Tag Archives: Critique

Breaking Up the Band

It happens all the time in rock bands: one member starts turning up late for shows, blackout drinking every night of the week, and/or just being a belligerent asshole. If this member is, say, the bassist or the drummer, the rest of the band will probably kick him out and release a statement wishing him a successful stint in rehab.

But what if the problem child is the band’s founder?

The founder of my writers’ group is getting on other members’ nerves, and one in particular – I will call him Gus – who emailed me last week to ask about my feelings on the matter. Have I noticed our founder’s shift in attitude of late? Have I noticed that his critiques are increasingly condescending and mean-spirited?

In truth, I have not. He can be blunt sometimes, but it hasn’t bothered me thus far. What I have noticed is that our founder – I’ll call him Eric – takes a heck of a lot of long vacations, which results in sporadic attendance on his part. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I was a short story writer, but when it comes to critiquing a novel, it’s difficult to provide valuable feedback on chapter 20 when you’ve missed everything after chapter 5.

breakup-heart.jpgGus sited a few recent examples of Eric’s bad behavior and negative critiques, one of which had bordered on accusing Gus of stealing story ideas from other writers. Gus said he had already spoken to a couple other members, and they were getting fed up too.

I took a diplomatic approach and suggested that Eric may not be aware of his behavior, and perhaps a calm and rationale conversation would set him right. But for Gus, it was too late for diplomatic measures. He had made up his mind. He would leave the group.

I am not one for indulging unnecessary drama, and I did wonder if Gus wasn’t being a little oversensitive. But then another member, Jake – who is as levelheaded as they come – said that he agreed with Gus and would leave with him. As he said, “Writing is hard enough without people routinely telling you your output sucks.”

During my time in the group, Jake and Gus have consistently attended meetings and have consistently delivered valuable feedback. I may not have any particular issue with Eric, but majority rules. If they go, I go with them.

So we’re breaking up the band. Tonight at the end of our meeting, Gus and Jake will take Eric aside and tell him they are leaving the group. And that other members plan to come with them.

I don’t particularly like the middle school “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” vibe to this approach, but Gus and Jake are convinced he will not leave on his own. So we will dissolve and reform as a kinder, gentler version of our group, one that doesn’t involve Eric.

But make no mistake, this sends a strong message to the other members: misbehave and we will shut you down.

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Readers!

I’m in the home stretch on the third draft of my novel! With just a few chapters left to revise, I’ve started to prepare for the next phase of the process: identifying my non-writer Beta readers.

To clarify, I’ve already had several Beta readers in the form of my writers’ group, who – over the past year and change – have given me both encouragement and valuable feedback. And of course there’s my BFF and uber-talented artist/writer Mari, who is my trusted First Reader for every novel, essay, or story’s initial exposure to the world outside of my head.Love Reading

But non-writer readers are a different story, and identifying the right ones can be tricky. It is crucial to select readers who: 1) enjoy reading 2) enjoy reading your genre 3) will be forthright and detailed in their critique while never forgetting that your writing is an essential part of you, like your lungs or your liver. Insensitive or dismissive comments can be hurtful, but even worse, they do nothing to help improve the work.

Our natural inclination is to reach out to our loved ones. They already adore us, so of course they will also adore our writing, right? Maybe, maybe not. I once made the apocalyptic-scale blunder of asking my then-boyfriend to read an early draft of my novel. Not only was he was not a novel reader by nature, he was so unsure of his own ability to provide useful feedback that he simply avoided the whole exercise*. As my manuscript gathered dust on his bedside table, my faith in both my writing and my relationship took a major plunge. If the man who was supposed to love me had no interest in my work, then who would??

These days, I make sure to communicate my needs and expectations to my readers (as well as to my boyfriends). My ultimate goal is to write a kick-ass novel, one that all kinds of readers can enjoy. But I’m going to need a little help.

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* For the record, we were in our 20s and had not yet mastered the fine art of clear communication. Actually, I’m still working on that…

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Little Victories

A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.

After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.

How was I supposed focus on my laptop screen with this view?

Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?

But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.

It was a rather depressing thought.

But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.

The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.


Sooni Greene (Working Title)

Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.

“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.

Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.

Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.

Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name.   A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.

“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”

Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”

Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.

“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”

Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”

That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.

“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”

Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”

Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.

Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”

William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.

“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”

Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.

“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”

William burst into laughter.

“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”

Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.

When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.

When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Anne,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”

Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.

“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.

Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.

“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.

“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.

“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”

Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.

Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.

“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”

She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.

“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.

Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”

And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.

Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.

“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.

“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.

Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.

“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.

“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“

“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”

Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”

Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.

Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.

“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”

Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.

“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”

It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”

And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.

Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.

Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?

“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”

Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?

“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”

“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”

“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.

“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”

“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”

Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”

“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”

At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.

“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”

Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”

After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”

And with that, she passed out.

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Critique or Critic?

My high school drama teacher set the class with what appeared to be a straightforward assignment: form groups of three and share a story about either your favorite or your least favorite teacher. We launched into our tales of terrible teachers: The time that Mr. Marrett, in a snit, threw an eraser across the classroom. Mr. Philbrook’s “creative” use of a 10-pound rock as a hall pass, forcing his students to haul the thing with them every time they went to the bathroom. And my own story about the time Mr. Nicholson refused to help me with my AP English essay. His justification: “No one is going to help you with your work when you are in college.” Oh, how I loathed Mr. Nicholson…

By a show of hands, it was immediately clear that out of our class of 25 students, a mere four or five of us had taken the positivity high road and talked about a teacher whom we liked. The rest of us had jumped on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. My drama teacher then revealed the lesson of this exercise*: when given a choice, our natural inclination is often to focus on the negative.

This truth abounds when it comes to critiquing someone else’s writing. Each time I read a piece for my writers’ group, I must make a conscious effort to note both what is working and what is not, to underline the clever phrases as well as the awkward ones. I try to put myself in the other writer’s position – what kind of feedback would be most helpful? What will inspire him or her to rush home after the meeting and start revising? After all, we are there to improve our writing, to learn from one another.

Thou shall not use passive tense!

Thou shalt not use passive tense!

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Some people seem to equate “critique” with “critical”, and behave more like the self-appointed Grammar Police or the Plot Development Marshall.

My friend Jen recently told me that she no longer reads aloud in her ongoing writing class whenever a new crop of students joins the group.

“There’s always at least one person who feels the need to establish him or herself by ripping everyone’s work to shreds,” she explained.

“Perhaps it’s like beating the crap out of someone your first day in prison,” I suggested. “Maybe they think everyone will take them more seriously if they come out swinging.”

Just last week, a new member to my writers’ group beat the crap out of my chapter. She began her written critique with this disclaimer.

My comments will reflect a lack of familiarity with what has been revealed before this point in the narrative, and for that I apologize. I hope that they are helpful to you, in any case.

This seemed a fairly reasonable statement to make, since she was coming in at Chapter Ten of my novel. She went on:

I’m not as much an appreciative reader, I guess, as I am a critical reader. I think of my function as to be something of an encouraging small voice asking how to make the narrative better. As I result, I need reminding to applaud that which is going well.

So far, this sounded pretty on par with my own philosophy. But as I read through her critique, it became clear she still had some work to do on the “applauding” portion of the program. Comment after comment, she had nothing but negative remarks:

This is cliché… This is vague and repetitive… I hate adverbs… Melodramatic… I’m beginning to lose interest because the telling is flat… Bland word choice, cliché structure.

It went on and on, until this final summary statement:

Not enough happened in this section, and the action that occurred was obliquely written, smothered in cliché, and sometimes vague and lacking drama. Even the ending: passive and oblique. Could be sharper, could be more briskly written. Could be more specific in the rendering of the moments and descriptions of the people and action.

By this point, I was laughing aloud. What on earth was I supposed to do with this onslaught of profoundly unhelpful commentary? Pronouncing a piece of writing as cliché, vague, and melodramatic is not, strictly speaking, a critique; it is criticism without the benefit of thoughtful insight or suggestion. And frankly, it’s kind of mean.

For the record, I received largely positive feedback from those members of my writing group who have read my novel from the beginning. Sure, they had suggestions for tightening up some of the sentences, clarifying vague statements, and the like. Their comments inspired me to sit down at the computer as soon as I got home. The new member’s comments inspired me to recycle her “critique”.

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*I’m guessing his bigger message was “Stop doing that.”

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LiteraryMatch.com

I recently decided to join a writers’ group, with a goal to meet more of my fellow writers and get early feedback on my novel. As with most everything these days, there’s a Meetup group for that.

literarymatch

LiteraryMatch.com (trademark pending)

Over the years, I’ve participated in a string of writers’ groups; some were structured and monogamous, while others were casual drop-in affairs, more like a literary booty call. In some groups, I was consistently impressed by the quality of the writing and the critique, while in others I struggled to come up with positive feedback and then never called again.

Whilst perusing Meetup, I came upon an established writers’ group – I will call it the RR Group – who were looking to expand their circle. The core group of four members had met regularly for several years; to me, this spoke volumes about the maturity and commitment of the individuals, who clearly trusted each another enough to share one of their deepest vulnerabilities – their writing. I was further heartened by the RR Group’s request for a writing sample from interested parties. After all, as with any relationship, it was important to ensure that new prospects had complimentary styles and interests.

I composed a masterful email expressing my lifelong love of writing, touting my four-for-four record with National Novel Writing Month, and boasting about the second draft of my novel, a short excerpt of which I provided. I sold it, Baby! There was no chance they wouldn’t want me.

But when I hadn’t heard back by the following morning, I started to worry. What if the RR Group didn’t like my writing sample? What if, instead of dedicated and creative, my email came across as arrogant and desperate? Barely two months out of the epicenter of a difficult breakup, my fragile ego couldn’t take much more rejection.

As I obsessively clicked the refresh button on my email, I thought of the early days of online dating, back when you simply posted a paragraph or two about yourself, and refrained from exchanging photos until you felt reasonably confident that your correspondent wasn’t a) a serial killer, b) your ex, or c) your boss. Exchanging photos with a potential suitor was like engaging in a round of Hot or Not, and it was unclear which was worse, being the Rejecter or the Rejectee.

Twenty-fours hours after I submitted my writing sample, I got the email: “We enjoyed your writing and would like to invite you to join the group.” I was in. I was HOT!

As a new member, I was encouraged to submit a piece for discussion at our first meeting, so I sent along the first chapter of my novel. Everyone was expected to read the submissions prior to meeting, and be prepared to give feedback, so I settled onto my couch with a cup of tea and the other two submissions. The first was a hard read; each sentence was so long and effusive that I wondered if the writer had a personal vendetta against the period (I lost my breath somewhere around the third clause). The second submission, however, was well paced and quick-witted, and I liked it at once. I was relieved. I was in good company.

"I just love the way you use semicolons."

“I love the way you use semicolons.”

There were four of us at my first meeting. Anne, a plump, 60ish woman with a thin blond ponytail, was a fellow newbie. The two existing members, Jay, balding and mustached, and CeeCee, thin and pale with penny red hair, were genial if not a tad brusque. I thought we’d start off with a little get-to-know-you conversation, the usual “when did you start writing?” and “who are your favorite authors?” exchange. But there was no candlelight, no romance. No foreplay. We got right down to business.

As we critiqued each submission, I was surprised (and a little impressed) by how forthright everybody was in his or her feedback. While I was still trying to think up a kind way to tell Anne she should consider punctuation as a writing tool, Jay cut right to the quick: “You should cut out about a third of the words in every sentence.” I was even more surprised when, far from being offended, Anne nodded her head in agreement. “Yes, I wondered if it was too much,” she said.

I prepared myself for similarly frank feedback on my submission, however the critique was overwhelmingly positive: humorous, engaging, with a good prose style and voice. Then CeeCee said: “The only problem is that your novel reads more like a memoir than fiction, and this will confuse your readers.” Jay and Anne agreed, and almost at once, I realized that they were right. This was just as obvious to the rest of the group as Anne’s run-on sentences had been to me. How had I never noticed it before?!

I left the meeting that night feeling exhilarated. While the RR Group wasn’t exactly the friendly community of writing pals I’d envisioned, I was confident that my writing would benefit immensely from their input. The takeaway: Sometimes it’s worth forgoing the romance and the candlelight to get a damn good climax.

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