Sparked by Words

Archive for August, 2013

C is for Critique Etiquette

You wrote an amazing book, absolutely the next great American novel that will be on every one of the Ivies’ freshman reading lists, and a blockbuster to boot. Everyone is gonna stand in line at Amazon check out to get their hands on the E version and download it onto their Kindle quick as Jack jumped over that candlestick and singed his tush. Every other writer is gonna burn red with envy and wonder why they didn’t write as magnificent a tome. It’s gonna set the world on fire, they’re gonna award you the Pulitzer in fiction, offer you a million bucks for the movie rights, and that’s just for starters. How do you know it’s so great? Because Mama done told you. Thanks, Mom. Always there for you.

Now get off that plastic star she hung in the backyard so you could always swing from something sparkly, and get that book of yours to a critique group. Let a bunch of raisin faced strangers have at your WIP and tell you what they really think of it. Because if you do submit to a crit group, they will tell you what’s what. And that’s a good thing, because your Mama, the sweet Georgia peach, needs glasses in more ways than one.

This isn’t an article about how a crit group might establish its bounds or how to start one or how sections are assigned to review. It’s to identify the etiquette of being in such a group of writing mentors, to take a minute to consider the rules of the crit playground. It’s to show you how to get the most out of joining in terms of participating and improving your writing. A group’s governing purpose is to bash the heck out of your efforts to point out the strengths and weaknesses of your work so you can improve it before you send it out to editor-land. It might keep your work out of the slush pile and get it slapped up on an agent’s desk. Yahoo!

Remember the other thing Mama always said: make good choices. Join for the right reasons. Crit groups aren’t for the overly sensitive; that kid will walk out sobbing, a drooling puddle of self righteousness, defending his mediocre work all the way to the rejection list. Groups aren’t counseling sessions; if you need to evaluate your life and justify bad decisions, sign up with a mental health group. If you write and want useful, honest feedback about your work, and are willing to provide the same for other members, that’s the reason for joining.

It’s a two way street at these meetings. You need to show up as a reviewer as well as a writer, putting as much effort into each activity. It’s your unwritten contract. You don’t get to be the star at every meeting. Most of the time you’ll be the laborer, putting in a lot of time pruning someone else’s work. Reading another person’s work lets you see the understructure of a WIP. The hidden benefit of this is that it will ultimately help you improve your own writing as you struggle to evaluate and then express your ideas. Listening to other reviewers discuss other stories is another opportunity to determine what people find commendable and what reads as clumsy. You’ll identify the errors you also make, giving you a chance to correct it before you ever present it to new readers. At the end of a session, you’ll have learned much even if your work wasn’t evaluated.

If your crit group submits work a week or a month in advance so everyone has time before the meeting to read it and prepare a crit, spend a reasonable amount of time doing just that. If work is presented at the meeting, two to five pages read aloud by the writer, listen attentively and take notes so you can offer valid advice. If you’ve joined an on-line group, you’ll have plenty of time to read and prep a review. These are three standard options and you’ll develop a preference for one or the other based on how much worthy information you’re able to glean.

As you make your evaluation of someone else’s work, consider the quality and determine how well the author achieved his goal. Think about everything you know about how to write and everything you enjoy when reading. You might write out your review, but don’t try to rewrite the work. It’s still the brain child of that other writer. Remember that his Mama also thought his work was genius so be polite and supportive. Couch your comments with a balance of what you found effective, creative, impressive, and what you THINK could be improved. It’s OK to point out grammar and spelling flaws, but know that these may be indications of some kind of dyslexia and are not a lack of intelligence. Modulate your voice and understand that the world won’t rotate on your evaluation. Be humble, truthful, compassionate, contributive, and honest. And this last is perhaps the most important: Mama didn’t come with you to the meeting, but her advice should have. If you don’t have anything nice to say – well, you know the rest. Be 100% absolutely sure that you say something nice, something positive and appreciative about the work you are critiquing. That’s a human being at the other end of your review, and that person has feelings as sensitive as yours.

Stay on the topic of reviewing the story at hand and refrain from wandering to other topics related only by the fact that something the writer wrote triggered a personal memory for you. Very nice, we’re all happy for you, but keep it to yourself. If you dislike the kind of meandering review that has little time to address the concerns of your story, know that other writers are just as frustrated under similar circumstances. If it isn’t your time to talk, remember another of Mom’s rules: be quiet.

When you’re on the hot seat and it’s your turn to present work for review, submit only your very best work, neatly presented, as perfect as possible, but note that readers are going to find flaws. As the group gives their crits of your work, listen politely and save the rolling eyes, the looks of disdain, the angry outbursts, the sputtering, and the tears for when you’re back in Mom’s kitchen. At the meeting, listen attentively and take notes. Don’t interrupt. These nice people spent two or three hours alone in a dark room with your WIP, trying to get it to stand up straight. That’s a big commitment for a kid that isn’t theirs. Being in a crit group is a reminder that it takes a village to raise a child – and to write a book.

There is certainly a social element to being part of a crit group. We writers spend long hours in front of our computers, composing our stories, creating our plots, imagining our worlds. It’s solitary work at the back of a dark closet. Having a chance to get together with a group of like-minded folk and talk about the subject that empowers and impassions you is like being prom queen – or class clown, take your pick. Whether an on-line group or an in-person one (my preference,) it’s a wonderful chance to chat with people who don’t think you’re crazy when they spot you tooling down the highway, practicing your presentation out loud. It gets you out of the house on a regular basis and gives your computer a chance to catch up on its email.

There’s a third part of the contract, the one you instigate when you get home. First, do what Mama says and wipe those stupid tears off your face. Then sit down and do your homework. The WIP wasn’t perfect – that’s the reason you went to the crit group, remember? Because Mama is always there to pat your back, but the crit group has your back in a different way. Review the entire experience, reading the notes you took at the meeting and the hard copies the “critters” gave you. Make the changes necessary to improve your book. This is a crucial part of the critique group process because if you disdainfully skip this, you just wasted not only the hours spent at the meeting, you also wasted all those hours the other members graciously worked on your behalf. It’s like the time you threw Mama’s hard work at raising you in her face by walking out the door looking and smelling like you lived in a rat’s nest at the end of the alley. Trust me, Mom didn’t forget that one.

You give, you get, and if there isn’t a relatively commensurate relationship in the group, look for another one. This post grew out of my participation in my writer’s critique group. I am still learning how to be a better critter and a better hot-seater, but the more than 10 years’ advice I’ve gleaned from that generous and tough group has exponentially helped me improve three WIP. I am deeply grateful for their sage advice and hope you are as fortunate in joining such an outstanding group. One last little bit of wisdom: when you finally get that WIP polished and ready for publication, remember the people in your crit group and acknowledge all the hours they spent with your unruly baby. Give them a shout out on the acknowledgement page and mention every single person by their full name, right after Mom’s.

In the end you’ll still be following Mama’s sage advice: Keep your mouth shut, have an open mind, and make the best of everything.

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Johnny’s Amazing Invention

Gutenberg Press actual
Let’s gather round our usual meeting place – the computer – and give homage to the one who started the whole thing: Johannes Gutenberg and his amazing printing press. If you can read anything in any language – comic books, contracts, cereal box sides, newspapers, textbooks, warrants, street signs, prescriptions, novels, treaties, name tags, regulations, invitations, film credits, legal documents – everything that appears in print, you owe it to Johnny G’s invention. (more…)

B is for Blog Newbie

Computer mouseI have the reputation of a coward. Among my family and friends who know me well, it’s understood that I don’t have the courage of a mouse on Meth. I’m not just afraid of the dark – I’m afraid of the tunnel with light glowing at its end. Some of my worst fears have to do with mechanical, technical, and digital tasks. Assign me one of those and I’m ready to sign any and all confessions, just don’t make me tackle that job. I fear the knobs and buttons that if wrongly pushed will drop me in the sinkhole below China, especially if the knobs and buttons are icons on a computer screen. Those things terrorize me the most. I might be forever drifting on an unsaved page or trapped in the netherworld of lost passwords.

I am what’s known as a Digital Immigrant, Ha Ha Ha. Ha Ha Ha is part of the title, like LLP might dangle after the business name, Simon and Green, Accountants, LLP. (For efficiency’s sake, I’ll refer to Digital Immigrant as DI.) After all, I was born in the last century. Don’t snort at my bad joke. You may have been born in the last century as well, but just think: everyone born since 2000 is a Digital Native, or DN. Thirteen-year-olds are likely more proficient with a computer than I will ever be. So you can imagine the loud guffaws from my wise family when I announced that I was going to create a writer’s blog.

DI uses the computer for the obvious purpose – it’s the virtual graphite on the end of the Dixon Ticonderoga HTTP, and she is a writer. DI launches her own blog (dreamer.) I wonder what happens if I click on that? Oh crap! DI crashes the computer. DI is on the prowl for computer help. I beg of you, please stop laughing and help me out here. The DN finds me an endless source of computer humor because I know little more than how to open a new document. Any teenagers in the house?

I’ve discovered that trying to manage my own blog site when I have the technical intuition of a newt is like sifting seaweed out of the ocean with a sieve. Barely doable, mostly a failure. WordPress is the management system for my blog. I function at its pleasure like a pop-eyed fan hoping for a sweaty shirt thrown from the stage during a concert.  Throw me a clue, WordPress, show me how to navigate your site. While other bloggers know what to click and what to double click, I’m a fumbler at every feature on the way to posting articles, comments, and images. Any successful post you read on my site – either my son or my good friend J uploaded them. I watched but the process is still not clear to me. I need lots of practice, like a novice heart surgeon needs a patient patient. Neither of us is likely to get a lot of volunteers.

So please be patient with me as I grow Ink Flare. My writing skills and insights are decent (so my mom says) but my computer technology is a work in process. You will see mistakes as I learn to post, edit, insert images, reply, attach, acknowledge contributors. Don’t hesitate to point out the errors. If you want to offer a solution, I’m all ears, eyes, and thumbs, eager to try harder. I won’t give up. My dreams are big and I’m positive light will shine at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve got a colander and I’m off to collect moonlight to light up my tunnel.

A Voice in the Woods

Forest in Gmina Jedwabno, Poland.

Forest in Gmina Jedwabno, Poland by Albert Jankowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A forest in Communist Eastern Poland, 1949

1.     Stop and listen. I have a hard head but my heart is soft and warm. If only you would stay and listen to me. You people, always walking past so quickly and never looking down to see the tiny things of beauty. Someday someone will stop and listen to me. And do I have a story to tell. No, I am not empty headed at all. Take a deep breath. You will need it, because you will suck in and gasp and laugh and be angry but you will not breathe again until this story is complete.

I know about love. Once pressed so close to a heart that it beat for me as well, I was crushed at my waist and bent against the breast of the one who loved me and rocked me to sleep. Of course I am always suspended in that state between sleep and life, but she would sleep, and I would lie in her arms and sing to her, my hair matted into hers. They say I can’t feel pain, but what do they know? I can feel love. Warm and strong, I was pillowed by love, and that love kept me safe. I thought forever, but forever is here. Buried deep, tree roots tangling round.

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A is for Anticipating My First Year

Alphabet SoupHere begins The Alphabet of a New Blog with my first entry, A is for Anticipating My First Year.

A blog is short for “web log,” an individually driven discussion forum available on the World Wide Web where nearly everyone in the cosmos can tune in to a yak farmer in Outer Mongolia to learn the craft of making yak butter, or to an Inuit hunter on the North Slope of Alaska to admire a sled maneuvering over sea ice. The word individual suggests that anyone can instigate a blog, for any reason, and hope to reach the eyes and minds of everyone out there in Computer Land. That’s just about everyone everywhere except the aboriginal tribes of the rain forests of the Amazon. Them we should leave alone. If you own or can borrow a computer and an Internet connection, you can communicate regularly with people you don’t know and don’t owe any money to. In democratic fashion, even with people to whom you do owe money.

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All Fall Down

Caravaggio - Conversion on the Way to Damascus (c. 1600)

Caravaggio – Conversion on the Way to Damascus (c. 1600)

Look on the end flap at the photo of the writer whose book you’re reading. That’s right, the image of the man or woman with artfully tousled hair, a somber expression in alert eyes, leaning on a stack of books. The photos don’t show the lower extremities of the authors, or if they do, legs are covered in slacks or long skirts and tall boots.

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The Alphabet of a New Blog

??????????????????????????????I own about a dozen children’s alphabet books, from the lavishly illustrated On Market Street by Anita and Arnold Lobel, featuring people created of objects of the letter they represent, to G is for Golden by Pam Carroll and David Domeniconi, highlighting the wonders of California where I live. I’m capable of singing the alphabet in the famous Twinkle Star melody or speaking it with dramatic inflection, proof that I’ve learned all the letters in the correct order. Ah, the glory of achievement at a skill well executed. Enchanted with the dependable sequence of the alphabet and the architectural structure of individual letters, I’ve decided to employ English runes to describe the experiences of a blog devoted to writing. My goal is to share strategies, conundrums, and discoveries with you, my writing partners, inspired letter by letter. We’ll resolve our problems, exult over our successes, and nudge each other to finish our books.

Every Thursday I’ll post a new alphabet article, so tune in on August 15 to read about the letter A. (Hmm, bet it’s not A is for Apple.) At the very least, in about half a year we’re all assured of knowing the alphabet in correct order.