Critique Group Arrangements, or Bringing Some Order to Chaos

Back in March, I discussed why you should consider joining (or forming) a critique group if you’re an aspiring writer.  I mentioned I’d blog about critique group arrangements and rules later, and this is my much-anticipated payment on half of that promise. I’ll just talk about arrangements today.

I’ll only address in-person groups that meet periodically, since those are the ones I’m familiar with.  Online groups are wonderful, particularly for those who would otherwise have to drive a great distance to meet with other writers, but I’ve never joined one.

Membership.  It’s important when setting up a group, or when seeking to join an existing group, to have a sense of how membership will work.  What is the size of the group?  Larger groups require firmer rules and more discipline, but there is certainty and comfort in that.  You may not get your work critiqued as often, but when you do you’ll benefit from many points of view.  Small groups are looser in structure and friendlier, but may meet on an irregular basis.  In smaller groups you can be more assured of getting your work critiqued at every meeting, but you’ll receive fewer opinions.

Some groups have leaders, or moderators.  Larger groups have greater need of some authority.  Regarding the rank-and-file members, groups may start with writers having a range of skill levels, but through attrition tend to end up with a leveling of skill.  I recommend you join a group with some who are more skilled than you (how else will you improve?).  Every group should agree on some process for admitting new members to ensure the group remains dynamic and fresh, and keeps its size and identity.

People being what they are, sometimes a difficult member creates tension, making meetings less productive and beneficial.  Groups need some way, whether by formal rule or unwritten understanding, of dealing with such people since they are often the cause of a group breaking up.

Meeting Logistics.  Every in-person critique group has to figure out such logistical concerns as where it will meet, how frequently and on what dates, at what start time, and for how long meetings will run.  These aspects varied widely among the handful of critique groups I’ve been in.  It’s important to maintain the discipline of meeting regularly.  Then there’s the matter of costs.  Some groups have to pay for a meeting place, but most do not.  For most groups, the only cost has to do with food, so the group needs to decide whether food is allowed and how that cost will be shared.

Meeting Conduct.  Getting down to the actual business of critiquing, members need to agree on the amount of text each can provide in a session–maybe a page number limit.  How will the work be delivered?  I’ve been in groups where manuscripts were handed out and then read at the meeting; my current group e-mails them ahead of time.  I understand some groups have the writer read his work, then members give oral critiques.  The matter of how to give and receive a critique deserves a blog post of its own, and I’ll do that.  Some critique groups do more than just critique–they suggest writing exercises to hone their skills. My group has done that on occasion, and one such exercise helped me get a story published!

Group Dynamics.  Like most times when people meet periodically in teams for a shared purpose, the group goes through the phases of Forming, Norming, Storming, and Performing. It’s great when you get to that last stage, but I’ve never been in any kind of group that got there without going through the other three phases first.  During the Forming or Norming stage is when group rules need establishing.  As I mentioned, larger groups require more firm rules, perhaps even written down.  Smaller groups can get by with fewer and unwritten rules.  Writers as a class of people tend to resist rules and authority, though, and that causes the tension between chaos and order I alluded to in this post’s title.

As I’ve said before, critique groups have improved my writing more than any of the other writing aids I have tried.  When they work well, they’re just super.  Wishing you the best as you seek a critique group, I’m–

                                                                                 Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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October 30, 2011Permalink

Your Writer Infestation

Usually I dedicate my blog entries to beginning writers.  Today I want to address those who put up with writers–spouses, children, parents, co-workers, and friends.

Before we discuss what to do about your writer infestation, let’s explore how to recognize you have one.  At first glance, this may seem difficult to determine.   After all, writers look just like normal people, for the most part.  Writers have a wide distribution, having been seen on every continent, in every country.  They live wherever people live, often in houses or apartments right alongside normal people.

However, writers have certain characteristics that give themselves away as a completely different species.  First, they engage in the “writing” behavior, often for many hours on end.  This is a solitary activity which does not usually annoy others.  They may go without food or drink while writing, or may consume these in great quantities.  This characteristic has been shown to vary from writer to writer.

On those occasions when writers are not writing, and instead interact with people, their behavior is unique to their species.  Often, for example, a writer will appear to be attentive and interested in a discussion, but in fact is merely observing and noting ideas about language and gestures for some future story.  The writer may not be hearing the person at all.  Many people have noted writers who seem lost in thought as if they inhabit a world of their own creation.  In conversation, writers may express thoughts similar to the following:

  • “That’s a good idea. I can use that in my next story.”
  • “I have a character just like her in one of my novels.”
  • “Let me read something to you; tell me honestly what you think.”
  • “The script for that TV show (or movie, or TV ad, or radio ad) is terrible.  I could do better.”

You may have had some bad experiences while dealing with one of these writers in your life.  You might have tried interrupting the writer in the act of writing, with unfortunate results.  You’ve probably been bored on many occasions when the writer talked to you about some aspect of writing.  You might even have been interested at one point about this writing behavior, but experience has taught you not to ask or show any curiosity.  You may have developed a fear that the writer might make you a character in a story.  You may have wondered why the writer occasionally seeks out the company of other writers, at such events as “conferences,” “critique groups,” or “writing courses.”

These are all normal reactions that occur when interacting with writers.  So far none have been shown to have long-term negative effects on people.  Your exposure to a writer should not prevent you from living a nearly normal life.

What should you do if you find yourself in the company of a writer?  Escape may not be possible, particularly if you have made a marital promise to the writer, or the writer is one of your parents or children.  My advice in such cases is to focus on the positive–look for the good or endearing qualities of the writer (if any) and cherish those.  It’s usually best not to express any curiosity about the writer’s stories; instead encourage the writer to seek the company of other writers.  Only another writer can truly understand a writer.

As mentioned above, try to avoid interrupting a writer engaged in writing.  Writers can be angry and aggressive when aroused; they exhibit typical territorial behaviors.  Sometimes such interruptions cannot be avoided however, such as when a person needs a writer to perform some non-writing domestic duty–taking out garbage, making a meal, cleaning a room, mowing a lawn, etc.  At such times, if you know the writer’s favorite author, you can state that “Even [insert Great Author] didn’t write all the time.  Please take a little time to [insert necessary non-writing activity.]”  Alternatively, you can suggest that it’s time the writer does some real-world research. You might have to get creative with that one because after the first time even a writer will not view mowing the lawn as research.

It’s my hope that you can manage to tolerate or even enjoy the relationship with the writer in your life, despite the difficulties and differences.  Even today, science has much to learn about this rare and fascinating species.  If you have encountered one and observed traits not mentioned here, please leave a comment.  It’s in the interest of science.  Always interested in scientific advancement, I’m —

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 23, 2011Permalink

As You Know, Bob…

Perhaps your name isn’t Bob, but this post could still be for you, if you’re a beginning fiction writer.  One of the difficult parts of writing is creating believable dialogue, and one of the easy traps to fall into is called As You Know, Bob, or AYKB.

It stems from the writer’s need to convey information about the world of the story to readers who don’t know it yet.  Dialogue between story characters might seem like the perfect opportunity to convey the information, since dialogue stands out more than long, narrative paragraphs.  Trouble is, the characters are already in the story’s world, and already know about it.

Advertisers fall prey to AYKB too, often in radio ads.  Frequently you hear ads like this:

“I really enjoy Company XYZ.  Their product is superior to all competitors.”

“Yes, and I also like their friendly, knowledgeable staff.”

“And how about XYZ’s convenient location, right downtown at the corner of A Street and B Avenue?”

Advertisers have a limited time to convey information, and they know we pay attention to conversations more than we do to a single, blabbing announcer.  Problem is, the conversation above is just plain stupid.  People don’t talk that way.  In fact, we listeners often feel so insulted by such ads that we start to wonder if Company XYZ’s product can be any good if their ads are so terrible.

The same situation applies to your fiction writing.  Readers will be turned off if your characters talk like that; there’s plenty of good fiction by other writers they could be reading.

How do you avoid the AYKB problem in your writing, especially since it’s such an easy trap?  Review your character’s dialogue and ask yourself if that’s something someone already in the story’s world would say.  Is it realistic and believable?  Get inside your character’s head and cut the dialogue down to only what the characters would really say.

Of course, you still have the information to convey.  The best way to do that is bit by bit, with small amounts of narration or (better) action accompanying the dialogue.  Use the minimum amount necessary for the reader to understand the world of the story.  You’d be surprised how fast the reader will catch up and understand the world of the story with only teaspoonfuls of information sprinkled in from time to time.

AYKB is a well-known writing problem, and is part of a lexicon of writing problems known as the Turkey City Lexicon.  If you search you’ll find several listings and explanations of the many entries in the lexicon.

Good luck in your efforts to strengthen the dialogue in your writing.  And I can’t resist closing by saying:  As you know, Bob, I’m —

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 16, 2011Permalink

Prose’s Teacher, Poetry

Can reading or writing poetry improve your prose?  I’ll go with a yes on that.

First, allow me to give you my take on the differences.  Let’s consider Prose and Poetry as siblings, as brother and sister respectively, for they are related, both being offspring of language.

The sister, Poetry, keeps her work brief.  Her words are densely packed, tiny packages brimming with meaning.  She prides herself on juxtaposing words in a way to convey a clear impression without wasting syllables.  For her, only the right words will do, and she takes great pains to find them.  True, her brother Prose can be brief when he wants to, but he is not that way all the time.

To a greater degree than her brother, Poetry is in love with the sound of words.  She rhymes at certain times, and is often tending to play with words’ endings.  Albeit she also allows a lot of alternate alliteration.  Rhythm, too, is her forte.  Poetry is a close friend to Music, to whom Prose is only a casual acquaintance.  This focus on the sound of words themselves, not just their meanings, gives Poetry a majestic sound, a special and important sound.

For these reasons, most poetry should be read slower than most prose, to extract meaning and enjoyment.  Even though it’s shorter in length, poetry can therefore take just as long to read!

Having established the differences, we turn to my main point, whether familiarization with poetry can help a writer of prose.  We’ve all come across authors whose prose reads like poetry, where it’s clear the author loves the sounds and rhythms  and flow of words, where the word choices sweep and lull us along with the story as if we’re listening to a song.  The author that comes to my mind is Ray Bradbury.  Read any of his works and you’ll likely agree he must be a poet in the thin disguise of a prose writer.

You might argue there are plenty of fine prose authors whose works don’t read like poetry, and I concur.  But even these authors might dabble with poetry on occasion.  Perhaps they’ll have one character in their story who speaks in the manner of a poet, or who quotes poets like Shakespeare.  It’s one way to distinguish characters, to give them depth.

Another way poetry could help your prose (perhaps the most extreme way) is by shifting to poetry altogether.  The epic poem form of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey seems to be coming back now and gaining acceptance in the form of verse novels, or novels-in-verse, especially for teen fiction.

At the very least, a familiarity with poetry might influence your prose writing by making you more conscious of word choice, brevity, juxtaposition of unlike words, and the sound of words themselves.  You may find it adds flair to your prose.

I confess to being a part-time poet.  My poems are rather private, for family members on holidays, or people retiring at work.  Those poems are not worthy of submission for publication, but perhaps the experience of writing them has improved my prose; I like to think so.

To quote Gilbert & Sullivan, “Although we live by strife, We’re always sorry to begin it.  For what, we ask, is life, without a touch of Poetry in it?  Hail, Poetry!”

From Poetry’s glass you should imbibe; so say I–

            Poseidon’s Scribe

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What? I’m Supposed to Learn Structure, Too?

Yes, you should know about short story structure to be successful in selling your tales.  Luckily, it’s not difficult.  To learn about structure, I mean.  The actual writing of successful short stories takes some effort, but so does anything worthwhile.

Let’s start with the basic structure of any story.  This structure is true for novels, movies, plays, even comic books.  We’ll then see how the structure applies to short stories in particular.

1.  The Hook.  This is an opening section meant to grab the reader’s (or viewer’s) interest.  I’ll have a few things to say about hooks in a future blog post. The hook needs to introduce your protagonist and his or her conflict.  It should set the story in a particular time or place.

2.  The Middle.  Here the protagonist tries several times to end the conflict, but fails.  It can even be the case that his or her attempts actually make things worse. In any case, the protagonist is tested in some way, either to physical limits or emotional ones, or both.

3.  The Resolution (or Dénouement).  In this section the conflict is resolved.  This usually involves the protagonist learning something, perhaps something about himself or herself.  The conflict could also be resolved by the protagonist’s death.

Aristotle called these parts the protasis, the epitasis, and the catastrophe.

 

 

The novelist Gustav Freytag later introduced the concept of the dramatic arc containing five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  Essentially Aristotle’s epitasis includes the middle three elements of Freytag’s dramatic arc, though the falling action could be part of Aristotle’s catastrophe.  For simplicity here, I’ll stick to a three-part structure and use my titles for them.

 

In many story forms there will be no breaks or signposts separating these sections.  Even so, a reader who is looking for these sections will find them.  If you think back to novels you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, you’ll be able to recognize this structure.

With short stories, everything gets compressed.  The main feature of short stories is, in fact, their shortness.  This benefits the reader, since she or he can enjoy the story in a single sitting, thus remaining immersed in the world of the tale without interruption by the real world.  However, this brevity becomes the driving constraint for the writer.  The writer has to convey all three elements of story structure, but in very few words.

A short story needs a hook, like all stories.  However, an author of such tales cannot include a long description of the protagonist, other characters, or the setting.  Short stories have bare-bones hooks that just (1) introduce the protagonist, (2) introduce the conflict, and (3) set the story in time and place.

The middle section of a short story is likewise compacted down to the bare minimum.  There are fewer characters to interact with, few or no subplots, not even very many protagonist-testing events.  To keep the middle section short, some events or actions can be implied, letting the reader fill in the gaps in his or her mind.  This implication technique seems to contradict the “show, don’t tell” commandment, but it’s different, and it’s something with which I still struggle.

A short story’s resolution section also is a trimmed-down version, in comparison with longer works.  The section needs to resolve the conflict, possibly by having the protagonist learn something or otherwise grow as a person, or defeat the antagonist.  Nearly all the loose ends of the story need to be tied up in this section.  I say nearly all because it’s okay to leave some things unresolved or open to question–that’s life.

Throughout the writing of the short story, the author must take pains to keep a laser-like focus on the theme of the story.  Delete anything not directly supporting that theme, or necessary to having a meaningful story.

As you read more short stories by authors you enjoy, you’ll see how they employ the three-part structure I’ve described.  Soon you’ll be using it in your own stories, too.  As always, please send a comment if this has been useful to you, and address it to–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe 

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