Monday, August 29, 2016

4 E's of an Effective Critique Group

by Lisa Lickel

Critique Groups aren't for everyone, or for every writer, for that matter. But groups that meet regularly for encouragement, craft growth, and marketing exchange, not to mention the chance to talk shop with others of our ilk, has benefits to being a solitary author. Here are five backbones of effective groups.

Four E’s of Effective Critique Groups

Groups of people who come together for a common purpose such as critiquing each other’s writing but have different perspectives are surprisingly strong. Writers of non-fiction, poetry, historical fiction, romance, or thrillers, should be able to read and comment on work that is not a carbon copy of their own. Poets are experts at distilling language and creating rhythms and patterns that make any kind of writing sing. Non-fiction authors see facts in a way that fiction writers may sometimes gloss over too readily. While it’s good and important for all writers to step outside of his or her own box, there is also a good argument for writers of like material to be able to exchange ideas. Good writing is good writing no matter the style or type, and the same basic understanding of how language works, rules and when to break them, applies. Be wary of critique partners who continue to back away from discussion because they don’t care for or understand a genre.

Effective critique groups meet regularly, whether in person or online. Critique partners agree how to work with each other, and keep their commitment to the best of their ability. At some point, vacation or other appointments interrupt a schedule, but good groups commit to each other, at least for a season of time. Beware the writer who attends only to have his or her own work critiqued, or the opposite, the writer who only wants to critique others.

Authors have different gifts and abilities. A critique should not be confused with an edit, although there is some crossover. One author may have a good handle on mechanics such as punctuation, another may see the big picture or find the holes in the story. Another may be good at brainstorming when a member is stuck, or see repetitive or clichés to fix. Critique partners should listen and respect individual styles without resorting to rewriting for a group member.

Image result for creative commons clip art writing groupsCritique is not another word for criticism. In fact, one definition of critique is “to find the merit.” No matter how much work an author’s submission needs, the foundation of an effective critique is help each other grow in craft, a job which will never be finished. Groups should set common goals as well as individual member goals. One goal may be to help each other publish, so members would share information. Another may be to find marketing outlets, or to find an agent. The goal may be as simple as learn how to write better dialog, good cliffhangers, or finish a project. No matter the dynamics, good, effective critique groups encourage each other and never disparage another’s work, or make any issues personal. Remember, successful authors want thousands of strangers reading their work. One or two differing opinions on a small scale is merely good practice.

Below is a sheet of Guidelines, which may be copied and distributed to your individual group.
Clip art from Creative Commons

Suggested Guidelines for Effective Critique Groups

Critiques should be constructive in nature, not overtly negative, and never personal. A good discussion should not devolve into arguing or badgering or overly defensive behavior.

·         If you have time, read the submission straight through before commenting

·         Think about what you enjoyed about the submission and which parts gave you problems

·         Comment on the portions that made you stop reading or confused you—was it the punctuation or word choice or point of view or research?

·         Comment on areas you liked

·         Remember, if you question a word or statement, it’s up to you to find the proof. Check spellings in a the dictionary, or do a quick Internet search if you are not sure the author is correct in facts. Give your supporting resource

·         Offer suggestions for different usages but do not rewrite for the author

·         If you are comfortable with mechanics, point out problems with punctuation or spelling or grammar or other problem areas such as overused words/phrases or proper tense; other formatting issues such as proper em dashes, quotation usage, paragraph and line spacing

·         Point out style problems and offer suggestions if you are comfortable; style errors include stilted dialog or dialog that doesn’t seem to fit a character, telling vs. showing, overly long exposition, flabby or missing transitions, wordiness, head hopping amongst characters or for nonfiction, not answering a question or missing information

·         Comment on story problems, offering suggestions on inconsistent story line, character development, character trait errors such as sudden name or eye color change, discrepancies in factual information with supporting resource, overuse of narrative or monologue, overuse of italics, dashes, ellipses; issues with clichés, stereotypes, unbelievable plot lines, pacing and flow of the story according to genre, proper length, and proper denouement; for poetry, articles, and other non-fiction, comment where you feel comfortable, such as did the end meet the need, were there proper attributions where needed, did the flow work for the subject

·         Find something positive to contribute to the discussion, even if the submission is not the type of work you would normally read

·         Authors should listen to/read the comments and consider the merits of each critique without resorting to an attempt to please every position or every reader’s taste

From Lisa J. Lickel, 2016
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Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: "'Trickle Down Theory' and 'Tax Cuts for the Rich'"

by Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Donn Taylor

      I'm recycling this review because it is directly pertinent to issue in today's world and because it behooves us as writers to get basic facts right.

     Sowell's title repeats two often-repeated shibboleths of today's political spin. In this very short separately published essay, the distinguished economist and Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell examines both concepts in the light of historical reality. His overall finding is that neither of

the two concepts is supported by reality.
First of all, among economists there is no "trickle down theory," for the term is a political term used to argue against a caricature of what economists have actually said. What economists have argued is that at times "existing tax rates are so high that the government could collect more tax revenues if it lowered those tax rates, because the changed incentives would lead to more economic activity, resulting in more tax revenues out of rising incomes…."
            Sowell continues by documenting what actually happened when high tax rates were lowered in the 1920s and under presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and George W. Bush. "What actually followed the cuts in tax rates in the 1920s were rising output, rising employment to produce that output, rising incomes as a result and rising revenues for the government because of the rising incomes…." Sowell cites actual figures showing that "people in the higher income brackets not only paid a larger total amount of taxes, but a higher percentage of all taxes…." Further, the "hard data" show that "both the amount and the proportion of taxes" paid by those with lower incomes went down, while "both the amount and proportion of taxes" paid by those with higher incomes went up. And the higher the income, the sharper the increase.
            Consequently, Sowell shows, the political caricature that these were "tax cuts for the rich" is false: tax rates were cut for everyone, everyone profited, and the government received more revenue—a win-win for all concerned.

            Politicians can be expected to falsify truth to serve their own purposes, but it is more disturbing that leading journalists have repeated these falsifications and some historians have enshrined them in history books. Sowell quotes several of these and contrasts them by quoting the actual persons (e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon) who were misrepresented. He also follows these and similar misrepresentations through the Reagan and Bush administrations.

            Sowell's writing is clear and easily readable. But perhaps its most impressive feature is his extensive documentation. The number of pages devoted to end notes equals about one third of the number of pages of text. The documentation leaves no doubt that the author has thoroughly researched his subject.
            The result is a thoroughly readable explanation of the historical truth about an important and much-misrepresented subject. It should be required reading for everyone who intends to vote in any local or national election.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Got bored. Didn't finish this.

These five little words literally ruined my day and several days following. Five words! It was a review of my novel, Women of Washington Avenue. She gave me two stars. I didn't know what to do with this cold slap in the face. I wanted to get angry, but I knew how ridiculous that would be. Everyone has different tastes. 88% of my reviews were 5 stars.

As the day wore on those five little words still haunted me. So I did some sleuthing and checked out her other reviews and found she has only reviewed five books, including mine. Five stars were awarded to a book about a liver-eating mountain man. Another was a WWII survival story, also five stars. Then there was a five-star book about the Navaho code. 

Well, no wonder.

Obviously she liked historical books, which prompted another question. Why the heck did she buy a feel-good book about four fifty-something friends who were too old to be young and too young to be old getting a second chance at love? Of course she got bored. Even worse, none of my gals ate liver. Maybe she heard me speak at a conference and took a chance on me. I'm sorry it didn't work out for her. 

All kidding aside, I had to step back and give some grace. It would have been much better if this person had been more gracious, writing something like, not my style of book and given two stars. But she didn't.

Years ago I entered my historical manuscript in a Publishers Weekly debut novel contest. It had won second place in a previous contest so I felt pretty good about it. I made the first two cuts in this contest. But then reality hit. The reviewer SLAMMED IT. At least he took the time to give the reasons he didn't like it. After I stopped the bleeding and recuperated, I took another look at his review. That's when I learned how to turn a negative into a positive. 

So what should we do with a bad review?

  1. Look for any merit in the critique. There may be some credible adjustments that need to be made. The PW reviewer said my protagonist was whiney. Hmmm, come to think of it, she was pretty much a brat.
  2. Realize not everyone is the same. My bored reviewer is a perfect example. My friend, Normandie Fischer, got a weird review recently. The person gave her book, From Fire Into Fire, one star and wrote, 'unread.' Unread? Really? Thankfully, Amazon deleted the review, but not before Normandie's fans came to her defense. 
  3. Never explain or defend ourselves. We shouldn't give any credibility to the negative review by our hurt feelings. 
  4. Don't give up. A bad review is one person's opinion. It certainly does not mean we cannot write. Again, learn from it. 
  5. Re-read our  good reviews. 
I just gotta tell ya, there is a bright side to my two-star review. She only gave John Gresham's book a one-star. Hey, that counts for something, right? 

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Monday, August 22, 2016

The Writer and Puns, Soundalikes, and Meanings

Donn Taylor

     What can today's writers do with puns?
     In today's world, puns are assigned the lowest rung on the
ladder of humor. So it's generally thought that anyone who likes
puns can't be much of a humidor. It was not always thus.
     During most of the Renaissance--until about 1600--many of
the best minds took puns quite seriously. One reason was the
influence of Hermeticism, a set of ideas based on two fraudulent
manuscripts from the early Christian era which the Renaissance
accepted as authentic. The author of one of these claimed to be a
learned man named Hermes who lived soon after mankind's expulsion
from Eden.

Hermes states that Adam originally had magical 
means of controlling nature, but that after the 
Fall, God hid that knowledge from most people. 
In each generation, however, a few poets and 
priests were to act as custodians of this 
knowledge, communicating with each other in 
symbols and ciphers so that fallen mankind could
not regain and misuse the magic powers. (Hermes
claimed to be one of these, of course.)
     One continuing quest of the Renaissance 
was for rediscovery of the Hermetic knowledge, 
and one method involved the study of languages. If a person would note the similarities and 
sound-relationships of words to their meanings, it was thought, he
might rediscover the language of Eden (lost since the Tower of Babel) and 
with it the lost knowledge Adam used to control nature.
     Consequently, influential philosophers like Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) studied similarities of words as clues to ancient realities. He found it significant that the pearl (margarita) was found in the sea (mare). An advocate of Platonic (totally intellectual) love, he thought it appropriate to the description
of physical love that the word for mother (mater) resembled the word for matter or substance (materia).
     Given this philosophical basis, Renaissance thinkers had to take puns seriously: they were not mere accidents, but might be God-given clues to the most important earthly body of knowledge.
     So we find Renaissance poets using puns to convey profound ideas. Late in life, while seriously ill, John Donne (1572?-1631) punned on his own name and that of his deceased wife (Anne More) in a poetic prayer for God's forgiveness: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more." (His devotion to the deceased earthly woman, Anne More, prevented the perfect love of God theorized in Platonic Christianity, and therefore was a
continuing sin which required forgiveness.)
     Like Donne, Shakespeare (1564-1616) is poised between the Renaissance world and the modern world, and he presents both attitudes toward puns. Some of his characters are modernists: puns are a nuisance, an obstacle to progress. But the dramatist also uses puns to suggest some of his most serious meanings. (In As You Like It, does the name Orlando signify a youth on the edge (orlo) of manhood who, at play's end, will inherit "a land itself at large,
a potent dukedom"?)
     Whenever one reads a Renaissance text, he'd better take language seriously--and that language includes no small number of puns. So why shouldn't we alleged moderns also consider serious use of the puns? Why not add another arrow to our quiver?
     What can today's writers do with puns besides use them for momentary humor? Here are a few suggestions: 1) Pretend you are Shakespeare/Ficino and construct a network of puns that, taken together, suggest a meaning beyond the narrative of your story. (This can supplement or contrast with the meaning of the narrative.) Have your hero put this together at the end of the story—something he has learned about the eternal scheme of things. 2) In a mystery, have a villain whose punning silliness seems to make it unlikely he would commit a serious crime. But his puns become clues that eventually lead to solving the crime. 3) As an ornament to the narrative, have someone's puns create an irritating distraction the hero must fight through to (solve the crime, reach the goal of his quest, etc.).
     I would write more on the subject of puns, but right now I have to go study computers. On which subject I will someday cite chapter and virus.
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