books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Do You Belong to a Writers' Critique Group?

I’ve been talking a lot about criticism lately—both of the solicited and unsolicited variety—and I may have given the impression I’m against critique groups.

I am anything but. Good critique groups are the easiest (and cheapest) way for newbies to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up agents’ and publishers’ desks. Skilled writers, too, can benefit from group feedback before they send that story or novel off into the unforgiving marketplace. I’ve read that even Amy Tan still runs her work by her critique group for feedback and suggestions.

I personally belong to a fantastic group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re all veteran critiquers with long history together. Critiquing is a craft, just like any other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After fourteen years together, these folks are pros.

But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. Group-think can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord Of The Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.

And you can’t be sure the advice is worth heeding. As journalist Jim Bishop said, “A good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.” For my tips on bad advice to ignore, click here.

If a group seems overly negative, or gushes with unhelpful praise, don’t waste your time. Ditto if they don’t read or “get” your genre—or are way above or below your own level of expertise. And if anybody in the group appears to be power tripping, and/or enforcing arbitrary rules for their own sake—run. Very fast.

But your work will benefit if you find the right critiquers, whether online or in person. Best of all, a supportive group of fellow writers can supply empathetic shoulders to cry on through the inevitable periods of rejection and disappointment on the uphill climb to publication. (They're also a comfort if you get catapulted back down.)

I left my critique group for a time when I joined the ranks of “professional writers”—at my editor’s insistence. Soon after I signed my first publishing contract he said, “Nobody edits your work but me. Don’t let a bunch of amateurs dull the edginess of your stuff.” I was a professional author with an advance to prove it. I didn’t need no stinking critique groups.

But a few years later my publishers went belly-up, as so many independent presses do, and I begged to be accepted back into my group.

I admit I couldn’t face going back right away. I’d spent three heady years traveling half way around the world for book tours, getting some nice reviews, and being sought after as an editor and speaker. When I thought of going back, it felt like the classic nightmare captured in the film Peggy Sue Got Married: the one where you’re mysteriously transported back to high school and can’t remember a damn thing about algebra.

But I soon realized that working in a vacuum was a major mistake. Without my editor, I didn’t know if I was saying what I thought I was saying, or if the humor was falling as flat as the champagne left over from my last book launch.

My British editor wasn’t wrong. A group of amateurs of varying skills can easily homogenize your work and dull your edge. And if you take all their criticisms to heart and act on them, your final draft will wind up sounding as if it’s written by committee.

The trick is to listen to your gut first and feedback second, always. And if a comment feels hurtful rather than useful, smile sweetly, say “duly noted” and don’t give the criticism another thought.

What about you? Are most of you in critique groups? If not, how do you get the feedback you need?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

BEWARE THE AUTHORITY OF IGNORANCE

I’ve had a lot of great responses to last week’s post about dealing with less-than-helpful criticism from beta readers and critique groups. I think my favorite was a Steinbeck quote offered by freelance editor (and great blogger) Victoria Mixon:

"I am never shy about it when a professional is doing the reading. But God save me from amateurs. They don't know what they are reading but it is much more serious than that. They immediately start rewriting. I never knew this to fail. It is invariable. They have the authority of ignorance, something you simply cannot combat."

In the spirit of Mr. Steinbeck’s observation, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote last summer about dealing with the least helpful form of criticism—the unsolicited kind.

***********
Early into our journeys in wordsmithing, most writers discover our chosen art form has a major drawback: everybody’s a f***ing critic.

For some reason, folks who happily offer praise to fledgling musicians, quilters, sculptors, or Star Trek action-figurine painters, feel compelled to launch into scathing critiques of the efforts of the creative writer.

I remember showing an early story to a boyfriend. He returned the manuscript covered with red-penciled “corrections”—changing characters’ names, dialogue, and much of the plot. He’d barely finished High School; I had an Ivy League degree.

      I asked why he felt the need to edit my story.

      He said, “What else would I do with it?”

      I said, “How about saying something nice, the way I do when you show me your woodworking projects.”

      He looked at me as if I were speaking Klingon.

Even my years of professional writing credits don’t deter a compulsive critic. Recently, a visual artist who’s always e-mailing me .jpgs of her latest work—which I dutifully download and praise—asked me about my latest project. I sent her the first chapter. She replied with a 100% negative critique.

Maybe this behavior is perpetrated by those grade-school teachers who had us read aloud our poems about “What Thanksgiving Means to Me,” and invited class comments—which often devolved into verbal spitball attacks. I don’t remember the same free-for-all judging sessions for our construction-paper Pilgrim hats or renditions of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Maybe some grade-school teacher can tell me why.

Gratuitous criticism is often so clueless, we can laugh and ignore it. It can even be helpful. An untrained eye can sometimes help us look at problems in a new way.

But if it’s derisive, hostile and/or entirely lacking in praise, energize your deflector shields. It has nothing to do with your work and everything to do with the “critic.” An amazing number of people, even decades out of adolescence, still think negativity sounds smart. But it’s good to remember that any Archie Bunker can look at a Picasso and say, “My two-year-old paints better than that!”

Appreciation takes education.

We do need feedback. If you don’t have an editor or trusted beta reader, find a good critique group, preferably writers in your own genre. A good critique is a gift. You know when you hear one. It may sting, but it gives you an “ah-ha” moment that improves your work. Good critiquers know “not my cuppa” shouldn’t be expressed as “your story sux.”

Plus they’ll always give positive comments to balance the negative. Nobody can take undiluted criticism. The brain registers it as an attack, which triggers a fight or flight response.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with self-appointed critics:

1. Avoid showing first drafts to non-writers.

2. Consider the source. If Mr. Judgmental hasn’t read anything but TV Guide since he dropped out of Bounty Hunter school, this is not his field of expertise.

3. If someone asks to see unpublished work, be clear you aren’t inviting critique. Say something like, “My editor prefers that nobody else edit my material. However, I’ll be happy to hear about what you enjoy, and please let me know if you catch any typos.”

4. Give the critic a sweet smile while plotting her murder in your next novel.

5. Think of this as practice for when you’re successful enough to be reviewed by snarky professional critics.

6. If something feels like verbal abuse, consider the possibility that it is. Ask yourself if the critic is:

       a. Feeling neglected. Writers can be selfish with our time. Take him out for coffee and catch up.
       b. A writer-wannabe: she’s dying to write, but too terrified/ blocked/lazy. Envy makes people mean.
       c. A narcissistic bully. Writers are magnets for them. We pay attention, which is what they crave—and we’re solitary, which makes us easy prey. They lure us with praise and fascinating stories; keep us enslaved with threats and/or self pity; then try to erase our personalities and make us mirrors for their reflected glory. They will do or say anything to destroy a victim’s sense of self. Remember NOTHING a verbal abuser says has value. Win a Pulitzer, and you’ll hear, “What, no Nobel?” You’ll never please them by doing better, because nothing pleases them but having power over you.

Good criticism is necessary to any art form, but the unsolicited, negative variety is poison. If comments are unhelpful, ignore them and boldly warp into the next galaxy.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I'm a Top Tweeter!

Hey, this blog made the Writers Digest Best Tweets for Writers this week! I think I have Sierra Godfrey to thank for this. Check Sierra's Google Roundup on Fridays. Thanks Sierra!

And many thanks to Jane Friedman of Writers Digest. She "watches Twitter so you don’t have to."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Should You Give an Agent an Exclusive Read?

Sometime during your query process, you’ll get a request for a partial or full manuscript (yay!) But this time it comes with a request for an exclusive read (not so yay.)

It happened to me about a year ago. I really wanted to work with the agent, but it would have been impossible to grant her a truly exclusive read. Like most writers seriously seeking publication, I had a bunch of outstanding queries, as well as a couple of partials and fulls lingering on various agency desks.

I’d never been fond of the idea of exclusives. They’ve always looked pretty lose/lose to me. They take our work off the market—sometimes for years—without increasing our chances of being offered representation.

And it’s even worse with publishers, who often insist on exclusives for any unagented manuscript, but have an up-to-three-year reading time and ninety-nine percent rejection rate. (Maybe it’s just a cruel way of saying “get an agent”?)

But what do you do if you’re in my situation? This agent seemed enthusiastic about my work. And she was definitely my best bet. Those partials and fulls had been out for over six months, and the outstanding e-queries, although pretty fresh, might have been rejected already. In this “no response” era, we have no way of knowing.

One successful writer friend tells me you simply can’t make it in this business if don’t ignore “exclusive” and “no simultaneous submission” rules. Her advice is to send now and worry later—since few works get multiple offers. Another writer says, “Send it without promising anything. Most agents are curious enough to peek.”

But I hate burning bridges, so I sent the agent the requested pages, along with a note disclosing that other agencies were looking. I offered a future exclusive on the full if the other agents gave me a pass. But the “exclusive” agent replied—within minutes—that her time was too valuable to waste on anything that she could lose to somebody else. The snippy tone made me wonder if I’d done something wrong.

So I checked with other agent blogs to see if I should have handled it differently. Turns out I made a mistake, but not in sending the partial; I shouldn’t have offered the exclusive at all.

Here’s some advice from the pros:

From Folio agent Rachel Vater (who is, alas, no longer blogging) “Exclusives are not good. Try to avoid [them] or specify a very short period of time. Two weeks maybe if you must.”

BookEnds agent Jessica Faust said: “I HATE exclusives. I think they are unfair to the author and lazy on the part of the agent….If you can’t compete, don’t play the game… If an agent isn’t aggressive enough to compete for your work with other agents, how aggressive will she be selling your work?”

The archives of Miss Snark offer the simple caveat: “Excusives Stink!”

Ultra-nice agent Kristin Nelson said she would never ask for one, because “I never want a client to feel they have settled for my agency.” But “if you’re 100% sure” an exclusive-demanding agent is for you, she offered these rules:

1. If you grant an exclusive, honor it. Be sure to include a time limit.

2. If your manuscript is out with one agent and an “exclusive” request comes in from another, send the manuscript anyway with a note explaining the non-exclusive status. If she won’t read it, “it’s her loss.”

3. Never allow an exclusive on a partial. “That’s just silly.”

4. If several agents have your full “and they’ve been nice enough to not request the evil exclusive,” keep them posted about the manuscript’s status with other agencies.

But what if you’ve already granted an exclusive, without stipulating a time limit, as I almost did? Don’t despair. Rachel Vater suggested sending a note like this:

“I submitted TITLE at your request on DATE as an exclusive submission but forgot to ask for a time frame. If you haven't had a chance to read yet, could you give me an estimation of where it is on your reading list?”

If you don’t hear back, Ms. Vater said you can send an e-mail informing the agent you’ve had more requests, and will send manuscripts out next week “unless you’d like a little more time?”

In other words, be polite, but don’t give away the store.

Monday, May 10, 2010

More Advice on Bad Advice

Catherine Ryan Hyde has posted two of her great articles--re-published from prestigious magazines--on the subject of dealing with bad critiques. A must-read for anybody who's ever had to deal with the sort of less-than-helpful writing advice I mention below. Check out her wonderful blog.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bad Advice to Ignore from Your Critique Group

Finding a beta reader or critique group is essential to any writer’s development. We can’t write in a vacuum. Nobody ever learned to be a good writer holed up in an attic with no one to review his work but the cat. (Cats can be so cruel.)

Rachelle Gardner ran a guest post by Becky Levine in April with useful advice on how to choose a critique group by assessing your own stage of writing development.

There are lots of places to look for groups—bookstores and libraries if you want an in-person experience, or writers' forums and genre organizations like RWA online. I’ve heard good things about Critique Circle and there are many more. If you’re looking for a single beta reader, you might try the forums at Nathan Bransford’s blog , the hub of all things writerly on the interwebz

But remember not all the advice you’ll hear will be useful. As Victoria Strauss says in her must-read Writer Beware blog “never forget that people who know nothing are as eager to opine as people who know something.”

Even worse than know-nothings are the know-somethings who turn every bit of advice they’ve ever heard into a “rule” as ironclad and immutable as an algebraic formula. Follow their advice and your book will read like an algebraic formula, too.

Here are a few critique group “rules” I find more annoying than useful.

1) Eliminate all clich├ęs

Unless your characters are wildly inventive poets, space aliens, or children fostered by wolves, their dialogue and thoughts will include familiar expressions. Don’t rob your Scarlett O’Hara of her "fiddle dee-dees" or deprive your Bogart of "doesn’t amount to a hill of beans."

2) More! Make it vivid!

Would we really improve Casablanca with "a hill of Moroccan garbanzos, yellow-pale and round, of the kind the English call chick-peas"?

3) Avoid repetition

Not necessarily. Beware what H.W. Fowler called "elegant variation".

OK: "It was a good bull, a strong bull, a bull bred to fight to the death."

NOT: "It was a good bull, a strong animal, a male creature of the bovine persuasion bred to do battle..."

4) Eradicate the verb "to be," especially in the past tense: “was” is the enemy.

It’s true that it’s generally wise to avoid the passive voice, which uses "was" in the past tense:

"The cat was laundered by me" is passive and sounds lame.

"I laundered the cat" is active and stronger.

But sometimes the passive voice makes the clearest statement: "The cat was abused."

Real problems arise when amateurs confuse passive voice with the progressive tense, which also uses "to be" (with the present participle.) "I was just sitting there when the cat owner punched me," means something different from "I just sat there when the cat owner punched me." Eliminating "was" changes meaning instead of "strengthening."

5) Put your protagonist’s thoughts in italics. Unless your editor specifically asks for this, avoid it. Italics are hard to read.

When you write in the third-person-limited viewpoint, it’s read like first person: no italics or "he thought/she thought" necessary.

"I walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats," can be changed to third person with just a switch of pronoun/noun: "Pufferball walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats."

6) Characters must behave predictably

Don’t let anyone tell you a character "wouldn’t" behave in a certain way. Only the writer knows if this particular truck driver would read Proust; this bride would run off with the florist’s mother; or that Maine Coon cat would pee in your Jimmy Choos.

7) Describe characters' physical appearance in detail.

When your English teacher told you to beef up that "Summer Vacation" essay with long, colorful descriptions of your new kitty, she was looking for a complete page, not preparing you for publication. Brevity is now and ever shall be the soul of wit. The only thing Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett’s appearance was that she had "fine eyes". Let your reader's imagination do the work.

8) Protagonists must be admirable

Saints are boring in fiction, unless they liberate France and get burned at the stake, and that’s been done.

9) If we don’t point out everything wrong, we’re not doing our job

A group should tell you what’s right with a work as well as what’s wrong. No one can hear endless negativity. The brain shuts down to protect itself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Does Depression Make You a Better Writer?

Great writers tend to be depressives. From Plato, who was reported to suffer from “melancholic disease,” to recent suicide David Foster Wallace, writing and depression seem inexorably linked. In Nancy Andreasen’s famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression.

Until recently, nobody knew the reason for this. But new research is giving us fresh data on the anatomy and purpose of depression. In an article in the NY Times Magazine in February, Jonah Lehrer gave a fascinating overview of the new information concerning what he calls the “common cold” of mental illness—and suggests depression could even be good for you.

He reports brain function researchers have discovered the part of the brain active in depressive episodes is the same area we use for complex thought. This is huge: creative thought is anatomically identical to depression.

As a result of the new research, some evolutionary psychologists are hypothesizing that humans developed depression—with its accompanying rumination and lack of interest in normal activities—as a mechanism for focusing on problem-solving.

In other words, when Gog’s bestie got smoked trying to spear that saber-toothed tiger, Gog got sad, mooned around not eating, sleeping, or making little Gogs...so he could invent a longer spear.

These studies show depressed people have enhanced reasoning power. Lehrer quoted one researcher who said, “the results were clear: [depression] made people think better.”

This seems especially true for writers. Lehrer quoted another researcher who discovered “sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences,” and Lehrer concluded, “because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst.”

Whether or not you buy the evolutionary cause-and-effect, I think this research gives us tools for understanding—and perhaps managing—the depression that overwhelms so many writers. If we accept that depressive episodes are going to come with long periods of building complex worlds in our heads, maybe we can cope by making sure we take frequent breaks for physical activity, social interaction or non-cerebral tasks (who knew that boring day job was saving you from mental illness?)

What we should NOT do is fear the darkness now proved to be inherent in the creative process. If we can see the pain as part of the package instead of a disease, maybe we can work with it instead of medicating it away.

In her blog This is Madness, Chicago professor Jeanne Petrolle blogged last week about how the pharmaceutical industry is raking in stupendous profits by pathologizing normal emotional processes. They may also be stifling the creativity we need to evolve as a species.

I know from my own experience that anti-depressants slow down or eliminate my creative activity—as well as lightening my wallet and making me fat. Yes there is more pain without them. As Lehrer says “To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness.”

But ultimately I think it’s good news: we’re not nuts; we're writers!