A good friend and emerging author here in Peterborough has agreed to share some of the challenges and small triumphs that she has experienced in her nascent work. More specifically, I asked her to offer us what she has gained from a current critiquing course. She was a first reader for an International Writing Competition, Whispering Words. She writes both junior and Young Adult fiction. She has had her work reviewed by Canadian publishers, but nothing has come to print, yet; that will soon change. I am certain you will find this piece as thoughtful and revealing as I have.
On Being a Writer
By: Jocelyne Stone
Anybody can write, but it takes hard work and a whole lot of patience to write well. Sure you need to add some imagination and maybe even some talent, but if you don’t put the effort into making your craft better, honing your writing skills, the chances of you making a career out of writing is almost impossible.
I’ve been writing, seriously writing, now for four years. During that time I’ve taken many writing courses, been to many seminars and belong to a wonderful writing critique group, Critical Ms, created from a mix of extremely talented writers—both published and not.
Aside from whatever I’d learned through high school or University English classes, when I took my first writing course I knew nothing. Over the first few courses I began to get an understanding of the concept of a story—setting, plots, characters, point of view (POV), and narrative style. Then I started to learn the importance of scenes, and how to write dialogue.
As my knowledge grew, so did my writing—I started to get better at it.
Currently I am taking a critiquing course offered by Sam Hiyate—the co-founder and literary agent for The Rights Factory. Had I started out taking this course in the beginning of my writing career, I think I would have gone home crying and packed it in. It’s not that Sam or the others in the class are mean, but it’s definitely not a course for the faint-of-heart. In fact, I don’t think any critiquing class is.
For those who may not be familiar with a critiquing course, the process is fairly simple. You bring in a piece of a certain size, share it with the class by reading it aloud and then sit back while the class picks your work apart. The critiquing at times can be gruelling; being told your favourite scene is actually flat and does nothing to move the story along—well that sometimes hurts.
On the flip side you can also be told there was one phrase or sentence that really stuck with them, or that one of your scenes was gripping from start to finish. Those are the moments that make your heart sing, or at least that’s the case with me.
My goals or what I hope to gain from my writing courses now are completely different then what they were when I first started writing. My goals in the beginning were simple and truth be told very vain. I wanted to be told I was a good writer and that what I was writing was brilliant. Now whenever I want this to happen I ask my mom for her opinion! She is by far my biggest cheerleader and in the writing world it’s important to have cheerleaders!
I like to think I’ve matured, if only just a little! So my goals have shifted a bit. Now I want to know if my characters are likeable. Does their story arc follow them from beginning to end? Is my voice, or rather the voice of my character clear? What is my pacing like? Is it too fast, too slow? Is my POV consistent? Am I showing and not telling?
Sam’s class is probably the fifth critiquing course I’ve taken over my career thus far. At the end of this course I hope to have a finished piece that is publishing-worthy. In most other critiquing courses this would be a lofty goal, but Sam’s class is different and I write for children. (This comment is only made in regards to children’s books generally having less words. The argument about which genre is more challenging to write is a whole article in itself.)
In other critiquing courses I’ve taken you share your work twice, perhaps three times, over a twelve week period, depending how many people are in the class. In Sam’s class there are only six of us and each week we are required to bring up to twenty new pages. This is a fast pace but it helps keep me on track. The other benefit is the other members in the class get to know my story and characters more intimately resulting in a better overall critique.
What is extremely important to remember is what others say about your work is their opinion and an opinion doesn’t make it right. In most cases if the critique pertains to the character arc, the flow or change in POV, then the advice is worth listening to, but even then not all the time.
There is a fine balance to knowing what to listen to and what to shut out. This process is much easier to do when you have a strong idea of the story itself. The less sure you are about the outline of your story the more difficult it is to distinguish helpful from harmful.
The critiquing classes I’ve taken have far out-weighed the monetary costs. I’ve learned, stretched and grown as a writer. Rules of thumb I’ve gathered over time; be honest but show respect, critiques should be constructive not cruel, and most importantly, if ever there’s a disagreement tie goes to the writer.