Thursday, August 25, 2011

Critique Conspiracies: The Sacred Parchment

Lo, the high priest lit the candles, hung them over the cracked and yellow paper, and read from the laws, “Thou shall set the scene…”

Shame on me for comparing critique groups (CGs) to arcane gothic orders, but heaven help me, it’s just too much fun. I can justify the introduction to my posting though, because it’s also an old teacher’s trick of piquing curiosity and activating schema. And I’m supposed to hook my reader, silly.

Anyway, take any organization and they will more than likely have some revered document. This written record is what makes them organized. In the 2nd installment of this series, I mentioned that a CG whose members don’t typically cite some kind of book on the art of writing is one of which to steer clear. The good news is: I’ve never sat in on a CG that didn’t have at least one or two members that were well versed in some of the common publications on the craft. So in this posting, I’m going to play nice and point out how most feedback forums are doing the right thing and conspire to help you by using good how-to titles.

Previous books on writing mentioned were The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. Here are a couple of more: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (bet you’ve heard of him!), Stein on Writing by Sol Stein (Even though he keeps saying ‘show don’t tell’ when it actually should be ‘show when you can, tell when you have to’), and Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon. The last listing is outstanding because it also sneakily shows you how to outline a novel. Oh, and believe me, if you’re kind of new at attacking novel writing, you’ll definitely need a course in drafting a synopsis.

Whereas there is no singular ‘parchment’ that a writer’s organization hails as the quintessential learning resource, when your CG gives you pointers, they need to sound like something you’ve read in a respected book that teaches writing. Here are some common techniques: an author should show the reader where the story is taking place within the first few paragraphs. Varying degrees of tension should persist throughout the pages. Dialogue between characters will be at least slightly opposable if not outright defiant.

The newcomer to writing must gobble up many books on the craft, apply what he’s learned in his current project, and take it to the CG to compare notes with his colleagues—a test per se to see if he’s getting the hang of all those. Good critiquers will acknowledge specific progress.

If, God forbid, you crash into some dark, dank chamber full of bloated writers who seem to be making their feedback up as they go along, run. Run for your life.

The ever opinionated E.C. Stacy


Anonymous said...

Critique groups provide a couple of services that are essential to success.I know writers who struggle for years, accumulate manuscripts by the ton, talk about writing, attend conferences--and never get the courage to show their work to another living soul, let alone, let alone submit it for publication. Reading their stuff in front of a critique group is a major step for such writers. It helps develop the courage we must have to get started--hell, to get anywhere.

They also provide a place where we can be lousy at our craft. This is essential, because we all start out lousy at at. A critique group can help you find out just how bad you are, and what to do about it.

My tendency is to dismis most self-help books on any subject. That said, I have found a few books to be helpful to me as a writer. Lawrence Block says, do this, this and this, and in a year you will have a book. Jack Woodford is soo angry, he will make you angry, too. Anger can be a great motivator. Everyone should memorize Robert A. Heinlein's Five Rules for Success in Writing. Look them up==they are all over the internet these days.

Chiseled in Rock said...

Damn it Brock, you just said everything that I was going to hit in a later posting. LOL. ;)


NC Weil said...

One can be insightful without having read this or that "rule book". I guess my "guide" has been to read widely and deeply. Questions useful to the ms considered, arise naturally - Where are we? and You've spent half of your chapter on physical business without digging into why it matters. and If you tell us the details of the bad guys' plan now, you won't have anything left for the good guys to figure out (well, they'll figure it out, but we already know so we won't care). Etc.

Anonymous said...

You will never run out of things to ridicule or make fun of--not as long as I'm around, anyway.

Marlena Cassidy said...

So very true, though I am horribly guilty of running away from books that teach you how to write. I always get the feeling that I'm doing everything wrong, panic, and then don't write for a month until I forget what I read and can go one with my manuscript. I should really find a new CG to get my butt in gear.

Shannon said...

I read my share of books on writing and often pick up good ideas that reinforce something I've done by accident or show me a better way. I have not seen the 5 techniques and am on my way to discover them.

Anonymous said...

@Shannon: S/F writer Robert J. Sawyer has a workshop on Heinlein's Five Rules.