Thursday, July 30, 2009

Critiquing 101

We've had a request from Sal asking how we structure our critiquing sessions at ROR.

I think one of the joys of ROR is that we are all in it for the love of the genre and the love of the craft of writing . We know that if someone makes a comment, it is because they genuinely want to help us improve our work.

ROR was begun by Marianne de Pierres and myself after running VISION writers group for several years. So we had practical experienced of what worked when it came to critiquing.

We started the VISION group from scratch. For the first year we set a craft exercise each month. eg. Great Opening Lines. The writers went away, looked at their favourite authors' books, analysed what made a great opening line and wrote their own. Then they came to the meeting and read them out and we critiqued these. We asked, would we keep reading? Did it set up the story? etc (When I did a workshop with the Central Highlands Writing group on how to set up a writers' group, I prepared a year of writing exercises for them, and gave them this along with the Critque Rules).

Each VISION meeting we had a different Chairperson, who ran the meeting. (We gave people the chance to get to know the rules before asking them to be Chair).

Critiquing Rules:

1. Bring in enough printed copies to share one between 2 or circulate via email and people print their own.

(Why not have the writer read from their copy? Because your story is not meant to be read aloud, unless it is written for this purpose. So it needs to be read in someone's head. Also, having a printed copy, means your fellow writers can circle things and make notes. This is useful when they return your copies to you).

2. Critique the Work not the Person.

3. If a Writing Craft Exercise has been set critique the purpose of the exercise first, before you start on other things.

4. The person being critiqued is not allowed to say anything until the end. (You won't be there, standing behind the editor as they read your manuscript, able to say, But I really meant ...).

5. Begin by saying something good. (If others have gone ahead and you agree with them, say so and move on to something new) Tell the writer what worked for you, then tell them what didn't and why. Maybe make suggestions as to how you think the story could be tweaked. Finish with something positive. (We set out to make VISION a 'writing craft dedicated' but nurturing experience for everyone and I think we achieved this).

6. Remember, the input you get is valuable, take it on b0ard and use what you can but, ultimately, you have vision for your book/story.

So that was VISION. After we did writing craft exercises we moved on to short stories. We had 2 hours and would get through 2 - 3 stories, depending on length.

Length became an issue for Marianne and I. We felt we had pushed ourselves as far as we could with this format and we wanted to polish or novel length work. This was why we started ROR.

The Critique sessions at ROR are based on how we ran the short story critiquing sessions at VISION.

One person is nominated Chair for that session. The person being critiqued is not allowed to speak, except to answer a direct question, no elaborating. This person usually takes notes and the others will have written up a report on the manuscript. Because it is an entire novel there are many different facets to critique. For the first few RORs we had a template that we worked from to be sure we covered everything. This is a rough example.

Novel Length Critique

Overview (How we felt the book worked, marketability etc)

Tone and/or age appropriate (eg. age --if the book is for children 11-14, tone -- if the tone is right for the subgenre)

Structure (look at establishing the problem and characters in the first chapters, narrative pacing, satisfying resolution).

View Point (Look at any problems with VP. This is usually a beginning writer's problem, but sometimes an established writer will need to add or remove a VP to create narrative tension).

Charactersiation (Which characters are working, which ones aren't. What are their character arcs? What do they learn in the course of the book. Internal conflict, External conflict).

Logic Flaws in World Builiding and Plot (These two are tied in because we're writing spec fic. Even an Urban Fantasy is going to have world building because it is our world, one step removed. A flaw in world building will throw the reader out of the story).

Dialogue (Is it appropriate for the age/education of the characters)

Setting/visuals (Does ther eader feel as if they are really there? Can they see the place? Is it rich and inventive, or derivative?).

General, page by page comments.

Looking back at all this, I realise that I could write a post on each of these topics and still not do them justice.

At ROR each of us would have our say and then we'd break into general discussion, getting all enthusiastic and excited about the book. The person whose book had been critiqued would come away, their head spinning with ideas and a new perspective.

As we've been doing ROR since 2001 and we know each other well, we don't use quite so structured a critique now but it is a good starting place.

I hope this has helped you, Sal, and anyone else who is interested in improving their writing craft. If there are any areas you'd like me to elaborate on, let me know. I'm a nerd who loves the writing craft. I could talk about it for hours and bore everyone silly. It's lucky I have writing friends who share the same passion!


sal said...

Wow! That was fast! Thanks so much, Rowena. Yes - go on and do a post on each of those! Please! (so long as it's not distracting you from your 'real' writing!)
I'm especially interested in structure, characterisation and viewpoint - (and the way these weave together). Viewpoint as a tool of tension is fascinating and a bit frightening.
Thanks again for sharing your experience and passion. And wow - maybe you should publish your big set of writing exercises? Love the 'great opening lines' one.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Glad you found this useful, Sal.

Since you're interested, I'll be putting up posts on VP, a characterisation etc.

A couple of the other ROR writers are planning on posts on book launches. So look out for those, too.

Rita said...

Yes, thank you Rowena. I'm in a group with Sal, Vivid Ink Writers and I am sure we will be discussing your comments. Structure is the thing most of us are hung up on.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Rita, when you say structure. Do you mean novel structure, story structure or something else?

Trying to get a feel for what you need from me. Always happy to talk about writing!

Flinthart said...

Finding a good writer's group - VISION - was a revelation to me, and it was the professionalism, and the focus on solid criticism which kept me coming back.

I've been to a few writers' groups. A good one is the best support a writer can have - no matter how far along you are in your career. Unfortunately, most of them aren't good.

I'd say the primary thing, even above the specific rules of criticism as laid out here (which are excellent) is that the group must do two things: it must encourage actual writing aimed at eventual publication, and it must focus on providing critical analysis and support of that writing.

Tea, biscuits, social interaction, poetry about cats and grandchildren... these are very much secondary, and if they're not, you don't want to be in the group. Likewise groups which depend on a single wellspring -- a one-person-show, wherein the Big Wheel (usually the founder) sets the agenda and controls the process.

The Internet is damned helpful these days. You can get a lot of advice and help from others. But there's nothing to replace sitting down with a manuscript and some thoughtful, careful peers.