Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thinking about how to respond to criticism

I've returned from a long blogging hiatus for a Public Service Announcement. Do you know what you're supposed to say after someone critiques your writing? Thank you. That's it. Don't argue with their points, don't tell them why they're too ignorant to assess your work, don't describe all the praise everyone else has given the same piece, or how you're certain you're going to achieve massive success with it. You can think these things. Heck, write them down if it makes you feel better, but you don't say them. And I dare say even thinking them is problematic because there's a very good chance that there is a kernel of wisdom buried beneath the comments that raised your ire.

I have a long history with critique groups that I've written about in the past and they have been, unequivocably, vital to my development as a writer. There have been people who I disagreed with, who I felt didn't "get" my work but even they often had very useful feedback. When they didn't, I offered my thanks and walked away, knowing I was under no obligation to do everything (or even anything) they'd suggested.

I know a lot of writers who won't critique the work of people they don't know. Why? Because time and again when they've taken the time to thoughtfully respond to something, the person being critiqued has done exactly what I've advised you not to do above, which means the hours they spent reading and responding to their prose was a wasted effort.

Look, we've all had those moments when criticism rubbed us the wrong way or when it was glaringly apparent that someone missed something or grossly misinterpreted it or decided to be a massive wanker for no good reason. But being snotty in return achieves nothing other than marking you, in that reader's mind, as someone who isn't worth their time. (If you're lucky. Things get much more murky when that nasty-gram you sent off in response lands in the lap of someone more connected that you realize.) Instead of responding with a three page diatribe, offer your thanks, take a deep breath, file away their comments, and later, when you're feeling a little more generous about it, look at their critique with fresh eyes. You may actually find something valuable there.

And thus ends today's PSA...

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Girl is....thinking about her favorite writing exercise!

I did a classroom visit today for a high school creative writing class and it got me reminiscing about my own writing workshop experiences and the exercises we used to do. My favorite one was from undergrad. On one of the first days of class we were assigned to write the worst story we could think of. What was so neat about the assignment is how differently everyone approached it based on their answer to the question: what makes a story unreadable to you. Is it unsympathetic characters? Bad grammar? Poor structure? Genre out of your interest area?

Those are all great answers, but they weren't what I thought made a bad story. No, in my infancy as a writer I thought what made a bad story was a repulsive premise with excessive description of bodily functions.

So I wrote a story about a man having a difficult, odorific bowel movement. Pages of description, incorporating every adjective I could think of. Oh, and he runs out of toilet paper. See what I did there? That, my friends, was my attempt at dramatic irony.

Guess what our next assignment was? If you guessed "revise that story into something readable" you are officially ten times more intelligent than I was at 19. Somehow, I didn't see it coming, and when the hammer came down I was mortified. Had I only relied on poor grammar and incorrect punctuation to define my story as bad, I would've had it made, but instead my entire premise had no merit. And I somehow had to make it work or I WOULD FAIL AT LIFE.

I don't remember the particulars of the finished product, but it was successful enough to win raves from the instructor. And it taught me a lesson I've held onto ever since that day all those years ago: never write about diarrhea., actually what it taught me was that any story, no matter how misguided, can become better upon revision. Everything is salvageable if you're willing to put the work into it. Or, in the parlance of that long ago tale, even a turd can be polished.

How about you? What's your favorite writing exercise?

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Girl is...thinking about Dr. Suess!

It's Dr. Suess's birthday and I can't let the day pass without sending a tip of my (cat in the) hat his way. Suess has a special place in my heart because it's thanks to him that I learned to read. The first book I ever made it through on my own was Green Eggs and Ham, a feat that I'm sure I owe entirely to the fact that I memorized the darn thing after making my mom read it to me again and again and again (a ritual my own child is currently forcing on me). The clever, simple rhymes were easily remembered by my pea-sized toddler brain, though, and I quickly figured out how to match the sounds in my head with the squiggles on the page. Thus began my life long love affair with the printed word.

But did you know that Dr. Suess also has a World War II connection? Around the time he first started writing and illustrating whimsical children's books (and getting rejected for them), he was also working as a political cartoonist skewing the Third Reich, giving Roosevelt his props, encouraging people to buy war bonds, and lamenting racism against Jews and African Americans on the homefront (while being decidedly less kind to Japanese Americans). He also wrote U.S. propaganda and training films while serving in the Army, one of which became the basis for Our Job in Japan, the documentary he wrote that went on to win him in Academy Award in 1947.

Here's one of his short propaganda films, Our Job in Germany.