Critiques – Are they worth it?

I love critiquesWhen I first submitted a story for online critiques, I had been part of a local critique group for about six months. Our local group, the Scrawling Narwhals, tends to operate as a roundtable. We take turns providing verbal feedback, and then hand the author our written critique, or what I call supporting materials for the verbal onslaught of comments, suggestions and ideas.

In person, I get the chance to process the feedback as it is told, get some explanation for it, and even discuss and brainstorm as a group about some of the ideas that come up. The discussions aren’t necessarily orderly, but it makes it all easier to process all the feedback received, to absorb and digest it all, if you will. It’s also great to be able to have other people’s immediate feedback on ideas stemming from their commentary, basically helping troubleshoot the kinks and rework the story before even leaving the meeting.

Over time, we’ve gotten to know each other’s strengths, and can even predict some of the comments, allowing me to address some of the issues before the story even goes out to them. In an ideal world, a story would be perfect before being read by anyone else. There would be no feedback, other than for kudos and slaps on the back for writing a perfect story. As this will never happen, the plan is to get a story as close to perfect as you can make it before sharing it for critique. The critiques exist to tell you what you missed so issues can be addressed before they are submitted to someone who will not give you a second read: an editor or publisher.

Online, you put up a story and get emails back in exchange. Myself, I send a “thank you” email back, and that’s usually the end of it. Though it does happen on occasion, follow-up exchanges rarely take place. I am left with a stack of comments from strangers, members of an online critiquing group, who could be anyone from an award-winning author, to a beginner who has yet to finish a story. Or they could not even be writers, just reviewers who enjoy reading stories and providing feedback. (It should be noted that good writers don’t necessarily make good critiquers. Critiquing is a skill that needs to be developed.)

Online critiques also provide the opportunity to get feedback from total strangers, objective beta readers who know nothing about you, and owe you nothing but their honest opinion.

A reviewer could happen to be a spelunker, who has chosen to comment on my spelunking story, and have the knowledge and experience to back up their feedback on technical aspects. The point is, I just don’t know unless they tell me their special expertise. If someone tells me I’ve got my facts wrong about something, I can’t just take their word for it. Online critiques allow my story to reach reviewers with a broad diversity in backgrounds, age, and nationality, and specific knowledge that I would never get from a local group.

Case in point: One reviewer, who sent me feedback on a story set in Japan after the Second World War, had a degree in Japanese culture, and lived in Japan for ten years. His email had been very critical of one of the elements in my story (the delivery of his feedback verged on a rant), and the overall tone of his comments had been especially brutal. I licked my wounds and replied to thank him for his feedback, admitted I had never been to Japan, and sent him the link to my source material for the specific reference that had got him so riled up. I hit sent and tried to forget about it, expecting my email would be automatically deleted.

To my great surprise, he replied a few days later, saying he had done some further research on the issue. He admitted he was wrong (!), and that my own source was right. He then proceeded to send me several emails over the following weeks, containing links and various source material, and details like the types of flowers blooming at that time of the year, to infuse the story with very Japanese details that had never even crossed my mind. Pretty insightful and useful feedback, wouldn’t you say?

Because of that, I value both in-person and online critiques because they bring complementary types of feedback that all help make my stories better than they would be without their input.

That’s why I take advantage of both opportunities. When deadlines allow, I try to run the same story through both groups. That way, I can make the manuscripts as good as they can be, before sending them out to an editor, ensuring problems that escaped my vigilance are corrected before going out.

Doing so lengthens the period of time it takes to get a story completed, but since I only get one shot to impress a specific editor with a story, I figure I might as well give them the best version of it that it can be.

That way, I’ve done as much as I can do. After that, it’s out of my hands.

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Next week: Critiques – Making sense of all the feedback

A character name study: Morrow

Morrow-family-crestI am currently listening to an audiobook where one of the characters is named Morrow. He is a secondary character so he is not in that many scenes, but is often referenced by other characters when he is not present.

The name itself sounds good on its own: it’s a reassuring, almost slow motion, purring name. Morrrrrow.

Its written form is a thing of beauty. It’s almost a mirror image of itself, anchored by a double R, padded with Os, and bookended with a flip of the M and W, which give it movement, and makes it look like it could spin like a windmill and fly off into an amber-colored sunset sky.

It’s certainly a romantic view of it, but one must admit its symmetry and movement make “Morrow” look great on the page.

The name comes up fairly often, and my most recent favorite is for the character Clay Morrow, from the tv series Sons of Anarchy.

In the story I am currently “audiobooking”, more often than not, the word preceding the name is “to” – as in “Make sure it gets to Morrow”, and the like.

To-Morrow. ToMorrow. Tomorrow. The sun’ll come out tomorrow / Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow / there’ll be sun… The Annie song is an earworm so distracting I am not even sure what the novel is about anymore.

It is therefore with great sadness that I crossed Morrow off my character names list notebook, banishing it to the depths of a black hole. I never be able to use it, just in case my work is ever is transformed into an audio format.

Writing Projects: words, words & more words

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Twitter #SeptWritingChallenge Update:

Overall, I am glad I signed up. If I hadn’t stepped up, the Maze idea would still be in a notebook as a future project among a pile of others. Now, it’s actually progressing, and pages are adding up, building into something concrete.

Since Maze is a dark action thriller, scenes are fairly short and action is helping move things along at a clipped pace. In the first few days of participation, I set the personal goal of writing one scene a day, regardless of whether I was spending time working on any other story as well. I’m averaging just below 500 words a day, but it doesn’t include the time I have spent brainstorming and outlining, so including everything I am meeting the challenge, and more.

If I can keep up this pace, a first draft of the novel should be completed in about six months. Only ten days in, it seems a rather big mountain to climb. But I think it’s something that can be done maintaining a slow and steady pace, rather than aiming to write 10,000 word-blocks in a weekend every now and then.

I report on this project daily on Twitter @JennerMichaud (and, interestingly, my number of Twitter followers has increased by a third since I began the challenge on September 1). If you want to join the challenge to meet your own writing goals, find out more at WritingChallenge.org.

Summer Project Update:

The end of September is coming up fast and I am nowhere near where I had hoped to be at this stage. The Twitter challenge has only eaten into my writing time this month but most of the 30+ short stories / works in progress were not even touched over the summer. I did however make a small dent in the pile as some short stories were completed submitted. I have received only one rejection to date, meaning a handful of stories remain under consideration so there is hope yet. The next anthology I have set my sights on (zombies!) has a September 27 deadline, so another short story will be completed and submitted very soon.

Working on WIPs sometimes feels like I am trying to reinvent the wheel by rewriting something I have read so many times. Starting a new project – the Maze novel – has helped get the creative juices flowing again by focusing on something new.

Happy writing.

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September Writing Challenge

Word Count Program

It was only a few weeks ago that I blogged about the challenges of using word count as a measure of productivity, and my decision to abandon counting words on a daily basis.

Feedback on this issue has been interesting and unexpected: it turns out word count matters to a lot of writers, and they are passionate about it.

While not a perfect method, I agree it is worth using if it can help motivate and reach writing goals. For me, it had reached the point where it made me stop writing altogether and that’s why I had to stop.

After more readings and discussions on the issue, I still have mixed feelings about word counts. Therefore when I was challenged to participate in the #SeptWritingChallenge on Twitter, my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately decline.

I am always up for trying new methods if it can help my writing in any way so after some reflection, I decided to try it for a month. WritingChallenge.org’s challenge is to write 500 words a day, and they accept one hour of editing as the equivalent of writing 500 words, which addresses my main concern about word counts not taking into account revisions. Participants are asked to tweet everyday about their results, whether the writing day was productive on not.

It’s still not a perfect system but it is still better than pure word count. Revision time is often not easy to calculate as I don’t use a stopwatch to eliminate every interruption, but it can still be estimated. It also doesn’t address time spent on research or critiques, among other things, but I still take them into account in my Twitter reports.

We’ll see at the end of the month if it has helped with my writing production. I have so many projects on the go, I can use any help I can get to get me to the finish line. Just knowing I have to share my results on Twitter for everyone to see forces me to make sure I have something to report: the reporting of results is an even bigger motivator than the word count itself so perhaps that is the key to everything.

I believe no system is perfect and most everything can be improved upon, so it’s a worth a try. Like my mother says – “Il y a juste les fous qui ne changent pas d’idée.” (Only fools never change their minds.)

My progress can be followed on Twitter @JennerMichaud.

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