Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types


Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types

In writing groups, there seem to be two kinds of writers when it comes to criticism of their work. Both shoot themselves in the foot (feet?) without realizing it.

Type 1: No, no, no.

This writer spends all his time telling you that your suggestions are impractical, impossible, and artistically wrong. There is already an example of this in Feedback Defensiveness, but I think the phenomenon bears repeating.


Fred, I was really liked your premise. However, would people adapt quite so quickly—


Well, how long should it take?


I don’t know, but a clearer indication of the timeline—


The vagueness is intentional—it will all make sense eventually.


But if the reader can’t situate himself—


Well, no, you can’t. I have more faith in my readers.

Might as well have spared your breath. Not only did Fred fend off any feedback but handed you an insult as a bonus.

Fred wins the battle and loses the war by turning the feedback session into a combat zone.  He leaves with his manuscript unaltered and may even have the mistaken impression that, by fending off all criticism, his piece is closing in on perfection.

Yet I have a sneaking sympathy for Fred. You have to believe in yourself and your writing. Otherwise, why would you keep going?

And, let’s face it, there is usually a variety of levels of experience and talent in any writing group. Some give great on-point feedback and others can’t distinguish between how they would write your piece and helping it be the best it can be.

I get why Fred might be defensive but it’s not an effective way to improve his or your work. But there is another more insidious way to prevent progress.

Type 2: I agree with all your criticism

This writer usually takes copious notes in a feedback session. When anyone suggests a change (Didn’t buy the motivation; the flashback was too long; don’t have the protagonist tell the story), Sheila writes ‘change motivation,’ ‘shorten flashback’, ‘lose story frame.

This writer seems the perfect antidote to Fred. Tries to benefit from all the feedback. But her approach is also ineffective in the longer term. Here’s why:

  • You get different points of view, which of course is why you’re in a writing group. But one piece of feedback might be, ‘I found Melissa cold and distant,” while another says, “Oh, no, she reminds me of my aunt Zebby—we all loved her.” So, cold and distant or warm and loving? When Sheila tries to fix her piece, she doesn’t know which feedback to choose.
  • You are allowing others to shape your voice. While Fred’s belief in his writing is getting in the way, so is Sheila’s willingness to treat all feedback as equally applicable. With this approach, you run the danger of establishing a voice which is a composite of your writing group rather than one which is uniquely yours.
  • Feedback can be idiosyncratic. Perhaps the group member liked Melissa because you put her in a blue dress which was Aunt Zebby’s favorite color. Which is not to say that the feedback of Melissa being cold and distant is right, either, since it may also be an idiosyncratic response.

So, where are you? There is a way to receive criticism which would work for both Fred and Sheila. Next post.

Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative


Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative

In the last post, I suggested that you might want to try the haphazard approach to writing. There will be a point that you have written all the component parts of your story or memoir but they’re not in an order or form which would make sense to a reader. This post is about taking all the bits and bobs of scenes you have and whipping them into a full narrative.

Building into a full narrative

Read over all the pieces you have related to this story. In doing this, you get a shape of the story. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What is the rough order of the scenes? How do you want to tell the story? Sequence the scenes in a way which feels right to you.

What scenes are missing? Sometimes (often), you need a transition from one event to another. Or you might think that the reader needs to understand the motivation of the mother better to make the rest of the story work. Note the ones you need to add.

What are redundant? If an event is especially important, you may find that you’ve written more than one piece covering more or less the same ground. Actually, this is good. It allows you to consider the different ways you handled that scene (e.g. different point of view, told rather than shown, etc.) to decide which fits best with the shape of the story. You may even find that combining the scenes works.

Are all the scenes building to where you want to go? Sometimes, you write scenes which don’t fit. This makes sense. Creating the body of writing gives you a feel for the type of world you created. It is only at this point that you understand the shape of the story enough to know which scenes contribute and which take it off in another direction.

This is where writers can get unnaturally attached to pieces or scenes they love. You need to keep the whole story in mind and cut or change ones to fit its flow.

Where does the story start? On reflection, you may find that the story starts later than you thought. This is often because you have scenes which give background or do set up. Try to start the story as close to the beginning of the plot as you can.

Does your original ending still work, given the rest of the story? Might, might not. But it’s worth considering whether the originally planned ending fits with how the story has evolved.

You’ve still got editing

This may feel like editing but it’s not really (okay, maybe it’s a kind of substantive edit). You’ve still got to go back to fill in missing scenes and ensure the story builds in a way which engages the reader. This is the point where you need to check the name of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage.

Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach


Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach

In the last two posts, I discussed why starting a writing project at the beginning of the story or at the end, can have unexpected challenges. In this post, I’ll discuss what the haphazard approach is and why I think it produces works with more energy.

The haphazard approach to infuse energy into your writing

Seems a bit silly to call this an approach but it’s the only term that comes to mind. And being haphazard, it also seems a bit odd to be listing the steps to follow. But here goes:

  • Close your eyes. Think about your story or memoir. What comes to mind? The day you found out there was no Santa (I hope I’m not giving anything away)? When the heroine finds out she has been betrayed?
  • Whatever comes up, write about that. Just start typing.
  • Keep going. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the middle of the narrative you want to tell or if you’re unsure of the exact surname of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage. Make a name up and keep going.
  • Write as much of the scene as you can, investing all your energy and creativity into making this the best scene you can.
  • When that scene is done, repeat the process with a different scene. Doesn’t have to be the prequel or sequel to the scene you’ve just written. Just anything that interests you at this moment.

It can’t be that easy

It isn’t easy, in fact. It’s very hard work to get down the emotions, action, and settings in a way which reflects what you want to depict. But it ups the chances that you are writing from a place and about a subject which energizes you and your writing.

So, you continue this haphazard way, not worrying about continuity of story, possibly changing the name of your hero half-way in, perhaps writing a scene which is very similar to one you have already written. Doesn’t matter. This is all stuff you can fix later. Just get down as much as you can in as vivid a way as you can.

One problem

I am basically advocating separating the creative process of generating the story from the equally important but different process of developing a narrative which hangs together and makes sense from the first page to last.

But the astute among you will have figured out that, while this haphazard approach helps get the story down, there is a point where you have got all the component parts but not in a form which others would recognize as a story. Next post.

Not the only way

Naturally, this isn’t the only way to tackle a writing project. One writer I know has to have the first line before he can start. Dickens had to have all of his characters named before he could get going. Other writers plot the whole thing out before they write a word (I’ll have more to say about this in another post). You can even actually start at the beginning or end of your narrative if you take into account the caveats I’ve outlined previously. But I encourage you to give my method a try. I have found it works not just to write the story but occasionally, even allows magic to strike.

Do I Start the Story at the End?


Do I Start the Story at the End?

In the last post, we discussed some of the disadvantages of starting your story at what seems like the natural beginning. So if the beginning has problems, the obvious question is What about starting the story at the end?

What is it?

Although this seems oxymoronic, it can be effective. Stories Told Backward? gives examples of novels which use this device.

Basically, your opening scene is the end of the novel or memoir. Where the protagonist triumphs or goes down to worthy defeat. Where the boy gets the girl or they part with a memory that lasts forever.

From there, you can start at the beginning of the story and unfold the story as you would normally. If you are really tricky, you can move backward in time so that the second scene is the event immediately prior to the ending, and the last scene is the introduction of the characters. If you can do this, more power to you. I’ve never been able to figure out how.

But there are downsides to starting with the end

I want to make a distinction between starting your initial writing with the end and, after much thought and editing on your final version, choosing to start with the ending. The latter may be an excellent decision but I’m discussing the first draft here.

You give away the end.

Obviously, the reader knows what’s coming. This can work if you can infuse the story with a sense of an impending and inevitable doom. Readers will keep reading even if, or perhaps especially if, they dread the outcome. However, if you can’t keep up that level of engagement, your readers may lose interest as they know (or think they know) where the story is going.

And of course, the resolution is no surprise. An exception would be if you are able to change the meaning of the ending. For example, when the reader experiences the ending as a first scene, they might conclude the main character is getting the comeuppance he deserves. Writing skillfully, you might weave the story so the reader realizes by the end that the protagonist has been wronged. The ending stays the same, but its meaning changes.

There may be an impatience to get to the end.

This can be true for you as well as the reader. Because you present the end first, you may be tempted to take a straight line route to it and thereby perhaps miss out on the interesting byways and character development which you might otherwise be open to.

It can have the same effect on the reader. Readers who don’t know how the novel will end are more likely to follow you wherever you want to go (within limits). But if they know what has to happen, they may be impatient with scenes which, at least on the surface, don’t seem to be building to that ending.

You pre-determine where you are going.

To my mind, this is the biggest drawback to this approach. I believe that a story which unfolds as the situation, characters, and your creativity dictates has a much better chance of being compelling than one where you go in with blinders on.

Next post: My preferred way to start a writing project

Finding Your Distinctive Voice


Finding Your Distinctive Voice

In the previous post, What is a Writer’s Voice, I listed some characteristics of a writer’s voice. Your voice is you on the page and can be comprised of what you like to write about, type of characters you favor, style of writing, settings you use, etc. Every writer needs his or her distinctive voice. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country, that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

How do I develop a voice?

Not by sitting down and deciding what it is. Right, I’ll just fill in the categories or I will write about high powered people in urban settings. A voice developed this way would be as mechanical as the method used to generate it. It is not an analytic or reductive exercise. Voice, once developed, is as distinctive as it is hard to describe. You can’t point a finger to where it resides in a work, yet it infuses everything.

The way to develop your voice is to write. Write and write and write. Launch many expendable pieces, as urged by William Stafford. You of course don’t have to stick with one setting, one type of character, one type of plot—in fact, you shouldn’t. Experiment with different settings, structures, characters, persons (first, third, etc.). You try writing about your old home town, or your grandfather’s day, or the latest intrigue at the office, or a fantasy of what you would like life to be. Each story helps you to both get more comfortable with the craft of writing but also helps you to define you as a writer, to allow you to sink into that space which is the magic of writing. Take the time and space to find out what is unique about your writing.

Getting feedback

The type of feedback you get and from whom is always important but it is especially critical as you are finding your voice. When you are in the midst of experimenting, you don’t need someone harping on your overuse of similes. Because a lot of similes may be part of your voice. That kind of criticism early on might make you think you should cut back when your voice may not be stable enough to know for sure.

Seeking feedback which is highly technical or specific may not be right for you as you are starting out. Instead, you are looking for readers who can tell you what they like best about what you have written.

Do I need to put everything on hold until I have a distinctive voice?

Of course not. It’s an organic thing and will develop as you do as a writer. In fact, your voice may shift somewhat over your writing career. And that’s fine. It’s not a stable state any more than it is fully definable.

The key as always, is to write, write, write. Magic, magic, magic.