Friday, August 21, 2009

 

Friday Speakout: To Be or Not To Be, Guest Post by Michelle Dwyer

To Be or Not To Be

by Michelle Dwyer

Like most college students, I had to take upper-level, intensive writing classes to graduate. And I dare say that most upper-level, intensive writing professors hate the dreaded “be” verbs. Those short words that provide the oxygen needed to breathe—the words that seem impossible to erase from our prose (am, I, are, was, were, be, being, been). So like many who have come before me, and who will come later, I worked hard to avoid such unwelcomed words in order to walk across the stage with a decent grade point average.

Abstaining from these words proved difficult enough. I didn’t need a professor who would take the term pet-peeve to a new level.

But that’s exactly what I got.

He docked an entire letter grade for every “be” verb he found in a student’s work. That’s right! Five “be” verbs on an assignment equaled a failing grade. He felt too many “be” verbs made papers too passive. (My guess is that some editors feel this way as well.) Needless to say I put in many hours of time and effort, many more of search and replace, and even more of total revisions.

I aced the class. I deserved to. And for the classes that followed, my papers carried a sharp, crisp, tight flow. My education definitely made me a better writer.

However something happened to me when I graduated. I got lazy and started writing extremely passive when delving into my fiction work. Fiction evokes passions, makes writing fun. Why cloud it with such a thing as attention to detail, right? I mean, c’mon. I have to work at creating stories? Are you serious?

Yes.

I didn’t figure this out until my contest entries and articles failed to make the cut with everyone. For a while, instead of humbling myself enough to find out what I was lacking, I simply chalked it up to “the industry” and continued. I knew my writings had the merit to win contests and/or get published. But they weren’t great. It wasn’t until I took advantage of WOW!’s critique service did my articles and stories pop.

I began applying the advice (write with a more active voice) from the critiques to all of my work; hence, I have reverted back to catching those “bees”. I’ve since sold one nonfiction article, won my first writing contest, and placed as a runner-up in the most recent flash fiction contest with WOW!.

*And if anybody remembers from my last post, nonfiction doesn’t like me very much. So selling nonfiction is validation for sure.*

Now for the moral: I’m sure somebody can read this article and find some “be” verbs. I haven’t discovered perfection. I may never. Sometimes I’m too wordy, other times too fluffy. Sometimes I just need use “be” verbs. We all do, even accomplished authors. But every day I learn to respect the craft of writing a little more.

Embracing criticism doesn’t make a writer weak. It makes a writer write.


Michelle studied writing in high school and longed to become an author. But circumstances arose, causing her to join the military instead. However, she never gave up. She enrolled in writing school, finished her first crime novel, and will achieve her MBA this fall. She writes as Krymzen Hall at http://www.helium.com/users/421563/show_articles



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Do you want to reach WOW’s audience? We welcome short posts (500 words or less) from writers just like you! You can include your bio, pic, and links to your website/blog for promotion. Our only requirement is that your post be about women and writing. Send your Friday “Speak Out!” post to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration.


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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

 

In the Face of Criticism and Rejection

Have you ever felt like this poor Boxer in the picture when you have received a rejection or listened to criticism on your work or read a bad review about your book? I know I have. But what do you think this dog is going to do in an hour or two? Still look defeated and like he lost his best friend? No way! If you know anything about Boxers, he'll be wagging his tail and chasing a ball. Who knew we could learn an important lesson from a dog?

I attended the Missouri Writers' Guild conference this weekend and part of the program was called, "First Reads." This is where one to two pages of a conference attendee's manuscript is read aloud (anonymously), and then editors or agents comment on what they think about the piece. Would they keep reading if it showed up on their desks? What did they like? What didn't they like? and so on. I've been to several of these types of programs at conferences, and the good news is they are very helpful to see inside the minds of the people whom we want to represent and publish our work. The bad news is these sessions are often brutal.

The panel of editors and agents voicing their opinions on the "First Reads" are often like the American Idol judges. There's a Simon, there's a Paula, and there's a Kara/Randy. And the "Simon" editor ALWAYS winds up hurting some writer's feelings to the point where the writer doesn't want to attend the rest of the conference.

So, I decided to write this blog for two reasons. One--as a warning--if you are a new writer or are very sensitive to criticism of your work, then you SHOULD NOT put your work in these types of sessions. The advice you hear on other people's work is still valuable, and you can learn from them. Go to a few conference or critique group sessions before you participate in a First Read.

Number two is my larger point. As writers, we need to develop thick skin and a bounce-back ability because this career is hard. Even if you are the most wonderful writer in the world, someone isn't going to like your work. What's that cliche? You can't please everybody all the time, and that definitely applies here. If you want to be a successful writer, you're going to have to learn to face rejection and criticism, pout for a while like our Boxer above, and then go wag your tail and chase your dream.

If you are an American Idol fan, as I am, then I'll close with this. . .this season Adam Lambert is by far the best singer. He's favored to win more than any other contestant before, I think. On all the American Idol sites, he's what the commentators write about. I think he's great, and I can't wait for his performance each week. BUT. . .I'm sure we could easily find people who don't like him for one reason or another. They are rejecting him. Do you think Adam Lambert should go home and not attend the rest of the contest because of these rejections and criticisms? "Of course not," you say. "He would be crazy!" So, think about that the next time you want to give up when you're handed a rejection.

Happy writing!
Margo Dill
http://www.margodill.com/
Read These Books and Use Them (blog)
photo by dbking www.flickr.com

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Walk the Line: Critiquing Another’s Work

by Susan L. Eberling

“ ‘. . . George took Christina into his arms as the sun set into the ocean. They kissed and they knew they would always be together.’ Well, that’s the end of my story. What do you think?”

A good friend sits before you, waiting for an answer. Her eyes are full of hope, expectation, and a twinkle of fear. This writer has waited all day, all week, maybe all month to come to writers’ group and hear what you have to say about her short story.

So what are you going to say?

Critiquing another’s work can feel like walking on a dangerous precipice. On one hand, no story in its first draft is complete or perfect, major revisions are always needed. But, if careful, you can point your friend towards tightening the plot, increasing suspense, or developing characters. On the other hand, a story just shared is like your friend’s baby, her emotions will be tied up in what you say about her writing, both good and bad.

So how do you walk this high road of giving honest criticism that makes a piece of writing better and while being sensitive to the writer’s feelings? Here are four suggestions for careful walking as you give feedback and criticism:

• Use a checklist

Plot, setting, point of view, conflict. These are objective aspects of any piece of fiction. You can evaluate the plot of your friend’s piece without foisting your opinion on her work. Plot is a literary device that needs to be strong and clear in any piece of fiction. Help your friend evaluate the strength of her plot, or the details of her setting, or the reasonableness of the conflict. By focusing on these devices that create good fiction, you will be giving her thoughtful, specific suggestions to consider. Victory Crayne has a great checklist and tips for critiquing at www.crayne.com.

• Admit your filters

Your friend just shared her romantic short story with you, but you hate romantic literature. Tell her. Crayne says, “Let the author know if this is not your favorite type of story. This may help them better understand your viewpoint. Things you do not like in the story may very well appeal to a fan of that genre.”

Let your friend know that in your world romance is not on your top 10 list of things to read. This way if you start to seem disdainful, she will know that it is not about her and her writing, it is about your own style and preferences.

• Create a safe haven

“It’s easy to easy to tear a piece of writing to shreds,” say Charlie Schulman in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, “but being critical in a positive, tactful and constructive manner takes time and careful consideration.” Set aside a good chunk of time to hear the writer’s story or to read a copy of the story on your own. Simply skimming the piece or not listening attentively could lead to snap judgments or misunderstanding of the style or theme of the piece. Also, create an environment where risk is tolerated and even bad writing can be nurtured into good writing. Schulman encourages critics to “balance support with challenging suggestions”.

• Major on the majors

Unless your friend’s story is on the way to the publisher’s in the morning, use your critiquing opportunity to analyze the bigger issues of style, characterization, plot and theme. Leave grammar and punctuation until the end of a critique or a later draft.


Critiquing is about encouragement and calling each other out to be better writers. Everyone wins when you are honest about the faults and flaws of a fellow writer’s story yet able to keep her hope alive that someday, after revision, she will have a draft of a story that she can be proud of. Hopefully, through your example, others will walk the same line for you as you share your work.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

 

Criticism That Builds Up

As writers, we’ve all dreamt of the day when our work will be held up as a standard of the highest quality in literature, and publishers and academics will flock to us, seeking our influential opinions on every upstart new writer whose work begs to be shelved alongside our own. But I’m sure few can attest to lying awake at night thinking of the glow you’ll see in your pastor’s, coworker’s, or father-in-law’s eyes, when he tells you he’s heard you’ve done “a little writing” and would love it if you could instruct him how to make his memoir a bestseller. That is, unless the vision is accompanied by a cold sweat.

Inevitably, the Christmas dinner conversation that flirts momentarily with your plans for your next novel turns, without warning, to said friend’s or relative’s work in progress, and his hopes for your help in getting his work out there. You tell him modestly that you will offer whatever knowledge you have about the publishing biz, and that you’d be happy to look over his manuscript and give some suggestions. In return, he gives up his laptop joyfully, and you spend the next hour or so confronted with a draft that, quite honestly, looks as though it earned a B-plus in some eleventh-grader’s Term Paper Composition course.


Beloved Friend/Daughter-in-law: take heart. Sure, you could stay on your high horse, feet in the stirrups, waiting for the trumpets to hail your grand march into the halls of academia. But that day may never come, and here, right here, is an opportunity to make an impact on one person’s career. One person, who is very close to you, who is starting out much the same way you did not so long ago.


Start by reading the draft with an open but realistic mind. Okay, so this isn’t going to make the New York Times’ list next month. Sooner or later your friend or loved one will have to square himself to that fact—as will you, yourself, no doubt. There is no need to say anything right now that would make him want to give up altogether. Keep the faith that, if you once started out in second grade writing new endings to “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue,” surely given the right amount of patience and hard work your friend could achieve the same literary success you have.


When you come across problems, note them quietly to yourself without interrupting your reading to find him and ask him questions. Also, read closely so that you don’t miss anything you shouldn’t. The last thing you want to do is mention you didn’t get that his protagonist was female, when he can show you each instance of the word “she” in the fifth paragraph. Your credibility lies with his assumption that you care enough about this to give him the most thoughtful, constructive criticism you can muster. You would not want to be let down this way, so keep your comments to him limited to things you can clearly point out and suggest alternatives for.


Don’t hold his work up to some unrealistic standard. When you read it and think to yourself, “It isn’t Faulkner,” that only begs the question: “What similar follies have you been poisoning your own writing with?” Recognize that it is hardly ever fair to compare one person’s writing style with another’s.

But this does not mean that you have to shoulder this task with no measuring stick to refer to. Read the draft again, and this time, select one section that speaks the strongest to you. Identify what you responded to: Did it yield an interesting character quirk? A clever scrap of dialogue? An effective plot hook? Be very generous in hunting out all the things about this passage that you really liked. Then read it to him aloud, sharing with him these elements you noticed he used well. You must admit, it feels great to hear someone read your words with interest and sincerity! And it makes you want to trust the reader who treats your work with the attention it deserves. So don’t be stingy with that gift! Read it aloud with vigor—and then, if you felt his overall draft was lacking some of these things, this is your chance to reinforce your ideas of what could work to make it better.

If done right, your criticism will not dampen his healthy optimism but will energize him to look for the necessary elements of good writing and use them more frequently. Constructive criticism isn’t a wrecking ball, and it isn’t about laying the stones yourself (or throwing them). It’s simply about pointing out which are the best building blocks to use, and helping a fellow builder see how they fit.

written by: AK

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