Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Value Given, Value Received

I went to my first critiques meeting of the library fiction writing group Monday, and I was nervous.

Not about my work. I had submitted the first chapter of Scurvy Dogs! and I was confident in it. I'm just finishing up my third revision, pretty much a total rewrite, but the first chapter has hardly changed at all since I first scribbled down the idea in my notebook. I've tweaked a word here and there, but mostly it's exactly as I read it to the kids in Tori's class two years ago.

What I was nervous about was critiquing other's work. First and formost, I didn't want to come off as a know-it-all or an arrogant jerk. I can talk a great deal, I know that, and not everything that was submitted was, shall we say, particularly great. And I'm one of the new guys – They don't know me, and I don't know them. I haven't been there in the past and don't know the drill.

In the end, I decided not to worry about sharpshooting the grammar or spelling. I would focus on the shape of the story, whether it worked for me as a reader and what I thought the author could do to sharpen it.

That's the key, something I learned years ago when I was directing at Albany Civic Theater. It's one thing to say, "That's not good." But that's no help. What's helpful is finding a way to tell them why something doesn't work as well as it should and what they could do to solve the problem. Criticism that doesn't give the recipient something he can act on is just being an asshole.

The other thing I kept in mind was the old maxim that if you're going to say something negative, you have to find five positives to go along with it. Everytime I offered a comment, I made a point of starting with, "I really liked – " that character, or the idea of a story on choices and consequences, or the tone or a particular phrase.

Anyway, it seemed to go pretty well, even though I talked too much. The group moderator would announce the next piece to critique and say, "Anyone have any comments?" And there'd be this silence, and then me or another new guy, also named John, would start. And the discussions were good and people really seemed pleased with the attention we as a group were giving their work. One woman said, "Gosh, you guys are nice. I expected to get ripped up." Apparently some groups are all about ego. This really was about seeing the work with fresh eyes and trying to help.

My chapter was well received, and there were a few helpful suggestions, tweaks, that will make it stronger. Of course no one is obligated to take a piece of advice, but why would you not consider it? If a reader doesn't get what you're doing, no matter how much you like a phrase or thought, obviously that reader wasn't with you. Look at it more closely.

I was particularly pleased when the other John mentioned my use of strong verbs, and likened the two young characters to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn! The verbs were thanks to Steve Swinburne, and the Tom and Huck – I always try to come up with a five-word pitch for my stories, and my pitch for Scurvy Dogs! is, "Tom and Huck Fight Pirates." So apparently I hit that dead on!

Afterwards, the other John and I happened to go out the door at the same time as two other longtime members of the group. One of them commented, "Wow. You guys give really good critiques." The next day I got an email from the coordinator who said he had almost disbanded the group because no one ever talked during critiques, but that was one of the better discussions he could recall.

So it felt like there was some value given and value returned. I'll definitely comb through that first chapter one more time.

Scurvy Dogs! Update – Monday went well, almost too well. 2,836 words. Unfortunately, that was all one chapter, and I get nervous when my chapters approach 2,000. So the first thing Tuesday, I knocked out 258 – why have them discuss the escape plan if they never actually try to escape? – and, after jiggling to make it all fit, had a more readable 2,597 for Monday's work.

Tuesday I was exhausted, slept until almost noon. Then banged out 1,887 words. Didn't quite finish the chapter because work intervened late in the day. But it's right there.

Then I wrote a thousand word story for the Source and a half dozen crime briefs and called it a night.

I've got the Scurvy Dogs within 200 words of the chapter end, when they find their way out of the tunnel. Then the showdown, the second showdown and the last showdown – you might call it a series of running showdowns. Then wrap it up with the truth about the squire.The story stands at 52,228 words, and I'm right on track.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you are just on a roll. I think it is wonderful that you joined a critique group and that it went so well. Also, way to go on knocking out those big word counts.