Thursday, August 26, 2010

10 Steps to a Great Critique Group

I've recently joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and found a critique group to work with. If you're a writer, you'll benefit from belonging to one. An avid reader is not the same as a critical reader - we enrich our thinking and experience by reading for pleasure, but critical reading can make us better writers.

So what's useful feedback, and what's "noise"?

1. Be positive. Slamming someone's style, story, characters etc is not productive.

2. Do your homework. Read the material beforehand, twice if you can (mark it up on the second reading).

3. Layer your feedback. Discuss story structure & characters, language, grammar, etc. Dig deeper than just correcting punctuation & trimming sentences.

4. Highlight what shines. Be sure to note every well-turned line/phrase/sentence - we all want to know that our writing's not a total loss.

5. Write up your comments. Then edit them. Organizing your thoughts will give you more insight into the piece's strengths & weaknesses.

6. Humor can soften the sting of "this doesn't work."

7. Participate fully. Don't just attend when your material is being critiqued - give your fellow writers the benefit of your insight. It's only fair.

8. Offer your significant observations during the group meeting. Save your sentence-by-sentence dissection for the marked-up excerpt, for the writer to review later.

9. SHARE. Know about a good resource (a book, an organization, a website)? A writer's conference you thought was good? An agent or publisher in a group member's genre? Making connections helps everyone improve.

10. You're the writer. Your critique group isn't "writing by committee", they're offering perspective on your work. Consider all suggestions, but remember: ultimately, it's your story. Do right by your characters.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

John Prine

Fred and I went to the Rocky
Mountain Folks Festival in
Lyons CO over the weekend.
The festival grounds are great -
the North St. Vrain River
coming along between cliffs
and the field - bring your kids,
and they can exhaust themselves
while soaking up some music,
splashing in the wide shallow river,
down among the cottonwoods.
Good food, lots of cooperation on reducing waste, a gorgeous sunny weekend
under lapis Colorado skies - some spectacular sunburns!

The headliner was John Prine, who played last - Sunday night. We went Saturday, and heard Dala, Marc Cohn, Jenny Lewis, and then left for the eve.

Sunday, wristbands in place, we walked in with chairs for the opening set: Abby and Bela - Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. When they finished, we left, chairs holding our spot, for a brief hike. We returned during Michelle Shocked's set, followed by
Richard Thompson (think that's him onstage)
and The Waifs.

Storm Clouds danced around us but unlike our 2007 Rocky Grass experience (same venue), we never got more than a dash - while towns to the east got clobbered with heavy rain, wind, etc.

I guess the sky gods knew John Prine doesn't need that kind of stuff going on - he's paid his dues.

Mr. Prine's setlist:
Blow up the TV
Crooked Piece of Time
Common Sense
Souvenirs - Steve Goodman song
Far From Me
Glory of True Love
Angel from Montgomery
The Sins of Memphisto

That last song has some Prine Gems in it - give a listen!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lindy Sunday

Neighborhood thrift stores have run through their wares

so these wild Lindy dancers can put on some airs,

Swinging in hi-tops and dance flats and sneaks,

Tight jeans and dresses that look like antiques.

A blue checkered skirt and a pair of red shoes,

Hawaiian-print birds and cool graceful moves.

Big green diagonals swirl as she flies,

Her partner's in cargo shorts - flair in disguise.

Panama hat over t-shirt and jeans,

fast-moving shoes as a couple careens,

Coiling together and stepping in time,

Flashing their hips as they turn on a dime.

Ascot in double knot sets off short sleeves,

bell-bottom jeans with dance shoes I believe -

Whatever works so their movement's carefree

While big band sounds lilt in a suave melody.

Here in the park as the evening descends,

they fill the pavilion, laughing with friends,

The floor is terrazzo, it's smooth and it's wide,

And under this roof they are dancing outside.

I hear Jimmy Rushing and Count Basie horns,

behind them the thunder from receding storms -

what we get's a rainbow, blazing up bright,

to set off this sliding high-kicking delight.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writing: Good Endings

Coming up with a good ending for a short story or novel is either a fluid mindless process, when the subconscious provides one, or just about impossible, if the writer has to think it through then frame it in words that don't seem labored.

A great ending elevates the story - it's worth the effort to get it right. My current favorite is Samuel Beckett's "Dante and the Lobster" (in the collections "More Pricks than Kicks" and "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On") - read it! The story provides hilarious and vivid imagery as the reader makes the rounds of his day with the protagonist. All seems in keeping with the grim view he takes of life and his techniques for prolonging it with agonized ritual, including the funniest bit about toast I've ever read.
Then, the final sentence: "It is not."
In three words Beckett demolishes the reader's comfort and amusement.
It's shocking, it's profound. It makes you wonder "How did he do that?" and "Can I ever possibly do that?"

The best endings I've written have showed up in the wee hours, when part of my brain is conscious but the rest zoned out, and my subconscious has free rein to neatly wrap things up. But if I have to do more than tweak that final image, I'm doomed. It won't cooperate. Writing ten or twenty alternate endings doesn't seem to get me any closer.

Some people write from an outline, so they know going in, more-or-less how a story will end. Do they feel an inspirational thrill when they get there? Does the ending write itself, or was it already there, and the function of the story is to reach the point where it comes next?

I enjoy being amazed by my characters - their resilience, their senses of humor, their understanding in the face of disaster that there is a Next. And when we get to the end of a story, they help me bring all the loose ends together - there's something magical about it. I type but they dictate.

Part of an effective ending is keeping the reader on the hook. In "Ladder of Years", Anne Tyler doesn't resolve her protagonist's dilemma until the final page - you can't put down the novel if you care about her at all. But when a book fizzles and you don't get there, it's frustrating. Brian Hall's "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company" about Lewis and Clark's expedition, goes on and on after the leaders return from westward exploration. I stopped reading with about fifty pages left - whether they lived happy or miserable lives afterwards didn't matter to me.

A good ending is the height of aesthetics, providing a summation of the story's conflicts and a direction the protagonist will go. When well done, this shifts the reader from the circumstances at hand to the universals beneath. When we're given a good ending we feel we've gained by reading the story - and when it's unsatisfying, we have that urge to hurl the book across the room - "I read all those pages for THAT!?"