Everyone talks about self care and self love, but let’s talk about you and me. Recently, I signed up for a workshop. I get work back from the workshop and it was a critique and then, they wanted money for me to attend the workshop.
Now I know my shit was tight. My work was finely tuned. I’ve made all the changes and I filed it under the “done” folder. As I’m reading this letter, ripping my work apart, I’m thinking, “Well, I’ve had critiques from several other people and they didn’t have this problem.”
I’m a Pisces. I’m paranoid as hell and I get offended easily.
So, I’m wavering and thinking. I’m also about to go finish schoolwork with my kid and make lunch. But hey…I’m thinking that I’m reading a story and I thinkthat the author uses the word “said” too much. Everyone said. Then, she said. No adverbs or descriptions of how they said what they did. Just said. I don’t think anyone said anything to this author during the editing process. Or maybe they said to tone it down on the adverbs. You know what, just change it all to said. I mean the rest of the book is good. (YA is always a hard read because at some point the protagonist commits a series of wtf’s and you wanna put the book down, but you need to finish.)
What’s the point of all this. Man, I gotta stop taking shit personal. If Person A reads it and says it’s perfect. Person B said to add a few details blah blah. Person C says this and that. You go over three or drafts done and finally they all agree. Yay! Then, anyone else that reads it has an opinion as well. At this point, I can only take so much.
Self care and why you matter starts here…do I change this story for the 890th time or let it go. I’m open to critique, mind you. I know a person is trying to make it so they understand it. If I change it for you, I’d have to change it for every reader. And I don’t have the time to do that. In other words, I’m gonna pass on your word.
Am I cocky? Nah. It’s like so many people write the great American novel and never get published. Some people are afraid to get their work out there. I’ve had stuff published and am working on a novel. I’m not afraid of getting my stuff out there. But unless this helps me to clarify something or improve the story, nah, son. This is like my 890th pass on this one work. I ain’t got time.
Basically, know when to say no. Know when your ideas and your truth matters. Know when to say, “Thanks, I’ll take it into consideration.” You matter. Take care of you.
Headed into Day Two of Borderlands with a binder full of interesting stories that I have read and given a decent critique.
This is how it goes: We were given a schedule on Friday along with a number and a small piece of paper with a sentence. Based on the numbers, we were to go to specific rooms to speak on our critiques. The small piece of paper was a “starter” for a story we were to have ready for Sunday. Aaaand the story was to be based on everything you learned today. Yeah, Saturday, Day Two.
My sentence was: So you think you know the truth?
My brain shut down. I folded the paper and stuck it in my writers notebook.
Friday night, I made plans to get up early and do some yoga. Then, I was going to check out the continental breakfast (which normally is yogurt or a homemade waffle-no meat). I had big intentions. Especially after I took the picture with F. Paul Wilson and fan girled to death. Now, you know my big plans.
I woke up late as fuck.
Dammit iPhone alarm!!
Fastest shower in history. Thank God, I stole my kids donut holes and turkey sausage (thanks, sis for that idea), think about yoga as I grab the piece of paper with my location and run down the hall. I made it.
First session was with Tom. Tom was a super laid back guy. Head of the whole Borderlands event and a New York accent that comes and goes. He was a hoot.
Feedback time…my story seemed to cause a bit of controversy. I didn’t name the sex of the protagonist, which confused everyone. There was discussion on the trope I chose but I gave it a lovely twist. (No, I’m not gonna share). Tom liked the twist.
Sadly, because of my old grandma like age, no one knew who in the hell Robert Johnson was. And this meant, I would have to explain this all the rest of the day.
It seems I wasn’t emailed the first batch of stories, so I missed out, but I did have another person email me them later. It turns out those were the most fun stories and I didn’t have them. Ugh.
We received feedback. We sat and everyone went around the room-not necessarily shitting on you (but it felt like it)-and in the end, you are able to explain or share anything you felt relevant to enhance your story. It went like this for a few hours (maybe two?)
The last to give feedback was Tom. I could listen to him talk forever but alas, this is but a summary. Our time was up and we headed to the next room for critiques.
Next session was with Ginger. She’s an editor and works with Tom. She has bright red hair and she’s tiny but has an aura around her of power. I was first and we chatted before everyone else arrived. Repeat of the first session.
And then, lunch.
I felt a cold coming on. I hooked up with one of the other girls from the Horror Writers Association and we both decided we wanted soup. We walked around downtown Baltimore, searching for soup. (I didn’t even see the damned Chik Fil A across the street…duh!)
We found a lobstah joint. She got a lobster roll. I asked to try the lobster bisque. (There was chow-dah but I didn’t have a good experience with clam chow-dah years ago) It was really good. I got a cup with fresh lobster on top. We had a nice chat and talked about the stress of writing and stuff like that.
Back to class. Next session was with Douglas F (Prime Evil) Winter!! It took me a minute but when I remembered him, oh the crushing came in strong. It’s like, “I used to read your books in bed, under blankets late at night.”
No, Tracy, that didn’t sound perverted at all. Not one bit.
We took a picture together. After everyone came in the room, he closes the door (albeit dramatically) and walks over to our little group, “I just got over pneumonia.”
I stood up. Nope. Not today Satan.
He said he was cleared and had a note from his doctor. Instantly, I felt my throat tighten and fluid fill my lungs.
Sadly, pneumonia made his voice soft and scratchy. I had to crane to listen and of course, didn’t have some of the stories I needed to critique. I listened and took my critique like a man.
The best was last-F. Paul Wilson. We’re friends now. And I was first and goofily walked in and probably said something incredibly stupid. (Hey Paul, pigeons can’t fart. Did you know that?)
This was a fun group. We’d all passed out our critiques, so we came in empty handed. I’m not even going to get into it but I will say that Paul is a fun guy. Worth the wait.
We went off kilter because I was the black dot in a snowstorm, one of the other women asked me a question about writing about people of color. She said that she went to a conference and a guy led a seminar that basically said, “People of color don’t like to be described in the terms of food. Like no chocolate or fudge.”
I looked at her like she lost her mind, “Huh?”
“Well,” I cleared my throat, “I don’t mind. I mean, my kids are mixed. My youngest kid’s dad is Latino. Someone referred to her skin color as cafe con leche. I wasn’t offended because she is cafe con leche colored.”
“Look, you can describe skin without being offensive. But, in short, and on behalf of the black race, no problem describing skin as food. I mean, I like to call myself the ‘chocolate girl wonder’. It’s no biggie. My sister, the poet, does it better and with more eloquence than me. But no offense taken.”
Then, my boy, Paul, backs me up, “Some people just look for something to bitch about. I mean, do what you need to do.”
I asked for more “Repairman Jack” books for my friend. And the chicks of the room discussed our writing assignments for the night. One girl had the first line from Fahrenheit 451. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
She had a good idea for me to work on mine and we all got advice from Paul. It was dinner time and we still had one more group session together.
I turn to the Southern gal that asked me about race and said the following, “Where you from?”
“Where can I get some fried fish?”
“Girl, I know just the place.”
“I knew you would. It’s a Southern thing.”
We had fun. She said it felt like she knew me but I know it was my mother’s Southern side taking over and exuding Southern warmth and kindness.
Everyone needed a drink. We went to what was a pub. Fish and chips were good. Then, we looked up and another group of writers entered the joint. We waved and finished eating.
One girl wanted ice cream. I decided to go with her to get ice cream, which was an adventure because it was located in a fried chicken joint! They had this interesting way of making it and it looked like a rose. She had a small bowl of mango roses with other stuff on top (like coconut and mango sprinkles). It looked good but I knew my body. I pushed my limit with the creamy bisque. I would be surprised if I didn’t fart my way back to the hotel.
One more group meeting. We all were a bit more familiar with each other. I made some new friends. This was the wrap up.
One of the grunts gave the panel some liquor. Paul opened the liquor and everyone on the panel seemed to partake.
A very big takeaway is that writers can drink. Like DRINK!! But, they got nothing on Librarians. Oh, they can tear a house down and come to work the next day like nothing happened.
We learned a lot that night. I learned about editing and how Paul was like, “You guys-everyone in here-lays a lot of exposition, cut it out.”
Tom said, “Fuck the simultaneous queries. Just send your work everywhere. It’s better to turn someone down than wait for one person to turn you down.”
Chet Williamson gave an awesome, funny speech which basically said, “Don’t quit your day job, be sure your partner has medical benefits, write and submit. Never stop.” He said a lot of stuff. He is a really great speaker, he showed even more greatness on Sunday.
In the end, a fun time was had by all. Sadly, I can’t party like I used to and this was the second time for midnight in a row. I am not like these other writers. A new friend and I snuck out to work on our stories at 1100. I felt like I let the team down.
We needed to send our print jobs to the front desk to be printed. I finished my opus at 1230 and looking like anyone’s mammy, I went downstairs to get my print job. I step off the elevator and there is the panel, going out for drinks!
I participate in a writing group. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. My submission was something I worked on for Nanowrimo. I was nervous-when you see a lot of red or highlighting, I think, ‘Wow, time for revenge!” It wasn’t the case.
We are down to three (maybe four) members and I discussed my story with one member. He was cool with everything. Not many corrections. Some nice input. (An aside, my kid was there, the wifi was straight up ass/spotty. He let her play games on his phone but it was spotty and worked off and on)
Second guy comes to the table. We chatting and it’s all fun. Not many corrections but he said something that I was like, “What the hell?”
“I like it. It just reads a bit dated.”
Dated? Like what?
“Your references-Twilight Zone, Bloody Mary…you know stuff like that.”
Aw, shit. I guess you’re right. I write what I know and being older, this is what I know. Sadly, what I know would scare Generation Z ? Generation X? Hell, I don’t know. Either way, it’s what I know. Which got me to thinking…where are the monsters of now?
He had a valid point. Horror can be dated by decades. Some monsters are timeless, which is cool. Like in the 80’s it was Jason. In the 90’s, it was Freddy Kruger. See where I’m going? Now we have “Final Destination” with no monster. We’ve gone cerebral. It’s all in your head or the monsters have become us. It’s strange.
And Hollywood keeps recycling the same old shit and variations on a theme-“Look it’s remake of a remake of a remake! Why isn’t it successful?” “Look! We did this and tweaked it, now it’s scary!” I mean, we don’t need another “Saw”-they get weaker with each one. A movie called, “The Collector” was more interesting. They made two: “The Collector” and “The Collection”. Horror done right but once again, we were the monsters.
I forgot about the entire zombie revolution but guess what? We are still the monsters. We fear a different variation of ourselves. A half dead, cannibal version of ourselves. Hollywood milked the shit out of that and didn’t even do it right. (Looking at you, “World War Z” which could have been really good.)
Even as I look up at my movies, I’m realizing, we have no monsters. I watched a movie called “Freaks” (not the original…this was new) and once again, we are the monsters. “Midsommar”-we are the monsters. (Dammit! You guys are Swedes! Not this savage! I’ll never be able to go to Ikea again!) “Us”-(we are doppelganger monsters), “Escape Room”-(we are the monsters)…you see where I’m going with this.
There is a bright star. I’ve seen “Brightburn” so many times, it’s almost up there with “Aliens” (I know most of the dialogue of “Aliens”). “Brightburn” basically gave the finger to all the superhero movies and turned the world upside down. I am hoping for a sequel or something. It gives a girl like me something to look forward to.
I know there are monsters out there and I know there are monster movies waiting to be made. However, Hollywood seems to have its collective head up its collective ass and just can’t stop with the remakes. And for the record, I didn’t really like “Us”. But Jordan Peele is having a good run, so keep on going until they get sick of you, bro. Also, them “Twilight Zone” remakes-no bueno. I really tried but nah.
Don’t get me wrong. I am such a lover of horror stuff, it’s insane. I write horror. I am in a horror group. I am saying it’s about time we have a monster that makes me scared to get out of bed and close my closet door…a monster that I’m hearing when I walk down the street from the bus stop that’s not somebody on that synthetic shit.
I want to imagine claws wrapping around a tree…something scampering across the road and hiding that’s not human. Can you dig where I’m going with this?
I plan on contributing to the new monster phenom in 2020. I’ve got a short story coming out in an anthology with a monster with claws in it. I’m going to be in a cyberpunk anthology with monsters in it. And this for Nanowrimo-aw hell yeah, I’m embracing the fear.
(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.)
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.
Don’t impose your IRON WILL over everyone
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.
Find a few lines you like and leave a note in the margin. It makes a writer feel good.
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.
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.
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:
When I joined my first critique group, which feels like years ago, I was green. I had no clue how to do a critique. I didn’t know how to do much of anything. I read directions…instructions and whatever I could get my hands on. I read Pinterest, I googled critiques and I was ready.
I also went first in my group. The critique was not great, not bad. But, you must remember that I submitted my first zombie apocalypse story to a small press and it was accepted. (To which a person told me-that never happens! Send it to me! I want to read it! They never did.) This was a chance to share my work with my peers and get some feedback.
I was a writer. A full fledged writer.
The way the critique went was everyone spoke, then you answer questions about the story, defend it or whatever. I think I gave too much information (like I always do). Looking back, I feel like a total ass. But hey, I also fell off my bike the first time I rode it, prompting my mother to take one of the training wheels. The one wheel I had was my crutch until she took it away and I was riding like a pro.
I’m not saying I’m a pro at this, but I did get better. I learned my groups pet peeves. I learned my pet peeves. My first group was fun. There was a really great sci fi story and when it was super duper good, the author goes, “I’m scrapping this shit and starting over.” It seems to be the way of my group. At some point, everyone scrapped something (except for me and another member). We had a good run. I could see our writing improving. It was great! I also got complacent.
A new member was added to our group. I’ll leave it at that. The person was interesting, attended two meetings (got one critique) and never came back. No great loss.
The group dwindled down to three of us (from five). I like to think we became close but things happened in our lives that caused the group to simply dissipate. I hear from two of the members once in awhile. I follow one on twitter. Ran into the temporary member joining another group and the other person dropped off the radar.
It was time to go back to having one on one critiques with a friend from Cleveland. She was cool and going through major life changes. Not bad, but good. She had a baby. And her world went upside down and right side up, then inside out. Having a baby will mess you up. You want to write but the baby wants to feed. You want to edit, baby has pooped the diaper. You want to read a book, baby wants you to read.
I went on Pinterest, signed up for editing software and tried to do things alone. It’s nothing like having that feedback from other people that keeps you going. Something about getting a positive little not scribbled in the margin saying, “Dude, I can so relate to this!” Those are the little things that make critiques.
I tried following all the guidelines and doing what I was supposed to do. It was like I was on drugs and needed a fix, walking around asking, “Will you read my story? Will you give me feedback?”
I reached out to other writers but everyone has a life, so I understand.