Thursday, May 3, 2012

Better the Second Time around: Week 3

Well, we've had a couple of group critiques now, and I want to talk about the unexpected nature of group critiques as well as what I find to be helpful about them, what I don't, how I sort through the comments I get.

So first I ask myself:  What am I willing to submit to the group?

The answer to this question depends on a few things:
  • Who's going to be there?
    • If it's an editor, then I'm not going to submit anything less than my very best.
    • But if I'm not reading in front of someone who might want to hire me, then I don't necessarily want to submit only my best.  Ideally, I want to submit something I'm about to send for high stakes publication (to see if I've missed something big), or I want to bring a piece I'm stuck on, one that I've been revising but just can't quite get to "gel."
  • How serious is the group?
    • Our current life writing group is aimed at getting stories on paper for friends and families in the best way we can.  It is not geared toward publication in a competitive market.  Therefore, we would generally bring shorter pieces--about 250-500 words--so that everyone has a chance to read even if the pieces might not be standard publication length.
    • Serious groups may expect longer and more polished pieces.  They may also expect you to take the pieces home for serious editing--which can be okay if that's what you're looking for.  
    • If you are looking for another group, it's helpful to email or call a member to find out more about the type of group it is and the expectations the members share.
  • What do you expect out of it?
    • This answer varies a great deal, and I'll be spending a whole lot more time on it below.  You, however, may want to clarify this for yourself before you go in.  It will help you shrug off what is unnecessary/unhelpful as well as sort out what you want to spend time on.
    • Remember, though, that just because you know what you're looking for, it doesn't mean that everyone reviewing for you will listen or answer those questions.
When you have determined if or what you will read, then the next step is how it will be done.  Different writing groups have different practices, and some of them do not allow any input from the author (These can be helpful because it is how the reader initially approaches any piece of published writing).  Unless this particular review is my last stop before publication, however, I find this practice to be unhelpful.  More often, I have chosen a piece on which I NEED help.  Some things I already know are a problem, and I don't really need to hear more about them.  In this case, I try to let the group know the help I am looking for, and you can too.  For instance:
  • Limit the scope of what you share.  If the problem you have is located in one particular place, consider sharing only the problem area with the group, thus focusing their attention on the part that needs attention.
  •  Acknowledge existing problems.  If you already know something needs to be done (and know what to do with it) but want help on a separate problem, make sure you let the group know.  For instance, you might say, "I know _______ is a problem, and I will work on __________ing it later."
  • Direct the group's attention to the area in which you are seeking advice.  Ask the question or state the problem that you have directly.  "I'm afraid ______ is confusing," "Is this fair?" or "I could really use help on this sentence/transition" all help tell the group where you are in your revision process and where they can really help.
 After you have shared your writing, how do you sort through what you take away from the critique?
  • Look for answers to your direct questions.  If you came into the session looking for specific feedback, by all means, look for that first.  I often find that because I have been thinking about that area, I am most ready to deal with that first.
  • If two or more readers say the same thing, take heed.  You don't necessarily need to agree with what your readers say or think, but if more than one is honing in on the same area, then the area is a problem and you need to address it.  Often writers (myself included) can feel hostile about this predicament, but when I let myself feel through it, I often find what seems to be hostility is often just frustration at not having an immediate solution.  As I let myself ponder the problem, possibilities present themselves, and I'm able to move forward.
  • Come back to unsolicited/irrelevant advice later.  Some people can't ignore certain issues, but they may be of no concern to you.  For example, after years of proofreading/editing (and, no, I know that my work here is not perfect, and I'm hoping to revisit areas), I have a hard time not marking things: run-on sentences, introductory clauses not set off by commas, etc.  I may know full well that the author is going to completely redo that sentence and the whole point is moot.  Still, my own brain can't move on until I've addressed it.  Unless the author intends to keep that sentence, though, they can completely ignore that advice for the moment and come back to it when and if it becomes relevant.  I don't mean that the advice given should be completely ignored, only that often technical issues are better addressed later on, or issues of showing vs. telling (which other writers can't pass up) are better expanded once the plot has been ironed out.  Make sense?
So then, if it were all just as easy as that, why don't more people write books?  Well, because it's not as easy as that, and life and critiques often bring up other roadblocks.
  • Roadblock 1: Not done yet.  
  • Roadblock 2: So depressing.
  • Roadblock 3:  No answer.
These roadblocks may all stem from the very same issue.  For instance, about a month and a half ago, I sent out the first draft of a memoir I am working on.  I knew that there were issues that needed to be addressed.  I knew that some of the chapters s***ed a** (because "were terrible" is far too nice a comment).  I knew that I still needed to address some very major issues that I was not yet willing to confront.  And I was still laboring under the conception that I could do all this in a couple weeks.  (I am laughing at the ridiculousness of my own assumptions here).

Personal Example of Roadblock 1:  Three of my author friends, Amanda Ching (author of re(Visions): Alice), Many Ly (author of Home Is East and Roots and Wings), and Sharon Lippincott (author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and Meetings: Do's, Don'ts and Donuts) all said, "show, don't tell" (which I *sigh* already knew but which as authors they were as compelled to say as I am to correct punctuation) in different ways.  But then they each went on to elaborate in much different and helpful ways.  Many encouraged me to expand the areas where she had questions into scenes.  Amanda was good at locating the areas where I lapsed academic (fifteen years of editing theses and dissertations will do that to you) as well as noting what worked (was fair and funny) and didn't (was unfair and unkind).  And Sharon was very good at pointing out to me gently that this was not going to happen in a week.  When I first read "few more weeks" in her comments, I was very disheartened, but it was followed both by immediate encouragement, "I hope you’ll feel excited by this additional challenge and not discouraged. I would not lay this message on you if I weren’t totally confident you will easily make the breakthrough to this next level."  And then this was followed both by explicit comments and two other books on writing particularly the places I had a problem with.

Personal Example of Roadblock 2:  I went into temporary memoir paralysis.  I just couldn't touch it.  And that's okay.  Ralph Keyes has a couple of great books that discuss this problem:  The Courage to Write (at Plum Library and on Amazon) and The Writer's Book of Hope (at Plum Library and on Amazon).  So I can say with certainty that I am not alone in this paralysis (and neither are you).  But you can't stop.  Luckily, I had life and other projects going on.  There was no time to give up.  I just had to step back for a couple of weeks and then resume.

Personal Example of Roadblock 3:  The one area in which Sharon, Amanda, and Many were not helpful was how to fix those "thought" areas that needed an action--one that really happened, not one I make up.  And it's okay that they didn't have an answer both because they offered a different kind of advice and because I also shared the first draft with some people whose main qualification was that they were experienced in life (as are Many, Sharon, and Amanda--but they weren't concerned with giving "life" advice, and, again, that's okay).  Because these other friends didn't feel compelled to give writerly advice, they helped point me in the direction of answers that could really help me go further.  One said, "The more you can give of your interactions with your husband the better.  I just love those!"  Benefit?  I know what works and how to expand.  Another told me, "It seems that you're giving a whole lot more than your getting?  Is that the way it was then and is now?  Is it changing over time?"  Wow!  She hit the nail on the head of a very sensitive issue (I am not giving more than is being given, but neither of us are "getting" what the other is giving) in a way that showed me how I could really "show" this--a catalog or history of misunderstood gifts.  And the third sat with me over breakfast and said, "I think I know where you're going, but I think you're going to have to write out the whole ugly truth to get there and then cut out the unnecessary and move it around to make sense."  And I knew at that moment that she was right, and hearing her--who has endured so much over her life and really knows how to go about unearthing issues--gave me the courage to keep going.

Overall solution:  Butt in chair (in the words of Jane Yolen).  Just write.  You may need to leave what you were writing and write something else for a while, but just write.  Keep going.  In the end, isn't that the secret to life--to just keep living?  So keep writing.  You'll get there.

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