Writing Exercises: "The Suggestions You Keep or Ignore...and How Do You Know?"
At long last we have arrived at the final post from Áine Greaney's Writer with a Day Job! I'm so excited to be concluding this chapter of La Chuiqui's blog and already glancing about for the next posts that will be appearing on this blog!
We'll depart our study of Greaney's teachings by going over the final and most crucial aspect of working with critique groups: deciding what critique to keep and to discard. This aspect of sifting through your critique from your group is as crucial as it is because its what you will allow to help form the final draft of any writing project.
Keeping to the spirit of Greany's love for lists, we'll do our very last one today as we comb through her ten tips of how to choose which critique to accept and which to ignore:
1) Allow time
This one's the common sense one, but a good reminder all the same. Take your time going through all the chicken scratch and helpful letters your group gave you, really take it in and weigh everything that's been written about your piece. This is a skill you'll need to develop, letting suggestions and opinions generated from other writer's wisdom percolate in your brain and finding if there's any inspiration to be found. Another part of this skill as utilizing your fellow members of critique groups as examples of how audiences may react to your final product:
"my critique wishes more of my main character...perhaps my intended audience will too?"
2) Look for patterns
Say your critique group has ten people total, now imagine that seven out of ten people have questioned about the mongoose who scampered past your main character in the middle of a snowy moutnain range. Some of them questioned why a mongoose is in the snowy mountains, others questioned why the mongoose only scampered by and there wasn’t more to it, one person questioned why it wasn’t white. They’re all asking about it and when they talk, they spend most of the time demonstrating they just don’t get what that mongoose is about. This is a rediculous example but you see what I’m getting at. If enough people in your group are all focusing in on one thing in your story, chances are that one thing needs to be addressed.
3) Consider the source
Let’s keep this one simple: not all reviewers are created equal, and that’s ok. Say you’re in a perfectly mixed—genre group that has different things to say. The mystery crime fiction writer wants you to rev up the suspense of your high-fantasy novel. Great! Say the same mystery crime fiction writer then suggests some form of detective agency—funny but, meh not what we’re looking for. Say the romance writer of the group wants a steamy scene between your protagonist and their squeeze—done! Say the same romance writer wants you to spend more time on that, at the cost of the plot—meh. There’s always something you can take from every bit of critique, even if its coming from a source that doesn’t entirely share your genre goals. Its up to you however, as a writer, to balance those decisions.
4) The work comes first
Remember way back when it was previously mentioned that your writing has a mind of its own. Each piece we write knows what it wants to be, your work and investment just helps said piece achieve what its trying to become. Remember fairly recently it was also mentioned that the enthusiasm you will find in critique groups will also convey the groups eagerness for the piece to be the best version of itself. When it comes to the editing process post-workshop, its always nice to let your critique group know their advice was aprpeciated, but the project always comes first. It doesn’t matter whos critique you tossed aside and which you kept (or half kept), the top priority is what is best for your writing. Any writer worth their, well words, knows this is the aspect of any critique group where they really shouldn’t be getting emotional. Its always up to the writer to determine what critique makes the final cut and what doesn’t.
5) Your project vision
Above all else, your vision for the project goes hand—in—hand with what comes first. There’s a silver lining to suggestions in my experience: once I got a couple of suggestions on how to get my protagonist excommunicated from her society. One suggestion involved her committing some kind of crime. A little too simple, but possibly what I would have settled for anyway. Another suggested the different—sexuality route, also possibly good idea but odd reason to be excommunicated from the society I had built. Another suggestion came that my protagonist be so fearful of their role in society—being forced to reproduce a child for said society, and ultimately do all that was suggested before hand and combine it. The result: a female protagonist too young and naïve to settle for the idea of marriage and pregnancy so she finds a way to sterilize herself. Boom! Solved my problem!
The point of this example is sometimes you can take little nuggets of inspiration from suggestions that on the surface may not seem too in-line with what you have in your head. Otherwise, if you’re writing a crime fiction and you really don’t want to take the suggestion of having your detective from real-world Brooklyn, New York encounter steampunk unicorns who speak Swedish—don’t. Politely thank this creative mind and simply toss it out (though I may just tackle that scenario myself, where it will go is anyone’s guess).
6) Drastic Shifts
I’ve found two different versions of the result of receiving critique about, say, a tone change or a structure change to my story. The first, the change in structure or tone or whatever, made my project a masterpiece in my eyes. Thank you critique member! Yes, this story did need to be more about the young girl’s sexuality as a result of her parents divorcing! Or alternatively, Thank you critique member but, no, I didn’t want this sci-fi story about time-travelling dimmension jumpers to be comedic and raunchy, I was going for something a little more serious.
The point is, sometimes a dramatic change can be a good decision for your story, but it has to be something you’re absolutely sure about. If it doesn’t feel right to change your comedic space-pirate story into a tragic epic, then don’t do it. You’ll know what that right changes are, but its never too dangerous to weigh your options as they appear.
7) Reluctance to change
If you’re reluctant to change something in your story, that’s ok—just make sure your writing doesn’t suffer for it. This is where brutal honesty comes in. There’s a chance you’re seeing something others don’t get, which is fine but not at the cost of something being confusing or contrived to everyone else but you. For everything you’re resistant to changing, you should always determine why something absolutely can’t change. For example, in one project I absolutely refused to make the change of my protagonist being the coward of the group. My group moaned about the idea because they thought without comedy or the protagonist’s courage, the protagonist seemed annoying. That’s absolutely fair, but I never changed the cowardly protagonist because within the bigger picture (and beyond what portion of my writing I had submitted to that group) my story was about fear and the nature of the effect it had upon people. My reasoning for keeping this cowardly character was because I needed it in order to examine the true villain of my story.
Alternatively, I allowed my group to talk me out of another aspect of said story when I had a lava-generating dragon that seemed too powerful and mary-sue ish because, well, it was. The point is, make sure what you’re choosing to keep, regardless of criticism, is being kept because it needs to be. This is another aspect of critique you can’t afford to be emotional about.
8) Sleep on it
Its no secret that critique is overwhelming at times. I divide mine into several piles—though I try to keep it to three. First pile is the critique I’m definitely throwing away, no offense to my group but building my little worlds take time and I’m really not going to waste any of it on what I just can’t use. The second pile is the critique I am for sure using. The pages of chicken scratch that are just bubbling with inspiration need to be set aside for me ASAP. The third pile is the chicken scratch pages that boasted little nuggets of inspiration, pages I can look over and weigh before they get resorted. Once my sorting is done, I leave them on my desk, finish up my day and sleep on it. There’s a lot of "percolating the brain" that occurs when sorting your critique, in my experience—it never gets done in one day.
9) Cultural differences
This will apply more to historical and real-time fiction than others, though with others it is definitely still relevant (i.e. fantasy and science fiction haver their own rules too). Say you’re writing something set in the 1920’s and you plop an incorrect model of telephone in there and someone points it out. You’ll definitely want to take this as a hint to reassess your research. Alternatively, say you’re writing some steampunk fantasy (oftan a good marriage between sci-fi, fantasy and historical) and you have a Victorian style to everything. Say high society wears the breaches and corset gowns but you then have a ghetto of dark elves who wear hoodies and jeans—the rules will still apply here because that’s two very different eras of time that are colliding through your world—building that is coming off a bit awkwardly. That all being said, make sure your changes are more for the technical and not running the risk of changing your plot. For all we know maybe you have a cellphone in your sci-fi steampunk that was repurposed as a time machine in a world where dramatic Victorian telphones are predominant.
10) Writer goals
This is a big thing to determine in you rfellow critique members. There’s nothing wrong with the girl sitting across from you wanting to be the next J.K. Rowling, but maybe you’re just wanting to get into the crime fiction genre and have fun. Both are fine but remember as writers, our goals have a huge effect on what differences we’ll want to make with our pieces. So, future J.K. Rowling’s goals are fine, for her and her writing but not you. This, as a result, may make her criticism towards your writing a little less valid because she’s thinking big while you’re thinking what’s best for your version of big. This shouldn’t jade you towards any criticisms however as you’d be surprised by what people will have to say. I know I often am. Just make sure, as ever, you take every bit of criticism—good or bad—with a grain of salt.
And that’s honestly the end! Greaney has one more bit of advice on writing retreats and conferences which I will discuss in a lter blog post with other reference materials, otherwise though, that’s all the advice we can take from Áine Greany! Its been fun working through her advice, especially since it got me started with this blog. As thank you to her for this book being created, I’ll add her conclusion here at the bottom for all of you to read and get inspired to keep on writing!
This past week, I gobbled down four bite-sized Twix bars (OK, maybe it was five). I have always had a sweet tooth, and I will admit that there’s something about chocolate and writing that seem to go well together. But a week ago, if you had told me i would demoliah five Twix bars, I would have stoutly denied the very possibility. For starters, I don’t really eat candy bars. And second, I believe that you are what you eat, and a big sugar-a-thon is not exactly going to keep you out of the doctor’s or the dentist’s chair. And yet, as I write this, the Twix bag sits empty in my trash bin.
If you think about it,the Twix bar parable fits how we work as day job writers, how we get the job done—even when we’re busy or overwhelmed or disillusioned. Similar to how I looked back and was surprised how many Twix I’d eaten, many weeks I look back and am surprised to find how much I’ve written. We accomplish each the same way: one bite or word at a time.
As a writer and a writing teacher, I’ve seen otherwise promising writers flounder under their own overblown expectations. Or they neglect to translate their big brilliant idea, their BBI, into daily bite-sized pieces.
“I’m going to be a brilliant writer.” “I’m going to write my family’s intergenerational memoir.” “I’m going to pen the grat American novel.” These are all great big-picture goals. But if you’re going to ride out the writing storm, if you’re going to make it up the stairs to your writing desk every day, you need to dissect your writing into bite-sized parts that will be more feasible today. Just today.
Today it’s not your job to write a huge, three hundred-page blockbuster. Today’s job is simply to write the next scene or the next three pages or the next six hundred words—even if they’re scattered, lousy words. Whan that’s done, you can get up and walk away, switch off the lights, and go to bed. Tomorrow you’ll have another job: to write the next scene, or next three pages, or the next six hundred words. By the end of the week, you’ve got fifteen pages. Not bad for someone who also holds down a job.
So stick to the daily, bite-sized nibbles. Trust me, writing is much easier this way. This is how writing happens.
There’s a second lesson from my Halloween Twix feast. Right here, in a red oval background, printed in white uppercase letters. It says, “FUN SIZE.”
We deserve a little fun each week, a decedant indulgence, a little detour from the bland and the broccoli.
As you balance your career with your otherwise busy life, remember that you deserve to keep part of that life for you and you alone. You deserve to write. To write happily.
So keep at it, one fun bite at a time.