Critique Groups: Here There (Might) Be Sharks

 

At least three times over the years, I’ve posted on my personal blog a paean to critique groups.

And once more I repeat: My critique group is a necessary part of my writing life.

Before I joined my first critique group, I was floundering, rewriting the same material over and over, trying to remember—does this scene come next, or that one? Or something else? And thinking, This is stupid, stupid, stupid, and I’m a fraud, and I’m stupid to expend so much energy on nothing, nothing, nothing. If other aspiring writers hadn’t rescued me, I might have given up.

One thing I’ve never mentioned in my song of praise is that critique groups aren’t necessarily all sweetness and light. Writers who put their work out for comment must have thick skin. That shouldn’t be a surprise: in the dictionary, critique is just three words down from criticism, and in these groups, criticism is Job 1.

Click here to read the original post at Ink-Stained Wretches.

Why I Still Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford to Stop

 

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.

She read chapter 13 and said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

*****

Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

 

 

 

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” here on July 9, 2010, when I was a member of the two-member Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull it out and repost. It’s important.

ROW80 01.08.12 and Excuses

English: I took this picture. Grilled cheese s...
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s my progress report for the first week of January:

  • On Tuesday, I attended Austin Mystery Writers. I had not submitted anything for critique, but I took a bit of the newsletter I was editing for CP to proof. My printer had cut off an inch or two on the right side of the document, so CP had difficulty proofing. I learned to look at documents while I’m still able to try again.
  • On Wednesday, I saw I’d made no progress, and I was lethargic, wanted to sleep all day, so I postponed reporting until Sunday.
  • On Thursday, I fell victim to cedar fever and wanted to sleep all day, but I went out and bought a stationary bike and allowed David and the cats to assemble it while I slept in a chair. I woke up and rode the bike for twelve minutes, whether I wanted to or not.
  • On Friday, I attended the Just for the Hell of It Writers, where CP and I discussed changing the name of the group. We discussed several other things as well, including the fact that I had made no progress because I was perpetually sleepy. I rode three minutes on the stationary bike before sitting down and going to sleep in a chair. I woke up and posted on my blog that cedar fever was upon us.
  • On Saturday, I developed a light case of allergy flu (I rarely have hay fever, I prefer to host a virus) and sat around the house feeling miserable and moaning and sighing several times an hour so David and the cats would know I was miserable. David decided to visit a friend. They cats hid upstairs. I didn’t ride the bike. I finished putting together a newsletter, prayed for accuracy, and published it.
  • Today I woke up feeling better, no flu, but looking disgusting enough for David to offer to cook breakfast. He prepared dinner several times during the week, too. I updated the blog for my writing practice group and posted the link on Facebook. Then I corrected the date and posted the correction on FB. Then I corrected the address and posted the correction on FB. Then I corrected the address in the address correction I’d already posted on FB and posted that to FB. Then I made a correction to that correction; I had said it was the fourth correction, but it was really the third. The correction process having taken a lot out of me, I considered going to bed but decided to post my report instead.

Summary: I did not meet my goal of working on my novel every day. Instead, I coughed, moaned, and felt sorry for myself. To my credit, I did not eat a gallon of Campbell’s tomato soup made with condensed milk and further gooey-ed up with smashed saltine crackers. Said soup is the only halfway effective palliative for a condition involving the sinuses, but it is chockfull of sodium, preservatives, coloring agents, and various other chemicals I’ve sworn off. So ate baked chicken, salad, fruit, and cough drops. And suffered.

So that’s my report. Cedar fever isn’t the best excuse in the world, but it beats the dog ate my homework.

*

Note to my former students (and all others who monitor my grammar, usage, and punctuation): I know this post contains a comma splice, and I know I told you all that using a comma splice qualifies as sin. But I’ve loosened up a lot over the years, and now I find that the judiciously placed comma splice can be just the ticket for getting my meaning across. Using run-on sentences, on the other hand, those jammed together with no punctuation mark at all, still constitutes sin.

*

Image by DonES at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Hohum at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons


It’s not an excuse. It’s a reason.

The last time William appeared here, he had sat on the keyboard and turned the working title into gobbledygook.

I suppose tonight’s activity is progress.

Yes, I know it’s progress. Because a year ago at this time, his hobby was lying across my lap and biting my fingers. Lunge-chomp-lunge-chomp. Tonight he’s helping.

But Just for the Hell of it Writers meets tomorrow morning, and my promise (to myself) to finish my critique chapter early and, for once, get to bed at a reasonable hour is vaporizing even as I type.

Especially since I took a half-hour out of the evening to prepare this post. That’s okay. It was necessary. I needed a break.

I also needed to memorialize this event so in a couple of years I can look back and say, Wasn’t that darling of him?

Because it’ll be a couple of years before I think so.

***********************

Note: That isn’t dust. We have a super-duper fancy two-toned gray-and-black keyboard.

***********************

Update: Two hours later: I heard growling and turned to find William and Ernest arguing over a cricket. Ernest grabbed it and shot up the stairs. I grabbed a paper towel and ran after him, hissing, “Spititoutspititoutspititout.” At the first landing, after some indecision, he let it go. The cricket is no more. David was asleep but probably isn’t now.

Just for the Hell of It Writers adopt motto*

*Motto: a short phrase that usually expresses a moral aim or purpose. Or, in this case, an immoral aim or purpose. Or an amoral one. Whatever. Anyway, writing is high on our to-do list, and tomorrow is most assuredly another day.**

**JFTHOI Writers–at least the one responsible for this blog–hope readers understand that (1) irony is the spice of life, and (2) we write a lot more than we let on, and (3) the process is more fun when we can laugh about it.

Retread: Why I go to critique group

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.

She read chapter 13 and said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

**********

The post above originally appeared on Whiskertips, September 13, 2009. A modified version is posted here by popular request.

A nice turn of events

I learned yesterday evening that my story “Personal Experience” won the second place prize in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2010 Brazos Writers Writing Contest.

My critique partner’s story, “Taffy Lomita,” won first place and will be published online.

CP and I are officially Pleased With Ourselves. I’ve given myself permission to remain that way for at least a week.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or The writerly thing to do

Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat watching is a near-perfect method of writing avoidance.  ~Dan Greenburg

I returned home from Just for the Hell of It Writers filled with enthusiasm for the next assignment. Sat down in the recliner, put my feet up, booted up the laptop, read e-mail, checked a couple of blogs, and opened to write is to write is to write. I planned to compose a brief post about characterization–specifically, my reluctance to allow Molly, my protagonist, to exhibit less-than-stellar qualities, such as being human.

Before I could start, however, Ernest climbed into my lap. With the laptop already there, he didn’t have an easy time. He never does. But he made it.

So here I sit with a fuzzy gray tiger draped across my left forearm and wrist, cutting off blood flow to my hand. I don’t know how much longer my fingers will function. I don’t know how much longer this post will function either, because Ernest just touched something–a hot key or some other doohickey outside my sphere of knowledge–and it vanished. I’m lucky he didn’t delete it. Sometimes he does. When it comes to writing, cat watching is the least of my worries.

If he were on my left, I’d be fine with the arrangement. He used to perch there. But a couple of weeks ago he changed sides. As a result, I can’t use the mouse, and I have to bend my index finger at an unnatural angle to reach the touchpad. Periodically he throws his head back to let me gaze into his green, green eyes. That means he wants his ears scratched. 

 

I’ve tried moving him to the left, but he’s heavy and muscular, a feline Jesse Ventura. He’s also the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. After losing three consecutive matches, I gave up.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering why I don’t evict him from my person altogether.

It’s complicated.

There’s guilt. Yesterday I found him on the dining room table trying to eat a length of purple ribbon. I clapped my hands. That scared him. I spent the next five minutes trying to apologize. He spent the next five minutes evading capture. Then I realized that I’d forgotten to put out catfood on schedule, and that his acting out might have been caused by low blood sugar. I also considered that William, who has a wry sense of humor, might have dared him to jump onto the table. Ernest is impulsive, and I hadn’t taken into account the possibility of diminished capacity. I’m still making amends. 

 

Then there’s the purr. I’ve read that the vibration guards against bone loss and muscle atrophy. Some authorities believe that holding a purring cat benefits human tissue as well. Holding Ernest could protect my writing arm against osteoporosis. 

 

Furthermore, allowing cats a bit of leeway is a writerly thing do. Charles Dickens’ cat, Wilamena, had kittens in his study; the kitten Dickens kept later became his companion while he wrote. Raymond Chandler’s Taki, whom he called his “secretary,” sat on manuscripts he was trying to revise. T.S. Eliot sent his cats to Broadway. Mark Twain couldn’t resist cats, “especially a purring one.” I don’t know whether Garrison Keillor has cats, but he joined with the Metropolitan Opera’s Frederica von Stade to make an entire CD of cat songs (“Songs of the Cat”), and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique is one of The Prairie Home Companion’s most prominent sponsors. I can’t think of better role models than Keillor, Twain, and Von Stade. 

 

Finally, I allow Ernest to walk all over me because I’m concerned about mental and emotional balance. My own. Sigmund Freud emphasized the cat’s importance in coping with the stresses and strains of modern life: “Time spent with cats,” he wrote, ” is never wasted.”

Freud might not have known much about women, but he had a thorough grasp of cats.

Since I began this piece, Ernest has jumped down, back up, down, back up, and down again. William, who, bless his heart, parks on the left, has visited twice.

It’s not always easy to remember my reasons for being a doormat, especially the one about balance. But when the conscious mind fails, the subconscious defaults to guilt.

Well. Once again I’ve written about not writing. Once again the obstacle has been cats.

Greenburg is right. They’re dangerous companions.

*************

Sources:

Famous Cat Loving Authors and Pet Names

www.twainquotes.com

Wikipedia: Songs of the Cat

Thinkexist.com (Freud)

Thinkexist.com (Greenburg)

Frederica von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano

[Full disclosure: If I had my druthers, I’d emulate Miss Von Stade instead of the writers. She gets paid to sing, she doesn’t have to make up the words as she goes along, her picture appears on the front cover, the Amazon reviewers simply gush at her “magnificent” voice, and she doesn’t have to read Bird by Bird twice a month to keep her spirits up. What’s not to emulate?]

Many thanks to the author of “Invictus.” If we ever get a brother for William and Ernest, we’re going to name him Henley.


Silver Linings

After yesterday’s post, I believe I owe it to you–and to myself–to write about my Silver Linings.

When I got home from Just for the Hell of It Writers (by way of the grocery store) this afternoon , I found a FedEx tag clipped to the door. Two packages, it said, had been delivered to the office of my apartment complex. They’d been dropped off at 2:00 p.m.

I called the office to confirm it was open before walking down there. The manager said she had no package.

I went online to track the packages. The FedEx website said they would be delivered on Monday. This is Friday.

I called FedEx. Customer service said the packages were back on the truck and would be available for pickup today from 6:00 pm. to 9:00 p.m. and tomorrow from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

When David came in from work, I reported all this. He said we could retrieve the packages tonight. But because I had a migraine hangover–I woke up this morning with the darned thing and by evening still felt as if I were made of eggshells–I said I’d wait until tomorrow. Except for the pain of laptop withdrawal, there was no rush.

Then, out of the blue, came a robust knock at the door. Ernest and William scrambled up the stairs to safety. David ran to the door.

A young woman in a FedEx uniform stood on the sidewalk, holding a clipboard and two packages: an external hard drive and a replacement hard drive.

“I tried earlier, but the office wasn’t open,” she said.

I thanked her and told her we’d planned to pick up the packages ourselves.

“Then I just saved you a trip.” She grinned and walked back to her truck.

That young woman saved me more than a trip. Because she made a second attempt at delivery, my headache of a day took a sudden upturn. She was my first Silver Lining.

David was my second. After I hooked up the external hard drive to the laptop, he spent two hours trying to back up the wonky internal hard drive so it can be replaced by a non-wonky one. Unfortunately, the manual accompanying the external drive was short on instructions. It told, in four languages, how to connect and to disconnect the drive but not how to use it.

A third Silver Lining, however, appeared in the small print: the address of a website offering tech support. It was too late to speak to a technician, so David e-mailed the question. We’re waiting for a username and password so we can access the answer.

So there’s tomorrow’s Silver Lining: instructions about running the necessary backup, and then installation of the new hard drive. And finally I’ll be back in business–in a comfortable chair.

I realize I did things wrong. The song says, “Look for the silver lining.” I didn’t. I looked at the migraine and the idle laptop and the uncomfortable chair and the work I wasn’t getting done.

Nevertheless, Silver Linings appeared.

The mystery here is why I’m so surprised. After all, I’ve been married to a Silver Lining for the past six years.

An Ever-widening Wilderness

Okay. Enough of this sweetness-and-light, writing-is-my-life, revising-is-a-glorious-process, retreats-are-so-inspiring, the-daily-miracle-will-come baloney. Writing stinks.

Last night, no matter how hard I tried to make the technician at the other end of the line understand that the problem was caused by a short in the ground wire on the keyboard, and was surely related to the March 30 keyboard malfunction, he kept insisting that my hard drive is going out, and he made it clear that if I wanted to get to bed before 1:00 a.m., I’d stop asking questions and agree with him.

Back in the good old days, when faced with equipment failure, I just asked my daddy to get out his pocket knife and sharpen my pencil. But now I have to wait for the external hard drive to arrive, and back everything up–and I don’t want to hear one word about not having it backed up already; the critical things are on a flash drive and in my e-mail–and then call the service technician and tell him I’m ready for him to replace the hard drive. Of course, he will have already have called me, and I’ll have told him I’ll call him after I’ve received the external hard drive and run the backup.

That was Plan #2. Plan #1 was to send the corrupted hard drive to the factory and lose everything.

It’s enough to turn one into a raving Luddite.

Then there’s The Chair. For the past two years, I’ve sat in a recliner, feet up,  laptop on my lap, and typed away. The most discomfort I’ve felt has come from Ernest draping himself over my left forearm, and that’s not too terrible. At fifteen pounds, he’s not heavy enough to completely stop blood flow to my fingers. As long as he keeps his paws off the touch pad, I can work.

But now I’m sentenced to the desktop, which means sitting in The Chair. I love The Chair. It’s been in the family for over a hundred years. It’s an office chair. It wasn’t meant for sitting. A little while ago I sneaked upstairs and stole my husband’s vintage-1950s plastic chair with the wide contoured seat. It’s some improvement but I might as well make an appointment with the massage therapist while I’m thinking about it.

And what else? The Just for the Hell of It Writers meet tomorrow morning, and my critique partner, bless her heart, has decreed we must show up with fifty pages. Each. She has well over fifty pages of a coherent draft. I have a zillion pages of nonsense, rubbish, bilge, bunk, drivel, gibberish, hooey, hogwash, piffle, stultiloquence, and tripe. And that’s just the beginning. I haven’t even started on the adjectives.

Actually, it’s not all tripe. Some parts are decent. If they were adjacent parts, I’d be working on them now. But they’re scattered, and I’ll have to go looking for them, piece them together, and then fill in the blank spaces.

Furthermore, I’m sick of the characters. I’ve known them for a long time, and you know what they say about familiarity and contempt. If I had my way, I’d knock off the whole bunch of them: Miss Pinksie and all the suspects and Molly and her cousin Claudia and the Rat Butlerish love-hate interest and those cute twins. And the goat.

In addition, last week I received the Silver Lining Award, which made me smile, and here I am frowning before I’ve even had time to pass it on.

And to top it all off, I need to lose 900 pounds. By Monday.

The way things are going, that’s more likely to happen than my turning up tomorrow with fifty pages in hand.

In summary, writing is Sheer Hell. It’s a Vast Wasteland, like the tangle of cholla, prickly pear, dead brush, and dried grass in the photograph at the beginning of this piece, with splashes of yellow flowers and green trees representing false hope in an ever-widening wilderness.

Not that I’m complaining, of course.

***********************

The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Paisano Baptist Encampment, near Alpine, Texas, during the Texas Mountain Trail Writers Writing Round-up. Paisano is a beautiful place. The opinions expressed in this post reflect the writer’s thoughts about writing and not about Paisano or the TMTW retreat. In fact, she likes cactus and dried grass and would love to drive so far back into a mesquite pasture that she can’t find her way out, an unlikely event in 21st-century Central Texas.