We all have guidelines we stick to in life. Often they're developed for us and we follow them studiously, but sometimes we make them ourselves based on our experiences in certain situations. As we develop as writers we become more confident and more aware of what works and what doesn't in our creative process. In 2013 I thought I had it all figured out, that my writing was strong and my knowledge vast, and then I started a critique group and realized I had so much more to learn, not only about writing but about genres, using craft elements effectively, and publishing. Imagine my surprise to learn I'd only seen the very tip of the tip of the publishing iceberg.
Now, after years of working with critique groups and partners I've developed my own guidelines, my own approach, and my partners (as you can see from the testimonials on this site) have responded well to them. I shared them with you on the About This Writing Thing podcast this week and I'm sharing them here with you now.
1) Be encouraging - The work you're reviewing is someone's creation, their baby. The last thing you need to do as a critique partner is tell them it's ugly. Find the good parts and point those out. Not only will it soften the sting of critique, it will let them know they're not totally lacking in talent.
2) Be kind - This goes back to #1. In those moments when you're looking at your screen telling yourself you can't read another word because it's so bad, remember that every first draft (true first draft) is rough. Again, don't say how ugly the baby is, tell them what they may do to make the lighting better.
3) Make suggestions - You're not in a critique group to hear how brilliant you are (though it's always nice to receive that type of feedback), you're there to make your work stronger, to find out what works and what doesn't work, and to finish the damn book. "I liked it" is no more acceptable than "I didn't like it" when working with critique partners. Be specific but remain kind.
4) Be professional - The top guidelines of critique all work hand-in-hand. One must be encouraging and kind, and they must do so while making helpful suggestions. It is also important that the critique partner exude professionalism while critiquing. Remember, you're most critiquing work that is intended to be submitted. It deserves your full attention and a thorough read - thorough with thoughtful and helpful suggestions. In other words use "LOL" and other text language sparingly.
5) Line-by-line - This one is really up to personal preference. Recently my MFA class explored our personal rules for critique. I was surprised by the number of people who dislike line by line critiques. Personally, I thrive on them. I was astounded, though, by the number of people who only wanted their critique partners to read and look for the specific things they ask them to look for, nothing more. I am of the mind that my work isn't perfect and my partners may find something I wasn't aware of being a problem, so I rarely ask my partners to look for anything specific in my work. I think writers who limit their partners to only looking at particular things are doing a disservice to their work. I also thing they may not be 100% open to critique. This, as stated before, is all personal preference and should be discussed as a group to see what works best for everyone.
6) Be thorough - I spend a lot of time with the submissions I receive. Sometimes it takes me hours to do a read through because I am moving through the work line by line. This, apparently, is not how others do their critiques. In our class discussions I've found that many people believe you should read through a sample one to two times before going back through to critique. I don't like to do double and triple work, y'all, so I do it all in one go. This is why it takes so long for me to read through and critique. The golden rule for this is to give your partner's work the same time and respect you want them to give to yours.
7) Be patient - If you're fortunate enough to find a critique partner that is truly ready for critique, be patient. In a past critique group one of our members was writing a historical. This genre is tricky because you need to weave history in with fiction and keep it interesting. She had a great story but she made the standard newbie writer mistakes: too much description and information dumping. We all do it when we're starting out. We have our characters describe themselves right down to the cutesy mole just below their left eye. This doesn't work in all genres, it really doesn't work well in historical fiction. The key to working with tedious writing is patience. She wasn't a bad writer just because she went into too much detail, nor was she a bad writer for giving too much information. This is where your skill and expertise come into play. You have to help her get better without being a jerk and without doing a disservice to her work. Patience, as they say, is a virtue, so use it.
8) Know writing styles (but don't critique them) - For this term's first week of class we had to submit a creative writing sample. One of my classmates critiqued my work, suggesting that I change some of my stylistic choices. Because she isn't familiar with the genre I write in she was unaware that the pieces of prose she highlighted are actually quite common in literary, upmarket, and women's fiction. It is very important, especially if you're critiquing outside your genre, that you are familiar with and understand the styles common in the genres you're critiquing. Women's fiction narratives are vastly different from those found in mystery and fantasy. In other words, know your shit or stay in your lane. Two cliches in one statement, how do you like that?
9) Refrain from proofreading (grammar) - As you can, no doubt, tell from this and all of my other blog posts, grammar is not my thing. We all have our weaknesses, right? This is one reason why I don't comment on grammar while critiquing. Misspellings, yes. Sentence structure, yes. Rarely grammar. You do what you want, but I'll save the grammar issues for the proofreader.
10) Never, never, ever give an unsolicited critique - I learned this one the hard way. When I began critiquing I was so excited. Here I was looking at fiction in a whole new way. I wasn't analyzing it, I was taking a look at the bones of a story and helping other authors make them stronger. It was (and is) exhilarating! At the time I was FB friends with an Irish woman who was releasing a book. She'd been advertising it for months and it was her very first book. I was excited to buy and read it. Then I did. It was a good story, but it was clear she hadn't worked with a developmental editor (not that I knew what that was at the time) or any other type of editor. So after I finished it I sent her a three page critique. I was foolish and presumptuous. She hasn't spoken to me since. It wasn't until years later that I realized the error of my ways. It turns out we're newbie writers in so many different ways. Yes, my craft was improving, but I had a lot to learn about etiquette.
So there they are, my golden guidelines for critique. Are they similar to yours? I'd love to know what you think.
Until next time,
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, writer for women, podcaster, and editor.
Today I want to talk a little about the cost of being a writer. I was ill-prepared for all that comes with the writing life, probably because I wasn't formally trained when I began. If you've been writing for any period of time you've already come to realize how costly it can be. This, as you can imagine, makes the dream of being a full time writer even harder to obtain for some. When I began writing professionally in the early 2000s, the method to get on the path to publishing was to write the book and submit it. At least, that was my understanding. Now, a mere 19 years later we have to write the book, build a following while writing the book, go to workshops to make sure we know how to write the book, attend conferences if we can (news flash: a ton of us can't), get a critique group (great idea), hire an editor to go over the manuscript, do your revisions based on the editor's notes, and then submit the book. I'm only complaining a little here. When you factor in the process for self-publishing it gets even more expensive. This is understandable, though, since all responsibilities for publishing fall on the author.
Not taking into account all the costs involved with publishing, let's just look at the "hidden" costs to being a writer. A few weeks ago I attended a Q&A hosted by the amazing Jane Friedman. If you don't know her, get familiar. She is an authority on the business of writing. During this Q&A Ms. Friedman told us about a service that has a minimal subscription cost of $4 per month. Ordinarily I would have been all over this. However, I already pay monthly for my website and podcast. Yes, I know the website can be yearly. I'm not there yet. And, yes, I'm aware that I don't NEED to have a podcast, but I really enjoy talking to you guys, so I'm keeping it.
Here's what they don't tell you when you get into this business. There are memberships to pay for, conferences to pay for, retreats to pay for, advertising, book covers (if you're indie), editing, etc. I was researching prices for book covers the other night and was stunned to find they're upwards of $800! I know I can make them myself but I want people to buy this book and, despite what we want to tell ourselves, our books are very much judged by their covers. If it look amateurish, chances are the reader will think the writing will be too.
All of these costs can be very problematic for writers who are barely making enough at day jobs to scrape by. If you don't have the money to hire an editor you're going to have problems no matter which type of publishing you're pursuing; traditional or indie.
Currently I am the member of two organizations I pay to be a part of: Women's Fiction Writers Association and The Author's Guild. Both great groups that I will move the earth to stay a part of. Next month I am planning to join at least two more: Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and the North Carolina Writers Network (NCWN). I'd also like to join the Editorial Freelancer's Association (EFA), but that will push my membership costs to almost $300 per year. For someone working from home with zero income coming in, that's a lot.
You don't NEED to be a part of writing organizations to be a writer. However, these groups offer workshops, classes, retreats, etc. at discounted prices (or free) that are exclusive to their members. For example, since joining the WFWA I have attended several online workshops and webinars. The cost was $10. In early summer I participated in a pitch event to perfect my elevator pitch and it was free. I spent a full week (online) with other members and published authors perfecting the pitch for my book. These programs are invaluable for writers. Why? Because we should always be working to improve our craft. Always.
I'm not dropping all this to discourage anyone from writing or to stop anyone from pursuing their dreams as a writer, but I think you should be prepared. When you become a serious writer this becomes a very expensive business.
This also goes for submitting. There are a number of literary magazines that charge a reading fee now when you submit. This is to help them cover the costs of the magazine to keep it going, so I'm not complaining. Especially since my own magazine, which is launching spring 2020, will be charging a small reading fee. The truth of the matter is, very few literary magazines are making money. Their staff isn't being paid and readership is down. Unfortunately, submission sites like Submittable cost money, so to offset that cost some magazines have implemented these reading fees (usually $3-$5). Yet another hidden cost of being a writer.
So, we're paying for websites, book covers, editors, memberships, and submissions. What's next? Conferences and retreats.
I tend to think of retreats as something you do when you've "made it". However, the conference is a different story altogether. I mentioned that we should always be learning earlier. Writing conferences are a great place for that. I'm planning to go to at least two in 2020. The first one is $200. I'm not sure the cost for the second one yet, but it’s local so I'm hoping it will be under $100. There is a third I'd like to attend, though. In July, in California…Guess how much I'm expecting that one to be. At least $1000. What are the odds I'll be attending? Very, very low. I'm remaining optimistic, though. For now.
That's all I've got for this week. I'm sorry to post late…again, but at least I have a transcript this time! Next week I'm going to talk about how my revision process is going and what I've got coming up in the next several months. I hope you'll join me. If you like this podcast please be sure to say it by pressing the little heart below. If you want to share with your friends I won't be mad at you. If you want to know more about me you can go to saywordbeller.com and you can also find me on Twitter and Instagram using the handle @saybeller.
Thank you so much for listening. Have a great rest of the week and happy writing!
Transcript: About This Writing Thing, Episode 8
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host Sayword B. Eller, writer for women, podcaster, and editor. That's right, folks, I've finally added services to my website.
It's been a while since my last episode but It wasn't my intention to be gone this long. Two weeks ago my husband and I went on vacation. I intended to be back the very next week, even had the transcript for episode 8 typed out. Then, as it happens, life decided to step in and make things…interesting.
Ask me if I've written anything in the last two weeks. Go ahead, ask me. The answer I give you is…No.
When hubby and I went on vacation I told him it was a relaxing vacation for him but a working one for me. Little tip here, if you have a spouse or significant other who likes to talk to you, don't rent a cabin without television if you hope to get any work done. The first day I was able to get about ten minutes in, the second day I managed to critique a story while he went for breakfast, but days three, four, and five I got nothing done.
What about Monday after your return, you may ask…The oldest called in need of a babysitter. What about Tuesday? Water main broke in town and my grandson was out of school. Yup, babysitter again. Then something else happened.
At around 3:30 that Tuesday afternoon my husband called and informed me that he may have just had a heart attack. After the "event" he drove himself to the hospital. He was admitted.
Thankfully, all blood tests came back negative for a heart attack and he was released the next day, but with no answers and two days to wait before a stress test I was unable to focus on anything beyond, Oh my god, what if I lose him?
A follow up appointment with the cardiologist on Monday informed that all is well with his heart. Thank goodness! Now we're just keeping an eye on him and taking things one day at a time.
My point for telling you all this? Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. As new or budding writers we hear and read interviews with writers who say you should write every day and they don't let anything get in the way of their writing, but the truth is, life gets in the way. Scary things happen, inconvenient things happen, even really great things happen to pull your focus and energies away from the page. Don't beat yourself up about it. I'm revising two books; one will be released next fall under my pen name Kimber Trace, and the other will begin submission rounds in January 2020. If that schedule gets pushed back due to life stressors throwing me off track, then so be it. I won't beat myself up because the words didn't get written. At least not today.
That's it for this week. For me, I'm using the rest of this week to get caught up and nurse this chest thing going on. I'll be fully back on the work train soon. For you, I wish you happy writing, but if life is getting in the way right now, I wish you well. Don't worry about the page, it'll be waiting when you get back.