Monday, July 20, 2009

 

Staying True to Your Characters


Recently, my critique group called me out. They basically said, "We don't think your two main characters would act this way. We don't believe it." It was a consensus, and so back to the keyboard I went. I knew they were right--I couldn't put my finger on why things didn't seem to be going well toward the end of my young adult novel; but once they said it, I knew they were right.
How did this happen to my characters--and at the end of my novel? Why was I forcing them to act in unnatural ways just to get my plot going and my novel finished--finally??? It didn't work--I was miserable; they were miserable--well, you get the point.
When I decided to blog about this subject today, I was trying to think of some big universal point I could make about staying true to your characters; but entire books could be written about this subject. So I decided to sum it up like this for now: if your characters are acting "out-of-character," then they need a reason--and a big reason. Think about people you know well--your spouse, mother, best friend, child. You can most likely predict how they will act in a certain situation because you know them well, and you have interacted with them many times.
Your characters should be the same way. You know them well, right? How would they act during an earthquake? How would they act if someone was breaking up with them? Unless something HUGE happened to them first, such as a car accident or other life-changing experience, then they shouldn't act out of character. And you will feel it in your gut when your characters aren't doing what they are supposed to be doing--just like you feel it in your gut when you, yourself, are not acting like you should be.
I am so happy that my characters are now back in line--acting the way they are supposed to be acting. My plot is fixed, and I am on my way to the end of my novel as soon as I find the time to write that ending--ah, but that could be another blog post.
Happy Writing!
Margo Dill
photo by Kristian D. http://www.flickr.com/

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

 

Look To Your State!

On the Premium Green discussion group (for information on how to join this group, check out http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/markets.html ), we recently had a discussion about critique groups. One writer suggested looking to state groups to find a critique group. That was a great suggestion!

I have a lot of experience with one state group in particular. I recently finished serving as president of the Missouri Writers' Guild (http://www.missouriwritersguild.org/). This group has 13 chapters throughout Missouri and Kansas. From these 13 chapters, several smaller critique groups exist--some online but most face-to-face.

But state groups are important not just because you can find someone to read your work, they provide exposure to successful national and regional speakers such as authors, editors, and agents. Hundreds of writers join these groups, which provides hundreds of networking opportunities. The Missouri Writers' Guild (MWG) offers their members an online bio, an ad on the speakers' bureau, their own web page, a quarterly newsletter full of useful information, and contests for published work. I have met hundreds of writers and have felt part of a community since joining MWG, and I still belong even though I live in Illinois. In many state organizations, such as the MWG, you don' t have to live in the state.

Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc (http://www.owfi.org/) is another great state organization. Like the MWG, the Oklahoma group sponsors a yearly conference full of wonderful speakers from all over the United States. This conference is usually held the first weekend of May and in a beautiful Embassy Suites hotel in Oklahoma City--that means a FREE great breakfast buffet with made-to-order omelets and a FREE happy hour with snacks. (You can tell I'm a writer, I'm looking for the FREE stuff.) Every time, I've attended this conference, I've learned a lot, met lifetime friends and contacts, and had a blast. It's probably too late to go this year now, but look into this state organization, and mark your calendars for 2009. Same for the MWG conference, which usually offers one-to-one pitches with editors and agents. Their conference is April 3-5, 2009.

Another way to belong to a state group is to join a national group, and then you're automatically a member of the state chapter. I am a member of the Illinois Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators because I paid my national dues. The IL-SCBWI is a wonderful, active organization, which I am a part of for "FREE" because I pay no extra dues to the state chapter. A lot of national groups are organized in a similar way, so check these out, too.

It's important to connect and network with other writers when you're a writer--not just for critique but for information, education, and opportunity. State groups are great at providing these three important tools. If you are looking for a group, you can do an Internet search on a search engine such as Google (http://www.google.com/) for (State Name) Writing Groups. When I did it for Missouri, Illinois, and Oklahoma, a ton of groups popped up--local and state. And remember, you don't always have to live in the state to be a member. In today's technology age, you can honestly live in Timbuktu and still join up!

The important thing is get connected and soon.

Happy Writing!
Margo Dill
http://www.margodill.com/

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Monday, April 07, 2008

 

A Good and Fair Critique

Recently, I decided to overcome some old fears and submit some work for critique to a writers group. I had to finally admit to myself that this was necessary. As writers, it's a good idea to show our work to fresh eyes because being so close to your work sometimes makes it hard to see what it's missing.

I gained some useful advice, but also some that I had to take with a grain of salt. Anytime you submit a piece for criticism, you'll have to have a thick skin for some of the remarks, but it's also vital to remain open to what others have to say. While it's always nice to receive glowing feedback from our friends and peers, it's wise to give your work to unbiased readers. This won't include your mom, sister, brother, favorite uncle. The critics need to have a basic understanding and appreciation of writing as a craft. They can be prolific readers, but it's almost always better to show your work to other writers.

I think that people who critique others need to keep in mind these points:
  • The author is probably very proud of her work, so don't trash it. Is there anything good you can find in the piece? Anything? If so, say something positive about it.
  • Do nitpick on spelling. We're writers after all; our spelling should be excellent.
  • Really read it, not skim over it. You can't do an honest and fair critique if you don't fully consider the work.
Likewise, the person who submits a piece for criticism needs to keep in mind:
  • This is only someone else's opinion. You don't have to agree with it, but see if there's anything you can take from it to make your work better.
  • You can't be ultra sensitive to criticism. Everyone isn't going to love everything you write. Tom Clancy is a best-selling author and just about any book he writes is going to do well, but there are people in the world who don't love Tom Clancy. I doubt he's really bothered by that.
  • You're brave for submitting. Because writing tends to be so personal, it's not merely pieces of paper we send out to be reviewed; it can sometimes feel like pieces of ourselves, our "babies." If you can overcome the fear of allowing others to look at and judge your baby, you've taken a step that many others haven't.

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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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Monday, February 18, 2008

 

To Critique or Be Critiqued that is the Question...

By Valerie Fentress

When I first started writing seriously four years ago, there was only one person I felt comfortable to give me feedback and that was my husband. My poor husband. Reading really isn’t his thing but somehow our stars aligned and he married a writer. Needless to say I had to use many methods of persuasion to get him to read my work and critique it.

But lucky for him at my first writer’s conference I met a published author living in my city that ran a casual critique group, my hubby was ecstatic. He was more than willing to let me disappear once a month as long as he didn’t have to read my stuff.

Now I don’t know how many of you are part of a critique group, but I know some of you are saying…

I could never have someone else read my work.
What would they think of me?
What if I’m not any good?
What if they hate it?

Ah… the writer plight. We want to write. We want to publish, but to have someone actually READ what we write that’s just crazy.

These were some of the hurdles I had to get over before I stepped into my first critique group. I must say I was the youngest one there, but I was never more welcomed and encouraged in my writing than I have been in the last three years with this group.

At the time I entered the group I did have a completed manuscript, but from what I learned and how my writing grew dramatically within the confines of that little group, has caused me to put that manuscript aside cause it needs a massive overhall to match the strength of my writing currently.

In being surrounded by poets, non-fiction writer’s, curriculum writers, and fiction writers, such a mixed batch gives you such a resource to draw from. That’s the wonderful benefit to critique groups everyone is on a different portion of their writing journey and can share the tidbits you need to get your writing up to par. As well as getting a general sense of who would be interested in reading what you are writing.

Now the above does sound a bit like the fairy tale critique group, and I know there are many writer’s that have been burned and scorned by in person and online critique groups. This is not to scare anyone from joining a critique group, but it is important to join the right one for you.

It’s important to do your research before joining up with a group and sharing all your writing ideas and allowing the people access to that vulnerable spot in your soul, your writing.

For in person groups, attend a couple sessions to see the format and how people interact with one another. It’s important to be encouraged by the people you are sharing your ‘baby’ with. Do the people in the group want to make your writing style like there's or challenge you find and develop a style all your own? In part this sounds silly, but do you get along with the people in the group. I was part of a group that there were more people that got on my nerves than helped my writing. And it’s hard to accept critiques from people you don’t respect, so take that into consideration.

For online groups, ask a lot of questions. See what group or association they are associated with, abd how often they share manuscripts. Get a few of the names of the members to Google them and see what their writing history is. It’s good to have at least a couple in the group that are published to ensure the critique’s have merit and the experience to help you in your publishing journey. Try to review past critiques to see if the flow and style will be helpful to your work.

These are overall suggestions, and surprisingly choosing a critique group can be just as important as choosing your literary agent. Because this little band of writers will be pushing you toward your goals, and that is a treasured bunch of people to have at your side during the ups and downs of the publishing world.

But I must say in my own experience, I probably would still be annoying my very supportive husband and my writing wouldn’t be were it’s at today with out the help of my critique groups. It’s good to be with people of like mind to try to convince my husband I’m not the only crazy writer out there.

Happy Writing.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

 

What Is a Great Critique Group All About?

I am a lucky writer. Not because I have had minor success in getting my work published, not because I have my own office to work in at our house, and not because my husband bought me my very own laptop and puts up with living with a writer. Yes, those three things are wonderful, but that's not why I feel like a lucky writer today. I am a lucky writer because I have a GREAT critique group.

Actually, since I have moved around a lot in the past seven years, I have been lucky to find a good critique group wherever I lived. But since I am currently living in East Central Illinois, working with this children's writers' critique group, and they are currently helping me with my young adult novel, I will focus on them. Plus if I blog about these generous writers, perhaps they'll even "love" my story instead of liking it. (Just a little cyber space brown nosing there.)

I want to share with you why my critique group rocks for two reasons. If you aren't in one, then maybe this will encourage you to find one or start your own. My second reason is there are a lot of critique groups out there, and they aren't so great. Maybe you feel this in the back of your mind, just like when you know there is something wrong with your main character, but you just can't figure it out.

The first thing I love about my group, which consists of seven writers, is we all write consistently, and we all care about writing. We meet every three weeks at a local Borders store, and each time, we have at least four stories or chapters to critique. Some groups have a dominant member, who brings hundreds of pages of their writing and monopolizes the entire meeting with their work. We don't have that, and we are very thankful!

We have a good mix--being children's writers, we are also lucky enough to have a male in our group. We have all ages, all life experiences, all different professions--as I said we are a good mix. We write picture books, short stories, articles, novels, poetry--you name it, we've wrote it, read it, and critiqued it.

We don't have a lot of silly rules. We established a few guidelines since our writing is so precious and close to each of our hearts. One is to make sure and say what you LIKE or even LOVE (which is much better than like) about the story before you rip it to shreds. Also, we try to ask questions about the writing or state things that we feel need to be changed in a delicate way such as, "If I was writing this story, I might have had Thelma and Louise drive off into the sunset instead of over the cliff, and here's why." In a non-constructive critique group, you might hear, "What were you thinking when they drove off the cliff? That was HORRIBLE. I would have never done that." And just for you non-believers out there, I am not exaggerating my previous comment. There really are writers who talk to each other like that. REALLY!

The best part about my critique group is we care about each other getting published. We want to make each piece of work the best it can be, and we even offer market suggestions to each other. We listen to the other person's desires. We bring in articles about writing. We go to writing conferences together or bring in information about a great conference we discovered.

Are you tired of me gushing yet? I just want every writer to have such a wonderful experience, and so I am trying to describe everything I can think of that we do.

So, although Thanksgiving is over, and everyone is probably tired of listening to each other go on about what we are thankful for, I have to say that one thing I am very thankful for and very lucky to have is. . .my critique group. If you have any questions about how we run things or how we got started, please contact me! (margo@wow-womenonwriting.com)

Margo Dill
www.margodill.com

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