Critiques without Tears (part 2)

(being published earlier than normal-by popular request!!)

Then, it happened…

I joined not one but THREE different critique groups. Oh, my disease to be liked and to please overcame any rational thought. I tried to do the run around and help everyone because I was getting what I wanted, what I thought I needed-FEEDBACK!

People actually cared about my work.

But, there comes a day when you sit back and ask yourself, “Is it worth it? Is all of this madness really worth it?”

Okay, there’s a critique group that met in a government location (I’m trying to give as little description as possible here to keep it vague). It was cool. They were late. Super late. And they whispered. I have tinnitus. It was a battle of the constant ringing in my ears versus the whispers of the group. I liked the group but goodbye.

Another group-late, late, late and off topic. I loved the conversations and the off topic but I really wanted to discuss writing. They were a fun group but man, I have never seen so many late arrivers in my life! I mean what is it with arriving late?! I get it, we all have jobs and kids, but hell, if I can make it…

Third group-on time, prompt, articulate but semi serious. Loved them but, I mean, semi serious says it all. I had to take a step back from them.

So, as my dad says, let’s get to the gravy of this-

Critique groups are interesting and fun. The key is to find one that fits you. Find the one where you don’t feel like critiques are personal attacks. One of these groups felt like straight up attacks on my writing and me, directly. I sat through a few meetings but I could not take it. How can I leave a group thinking I’m better (or at least a mediocre writer) after being faced with such hostility?

I did my due diligence. Now, I’ll tell you what I have learned:

If you don’t feel comfortable, find another group. This is the most important rule. Sometimes your instinct is yelling in your ears to leave and you may think, “Well, this is kinda the only group I could find…so I have to stay.” No, you don’t! Get out! There are groups online, at local libraries, community colleges, hell-twitter and even Facebook!-just get out? Why? Because the next thing will happen-

Critique the work, not the person. This group you may be in-Let’s call it “The Hate Group” will stress you. Every meeting causes some type of anxiety. You sweat bullets before you get there, hoping it will all work out. You get your critique back and it pretty much looks like they gave you the finger-with all the red comments. Every single line has a problem-verb tense, adverb use, adjective use…all of it is wrong. These people are not your friends. Then, you get the emails scheduling the next meeting and have a nervous breakdown. This is not your group, these people are not your friends.

Critique the work-I cannot emphasize that enough. Sometimes, when I’m doing a critique, I’ll let my brain turn to mush. Let me elaborate. I’ll pretend I picked this “book” up in a store and I’m reading it for the first time. I’m asking myself, “Does this make sense? Does the plot make sense? What about the characters, are they believable?” The last question I ask myself is: would I purchase this book?

If you answer no, offer some nice suggestions about how to make it better. Nothing like, “Dude, what the fuck were you thinking? Um, you’ve killed my brain cells because you suck.” This is the worst no of a response. You simply do not respond like this, no matter what.

I’m a Pisces, so I’m sensitive to shit like this. Continuing…

You want to find a way to make gentle suggestions like, “This works okay but maybe consider this”-and then write a got-damned appropriate response! If you read, “Joe dropped his shoes and walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He grabbed a loaf of bread, mayonnaise, bologna and set it on the counter. He opened the bread and….” You see where I’m going with this. Joe is making a sandwich. If this were me, I’d write something like, “I understand Joe is making a sandwich, and I think it may work better if you stated it. Also, and is being use a lot in the first sentence. You can make a few sentences like “Joe kicked off his shoes at the door. He walked into the kitchen. He opened the fridge and decided to make himself a sandwich.” I mean, this is really basic, but you get the gist.

Leave some awesome comments-When I give a critique, after I do my brain free read, I go back and look for lines that I like. Every writer, I don’t care who you are, likes to read something like-this line really works, I am enjoying where this is going or if you agree with the actions of a character, you can write something that says so. Personalization of comments shows that you paid attention. You are an attentive reader. You notice something so slight and beautiful that you share it. Trust me, these little comments may mean nothing to you, but when you are depressed and rereading your work where someone left you a cool comment, it lifts your spirits.

Be nice-I know, I know. I’ve been saying this all along. Put yourself in the person’s shoes you are doing a critique for. How do you think they feel if you wrote something like, “Ha ha! Have you ever thought about not being a writer? Dude, this blows so bad, I actually used your rough draft to pick up my dog’s shit AND wipe my ass!” Not so kind. Critique like you want to be critiqued. There is no law saying you have to like everyone’s work but you need to act like you have an ounce of sense in your head because what you sow, you will reap and that’s gonna be a bitter harvest.

As I wind this down, let me say this: When I was looking for a writing group, I studied all the editing stuff I could get my hands on-Pinterest, books, Ted Talks, professors and I found out a lot. I, personally, don’t like adverbs. Are they over used? Quite a bit. Does that make it wrong? Nah. Second, I don’t like these words: very, just and really, also not a big fan of that or using the word thing to describe something. I like showing and telling. I don’t like people who try to write smart using big words no one understands (I sigh as I write this because it happened. Also do the damned due diligence and get genders right! I mean, ask if you don’t know. And don’t use the language of the 50’s or even the 30’s. Yeah, a conk is a perm, but we don’t need to know how ‘hip’ you are.). Even though I don’t like these things, it doesn’t mean I need to impose IRON WILL on everything I critique. Some people LOVE adverbs. I do not. It is a struggle to get through adverby readings for me. I will walk away for a few days and come back. They aren’t my thing.

I realized I was imposing my IRON (Naruto like) WILL on all that I surveyed. “All the lands shall be banished free of adverbs! These words will get you in the stocks-there, very, really, just, in order, quite, get, got, thing and any -ing verb! Be free from this paper or be gone, dammit!” I have to step back and realize people will be people. I’ll point out something I see to the writer in a fun way, “Dude, you have used that 185 times and it’s only four pages. You may want to have a look.” I will not become grammar bitch and destroy a paper because of it. This is my own personal life lesson.

Finally, wrap up the critique. Give your honest opinion-without being a first class ass-in a few paragraphs at the end. Prepare yourself to explain why you feel that way in a group. If the writer wants to argue you down, stop talking. You can say something like, “You don’t have to agree with me. This is my opinion. Everything I said is not gospel.” (You don’t have to add the gospel part, I can be a bit sarcastic sometimes.)

Remember

  1. Critique the work, not the person– I may think you are a dick but I don’t take it out on the work. Then, I will be the dick.
  2. Don’t impose your IRON WILL over everyone
  3. If you feel uncomfortable or attacked, leave the group. Anxiety attacks aren’t cool when you have a meeting. Also, carrying and going through so much deodorant because you are sweating like a hooker giving confessional-is not cool. You should never feel like this. Ever.
  4. Find a few lines you like and leave a note in the margin. It makes a writer feel good.
  5. When you join a group, establish rules and boundaries. If you miss X number of meetings, you are out. (There can be exceptions-I had two deaths in my family in 3 months, I want to say, my brain was NOT in the game and the critiques I gave may have been ass? I don’t remember. I had funerals and mourning) Be on time. If you are going to be late, let them know. If you can’t make it, let people know ahead of time. Seems like semantics, but a little goes a long way.
  6. Wrap up the critique with a few paragraphs focusing on what you liked and what you think needs work. Notice I didn’t say-what you didn’t like. I said, “What needs work.” Or as Stewie Griffin says, “The compliment sandwich.” An example, “Hey Tracy, I really liked the way you used plot as an integral part of the story. Also the theme of darkness really worked well. One thing I would have a look at is the number of times you repeat phrases like ‘and then he did’ or ‘she said as’. It was a bit distracting from the story. Another thing you may want to keep an eye out for is the word very. Goth can be very dark and very scary, but maybe stretch it out some and explain why instead of the very. Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing what Xander’s plans are for the future since his wife died and he moved into the family castle. I can see a lot of great things coming!” What i did was I showed that I read the story by including information at the end, I talked about theme and plot (very loosely) and my suggestions weren’t said with a lot of force.
  7. Do unto others and all that jazz. Again, how would you want to be critiqued? Then, critique in that way.

That’s what I got folks. Anyone that knows me, knows this is pretty much the truth. Otherwise, you can join my new club online writer’s group, inspired by the Little Rascals:

The new name would be: NO BS WRITERS CLUB: NO ADVERBS ALLOWED!
(I’m kinda joking but maybe I’m not. )

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