Togetherness, writer style

I’m posting a day early because I’m traveling tomorrow and may not have a chance.

On November 7, 2012, Kate Phillips wrote, I love writing, and I have a couple of friends who I email some stories so they can give me feedback. Sometimes my friend will say that something doesn’t make sense or is weird, when I disagree. I can’t tell if this is because it really is weird, or if it’s just their opinion.

Sometimes my friends also want something to be going in a totally different direction. My friend really wants the book to say it’s by her too, but I’m not sure about that.

How can you tell when you are co-writing and when they are just giving you ideas? I feel like if we really are co-writing, and if she is really doing half the writing, that it should say it is written by her as well.

Have you ever co-written a story?

When you are just in the beginning of a story who do you consult? I know I should have a professional editor edit it before I try to get it published, but I’m not sure who I should talk to before than.

Do you have any tips about co-writing?

And Michelle Dyck wrote along the same lines, ...I second Kate Phillips’s request for tips on co-writing. My brother and I are going to coauthor a book someday soon, so any advice on that would be good.

Let’s start with co-writing, which I have never done, but which sounds appealing for the pure fun of it. Writing can feel lonely, and having a friend to share the burden is mighty attractive.

Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin’s two co-written books, P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More, are epistolary novels in which one character writes to the other, so there are two POV’s. Paula Danziger wrote one, and Ann Martin wrote the other. I’d guess that the two discussed the direction of each novel before they started and as they went along, but then the actual writing was separate.

Other writing pairs I’ve spoken to also have a clear division of labor. The one who’s better at plotting writes an outline and the other fills in with deathless prose. Back to the outliner for edits and back to the writer for the polish. It’s a collaboration, but the two still write at separate desks, possibly many miles apart, and each contributes according to his or her strengths. There may be circumstances where two writers sit together and hash out every sentence, but I don’t know of them. I hope blog readers will chime in with your own co-writing experiences.

If you’re going to try co-writing, I’d suggest thinking about which tasks each of you is best at: ideas, outlining, writing great sentences, dialogue, revision. Then divide the labor. And if your relationship with your co-writer is important, I’d devise some rules for when things get heated, like time apart, like no name calling, and you may not punch your co-writer in the nose! You might decide in advance that friendship is more important than story, and you’ll abandon the story if you seem on the way to becoming enemies. There are plenty of stories out there and not an unlimited supply of friends or brothers.

As for what qualifies someone to be a co-writer, I’d say equality, meaning that you’ve both put in, relatively, the same level of effort. If your friends are just commenting from the sidelines and you’re doing all the heavy lifting, the story belongs to you, and your pals may get an acknowledgment, or, if you’re feeling kind, a dedication.

At the moment I have only one writing buddy, but my preference is for two. If they agree about an aspect of my story, I have to take that seriously. But if they disagree I need to consider both points of view and then take my pick. As I keep writing, the truth may make itself known to me anyway. The proposed direction either bears fruit or it doesn’t.

If your friends are urging you to take your story down an entirely different path than the one you had in mind, maybe they should be writing their own stories. And I don’t like it that they’re making you feel bad and lost. Writing is hard enough without hecklers. We need voices in our heads that are approving, that appreciate us, and love what we write. We also want to be able to take criticism and to be usefully self-critical, but that criticism needs to be specific and constructive.

I do consider all criticism that comes in about whatever I’m working on. No one is a perfect writer, no matter how long she’s been at it. The lot of a writer is perpetual learning, which is one of the best things about our calling: eternal growth. If a criticism surprises me and helps me see in a new way, hooray!

When I’m just starting a story, I may mention what I’m up to and some of my ideas to my editor. I may drop a word or two to friends. Then again I may not say anything to anybody. I may simply start. It’s just me and my computer at that point. It’s too early to get anyone else involved substantively. You certainly don’t need a professional editor at the beginning. Fundamentally, when we write, we have to please ourselves.

Some writers, when they’ve finished a draft and taken it as far as they can in revision, do hire a freelance editor to help make the book as good as it can be. But others rely on critique groups, which is a sort of barter system. I go over your story and you go over mine. No money changes hands. And critique groups can help all the way through a manuscript, not just at the end. I went the critique group route during the nine years it took me to get published. Plus classes and reading books about writing.

Here are three prompts:

• Sleeping Beauty is beautiful because a fairy made her so. She sings prettily, is witty, etc., because of fairy gifts. She’s defined by what the fairies gave her. They come to her christening, but she doesn’t even get a name. She doesn’t want to sleep for a hundred years and awaken to the kiss of a future prince. In your story, send her on a quest to reclaim herself, the self the fairies didn’t allow to flower, the self she never got a chance to know. In the process, she hopes to escape the long sleep.

• Sam is spending the summer with his aunt and uncle and their daughter Tulip, who is his age. Sam is there so he can go to mural camp. This year’s project is to create a mural about a local civilization that faded out a thousand years earlier. Sam’s section of mural features a native girl who helped her family make pottery. He begins having vivid and menacing dreams about this girl and his own cousin Tulip. Take it from there.

• James, Tara, and Penny form a critique group. Tara is writing away, but James is blocked, and Penny keeps revising the same chapter again and again. Write one of their meetings.

Have fun, and save what you write!


This will be the last post in The Criticism Series unless anyone has follow-up questions.  Grace wrote that she and her writing buddy are starting a critique group, and then she asked, I’ve never really critiqued anyone’s writing before, I’ve only had people critique mine. Since I’m going to critique group next week, does anyone have any idea how to provide good, honest critique?
Many of you reading this probably have critique group experience, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Every group is different.  Some meet only online.  Some are small, three or four writers.  Some are big, with a floating membership; different people show up from meeting to meeting.  Groups meet weekly, biweekly, monthly, or as needed.

Some are highly structured.  Maybe only three writers present work at each meeting and presenting rotates.  The time spent on each piece is limited and monitored.  There may be a group leader.  There may be a page limit of, say, ten pages.

Others are more free-wheeling: discussion can last as long as it lasts; as many people can present as have work; no length limit.

Or anything in between.

Some groups email work to one another before getting together.  I prefer this.  My first reaction to something isn’t always trustworthy.  I like to sit with a piece for a while.

In some groups, the piece is read aloud, usually not by its author, because problems tend to jump out when you hear your work, and, if a reader stumbles, there may be a wording problem at that spot.

Whether you receive material ahead of time or not, it’s important to have a copy for everyone at the meeting to follow along with the reader.  Otherwise the words go by too fast, and people miss thingsh or may mishear.

Writers have different expectations from critique groups.  I tend to line edit everything I read, and I welcome line edits from others, but some critique members don’t want that; they want to hear about only the major plot and character issues (which I address as well when I see them).  One time, I joined a critique group and plowed in with all my tiny edits only to have the other members look at me in shock and dismay.  Best to discuss this in advance.

(What is a line edit?  It’s the little things like word repetition, sentence sameness, uncertainty about who’s speaking, and so on.)

Before you join a group, it’s worth considering what you’d like to get out of it.  Do you want line edits or just big-picture criticism?  Are you okay with sharing parts of your manuscript, or do you want a group that is willing to look at the entire thing?  Would you be willing to put in the time to go over someone else’s three hundred pages?  Do you even have that kind of time?

If there isn’t much to choose from in your area, you may have to take what you can get, but it still makes sense to think about.  Once you’re in a group you may be able to move it in the direction you prefer.

Okay.  Let’s assume you’re in Grace’s enviable situation.  You’ve just formed a critique group.  How do you “provide good, honest critique?”

If you receive the work ahead of time, read it over twice with some time between readings if possible.  I suggest you mark it up in pencil (not red), so you can change your mind.  When I go over something, I usually write my line edits on the manuscript.  If I think something should be deleted, I put parentheses around it.  I never strike through someone’s words, because that feels like an assault to me.  And all my comments are just suggestions.

For broad issues, I keep a separate list, generally a short list.  Big comments might be that a certain character isn’t likable (and then I show the places that led me to this conclusion) or that I don’t believe a particular character would behave as portrayed.

I just went back to my post from last November 18th on revision, and I suggest you revisit it too, because much of what applies to revising your own writing, applies to editing the writing of others.  In your critiques you can go into all the elements that I listed then, including plot, character, setting, voice, detail.

Possibly the most important and useful thing to watch for in a manuscript is your own confusion.  Did you fail to understand something?  If you did, it is likely not your fault.  Something is probably missing, or something has misled you in a way that the author didn’t intend.  Pointing out the place of your confusion is likely to be helpful to your critique buddy.

Your very valuable quality, maybe the most valuable, is that you are a good reader.  You’ve read lots of books; you know what you like and what irritates you, and you bring that background to your critiquing.

Of course you should say what you like before launching into the problems.  Every editorial letter I’ve ever gotten has begun with the good stuff.  There have been a few times, however, when I haven’t liked anything, and then I don’t say that, but I jump right into the criticism.  That is what we’re there for.  In those instances, however, I may not point out every little thing that bothered me.  The small stuff can wait until the major problems have been fixed.

Don’t be the critique member who says nothing.  Push yourself.  You can be silent for a few meetings, but after that, try to speak up.  If you don’t, other members may conclude you’re there only to receive feedback and not to give any, even though the truth may be simple shyness or lack of confidence.

I was in a certain critique group for years.  We all knew each other.  Most of us had become friends.  We’d shared many pieces of writing.  And yet, whenever it was my turn to receive criticism, I was scared.  Every single time!  For years!  Sometimes I went first, but I never wanted to.  I always wanted to ease into it.  Then, all I really wanted to hear was that every word I’d written was a marvel.  But once we got into my story and people started giving their helpful comments, after a few minutes, I calmed down and my blood pressure returned to normal and I appreciated what was coming my way.

Some of you have written that you don’t like to show your work until it’s as good as you can make it.  That’s fine if – if you don’t get locked in an endless cycle of revision that keeps you from going on to new writing and if you are ever satisfied enough to expose your work to helpful eyes.

The wonderful thing about criticism, the part that makes even the rare hurt worthwhile, is that you get a fresh perspective.  Your critiquers will see your words in ways that will surprise you.  They’ll find themes and ideas and, naturally, problems that you were blind to.  But you’ll never be completely blind again.  You may repeat your mistakes, but you’ll be broadened, and you’ll begin not to repeat.  The smallest thing, even a suggested word choice that is outside your range will expand you.

Some of what makes us writers is our curiosity about people.  When you’re part of a critique group and you read other writers’ halting efforts, you change perspective.  It’s a different kind of intimacy from a friendship, although friendships can develop, but there will also be this, an understanding that only writers have, or maybe that only artists have.

Hooray for critique groups!

Here’s a prompt:  Three critique buddies are meeting.  Write their session, and in the course of it, give glimpses of the manuscripts, which both reveal and disguise aspects of their authors’ lives.  Follow the members after the critique session as they reenter their situations.

Have fun and save what you write!