Of strokes and spankings

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Image courtesy Huntstown Community Centre

Helga’s Post #28 — Ah, sorry, this is not about 50 Shades, but the topic du jour: feedback on our writing.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

I am lucky. Because in case I missed out on the gift Ernest Hemingway thought essential, my writing partners will put me straight. I know I can count on them. They are the toughest, kindest, most brutal, most loving, most caring people I’ve ever met.

So this post is all about Critiques. How to give them, how to receive them.

Our last few posts on this blog focused on that very issue. That’s because the 5 writers will soon be facing their biggest challenge yet.

No, not the challenge of finishing our novels by May 15th, though that’s formidable enough. As Joe mentioned in his last post, that date may seem far away, but this particular day lurks on the calendar. Unmovable. Irrevocable.

On May 16th, the real challenge begins. That’s when we start reading each others’ manuscripts. Four books for each of us to read, and to critique. One week for each full-fledged book to read and to critique.

And then, during the week starting June 15th, each of the 5 writers will take the floor as our motley group gathers and speak for two hours critiquing each book.  If math is not your strong point (neither is it mine), it comes down to this (let’s pick on Joe as an example):

He is sitting somewhere comfy (a must for what’s about to happen to him), legs crossed, never-empty coffee mug resting nearby, pen in hand, writing pad on lap, beloved Vega at his feet. The clock strikes 9:00 AM. Throats get cleared. The first critic has the floor. For an entire two hours. Likely with intermittent and unsolicited comments from the rest of the motleys. Then the next speaker takes over. And the next, until at the end of the day, poor Joe will have received eight hours of critique of his novel, from four people, who, such as human nature goes, may have widely different views on the quality of his manuscript.

We haven’t yet decided on the lineup. The way it worked in the past was the host(ess) got critiqued first, clockwise in the way we were seated. (Do you sense some strategy, some tactic that may have been employed in the seating order? Such as, the last writer to be critiqued may get less time, as everyone’s energy and attention span wanes, and we all want to go home? Of course not. Writers wouldn’t do that.)

But this time around there won’t be a host, as the 5 writers will be ensconced somewhere at the Village in Whistler. Maybe we’ll draw names from a hat to keep it democratic. If you think all this procedural stuff is trivial, think again. There is politics involved.

Yes, politics. Anyone who has ever been part of a team or a group, which means most of us, knows how much strategy is involved in the actual ‘process’ of meetings. The seating order, the lineup of speakers, the strength  of coffee served, all could influence a meeting’s outcome. Meetings can get derailed because of poor planning, which means everyone leaves with a knot in their stomach. Bad feelings can carry over and keep you miserable for days and sleepless at night. It’s counter-productive.

Granted, our critique group meetings are not quite in the same league as your routine corporate meetings with agendas and specific goals. Also, there’s no money involved. Our meetings have no written agendas (usually), but our goal is always the same: to provide each of the 5 writers objective feedback on their work. Feedback that points out strong points as well as flaws in our writing, which should result in a better novel in the end. To see each of our books published. Just as we pledged back on September 5th 2012, the start of our challenge.

And ‘Feedback’ is where the challenge lies. We want to give useful feedback on how to make the writing better, but in a manner that’s not a death blow. Somewhat gently, but not so gently that it’s take-it-or-leave-it for the writer. Of course, we all want to hear we’re wonderful and without flaws. Hearing that our writing is not always stings, even when we’re genuinely interested in improving it.

One really great aspect of the 5 writers group is that we all realize there’s lots of room to improve. We have learned since we established our group that getting one’s ego stroked does not necessarily make our writing better. That’s for needy writers. Mostly, getting ‘hit’ with a comment pointing out flaws is far more helpful. As long as the feedback is given sincerely and void of sarcasm, it will target, like a heat-seeking missile, what needs to change and what the writer needs to focus on.

We all have different personalities and patterns of communication. Our perspectives on what constitutes flaws and strong points can vary widely. That’s the human nature dilemma, or strength if you will. One critic thinks your main character is god’s gift to women, while another thinks he’s a perennial ninny. I like to think of it as our strength. Think about it: We get not only one, but four opinions on each aspect of our writing. If I’m receiving consistent feedback on my writing from every member of my group, I had better listen up and sharpen my pencil.

Because it will make me a better writer. Guaranteed.

Evidently, the critique process ahead of us in June will be far more complex and challenging. Because each of us will have written a complete novel without the usual feedback and handholding for the monthly thirty pages the way we have done critiques in the past. There is far more at stake now, because we’ve been flying solo during the entire process of writing four hundred or so pages. For all we know, our manuscripts could be headed for the NYT Bestseller list, or the dung heap. Or somewhere in between.

One thing we can count on, without reservation, is mutual trust. Yes, egos are involved, and yes, we all need positive stroking. But when we dish out the spanking, we do it with honesty and best intentions.

A gift, no less.

 “Positive feedback is like the wind in your sails.Corrective feedback is like a rudder to keep us on course.”  (Dr. Matthew White, Psychologist)

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8 thoughts on “Of strokes and spankings

  1. A fascinating look at your upcoming process! How wonderful to have the opportunity for such in depth discussion. Do you mean that you’ll be in Whistler for five days… one full day of critiquing for each member? I don’t think I could handle it quite that way; it could be too much to absorb, but I assume each person’s written critique of each book will also be available.

    I’ve been in critique groups for several years and am particularly enjoying my present group of kind, helpful and very knowledgeable writers. Like you, I appreciate how valuable is the gift of mutual trust.

  2. Carol, thanks for your ‘feedback on the feedback’. Yes, it will be a huge undertaking to spend 5 consecutive days doing critiques. Best of luck with your knowledgeable critique group, which sounds great. Would love to hear about your own process of doing critiques.

    • Hi Carol, yes, there is always a written copy as well. Sometimes we don’t get to using the critique for a while and it’s nice to have the critiquer’s written notes.

    • Helga, the two groups are different sizes and both groups handle it differently. In the larger group where not every member attends every meeting, we read a chapter aloud at a meeting, after handing out a copy to each person so they can follow along and make notes. Then we go around the circle so each person can offer an opinion and critique. When the agreed time limit for discussion is reached, the marked copies are handed back to the writer and we move on to the next reader.

      In the other group of only five members, each one e-mails a new chapter to all of the other members at least three days before the meeting. We all print out all the copies, and over the weekend read through them ourselves, making our notes on them. We take them with us to the meeting and engage in a more general discussion while visiting over tea. Once again, the marked copies go to the writer.

      It doesn’t sound like either method is nearly as in-depth as what you’re planning, but we’re only dealing with one chapter at a time, not an entire book. Most of us also have beta readers to whom we give finished manuscripts. The success of any group depends on how the members get along and interact. It sounds as if your group is very compatible. I hope you’ll continue blogging again after your critique session to let us know how it all worked out.

      • Carol, thanks for your info on your group’s process. Our group is not that different from your smaller group. We used to meet once a month (before our 5 months writers challenge), and a week before we emailed thirty pages of our novels-in-progress to each other. At the meeting we took turns to critique each writer’s submission verbally, as well as handing out written notes. It has worked well for us. Fortunately, our group has bonded and developed a level of trust that allows us to be candid in our feedback. That usually means more value to the writer than simply getting a pat on the back, though we do that too. I compare it to gardening (which I am sure you can relate to). You need to fertilize your plants (the positive feedback) but when you see aphids or fungus or weeds threatening to take over, you take aggressive action, but not so aggressive that it will kill your plants. Thanks for reading our blog and connecting. I love reading yours too.

  3. When I was still working, we’d have to submit our stuff to other office members for their review. when the red marks were typos or other mechanical corrections, I’d make them quickly and without angst. When they were substantive criticisms, they’d always get to me, even when i prepared myself to face substantive criticism. I’d review the criticism and then do something else for a while, and when I went back to the critiqued brief, I’d have gotten over the emotion and was able to make the revisions, which always made the writing better.

    Each of you, on the other hand, will have to endure eight hours of criticism. Being you will suck for at least 4 of the 5 days. Better you than me . ;-\

  4. I think that working for 40 years in a creative business at the commercial level prepared me for criticism of my fiction writing. At an advertising and design agency, you grow thick skin fast or perish.

    It’s one thing to take a hit from a knowledgeable creative colleague … quite another to get slammed by a client who may be (in your humble opinion) totally wrong, but is paying the bills.

    Which one hurts more? You take your creative colleagues seriously because you respect their own abilities, but there’s usually room for subjective debate. So you listen, put salve on the sting and learn. This is akin to the critiquing process.

    With a client or customer – who is analogous to a reader (and, even more formidable, the reader’s gatekeeper, the agent) – you have to simply accept their criticism no matter how “unfair” in your view. Because they’re your boss, plain and simple, if you’re writing to be published, sold and read. They buy what you have to sell or they don’t.

    And, of course, they can be very wrong and you can be right. Ask J.K. Rowling, who went through many rejections before she became queen of the YA shelf. That’s where persistence and self confidence come in. You need to learn to rebound.

    I still have as thin a skin as anyone who puts their heart and soul into creative work and then listens to what other people think of it. It can be heartbreaking. It used to bring me to tears in the early days of my career. But I feel lucky to have learned what I call “the bounce” – how to learn from creative criticism without getting permanently crushed. Momentarily, maybe, but I get over it.

    What makes a good critique group really work can be summed up in two words: trust and respect. I know I’ll never find four more supportive people than my 5 writers colleagues. We may not always be fans of every word submitted by each writer our group – but we are caring and dependable fans of each other, and we do practice that golden rule of “doing unto others”.

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