Say it Loud and Proud: Critique Matters

Critique is so important. I honestly believe that writers who don’t/haven’t gone through the process – on both the giving and receiving sides – are missing out on an incredible tool for improving their reading and writing. Bear with me a moment as we look backwards in time.

As of 2013, I had hardly ever let a single soul read any fiction that I’d written. I’d had a short story published in my college’s literary magazine, sure, and occasionally wrote some experimental stuff on my LiveJournal (feel free to mock me for this later), but any novel-length projects that I was working on stayed under wraps without fail. At this time, I also didn’t value the short story pretty much at all. In spite of reading plenty of great short fiction as an English major, I just had this stick up my ass that the only worthwhile fiction was in the form of a novel.

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I’m still not clear on what changed in me, but I finally decided to go to a critique group and see if my writing was up to snuff enough that maybe I could try and get a book published. Enter Meetup.com and the Columbia Writers. At my first meeting, I screwed up completely and didn’t have written notes in advance, which I was supposed to give to the writers of the pieces that we were reading that week.

I got better, I swear. I attended regularly and did my best to give helpful feedback that wasn’t mean or overly critical, but that didn’t coddle the author, either.

In this, I failed. For a while. It turns out, I wasn’t very good at giving feedback. I wasn’t focusing on the right things and my tone was too terse and unpleasant. But I learned as I went on, how to find the right balance between being friendly and being a good reader that offered helpful constructive criticism. I learned to stop circling out-of-place commas in red pen and, instead, to focus on character motivations, dialogue, pacing, and other genuinely helpful things to talk about. I became a better reader through this trial and error.

And, in being a better reader of others’ works, I became a better writer as well. I learned how to evaluate my own work with the same critical eye that I gave to my fellow writers.

Then, I started to submit work. First, it was sections of novels I was playing with (the main one from that era is on the back burner – I’m not dropping it, but it would be a tough sell, especially as a first book), but then I started to attempt short stories. In this time, I blossomed. With the feedback I was receiving, I started to see my own shortcomings in a new light and began to understand my own strengths as a writer.

Critique does more than just show you what you need to work on; done right, the critique process makes you a better reader and a better writer. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Can we please talk about The Fifth Season for a minute? Because it is an incredibly good read! It was the selection for a small book club that some friends run (which is often more like wine and cheese and bread and friends and, “Oh, we read a book that we should talk about!” but then there’s cheese in our mouths and it’s sometimes hard to talk). I was prepared to enjoy the book, but it absolutely wowed me.

First of all, I have to thank audiobooks for making reading in my life more of a possibility. I have a 40 minute commute to work each way – plus I drive to Philadelphia and back about once a month and that’s about 3-3.5 hours in a go – so I don’t get a lot of down time for reading. Enter Amazon’s Whispersync and my savior. This is a feature where you can buy a kindle book and tack on the audiobook narration for a fee and – here’s the magic – you can switch seamlessly between reading and listening. It’s all done in the Kindle app itself (no need to log in to the audible app) and the narration starts at the top of whatever page you left of reading on.

Would I have been able to read The Fifth Season, a sizable fantasy epic, in just over a month without Whispersync? I highly doubt it. Additionally, the narration was really well done and didn’t detract from the experience or annoy me at all. I’ve listened to some stinkers, narration-wise, and they can ruin an otherwise good book experience.

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In this book, Jemisin builds a sprawling fantasy setting in which cataclysmic disasters, called Seasons, grip the land and wipe out huge swaths of the population on a regular basis. And as we open the story with Essun, a woman whose son has just been brutally murdered, the worst season in recent history is just getting underway. While there is first a brief visit with an unnamed man who begins the story by breaking the world (and this is done in the most delightful sardonic third person narration), we really do begin in Essun’s small home. And here’s a fun trick: Essun’s POV chapters are all written in present tense second person, creating a sort of forced intimacy, which I think pays off.  The other two characters who we follow (the child, Damaya and the young woman, Syenite) tell stories in past third person and weave together the tales of these three women who wield the power to break and mend the earth.

The Fifth Season also addresses issues of race, class, sex, gender, caste, and creates two powerful forces of oppression: the faceless, hateful, eternal abstraction of Father Earth and the Fulcrum, which trains and controls the orogenes, who have been legally labeled non-human because of their earth-warping powers. While many fantasy books feature enemies that are killable monsters or men mad with power, Jemisin presents more complex and nuanced evil in the forms of nature and a tyrannical system.

It was a seriously wonderful read, built on a world created with incredible depth. The writing is well-crafted and the characters let you lean in close and become hypnotized by this alien and yet all-too-familiar world.

These Aren’t Really Skills That You Can Take to the Bank

Things that I am really good at doing include, but are not limited to:

  • Not taking my own very good advice on writing now and getting things started/finished
  • Writing creepy, gory action scenes
  • Taking cute bird videos
  • Watching cute bird videos

 

Things I am not as good at:

  • Ramping tension up gradually and consistently in fiction pieces
  • Writing sympathetic villains (or at least villains who don’t monologue all the time)
  • Walking or standing for very long (which breaks my heart because there are a lot of marches in DC that I want to participate in)
  • Making curry from scratch
  • Forcing myself to stop working and enjoy a video game

Writing Solid How To Articles

One of my many side hustles (as my friend, J, has taught me to call them) is writing some freelance informational articles for the website LoveToKnow.com, which is a resource for lots of articles about work, life, hobbies, and more. The articles are generally penned by writers with a good deal of experience in the area they’re focusing on, giving readers more than just a mish-mash of googled fasts strung together.

As for me, I write most cake decorating and food pieces, though I sometimes grab costuming or plus size assignments as well. I have a strong background in cake decorating, having learned the art from my mother when I was twelve and then later having worked in bakeries and attended culinary school for baking and pastry. I’m also a former award-winning competitive costumer thanks to the sewing chops that my mother also taught me when I was young.

Many of my articles feature a step-by-step set of instructions on how to recreate something shown in a photo. This can be harder than it sounds! Without the time or money to create tutorial videos myself (they’re generally not part of the payment for the gig), I have to rely on my words to explain some fairly abstract ideas about making something out of nothing.

When it comes to How To for How To, I’ve got some tips.

  • Write about what you know. I know, I know, isn’t that what every writer is supposed to do? (And, if so, how do you explain fantasy writers? ANYWAY.) But when creating an informative How To article, please do not fake or fudge what you know how to do. Your readers will not appreciate being deceived and neither will your editors (who, remember, probably decide whether or not you get paid).
  • Have an editor that you trust to catch your errors. Many of these sites are so small that they don’t have an editing staff; if this is the case, have a friend look over the instructions to help you spot if you missed a step or if something is unclear.
  • Lists are your friends. Generally, I lay out tools and ingredients needed in a bullet pointed list (be specific with measurements, quantities, and maybe even link your readers to where they can buy the item) and my instructions in a numbered list.
  • Be clear. So clear. Crystal clear. This is the hardest thing! Explaining abstract things – like how to create a quilted look on the fondant icing of a layer cake – is not easy! It takes a critical eye, concise language, and constant vigilance to avoid jargon that might confuse the reader. This is another reason I really recommend having someone who is unfamiliar with the material check your work,. If they can follow it, you’re on the right track.
  • Humor can be welcome (depending on the tone of the site you’re writing for), but try not to be cheesy. Adding “a can-do attitude” to the list of supplies is a little much. I don’t recommend it.
  • Cite your sources! Takes you back to high school and college, right? Well, all these years later, it’s still the right thing to do (plus, then, you’re covering your own backside about plagiarism). Not only does it give credit where credit is due, it makes you look even more knowledgeable and believable to your readers.

Writing: Stop Slacking!

I’m guilty of this, so I’m especially allowed to  yell at others about this. I’ve been there. I am there. I’ve come through slumps and out the other side. Here are some of my writing rules:

Writing Guidelines

Fine, sure, okay – they’re not hard and fast rules. And they’re mostly for creating new works/working on early drafts. I try my best to follow them, but even I don’t sometimes. It happens. And that’s okay

1. Start Now

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Yes, now. Right now. Don’t sit around wondering how to begin – just begin away! And don’t get stuck in the trap of believing that you have to write your book or story chronologically. You most certain;y do not. So if starting at the beginning feels too daunting, then start somewhere else. Pick a scene that you really like or want to work on and begin there.

2. Don’t Overthink Things

Writing Don't Overthink

Spending too much time thinking about writing means spending less time actually doing it. This is a close relative to rule #1 Start Now: don’t let inertia rule you. Overcome that first hurdle of starting and then keep going. Especially on a first draft, don’t worry so much about the artistry or fine detail work – that can come later.

3. Just Get It Down

Just Get It Down

Like I said in #2 – don’t sit there reflecting. Write! Every word doesn’t have to be a golden blessing from the divine. Any old words will do. But get them on the page and the keep moving.

4. Set Achievable Goals

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You’ve got some words down now. Good! Great! How many until you decide to stop for now? It’s great to set goals for daily or weekly writing quotas, but the most important thing is to make sure they’re reasonable! Like I’ve said before, make small goals at first to ensure that you will reach them. Better to aim low and succeed while you’re building your confidence that aim too high and fail time and time again. All that failure takes its toll, mentally, and makes it harder to keep going.

5. Write Every Day

Pusheen Writing

This is where those achievable goals really come in. The best thing is to set aside a small piece of time every day to write. Now, of course, life happens and we can’t always write when we want to. This is why I suggest both daily and weekly goals, allowing you to maybe miss or fall short one day, but make it up another day. Just don’t slack all week and then kill yourself trying to make up for it on Sunday!

On Goodbyes

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At 12:04pm on Saturday, May 13th, my mother drew her last breath while my father and I held her hands. She died at home, did not suffer or feel pain at the end, and was lucky enough to say goodbye to many people who loved her over the past few weeks. She will be missed, but it is a comfort to know that she is finally free from the pain she’d lived with for 25+ years.

She lost her 6 month battle with cancer that day. The flowers I’d brought home for her for Mother’s Day (which she did not make it to) bloomed the morning she died, their timing both heartbreaking and beautiful.

Goodbye, mom. I love you.

Living with Yet More Dying

My mother is dying. It won’t be long now. Maybe a month, probably not more.

She developed some severe neurological and memory problems about 6 or 7 months ago and ended up in the hospital for almost 60 days to address this. What little muscle mass she had wasted away on bed rest and she was not longer able to walk or stand or care for herself. She came home, lived in her rented hospital bed, and had nurses and caretakers watching her pretty much 24/7/.

We figured that she’d come back from this, eventually, to some degree. Physical therapy and occupational therapy and regular doctor’s visits would heal her. It would take a lot of money and lot of time, but it would happen.

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Then she got cancer. The initial prognosis was positive and the treatment was chemo by pill – a gentle, targeted version thereof that wouldn’t cause much fatigue or hair loss or any of the normal symptoms. A few months of that, some radiation therapy, and then surgery to remove the tumor once it was dead. Simple. Nothing to worry about.

Except that they did remove the tumor and found that it had metastasized and spread to other organs.

My mother has stage 4B colo-rectal cancer and it is killing her pretty quickly.

She is 57. She is young, really. And I’m only 32 and didn’t expect to have to say goodbye to her any time soon. But it doesn’t matter what should be because this is what is. She’s not in much pain anymore, not now that they’re hitting her with dilaudid every few hours, but she used to be. Like me, she has lived in chronic pain for years – since I was young.

So while I’m not ready to say goodbye (who ever is?), I’m grateful that, at least, she won’t be in pain anymore. Thank goodness for small favors. But the toll that all of this death and mourning in my life takes is massive. It’s a huge expenditure of energy just to keep moving forward. The psychological stress of grief, experts agree, can be devastating.

So there’s nothing to it but to march forward. Where do we go from here? Not sure. But it must always be forward, never back.