Friday Speakout: Surely You Just, Guest Post by Michelle Dwyer
Surely You Just (Cheesy, I know)
by Michelle Dwyer
Okay so, I recently received my contest critique for the WOW! Summer 2009 Flash Fiction Contest. Not too shabby I must say. I guess the past critiques have allowed me to refine those blunders called adverbs. Toning down these dust mites (as I now call them), has taken effort. But seeing less green (you know, the highlighted adverbs) in my critique is worth it.
Why was I using adverbs ALL the time? I was addicted to making a point—a point I never had to make.
I thought using “punch” words such as just, always, really, very, and some quantified my thoughts, made them more tangible for the reader to measure. For example, “I just got a request for a partial!” (That hasn’t happened. Just let me have my moment), is no more intense than, “I got a request for a partial!” They express the same joy. The “just” adds no value to the excitement that hopefully one day I will experience.
I took me a while to get it. In my mind, the reader had to know what had just happened, or what simply had to be a certain way. It made the stakes higher. Made those words very, very important, right? No. It just made me look like an amateur.
But I’m hard-headed (really, really hard-headed), so I’m still learning to give up the dust. Sometimes I leave particles in my stories. And guess what? Adverbs in moderation can actually add depth when done right; however I’ve learned that overall, readers don’t need to know that a car can go super fast or that my protagonist is immensely hot.
I can be defiant, refusing to let tried-and-true principles trump my need to be right. I needed proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that most adverbs are in vain.
I opened the file belonging to my 113,000 word manuscript. Blindly, I searched for and deleted every just, always, really, some, and very. I didn’t care about sentence structure or meaning. After this, I re-read the story.
What do you think happened? I put a handful of these words back into the story because the impact legitimately called for them. The remaining adverbs were never seen again because they’d added no value and would never be missed. I now have a leaner, meaner manuscript.
How cluttered had my manuscript been before the changes? In other words, how many adverbs didn’t make the cut?
Pretty, very, really, amazing…don’t you think?
Wait. Start over.
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
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.
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.
“ ‘. . . 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.
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! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
After you’ve tried your hardest at something, whether it’s writing an article or practicing soccer, do you get offended when your coach, friend, or colleague tells you that what you just did was wrong?
An angry soccer coach may scream, “Don’t kick the ball with your toe!” or “You’re doing it wrong!” The same goes for a writing partner, but the tone would probably be more constructive. “You should use an active voice here,” or “I can’t visualize the character. You need more description.”
The other day I watched Randy Pausch give his final lecture on Oprah. I was watching because I knew Kris Carr would be on there, and you know how much I love her! Her appearance was amazing, btw. And after she left the stage, Randy came on and recited part of his final lecture that he’d given to his students. He said a ‘final lecture’ is something that professors’ give based on the idea of a made-up assumption: pretend you’re going to die and this is the last speech you’ll ever make. But for Randy, it was true. He has cancer and was diagnosed with three months to live. The speech was dedicated to his kids and brought tears to my eyes... The whole thing was touching, inspiring, and heart warming. You can see it embedded below.
One thing that stood out for me was something he said about his little league coach. His coach was old school and would yell at him all practice, You’re doing it wrong, go back, do it again, you owe me pushups, etc. And after practice one of the assistant coaches came up to Randy and said, “You know the coach rode you pretty hard. That’s a good thing. That means he cares.”
Randy went on to say that if you’re doing a bad job and no one points it out to you that means they’ve given up on you. It was something that stuck with him, and it stuck with me too.
Sometimes we’re afraid to point things out or to criticize a co-worker, writing partner, or friend. With our helpful, womanly nature it’s much easier to let things slide—ignore the bad, and roll with the good. But this isn’t being helpful.
Now, sometimes our team and editors tend to “ride each other pretty hard,” as you’ll often see in our blog posts’ comments. We correct each other on terminology, grammar, spelling, and fact checking. This is only because we care about one another and want to bring out the best. This kind of criticism = love.
Here's the video with Randy Pausch -- check it out if you haven't seen it already!
It's interesting to see the variety of writers who enter our quarterly flash fiction contest. Some are established writers and some are aspiring, and some are non-fiction writers like Jodi Henry! We love the diversity of writers who enter, and just because you come from one background or another doesn't mean you can't come up with a great story! In reading Jodi's story, Jag Meets Iguana, you'd think she'd been writing fiction for years, but that isn't the case, which you'll see in this interview. Amazing!
WOW: Jodi, congratulations on winning third place in the WOW! Winter Flash Fiction Contest! How did you feel when you found out you won?
Jodi: I was absolutely thrilled! I am a non-fiction writer and this was my first foray into fiction so winning this prize not only pleased me beyond belief, but it has given me inspiration to delve into the world of fiction writing.
WOW: Well we hope you do; you have a real talent for it! In fact, Jag Meets Iguana has all the elements of a great story: fun characters, conflict, and a super ending. What was your inspiration behind it?
Jodi: I wrote this story while on a month’s vacation in Mexico. My husband and I have gone to Zihuatanejo for the past four years and we both manage to get a lot of writing there – no phone, e-mail, TV, etc – all the distractions of everyday life. Our condo was on the second floor and right below, on a stone wall, an iguana would sun herself every day. I guess that’s where the iguana thought came from. I live about two hours south of Portland, and the highway that goes up the Columbia Gorge is beautiful and the one you would drive on your way to Yellowstone. Briggs Junction is such a typical truck stop, I just had to include it! In a previous life, I was also married to a pretty controlling guy so a woman’s get-a-way sounded delightful.
WOW: That's the beauty of fiction. You can make this magical world to get away from the reality of controlling ex-boyfriends. ;-) So tell us, if you were to continue the story, do you think Sandra would meet up with Officer Reed?
Jodi: Good question. If she did, that would seem too predictable. And I’m not sure they’d be a good fit. I think he’s a pretty straight laced dude and she’s just beginning to feel her wings.
WOW: (laughs) That's cool you should mention that because our theme next month is "The Wings of Self-Promotion." I think we all need to feel our wings and remember to fly every once and a while. And that's what you did with the prompt, took it and soared! Did you find writing on it challenging?
Jodi: Well, having a background in journalism, I like structure, including deadlines and I like a certain guidelines. I guess that’s why I write non-fiction pieces. Fiction really makes you use your imagination, and trying to pull ideas out of the air was a challenge – guess I’m too structured. But after I did it, it really felt good – especially when I won a prize!
WOW: Considering your background, did you do a lot of editing?
Jodi: Not too much. I brainstormed in my head, wrote a rough draft on paper and then wrote it in scenes on the computer. Being an editor, I tend to edit myself as I go along, not always a good idea.
WOW: That's right. From your bio we know that you and your husband are the founders of Writers Welcome. When did you start your website, and what kinds of services do you provide?
Jodi: We started Writers Welcome about six years ago. We are basically “book doctors”; we edit and critique manuscripts. John works with the fiction writers, mostly novel and some short story manuscripts. I work with non-fiction writers, a lot of how-to books, but some thesis’ and children’s books (though these are fiction).
WOW: That's super! I also noticed on your site that you have a Mentorship Program. Why is this good for beginning writers?
Jodi: The Mentorship Program is a comprehensive, personalized program designed for beginning writers. It is features one-on-one consultation and support and is available for one or three months time periods. (if this is stiff it’s because I took this from our brochure!) I think this is a great program for beginning writers because, as writers, most of us are insecure and often lack support. This is especially true for beginning writers, who are also unfamiliar with a lot of the basic writing principles. But I think the best part of the program is for the writer to be able to call or meet face-to-face with either John or I for advice and encouragement.
WOW: That's a really great benefit. Most online writing workshops don't have the option of getting to talk on the phone, or meet for that matter! You also mentioned that you work as a journalist, copywriter, and publicist. Can you tell us about some of the projects you've worked on?
Jodi: I used to be a reporter for a small town daily newspaper. I was in the features department and covered mostly soft news. It was a great experience and I had a wonderful editor. After I left the paper I worked for a public relations firm that specialized in political campaigns – exciting, but not really the kind of PR I wanted to do. I moved on to a firm with a wide variety of clients. I worked with environmental firms and the one of the plumbers unions.
WOW: I can see why you have an editing website -- you have a lot of experience! What are you working on right now?
Jodi: Right now I am working with two clients, both of whom have similar books. One is a book about leadership and the other is a book aimed at business professionals about a different way of dealing with stress. I’m also very much looking forward to attending the Taos Summer Writers Conference this July. This is my first writers’ conference, except for a weekend workshop I attended in the San Juan Islands several years ago on nature writing.
WOW: That sounds exciting! You're going to love writers' conferences. You'll have to tell us all the details... maybe even write an event recap for WOW! In closing, do you have any tips for writers who may be hesitant about entering a writing contest?
Jodi: Just do it! I think most people are hesitant to enter because of the fear of rejection or that their work just isn’t good enough. But finding a contest that looks like it might be a good fit and is in an area of interest is something to look for. Your contest appealed to me because it was a quick turn around and I liked the prompt.
WOW:Thanks Jodi for taking time to answer our questions! We adore your story Jag Meets Iguana and expect great things to come from your corner of the fiction, non-fiction, and website worlds.
If any of you want to enter Jodi's Mentorship Program, or need editing or critiquing, please visit: www.writerswelcome.com