Friday, July 1, 2016

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

By Art Taylor

As a quick answer to this week's question—"Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons?"—let me say this: Almost nothing I write is ever sent out into the world without having been run past a trusted writer-friend or two and usually several. Short stories, my book, articles, reviews, sometimes even blog posts like this one, occasionally an email, sometimes even a Facebook post.

Do I count it as a critique group if a friend reads a Facebook post before I post it? Likely I wouldn't call it that, but I think that the prompt and the process are very similar. Is what I'm trying to say coming across correctly? concisely? cleverly? Is there any unintended message I might want to avoid? Does it work?

In part, my commitment to the idea of critique groups may have grown out of my experiences in two creative writing programs that were driven by the workshop format—NC State University and George Mason University—and then out of my experiences on the other side of the desk, heading up undergraduate workshops as an associate professor at Mason. Even in those latter workshops, where I'm supposed to be a leader of sorts, I find that the workshop format reveals its strengths: So often students in the workshop brings perspectives that I never considered to their peers' stories under discussion—finding strengths I underestimated myself, seeing potential trouble spots that I'd missed, offering suggestions that help to set the writer on the right path. It's a group effort, and it's the group part that helps the effort to succeed.

That said, there are—certainly—pitfalls to dodge, and any workshop benefits by the constant reminder that the discussion should always be in service to the author's vision, trying to bring that vision into clearest focus on the page; workshop participants should never try to rewrite the characters or the plot or the prose into their ideals. In fact, let's make that tip #1 here—and I hope the other suggestions below might help as well.

  1. Workshop participants: Never talk about how you would revise a work under discussion. Always think about the author's own vision first and how you can help bring that vision into focus. (Note: Everyone comes into a workshop with both reading and writing biases, but students who don't like science fiction can still offer some pretty savvy suggestions on a sci fi story, not just despite but sometimes because they aren't regular readers of the genre.)
  2. Workshop participants: Focus first on what's positive in a manuscript—where are strengths? what's working? why?—and then talk about trouble spots. In terms of the latter, don't simply point out what's troubled but make constructive criticism: Where might trouble spots be smoothed over? Don't just point to a pothole; offer up some ideas for patching it. 
  3.  Authors under discussion: Listen more than you talk—even if you disagree with what's being said. Don't try to defend your work in workshop. Take in the comments, consider and digest, address as needed. Remember: You will not be able to follow around your work once it's published and explain it to each reader along the way. So why bother trying to do that in the workshop itself? If what you were intending isn't coming across properly, don't explain what you really meant but revise the manuscript so it does come across properly. And remember: Even the criticism that may sting at first will often prompt productive thinking, profitable revision once you're able to get past the sting.
  4. Authors under discussion: Don't try to address every criticism or incorporate every suggestion. This way lies madness. Step back and think about what's being said; consider your vision; revise accordingly. I've often found that student writers who address every suggestion like they're going down a checklist end up with a mess at the end of a revision. 
There are a few other issues to consider generally—especially in terms of workshop format. I'm in two workshop groups right now—one that meets monthly in person, one that's more virtual with manuscripts being exchanged across email. For the former, we bring in short manuscripts and read them aloud in the meeting, and there are great benefits to that, including actually reading your work aloud, hearing it in a fresh way. But there are challenges too. Reading at such a solid pace and responding quickly doesn't give the workshop participants time to reflect on a manuscript before commenting; first impressions and reactions are everything. In contrast, having the text for a longer period of time, reading and perhaps rereading, allows time for a more thoughtful and in-depth critique; the downside there, of course, is that time element. Sending a manuscript email to a friend for feedback may end up with several days or weeks or longer before the feedback arrives. Reading aloud and discussing in a single evening means that you can dive back in the next morning, keeping up the momentum.

One last point. I've personally found that workshops work better when dealing with either a complete draft or at least a finished one—by which I mean that even if you can't submit a full draft for workshop (difficult to read a novel out loud in a single evening!), at least have that full draft at home before you start bringing in chapters. Discussion a portion of a whole can be difficult; imagine the number of suggestions/questions about a single chapter that would be easily answered simply by reading the next chapter. But reconciling that issue in your mind is still much easier than coming in with the first chapter of a new project when that's all you have—before your own vision has had a chance to find its way on the page at all. When there's nothing but blank pages ahead, a critique group can threaten to derail your vision, thwart your momentum, undermine the project completely even before it's begun.

Anything more to add that I've missed? Anything here that I haven't expressed or explained well? After all, like I said, I'm open to feedback—always.


Meredith Cole said...

Great suggestions, Art! I especially like "listen more than you talk." Too many people focus on the flaws of their critique partners, rather than understanding that the issue might be their ability to take criticism (which as all of us know, is tough to do...).

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! It's been a great week for discussion here on this topic. Thanks for kicking things off so well!

RJ Harlick said...

Wonderful advice, Art. Good post.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Robin!