Let’s Get Critical

Over the years my attitude and approach to providing feedback on the work of other writers has changed considerably. This isn’t too surprising in hindsight, but after providing feedback on a handful of short stories recently, it made me think a little deeper about what has changed and why.

In my first writing group, we had the opportunity to prepare up to 300 words on a topic which was provided prior to the meeting. The work could be prose or poetry, factual or fictional, and it was brought along, sight unseen, to the gathering. Time was put aside for reading the work aloud and receiving feedback if requested. By listening to the feedback provided by others, I began to learn how to identify what worked and how to articulate constructive criticism on other people’s writing.

Constructive criticism is challenging to prepare and to give, but the benefits of being able to make suggestions which may clarify unclear points and strengthen the work are significant. By reading and thinking critically about someone else’s writing, it provides the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of different styles and approaches, often in genres that you might not spend much time in. It stretches the mind and helps you to see what is possible.

Most of my critiquing these days is completed at my desk with a copy of the work to hand. I prefer to read the work through quite quickly, resisting the urge to mark up sections or make corrections, trying to focus instead on the story and the impression that it leaves on me. If I can, I will leave the work for a day or so before returning to read it slowly, taking my time to write comments and scribble thoughts. I will then jot down impressions of the piece, along with what worked and what might be improved. In my writing group we share feedback at regular critiquing sessions, and it is helpful to see what resonates with others along with picking up on insights from other writers. It is a great way to hone critiquing skills.

I find that bringing a critical eye and a different perspective helps me with my own work as well, reminding me that sometimes you need to step away in order to really see how a piece comes together.

There are many online critiquing groups where writers share their work and provide feedback on other people’s stories. For now I find that there is enough critiquing to be done in my existing writing circles, but I may venture into online critiquing in the future.

What is your experience in providing constructive feedback?

[Photo: bikes spotted in the small village of Marulan – offering a different viewpoint of something familiar]

Writing Prompt: A Musical Moment

One of my earliest memories of writing to music was when I was about ten years old. I can still picture the classroom and the pens poised over exercise books as we were instructed to listen to the music and to write what it brought to mind. The music was the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and I wrote a poem about war and battle – hard not to as the canons boomed and the music built to a crescendo. The rattle of the drums and the call to arms was impossible to resist.

On a recent writing retreat, music was used as a prompt. There were three short pieces played, all exquisite and evoking surprisingly similar responses amongst the writers gathered around the table.  The first piece was a Norwegian folk song called Heiemo Og Nykkjen performed by Kirsten Braten-Berg. For me, the music was a melancholic song of farewell.

The music swirls around me, holding me close in its grasp. I want to weep, to turn back, to return to where I belong. But it is my song of farewell. My people are letting me go. I walk slowly, one heavy foot in front of the next. I know the tune so well; it is carved into my heart from so many other farewells. I have sung it myself when my brother left the valley, leaving our village behind. We were sure that he’d return, that it would only be a brief separation. But he has not returned. And now I, too, must go.

My sister’s voice lifts and as the notes tremble around me I stumble. But I cannot turn back now, as much as my heart breaks. I must continue on.

One of my fellow writing group members has written of the impact of the musical prompt session here.

Have you used music as a muse for writing?

[Photo: mural spotted in Hornsby next to second-hand bookshop The Bookplate]

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

Notes On A Writing Retreat

I see distant mountain ranges framed by trees, a spider speeding along a railing. Birds are swooping and swaying overhead, and distant sounds carry on a warm breeze. I am in a space where there is scope to let the words fall where they may.

It is true that you cannot schedule inspiration, but you can create an environment which is conducive to it. Space to let thoughts eddy and swirl, where incomplete projects can be nurtured back into life or new projects commenced. Pockets of time in which the usual miscellany of life is held in abatement – it can and will wait for a few hours. There is freedom and wistfulness and the possibility of the exploration and creation of other times and places.

Time is passed in a casual routine of writing together, sharing what is written, and writing solo. There is something both industrious and intimate in creating in a group environment. Solitary yet not alone.

Giving yourself permission to create: it seems like something so simple but I find it is somehow harder than I expect. I know how fortunate I am to have a home where there is space to write yet these occasional days of being in a supportive and collaborative space is something else entirely, bringing a different element to what I write.

I strongly recommend participation and creation in such a space. Create it yourself if you need to!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat?

[Photo: some writing journals]

A Creative Checklist

Recently I came across a section called ‘How to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice’ in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves (pp 147-150). A Writer’s Book of Days, also by Reeves, is one of my favourite writing books, and below is a summarised version of a checklist on building a writing practice, but it could be applied to any creative endeavour.

  1. I identify myself as a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I answer, ‘I’m a writer’. Or at least I always include it.
  2. I give myself affirmations, claiming myself as a writer: notes in my notebook or journal, in my writing space or by saying them out loud.
  3. I have a writing space. Even if I actually write all over the place, I maintain a sacred space for my writing.
  4. I have the tools and materials and support I need for my writing. I buy or borrow books about writing and subscribe to literary journals and writing publications.
  5. I have writing friends with whom I write or talk about writing or do writing things with.
  6. I do writerly things: I’m a member of a writing group, I go to readings. I read interviews with writers and listen to what they say about the craft and life of being a writer.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me, and thank them. In these letters I claim myself as a writer and tell the writer what their work meant to me, writer to writer.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule.
  10. When I see that I’m consistently breaking my appointments, I review what might be the cause – chosen time isn’t right, life is too busy right now, goals too high, ___ – and make changes where necessary.
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. Not some vague ‘when I can’ or ‘if I have time today’.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency; if not daily, at least five times a week.
  13. I also create special times for writing – a long weekend or a retreat (with other writers or by myself) or to participate in a conference or seminar where I’ll actually write.
  14. I write. When I go to my writing space, when I set aside the time, I don’t just think about writing or talk about writing. I write.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. When I procrastinate, I acknowledge that’s what I’m doing. When I’m afraid, I face my fear and write through it. And when all is said and done, I write.

How are you travelling with your creative checklist?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

Still Not Telling

Last week I wrote about how as a reader, listener or observer we tend to overlay our own thoughts and perceptions upon artistic endeavours. This led me to think about what this experience has been like as a writer, to have my work read and reviewed.

There are times when I’ve had my short stories critiqued and I’ve been surprised – and quietly delighted – with the interpretations, assumptions and insights that readers share with me. It is really interesting to experience. Sometimes I’ve been asked ‘what happened next?’ which can be a very difficult question to answer. There are times when I genuinely don’t know.

It can be revealing to have layers and nuances in your work picked up by others, and quite often these touches have not consciously been included in the writing. It is with distance or a different perspective that they become most evident.

At other times, the vision and intent that had been so clear in my mind doesn’t always translate clearly to the page. What had seemed so evident to me may not be apparent to the reader, and this is where getting feedback before releasing work out into the world can be beneficial. Another option might be to leave the work to rest a little longer, then return with fresh eyes to read through and pick up on ambiguity or gaps that may not have been evident in the earlier reading.

Belonging to a writing group with critiquing sessions is helpful in many ways, and being able to get an idea of what your work sounds and feels like is one of the main benefits. You also get the chance to hone your own critiquing skills by reviewing the work of other writers. This helps to sharpen the skills with your own writing, as well as giving you access to a sense of what a reader experiences when they read your work.

What insights have you experienced by putting your work out into the world?

[Photo: sunset at Wellington, NSW near turnoff for Wellington Caves on the Mitchell Highway]

Blogging – what, why and where?

I was recently asked to put some words together in response to this question for a post on the Writers in the Mist blog. This blog is hosted and managed by the fabulous staff at the Blue Mountains City Library, and includes pieces contributed by my local writing group.

One of my fellow writers, Therese Doherty, also responded to the call and you can find her interesting and thoughtful response here. Therese’s blog – Offerings from the Wellspring – can be found here. The byline for this great blog is ‘creativity and connection in a living world’ and her posts are beautifully written, considered and encourage deeper reflection.

The Blue Mountains City Library also has a blog for readers – Readers in the Mist. There are book reviews, articles, news and entertaining infographics like the one in this post.

So below is my response to why I blog, and the original post can be found here.

Why did I start a blog?

Earlier this year I gave some serious thought about what mattered most to me and creativity was high on the list. I thought starting a blog would offer a creative outlet as well as creating discipline with regular posting – it would help me to write more. Which it does!

Why did I choose the theme I did?

I thought about what I liked in other blogs and what I wanted to blog about. It came down to wanting to share aspects of mountain life as well as writing about writing. So the Monday posts are about musings from the mountains, and the writing related posts appear on Thursdays.

How often do I blog?

Twice a week. This did feel a bit ambitious at first but I have found a rhythm and actively seek new material and experiences to blog about, which fuels my creativity, which creates more blog material! Before I started I made a list of possible blog topics and I keep adding to this as the ideas roll in. I keep the blogs short – usually around 400 words – which also keeps it manageable.

Why did I choose this blog site?

My blog is on WordPress.com. I set up a blog for serial fiction there a few years back and found the site easy to use. It works well across devices which is handy as I travel a bit for work and write a lot on my tablet and phone.

What is it like to get feedback on posts?

It’s really encouraging. I have received some great feedback and it is interesting to take a step back and review what generates a higher response. One of my best posts was a writing book review (Still Life with Teapot) and anything that includes a reference to writing morning pages usually gets some feedback. I am still learning but putting in lots of tags definitely helps. I also enjoy reading and following other blogs, and provide feedback too as I know it makes my day to know that someone has taken the time to read my blog.

Tips for new bloggers?

Content matters most. Blogs are a great way to get your voice and your interests across. Some will get a better response than others, and it is important to read what others are writing too. I have come across some really great blog posts and found inspiration and learned a lot from more experienced bloggers. I now feel more engaged as an active writer in a virtual community.

If you are thinking about blogging, I’d encourage you to give it a go. There are many benefits to creating, writing and putting your work out there, and to be an active part in a writing community whether it’s local or online or a happy mix of the two.

Why do you blog?

[Photo: dog in a bathtub reading The Land for some inexplicable reason atop the newsagency at Gunning, NSW]

 

Stuff and nonsense*

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of paper shuffling. Well, more like trying to sort out the reams of papers relating to my writing that I’ve managed to jam into a filing cabinet which is threatening to explode.

By nature I like to keep things, and with my writing I like to keep a hard copy to hand. When I’m editing my work, I still prefer to print it out, although I can edit online if I have to. I do try to read my writing aloud – it is staggering the things that you find after reading and editing a couple of times, regardless of how careful you think you are being throughout the process. Online spelling and grammar checks aren’t always entirely accurate, or they may not be able to cope with the context of what is being expressed.

I recently polished off a short story that started out a year or two ago with a ten minute writing prompt. In a folder I have the typed copy of the writing exercise consisting of about 300 words. Then I have a working draft or two of the story, with various markings and scribblings of the pen as I edited and tinkered with the work. There is a copy of the version I submitted to my writing group for feedback. There were pertinent points raised, and I have marked this copy with the suggestions and corrections. Then I have my polished draft of about 1500 words.

Why do I keep so many versions? Thankfully I don’t keep every version I print, but I try to keep a copy of the major edits, just in case I slice out something substantial that I want to reinstate later, or use somewhere else.

Another way to manage this electronically would be to save the various versions as they are edited. I have a vague memory of an established writer being interviewed and saying that all the sections that were cut from the novel during the editing process were put into a separate document so they could be revived or reused if required.

I may not need to go back and revisit the various drafts of a story, but there is a degree of comfort in knowing that I have it filed away. In the future if am stuck on something I can follow the broad strokes of my  working method if required.

What do you do with your working copies?

*With a nod to the song Stuff and Nonsense by Split Enz, with a beautiful version by Missy Higgins also available.

[Photo: detail of stained glass door at the Hydro Majestic showing a variety of styles]

Together Alone*

Lately I’ve been thinking about the merits and challenges of belonging to a group of writers. Writing is more of a solitary occupation rather than a team activity, but it can be hard yards when you are alone with your thoughts and cast of characters, tapping away and becoming enmeshed in a world of your own creation. Self-doubt is an accepted part of the writing life, but it can be eased by connecting with other writers.

There are various online forums which encourage you to test your work and connect with your fellow scribes. I have tried these from time to time and have enjoyed the process. Many of them include a mixture of receiving feedback in exchange for critiquing the work of others. This can be a good way to hone your skills: it is often easier to pick up things in other people’s work as there is a degree of separation.

Then there are the writing groups which are in many of our communities. Granted, they may not be easy to find but they are worth the search. Ask friends, check in at your local library or keep an eye out for writing groups being advertised online or in the newspaper (old school, I know, but still effective at times).

I belong to a group of writers following a shout out for interested people through my local library. The initial response to this call to arms was impressive. There were people from all walks of life who simply wanted to connect with others, get feedback on their work and share in the many joys that come from writing.

Sometimes you need to test the water and make sure that the group is going to be a reasonable fit for where you are and what it is that you are looking for from other writers. Is it purely critiquing, or do you need a bit of guidance from time to time on character or plot development? Are you looking for a group of writers in the same area (novel writing, short stories, poetry, screenplays etc) or do you work better with a bit of diversity? If you are lucky enough to have a choice, go along to a few sessions before casting your hat in the ring and committing yourself to turn up and participate on a regular basis.

If you are clear in your intent, you are more likely to find a group that resonates with you, that helps you find direction if you are a little lost, and most importantly, inspires you to write.

Do you fly solo, or do you connect with other writers from time to time?

*Together Alone is a song and album title borrowed from Crowded House.

 

Power Prompts

There are times when writing prompts can seem a bit twee. I mean, who has time to sit down and write or tap out words for 15 minutes based on a randomly generated thought or idea?

But there is something about the process itself that makes it worth the investment of time and energy. Sometimes it is just knowing that it is for a short timeframe, or that what comes out of your mind in response to the prompt is probably of limited consequence and may in fact never be used at all – this can be liberating. What does it matter if you write nonsense, as long as you are writing?

Years ago whilst travelling through Daylesford, I stumbled across an excellent bookshop. It had a mixture of old and new books, stashed in various rooms and cubby holes. It was a delight to wander around and in a spot wedged between two rooms I found the writing reference section. There were a couple of books that took my interest but the one that I left with was A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. This book has a writing prompt for every day, interspersed with lots of suggestions around how to incorporate writing into your life.  There are also insights into the habits of famous writers and lots of great suggestions on how to connect deeper with your work.

Some of my best work has emerged out of writing prompts. A writing exercise completed with my local writing group included an unidentified tool, writing from a randomly assigned genre, and the challenge of writing from another gender. From this prompt emerged a short piece which I have significantly expanded upon. It is hard to imagine how else I would have come across such an idea.

It’s all in the power of the prompt. Do you have any favourite prompts?