Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Critique Writing Tips

While getting critiques is an excellent way to improve our writing, giving critiques can be just as effective. Providing feedback on another person's work allows us to objectively read a story and watch carefully to see how it ticks. It will help you improve at:
  • Spotting story-ruining plot holes
  • Locating areas where characters act outside of their personality
  • Realizing story and rhythm flow that either keeps you engaged or pushes you away
  • And more!
My personal cycle for keeping my writing-brain fresh is to read a lot, critique a lot, and of course, write a lot. Here are some things I think about when giving critiques that keep me on the right track:

Give reasons behind the suggestions. 
It’s easy to say “don’t use adverbs”, “don’t use dialogue tags other than said”, or “this is confusing”. It’s harder - for some reason - to say why beyond just “these are the rules of writing” or “because reasons”. It’s important to let the writer know (as an example) why you don’t think it’s a good idea to use an adverb in a sentence: “the adverb ‘thrillingly’ made the sentence a bit long, breaking the flow for me. ‘Thrillingly’ is also implied by his grin whilst jumping out of the airplane in the prior line, and so removing the word could tighten the prose and keep flow going.” Or: “Your use of dialogue tags is distracting me from what’s being said, as oftentimes your description of how they say something is longer than the actual dialogue.” Or: “This is confusing because in the last chapter, Rochel was a man - not a manbearpig.”
Point out what’s good.
Writers are prideful creatures - we can’t help it. Ever hear the phrase starting with “a spoonful of sugar”? If you’re hesitant to provide praise just for the sake of a person’s ego, provide it instead as positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the act of creating a positive feedback loop in the hopes someone (or a pet) continues to do what they are praised for. Pointing out what’s good in a work often encourages the creator to do more of it. Many times, it’s as effective - if not moreso - than pointing out the flaws. Plus it’s nice.
Mention how - overall - the work is meeting its objective as an X (short story, novel, poem, etc.). 
Providing an overall assessment is useful to the writer. Aside from character development, plot progression, and exposition, how did the piece function? For instance, when critiquing a first chapter, I try to touch on how effective the hook was, how attached I am to the protagonist, how well the initial conflict was displayed, and if -by the end - I would be willing to move forward as a reader. You might comment on how a piece worked as a short story, or flash fiction, or poem. Paying attention to the structure of the piece and what method the author used to tell the story is an often not-touched upon, but useful piece of feedback.
Accept style differences. 
Everyone writes differently. There are published books that have adverbs, some that have none, some which demonstrate flowery prose, and some that stick to minimalistic enigma. It’s important - and crucial - to recognize a writer’s style and respect it. This is in the same vein as “recognizing the author’s intent”. Before critiquing a work, get a feel for the writer’s style. Who is their audience? Their message? What is the effect they’re looking for? It is unfair to - as an example - suggest that a minimalist writer with an ambiguous piece write more descriptions, or cut to the point, when that is obviously not the intent. Read Hemigway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and as an experiment, imagine someone telling him to just frickin’ tell (show) us what the two characters are talking about because as is it’s terribly confusing. It would be a little odd, as the whole point of the piece is that uncertainty.
Try (really hard) not to insert your own prose. 
It’s easy to read a sentence or a paragraph (or hell, even an entire work) and just know how you could make it better. In these cases it’s tempting to illustrate your case to the writer you’re critiquing: “Here is how you can make the line ‘And I did.’ a little different. Ahem. ‘The sun glistened through the window, illuminating the room and casting my spirits in a glow of pure enamour, and so in the end, I decided to do what my loveliest pet Darma asked me to do.’” Usually one decides to rewrite something because they didn’t like an aspect of what was written or see where improvements can be made. Touch on those points rather than write a paragraph long demonstration for them. In the end, the writer needs to create something in their own voice - this is what is satisfying, as well as effective. While your prose may illustrate your point, it might not do so as effectively as pointing out what the issues were in the first place, and then allowing the creator to make the changes themselves.
So what things do you all try to do every time you critique? What do you focus on or stray away from, and what do you think is important in feedback? 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writer's Block: Beating Perfectionism

If you read my last post on writer's block, you'll know I identify the affliction as the "anti-muse". Well, my anti-muse is perfectionism. Perfectionism is a two-sided coin a lot of people suffer from. On the one side, if your anti-muse takes the form of perfectionism, you probably pay attention to the intricate details of your writing. You self-edit before you show your work to the world. You nitpick the grammar and the intricacies of your characters. It can be a virtue a lot of the time.

On the other side of that coin is the character flaw we wish we could erase. Perfectionism probably means you edit as you write - even as you write your first drafts. You sit down for three hours but only come up with a paragraph - albeit, a well-polished one. You never think you're good enough. You might spend more time planning than writing. It can be nasty. It definitely slows your work down, and it can make you afraid to experiment. I deal with all of this every time I sit down to write, and I've thought long and hard on how to fix these flaws.

If you suffer from bouts of perfectionism as well, I suggest you heed the wise words of renowned author Anne Lamott:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life..."

As a perfectionist, here are some things I remind myself of every time I write:
  • Good writing is good editing. Very few people can write a solid second or even third draft. Almost no one can write a publishable first draft. After you're done writing, you're going to have to edit. It's when you'll catch mistakes, rectify those mistakes, and add consistency and flair to what you've already created.
  • You don't have to show anyone your work until you're ready. Self-set deadlines like "I want mom and my best friend to read my work by June 3rd", are more like guidelines, as some pirates would say. Goals are great to have, but if you aren't comfortable with your writing, it's not ready. Take a breather and remind yourself that it's okay to extend your own deadlines.
  • Shitty first drafts. Another awesome piece of advice from Anne Lamott: "The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later." It's okay for your first draft to suck a little. Everyone writes shitty first drafts, and understanding that can help you tuck the perfectionism away for a little while. (I also write shitty second drafts. And shitty third drafts).
  • You're learning as you go. Mastery takes time. Some people write better first drafts than others, just like some people write better than others. As you work through the kinks of dealing with perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy, you're getting better. Keep at it, push through, and keep being awesome.
Are you a fellow perfectionist? How do you handle the stress of needing seamless perfection in your writing? Let me know in the comment section below!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Writer's Block: Identify Your Anti-Muse

Writer's block. Half of all two writers reading this blog have now run away at its mention. It is the one shared fear of every writer, but what is it exactly? Some claim it is a literal affliction - like a mental block - preventing them from getting words on the page. Others bravely say it is their own laziness and unwillingness to actually write - just kidding. No writer admits that. In his reddit AMA on January 6, Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian and writer, said:

Writer's block is a lot of things. I like to think of it as the anti-muse. If my muse is everything that inspires me and keeps me filling the page, then writer's block is the culmination of all my doubts, fears, and inadequacies which stop me dead in my tracks. Whatever it is - and I do think it's subjective for each person - it is a real thing. Sorry, Jerry.

Everyone who writes has met their anti-muse. Even if it's a kid writing a letter to Grandma, they get stumped. What does one say to a Grandma they hardly ever see, but feel obligated to write to because Grandma just gave one a gift through the mail? One can't only say "thank you". That's impolite.

To keep it as simple as possible, I'll define writer's block or the anti-muse as anything that stops writing flow. I think there are a few common reasons people run up against writer's block. They worry about it being good - perfect, even. They worry if it will sell. They don't want to write until they have inspiration. And - and do admit this, because we've all known it to be true deep down in some uncomfortable little crevice of our mind - we don't write because we're lazy - sometimes. There are days where the last thing I'd like to do is write. Sometimes it's nice to play video games for a day. Or two. Or maybe a week.

The key to beating writer's block is identifying what your anti-muse is. What keeps you from writing? Are you afraid of not being good enough? Are you upset because a published author wrote something similar to your premise and you no longer feel the idea is original? Find your anti-muse. Then beat it senseless with mental wiffle bats. And by "beat it senseless with mental wiffle bats", I mean: overcome what makes you stop writing.

Whatever it is, whatever fear you have, whatever form your anti-muse takes, find it and deal with it. Then keep writing.

Next Time: If your anti-muse takes the nasty shape of perfectionism, you're in luck! That's mine, too! I'll be diving in to my own writer's block and telling y'all the tips and tricks I've used to stop beating myself up over less than perfect work.

How do you deal with writer's block, and what form does your anti-muse take? Let me know in the comments below!