What Makes an Effective Writing Critique Group Member?

 

 

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The “Sandwich” Approach
I’m very thankful for the two local critique groups that I attend and always leave feeling renewed and inspired. One is a well-established combination of writers from all different genres. I lead the second one, which is a newer compilation of writers and illustrators for children’s literature. Each group meets in person monthly, and occasional digital critique swaps are also requested and take place in between our gatherings. Since I’ve been taking part and observing for some time, now, several aspects for effectiveness have jumped out at me and motivated the following suggestions:

*When commenting in writing or orally, try to start out with a positive, follow with suggestions, and possibly end with another positive, as time allows (“sandwich” approach)

*Point out specific sections of the pieces for examples whenever possible, instead of speaking in generalities

*Keep in mind “nerves” and any misgivings you may have had when you first joined the group, upon greeting new attendees

*When receiving feedback, try to listen to a member’s full comments before responding with an explanation of your thinking or reasoning (this can be difficult to do!)

*Share your successes AND your disappointments, which can help to form connections between members

*Offer critiques on a continuing basis, even during those times when your own work is not being shared

Am I ALWAYS successful in remembering to do each of these things? I admit that I’m not, but these are my goals, since I can see how these strategies work so well when implemented. Feel free to add comments with ideas you’ve found to be especially helpful in your own groups!

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Windows Open!

open windows pixabay no attribution required

In the Midwest, the invigorating change of the seasons was often marked by melting or returning snows, reappearance or disappearance of greenery and flowers, along with changes in the patterns of wildlife visiting the yard. In Texas, transformations related to precipitation, flora and fauna are much more subtle to the non-scientific eye. For me, the main difference is whether or not I can comfortably open my windows. With a twenty degree drop in the temperature since yesterday, today is one of those marvelous days to open the windows wide.

This may sound like such a simple and even mundane act, but it’s an activity that many Texans, who are accustomed to such high temperatures, often seem to overlook. Indeed, many of the local apartment buildings, including my own, do not include window screens. That presents a choice to be made: leave the windows closed at all times, open them and risk unwanted flying visitors, or add some sort of protection. During my first autumn here, I remembered a type of free-standing window screen from childhood that opened like an accordion to fit various sized apertures. Where was my handy neighborhood hardware store when I needed it? Impatience had a hold on me, and ordering through the internet would have taken too long. Surprisingly, I found several at Wal-Mart, after sifting through a pile where many seemed to be damaged. I was on my way to opening my windows.

The next issue was how to make sure the new screens didn’t fall out onto those passing below, since their fit into the window opening isn’t exactly fool-proof. I found articles posted by individuals on the internet about just this topic, with suggestions that involved carpentry (not for me), Velcro, and removable adhesive putty. I went with a white version of the latter, since I was familiar with its easy and mess-free use from mounting things on my classroom walls as a former teacher. Just one little wad on each wooden end piece, while leaving my window closed a little farther than the height of the screens, and I secured them in place. Depending on the configuration of your windows, this may not be an air-tight fit, and you might still need to be on the lookout for small insects. I would certainly avoid these types of screens if I had a curious pet or young child.

Today’s cool breezes feel glorious. I can hear light traffic noises, occasional bird calls and distant voices. When opening the windows, we also put ourselves out there and share somewhat personal snippets of our lives, such as escaping cooking smells, voices, and the sounds of our favorite music, television program or current audio book.

The act of writing is a bit like opening windows. In sharing memoir and personal essays, we reveal our beliefs, feelings and memories to the world. Even in fiction, we raise the sashes that protect our personal experiences on which plots and characters are often based. We take a chance on rejection, disregard, or disagreement when opening ourselves up to the public, whether we share through a critique group, blog, website, self-publication, or if we publish in a traditional format. The potential rewards are many. Other writers and the public at large often embrace our written ideas and may offer helpful feedback, as well.

As writers, we should try to avoid being fearful of the results, take chances, and open our windows to the world beyond.

Memoir Publication and Garden Update

UP Reader

The U.P. Reader, which includes my memoir piece, “Lonely Road,” is now available in print and e-book! This literary magazine is published by Modern History Press in conjunction with the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA). The publication also contains fiction, humor, poetry, history, and more.

When I read the call for submissions, my first instinct was to write a fictional story set in Michigan’s U.P., where I lived for many years. What about my own, personal tales, just waiting to be told? I decided that memoir was the way to go.

As Barbra Streisand sang in one of my favorite movies, “The Way We Were,” memories really can “light the corners” of our minds. But, when too much pain is caused by remembering, we often choose to ignore and wall-off those sections of our brains. Writing memoir can be like taking the partitions down and letting the light shine, once again, onto those remembrances. The act can bring questions, heartache, revelations and healing.

Lonely Road” relates an evocative experience during my wintertime move to the Upper Peninsula, with the purpose of giving a faltering marriage one more try. The story is also a metaphor for the journey of life, with its pleasant surprises, difficult challenges, and safe havens. That “one more try” to stay together spanned several additional decades. Success or failure? Guess it depends on how you look at it. This was a very difficult piece for me to write because of all the emotions to which it gave rise. I would like to say that I felt better once I had it down. Saying it well and true did give me a sense of satisfaction. The sadness over our loss still remains.

I hope that you’ll consider reading about my experience, along with sampling contributions from other writers with connections to the Upper Peninsula, in the beautiful state of Michigan. The book is available from the publisher, through Amazon, and at several retailers in the U.P.  Reviews are welcomed!

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GARDEN UPDATE

The Community Garden is looking quite bountiful these days! Cucumbers and zucchini are already producing. Today, I also spotted tiny green peppers and tomatoes. Giant sunflowers provide a lovely backdrop. My little plot contains huge marigolds and abundant basil. I’ve already taken several bags of the herb over to the food pantry. Basil is great in curries and salads. Pesto, anyone?

The rosemary is a bit on the small side, and I’m afraid the watering that’s helping the basil thrive may be somewhat of a negative for those plants, which often prefer drier conditions. They’re growing, though, and I snipped the ends to encourage even more growth. Did my molasses and orange oil concoction succeed in the fight against the fire ants? Yes and no. It worked well enough to drive them over to the other side of the little garden bed. At least they stay off the plants!

It’s My Party, and I’ll Do What I Want To!

 

 

Baby Becky
Baby Becky, with Parents and Big Sister
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Childhood Home
Three of Us
The Three of Us
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Cleaned Up Nicely

This is my “birthday week,” which is thought-provoking on so many different levels. More than anything, though, this occurrence evokes a multitude of childhood memories. I feel lucky to have grown up within a loving family in Tawas City, Michigan, with both sets of grandparents living nearby. Although it may not be a new concept, I thought it would be fun to tell you more with a different voice, through an interview with a younger version of myself:

What do you like about your hometown?

All the four seasons are really clear, here. We can have lots of fun outside during the winter, in the snow, like ice skating and building snow forts. In the summer, we go swimming at the beach, in Lake Huron. It’s a small town, but has most of what we need. People called tourists come to visit a lot, too, which makes things different all the time.

Tell me about your hobbies and what you like to do for fun.

I like to play with friends, ride my bike, play softball, roller skate, climb trees, collect rocks, play with dolls, and read.

What do you like to read?

At school, it’s mostly stories like “Dick and Jane,” but at home I read about “Trixie Belden” and “Nancy Drew.” They’re so brave! My favorite book so far, though, is “Mystery of the Golden Horn,” by Phyllis Whitney. My sister, Terri, is the one who got me interested in mysteries.

Who are the friends you enjoying spending time with?

Well, that changes a little over time, but my best friends, so far, have been Andrea, she’s my neighbor, and Marilyn and Jean, who go to school with me.

No boys. Are you only friends with girls?

Course not. I just didn’t want to mention them, so it wouldn’t sound like I was saying they’re my boyfriends!

What about school…what do you like best or least?

I like reading and spelling, I guess, ‘cause I’m good at them. I also like seeing my friends there and playing jump rope at recess. Arithmetic is my least favorite, since I’m not as good at that. I don’t like fire drills, either, because we have to go down the dark, scary back stairs to get out of the school.

Tell me about your family.

I have five people in my family, and I’m the middle one of three kids. My sister is five years older than me, and my brother, Mark, is five years younger. I guess you can see why my favorite number’s five! My dad travels for work a lot, so my mom does most things around the house. He still takes care of the big yard, though, and he’s really good at growing stuff.

Do you have any regrets, or things that you feel sorry about?

Well, I wish that I hadn’t gotten my pony tail cut off when I did, ‘cause now I’m stuck with short hair. My friend, Andrea, got hers cut, and I thought it looked like a good idea.  I’m also sorry that my grandparents…my mom’s parents…just moved away to California. Course, I did get to go to Disneyland when we went to visit! One more thing. I’m sorry that I don’t practice the piano more, since my parents pay for me to take lessons. So, I’m not very good at it, but at least I learned how to read music.

What would you like to do when you’re a grown-up?

I want to be a good mother, like my mom is. I think I’d like to be a teacher, too, since I’ve had some teachers I really liked who made school fun. Also, my sister and I have started writing a book, and we’ll see how that goes. Maybe I could try being a writer someday!

Thankful for…my critique group!

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This past year has brought many changes to my life. The culmination is that I now live in a different part of the country. The main advantages I currently enjoy are living closer to my children and grandchildren, along with the MUCH milder wintertime weather! On a more negative note, I left behind familiar people, places, and activities. Luckily, the memories stay with me wherever I go and also offer the occasional writing topic.

In efforts to make the most of my new location and give my writing a boost, I joined the writing critique group offered through my local library. That was one of the best choices I have ever made. This type of in-person work group may not be for everyone, but if you have trouble finding motivation or direction in your writing, you may want to give it a try!

The composition of this particular community of writers varies and flows from one month to the next, but has a basic structure of members usually in attendance, embracing those who write fiction or non-fiction for ages childhood to adult. Members include those who are published through various modes, or are as yet unpublished. We take turns sharing portions of our works, while members offer praise and helpful suggestions. The tone is positive and supportive, even when questions or inconsistencies about the pieces are being discussed. Celebrations of our successes are common. I always leave the meeting feeling energized, motivated and renewed.

I’ve taken part in on-line critiques in the past and have certainly benefitted. The personal aspect of seeing other writers face-to-face appeals to me even more. If you haven’t tried a writing group, I hope you’ll consider joining one. The configuration could vary in membership numbers and writing types involved, but I imagine that most provide the crucial aspect of a positive atmosphere.

Perhaps your geographical area doesn’t yet offer this option. You could start a group yourself, with the library being the logical place to display an announcement. Several sites on the Internet contain ideas for starting and running successful writing groups. In addition, select chapters of Sisters in Crime and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offer opportunities to share writing with other members, and you could also check out those possibilities online.

Have a wonderful holiday season, filled with opportunities to read enjoyable books and stories, and to write about the topics, people, and characters near to your hearts!

Finding Love in Unimaginable Places

Remember that heart-wrenching sensation when a beloved grandparent died, or that excruciating pain, like a vise around the head, after a parent succumbed to a long illness? We’ve all lost someone important. Time moves on. The sharp sting of that separation surprisingly begins to ease. Unfortunately, some of the good memories may disappear along with the pain. Mementos, such as pictures, or favored objects, like books, furniture, and even recipes, may help to hold a dear one’s essence close. I’ve recently discovered another unexpected avenue.

I’m currently working on a revision of my picture book, “Rhus Juice”. The tale is based on a true story my dad shared with me from his own childhood. It tells of a hot Michigan summer and a little boy’s fears that the lemon-flavored drink his father plans to make with sumac might be poisonous! When I began composing this some years back, I looked through pictures from that time, referred to a list of names and dates in an old family Bible, and even listened to a recording of Dad recounting the events.

“Life” got in the way, work and other writing took precedence, and “Rhus Juice” was set aside. I love the story, though, and it recently pulled me back. Now looking at the book with fresh eyes, the lives portrayed seem much clearer than before. Through it, I revisit my hometown of Tawas City, Michigan, and ride my blue Schwinn on bumpy sidewalks once again. Peeking into my dad’s childhood home, Grandpa’s voice booms and Grandma’s sweet smile lights up the room.

How wonderful, to see Dad’s ten-year-old grin and to anticipate his thoughts. The act of writing has done this for me. The love flows from all of them, bringing me closer than I’ve been in years!

*****

Dealing with Personal Issues through Our Characters

 

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Spring is the season of renewal and new growth. It can also be a time to reflect on pleasant memories or to revisit excruciating challenges that still haunt us. I recently read an intriguing article, “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield”, by author and teacher, Tom Spanbauer. (Poets & Writers, January/February 2016). At the risk of being too general, he speaks about digging deeply into ourselves, to address difficult topics that are important to us, in order to shape our fictional works. His words certainly opened my eyes.

Throughout the course of Spanbauer’s piece, I realized some important facts about my own work. As most writers of fiction, I borrow from reality and include snippets of this person and that individual in the characters I attempt to bring alive. What I hadn’t faced is that some of their problems, issues, and challenges are my own, and I may be using the writing to work through them.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ve brought any of these  scenarios full circle to solutions. Guess that I’ve danced on the edge of danger, but haven’t really dived in. I plan to revisit my own “dangerous writing” and push it to the limit, getting everything I can out of the telling. I hope that the resulting characters will appear even more realistic and some personal answers will materialize, as well.

Spring beckons, along with buds erupting on trees, flowers poking through dark earth, and birds singing new songs. We don’t have to “start over” to begin again. Whatever we face might be just a little easier, a touch sweeter, or a bit brighter by giving in to the season and wringing it for all it has to offer. Use it to the extent of its worth. After all, we don’t have forever…do we?