Monday, October 26, 2009

Am I Ready For a Critique Group?

This is from the presentation I did at Silver Lake retreat in the beginning of October. I've had the flu and have not accomplished much except staying in bed the last few weeks.

Unlike writers groups that focus on improving literary technique, critique groups are primarily single purpose activities where writers get specific feedback on their work. They can have from 4-10 members but must stay small so that everyone has a chance to share. Writing is usually confined to a single chapter or children’s book per session per member.

Starting A Critique Group-

How to begin- If you belong to a local writers group, you may be able to find the beginning of a group there. Also put notices on bookstores, libraries, local paper. People interested may be given a trial period first to see if they are a “fit.”

Choose a convenient place and time- Coffee houses serve slushies! They can be a good place to meet. Small bookstores are also often willing to host. You may switch homes or if it is more convenient meet in a single home, but if it is too much work for one person, it probably won’t last. Set a good foundation.

Sharing Selections- Some groups email their selections to each other and read them before hand, bringing a prepared critique. This can allow for a deeper analysis. We read our work and then critique immediately following. I’ve heard of others who pass their work to another who reads it.

Use a Timer- Depending on the number of members divide up your time and use a timer to keep people within limit. Set a reading time and a critique time separately. Trust me.

Random Other Suggestions
1. Say something positive about each piece. It is easy to forget to emphasize the good as well as find what needs improvement. When a description is really bright or a plot twist totally surprises you don’t let it go without saying something.
Critique the writing, not the writer. Instead of saying, "You aren't very good at conclusions," say, "This conclusion didn't really work for me."

2. Be specific. Instead of just saying, "The characterization needs work," try to figure out where and how the writer can improve on the story’s character. (PET PEEVE!)

3. Tailor your comments to the writer and his/her needs. What are they using the piece for and what are their goals? Do they want to publish or distribute to friends and family?

4. When receiving critique, be quiet! (I stink at this but I should be better.) Sit back and take notes. Let the questions and comments fly. Take it all in. Answer questions at the end, if necessary. Don’t defend or throw heavy objects.

5. Beyond the very reasonable, don’t socialize too much during group time. It will eventually crumble the will of the group. Get to know each other in other ways.

6. Make an agreement with the whole group that you will not steal ideas, or talk about the work, except in general terms. Decide how you will deal with people coming in and out of the group and being late or unprepared. Be flexible.

One last thought (not my own but I liked it).

“Critique groups teach us not only how to write but also how to grow a thick skin. Notice I said a critique group, not a fan club. If your group consistently tells you how great your writing is, find a different group. You want one that will hurt your feelings by explaining (tactfully) how your characters are shallow, your dialogue forced, and your prlot predictable… You want a group that will force you to do better, because only then can you believe them when they say what you wrote was terrific.”
- “How I Got Published” by Ray White, Duane Lindsay

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

If You Don't Know about Dred Scott, Read This

I had never heard of Dred Scott before picking up "Am I Not a Man: The Dred Scott Story" by Mark Shurtleff. But as I began reading, it shocked me that I wasn't more familar with this pivotal part of history. Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom all the way to the Supreme Court- and lost. Ironically, his defeat was a gift. It was on the wave of his failure that a little-known politician stepped forward to eventually become the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

Shurtleff weaves the story by touching on various threads at different times and places that converge together to create the foundation of Dred Scott's case. Raised by a loving liberal southern family, Dred's childhood is one of strength and joy where the bonds of slavery are rarely felt until the Blow family falls on financial difficulty. When he is sold, Dred soon faces the depths of helplessness and great cruelty.

While this well-researched and engaging narrative illustrates Dred's personal struggle, Shurtleff is able to bring in powerful passages from Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass without being heavy-handed. The result is a nice overview of the events leading to election of Abraham Lincoln and the political decisions that preceded the Civil War.

Most shocking of all was the Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Taney that black men have "no rights a white man was bound to respect." It would have been easy for Shurtleff to demonize Taney's character, and I was impressed how equitably he dealt with him, trying to honestly portray this man's views and motivations in a much more sympathetic light than I ever would.

To me, the muster of a good book is if it grabs my attention initially, and makes me glad I forfeited the hours reading it long after I close the cover. Although it took a few chapters to get hooked, once I was into the story, I raced through the pages with fascination. It still amazes me that Dred's childhood owners were the ones who tried to free him by attempting to purchase him before turning to legal venues. In the end, the courts never did declare Dred Scott free during his lifteime, but he found freedom nonetheless.

Having put the book down, I have to say I'm glad I read it. A little freaked out by the Supreme Court (I guess that hasn't changed much), but glad nonetheless. When I heard the author was a previous Attorney General, I was worried Shurtleff's prose would be dry and stuffy, but I couldn't have been more wrong. It was bright, fast-paced, informative and entertaining. Best of all, I now know who Dred Scott is and better understand the sacrifice that allows me to enjoy the freedoms I sometimes take for granted.