Voices in Your Head: Writing Group Issue #1 with some help from Ursula K LeGuin

At my last writers group meeting – we meet the last Sunday of every month – a disturbing trend came to light:

One of the group members said that she would not be submitting for a while because she was hearing the other members’ voices in her head.

This probably would not have raised the little hairs on the back of my neck except for the fact that this was the second person I’d heard say those exact words in the space of a few months. That may sound like a long time, but in the space of critique meetings, that’s twice in ten get-togethers. Which isn’t much.

I admit to a certain amount of Really? in my own thoughts. Because I have no real issue distinguishing which pieces of criticism I want to take (what I need to take may be a totally different thing…there I go, happily ignoring stuff that might be necessary…), I had a very hard time even understanding what these writers were talking about. I don’t hear people when I write. I barely hear them when I edit. I write down the critiques that are compatible with my vision of the piece and ignore the rest. Well, that’s just ducky for me, right?

But that kind of attitude is just not helpful for writers who are experiencing this.

So in the past week or so, I’ve tried to imagine what it is they are experiencing. And my imagination, I confess, did not help me that much.

Mostly I felt like an intolerable bully who had helped pummel these writers into blockage. I found myself angry with these writers. I found myself being irritated that these writers “couldn’t figure it out.” Harsh? Oh yes. I was not thinking nicely.

While all of this was going on in my brain – which couldn’t put itself in someone else’s shoes (an experience which added to my frustration because, dammit, aren’t writers supposed to be the ones who can go into everyone’s shoes and walk around a while?) – I picked up a book that had been on my shelf a while: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin.

As I was flipping through the book, I noticed Appendix 1: The Peer Group Workshop. Seeing as how this subject was on my mind, I flipped to the appendix and read all the way through the section. I found some things my group does right: we’re all at about the same skill level so there’s no inequality really; we read and mark up over time (we have a month to read and work on each other’s manuscripts); we all speak up at the meetings; and we have just the right number of people.

Then I realized the other rules that LeGuin recommends in this appendix are rules designed to keep writers from ‘hearing voices.’

1. LeGuin recommends: “The author of the story under discussion is SILENT.” We are not silent. The authors can talk, ask questions, explain what they meant. LeGuin argues that silence is necessary because “It’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticised not to be on the defense, eager to explain, answer, point out” so instead, the writer should focus on listening. By staying silent, “You won’t be busy mentally preparing what you’re going to say in answer, because you can’t answer. All you can do is hear. You can hear what people got from your piece, what they think needs some work, what they misunderstood and understood, disliked and liked about it. And that’s what you’re there for.”

While, on the surface staying silent seems like a writer is just gonna sit there and take it while the Voices keep going – what really happens is you hear your own voice much clearer. By not being able to respond, you draw your own conclusions about what the readers are saying. You have to know what it was you wanted to say. You have to know what you wanted them to feel. And you can just listen and see if they got that or not.

However, the author gaining anything from staying silent depends very much on the standard the critiquers are held to…which brings me to:

2. LeGuin recommends:

Each critique should be:
Strictly in turn.
Without interruption from anyone else.”

Oh dear.

This is where our group totally falls apart. No lie. There’s rambling, interruptions, debates, suggestions, correction, deletions, philosophy, styles, quotes, diatribes, reading recommendations, movie recommendations, music recommendations, and on and on and on. It’s a chaotic discussion and generally there are two or three voices dominating the conversation. (Yes, one of the loudest is me.)

After I read LeGuin’s rules from critiquing, and after I thought about the suggestions, corrections, recommendations, etc. I suddenly understood where the voices were coming from.

As a group, we don’t shut up. No freakin’ wonder our compatriots are brain-fizzled.

Each group has to decide for itself how it wants to run and what ways work the best for them, while not alienating members. Not everyone works the same and, after my soul-searching this week, I’m going to think more on it and then discuss with the group whether or not we need to revise our ground rules and how we would like to it if we go forward with new rules.

I’m still sorting out my own emotional component in the matter, because a great deal of how the group currently runs is based on organic development – a lot of the way we do things were attempts to make it ‘more fair.’ And then, I still wonder, if the writers who hear the shouting and debating while they write are going to be any better if the critiques are kept under more control? Or will brief, to the point critiques be enough to set the voices off anyway?

But I do think that LeGuin’s ground rules will figure heavily in my thought process.

Anyone out there in a real-life or online workshop/group experience the hearing of voices? Any ideas on how to keep a meeting balanced?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Getting Stuff Nailed Down

It’s Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this last week:

1. Not much as far as word counts. There was a large societal-world-building conversation on Saturday night between my brother, the spouse, and myself. They asked really important questions and I was proud to say that I had the answers to a lot of them. But then Shane hammered away at something that’s a fairly large problem. (I’m not sure whether marrying someone smarter than yourself is a good thing yet….) Luckily, he voiced his issue early on and I can easily, easily fix it moving forward.

Also got UGWP critiques back. For the most part I was super-happy about the questions that were asked, and only had one brief moment where I felt myself resisting an idea…but then I thought to myself: Aren’t they just pointing out a section that you were worried about yourself? And I had to talk myself down from being defensive. (I always need a day or two after a critique to digest and Stop Being Defensive.)

Though the critiques of my work, and a couple of my fellow members’ work as well left me with the question: How much do you trust that the writer is doing what they mean to do? This is a bigger question in a novel chapter critique, since as a reader/critiquer you often don’t have the whole thing in front of you. With a short story you have the end, know the arc, and can adjust accordingly, with novel chunks you have no such luxury unless the writer tells you what’s gonna happen. I realized that some of my critiques of others’ work was based in the idea that I wasn’t trusting the author to do what he/she was doing. For example, last session I gave one of my writer buddies a critique that switched the opening structure of the story around…and while I think a great deal of it can still work, now that I’ve read more of it, some of that critique isn’t in line with what he’s doing…so I don’t feel as useful as I could’ve been.

2. Read quite a bit. Finished Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and made a good dent in The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Something good that I know about my process: I have to just shut down and read sometimes, and I try not to beat myself about that. Especially when I’m reading things that give good inspiration to continue my own work.

How’re you guys doing?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Critique Week!

It’s Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this past week:

1. Critiqued my writing group’s work in an experimental way.

There I was, reading one of my buddies submissions while peddling away on the stationary bike. (It’s hard to make marks that way.) — And no, that wasn’t the experiment. But it’s where I came up with the experiment. When I was done sweating away literally and figuratively, I go to my husband and say, “Spouse, how about we take one submission every night this week and take turns reading alternating pages aloud? Then we get to experience the stories in aural and oral fashion.” (Not as kinky as it sounds.)

Spouse says, “Sure. Why not.” Because he’s so agreeable.

And that’s what we did. As you can imagine, many interesting things came up.

First: Reading aloud does help in a couple ways. The most obvious is that typos and awkward sentences JUMP out and PUMMEL you. Especially if you’re silently going right along and your partner, who is reading aloud, stumbles. You didn’t stumble because your eye just glided right over the pothole in the road. Not so much when you hear it.

Second: It’s not all good, this experimental style. Since you are reading with a partner, the old law of observing changing the observed comes into play. I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to let the story sink in. I had a harder time with the overall critique, though I think the line critique got stronger. I don’t know if I have as many structural notes (don’t get me wrong, I still have the bigger notes) but I don’t know how detailed they are.

Third: Even though you don’t get to sink into the story, you are forced early on to articulate yourself. As you stare at a section while your critique partner waits, you have to explain why you’re making them wait. At first it comes out as “Wait a sec, something’s not right here.” Then you have to ponder. Then your partner ponders.

Then you say: “I have a problem with such and such motivation.”
Partner says: “Like, there is none?”
And you say: “No, not like that. But would the squirrel really run across the street like that? After watching his whole family go the same way?”
Partner says: “Have you never observed squirrel behavior?”

Then the conversation disintegrates from there–you use every piece of zoological information that you retain from 10th grade ecology classes, your partner counters with every time he’s ever driven a car…and you have to think further on your position. It can be rough going.

2. Not much else, really. I finished another bothersome chapter, but am pretty darn certain that I rushed it in a desperate need to get it done. In the Hero’s Journey, I believe that this chapter would be what is known as the Call to Action. Who knew calling would be such a pain in the tush? I think it has enough information to allow me to charge through to the next chapters easily enough…then I can go back and shift stuff around. MUST HAVE MORE MATERIAL my brain yells! Words, words, words!

3. Oh, I did do something else. I finished my first ever notebook from page one to page 160, a la Virginia Woolf! Didn’t feel like dating stuff. Didn’t feel like begging for forgiveness if I missed a day or sixteen. I wrote in it when I needed it. And I’m on to my second one. Being the same size and whatnot, I figure that I’ll be done with that one around December. Whoo-hoo!

All right guys, let’s hear your triumphs!

December, a time to ‘cozy’ up; or, D.B. made me

After a recent critique session, one of my writers group members, D.B., mentioned that she had difficulty with the group’s critiques because none of us really read them: so how can she take what we did say and apply it toward her writing?

My first response, in my head, is that good writing is good writing and a well-written cozy mystery should read like any other well-written story. Period. And I still think so.

However, it would be very negligent of me, as someone who is trying to help my friend write what she wants to write, to not pay attention to the conventions of the genre in which she wants to write. To just sit back and say “Just write a good story” is supremely unfair.

So, to fulfill the hole that exists in my own reading experience, I have decided to dedicate this month to reading some cozy mysteries and seeing what I can figure out about the genre. And you guys get to hear all about that experience!

But first, a question for you: what genre have you never read, or read very little?

Curse you, Mary!

My plan was to take it easier for May. Because Mary was gonna do all the hard work and submit a full manuscript. But noooo! Now I’ve gotta do the pages that I wasn’t gonna hafta do. And I have to finish the round story, because I didn’t do the hard work I was supposed to last month. How is it everything comes to a head like that?

You know what my plan is, though?

To do nothing but read this first week going into May. I went a little nuts at the library and so have to finish reading–and I haven’t really read much in a while. Must recharge batteries. Then rip into the writing.

So, May plan:
Read a lot.
Write a lot.
See what happens.
Oh, and critique a lot because this was the big three-fer month for CWC and I’ve got three for UGWP.

Lots of stuff to do.

A different kind of critique…

I handed my ‘finalized’ version of FJR over to my mother to check for typos and so that I would have a cold reader to go through it. Recently she gave me the first half.

You know how we talk about constructive criticism? Well, my mom is hilarious. She definitely circled typos and did her bit. But scattered throughout are her personal pet peeves.

Part of my novel is in first person, next to one of those pieces is the note: “I hate first person.”
The novel is not linear, hence the note: “I hate time jumps.”
And my personal favorite…there’s a spot where I wax poetical about the distances on maps and how far away one person is from another and she writes: “Guess it’s time to get a GPS.”

That kind of honesty is actually strangely refreshing.

There was a good critique though–normally she hates the stories that I tell. They’re just too dark for her sensibilities (and I write in first person every now and then and don’t tell things in a straight line). She said that she spaced out on the critiquing/typo check and read because she was actually enjoying it. I guess if she enjoys a story that contains a lot of her reader pet peeves, I think I’m okay. We’ll see what she thinks about the end.

Nervous energy.

Tonight the CWCers will be giving me feedback on the 2nd draft of FJR. I admit to feeling a bit stressed because I so want it to be close to submitable. (I also hope they don’t read this before hand and adjust comments…so: no adjusting people!)

Here’s the thing when you’ve put so much work into something–it’s easy to want to let go, to let the thing go forth into the world and wow the world, etc. And it’s really hard to admit that there might be even more work needed. I mean, enough’s enough right?

But the truth is, sometimes you just have to keep plugging along. I’m hoping that my next plug won’t be as intense, though. In the recent Poets and Writers interview with the ‘new guard’ of agenting the agents talked about how a book needed to be at a 6-7 and they would help make it a 10. Right now I’m okay with a 5 that I can turn into a 6-7 and then submit within the next month or so. Then just rewrite for folks who might be paying me.

Assuming the publishing world hasn’t exploded by then.

Kickin’ Ass and Takin’ Names

I only have one submission left to read! Yippee!

It’s all part of my devious plan. If I finish the submissions, then that leaves more time for my own writing through the rest of the month. Here’s the strike though: too much space between the written critique and the verbal critique. So I have to be extra, extra written…if that makes sense.

The good news is that if something consistantly bothers me through the month about a story/novel excerpt, then I know that it’s a real issue and should definitely be brought forward.

So here’s my question of the day: Is it better to do critiques early and get ’em done? Or should you wait, possibly waiting until the last minute, so that the story is fresher in your mind? Or do you blame the writer–if they didn’t write a memorable story, then it’s not the critiquer’s fault, right? (Hee, hee…always gotta pass the buck…)

May is Over, June is In

I didn’t really set any goals for April or May. At first I decided that I would pat my back for things I got done and not worry about what I set out to do.

Apparently praise doesn’t work for me. I didn’t even do a decent blog session this month.

So, back to goal time (and there are a lot now…)
1. 50 pages of revision for FJR
2. finish critiques for the Underground Writers Project (the tentative new name for the Sunday Group)
3. Finish critiqes for the Creek Writer’s Council (and while there are only three, there’s a lot of paper, lemme tell ya)
4. 10 pages of The Guardian (part of my kids series)
5. and a stretch goal–yeah, because I need stretching with those other slacking goals–is to finish the first chapter of The Guardian for the UGWP.

Off to work on getting some check marks.

Thank your friends…and do the work

All of the critiques of the rough draft of FJR have been returned to me from the saints that reviewed it. Here is what I have to say about that:

Deb, Ali, Nicole, and John–you guys so rock! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Look, the truth of the matter is, as writers, we jump into something hoping to God that what we’re doing will work. We hope also, of course, that we will be able to recognize what goes wrong–if anything–in a manuscript by ourselves. But we just can’t. That’s where having a good writers group comes in so damn handy.

The good news is, after all their notes and all their hard reading-work, they all pretty much came to the same conclusion. There are two specific scenes that bug everyone.

Here’s the news that a lot writers don’t recognize:
When only two scenes are off, that’s great.
But, that still means you have to adjust the entire manuscript.

I was reading a book called Making a Story (or something along those lines, I’ll double check the title later and let y’all know…) and I was in the “Revision” chapter. Basically, the discussion was about writers going on to the second draft…and then to the third, etc….The conclusion was that the first draft is messy but the second draft may be even messier.

Why’s that? you ask. It’s because a lot of times writers just try to fix the scenes that are messed up, thinking that will fix all of the problems. Generally, it just adds confusion because those couple scenes are not reflecting all of what’s in the manuscript now. So the result is this cut-and-pasty thingy but not really a strong draft.

So, I have to thank my friends for saving me a step or two. First, they pointed out the scenes that weren’t working and then another thanks to John specifically for pointing what the main issue with those scenes was–and I bet he is not even aware that he did that.

The main issue is the main character. Every other character has pretty defined arcs. My main character, A., is moving around all these people, moving around the situation, but I don’t really root her in the conflict while I move her through all these other, layered interactions. The reason everyone nailed me for two specific scenes is because those are the scenes where A. is supposed to come into her own. The reader is supposed to connect with her at those moments…but there is a decided lack of conflict and a lack of her history in those scenes.

What happens if I fix just those scenes?

The story will be off-balance because the history and the conflicts that are presented in the revised scenes will inform the scenes that already ‘work’…so the good scenes may or may not work when it’s all said and done. Luckily, after brainstorming and reading my buddies’ comments, I know I have to re-do the entire thing…but only to make it seamless. Now I know where the problems are. I have a couple ideas on how to fix them and am going through the whole manuscript right now looking for where the stitches have to go.

Drudgery, you say. Nah. If you’ve put that much effort into a manuscript already, the chance to make it shine shouldn’t overwhelm you…it should motivate you, drive you. I’m thinking, in the end, that’s what seperates the pros from the amateurs.