Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer

Last week I posted a list of workshopping dos and don’ts for the people reading the work in question. This week’s topic is dos and don’ts for the writer whose work is being critiqued.

Do:

  1. Bring a copy for yourself. Unless you know it word-for-word from the first page to the last, having a copy of your work in front of you can help you keep up with what your reviewers are saying.
  2. Take notes. Even if you’re not sure you like an idea, even if you think you disagree with what someone says isn’t working, mark it down–circle it in your copy, draw arrows, label things, and mark down questions that need answering. You almost certainly won’t end up using every suggestion that you receive during workshop, but it’s helpful to be able to go back over all the suggestions later and give each one careful thought.
  3. Ask questions. Questions are not only for the reviewers! Maybe you don’t understand a point that someone’s trying to make, or maybe you didn’t realize an issue before and now want ideas for resolving it. Ask your reviewers to clarify their meaning. Ask them if they have any suggestions for fixing an issue that’s been brought to light. Just because it’s your work doesn’t mean you have all the answers, and that’s okay.
  4. Listen and be polite. If you don’t agree with someone, don’t turn it into an argument. Just try to see where they’re coming from and mark down their opinion. You don’t have to work off it when you’re revising later; just respect it.

Don’t:

  1. Take things personally. Unless a reviewer is making personal attacks on you rather than critiquing your work, there’s no need to blow up over things. Maybe you won’t agree with all the “problems” the reviewers see with your work, and that’s okay. You don’t have to. But don’t see their problems with the story structure as problems with you.
  2. Spend the whole time talking. Ask questions when you have them, by all means, but a workshop spent entirely explaining yourself or gushing about your inspiration or whatever won’t do you any good.
  3. Be arrogant. Look, the point of workshopping is to help you improve your draft. If all you’re going to do the whole time is explain to everyone why the problems they perceive are not, in fact, problems, then why are you here?

This list can be boiled down to one rule: Remember why you’re here. Unless you were somehow forced into a situation where you’re required to workshop (i.e., you’re a creative writing major), you’re here for help. You’re here because your piece is not as good as it could be, and you want the extra eyeballs to look over it and get it there.

Remember: Workshopping is not for finished pieces. If you’re unprepared to have people tell you that your piece is not perfect, don’t bring it to workshop.

Look for more in our Workshopping series in the next few weeks!

Related articles:

Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping

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Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping! One of the banes of writers. We write a draft, and then we put it out there for people to see, baring our project and our thin-skinned artist’s ego to the world. And then we’re expected (or at least it’s polite) to review someone else’s piece in return.

It’s particularly on my mind right now because we’re finally to the point of workshopping in our novel-writing class now.

So for the next couple weeks, I’m going to do a series on workshopping. Today is a list of “dos and don’ts” for reviewers.

Do:

  1. Express thoughts on both what’s working and not working in the piece. The writer needs to know what could use improvement, yes, but also talking about good things helps temper the feeling of criticism. Plus it’s often easier to keep doing things that are working in the piece than to get rid of bad things. I like to do a review sandwich: Talk about some good things, then move on to things that need improvement, and then finish up with more good things.
  2. Be detailed. Rather than just saying, “This isn’t working,” explain what isn’t working and why. Is it a line of dialogue that seems clunky or out of character? A bit of prose that was awkwardly worded or confusing? Does a description seem to drag on? Details about what isn’t working (or what is) help the writer improve more than a simple “This is no good.”
  3. Keep it about the writing. You’re here to critique the piece, not the person.
  4. Keep calm. We writers can be a dramatic bunch, which probably comes of a) writing dramatic stuff and b) procrastinating online all the time, which can make us even more dramatic because we’re both freaking out about not having enough time to write (our fault for procrastinating) and we’ve been busy fangirling on Tumblr with other dramatic people. Plus we put a lot of work and revision into our writing. So some of us can get snippy during workshops, especially when you’re pointing out things you don’t like. If this happens, keep calm. The writer might act belligerent and argue against every one of your suggestions, but there’s always the possibility that your sensible demeanor and reminders that you’re just trying to help will calm them back down.

Don’t:

  1. Be mean. It’s possible to tell the writer what could use improvement without being a jerk about it. Rather than “This sucks,” you can say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure this is working.” Then proceed to explain why it’s not working. (Refer to Do #2.)
  2. Be vague. Simply telling someone “I hate it” or “I love it” is not helpful. I like praise as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a tough critic who gives me details about what’s not working and why than someone who loves the story but can’t do anything more than sing generic praises of it.
  3. Make it about the writer. Even if the piece is politically charged and your opinions are radically different from the writer’s, leave the writer as a person out of it. Don’t assume anything about the writer based on the piece (even if your assumptions might be right). If need be, talk about the narrator (even of a poem or nonfiction piece) as if she is a separate entity from the writer. That makes it more likely that you can focus on the good and bad points of the writing, not the writer’s personality.

Keep an eye out for “Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer,” coming next week!

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Waiting for the Rain

During the weekly sermon at my church, the pastor shared a clip from the movie, Facing the Giants. It has been a while since I’ve seen the movie, but in this scene, I know the coach is struggling with a huge challenge, and the answer comes to him through a message delivered by the school janitor, Mr. Bridges.  The script reads something like this;

Mr. Bridges: “I heard a story about two farmers who desperately needed rain. And both of them prayed for rain. But only one of them went out and prepared his fields to receive it. Which one do you think trusted God to send the rain?”

Coach Taylor: The one who prepared his fields for it.”

Mr. Bridges: “Which one are you? God will send the rain when He’s ready. And you need to prepare your field to receive it.”

As writers, we all struggle with trying to balance whatever else is going on in our lives and making the time to write. I stepped away from the leadership role of Claire’s Day, the free family book festival I founded in honor of my daughter, TO WRITE.  And that I have, completing the first and second draft of my memoir, as a result of taking a Creative Autobiography course taught by Melissa Gleckler, my amazing advisor.  Thanks to a novel writing course, I’m working on a story based on a mission trip I took with my son’s youth group several years ago.

But, I find that writing is taking a back seat to my course work and to other life obligations.  My days involve reading the latest novel assigned in the writing course, extensive reading and studying for course on nonprofit marketing, and of all things, the challenges of a math for liberal arts class that I am required to take due to the core requirements. I’m not certain why it is imperative that I revisit quadratic formulas and learn to use a scientific calculator at my age, but so be it.

Completing my undergraduate opens the door to the possibility of further study, but first I think I need to get back to what I’ve always wanted to do.

I will write. After graduation this Spring I will spend my days writing and hopefully something will come of it.  Perhaps my memoir, my reflection of my grief journey and moving forward in life joyfully with my husband and two other children will get published.  Or, maybe the story I’m writing now will resonate with an agent.  Or any of the other children’s stories I’ve written that I have not submitted nearly often enough.

I will get my derriere in my chair and write.  I will write stories.  I will write book proposals and business plans and submit.  And then I will cross my fingers, and once the rejection letters come, I will allow myself to be sad.  Then I’ll start all over again.  And again. 

My field is going to be prepared.  The rain can’t come soon enough.

www.clairesday.org 

www.julierubini.com

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The Hardest Part

There are a lot of things about writing that are difficult. Whether you’re battling with a character who doesn’t want to do as you tell them, or curling up and crying because your twenty subplots are screwing up your main plot, sometimes writing can offer enough problems to make anyone throw their hands in the air and call it quits.

At least for a few hours, because any writer knows it just drags you back in no matter how hard you try to stay away.

Anyhow. There’s one thing about writing I find more of a challenge than anything else. Plotting? No problem. World-building? I can manage that. Character creation? Leave it to me. Drafting? Yeah, just let me use Write or Die and I’ll write as if my life depends on it*.

But eventually someone is going to ask you what your book is called. And that’s where I find the biggest challenge: coming up with titles.

A title is the summation of your book. A brief glimpse into a piece anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 (or more) words long…and you only have a few words to cover it. And hopefully to drag your audience into your work, because I think we all know a book is more likely to be picked up if there’s an appealing title.

And how the heck are you supposed to do that?

I have a few ideas, things that work for me. Or sort of work, anyway. There are some books that just seem impossible to title no matter how you go about it.

Idea #1: Look in your genre. Obviously you want your title to fit your genre, or someone might look at it and think it’s something it isn’t. Consider the following—can you identify the genres just by the titles? (The answers are at the bottom of the post!)

Paper Towns

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Hunting Fear

The Trench

You shouldn’t be copying anyone else’s title, mostly since theirs won’t fit your book and you don’t want to copy anyway…do you? But you can definitely take inspiration from others, and see what does and doesn’t work.

Idea #2: You know exactly what your book is about, right? You know your characters and your setting and all of those tiny little things that are important to the story? If not you might have bigger problems than naming the thing, so let’s assume you do know those.

Now start thinking about all of those things—and anything else relevant to your book—and make some lists. Just free-write. Maybe you’ll end up with something that could be a perfect title. My own example is my novel Weeping. The main character’s most important possession is a violin by the name of Weeping, and the love interest’s name can translate into the same word. It only made sense.

Idea #3: Ask your beta readers! Odds are they won’t give you your final, perfect title, but they can probably give you some inspiration. They’re coming with an outside view, and they can identify what seems to be the most important thing in your work. Or the most important things. Maybe they’ll point out something you never wuold have noticed because you’re too close to the work—forest for the trees and all that.

Or hey, maybe you don’t find titles as difficult as I do. In that case, I envy you. But if titles torment you, hopefully I’ve given you some kind of idea for coming up with the best possible name for your work.

*And if you’re using Write or Die on Kamikaze mode, your life might not depend on writing, but the lives of your words do.

Answers from idea #1:

Paper Towns is a young adult contemporary novel by John Green

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a young adult fantasy novel by Laini Taylor

Hunting Fear is an adult suspense novel by Kay Hooper

The Trench is an adult sci-fi novel by Steve Alten

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Novel-Writing Class

About half of our usual group is taking a novel-writing class together this semester. It’s nice, being in a writing class with friends whom you know and trust, friends who have a history of reviewing your work. It makes the prospect of having sixteen classmates and a professor tear a chunk of your novel to shreds slightly less terrifying.

Me, every day of my life. *hides in conveniently located hole in the ground*

I love writing classes. Not for the substance, although obviously I find that helpful and interesting. What I love is what my creative writing professor back at community college told us to expect.

“You’re all writers,” he said on the first day of class. “Other people don’t get that, but everyone in here does. You’re going to become really close as a class, just wait.”

And he was right. For the first couple weeks we sat around silently reading or writing before he entered the room and started class, but one day I started talking to a classmate across the room. When other people came into the room, they joined the conversation. And by the time our professor showed up, we were all talking like we were old friends.

The only difference in our current class is that our novel-writing professor seems a little weirded out about the things we discuss. I feel bad for him, though, because no matter how animated our conversation before class, the moment he starts asking us questions about what Suzanne Collins did well in “The Hunger Games,” all he gets is awkward silence.

(That’s probably just because our age group is not really the target audience for “The Hunger Games,” and although it’s technically well-done we have a lot of complaints about it. Sorry, tributes.)

I love this spontaneous feeling of community, born of the mutual weirdness most writers possess, but the class itself scares me. I started off deciding I would rework a novel that has already been through several years, much brainstorming, and three drafts. It’s had the most work done, after all, and it could use a good workshop.

But I’m writing a story on Tumblr at the same time, just to get myself writing a page every day, and it’s really weird to switch back and forth between two different stories each day. I mean, the oft-redrafted novel is a very modern urban fantasy with a multitude of characters and messed-up personal relationships and stuff like that, but the Tumblr novel is more like old-school fantasy (think “The Hobbit” or “The Chronicles of Narnia”); it’s got a lot of description and a lot of semicolons, and it’s very experimental (for me).

Actually, probably not success. I also use conjunctions. But so did the writers of yore.

I finally figured out a system that worked pretty well for exactly three days: Write a page of the Tumblr story as early in the day as I could, and spend the rest of the day working on the novel for class.

The Tumblr story’s been going very well this way, but the other story… Every time I wrote three pages, I decided those three pages were absolute shite and rewrote them. Then I’d add three more pages, but those three pages turned out to be shite and needed rewriting too.

It was exhausting. I was essentially writing two drafts of a single novel at the same time.

So I decided last night to shelve the rewrite for now and focus solely on the Tumblr novel. I’ll use that for class, though I’m a little worried that my confidence in it will be obliterated by the workshop on March 14 and I won’t feel up to finishing it.

But that’s exactly why it’s on Tumblr. If it’s on the Internet, where people can see it, I’m more likely to keep going. After all, that’s why experts say you should tell people about your New Year’s resolutions: You’re more likely to keep them if you’re accountable to someone other than yourself.

And I have a fan on Tumblr. Just one. But I think that’s enough to keep me going.

Not today, God of Not Writing. Today I will write. Later. But seriously, it WILL happen today.

 

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Finding Inspiration and Motivation

The holidays are over and everyone is back to work and school. It’s cold outside and the weather is just plain dreary. Homework and other responsibilities begin to pile up and before you know it you’ve stopped writing. So what’s a writer to do? Where does one fine motivation, time and inspiration during this time of year?

For starters, I believe artwork can be a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s  your favorite poster hanging up in your room or a painting at your work. Whatever catches your eye, art can get the wheels of a story turning in the mind that can later be transferred to the page. I have at least a dozen fairy pictures hanging up in my room right now. I bet if I looked at them long enough I could concoct a fantasy story in my imagination that could become the beginnings of writing project.

Another idea for some inspiration is nature. “But it’s cold outside!” you protest. Yes, it’s cold out and nobody likes to sit outside and gaze at nature when it’s freezing. So, instead, open up the curtains on the weekend. Let in all the sunlight you can and gaze out the window from your nice heated home. I bet there is something out there waiting to inspire you. Even if it’s just an annoying squirrel or bird. You could create a dialogue between the bird and squirrel. Yeah your friends might think your nuts but at least you will be writing again.

As for motivation? Heaven knows the last thing I want to do after a long, exhausting day is try and think of something to write. Not to mention I have homework, should be exercising, and have friends to call. Life can seem so overwhelming at times that it can be hard to find motivation for the things we love in life when we get into the busy zone. Sometimes, I find it is helpful to just stop. Stop whatever it is I’m doing. Stop running around like a maniac and just breathe. Give yourself ten minutes to just zone out and let your mind wander. This lets your brain stop the mad race it was running and leaves room for creativity to pour in.

Hopefully life doesn’t get too crazy and we can all find a little time to write during the long winter months. And if we do loose sight of our writing? Well, cheer up! Spring should be here shortly.

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I was simmering, simmering, simmering!

For my American Literature class, we were assigned to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and one of the questions to answer afterward asked us to choose a maxim in the text and discuss it. But come on, it’s Emerson.

Image

The essay is full of so many that I agree with. I was simmering, like Whitman, and I too was brought to a boil when reading this. It was a kind of feeling I can only get when inspired by another’s writing to the point of using similar elements in my own works.

Not only did I find these to make sense in the realm of reality as it is, but I began thinking about how true these maxims would ring within the rules of my own world (the one I’m in the process of building in a story of mine).

ImageWorld-building. It’s serious business.

If created by a half-decent builder, a world has many different societies. A few of mine happen to be heavily influenced by Europe – especially northern Europe. Further down my world map are the less defined “Tropics,” the areas near the equator. While I was reading Emerson, all I could think about were my darling, developing island people.  The first main characters present in my story come from what I call the “Northern Lands,” and are thusly built, with their land, to a degree of familiarity at current.

In the meantime, I feel that Emerson has come to me at a time that couldn’t have been any more perfect.  My tropical inhabitants are a natural people, but I didn’t want to fall into the Pocahontas/Avatar cliché often associated with those who live in harmony with nature. Such groups are often stereotyped to emphasize the community, and I thought that that was the only way to go, really… until Emerson opened my mind to the divinity of the self. When he mentions the self, he doesn’t mean to be selfish, but to follow one’s intuition, to be oneself, to follow the actions of Jesus rather than doing what some preacher says to do. And, all this must be done while being one with nature. He spoke of the power and spirit of the landscape.

This, I thought, has to be the basis of these yet-developed people of mine.

From there, I began re-reading lines in the essay, taking notes, and furiously scribbling ideas into my notebook. I took some of Emerson and added a tinge of myself. As stated before, these people I am creating belong to a more natural and less industrialized society. This is by choice. “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet” (36). And, rather than emphasizing community, they prefer to follow Emerson’s views on non-conformity. “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to eat shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater” (21). They find principal, power, divinity, and spirit all within nature as well as themselves. These will be an intuition-driven people who are deeply in touch with “the self.” “Your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” (30).

All power and matter can be conjured and manipulated (through equivalent exchange) by the self and not relying on god(s) to perform miracles or preachers/priests to dictate doctrines. Because after all, we are star stuff, aren’t we? We are made up of the heavens themselves.

075-starstuff

However, there is no complete lack of group; there will be a sense of society, as there is in the world Emerson is trying to create: “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, – but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way” (31). These people will find harmony, a goal only achieved through truly understanding the self, because if you don’t understand yourself, how could you possibly ever hope to understand anyone else? “No man can come near me but through my act” (31).

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993. Print.

Thanks for reading my craziness,
Jasmine

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