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Elements of Critique: Plan

I’m about to go to overseas with the military, and I don’t think I’m going to find a writers’ group like the one I’m leaving here. Perhaps you can relate to not finding a good group where you are.

What’s stopping me from starting my own group? Fear of a challenge I’ve never tried before? Fear based in lack of experience? Worry that I wouldn’t know where to start?

After the A to Z and the two add-ons, I’ve covered the essentials for how to critique. The only question I can think to answer now is, “How do I run a critique group?”  It’s simple once I have a plan.

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To answer that question, I’ll steal from the guidelines used at the lovely group I attend. This is a starting point; these can be altered to suit whatever an in-person group needs, and can easily be adapted for an online group.

1. We set up a monthly date. Ours is the fourth Tuesday of every month. A monthly group means I’m not always critiquing or writing a submission. It’s manageable for me. Your mileage may vary.

2. We say submit up to 1200 words a week before the meeting. Setting that limit helps ensure we can all read the submissions even if we have busy lives. We’re pretty flexible about it; I usually submit a longer piece with a 1200-word spot marked so that if someone is willing to critique more, they can.

3. We have a standard format for submission. This seems nitpicky, but there’s a reason “A” is all about appearance. I got a comment from someone judging a competition, stating that the vast majority of submissions were disqualified because people failed to follow the guidelines on format. Ours is: header with last name/title on left, page number on right. First page upper left has name, address, email, and word count. The whole submission must be Times New Roman, double spaced.

4. Our guidelines restate that we should submit a week ahead, but they leave room for late submissions and encourage participants to come offer critique even if they didn’t submit anything that month. Everyone’s input is valuable.

5. We normally submit by email, but we’re trying out a Facebook group where everyone can “submit” by uploading their document to the group’s page. That way the documents don’t get lost in the shuffle of email.

6. Our group usually has five to eight participants. Eight borders on too many for our two hour meeting to cover well. We aim for a short 15-minute social time at the beginning, followed by 15 minutes of critique per submission. We actually use a timer visible for the whole group to keep everyone on track. When there’s time, we read a short portion of each entry (perhaps a page or two at most). Then we go around the room for critique.

7. Our guidelines reinforce what’s expected when your submission is being read and critiqued. Don’t cringe; no one’s out to hurt anyone. Don’t jump in to explain or defend (since we’ll never get the chance to explain our slant or ideas to an editor). Don’t apologize for what’s written. Listen fully; take what you need and leave the rest.

8. After each person’s piece is critiqued and read, they receive hard copies with comments and highlights, or they receive an email with an electronic document marked with comments and highlights.

That’s all there is to it. Seems easy, right?

It is. It doesn’t take much, it doesn’t require some amazing author or insightful editor to organize. All anyone needs is a host, a location, and some willing writers.

Adapting this to an online group is even easier: no need for a host or locale. A group could agree on a monthly timeline and submit critiques back-and-forth via email, or use an online chat feature like Google Hangouts to share together while geographically separated. And if all attempts at forming a group fail, there are online pages like Scribophile which are all about building community while getting and giving useful critique.

But this covers the basic framework. I can’t say enough good things about how beneficial a critique group has been for my own writing. I feel like a critique group evangelist when I meet other writers, and I have to tone it down so I don’t scare them off.

Perhaps you know of a group that runs differently in some key way. I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

And that’s all, folks. Everything anyone needs to at least kick off a group of their own and begin offering meaningful critiques. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this month-long journey and providing encouragement along the way. The feedback has been valuable to me beyond the power of words to convey. If there’s any question or concern not covered, shoot me a comment and I’ll be happy to respond with my take on it.

So with that, farewell. What are you doing reading blogs anyway?

There’s writing to get done!

Elements of Critique: Quotation Marks

There’s an arguably crude joke about the Oxford comma (the one that you may have been taught does or does not go before ‘and’ within a list of items).

Consider the difference:

“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party.”
vs
“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK and Stalin to the party.”

Maybe JFK and Stalin have a more colorful history than I knew.

Punctuation matters. But so does point-of-view, which is why that got the ‘P’ slot in this A to Z list. So today, I’ll focus on Quotation Marks (and other punctuation).

It’s my blog. I can cheat.

Quotation mark rules are easy to follow, but the marks are easy to miss, judging by the critiques I’ve done thus far. I watch for marks at the start and end of the quote, and I check whether the marks enclose required punctuation such as a comma, period, or question mark at the end of a phrase or sentence. And if the quote includes the speaker reciting a quote, then single quotation marks surround that recited quote within the double quotation marks.

There is one case where a question mark might not be enclosed in the quotation marks. If the speaker is asking a question using a quote, the question mark belongs outside the quote. For example:

“Did God really say, ‘If you eat the fruit, you shall die’?”

The fact that the first example I can think of is from Satan might be a clue that it’s easier to simply avoid this structure if at all possible.

Another note, with quote marks, is that you don’t have to end a paragraph with a quotation mark if the next paragraph starts with the same speaker speaking. The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark, and a quotation mark goes at the end of the speech, however many paragraphs it lasts.

Also, I look for new paragraphs to start with each new speaker. Having multiple speakers in one paragraph, even with proper punctuation, is a nightmare to the reader.

Enough about quotation marks; on to commas!

I started with a comma joke, and mentioned the Oxford comma. This is an example where either way is considered correct depending on the style required by whoever the writing is for. If it’s being submitted to an editor or publisher who wants it a certain way, then of course follow that guidance. Otherwise, I look for clarity or lack thereof, and critique as needed.

Comma overuse is the most common issue. Some of us probably learned to include commas wherever there might be a verbal pause. This can lead to some clunky writing. For me, commas separate clauses in a sentence, identify amplifying phrases, and establish lists of related items.

“She went to the store, but it was closed.” Separated clauses (independent first, dependent second)

“When writing, as with many creative endeavors, originality is of paramount importance.” Amplifying information phrase

“When he saw her, he waved to get her attention, but, shocked by the frustration on her face, he cowered.” Stuff like this just needs to be split into two sentences.

Shorter sentences with less modifiers read clearer than long, winding structures full of elaborate phrases. Those are things I look for in critique.

One special case of punctuation peril is the semi-colon. Sometimes we try to use them because they are often neglected, and it’s a nice change from the mundane. Contrary to what I often see, semi-colons only join two related independent clauses. That means if the semi-colon is removed, two complete sentences remain.

Both the independence and the relationship of the clauses matter. Wrong use looks like this:

“I try to use semi-colons sometimes; a neglected form of punctuation. It makes my writing look flashy and trendy; not mundane or mainstream.” In this case the problem is the latter phrases are not independent clauses.

“Sometimes I try new things in order to be creative; the semi-colon is a neglected form of punctuation.” The relationship is off here. I see this problem in fiction where two unrelated bits of description are thrown together with a semi-colon, like pulling ingredients out of the cabinet and throwing two at random into the pot, hoping for a good meal.

Semi-colons are a special kind of punctuation. They are almost never a case of must; we only use these when we should.

Finally, there is the ellipsis, those three dots symbolizing an omission of words from a quote. This can be in the middle, showing skipped words, or at the end of the quote, showing that the original quote goes on further but is not reproduced in the writing at hand.

Right example: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Wrong example: “I was reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and… ugh, history is so boring.”
They aren’t designed or intended to be used as a symbol for lost train of thought, or walking into the middle of a conversation, or awkward pauses, or suggestive questions, and so on. Writers sometimes do this, and even get away with it. But that’s not the purpose of this punctuation mark, so I critique it. Misuse might draw unwanted attention (read: rejection) from prospective readers and editors.

You can quote me on it, so long as you use quotation marks properly.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.

Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.

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