Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Give it to Me Straight... by Megan

Today is a busy day for me. Work as usual, then I'm meeting with the manager of the hotel where my RWA chapter is holding a workshop this month (Margie Lawson comes to St. Louis!), which I'm coordinating. Then my favorite part of the day: MORWA's critique group meeting.

When other writers say they don't like the concept of critique groups or partners, I'm baffled. No feedback? I shudder to think about it. How do you know if you're getting the story to the reader with emotion but not melodrama, or if the humor works, or if what's so clear in your head is clear on the page?

I love feedback, and no, what I receive isn't usually glowing. But because my group cares enough about good writing to help me improve my writing, they point out where they think I've gone wrong and possibly what to do about it.

My first ms written for publication (aka, my learning book, which will never see the light of day again) was set in Atlanta. Not knowing whether it sounded like the South, I sent it to a writing contest in Atlanta, the Maggies, a very prestigious contest I was in no way ready to enter. I lucked in to finding a great contest and the most honest and helpful feedback ever! The judges very politely hated the book--and rightly so. :) It was an angst novel (full of whiners). I entered the Maggies every year when I started a new story.

My critique group is terrific (and I only use the possessive because I belong to it, not because being the moderator means I own it). I love seeing the fledgling writers leap from the nest and try their wings. Some crash to the ground, but they're gently helped up by the critiquers and sent back to their nests to try again. I especially love when a person's critiques get better because her/his writing gets better too. I call it osmosis--the knowledge used to critique seeps into the writing, improving the work.

I'm not reading tonight, but I look forward to my next turn. My writing is so much better because of the input of my critique partners and this group. Every new book goes before them. My first published book, Marrying the Boss, had quite a few presentations in different forms before the one that captured the feel I wanted. I changed the beginning and the characters and the entire dynamics of the relationship before I was happy.

Some writers say they don't want others messing with their Voice. Or changing their story. Or giving them doubts about their writing. All plausible concerns. I guess I'm too, um, strong-minded as my mother calls it (since I got it from her) or stubborn as my husband labels it (since he has to deal with it daily) to let anyone change my story in ways I don't want. They can suggest, but that doesn't mean I have to accept their suggestions. My Voice is just me, and I doubt anyone else could change that. Give me insecurities about my writing? I have so many already, a few more would hardly register on my radar. But those insecurities don't extend to feedback. Give it to me straight--so I can make my writing better! My skin is thick enough.

So, which personality type are you? Do you want to hear about your flaws so you can improve them, in writing or other aspects of life? Or would you rather not have anyone messing with you, and just figure it out on your own?

BONUS: There's no wrong answer!

Megan Kelly


RulaSinara said...

Hi Megan,

I completely agree with you. There's a difference between someone who tries to re-word your every sentence and someone who points out pacing/character issues, confusing passages, or plot problems. The first can change your voice...if you let it. The latter makes sure your voice is reaching your audience. What writer wouldn't want that?

I'll admit, I was a newbie when I met you at the last nationals and the idea of having someone read my work was horrifying. I'd entered a few contests, but being anonymous made that easier. Since then, I found a CP that's wonderful and I can't imagine sending a manuscript off to an editor without feedback first.

Nathan Bransford had an interesting post recently on the Dunning-Kruger effect. It boils down to writers who are over-confident and don't take criticism are not the best writers. Those with less confidence and who are open to feedback are better than they think bc they're always striving to improve. Interesting huh?

That said, I think your books are wonderful!

Hope to see you in Nashville.


Pamela Stone said...

Oh Megan. I too belong to a wonderful critique group. And I guarantee I'd have never sold my first book without them. We all write different type books, have different strengths, and look at books differently. Yes, it can be humbling at times, but the input is invaluable.

You read out loud at your meetings? We've seldom done that, although I do at times read my own stuff outloud as a test.

Megan Kelly said...

Rula, So good to hear from you! Congrats on finding a good CP. Part of the problem I see is people who rush into a crit relationship (group or partner) and are then dissatisfied. It's such a fine line between helping and rewriting someone's work.
I know some of those writers who can't take critique--they just want to be told they're wonderful, which boosts the ego, but it doesn't help the writing. I hear a lot of that attitude about contest feedback, regarding judges who "don't get it."
And YES, I'm going to Nashville--I'm speaking on Beginner Basics on the Friday afternoon. (Trying not to think about it yet.) I'd love to get together!

Megan Kelly said...

Pam, I'm glad to hear you have a good group. I wouldn't have sold solo, either, and many of our attendees have sold, which is SO COOL. :)
The assigned person reads aloud about 15 pages; we jot our comments (and smiley faces) as she reads; then we write for about ten minutes to clarify those comments; then we discuss. Each person gets an hour, and after the first reading part, she can only ask a question to better understand a comment. The idea is "you can't sit on the editor's desk and explain what you meant: it has to be in the writing." Listening helps more than defending. :)
Reading aloud is hard, but it's such a useful skill and too many writers don't do it. It's amazing how many mistakes, overused words, awkward phrases, etc., one can find by a simple oral reading. Reading also helps with self-confidence about the writing(I OWN this work) and public speaking skills for those of us who are shy.
See how much I love feedback--I could talk about this for hours.

Virginia C said...

Even though I have become more set in my ways as I have aged, I have learned to be more open to helpful suggestions from other people. I may still appear to be somewhat "prickly" when constructive criticism is offered, but it does filter in to my brain. However, I am always aware of the difference between well-meaning advice and sarcasm : )

Megan Kelly said...

Virginia, There's that fine line again. lol We have three tables of around 8 people, and each table has a moderator to keep the discussion focused and moving. The idea is not to repeat what's been said, especially not just to show off what you know! We don't allow sarcasm during crit time. And I hear about what happens at the other tables. I've only had to speak with someone once, I think, in all these years. It helps that we see one another at chapter meetings, so we can get a better sense of the personalities--handle this person with kid gloves; this person isn't going to change a comma, let alone add motivation or whatever, etc. We bond through critique group.
Critique helps develop a thick skin, which one needs when reading reviews! :D I'm also better at revisions, I hope, because of my openness to improving my work.

Jerri said...

I'm a member of an on-line critique group and they tell me the truth--usually that my story and characters need work. I take it, though it isn't always easy. I am glad I'm a member. Have fun tonight, Megan. Maybe I'll attend one of these night. (wink)

Amanda said...

*cries softly at lost post and waves at Megan*
I'm sure this won't be as brilliant as the comment that I tried to post, but I'll try...

Everyone has something to offer at a critique group, which is why I love having all different level of writers to critique with. My first critique was eye opening and since then I've read tons of craft books and continued to get my work critiqued.

Honestly everyone would love to hear that her work is brilliant and to not change a thing. If that were the case a lot of editors and copy editors would be out of a job. My critique partners find everything from missing commas to missing words, awkward sentences to confusing passages, and character and plot developments that I didn't recognize before.

I don't write by committee. My style and voice are still my own, but with suggestions, I can make it stronger and more readable.

Barb H said...

Oh My Gosh Megan, I can't imagine not having CPs and a larger critique group. Mine are great. Sometimes what I think is perfectly clear...isn't, and they're always there to tell me so :)

It's important to have someone I trust be honest in evaluating my work. Fortunately I have a thick skin. :)

Lynn said...

Hi Megan!!
I'm honored to be part of your critique group and am jumping out of the nest tonight with my first read.

I've done workshop before (as part of a MFA program) and I've had good and bad experiences. But what time and experience has taught me, is that I can't write in a vacumn. And I don't know what I don't know.

So tonight I'll be throwing my manuscript out for comments. And tomorrow, I'll be reviewing and revising taking what works for the manuscript and making the work better.

Megan Kelly said...

See how wonderful my group is! I sent an email and said I'm really swamped and could they comment as I only have 15 minutes at home, during which time I'll be eating. And here are some of them, showing support. *sniff*
I'm thankful to hear so many positive things about critiques-- & not just because they're my people, lol. But because I truly believe a person's writing gets better through critiquing others'.

Hi, Jerri--I hope you do join us sometime. Your knowledge and kindness can only improve our group.

*waving at Amanda (whose debut Special Edition hits shelves May 25)* Craft books are great. I own a bunch and have borrowed even more. I'll never stop trying to learn and improve my writing--my crit group wouldn't let me get that big-headed or lazy. :D I love what you said about not writing by committee. This fear keeps many writers from entering into a crit relationship. Maybe they know best; if they're too easily influenced and likely to change with every suggestion, they will lose their Voice, and worse, possibly their passion.

Megan Kelly said...

Oh, yeah, pizza! LOL The bonding helps.

Lynn, You'll be fine. The worse part is sitting quietly while people write on your pages. The suspense just kills me! I'm glad to hear your plans for tomorrow. That shows you're open to our suggestions but that you may not incorporate all of them. I couldn't wish for a more healthy attitude. :D

Barb, I so agree. One member joined us because the "crit" group she was in just told her how wonderful her writing was. While that's lovely to hear, it doesn't help improve the places that aren't really wonderful. To me, that means those critiquers were inexperienced and/or not trying hard enough to improve their comments to be helpful.

Anyone getting the idea I expect a lot of the group? :D That's because I do.

I'll check back in tonight and let y'all know how it went.

Estella said...

I would rather hear about my flaws so I can improve them.

Megan Kelly said...

Estella, me too. As Lynn said, I don't know what I don't know.
I'm back home after my crazy day, and I want to thank y'all for your patience. Crit group went well! Not only did I get to listen to two great stories, but I noticed improvement in our critiques as well. I love hearing what others found in the reading that I missed and need to improve on to be more helpful, which in turn should leak into my writing. A very productive night!

Jeannie Lin said...

Great post Megan! I whole-heartedly believe in getting critique from people who don't love you and don't know your writing style so they won't cut you any slack.

I'm a bit dependent on my CPs and critique groups, I'd say. I get something different from each of them. As I've developed as a writer and become more comfortable in my writing skin, the act of listening and giving/getting feedback, keeps that initial hunger and drive and desire to experiment alive.

There have been projects where because of time or what not, I've only run it by a few readers I trust and I can see the point that many prolific writers give -- they know their process and they're confident in their product. But in any industry, the people who are successful have to continue to push the envelope for themselves. How are you going to know if you've just gone a little bit too crazy if there's no critique group there to pull you back?