Archives: August 2011

The Right-Brain Critique

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: August 30, 2011
Categories: Challenges
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right side of brainMy computer science husband often talks about the distinction between a “bug” (something that’s wrong with a program) and a “feature” (something that’s supposed to be there). I recently took scissors to the tattered fingertips of a grungy pair of gloves and turned a bug (holes) into a feature (no fingertips at all). Sometimes—rarely, Scrivas!—I do the same with a critique.

The bug: I don’t have the time or the mental functioning to do a thorough edit, which means to actively engage both sides of my brain. My left brain—my less dominant side and the area that does most of my language-oriented analysis—is out to lunch.

The feature: I turn what could be a half-baked whole-brained effort into a fully baked half-brain effort. I take off my editor hat and imagine myself to be a teen or middle grade reader (I’ve never tried this with picture books). I curl up on the couch rather than sit at my desk. I circle what “grabs” me in the text. I listen to my body while I’m reading for feedback that I’m relaxed, tense, afraid, eager, happy, or (horrors!) bored. Never once do I “think” of such concepts as point of view or narrative arc. I go with my gut.

Am I being a totally irresponsible Scriva? I’d like to think not. Right-brain and limbic reactions offer perspectives that can put you closer to your readers. It gets the most information out of a quick read. I trust that the other members of the group will have on their editor hats. That’s the beauty of a critique group.


Link: Care and Feeding of Critique Groups

by Addie Boswell
Published on: August 20, 2011
Categories: Other Topics
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Visit Eric Witchey’s article in Writer’s Magazine, headlined: The care and feeding of high-functioning critique groups  (Published: November 28, 2008)  Suggestions on “How to obtain sharp, useful critiques” at group meetings and avoid wish-washy responses.


Nudged into the Blogosphere

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: August 17, 2011
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Or: How your critique group pushes you in ways you need to be pushed!

The very fact that I am writing and posting this blog is living proof that your critique group can push you in ways that you need to be pushed.

I’ll start with a confession: I never read blogs.

The funny thing is that I read all ABOUT blogging, about how it’s a great way to connect with other writers and with readers and with the broader world. My agent and other people have asked if I blog or if I have considered it. I have considered it. I even started reading some blog posts emailed to me by ScrivaAmber and ScrivaNicole. (That is me putting my big toe into the blogging world.)

But what did it really take? It took my critique group talking, dreaming, honing, planning and finally launching a blog. I would not be in the bloggisphere with out them.

But that’s not all. Without the Viva Scrivas, I would likely:

  1. Not have regular writing retreats: Group momentum made the first one happen and that’s all it took to realize that these are ESSENTIAL to my writing life.
  2. Not have a newsletter: ScrivaAddie’s monthly newsletter impressed but also nagged and pushed me to start my own. And she showed me how – even down to picking the template!
  3. Not have the agent I have. (They encouraged, nudged, and finally insisted that I cut ties with an agent that wasn’t working out. And then they encouraged me to be open to a new one that seemed like a good fit. They were right.)
  4. Not set goals each year – and review progress at the end of the year. Not too long ago ScrivaAddie suggested a goal setting meeting. It was fun and eye-opening and helped set the course for a great year. So now I do it annually, whether the other Scrivas do or not. (But we generally do share our goals.)

So, if you’re feeling you really need a good kick in the pants, start or join a critique group. Just make sure you can take being nudged into new, unexplored territory!

Elizabeth Rusch

In MY Version of Your Story…

by Addie Boswell
Published on: August 16, 2011
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I was struck by this phrase, thrown out (in jest) as the Scrivas talked about edits. The phrase calls to mind all well-meaning advice, including: ‘If I were you…” If it was me…” “If you were smart about it…”  You probably get the same instant physical reaction that I do to these phrases: clam up, shut down, tune out. Nobody likes a talking head. If parents and priests give advice, think of critique groups as giving ideas and suggestions, and most of all — encouragement.

It is a subtle difference, and more difficult than it seems. Advice pops into your head all the time as you’re critiquing. We get attached to each others’ stories, after all, and start to think we have some say in them. Many times I’ve been reading a manuscript and thought, “Oh, if only the character would do this.” And maybe this would be the perfect answer to the plot problem, maybe this would finish the book. But it doesn’t matter, because this is not my story.  Giving advice may only mildly annoy the writer, but it may have more serious consequences. Like causing her to distrust your objectivity or to distrust her own voice or the arc of her story. Bad critique, indeed.

Let’s look at some examples.

  • You should have your heroine dump Steve and go for Nick.
  • The whole romantic angle doesn’t work for me.
  • Can you have her fall in love with someone else?

One is too specific (and advice-laden), two is too general (and snarky), and the third is… Well, its just okay. A question can be a great vehicle. Consider these much subtler variations:

  • I’d like more tension between the love interests.
  • I wonder if Nick can be fleshed out more.
  • Is there another way to show the heroine’s personal growth?

These work especially well if you follow them up with specific edits like, “I’ve marked places where Nick isn’t as clear.” or “Here’s a scene where you do it perfectly.” The last question may be the best edit if it gets to the heart of the problem, which may not be Steve or Nick or romance, but the heroine’s development. One more option–if you just can’t help yourself–is to cage your ideas in a list of choices, for example:

  • Is there another way to show the heroine’s personal growth? For example, what if she swears off dating, or falls in love with someone else, or has some other epiphany/crisis?

While these are definite suggestions, they are phrased in a way that lets the writer stay firmly in the driver’s seat.

Can this subtle difference be clarified any more? Do you have examples of good and bad edits you’ve received?  Join in!

Optimists of the World…Make Room for Everyone Else!

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: August 12, 2011
Categories: Challenges, Other Topics
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Dr. Seligman, I owe you an apology. I thought you were one of those positive thinking guys. Instead, you have your Ph.D., Penn professorship, professional colleagues and profuse research all in the science of optimism. You’re not into people merely repeating “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” whether it’s true or not. Rather, you desire to help people change habits of thought that will concretely improve their health, happiness, relationships, work… and even WRITING! For this, I thank you.

At a pivotal meeting in late 2008, the Scrivas discussed personal obstacles to writing. As I remember, these fell into two broad categories that likely all creative types can recognize: 1) life—demanding jobs, young families, lack of time; and 2) doubts about ourselves and our work—showing up in questions such as, “Am I good enough?” “Do I have anything to say?” “Does my work matter?”

Here’s the rub. What we believe affects what we do—or don’t. Aptitude and motivation are not enough, Seligman says. Optimism is also required. “A composer can have all the talent of a Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialize. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”

People can have general or localized pessimistic tendencies. The good news is that optimism can be learned. As Seligman puts it, it’s not what happens to us (“Adversity”), but how we explain it to ourselves (“Belief”) that matters, affecting how we feel and what we do or don’t do (“Consequences”). Here’s an example. The A is the same in both instances. The differing B is what determines the C, action or lack of it.

Adversity: I feel stuck, I can’t write.
Belief: I’m a terrible person. I can’t ever do anything.
Consequences: Why bother at all? I give up.

Adversity: I feel stuck, I can’t write.
Belief: My goals are unrealistic. I need to come up with more realistic goals.
Consequences: OK, there’s something I can do. Let me revise my goals.

This is merely an amuse gueule to whet your appetite for the multi-course meal of Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. You’ll want to read his full ABCDEs, and learn about permanent, pervasive, and personal explanations (pessimistic), and their optimistic opposites.

For myself, having Learned Optimism, I’m moving on to Authentic Happiness. Yes, that is finally within reach! It’s another Seligman title, now waiting for me on the hold shelf of my library.

More on the Two Kinds of Critique Groups

by Addie Boswell
Published on: August 9, 2011
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At the Willamette Writers Conference this weekend, I enjoyed this workshop: How to Find–or Create–Your Ideal Writers Critique Group. The presenting panel (including Eric Witchey, Jeffrey Selin, Margaret Malone, and Ellen Urbani) gave more insight into the two main types of critique groups, or “parenting styles.” They defined them as:

The Analysis Group: Manuscripts are sent and edited before the meeting, and group time is used to summarize. Typically, the author doesn’t speak, and groups range from six members to more than twenty.

  • learn how to summarize/edit in a precise manner
  • learn good critique by modeling those around you
  • often have clear leader role
  • get plenty of line edits


  • big time commitment to read and comment on work ahead of time
  • no author response/group discussion
  • can be too impersonal, rapid, for some

Who its best for:

  • those ready to publish (who want very detailed edits)
  • formulaic thinkers, who prefer to read and reflect in private
  • genre-specific groups
  • mixed-skill groups

The Reader Response Group: Members bring copies of up to 10 manuscript pages. They read their submission as the rest of the group edits along; group feedback ensues. These average 8 members.


  • no homework
  • rules are more lax, can be more nurturing
  • get immediate feedback on most current work
  • reading aloud makes obvious the emotional energy of story


  • no in-depth line editing
  • can’t critique bigger sections, don’t get big-picture feedback (as in novels)

Best for:

  • those who talk through problems
  • those of the same production level and/or same skill level
  • mixed-genre groups

These two comments were also striking, and unilaterally agreed on.

“The easiest way to change a group is to quit and start a new one.” Especially if the new group establishes rules and procedure from the outset.

“The best way to find a group is to pick the best writer you know and ask them two questions: Are you looking for more members in your group? Can you recommend someone you know who is looking?”  The second best way: taking classes or going to conferences and talking to people you meet.


Best intentions

by Mary Rehmann
Published on: August 2, 2011
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I started the summer with the best intentions:  write every day, learn to play guitar, read all the YA books that have been piling up on my nightstand, and take my kids on a cross-country road trip.

Well, in a nutshell, what I wrote and the chords I learned to play on our 65 mph whirlwind tour of the western U.S. would fit in a very tiny nutshell.  The stacks of books though – those took up more than half of the back of my minivan.  My regret at not using every spare moment to work on my novel took up the other half.

Arriving back in Portland, late last night, I unloaded all the baggage and uncovered something important I’d forgotten: I need a quiet space to write in.   I climbed into bed long after midnight, and around three, I was ready to take an axe to the characters and scenes clamoring for attention.  Before I’d even had my coffee, I headed to and read all the posts I missed while on the road.  Scriva Sabina’s and Scriva Melissa’s words pummeled me into reflection.

As surely as I did not learn to play anything beyond an E chord, I surely did make progress on my novel.  Okay, okay.  No words made it onto the screen, but the descriptions and dialogue and action scenes that piled up as I drove are begging for some quiet space in which they can be typed.

And so I’m ending the summer with the best intentions:  find a quiet place, write every day, learn another guitar chord.

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