Anika Goes (Back) to the Movies!!

For those that don’t know Arizona, where I fry in the sun, is allowing movie theaters to reopen!!

The hubby and I are taking full advantage and making a day of it. We are headed to cooler temps and a double feature in northern AZ today.

Be on the look out next week for reviews of The New Mutants and The Personal History of David Copperfield. I am trash for anything with Dev Patel and I’ve been waiting on tinter hooks for this one.

I am so willing to brave the virus (in my mask of course) to get that experience back and bring you all of my most excellent thoughts on the art of film. I can’t wait.

ON WITH THE SHOW!!

~Anika

Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 1

If I had to rank the skills of a writer in order of importance the list would look thusly:

  1. Disciplined persistence/focus- these two are inseparable and form a kind of positive feedback loop.
  2. Critique- both the giving and receiving of such, identifying useful from not so much, etc.
  3. All the other writerly things in whatever order seemeth thee good.

The various structural and artistic skills of writing come to each of us in different orders, based on the level of talent and skill we bring to our careers. The more you do it, the more those will build on each other over time. So improve your craft, for sure, but don’t get so concerned about your prose that you lose sight of bigger picture issues. Furthermore, the artistic stuff is variable, not to mention subjective, there is no clear advantage to pursuing one’s characterization technique over one’s plotting ability.

No, the only advantage comes from dedication to Butt In Chair-Hands On Keyboard (BIC-HOK) style discipline and the constant improvement of your work not from your own eyes, but someone else’s. Others have filled volumes* with how to cultivate focus and persistence in your writerly ways, so I won’t go down that road. Rather, I think the skill of being a good critique partner and appropriately utilizing the critique of others is woefully undervalued and still a mystery to too many writers looking to improve.

So let’s see what we can do to demystify the process and amplify those skills, shall we?

top view photo of people near wooden table

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

First, let’s take a deep breath and realize that perfection in communication is not possible.

We may revel in coming up with just the right turn of phrase or get a little giddy when we see how the plot twist at the end is going to both unhinge and delight your readers. But that doesn’t make them perfect. No one can communicate mind to mind (yet). So the best anyone can do is try, fail, and refine until they get to something that is close enough.

Do you know what this means? THERE”S NO PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT!!

But here’s the best part, since no one can perfectly put their thoughts into words, there’s no such thing as a perfect story.

Take any of the classics you like. You will find run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, typos, bad dialogue (so much bad dialogue), and all kinds of stylistic wonkiness that may have worked for its time, but isn’t working now. Tastes, trends, and techniques change. And that’s great.

It doesn’t give us permission to be lazy. Please don’t take the pass on perfection as a pass to write poorly and not try to improve. We need to edit. We need others to help us edit. But then we need to be done. We need to let the project go, and move on to the next so we can continue to improve and grow as storytellers.

Author Julie Berry once said, “It’s ok if you write a mediocre book. The world is full of mediocre readers.”

This was a kidding, kinda, moment from a keynote she gave at the ANWA Time Out for Writers conference a number of years ago. But I’m betting it made you feel a little less like the universe is lurking over your shoulder, demanding the highest quality product ever, before it will allow your manuscript to see the light of day. 

You might be saying, “But I pick up errors in books all the time. I’m a really good editor.”

And that may be true. Most of us who get into writing started as voracious readers. We know what we like in a good book or essay. We can spot a bad comma-splice a mile away.

In someone else’s work.

No one can see their own work clearly. All the story, character, and setting stuff that you have tucked away in that big, thinky noggin of yours gets in the way of your ability to separate what you see from what the reader will see.

You may describe the protagonist’s jacket as blue. Which you understand means it’s the same cerulean of the eyes of his lady love from so very long ago; clearly indicating that he is still carrying a torch. So when a would be mugger tears the jacket in the next chapter, it makes sense that he flies into a rage, and doesn’t merely fend the attacker off, but beats him senseless.

All the reader knows is that the jacket is blue. Not even what kind of blue, just blue. And what the heck is wrong with your main character that he would display such violence?

See the issue? We fill in the gaps for ourselves, especially after we’ve seen a chapter on our screen (or in a notebook for us old school types) again and again. It solidifies in our heads as being the prefect representation of what we are thinking because we can’t uncouple our meaning from our writing. So much of the subtext that we take for granted has to be on the page in some way, so that the reader has access to it, too.

This means that when you are getting feedback, good feedback, it’s not about you as a writer. It’s just about helping you get all that beautifully imagined wonderment onto the page so that the reader can see it. Too many writers think that the best outcome of a critique is, “I loved it! It’s amazing! It doesn’t need anything else, except I fixed one uncapitalized ‘I.'”

That is not the best outcome. This is a less than useful outcome.

It is the sign of a critique partner who doesn’t know what they are doing. Maybe they don’t have the experience to help improve your writing (maybe they are newer at this than you are). Or perhaps they are your grandmother who likes you so very much and doesn’t want to say anything discouraging and here dear have a cookie.

pensive grandmother with granddaughter having interesting conversation while cooking together in light modern kitchen

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

When hunting for good critique partners we are looking for folks with the skills not only to point out where the commas and the quotation marks should go, but who can say in a thoughtful, objective, helpful way how we can improve our composition as a whole. They say things like, “I’m confused by this word choice, do you mean x or y?”, “Why do we need to know this right now?”, or “How does the protagonist feel about what’s happening here?” These are the kinds of feedback that point an author to real improvement and awareness of where their own pitfalls lie. It gives them the opportunity to fix what’s broken, based on their own vast knowledge about their story or topic.

Good critique partners never seek to transform another’s book into the book they would have written (more on this in later posts), but to mold a Work In Progress (WIP) so that it more closely resembles the vision the author has established for their own work.

And how do you attract such helpful helpers?

  • Read my subsequent posts to discover techniques that will make you a valuable critique partner.
  • Find writer’s groups (most likely all virtual right now) and practice those skills by reading for others. This will invite others to read for you as well, and give you practice recognizing useful from useless feedback.
  • Don’t drive good critique partners away with either hostility or constant explanations about why you are right and don’t need to change what you are doing.
  • Remember that perfect is not possible. For anyone. So let that nonsense go.

The fastest way to ensure that others decline to read for you is to rebuff every bit of input with snappish comments or constant explaining about why you did the thing they are finding confusing/over-wrought/incorrect. You won’t be able to follow around every reader explaining bits of the book to them.

The book must explain itself.

And you are doing neither the story nor yourself any favors by acting like a shield warrior, deflecting all incoming missiles of correction. There are no prizes for rough drafts with less red ink on them than others.

So let’s get the blood bath going.

We can sop up the mess later.

You’ll find that writing doesn’t scar. The reader can’t tell you were corrected before they read the sentence. They can only tell when no one corrected that sentence/chapter/story arc at all. And they don’t appreciate that kind of disregard.

Ready to get into more of the nitty gritty?

Good. Next time we’ll talk techniques and best practices. And I’d love to hear your horror stories about bad critique partners, if you’ve had them, in the comments. It’ll remind you and everyone else how important giving and getting good feedback can be.

~Anika

*Here are just a few of the titles that might interest you if persistence is your weak link: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and many more. I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!

The Lessons of COVID: An Exercise in Observation

This morning my inbox produced the following article from Barbara O’Neal: A Writer’s Sacred Task to Observe I loved reading it. The peak into one person’s introspection about how a changing, uncertain world has changed and solidified themselves was such … Continue reading

Update: Super Secret Project Revealed

Remember how I teased a project a few weeks ago, that I was crazy excited about? Well it’s here!! Time Management for Creative People is now available on Amazon! This really was a labor of love. More than five years … Continue reading

“A Republic If You Can Keep It”

Watch this video. I’ll wait.

I love my country.

Not in the lockstep, blind adoration sort of way. Rather, I love that my country allows each individual to make mistakes(within the bounds of the law), learn, grow, and make their own choices about all the things that are within their personal control.

Does it do these things perfectly? Of course not.

Like all countries it’s run by people. People are prone to greed, short-sightedness, and cruelty. Most other countries find their governments full of blatant corruption that only seems to get turned over to a new crop of tyrants with each election cycle.

But unlike many countries ours is governed by sound principles that were laid forth in our country’s founding documents. If you haven’t read the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights in a while, it might be time for a thoughtful reread. The standards those documents raised, regardless of their need for expansion and broader application, laid a foundation of liberty that was never seen in the world before. If we let those standards succumb to corruption, government overreach, and the end of rule of law they may not be seen in our lifetimes again.

Those principles have taken a beating in the last decade or so (also in various forms throughout the USA’s short history). What are supposed to be open platforms of discussion and participation have morphed into private gardens of societal conformity. Thought policing and social pandering are the so called community building of the day.

I want to live in the America I idealistically believed in as a child, a place of liberty, access to markets and ideas, and respect for the law and each other as citizens of the freest nation on the planet.

Which is why I am telling those that stop by to hear my ramblings from time to time that I have committed to the Unity2020 movement. I want courageous, capable, patriotic leadership. And if I could add an adjective to the movement’s aims, it would be HONEST. But I’d rather start with a few positive attributes and build from there, than accept the lesser evil again.

I felt the same way when I voted for Evan McMullin in 2016. I wasn’t about to put my support behind any candidate I knew to be corrupt. I couldn’t guarantee that he wasn’t, but there wasn’t a mountain of evidence that he was. It’s a sad state of affairs.

So this election cycle I want everyone to know where I stand. I want to support a movement that will put forth worthy candidates. Not perfect folks, but decent folks. Not the producers of hilarious or infuriating Twitter, but long-form thinkers who communicate in more than a few hundred characters.

If that appeals to you, and you’re an American, or you just think the fall of the United States would be really bad for the planet, geopolitically or economically speaking, then go read up on Unity2020. www.ArticlesOfUnity.org