4 Myths About Critiquing

IMG_2068Over time, I’ve made changes in the way I critique. I read articles on how to critique and tried to follow the “rules.” But through giving and receiving critiques, I’ve found that there were some “rules” I agreed with, and others I didn’t.

Here are a few of the most popular ones I disagree with.

Don’t suggest big changes.

This is an interesting one. On the surface, it seems logical. After all, it’s the writer’s story, and there’s nothing more insulting than a critiquer trying to remake a story into something they’d write rather than the story the writer envisioned.

But let’s dig deeper. My goal is getting published, a goal I share with many of the writers I  work with.

I’ve heard stories of agents who want different endings. For one of my published stories, I was asked to cut the entire first section. Right now, I’m making a major edit to the novel I was, until recently, querying.

Big changes to work are intimidating, but sometimes necessary. If you, as a critiquer, feel that a big change is necessary, isn’t it important to say so? How is it helpful if you think that a big change would improve the story, but you keep it to yourself?

I don’t think it is, which is why I call this one bogus.

Don’t rewrite

In my writer’s group, one of us uses Hemmingway’s short, terse, style as a model of good writing. Another person loves the meandering flow of literary fiction. I’m somewhere in between those two extremes.

If the Hemmingway guy were to rewrite the sentences of the meandering flow guy, it would be silly because their styles are at opposite ends of a continuum.

But rewriting a sentence doesn’t mean that you think the person should copy your style; it means that giving an example is the clearest way to illustrate your point.

I’m all for rewriting. Sometimes when I get feedback like, “This sentence doesn’t flow,” it frustrates me. What does that mean? If the person critiquing rewrote it to show me what they meant, that doesn’t mean I have to take it and include it verbatim; it just means that perhaps I now have a more concrete way to understand their feedback.

I rewrite sparingly, but I do it sometimes because it’s easier than explaining. I have a good relationship with everyone in my writer’s groups, so I think (hope) that they all know that when I rewrite, it’s not because what they wrote was terrible (though we all write terrible sentences sometimes), but because I think it can be better.

Don’t argue/ discuss

I believe I said this myself… when getting feedback, be quiet and listen. And I do believe that. What I meant was to not argue with the opinion. If Person A hates your character, don’t argue that the character is actually a great person, as they’ll see if they just stick around until the second act. Readers don’t stick around.

In a small group, sometimes a discussion can be exactly what the writer needs to figure out what they need to do. Through discussion, the writer can parse out why Person A hates your character, and then when they mention that they hated the part where the character ignored their mother, maybe others will say that part bothered them too, but they didn’t think that one moment was worth judging.

At that point, maybe you as a writer understand something that you didn’t before and you can address it.

One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Neil Gaiman:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Sometimes a discussion among the group is the best way for the writer to assess what it is that wasn’t working for people in the group and how they can best address their intention.

Having people suggest changes, even if you aren’t going to use those changes, is a fabulous way to brainstorm. I’ve had some of the best ideas come out of the most frustrating discussions.

Be careful of others’ feelings.

Okay, this is a tricky one. I don’t want to give anyone permission to just be consistently negative and horrible and disguise it as a critique. At the same time, if you’re being too careful of people’s feelings, it can lead to those ridiculous, “It was fine!” kind of critiques.

More important than being careful of people’s feelings is being respectful of them. Because I respect everyone in my writers’ groups so much, I want them to make their stories as polished as they can. I want them to be published. Because of this respect, I’m going to be honest and concrete.

It doesn’t always feel good to be honest. I know that sometimes, in my group, I would prefer not to point out a major plot problem. Sometimes I have so much to say that I feel like I’m “picking on” one person. When I’m the only one who says anything about a particular section, that’s hard. I feel like I’m just being a jerk. It’s even harder when all of us, as a group, say the same thing. Then I feel like part of a bullying gang.

But if we want to improve and want others to improve, we have to say the hard stuff and trust that they can take it. It’s important to focus on what you liked when there’s a lot that needs to be improved. It’s easier to build on a strength than to undo a weakness.

For example, people often tell me that they like my supporting characters and my dialog. They often struggle with my main characters (who tend to be “blank”). Knowing that I already know how to build interesting characters (secondary characters) made it easier to identify how to improve my blank main characters. I’m still working on it, but knowing what I do well helps me to generalize those skills.

 

 

Bottom line, be respectful and honest. In the end, other people own their own feelings, and you aren’t responsible. It’s hard to put your creative work out there, but there will always be people who would rather destroy than build. As long as your goal is always to build someone else up and you’re coming from a genuine place of wanting to help, it’s hard to go wrong.

Is there anything you’ve heard about critiquing that you disagree with?

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How To Accomplish Computer Work When You Have Cats

The old stereotype about cats is that they’re antisocial and look at their human servants with scorn.

Where are those cats? Who owns them?

We have six cats and two dogs. Go ahead; judge me. I’ve fully embraced crazy cat lady status at this point. (I used to argue that I wasn’t because we were a blended kitty household and then inherited two. But after we lost 5 of our original 6 yet still have 6, it’s obviously a choice now.)

Anyway, so I have lots of pets. Of the 8, right now, four are where I can see them. I suspect that Pepper is here, sleeping under the blanket on the chair (as she usually is when I’m in my office.) One cat is literally on my feet, and another is next to my feet. But just a few minutes ago, there was a cat walking on my keyboard, exploring all the fun stuff on my very messy desk. It’s not uncommon for Phantom and Pepper to sit in front of the screen and bat at my cursor, hoping I’ll put on the bird channel on YouTube.

So I’ve had a lot of time to ponder how to get work done and still have friendly cats. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Step 1: Try to get the cat to move. Cuddle it. Coax it. Pet it. It will still go back to what it was doing, but you can pretend you have some control over the situation.

Step 2: Put comfortable cat beds near you, hoping to entice them away from the front of your screen. Sometimes it will work. But not until they’ve typed iahruzzr758gfrfcuhAEFR in the middle of the document you were working on.

Step 3: Pet the cat some more. Pretend you’re going to be able to accomplish work soon.

Step 4: Pick up a book to read so that at least you can pretend you’re doing something productive. The cat will bat at the book and possibly sit on it.

Step 5: Give up. Surrender to petting the cat. Embrace the fact that you’re going to get nothing done for the rest of the day. Really feel it and know it.

Step 6: Only after you’ve given up will the cat go away. But by then, you’ve forgotten what you were doing. Or the dogs need to go out. Or the other cats demand food. (They haven’t eaten in three hours and are STARVING.)

Step 7: Mutter a lot about the annoying little furballs as you go back to your desk and start over.

Step 8: Repeat steps 1-7.

Show of hands: whose cats are antisocial, and whose are all up in their business all the time?

My 10 Most Popular Posts of 2017 and My Plan for 2018

I got a lot of new subscribers in 2017, which was nice. (I know you’re there, even if you’re not talking… come join the conversation!)

2017 was a year I tried to settle into a groove with blogging. In previous years, I tried to do daily (which was way too much) and other times when I had no schedule. In 2017, I tried to post on Tuesdays and Fridays. For 2018, I’m going to go back to a Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday format. Because of the interest in book challenges, I’m going to try to check in once a week with what I’m reading and my progress on various challenges. Starting next week, that will be on Mondays. (Happy New Year, BTW!)

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Most of the popular posts from this list are from 2017, but some are older (some much older). Without further ado, my top 10 from this year…

  1. 11 Best Non-Fiction Books About Mental Illness You have no idea how happy I am to see this at #1. People are becoming more interested in mental illness, and I think that’s a wonderful step toward conversation and destigmatizing what so many people struggle with.
  2. 10 Best Novels from Over 100 Years Ago This post is from 2011 and has consistently been one of my most popular posts. It’s a little sparse, back when I just made lists but didn’t consistently post pictures or say anything about the books. But… I guess that’s what Amazon is for?
  3. What Bullying Looks Like as An Adult Again, another post I’m happy to see as popular. We really, really need to stop telling children no to be bullies and then turn around and do it ourselves. Take a look to see the subtle ways you might be participating in bullying.
  4. Don’t Ban Eleanor & Park A post from 2016. I’m so against book banning. I think that any book that really speaks to someone is going to make someone else mad, and that’s okay. Kids need books like these. Eleanor & Park is a book I wish had been around when I was in high school
  5. Book Challenges 2018 A very recent post, but it just goes to show how interested in book challenges people are becoming. I’m going to try to be better about posting updates on my progress next year. Join me and feel free to update me on your progress too!
  6. Open Letter to the Writer Who Left My Writer’s Group You know, I almost didn’t write this post. I hate that I may have contributed to discouraging another writer. But it wasn’t done out of a spirit of meanness, and I think that it’s important to admit to my mistakes so I can become a better person. None of us are perfect. And even though the writer who this letter was intended for will probably never see it, maybe someone else who needs to see it will.
  7. 5 Things Not to Say to a Writer This post is from 2013, and I remember what made me write it. I was still working at crisis back then. We had some down time and were sitting around. I was working on a story and started bouncing ideas off my Arizona bestie, who is not a writer. He pretty much said everything on this list, and it made me crazy. When I showed him the blog post, he laughed.
  8. Promoting Kindness This post was inspired by all the vitriol I see (even among friends) over differing opinions regarding politics.
  9. 10 Best Fiction Books About Mental Illness I love that more people are trying to write characters with mental illnesses; I just prefer that people get it right. Exposure to fiction is known to increase empathy, so reading about characters with mental illness definitely can promote understanding and reduce fear of these disorders.
  10. The Pros and Cons of Writing in Coffee Shops Spoiler alert… it’s not my thing!

Doing a very scientific analysis, it seems that my most popular posts are lists of books and more personal type posts. I’ll try to keep that in mind as I’m brainstorming topics next year.

Are there any topics you’d like to see me write about? Any topics you’d like less of? I’m always open to suggestions, so feel free to comment on this (or any post) or email me at doreeweller@gmail.com.

Thanks for coming along for the ride that was 2017 for me! I’m hoping that 2018 will be even better.

5 Things I Learned When I Critiqued Harry Potter

For awhile, my critique partner and I were reading and critiquing published novels. One day, he suggested critiquing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a book we’d both enjoyed. I’ve read every Harry Potter book multiple times, and while I know they’re not perfect, I also know that they’re wonderful.

But an odd thing happened when I read Harry Potter with an eye to critique it. I found tons of flaws. If JK Rowling had brought the manuscript to group, I would have probably shredded it.

It taught me valuable lessons that have somewhat changed the way I approach critiquing and being critiqued.

  1. No book, no matter how wonderful, is perfect. These books are among the most popular of all time. A book doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to invoke that magical connection with the reader.
  2. If you look for the flaws, you’ll find them. The “flaws” in Harry Potter were always there, but I wasn’t looking for them, so all I saw was what I enjoyed. When I started looking, they were everywhere.
  3. Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one that finds the gold.   (paraphrased) Proverbs 11:27

  4. Flaws don’t interfere with the reading experience. I’d never noticed any of the so-called flaws before I went looking for them. In some books, I can’t ignore the flaws. They’re so glaring and make me angry. But any flaws in Harry Potter melted into the background because the story, the characters, and the setting are so engaging that the rest were just details.
  5. When writers bring work to group to be critiqued, I should balance looking for flaws and enjoying the story. It’s not an easy thing to do, read with both my critic hat on and my reader hat. I want to point out as many “flaws” as possible so that the writer sees them. That doesn’t mean they have to change everything I point out, just that they should be aware of them. At the same time, I need to ask myself, “Would I read this story if I weren’t critiquing it? Why or why not?” It makes a difference to what I point out and what I choose not to.
  6. My story is never going to be perfect, and it doesn’t need to be. When other group members ask me questions I don’t have answers to, or that I just didn’t put in the story, I feel myself tightening up, like I should have all the answers to every possible question anyone can think of. (Overachiever alert!) JK Rowling didn’t answer every question I ever had about the Harry Potter universe, and I still love those books.
  7. “Perfect is the enemy of good.” -Voltaire

  8. Critiquing Harry Potter was probably one of the best things I could have done. I can know that there are flaws and still love it. (And read past them when I reread it in the future.) Have you ever tried critiquing a published novel? What did you learn from it?

Update on Me

I know I sort of dropped off the face of the earth and hadn’t been posting for a couple of weeks, so I wanted to let everyone know where I went.

I had a family emergency, and had to drive from Austin to Phoenix. While I was in Arizona, one of my cats died in her sleep.

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Goblyn was the cat probably most pictured on this blog. She was the one who sat on my desk and often on my keyboard, making writing difficult. She was the one who helped me take interesting pictures of books.

Goblyn is the third of my cats to die this year. We had an 18 year old die in January, then another 18 year old a month ago. Goblyn was only 17, and it was unexpected.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and I didn’t feel like doing any writing. I decided to let myself take a break and not worry about it.

I’m back now, and starting next week, should resume the regular Tuesday/ Friday posting schedule.

6 Reasons NaNoWriMo Doesn’t Work For Me (But Why It’s Still Great)

IMG_9029For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is the idea that, every November, writers can sit down and get 50,000 words on paper, writing a novel in a month. That’s 1,667 words per day. You upload it to the NaNoWriMo site, and if you get those 50,000 words, you win!

The idea is to spark creativity and overcome self-doubt. Some people would like to write a novel, but can’t get the words on the page. Having a set goal like that is supposed to encourage people to silence their inner critic and just go for it.

I love the idea, and I participated (and failed) for about four or five years. It took me a long time to figure out why it didn’t work for me, but I get it now.

Here’s why:

  1. I consistently “fail” at daily tasks. I don’t know why this is, but it is. On Facebook, I was nominated for that 7 days/ 7 black and white pictures challenge. I missed day 5. I got back to it and posted my day 5 the next day, but I always do it. In years I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, I’m usually full steam ahead for about the first week, and then I start missing days. It’s just not my work style, I guess.
  2. I need to work from an outline. In the past, I’ve been a “pantser,” meaning I just write by the seat of my pants. It never worked for me. I struggled to finish; I did multiple drafts; my point was lost or I forgot to tie up threads. Then a friend recommended Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. This book makes so much sense to me. It’s not an outline, per se, but rather a set of story points one must work toward.
  3. 50,000 words isn’t actually a novel, so I’d have to add a lot more to it to make it one. I write YA, which is the shortest novel you can get, outside of middle grade. Word count for YA ranges from 55,000 to 79,999 words, according to Writer’s Digest. I always have to put more words in, and don’t want to start at a deficit. My style tends to be pretty stripped down anyway. “Plot-focused,” one of the writers in my group calls it.
  4. It stresses me out. There are days when I can put 5,000 words on paper. But I don’t write every day. And if I miss a day or two with NaNoWriMo, I’ve already “failed,” so what’s the point in continuing?
  5. I don’t care about praise or fake badges. Studies show that badges in fitness apps and praise for doing things increases the likelihood that someone will do a behavior, but that stuff doesn’t work on me. I think it’s great when it does provide encouragement for people, but it doesn’t work like that for me. (Neither does advertising or “hard sells.”) Knowing that, at the end of the month, I’ll get a “congrats!” for “winning” isn’t encouraging for me.
  6. November doesn’t work for me. I’ve actually thought about doing my own personal NaNoWriMo during April or May, any month that isn’t so crazy. But something about November, which is stuck between Halloween and Christmas just makes it crazier to me. In November, I want to take down Halloween decorations and put up Christmas ones. I want to bake cookies and travel to see family. I do write in November, but not at the crazy, flat out pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

I know I sound like a Negative Nancy, but I actually think NaNoWriMo can be wonderful for people who are struggling with writing that first novel. For anyone who wants to write but suffers from self-doubt, those first steps can be the most important ones. For people who do respond to routine or praise, it can be a great encouragement. Plus, the NaNoWriMo community is welcoming. They have events all over the country where people can go and write together.

If you’re on the fence about whether to try NaNoWriMo, at least check it out. They have progress trackers, pep talks, support, community, etc.

For me, I just like the idea more than the reality.

Have you ever done or considered doing NaNoWriMo? What do you think about it?

 

Five Things Friday

One

What I’m Reading

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s not a book I would have picked for myself, but I’m enjoying it. It was a birthday present from a friend. I love getting books as gifts because it challenges me to read things I wouldn’t have otherwise.

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I started Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, on audiobook. It’s to fulfill the Popsugar Reading Challenge Category: A Steampunk Novel. So far, it’s okay, but I can’t say I’m loving it.

Two

What I’m Writing

In my August edition of “Five Things Friday,” I told you I was just starting the edits on Not Dead Enough. I’m happy to say that I’ve finished the paper read through. Now for the oral read through, and then I’m ready to start querying it… yay!

I’m also still working on my other book, The Cycle, and I feel like I’ve gotten into the groove of writing it. Normally I wouldn’t be working on editing one book at the same time I’m writing another, but these are so different that it’s no struggle keeping them in separate mental compartments.

Three

What I Read This Week

I finished Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (rated 4 stars on Goodreads). I can’t believe I’ve never read this before!

The new Writer’s Digest issue.

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Apparently Alan Alda is a writer… who knew?

Four

When I Wasn’t Reading

Well… I was cleaning up around the house. Let’s just say I have an older dog and leave it at that. I was also editing and writing.

Five

Favorite Picture of the Week

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These guys made me laugh with how they’re passed out, like they’re exhausted!

What have you been up to this week?