Friday, June 5, 2009

Experiences With Writing And Critiques

~Sia McKye~

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
~Eleanor Roosevelt

I work hard as a writer. I write everyday. Journals, articles for various publications, and on the books I’m readying for publication. I enjoy writing. I like the creativity of choosing the right words for something, or picking a great introduction for the authors I promote.

I was lucky, I suppose, in that I’ve always been encouraged to explore my creative side for as far back as I can remember. I have oral storytellers in my family. There’s a tradition and a style with telling oral stories as opposed to writing the stories out. A different emphasis and description choices—part of it is in the sound of the words, the tone and voice inflections used, and the flow is a bit different. Certain words are used as a memory points.

As a kid, my siblings and I would entertain us with stories. Sometimes we’d do a round robin sort of thing where each would take over the story at a certain point and continue it. Some we wrote down some we didn’t. As I was the family chronicler guess who did most of the writing? We created elaborate ‘let’s pretend’ scenarios and then play them out either that day or over the course of a week or so. It was always fun.

In school, all my writing projects were partly creative in writing style. It didn’t matter if it was a science project if words were used I was creative—I could never just slap words on the paper. As you can imagine, History and English projects received the most attention from me. I had teachers encouraging me to pursue creative writing—especially English teachers. “Why aren’t you writing stories? You have a gift you should pursue it.” In second grade I won my first writing contest and over years won others with stories that were published in Weekly Readers and various other school sponsored things. While it was fun and I enjoyed it, I was also looking at other things I wanted to do or to be. Career choices were based on a certain amount of creativity, radio, newspaper, and promotion. The career choices got in the way of serious writing although I was always scribbling something—poems, family history; you should see some of my journals. I’d see something interesting and create a snippet of a story around it, or rewrite the romances of those in my family that were unfortunate enough to breakup or divorce. I got into a bit of hot water over a few of them, I can tell you.

My sister and I discovered Harlequin romances. They were so simple yet were entertaining. We figured, well heck, we could write romances just as good as what we were reading. We did, too. Today we were visiting and talk turned to some of our attempts. I pulled out some of our earlier efforts and oh how we laughed. Some were just awful full of passive voice and lots of exposition. We picked out phrases and descriptions and laughed ourselves silly. There were a few that actually were promising and only needed some editing and critiques. We just never had anyone to show those stories to that could do that.

When I got serious about my writing, and wrote my first novel, I made a cazillion mistakes. I was such a newbie. What saved me was entering a contest and in the course of that contest, I came into contact with real creative writers. That was my real prize—feedback and serious critiques, that and learning terms. What the hell did they mean when writers and judges would say ‘good bones’ and ‘need to work on POV’? Keep in mind, I hadn’t taken any writing courses in at least ten years and fiction-writing styles had changed considerably in that time. I didn’t win the contest (which was a romance writing contest where you also received critiques from other writers and contestants) although I finished in the top 20% out of about 1200 entries. Not bad, considering the mistakes I made.

I like to receive honest critiques. If something isn’t working, I’d like to know that. I take my work seriously. I don’t hand my work to just anyone. I tend to pick those who know what they’re doing, whose opinion I value, and who write the same genre or similar genre. I like suggestions, questions, and I also love it when someone reads something that they really like or makes them laugh and they mention it. The contest taught me the need for a tough skin, which was reinforced by the first serious critique of my manuscript.

The poor thing about bled to death with all the red lining. CPR was difficult but it survived and so did I. But you know what? She was right. She wasn’t harsh, but she was to the point and honest. She’s a published author and one for whom I have a great deal of respect.

I’ve always said if you want someone to tell you your writing is wonderful, hand it to your family or your mother. I call that blowing sunshine and butterflies. You want honesty then give it to a fellow writer you respect. And then listen to what they say. Give yourself think about it a bit—once you get over the shock.

When I critique, I’m never brutal or critique to hurt. I don’t believe in destructive critiques at all. There’s no point to them. Constructive critiques improve your writing or style. That’s what we want, suggestions or pointers on how to make the story stronger, make the characters more realistic, or how to plug those holes in our manuscript big enough to drive a Mack truck through.

I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and why, by doing critiques. Contest entries were quite an eye opener. Not just in just what I could see, but by reading the comments made by others which trained my eye both in what was being critiqued and how to look at my work with a more critical eye.

If someone is really bad…that’s a harder one. I’ve read a few that were really bad. Should they scrap it and start anew—oh, absolutely. I look for the good things that are working and I usually ask questions to see if they’re serious about writing or this piece or just playing at writing. I might say, this is a good idea but the way you’re presenting it hides the idea. Have you thought about…? I ask questions, why, what, where, and how.

I may have been writing all my life and won contests but that doesn’t make me a great writer. Critiques do that and the willingness to listen and learn. A willingness to sharpen your craft and be willing to put your manuscript on a strict diet to trim away the excess fat so you can see those great bones in your writing.

What has been your writing experience? How do you feel about critiques? What have you learned?
Sia McKye has spent over twenty years in marketing and promotion. She's written and published various articles on writing, marketing, and promotion. She's a Marketing Rep by profession and also writes fiction.

Sia is married to a spitzy Italian. She has a ranch out beyond the back 40 where she raises kids, dogs, horses, cats, and has been known to raise a bit of hell now and then. Aside from conducting various writing discussions and doing numerous guest blogging engagements, each week she promote and share authors’ stories, on the laughter, glitches, triumphs, and fun that writers and authors face in pursuit of their ambition to write—Over Coffee


Sun Singer said...

Whether it's at a local writers' meeting or in an online forum, good critiques are the gems in a very large world of well-meant drek. People are so rushed, they seldom have time to give 30-40 minutes to reading each of many short stories in their queue awaiting comments. So they often skim and then scribble down the first things that come to mind. Sometimes, these "first things" are fairly pure and wonderful; but often, they mean very little, partly because the person doing the critique is also an amateur: they can say what they feel as a reader, but the fixes they suggest are often off target.

So, I try to stay away from critique groups because unless the people in them are retired or independently wealthy, few people really have the time to do much justice to a stack of short stories and novel excerpts. I seem to get more help from the random reader who has no "duty" to critique my work along with a ton of others' work before a looming deadline comes and goes.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

You are right - good critiques are hard to come by, as they should be both high in quality and designed to encourage and improve. Of course, most people don't understand the true purpose of a critique or how to do it properly, which adds to the problem.
And the difference between a helpful suggestion and a whiny complaint is huge!

L. Diane Wolfe

Other Lisa said...

My first rule of critiquing - critique the book the author wrote, not the one you would have written or wanted them to write. One of the biggest issues I've had in receiving critiques and observing critiques has been that too many people offering feedback don't know how to separate themselves from the author's vision.

As an example, you don't have to be a big fan of the romance genre to critique a romance MS. But you DO have to understand what the genre is and whether the MS works on those terms - how to help the writer best fulfill the story's potential.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Lisa, I agree. There is nothing worse than someone who critiques and tries to rewrite the book in their voice rather than look work with the authors voice and premise and critique as to whether it works or not. THAT'S how you help the writer's/story's full potential.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Malcolm, I rarely use critique writing groups. I've found in the past that everyone want a critique but don't want to spend the time to do one for your writing. I have a few people I can send my stuff too and I find it's the best way for me, to get honest straightforward critques.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia,

I enjoyed reading this post. Even after selling nine books and critiquing for over 15 years, I still learn from what others-editors, copy editors, writers even other readers have to say. I look at it like this- other people think differently than I do- sometimes their pov is helpful, it shows me something I hadn't thought about. Sometimes, it's not helpful but hurtful. Then you shrug it off and move on. But the really interesting part is that there is always something new to learn or think about. A writer who is open to always learning will never grow bored.


Kat Sheridan said...

I'm still fairly new at this writing stuff, but I got my start as a reader-only in one of the contests Sia mentions. I learned so much from reading other people's critiques, which made me a more critical reader, and led me into trying writing myself.

Having entered some contests myself now, I've found that the least useful critique is the one where the persons suggests HOW to change things (inserting their own voice). Just tell me what works and what doesn't and let me figure out how to fix it. For instance, on my MS, someone said they didn't see how the hero could see the details in the low-lit room, so I added some sconces to the decor. A silly little thing, but it helped. Unlike the reader who suggested my dark gothic should open not on a stormy night but on a sunny afternoon! LOL! I agree, we have to be open to listening, but in the end, we have to be true to our own instincts and voice.

Ken Coffman said...

What strikes me is how many ways a manuscript can fail. For every element of structure, whether grammar, syntax, spelling, storytelling, word-choice, story arc, pace, rhythm, or anything else, there are traps ready to snare us. None of us writes perfectly, but we have to dodge enough of the traps to put a story together reasonably well, or the work fails. The battle is constant.
The writer has to be tough enough to take a body blow, but also tough enough to stand by a vision and stick with it when you know you're right. Even if you're not. Ha!

~Sia McKye~ said...

And the lord knows, anyone who puts a MS out there will take body blows, Ken. You do need tough skin and the right attitude to receive critiques and see how to apply the advice especially if you don't agree. You have to put it away for a bit and think on it. In the end, it's your vision and you have to be true to it. Critiques just sharpen the image of that vision.

aries18 said...

Sia, This is some great insight into writing and critiquing! I still remember the first critique I received on the first story I ever allowed anyone to read. This person told me I shouldn't have had the father in the story leave. That I should change the ending to a happy one.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. To pick carefully who reads your work and to remember your own vision of what you're trying to accomplish in your work. I was a newbie and my skin was thin. It's much thicker now. Now I want and need true critiques, not on the story content but the construction of the story.

Great blog Sia. You hit all the right notes.

Helen Ginger said...

Good critiques can be invaluable. The key word is "good." Probably one of the best ways for a new writer to grow is to get involved with a good critique group. But eventually most writers grow and turn to individual readers they trust to help them with their work.

Straight From Hel

jraff11 said...

Sia, honest critiques from knowledgeable readers give the newbie writer a sanity check. I entered two contests with a completed novel a couple of years back and learned so much about what works and what didn't. I've since been fortunate to have a couple of beta readers who read my re-edited novel and also offered valuable feedback. Thick skin? Yes, it's a must, but the writer also needs to be true to the work and ignore the feedback that doesn't help.

James Rafferty

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, there are some critique groups that are helpful, and I didn't mean to diss all of them. There are a few good ones within RWA, for example, and I belong to a writing group with various published authors and skilled writers and editors. When I turn to members there, I get good feedback.

Getting someone who is familiar witht he genre for sure helps, and I pick who reads and who doesn't.

Thanks for stopping by Helen, I enjoyed your blog today, but then, I enjoy most of your blogs. Very informative. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

James, knowledgeable is the key word here. And not obsess over any negatives you get in critiques.

Jill Lynn said...

Sia, I won't speak for my own critiquing, but I will speak for yours. Your insight into a piece of writing is amazing. Any time you've read an excerpt of one of my novels, you've grasped the storyline and characters quickly and accurately. In fact, if I ever finish either of the WIPs I have going, I plan to ask you to be my beta reader. You've been forewarned. lol

~Sia McKye~ said...

Why thank you Jill. Sure, I'd be delighted to read your WIPs. I love your writing so no hardship, I assure you.

When I critique I do look for the author's intent and offer the suggestions in line with that intent and vision. :-)

Sheila Deeth said...

It's not writing, but your article about critiques reminds me of trying to "transfer" kids pictures from a preschool class, making them all the right size to fit on a tea-towel, in the days before computers and resizing photocopiers etc. The first job was to realize how the child drew, then to copy it, bigger or smaller, and give it the same feel. Perhaps that's the first task of a good critiquer too - to find out how the writer writes, and then to think about what's needed to make it read better - or fit on the tea-towel.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I like that one Sheila, fit it on a tea towel.

Actually, when you do a critique you do need to be aware of the writers voice and vision. I really look at the characters, are they 3 dimensional? Do they react to situations realistically? Or do they fall into that too stupid to live mode? I get a real sense of the characters as I read.

You also need to be familiar with good story telling--what it is and what it's not and why. Flow and pace. You don't rewrite their story in your voice or even critique that way. You work with what's there and how to make what's there the best it can be. I can critique in several genres. But it also can be outside of my comfort zone of genre. It comes down to a good solid story which you can recognize regardless of the genre and sharpening the author's vision.

Houston A.W. Knight said...

I agree with all of you. A GOOD CP is hard to find.

Usually what you do find is damaging to the creator in you.

So, unless the CP sticks to the basic's of writing. Grammar, punc, repeated words opening sentences in a row, dropped endings, catching when you don't end a PH with a power word, and switched words or POV's - stuff like that, you're better off without them. IMHO.


Houston A.W. Knight said...


I forgot to add - this was an awesome article Sia!

cyber hugs