Saturday, March 7, 2009

Critique Groups and Self-Editing

Becky Levine and Linda C. McCabe


It has been over a month since I last posted.

I have not been hospitalized, abducted by space aliens or any such dramatic excuses. Nor is it due to me running out of blog topics. Nope, I have just been busy writing. And editing. Again.

The biggest part of writing is the re-writing process.

One of the most difficult aspects of re-writing is recognizing what works, what isn't working and what needs to be changed.

My writing club held a series of editing workshops this year and we were fortunate enough to have a roster of wonderful speakers. One of which was my friend Becky Levine who spoke on a topic near and dear to her heart: critique groups.

She was able to use her workshop as a "testing ground" for her forthcoming book by Writers Digest books on the very subject of critique groups and how to critique other people's writing.

How to offer constructive criticism that will help others to know what works and how things can be improved. It is in the process of using your analytical eye on another person's work that you can then recognize things in your own writing that had heretofore been invisible.

Because the writer is always too close to their own work to really see it objectively.

Becky has been a member of various critique groups for about twenty years and she stresses that the purpose is to help writers improve their work, but never to get them to write a different book. It is the individual's work and the writer determines what advice is taken and what is rejected.

Her preferred critique group structure is one where pages for review are submitted a few days before the meeting. This allows for thoughtful consideration of the work rather than immediate response to the text.

Becky gave handouts which included a form for a written critique. She includes questions for the reviewer to answer such as:

Character: can you identify the hero (main character) in this scene? Has the author written a hero that a reader can sympathize or identify with? Does the hero's personality show complex, even conflicting, traits? What would you do to strengthen this character as the hero?

She also includes spaces to discuss Plot, Description (settings and people), Dialogue, Point of View & Voice, as well as Scene Structure.

Becky insists that when writing a critique that you always start with something good. We are dealing with people's creative sides and their egos, so find an area to praise. Becky did not allow for the possibility that there would be nothing worth praising. She adopted her "stern mother voice" if someone wanted to skip that part and directed them to find something to admire.

After starting with praise, then move to areas where you see weaknesses. Identify areas where you were bored, confused, or taken "out of the story." If you had a negative response to the text and try to identify why it did not work for you. Offer suggestions such as "what would happen if...." or "Have you tried..." Then end on another note of encouragement.

Face to face interactions are important, but it is the written critiques which can sometimes provide the most lasting help. They might be filed away for months at a time and then the tangible bits of advice are used later during revisions.

In regard to the in person critique group meetings, Becky suggests that only one person speak at a time with the writer being critiqued remaining silent. That is unless there is some confusion and questions for clarification. However, one should remember that most readers will never have the writer there in person to answer a question so if there is confusion in the text, it may need to be addressed in the revision process. (Unless that is a deliberate aspect of the story such as a clue or red herring designed to make the reader guess the solution.)

If while another person is giving their critique you think of something you wish to add, jot that down in a note rather than interrupt. You will have your turn to speak.

Overall, Becky did a wonderful job presenting how best to conduct yourself in a critique group and it reinforced many of my thoughts on the subject. I look forward to buying a copy of her book The Critiquer’s Survival Guide, due out in Fall 2009.

I had meant to do this write up about Becky's workshop shortly after it happened, except I ran out of time. I was busily preparing myself for a week-long plot intensive workshop sponsored by Free Expressions. It was the Breakout Novel Intensive known by its participants as BONI.

The classes were taught by literary agent Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.



Donald Maass


Mornings were filled with lectures, but they were more like motivational seminars fused with writing challenges. Donald Maass is an excellent public speaker who has great passion for the subject of writing and drama as well as a quick wit.

During his talks we were barraged with questions about our characters, plot points and challenged to make things worse.

One of the first exercises was to consider the main character or hero of the story, identify defining characteristics about them and then consider what the opposite qualities would be. Then find a way to show both the ideal and its opposite in the first five pages.

Here is the notes he wrote on the easel for that day:



I realized while listening to that lecture that I had those elements built into my first chapter, but they had not been brought out sufficiently. In challenging myself to find a way for my hero to show a negative quality, in this case to be disrespectful, I had to make him hurl an insult.

A nasty insult to a superior officer.

That afternoon I worked on implementing the homework assignment. My first attempts were a bit lame, but it was a break through for me to allow my hero to do something against his nature so soon in the story.

I was excited to print out my new revision to show to the critique group that night. We were assigned groups according to our genres and I was fortunate to be a part of an incredibly lively (and bawdy) group of writers.

One of the reasons I signed up for the BONI workshop was to discover what was wrong with my first few chapters. I had good luck in getting agents interested in seeing my work, so I knew that my premise and pitch were working. However, none had ever asked to see more pages.

I had received some feedback that the beginning seem "too distant." I had been polishing the chapter for so long that I could not understand what was being asked of me to change.

I brought those comments to the fresh eyes of my BONI critique group members and it was as if I had given a sock to bloodhounds in a fox hunt. One person mentioned that when I used the term "ominous" that they wanted more. Another thought I should cut it, but then I began challenging myself to give more personal stakes for my hero in that first scene.

It was as fireworks were going off in my brain. Later that night I stayed up late re-writing the first chapter and including the new insights. I fell in love with the story again.

I also want to personally thank one of my critique group members who helped me tremendously in how to increase the insult to the ego of my antagonist. By changing the dialogue slightly, without changing any plot events, he showed me how to increase the size of my hero's cojones.

And, the insult that I am now using to end my chapter wound up flowing from my lips as the group brainstormed. Thank you, Lucien.

Lucien Nanton


The afternoons were designed for you to have time to work on your writing as well as the time set aside for one on one consultations with faculty members who read portions of your work and synopsis.

Here is one more snapshot of a morning workshop's notes which is in honor of my friend Terri Thayer. During the discussion, there was mention of some designer quilts going for as much as $100,000 to collectors. Donald Maass showing his quick wit decided to change gears and switch topics from scenes to quilts.

Not really, but it was funny and led to several rounds of puns tossed out by people throughout the room.




I have found after going to my writers club meetings that I feel energized. As if simply being around other creative people releases endorphins into my bloodstream.

Interacting with the other BONI students was fantastic. Many were veterans of other Maass workshops, but all were serious writers committed to bettering their craft. So even when I wasn't at class or in a consultation, I was networking with other writers.

The week spent at BONI took my natural post-meeting high and amplified it tenfold. I felt as if I was on mental steroids.

Seriously. I had trouble sleeping, because my mind was so fired up. I rested, but could not really get into deep sleep because of the intense mental stimulation wouldn't allow me to shut my mind off.

It took me several days at home before I was able to revert to my normal sleeping patterns.

One of the last bits of advice Donald Maass gave to us was to take 20-30 pages of our manuscript and throw them off a staircase so that the pages are in disarray. Then take another 20-30 pages and repeat the process. Do this until the entire manuscript is out of sequence. Then edit page by page for microtension.

Ye Olde Grading by Gravity trick.

The rationale was to force yourself to look at each page in isolation to identify weaknesses and avoid getting "caught up" in your own narrative by doing it in sequence.

I have begun that process and am about a quarter of the way through this round of edits, but have not yet entered any into my computer. Because I am fearful of potentially introducing continuity errors by editing out of sequence.

So I shall wait until I have finished this round of edits and then enter them sequentially. I am finding areas in my manuscript that were a bit heavy on exposition that can be tightened and/or changed to dialogue.

But I now have a new focus and energy toward making this manuscript as strong as I can make it.

Write on!
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