If you’re serious about writing, it’s important to surround yourself with a small community of supportive writers. For many years, I’ve been participated in critique groups, some online and a few in person.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with David Williams, author of Her Dress is Darkness, and the moderator of my former online critique group. David is a talented writer and I’m honored to call him a friend. I wanted to repost his writing wisdom here from an interview we’d done on my former blog. David has always gone above and beyond in his critiques and I’ve learned so much from him. With his keen editorial eye, he dedicated time to help me polish my entire first YA fantasy manuscript, MG/YA works-in-progress, outlines and synopsis, and a few failed picture book attempts.
Here, David answers some essential questions most writers face:
What motivates you to write? Many of us have full time jobs in other fields, a family, other important responsibilities, and yet we still find time for our “hobby”. So my question is, what motivates you to keep writing, when so many other (and more important) obligations may pull your attention away and at times drain you? For me, I try to work on my writing at least a few times a week, if not daily. There are weeks I don’t have time or energy to work on it at all, but I usually try to work on writing or revisions as much as I can, whenever I can. How do you stay motivated and find the energy to work on your manuscript?
David: I think motivation and the balance of family and creative obsession is a dilemma for most writers. We’re all human and we all have obligations and relationships—things that transcend the solitary pursuit of writing. Few of us are blessed to have co-writers (or partners) who fit our sensibilities to the point where it can be a “group” or social exercise. For example: I am obstinate. I would be a nightmare to collaborate with, I suspect.
So, we’re basically in the trenches alone. And when we’re there we often feel the pull and the guilt of neglecting our loved ones. I think the understanding of our families is very important. I’m lucky in that I try to write during calm periods at work. And when I do have a head of steam where things are just coming along, I ride that wave to whichever shore it takes me. It also helps to have a secluded spot free of distraction. Music can help (the right music can induce the right mood, a soundtrack for our hearts). Artwork placed in our little writer caves might help or even a certain scent. But a peaceful place where we can escape into our little realms of imagination is vital to most. Some people write best at Internet cafes or on the beach. Whatever works! The key is to write even just a tiny bit each day.
Another issue is doubt. Do not THINK too much. The first draft should be from the heart. Don’t analyze; just let it fly. This faith (or willful ignorance…) helps to overcome that negative, critical mind: a mind that can easily destroy the joy of putting words to the page. In the end, we need to write for the right reasons… for reasons we can actually control. And there’s where the ego can undermine the whole thing.
I’ve gone through the stages of grief (or growth, I hope) in terms of writing. It took me longer than most to process the basics and to apply them because I’m a stubborn guy. Pride helps buoy us against criticism, but it can also kill the learning process; and outside factors or the need for validation (or the mythical grail of publication) can quickly submerge the actual JOY in writing.
Writing is so solitary that it often breeds insecurity. To really become a writer, one must accept oneself. We must write within and worry only about the story in our hearts—and less about acceptance or perception (a subjective thing, to be sure) by others.
Truly personal writing (as long as it’s clear, grounded, and transparent) speaks more powerfully to the reader than the influx of connect-the-plot-dots-derivation-cookbooks that seem to pervade today’s writing culture. Write because of a “need”—a need for an answer and the excitement of taking a journey, of experiencing something. Write because we must, not to impress others. All of that is beyond our control. Just try to work and learn the craft well enough that the personal becomes universal because the reader experiences the story.
A great novel transcends language or words. I always say: words are past perceptions; great writers despise words—they seek truth, essence, instead. I think truth is simple. The profound is not something complicated, but something that cannot be denied. And I think every genre has its truths and those truths will resonate for any reader. I hear a lot of bad advice in this area—mostly from agent blogs, sadly. Don’t write like this person or that. Be YOU first. SAY something! Not some mishmash imitation of someone else who sold a lot of volumes.
Don’t make it external. Then it becomes a chore. Revel in each step, appreciate the stages and the improvement and the process: learn. I think when we get to this point where we just write for the journey we’re on the right path.
On the other hand, what we write will bear comparison. Don’t worry about that either. Write what you know and love and don’t apologize. Instead, trust that whatever we write will come through as unique because of our unique experiences and perspectives. Trust and faith are the key to putting out the pages. And joy. Write with joy.
In our critique group, we have submitted and resubmitted the same chapters over and over again, in many versions, based on our own changes, as well as suggestions made by members of our group. Sometimes suggestions made by one member counteract a suggestion made by another. When this happens, I usually put the chapter and critiques aside for a few days (or weeks) and revisit them when my mind clears. But usually, I try to see which suggestions ring true for the story I want to tell. At times, one works better than another. When problems are pointed out, I sometimes figure out a different way it can be solved, maybe by using a combination of the suggestions made, or my own ideas. Does this ever happen to you? How do you handle it?
David: First – don’t address criticism until your first draft is complete. There is no quicker way to kill a novel than to nitpick at too soon a stage. A first draft SHOULD be imperfect. Embrace it. Dive in and be fearless. The revision process will address things from the “head” perspective. Things can always be fixed. Often, if I have difficulty with a scene, I just put in a note and move on. When writing, start with the heart and trust the subconscious over the “editor”.
Now, conflicting criticisms can be a result of many things: some of which have nothing to do with the micro, but more to do with something that isn’t quite working on another level: whether it be character arc or plot. It is good to put things aside. I collect critiques for later and just file them away. Then I try to revise chapter by chapter instead of tackling the whole mountain. But we should always trust OUR instincts. Another piece of advice is to read the “problem” critiquer’s other critiques and the stories they commented on (if you are a part of an online workshop with unknown entities). Do they seem on point? Or is this critiquer a cynical and unconstructive critic? If they are, I advise you set their critique aside—even to the point of ignoring the few tidbits of good advice. Get another eye and trust yourself. Now, if more than one critique points something out, there is usually something to it.
However, the story YOU want to tell can often differ from a critter’s expectation. Often, I find the best answers are those that come on their own. I tend to just put a “comment” on what I want to address within the Word document and come back to it when I figure out how to fix it.
Though I do love suggestions. I give them often as a critiquer to try to get into the meat of who the character is. I may be wrong because I don’t have the full picture, but I enjoy critiquers who make similar suggestions. If anything, they often spark the imagination and enable us to solve the issue in our own way.
Critiquing Different Genres
Our group is comprised of mostly MG/YA fantasy writers, but we also have members who write historical fiction, picture books and stories for young readers. I enjoy reading different genres, and I’ve attempted to write a picture book and historical fiction. However, I feel that my writing flows best when I’m writing mg/ya fantasy. I often wonder if my suggestions are appropriate when critiquing other genres. I feel that elements of story are the same, no matter what genre you write, so I focus my suggestions on that. What are your thoughts on critiquing different genres?
David: The key elements (building blocks) to a story are consistent genre to genre. But the needs and expectations of readers differ. A well-written novel will appeal to any reader. However, a genre reader can enjoy a genre novel with shortcomings if it meets their primary criteria first. We’re all willing to overlook certain elements as long as the story we’re reading is in line with our expectations or desires—if it hits that “sweet spot”.
I think genres merely have differing priorities. A fantasy differs from SF in terms of focus (excluding exceptions—there are always exceptions). In fantasy, external events symbolize the protagonist’s interior emotional turmoil; whereas, SF focuses on how society affects the individual. Simplistic, yes, but due to that direction—fantasy requires a more internal emotional approach. Science fiction requires an outward approach in order to illustrate how science impacts society of that world.
When I critique, I try to read it as a story and eliminate my reflexive expectations. If I’m unfamiliar with the genre, I’ll do more of a “reader” critique and point out where my interest peaks and wanes. This is often very useful as the writer can then figure out why. I’ll make suggestions and admit where my prejudices as a reader might diminish my enjoyment of a certain sequence—whereas, readers of that genre (say: Romance) would love it. Most importantly, I focus on craft. Good writing makes every word count. Every word has a purpose (and often more than one purpose: setting, characterization, plot advancement). These are universal elements that apply to any work.
In many respects, I feel that non-genre readers often have a vital perspective and can be more beneficial because they can keep us honest. They’ll address elements further down the chain of priorities. This can only enhance our writing—and our writing will only increase in appeal; will become more universal as a result. But there are times when genre conventions can intimidate the non-genre reader. It is up to us to exhibit patience and to guide and explain where asked. It’s our job as writers to be clear, to transport so that the reader no longer “reads”, but experiences.
David, you’re our fearless leader. You have a pleasant way of keeping the balance in our group. Your critiques are very helpful, but you also make sure that our critiques to each other are appropriate and make sense. I know that at times opinions differ and critiquing is really so subjective. How do you decide when to intervene and when to let it go and allow the writer to decide which suggestions to follow through with and which ones to ignore?
David: Most of the time criticism needs to be leveraged with praise. I firmly believe critiquers should also point out a writer’s strengths and what “works”. This really helps a writer understand who they are and what they do best. There are certain basic building blocks that are essential to any novel.
What I do first is try to read the critiques and look at the intent as well as the tone. Much of the time, the written word is drier than the spoken word. We don’t have the benefit of body language and inflection. To me, if the critique has worthwhile criticisms, it’s a success. But it’s important to temper that criticism, especially in an online forum. If I decide the crit tastes too salty, then I first email the author critiqued and ask how they feel about it. I try to read if they are discouraged or if it affected them adversely. Then, I tell the truth and build the writer up (there’s a reason he/she is in the group). I also address the group publicly and on a general basis, showing how a proper critique is employed—advising that we ensure we mention the good as well as the “bad”. If necessary, I then contact the critiquer in question. There have been issues in the past where our groups have had to let individuals go. There’s a maturity I expect from our participants. Our members have a certain proficiency—and usually that proficiency alone means they have taken and given criticism before. However, every once in a while we find a prospective member who cannot stomach criticism or who critiques in a negative, unconstructive manner (as a rule, if one is insightful enough to point out “obvious, amateurish flaws”, one should have the ability to ILLUSTRATE how to fix said issue). At the risk of generalization, these types of sniping critiquers often write for the wrong reasons—they tend to hate advice and desire only praise—while they take a particular interest in demeaning any writers they secretly envy. I can smell it because I’ve been a part of many groups including OWW. I then know right away that there will be little to glean from them as members. We cut our losses and move on. If a writer isn’t kind, constructive and mature enough to function in the group, they are gone. It all goes back to WHY we write.
In truth, we’ve been fortunate. Our members genuinely enjoy reading each other’s work and we find that together we grow and learn. It is an exciting experience. I love hearing that a member has to leave because they are published and they have to focus on their next book—it’s why we have the group!
David, thank you for your insightful thoughts about writing and critiquing!