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New Writers and Arrogance


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#1 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 21 November 2016 - 06:28 PM

I love a good fiction workshop. I'm a nerd for fresh eyes and feedback, but it's the new writers that reject the feedback given to them that really irks me. 

 

Example: a girl in this workshop I'm in has a story written from two narrators. It's also in first person. The narrators shift within the same chapter, but they both use "I" in reference to themselves. I was beyond confused. This girl does a lot of things that new writers do, like overpowering the descriptions of the setting and forgetting about the story. I mentioned all of these things, including the lack of clarity in the dual-narrators, and added in-text comments so she knew what I was talking about. 

 

Her two-paragraph response to me began with the words, "Thanks for the advice, but..." and then she proceeded to tell me that she knew what she was doing, and that she'd written this story with two narrators in mind, and that it couldn't be told any other way. She implied that I was the problem, and that I didn't understand her story, or the "kind of story she wanted to write," and somehow took from my critique that her main character was lacking. 

 

What do I do about this? I mean, I understand hearing feedback that's not fluffed with compliments. It's a workshop. The goal is to strengthen your writing craft and hone the skills. No one feels good when they're told their manuscript has problems. 

 

I don't feel bad about my advice. I'm more annoyed that she reacted in such an arrogant way. 

 

This is a ongoing thing that I've seen with beginning writers. They think what they spin is pure gold. They don't understand that it takes time and effort to polish a story. 

 

This post came out more 'venting' than I intended. Sorry about that. Has anyone else encountered this problem? 

 

 



#2 KitCampbell

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Posted 21 November 2016 - 06:52 PM

Yes, I know what you mean--and I suspect I used to be like that too, to some extent, back in the day.

 

I run storycraft meetings for a local speculative fiction group, where we talk about writing mechanics, publishing processes, genre tropes, things along those lines. Sometimes we will work on specific topics where members can bring part of their own writing, but for the most part, that's left to the critique part of the group. Still, we periodically get new people who come and try to spend the whole meeting talking about their story and trying to get the rest of us to tell them how awesome it is.

 

I can understand being excited about something, especially when it's new to you and you feel so accomplished. And it might feel like the way they've done it is the only way it can be done, just because trying something else is scary, especially after working on something for so long. On some level, it is a basic understanding issue. New writers don't have the experience to know what's essential to a story, how to pick out what's useful from a critique and what's not, how to objectively look at something they wrote and figure out how to make it better.

 

Not a lot you can do about it though--they'll either get over the ego thing eventually as they get more experienced, or they won't get anywhere. You can't teach someone who's not willing to learn.

 

Sorry you ran into a bad critique partner in the workshop though. Hopefully you won't have to work with her again.



#3 RSMellette

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Posted 21 November 2016 - 07:59 PM

One of the best "rules" about critics is that the person being critiqued is not allowed to respond. They have to just listen to all of the criticism, then only after everyone has chimed in, can they say a VERY BRIEF thank you, and maybe ask a question or two.

 

There is also the "Oreo cookie rule." When giving criticism, start with a compliment, then get to the things that need work, and end with a compliment.

 

Of course, sometimes the compliments are hard to come by.


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#4 mwsinclair

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Posted 22 November 2016 - 08:16 AM

All good advice. When people reject my advice, either politely or rudely, I try to slough it off as "well, they'll learn what I meant eventually or fail without knowing." I also know that sometimes they succeed and I'm happy that I didn't pour all the egg on my own face after cracking the shells and mixing them in the bowl.



#5 Michael Steven

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Posted 22 November 2016 - 03:15 PM

As always there are two sides to every coin.

 

Yes, new writers still have a lot to learn and for the most part their experience is in what they've written, and what they've read from published works.  The interim process between the two is the new part. It takes time and effort.  I discovered one of the best learning tools is to do critiques as well as to read the critiques of other people's work.

 

Experienced writers have a different chip on their shoulders.  They, too, think they know everything and are more than willing to brow-beat new as well as experienced writers about what they consider "the right way to write."  The problem with that, of course, is that every writer has their own style and by hammering on them to fit into a single mold, the critiqued author's style is often stifled.  Here it is the experienced writer who gets miffed because that upstart isn't listening to sage advice.

 

Blueberry Tide, I notice you mention "overpowering descriptions" as one of a new writer's faults.  Unfortunately the so-called modern writing style over compensates for that by enforcing underachieved descriptions.  The experienced writers use terms such as "too flowery" to belittle the author being critiqued without realizing how they are hammering them into a one-size-fits-all.  What happens?  I see it in far too many stories -- the characters lack development.  Those descriptions that got removed are often character building scenes since they are from the character's perspective.  To inject some form of development the author resorts to the mold (smiled upon by the brow-beaters) in the form of internalized feelings.  Angst.  Often those feelings are never allowed out into a scene.  In truth that is a very dull method to use, and does double damage.  Interesting scenes are bleached while aspects never utilized in the story are injected.

 

Good critics are able to help cull "overpowering" and also help boost "underachieving."  It's a difficult balance to achieve but is one of the best tools for all writers.  So do be careful with your critiques.  Do help the writers but beware of stifling the writer.


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#6 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 22 November 2016 - 05:24 PM

Well said. That's why when I do critiques, I try to be as in-depth with my explanations as I can. If I don't like something, I want to have a reason so I'm not just saying simple things like " I don't like this." 

 

I've caught myself with the "I know all" attitude before. I enjoy reading the feedback of my stories, too, and the feedback that other people give other stories. It opens that window into how different people read. I've had those critiques where the reader advised me to cut out all this description, and most of it was setting or character. 

 

I suppose I want to rush the understand that I have of others' writing on them without giving them the time to fully take it in. I had to learn, and am still learning. 

 

Thanks for this nice discussion, team. Sometimes all we need is a little heart-to-heart with other writers. 



#7 Aaron Bradford Starr

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Posted 03 December 2016 - 04:58 PM

Critiques are very hard to do well, especially, I find, when done in writing.  We don't realize how much our verbalization can take the sting out of our words.  With written feedback, our words are spoken to the author in some internal voice they generate, subject to whatever emotional flavorings they give it. If they are self-conscious, or overwhelmed, they may well take even-handed advice poorly.

 

Good, valid, valuable criticism is then seen as ripping on their story, their prose, or their vision.  Humorous delivery is seen as sarcasm.  Anything sharper is seen as downright insulting.  Now run that scenario with not-so-evenhanded feedback.

 

Of course, there's the fact that not everyone is careful about how they answer, and we've probably all received an objectionable critique.  Anything other than a compliment delivered with an exclamation point will usually fall into this category.  You get the idea.

 

The point I'm trying to make is that, for all our writing practice and received wisdom about craft, there's a surprising lack of accepted critique practice.  Modern prose fiction is centuries old, now.  Why no cultural norms for critique?



#8 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 05 December 2016 - 06:17 PM

I'd like to take a workshop focused more on the critiquing process. It is overlooked in most workshops I've taken. It's like the instructor assumes everyone knows the difference between constructive and negative criticisms. In the past, I've not said things about a workshop piece because I was afraid that it would come off as rude or mean. What is the best way to tell someone that their rough draft needs a lot of work? 



#9 KitCampbell

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Posted 06 December 2016 - 01:37 AM

Like RSMellete said above, make sure you point out the good points too (first and last thing). Sometimes it feels like a stretch if a piece is in a rough place, but normally you can twist something out of even the pieces in need of the most work. A character or scene you like, or if their research is impeccable even if their prose needs work, or if you like aspects of the plot.

 

One thing I've been told that seems to work well is to not use "I" statements in critique. Instead of saying something like "I don't like this part" which can feel like an attack or unhelpful opinion, you can make suggestions ("You might consider trying this here") or more general statements ("Passive sentences generally slow down the pacing of a story").

 

ETA: Oh, and I meant to mention that giving story suggestions that are tailored to your own preferences is also generally unhelpful. This is when you make notes for changes that aren't necessary, but fit your own tastes. Stuff like "This would be cooler if they were werewolves instead of vampires" or "I knew a girl named Bobbie and she was a jerk, so you should change this character's name."



#10 Thrash

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Posted 06 December 2016 - 07:22 PM

My writing circle now is made up my favorite people from my MFA program, a really smart group of writers.  At our school the best performing fellows got assigned to teach the undergraduate workshops as teaching experience, and when it was our turn we all got together, bringing our most helpful critiques to see what they had in common and how we can teach undergraduates to give both thoughtful and productive critiques. (We all agreed we were going to flip the typical grading and have the critiquing count more heavily, so we needed to work up a rubric.) After some trial in error, we ended up with this format, which is how we approach our informal workshops to this day.

 

1.) Describe the piece.  It enormously helpful step that many people skip, but to hear how your story is being received by your audience can reveal a lot--sometimes it gives you confidence and sometimes reveals that somewhere between your intentions with the story and what's on the page, there's been a misstep. I remember one of my stories was described, unanimously, as a "funny story about a misunderstanding between friends," when I was really going for "divisive, petty jealousies and betrayal among women."  It's also a good place to work in positive language because you're talking about what you think the story is striving to be. (We included this mainly to ensure the class really was doing the reading, but discovered it was where the most illuminating insight came from!) Even if it's a mess in its current state, you can open with positive language this way.

2. Where it needs more

3. Where it needs less. (I always stressed how stories breathe in revision--it's never only one or the other)

4. style

5. questions (points of confusion--- "why was this character so angry here?, etc"

 

During the discussion, the author doesn't speak and is not addressed directly. Never "you need"  but "the story needs".  After the discussion, the author has a opportunity to ask questions, BUT they must be questions and they cannot be argumentative.  If the author feels something is off-base about the criticism or description, I say they can describe what they were trying to go for, and ask how they can get closer to that vision. 

 

It's pointless to argue with critique, but every writer will have a bad and unhelpful critique at least once in their life and the only way to receive it is to say thank you, file away the notes, and ignore them.  



#11 Jeanne

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Posted 07 December 2016 - 01:13 AM

Lots of good thoughts here. When I give critiques, I always start off with a discussion of the writer's strengths and point out specific passages where they do something well. This tends to soften the blow of the actual criticism. For the more critical part of my critiques, I still work with that template, making gentle suggestions on how they could improve. And, I try to keep my suggestions impersonal so, rather than say, "You have a tendency to do..." I might say, "In general, too many qualifying words (I give some examples) distance the reader from the story. Then I take an excerpt of their prose and show them what I mean, sort of a before and after. But I only do that once.

 

The most difficult thing about giving and receiving critiques is the personal aspect. The writer is protective of his/her work, and the critiquer can feel resentful if the recipient doesn't accept the critique.

 

I also agree that it's better for the writer to remain silent until the critiques are finished. Otherwise, things can devolve quickly into a defense of the writer's choices.

 

Jeanne



#12 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 08 December 2016 - 07:20 PM

Thanks, team - I like the idea of building a critique worksheet. You could separate a story into things that didn't work, such as if you can't identify the theme, or if there are too many. 






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