Monday, May 5, 2014

It's All Subjective

What is your favorite book? How about your favorite movie? TV show? Have you ever watched a movie or read a book on someone's else's rave review and come away disappointed?
As we all know, this happens.

Every story written, every book published is as unique as the individual writer. We each have our personal story to tell, our own voice, our own style. But as we maneuver through the arduous journey of learning the craft of writing, we all need help on occasion. A teacher, a critique partner, beta reader, a judge in a contest, -- another writer to offer their opinion, their perspective.
We may not always agree with the other writer's viewpoint, however it's important to keep an open mind.
Our stories are like our children. We create them, work on them, nurture them... help them grow into a solid piece of writing to share with the world.

Before we query agents and editors, before we submit to publishers -- small and large -- before we self-publish, we need to have a well-written, polished story to present.

I've had several critique partners over the years. I have been involved with critique groups -- face to face and online -- I have engaged in small one-time-only critique sessions at retreats and conferences, but I have never found that perfect fit. A critique partner or partners for the long term.
One reason is I am extraordinarily blessed to have been born into a family of writers. We love and support each other in our individual writing endeavors no matter what. My family will read and comment on anything I throw their way and vice versa.
However, this isn't quite the same as having a serious, personal critique partner. And not the same as having our work judged anonymously.

Entering writing contests is one way to receive valuable feedback on all elements of writing. Not all contests offer feedback but many include comments and suggestions.

I help judge and critique around four to five writing contests a year. The submitted entries are from unpublished manuscripts (anywhere from 10 pages up to 50 pages)  although not all are from unpublished authors. Many of the contests are open to both unpublished and published writers.

Judging contests has taught me so much about my own writing -- what works, what doesn't. What can the writer do to enhance their writing? What would I do? And most important: how do I communicate any comments and suggestions I make in a positive way?
It doesn't help anyone to be mean and sarcastic. Be encouraging, helpful. Concentrate on what's great about the entry, not the negative. I do make suggestions when something just doesn't sound right, or seems incongruous with the conflict or characters.
Usually, I read through an entry and make comments as I go. Some are not as positive and encouraging as they could be, so later (usually several days later) I will go through the entry again. I will then score, make additional comments, and revise any of the harsher comments. It's taken me many years experience to be able to judge with confidence. And my own writing has improved immensely.

A critique partner works differently. There are several factors to consider in partnering with someone and sharing your writing. Having the same level of skill can be important. Also it would enhance the experience if both writers worked in the same genre. I would prefer someone who wrote and appreciated the romance genre, but they wouldn't necessarily have to write contemporary and/or suspense. If you write for YA or middle grade, I think it would be a better fit to have a partner who wrote the same. Remember with a critique partner you are sharing your work with them and they are doing the same with you.

Judging contests and working with a critique partner takes time away from my writing, but the skills learned have been invaluable.

And sometimes, not often, I receive feedback from a contestant. The following is an actual letter I received about three years ago:

Dear Judge,

I thank you very much for your honest and encouraging feedback on my first novel. I really needed it to continue writing. Some members of my critique group had broken down my confidence completely and I had stopped writing for a while. So your feedback gives me hope to continue. Thanks again. I will go through my work again and try to improve.

Enough said. :)


Robin said...

What a beautiful, heartfelt note from one of the writers you critiqued. As a poet, I find it helpful to show my poems to members of the several writing groups I belong to. Also, I love sharing my writing with my sibs!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Robin. :)