Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, it’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMS (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) gets the whole two-hour meeting. Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. But the true gold of CMS is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMS colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution… 

CMS members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMS and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos and more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

The Gift of Feedback

The Gift of Feedback

Ruth E. Walker.

Feedback from colleague writers can be a tremendous help to developing writers. Or it can put good manuscripts off the rails. How do you know comments received in a writing circle or workshop feedback session are useful?

Remember Ruth’s three basic rules of successful writing feedback:

Respect:           Give it and get it. All feedback is an offered opinion. You are free to take it or leave it.

Encourage:      Never intend to diminish another writer; always offer colleague-to-colleague comments .

Inspire:            Go ahead and take risks with your writing but be prepared to hear what may need a second look.    

Receiving feedback is an art

  • respect an honest opinion by not defending your writing
  • take notes of verbal comments
  • all feedback is opinion; you may not agree but listen anyway (later on, you may realize that the opinion you dismissed is just what you needed to hear)
  • all feedback is useful; see above and remember you are free to accept or gracefully decline offered feedback
  • don’t interrupt; if you need to clarify what is said, make a note and wait for an appropriate spot to ask a question
  • if feedback is offered in a group session, pay attention; others discussing their opinions about your submission can lead you to exciting discoveries and new ideas

Giving feedback in an art

  • respect the risk a writer takes in asking for feedback; not everyone is ready for an intense critique so if you are unsure of how much to offer, ask the writer
  • begin with one positive aspect before offering suggested areas to review
  • avoid “I like” or “I didn’t like” as much as possible: this isn’t about “liking” something, it is about technique, clarity, logic, development of plot, setting, characters, etc.
  • focus on words, phrases, rhythms, etc., that stand out – either in a good way, or in a way that doesn’t work; offer suggestions if you can
  • be specific about interesting words or ideas and material that seems flat/stereotypical
  • be professional; if you are uncomfortable with the subject, and it affects your ability to critique, it is okay to pass on making any comment

~~~

On-demand Workshops

On-demand Workshops

Gather your group. Pick your topic and your date. And we’ll bring Writescape to you.

From beginning writer to seasoned professional, we’ll customize sessions to suit your programming themes and audience needs. Choose from Writescape’s Workshop Catalogue 2016 to help you and your colleagues hone writing craft and develop new skills and techniques.

“I came away with an understanding that will stick with me … great handouts and examples.”

From two-hour evening sessions to week-long programming, you tell us what you need and when you need it. Writescape will supply professional workshop leaders, hands-on exercises and practical handouts, and a creative, supportive atmosphere for an excellent learning experience.writing-828911_960_720

“…a safe place to be vulnerable with my writing and to risk trying something new.”

Writescape facilitators have delivered workshops and presentations across the Greater Toronto Area, as well as Ottawa Region, Durham Region, and Northumberland, Kawartha, Haliburton, Muskoka, Simcoe and Niagara regions, Southwestern Ontario and into the U.S.

startup-594090_1920 (1)Step 1: talk to your group or colleagues about what you need

Step 2: choose your program from our Workshop Catalogue 2016

Step 3: contact:
info@writescape.ca
905-728-7823
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