Critiquing at the Writing Excuses Retreat

On Tuesday the Writing Excuses Retreat was in Labadee, Haiti, a private port owned by Royal Carribean. I’m not a beach or snorkeling fan, so I stayed on the ship to prepare for my critique session on Thursday.

Before the trip, Mary Robinette Kowal pointed us to a vlog entry she made back in June about how to critique. The basic idea is that the first stage of critiquing, which we beginners were to stick to, is to report “symptoms” you encounter while reading. You report places you really liked (so that, in fixing problems, the writer doesn’t accidentally “fix” good stuff), then places that threw you out of the story: things you didn’t believe, things you didn’t understand, and things you didn’t care about. The vlog explains all this better than I could, along with the next stages: diagnosis, and prescription. For the critique sessions on the cruise, only the instructor was allowed to diagnose or prescribe.
So I spent much of the morning reading the submissions of the other five writers in my session, and trying to critique according to Mary’s guidelines. I found it fairly difficult to find much to say, and was a little discouraged, but figured I’m a beginner at this and should go easy on myself. It turned out I made a reasonable contribution to the session two days later.
Wednesday involved a trip to a plantation near Falmouth, Jamaica, which I may write about later.
On Thursday afternoon, the six of us met with Mary. We went around the table clockwise from Mary’s left. Each critiquer reported their symptoms, with a maximum of two minutes each. Mary always went last, and had as much time as she wanted. The writer remains silent to the end, and even then isn’t allowed to explain anything – but they’re allowed to ask questions for clarification, including “if I’d done this would that have fixed your problem?” which is a bit of an encroachment on the prescription side but was allowed anyway.
The group was really positive, even when reporting problems. I’d been nervous going in, but the supportive attitude towards the people who came before me calmed my nervousness before it was my turn. I’d submitted an edited version of the first chapter from my 2006 NaNoWriMo novel. They said several very positive things about parts of it, including some phrases or sentences I hadn’t especially planned out to evoke the kind of reaction they had to it. Theythen reported several things that confused them, most of which seemed easily fixed to me (in fact I asked a question about whether a particular 1-word fix would have eliminated a major confusion, and they agreed it would have). There was one longish passage that was important to me that they thought dragged on too long; it’s one where I wanted to convey something about the emotions the PoV character was experiencing, but that didn’t come across well. Mary suggested I could try some of the ideas Delia Sherman had talked about on Monday for revealing a character’s emotional state while, on the surface, giving descriptions like the ones in that problematic passage. But I might have to just cut it out, or move it later in the book, or shorten it, all of which I’m resisting.
They said my monster wasn’t creepy enough. Maybe I need to read some horror novels for inspiration. One of them had a reallycreepy encounter in their submission; I clearly have a bunch to learn in that aspect of my writing.
I learned a lot from the critiques people gave on the other extracts. Next time I critique something, I can make a better contribution.
At the end a few of us exchanged email addresses and agreed to critique each others’ work in the future. I’ve been told several times by established authors that having a good group of beta readers is what a beginner needs to take things to the next level, and remains essential for experienced writers. I think the (mild) pressure to submit something to the group every so often is going to be invaluable in getting me to spend more time on my writing.

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