specific genre.¬† (I imagine if you signed up for a scriptwriting workshop, you would know how to critique it and you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.)

Scripts – particularly screenplays, which this article will focus on – are primarily about dialogue, while poetry rarely has dialogue and fiction has less of it.¬† Let’s talk about what you want to bring to a workshop in terms of scripts as well as what you should be looking at once you have the manuscript in your hands.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

Before you bring a script into a general writing workshop, you should probably have a few key points downpat.

First, make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to get across.¬† This can be a bit difficult for beginners – in fact, in the first script I wrote, what I wanted was nothing like what actually appeared in the script.¬† This is important, especially if you want to get good, strong criticism, because you can ask for extremely specific criticism.

You should also make sure the characters have distinct mannerisms, including “catchphrases” or some such.¬† Everyone can associate some specific quotes with characters: “The name is Bond, James Bond,” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”¬† Strong lines like these – though only one is a catchphrase – is the basis of a script.¬† Keep your dialogue focused.

As an added bonus, format the script correctly so the readers have it in proper format, the way a director or actor would read it.¬† It’s very straightforward and simple to do if you write the script in a scriptwriting program, such as Final Draft or the free program Celtx.¬† Personally, I use Celtx, which is the best option for students or newcomers.¬† Programs like Celtx also offer a variety of formats, including screenplays and stage plays.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

When you critique a script in a workshop, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make your criticism as constructive as possible.

First, check if the plot is clear and say something if it isn’t.¬† If the writer brings in a partial script, this isn’t as important, but if he or she has brought in a one-act or short film, the plot must be exceedingly clear.¬† If you don’t understand who the main character is, suggest a way to explain a bit of backstory or characterize the lead a little better.¬† If you’re not sure why the couple is at a dance in one scene and on a lunar base in the year 2074 in the next, ask questions about how they got there and suggest a better or smoother transition.

Next, examine the dialogue and make sure you can tell each character apart by his or her speech, unless the writer intended them to be indistinguishable.¬† Characters should have different inflections – Northerners don’t tend to say “y’all,” for example, and poor peasants probably won’t call young ladies “fair maid.”¬† Each character should speak realistically for the person he or she is, and it should make sense in the script.

One other thing you should probably thing about, though it is purely subjective, is whether or not the script is interesting.  Would you see this play?  Would you watch this film?  If the writer is seriously pursuing the sale of this script, or the sale of any piece, it is important for him or her to understand if and why viewers would be interested.

Conclusion

As usual, when workshopping a script, it’s important to keep the entire thing in perspective.¬† Maybe this part that you don’t understand in Scene 5 makes sense when it all goes together.

It’s also important to remain civil and upbeat.¬† While it’s more than okay to criticize, it’s not okay to put the writer under attack.¬† If you feel like you cannot remain civil in a workshop, please either remove yourself for that piece or simply say a few words, like “I’m not sure what I think right now,” and ask to be passed over.

Remember: if you feel uncomfortable during a critique, let the workshop leader know so he or she can help you.¬† Don’t be scared to do it: that’s what the workshop leader is there for.

Workshopping: Poetry

Third in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines and the second about short fiction.  The fourth will focus on scripts and the fifth on workshopping and editing long fiction.

This week, we’ll talk about workshopping poetry, including how you should format your poems, what specifically to have, and how to go about critiquing it.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

When you decide to bring poetry into your workshop, you may want to make sure you do a few things before actually having it critiqued.

Firstly, go over the poem and make sure all of the words are spelled correctly Рspecifically, that they are spelled correctly according to how you want them spelled.  Because poetry is so flexible in its use of language, spelling things correctly or incorrectly actually can have a real impact on the way it is interpreted.

Your poem should also be in the format you want it to be in.  Poetry, unlike prose, can be formatted in any way you like, because sometimes it is the actual physical position of the lines that contains meaning.  If that fourth line in the seventh stanza needs to be tabbed over two inches, feel free to do so Рit could have a strong impact on your reader.

Once you’ve tackled those two things, you can start in on the actual content.¬† Poetry differs from prose in that imagery is the most important thing.¬† Make sure your images are well-crafted and memorable – while it’s never helpful to use cliches in writing, using cliches in poetry is a horrendous beginner’s mistake because unique ways of seeing, hearing, or experiencing something is the point of reading a poem.

These basic rules apply to all types of poetry, from lengthy dramatic monologues down to 17-syllable haiku.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

There are very particular things you should look for when critiquing poetry in a workshop because poetry has particular needs associated with it.¬† Unlike short fiction or scripts, poetry doesn’t necessarily need a plot – just a theme.

With that in mind, consider the following when you read and critique poems.

Take special heed of what precisely the author is trying to do in regards to spelling and format.¬† As I mentioned above, spelling and format are both pretty important to style and tone, which are vital in poetry.¬† If something is spelled incorrectly and shouldn’t, that needs to come up in the discussion.¬† If something is spelled correctly and shouldn’t, that also needs to come up in discussion.

It’s also important to look at what the author is trying to say and whether or not it’s working.¬† In one poetry class, a student brought in a poem titled “Human Pet” – but the subject of the “pet-like” treatment wasn’t being treated like a pet but rather like an object instead.¬† While that may seem like a small nuance, those small nuances of language are important for the poem to work the way it should and to actually be effective.

As mentioned above, a poem don’t really need a plot because its beauty often lies in the images and texture of the language.¬† Identify and examine each image in the poem and see how it works.¬† Is it unique?¬† Does it make you think about the topic of the poem – or at least the item it is describing – in a new or different way?¬† For example, does that description of a teenage girl’s bangs help you understand why her teacher is in love with her?¬† Does the line about flying crows help you see the underlying beauty in life on a farm?

While all three of these basic poetry-critiquing rules are important, it is the third rule which is most important, because the imagery of a poem can make or break it.  Always take a good look at the images as well as how they tie together; if you can help a writer in your workshop manage this well, it will greatly benefit him or her as a writer.

Conclusion

Workshopping poetry is much, much different from workshopping prose!  If one member of your group regularly brings in poetry, you should probably get yourself familiar with the genre.  Ask him or her what poets his or her work is drawn from and take some time to check a book out of the library.

If you’re interested in poetry yourself after reading this article, I highly recommend you start reading poetry!¬† If you’re inclined towards prose, start out with the poet Ai, who writes in dramatic monologue style.¬† I recommend her collection called Dread – it’s the first collection of hers I have read and it is absolutely fantastic, if a bit dark.

Workshopping: Short Fiction

Second in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines.  The third will focus on poetry, the fourth on scripts, and the fifth on workshopping and editing long fiction.

Some writing workshops are focused primarily on short fiction, which is generally considered to be greater than 1,000 words but shorter than 20,000 words in contemporary writing, though many science fiction magazines prefer less than 7,000 or 9,000 words for short fiction.  Others allow members to bring any mixture of fiction, poetry, scripts, and more.

Here, I offer a few guidelines about short fiction in workshops.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

First off, we’ll talk about bringing fiction to workshops.¬† I have a few general guidelines based on my own personal preferences while workshopping others’ work as well as things I’ve noticed that others do that I like or that bother me as a critiquer.

When you bring a piece of short fiction, please format it correctly.  This is something particular to me, since I want to work in editing and value professionalism, but formatting it in standard manuscript format is also easier on the eyes for those reading your work.

Standard manuscript format for fiction means 8 1/2 inch by 11 inch paper (copy paper standard size) with 1-inch margins.  The font is usually Times New Roman (or another serif font like Georgia or Cambria) in size 12 and usually double-spaced.

Using a standard manuscript format makes your work easier to read.  It might look bigger and take up more space, but readers will be able to read quicker and easier.  It is also easier to write suggestions and corrections on a double-spaced page.

If you have qualms about the amount of paper you’ll use, print it as a double-sided paper and tell everyone to recycle – or collect and recycle yourself after making edits to your story.

Make sure you have finished the story – unfinished stories are difficult to critique because other workshop members won’t understand where you’re headed.¬† Also, make sure you edit once or twice – at the very least, make sure to check for spelling and punctuation errors, which can be so distracting that it’s hard to see the message.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

Reading and critiquing a completed piece of short fiction is much different from critiquing a poem or a chapter from a novel.  You should look for different things than you might look for in a poem or novel.

First, it is important to judge whether or not the story can stand on its own.  Do you understand the characters? Can you imagine the story as its own small world?  Short fiction, as it would be accepted for publishing, is generally meant to stand alone, so the first thing you want to think of when critiquing short fiction is whether or not it stands alone.

Next, thinking about the roundness of the characters might be best.  Do the characters seem like real people?  Are they flat and one-dimensional, or do they seem like there are complex issues going on inside that sometimes scratch the surface?

You should also take into consideration whether or not the story has a clear point.¬† This seems very obvious – “of course there’s a point, Joe and Mia fall in love at the end” – but most publishers of short fiction are looking for stories from which readers can derive meaning.¬† Some magazines do buy short romances, but try to identify a meaning in the story and ask the author if that is what he or she wanted to show.¬† If that was the purpose, then they can rest easy.¬† If not, then it needs some work.

Finally, you should always-always-always give constructive criticism!¬† This is the most important part.¬† And by “constructive criticism,” I don’t mean fawning all over a story.¬† It’s good to actually say that things don’t work in the story because if they don’t, the author needs to fix and improve it.¬† Explain why that sentence is weak and offer a suggestion on how to strengthen it.¬† Let the author know that the secondary character is flat and give an example of what you wanted to see from that character.

Conclusion

In the end, the most important part of the workshop is helping another author.  Workshops are an important networking tool for many writers and also can help the rest of the workshop to become better critical readers.

Short fiction is one of the more marketable types of writing.¬† Through workshopping, authors can help themselves and one another become stronger, more marketable writers, so when you’re doing a workshop, take care of your friends!

Workshopping: General Guidelines

First in a series about conducting writing workshops.  The second part will focus on short fiction, the third on poetry, the fourth on scriptwriting, and the fifth on workshopping or editing long fiction.

As a member of the executive board for an on-campus writing group called UT Writer’s Guild, I’m supervising weekly writing workshops for our in-town members this summer.¬† I’ve noticed a few things that might be helpful to those who want to conduct writing workshops of their own.

1. Establish rules and/or guidelines early on

For a peer review workshop, rules about how to treat the other writers as well as guidelines on what to bring are usually pretty important.  Usually, I set basic conduct rules at the beginning of each session:

  • Treat other writers with respect – you can be firm, you have the right to dislike the work or to criticize, but you do not have the right to be verbally abusive.
  • Read out loud if you like, but we won’t make you do anything you don’t want to – we’re all about comfort and peer support at Writer’s Guild.

However, some workshops Рbe it a general writing organization or a student writing organization Рwill likely also find it helpful to set guidelines about what to bring.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Limit page or line count.¬† If you know that you’ll have 25 people at your workshop, it’s not practical to allow everyone to bring in a 10-page work.
  • Limit exactly what type of work.¬† Maybe your group is a NaNo prep or support group.¬† In that case, you don’t want scripts or poetry.¬† Or maybe you personally know nothing about fiction – then you should run a poetry workshop.¬† You don’t have to do everything, you know.
  • Limit who brings what.¬† I’ll go back to the 25-person example above: going through 25 short stories is never practical for a single workshop, even if it lasts for hours.¬† Assign weekly rotations and let everyone know who can bring in work on which week.¬† Added bonus: you can hand out the work the week before so people can read at home, leaving you more in-workshop time to discuss the piece.

Again, that’s just a sample, but seriously consider making a list of guidelines and rules for your group workshop.¬† As I write this, I’m beginning to seriously consider writing down my rules.

2. Establish a meeting place and stick to it

Everyone’s had it happen to them: attend a meeting, make friends, love the group, decide to come back next week – only to discover the day’s changed, the time has changed, or the place has changed.¬† Sucks, right?

When you’re deciding to do a weekly or bi-weekly workshop, choose a place, day, and time to go and make sure you stay there!¬† If you MUST change it up – for example, if you get a new job or your class schedule changes – make sure everyone knows about the change.

It’s also best if you choose a public location instead of someone’s home unless everyone in the group is very close and friendly with one another.¬† UTWG meets at a coffee shop near campus during the summer.

3. Recruit newcomers to the workshop

This is more or less a no-brainer for every organization, but don’t forget to recruit others to your workshop.¬† Figure out how many people your group can handle each week, then try to reach that goal.

For example, we can comfortably workshop with 4 to 6 people or, if we have more than that, split into two groups so we can have more personal discussions.¬† Usually, about 3 or 4 people attend, so we’re trying our hardest to let the other members know where and when we meet.

Incidentally, you can even use the workshops as a recruitment tool: letting others know that you’re having a workshop may entice them to come.¬† Which brings us to our final point…

4. Network, network, network!

Anyone who wants to succeed as a writer or editor knows that networking is incredibly important, so don’t pass this opportunity up!¬† Talk with other members of your group, get their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and learn more about your local writing community.

Of course, you have to follow up on it.  Check out their blog Рmany writers have blogs about something or another Рand post comments to it.  You may find interesting stuff you may want to recommend to your friends.

There are also other ways that networking can help you.

Social networking is an excellent tool for writers.¬† Facebook has a Groups application that makes it easy to create, organize, and contact your workshop group.¬† We post prompts, links, and meeting times in the group, which makes it easier to see who’s going and who’s not.

Conclusion

There are plenty of ways to create a writing workshop.¬† While it’s good to have freedom in the group, it’s also good to have a little structure.

The most important part, however, is to grow as a writer and to help others in the workshop grow as writers, too.  There are many ways to help your members do so, and the rest of the Workshopping series will help you help others.  Keep checking back here for the next four parts of the series.

Do you attend workshops?  What works best in your workshops?