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Critique Training

CRITique Training Course, presented by Chas Ridley
Posted once each week, August 2006
all text copyright Chas Ridley

CRIT Training 1, Introduction

When I talk to people about The Desk Drawer, many of them ask, “What is a CRIT?” followed occasionally by “What is a SUB?” Enough of you have asked the CRIT question that Michelle asked me to speak (write) to that subject as I’ve been paid to write, edit, critique, rewrite, format, evaluate, promote and occasionally shred my own and other people’s words since I was in junior high school.

At its simplest, a CRITique says, “I like or dislike this and here’s why.” At its most complex, a CRIT can start with what feels right or not right and include word changes, punctuation, rewriting in part or whole, and even marketing pointers.

On The Desk Drawer, most CRITs are somewhere between those extremes. Thank goodness!

Why thank goodness?

As much as I love to hear a reader gush over something I’ve written - and please feel free to do that any time it’s how you truly feel - that’s never the reason I SUBmit anything to The Desk Drawer. When I SUB, it’s often in hopes one or more of you will see that little niggling something that doesn’t feel quite right to me but that I can’t seem to fix without ruining everything around it.  Even more, I hope one of you will suggest a fix that’s either perfect (thank you) or that’s so completely and horribly not what I meant that it allows me to see a fix (thank you for that every bit as much).

Sometimes I’ll SUB because when I read the exercise words attack my fingers and have to escape. What better place to send them first than to The Desk Drawer?

A SUB can show up for lots of other reasons, though. I’ve put these in alphabetical order for lack of a better way to organize the list.
          * Desire to learn a particular style of writing.
          * Fun of writing the exercise.
          * Joy that must be written and must be shared, and that maybe could use some cleaning up because it’s so exciting we can’t see whether it’s even altogether in  English.
          * Love of writing and a (perhaps not so) hidden thought that we’re not as good at it as we’d like to be.
          * Need to vent and, having done so, think maybe the vent can be made into an article or salable story with a bit of help.
          * No idea at all of how to write to that week’s exercise, so here’s a pass and please, please help it along.
          * Something written, revised, rethought, rewritten, polished until we have it memorized and we want a more objective view before sending out to an editor who doesn’t care that we know better than to have that extra comma in the middle of a word and who also doesn’t care that we’ve never done such a thing before but were very tired that morning.
          *  Sorrow that blinds us as it leaks out of our fingers and requires an audience, requires something or someone to mitigate its strength or to give it the strength we meant it to carry.
          * The exercise intrigued us enough to give it a try.
          * With fingers crossed that someone, anyone - dare we say everyone? - will gush over it and herald us as the next Nicholas Sparks or Stephen King or Danielle Steele or Louis  L’Amour.
          * Writing is necessary to life but not something those in our household are interested in, and we want an audience.

If I’ve missed your reason(s), please don’t feel left out. This seemed like enough for now. The point is that for any exercise on The Desk Drawer, there can be as many reasons as there are SUBs, and that’s what makes the CRITs so interesting to me.

During the next four weeks we’ll look at what sorts of CRITs are appropriate for a few general types of SUBs. Heartfelt is always good, specific is always good, and ‘Oops! Did you really mean . . . ?’ can be an excellent thing to pass along or to receive.

There’s one other aspect of CRITs on The Desk Drawer that seems worth mentioning. We are not a group of professional writers, although some of us are or have been. We are not a group of rank beginners needing to know how to string sentences into a story, although some have said that’s what they were when they joined. We are not a fiction group or a nonfiction group or a poetry group, not limited to fantasy or suspense or stream-of-consciousness or anything else  except to respect each other and the list in the ways in which we SUB, CRIT and  interact.

The Desk Drawer is a melting-pot of writers who provide enormous variety to each other. If one SUB doesn’t speak to you, even if a dozen don’t, there’s bound to be one that does, and then another. CRITs are the same way. Some feel just right, with suggestions that make the piece feel even more what you meant it to be. Some feel like input from another universe. No problem. We use what works for us and look at the rest with interest because not everyone in the  reading world will be like me or like any one of you. Seeing that someone else  doesn’t understand what we thought was clear is useful for a writer, even if we  don’t change that particular word or line or title.

In the long tradition of writers who support each other, The Desk Drawer is a supportive place to write and to talk about writing.

For homework, think about these two questions:
          1 - What is your all-time favorite line from a CRIT of one of your SUBs, whether on The Desk Drawer or somewhere else? And, if you will, did you follow its advice?
          2 - What single thing do you hope for most often in a CRIT?

See you next week!



CRIT Training 2, Short Pieces

During this training session, lengths are defined to fit the general guidelines of The Desk Drawer exercises. Short is anything up to 500 words, medium is from there to 1,500, and long is anything from 1,500 up. Much of what we’ll cover here applies to writing of any length; it’s a matter of  degrees and perspective.

As longwinded as I often am, I love to write short pieces, to read them, and to CRIT them. There’s something special  about a piece that - if single-spaced - will fit onto one sheet of paper. As a writer, I want such a piece to feel complete. As a reader - for fun or for CRITs - I want that piece to hold my attention and, at the end, to let me go with a laugh, a memory or something to chew on.

CRITs of short pieces are too often roughly, “good job, no nits” or “oh, yeah!” or “wish it hadn’t stopped.” For the writer, those are nice enough but not as helpful to our craft as something more specific. For instance:
          * “Good job, no nits, and I really loved the phrase/sentence/description blah-blah-blah” gives something specific that underlines what made this a “good job” for you as a reader.
          * “Oh, yeah! I remember an uncle/co-worker/neighbor who did the same thing. You've touched on something universal here” either verifies that something worked as planned or may show us that what we saw as a little something could have wider use or value.
          * “Wish it hadn’t stopped, because I really want to know what happened to so-and-so, or because I wanted to see such-and-such  happen, or because [you fill in the blank here].” Then add whether it felt complete even though you wish it hadn’t stopped.

I have read short pieces that are complete as they are yet leave me wishing they could expand into 600 pages of the same story or the same feeling or following the same character or characters. Now and then I run across a novel that’s a longer version of a short story or a vignette from a different novel. That’s a great pleasure, almost like bumping into an old friend unexpectedly.

One of the exercises I did for The Desk Drawer is a whopping 75 words and felt complete as it showed up. Yet it’s been wallowing in a swamp somewhere in my writing self, growing  into something much larger. Who knew? I looked at those words in Michelle’s exercise and the tiny version leaped out of my fingers. I laughed while writing it. I laughed later when I reread it. It was finished. Ha! I  think, but can’t prove, that part of why it’s growing is the CRITs from people who knew one or both of the characters. That shared knowledge is pushing these characters to grow into more than their moment in a bar.

If you’re curious, it was Exercise #161, Ten Words (Sweet, River, Back, Alone, Two, Question, Protect, Stubborn, Half, Sheepherder). Extra credit for using them in order, extra credit for 75 words or less. I did both.

In a long  piece, there’s time to wander, to develop characters and plots in a  leisurely fashion. In these short pieces, whatever happens has to happen quickly. Was anything critical left out? Does the story feel whole?

Another aspect of a short piece is whether it speaks for itself or has to be explained. If there’s no explanation but you feel a need to know what you’re reading - a part of something larger, a stand-alone piece that needs another leg, part of a series - say so. That’s important information for the writer.

If you finish a piece (of any length) and realize it’s a good fit for a market you’re familiar with, it’s appropriate to say that in your CRIT.  Some members of The Desk Drawer publish and some don’t, but it never hurts to note a market.

As always, note any grammatical or punctuation nits, too.  It’s harder to see them in our own writing than in other people’s because we tend to see what we know we wrote, not what our fingers actually plunked out.

Most of the poetry we’ve seen on the list fits into this length category, and CRITs of poetry can include anything mentioned so far.  They also need a little more.

Does it feel like a poem to you?

Poems in my grade-school years had to rhyme, had to have meter, and had to have a visible structure. Poems now come in every which size, shape, sound and design. I like a comment from Perie Longo, a poet and teacher of  poetry: “If you could write this as a paragraph, why would you call it a poem?” It’s not even  close to a complete definition of a poem, but it’s a reminder that there’s a reason why I or any of you choose poetry as the format for something we have to say.

To CRIT a poem, as with prose,  look at the whole and at the pieces. Does the structure fit the content?  Does the rhyme - if there is rhyme - add to the meaning or to the mood, or does it distract? Does it have a rhythm that moves the poem along? Does it need one?

I’ve seen notes lately on The Desk Drawer that say more or less,  “Well, I saw some things that could be improved but I don’t want to intrude by telling you what they are.” Part of the reason for a CRIT is to learn how someone else sees our writing. Part of the reason is to be reminded of the word we left out, the letters that are transposed, the scene that flitted in from the ethers and doesn’t belong anywhere in the story. Putting your notes in a CRIT isn’t like grading an exam. It’s not like correcting a letter home from camp and returning it to the young writer. It’s a writer noting to another writer something that might work or feel better another way.

The original writer always has the choice to use or not use anything in any CRIT.

This doesn’t mean we need to rewrite each other’s SUBmissions. It doesn’t mean we need to edit as though for submission to a particular publisher unless that’s been asked for. Every CRIT is an opinion. Give yours respectfully and truthfully, and you do the writer a favor while perhaps learning something along the way.

From last week’s  homework, I noted that people are (1) hungry for specific positives about their SUBs and (2) grateful for the nits about technical things that could be fixed to make a smoother end product.

One person asked me off-list about my favorite CRIT ever. It came from Bill Downey at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1989 about a little romance I wrote, a first for me in terms of genre. He said, “This may be the best thing you’ve ever written. Don’t change a word.”

Best or not, that story has been collecting rejection slips for 17 years and I finally decided to cut it by 400 words to fit a market I know well where I know the story fits. I spent about 12 hours pulling out 200 words and couldn’t find even one more word that could go without ruining the flow or removing something crucial to the story. On the way back from Washington a few weeks ago, while I drove, Michelle slashed another 200 words and then read me the remains. It’s still my story. It still works. Both of us prefer the longer version, but I am a working writer so that smaller story is off to what I hope will be a published (and paid) home.

For homework, think about this:
          3 - Very briefly, what  makes a short piece (500 words or less - prose or poem) work for you?

See you next week!



CRIT Training 3, Medium Pieces

A majority of SUBs  to The Desk Drawer probably fit into this length category. Ray Bradbury said  in his introduction to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference every year that a writer should write 1,000 words every day -- an essay, a short story, a  letter, anything, as long as it was 1,000 words. Wake up in the morning and write, he’d say, or write before going to sleep at night. Write, write, write.

CRITs of medium-length SUBs are sometimes easier than of short or long SUBs. There are enough words for the story or subject to be more fully developed than in a short SUB, yet it’s not too long to finish  in one reading. Many of these SUBs are complete in and of themselves.

In addition to the types of CRITs used with short SUBs, watch  for these in the longer pieces of writing:
          * Does the story line (or subject explanation) flow? Is it in the order you feel is best, or  does it seem to jump around?
          * Does it begin and end  satisfactorily?
          * Is the SUB missing any critical information?  Sometimes the writer’s assumptions get in the way of providing the reader with everything necessary to understand a nonfiction piece or to follow a story. One of the values of CRITs is the fresh eyes and minds that belong to folks who don’t have our assumptions. We have a valuable resource  in the international membership of The Desk Drawer. For anyone who writes for an international market, it’s good to know that those in  other countries can understand what you’re saying. Even for those who may  be writing only for children or parents or the neighborhood school newsletter, it can be helpful to hear questions such as: “What’s a [fill in the blank]?” or “How would you know such-and-such?” Or even the ever-so-eloquent “Huh?”
          * Is it the right length? I have been  known to write to a particular word count and then be disturbed because the piece would have been better a few hundred words shorter or longer. Does every word belong? Is anything missing?
          * Does it leave you  wanting to know more? If so, be specific about what you want to know and, if you can, tell the writer what made you so curious.
          * Some of  the medium-length SUBs come with a note about their purposes. If so, note  whether you feel it suits that purpose.

Most of all, as always, be kind, specific and writerly about what you say.

From last week’s homework asking what makes a short piece work for you, I noted that people  (1) want to be pulled to care, (2) want every word to count, and (3) are perhaps more particular than with longer work. Sharon Tabor Warren said it all when she said, “It depends . . .”

For homework this time, think about this:
          4 - Very briefly, what makes a  medium-length piece (500 to 1,500 words of any style) work well for you?

See you next week!



CRIT Training 4, Long Pieces

Even though time is always an issue in my life, and never because I have too much of it to fill, I love reading long works. I love to CRIT long pieces, to edit them, and even to write them. This week I’ve thought about what gives long writing its appeal for me. My conclusions are sparse but may help us write  better and CRIT better.
          1. I love to read something that takes me completely out of wherever I am into another world, even if it’s in the town I live in.
          2. I love to get to know a character the way you can in 100,000 words and just cannot in even a truly fabulous 1,000 words.
          3. I love to read something that has me jotting notes of things to look up or to write or to ask somebody about, yet doesn’t let go of me sufficiently that I can put down the book or manuscript pages long enough to do any of those things before I finish reading.
          4. I love an excuse to stay up late.

Okay, No. 4 has little to do with CRITs, but it’s true so it stays.

On The Desk Drawer, we don’t tend to see 100,000-word SUBs or even XSUBs.  Still, there are 5,000-word pieces now and then, and sometimes there are 2,000-word or 2,500-word SUBs that carry some of the same advantages of the novel or travelogue or one of my all-time favorites, The Double Helix by James D. Watson -- required reading for one of my college science classes that I  had already read a couple of times. That textbook was so enticing and riveting that it could have been fiction if it hadn’t been a true story.

What makes one of these longer SUBs stand out as excellent writing? Is it the use of words? The structure of the story? The writer’s imagination? All of the above and then some? In a CRIT, it’s helpful to a writer to have answers to  those questions. After all, as a reader in addition to someone providing a CRIT,  I always want to encourage the writer of something wonderful to do it again.

What if, though, going to No. 1 in my list, you’re reading along in another world and suddenly you aren’t there any more. What happened? How did you get bumped out? If you can answer those questions, your CRIT will be valuable to that writer. Even if you can only say, “At this point in your story, I was tossed right back into a Saturday afternoon in Memphis or Perth or wherever you are,” you’ll have given the writer something useful.

Looking at No. 2, what made the character real for you? The first character I remember from a book was Freckles, a young man in a book by Gene Stratton-Porter called Freckles Comes Home that had belonged to my Aunt Sara.  Freckles was obstinate, stubborn, 100 percent kind-hearted, and open to ideas  from many sources. He also had a hero. When his world was turned inside out and  upside down and dumped into a blender, he remembered his hero and he remained obstinate, stubborn, 100 percent kind-hearted, and open to ideas from many sources.

Sometimes in a long piece, an author seems to lose track of who a  particular character really is. For example, if you have a character  who was a staunch Baptist for 250 pages and is depicted as a life-long Catholic on page 312, this will jar those of us who are actually paying attention to the words. Sometimes seasons are treated rather willy-nilly in a story, letting spring follow fall without winter bothering to intervene. Yes, I know that  happens in some parts of the world, but it can be distracting to a reader.

A CRIT that tells the writer what made the character real is terrific. So is one that says, “Whoa! How did this sweet young thing turn into a foul-mouthed witch in the space of a page and a half?” We need to know what happened. Perhaps that mystery is cleared up later in the story, or perhaps the writer knew but  forgot to mention it. Ask the questions in a CRIT. Ask why something seems not to follow, who ‘Beatrice’ is who shows up on page 73 and never before or after.  Ask whatever needs to be answered for the characters to feel part of the story  instead of add-ons.

Relating No. 3 above to CRITs may not seem as pertinent, but it can be. If there’s a phrase that’s so elegant you absolutely must remember it for the rest of your life or at least you want to tell your best friend about it, tell the author. If there’s a phrase in the midst of a serious section that throws you  into hysterical and inappropriate laughter, tell the author. If you are spellbound and yet thoroughly curious about things mentioned in the story, say so. It may be that some of those things could be explained without interfering with the story. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works and your questions will provide fodder for that. Maybe you’ll even get an answer to a question.

Every writer I’ve known well has moments of wondering whether he or she can still write anything readable. A reminder that someone thinks well of even one  sentence you wrote 23 years ago can be the golden ring that allows a person to  pull out of that funk and get back to writing. I suspect that each of us in that large group has also had moments when we wrote something so completely hideous  that any gerbil would have deleted it before sharing the piece but we left it there. We need to be reminded of those also, but perhaps in kinder words than we  might use about our own. Maybe something along the lines of, “Did you mean to  leave in the line about the whatever-it-was?” or “This sentence was somewhat  distracting.”

For long SUBs, it’s important that all the characters, places, timeframes and story lines flow smoothly. There are all those words, after all, where any of them can get sidetracked and the reader can get lost. The CRIT is a good place to mention any of those off-kilter moments.

Not to ignore poetry, I am reminded here of an ongoing very long poem Michelle includes in her Year End Letters. It has meter, it rhymes, it has a story that is at times dramatic and at times pathetic, and I look forward to its next installment every year. There have been a few forced rhymes, but it’s a terrific way to tell that particular story. Does it need to be a poem? I think it does, because the structure adds to the drama and also to the humor.

As with shorter pieces, of course, does the long SUB fit what you know of what the writer intended it to be or do? Does it flow from start to finish? Did it make you smile or weep or laugh or did it bore you right to sleep? Did the beginning catch you and hold you, and did the rest of it keep that grip on you as a reader? Did it end satisfactorily?

Being longer, there’s also the question of whether things were added just to give length. Does every word add value to the total piece? Are there sections where you yawn or just slog through instead of enjoying? Are there places that sing and leave you wanting more of the same?

Also, if you CRIT long pieces, congratulations! Not everyone has the patience to do that, to read that much with both tracks going at once -- you the reader and you the CRITiquer. On The Desk Drawer, long pieces often have fewer CRITs than short pieces. You’ll receive a bit of extra appreciation when you CRIT a long one.

Now to No. 4 in my list. There’s no CRIT-related benefit to staying up late, but if a piece of writing can keep a reader awake past his or her usual time to sleep, that in itself is a powerful statement of something valuable in the writing.

For homework this time, think about this:
In something you’ve read, was there a place to which you were transported, a character you  came to know and keep with you to this day, or something you learned as a result  of a note jotted while reading a story? Even, if you must, was there something that kept you up late because every word counted and you needed to keep reading  more than you needed to sleep?

See you next week!



CRIT Training 5, Wrapping It Up

Before we get to CRITs, to answer your several questions about my name, it is pronounced to rhyme with “jazz” and, yes, “Chas” is the whole thing. I am most definitely not a Charles. (Check if you must see a photo to believe this.)

Next, more about poetry, again in response to your questions. When I took classes in writing poetry, the first so-called rule was to write from passion and forget rules. I have written lots of poems, published dozens of them, and can say from professional experience that following rules is not what makes a poem. An author gives a poem structure of whatever sort -- shape, rhyme, rhythm, sound,  repetition -- and declares that it is a poem.

A reader (for pleasure or for a CRIT) has the choice of agreeing with the author  that the piece is a poem or disagreeing. If you feel it is not a poem and that  matters to you, tell the author why. Would it feel more like a poem if it rhymed? If it had less words? More words? A different structure? A different emotional undertone? Do the words speak to you, poem or  prose?

A poem must touch something to hold my interest. It can make me laugh or cry, sigh or want to beat my head against a wall (usually in words, occasionally by scrubbing the dickens out of the kitchen floor, never literally), or it can send me to a place of quiet or turmoil. I could say those same things, though, about prose. I have absolutely no desire to read anything  to which my response is a yawn or the equivalent of “ho-hum, who  cares?”

In any SUB, the single most important thing to consider for a CRIT is whether the piece works as it is. If so, can you point to any particular reason why? If not, same question -- what specifically keeps it from working for you?

Keep  in mind, always, that you are responding to someone’s treasure. Those words we share with each other are not sent because we have nothing better to do, but  because we have something to say. Did you hear it? Did it touch you? Did it change the way you view something? Do you, as one of the homework responses noted in a favorite CRIT, wish you had written it?

How about when you are asked to CRIT something -- whether on or off of The Desk  Drawer -- that is written by a person with whom you have a close relationship?  Can you maintain the same distance from the words and the writer that you use in a CRIT for someone you do not know except in these words? Should you?

Let’s  say your Aunt Jane sends you her memoirs because she knows you are a writer and  therefore you will send her story straight to your publisher. Never mind that you have no publisher. Never mind that you write nothing but Gothic horror and  Aunt Jane was a pioneer farm wife and mother. Never mind that you live only in the present and have zero interest in what happened 85 years ago.

What do you say in such a CRIT?

What do you say if, instead of Aunt Jane’s, these are your boss’s mother’s memoirs?

In  the best possible version of this scene, those memoirs keep you on the edge of  your chair, riveted so completely that you read them in one sitting and perhaps  find one typo but nothing else that could possibly need changing. You can  certainly go all-out in your response about the pleasure it was to read her story. Can you introduce her to your publisher and ensure the sale of her story,  the easing of her financial woes and multiple appearances on national television? (If you can do this, please do not be surprised to discover that almost every member of The Desk Drawer turns out to be named Jane and to be your previously unknown aunt.)

If you have enough enthusiasm for these memoirs, you may want to spend some time helping her through the jungle on the way to a publisher. You know enough about the business not to make any promises, but it is exciting to discover excellent writing.

In  the horror version of this scene, the memoirs are disjointed, filled with inconsistencies such as the spellings of family names and the towns where people  lived. It may have as many as every third word misspelled, with no sense of the  differences between to-too-two or their-there-they’re. If this is Uncle Hiram’s  story instead of Aunt Jane’s or your boss’s mother’s, it may be filled with tales best told in locker rooms and not passed along to tender nieces and nephews or to the general public.

Now what? You can hardly say, “WHAT are you thinking? This is not a book. This belongs at the bottom of a distant dumpster, the sooner the better.”

You could, though, mention any part(s) of the story that may be humorous or  historically interesting, and then suggest that Aunt Jane take a workshop or get  together with an editor in her town to work on putting the pages into manuscript  form. Publishers, after all, have their rules, and she will want her work to fit those rules. This would also expose her to other people’s opinions of what she has written.

The in-between version of this scene would be a story that’s all right, does not run  your red pen out of ink as you read but also does not hold your attention for  longer than a few minutes at a time. This can be the most difficult variation,  because you want to encourage the writer to improve the story without taking on  the project yourself. Here you can use the tools from The Desk Drawer to offer a  CRIT.

What  works, and why? What does not work, and why? What would make this a stronger  piece of writing? Then perhaps suggest a workshop or class or sending the revised story to others in the family for their comments or possible additions.

One of my favorite quotations applies to CRITs and to writing in general, even  though it was not necessarily meant to.

Federico Fellini said, “I claim the right to contradict myself.... and I humbly ask to be allowed to be wrong sometimes.”

As writers, we sometimes contradict ourselves, and sometimes we get things wrong.  In a CRIT, part of our job is to notice when a contradiction appears intentional, part of the story or part of the character, and when  something appears wrong and would be better repaired. As long as we do it with kindness, with attention to the story first, to the writer second, and to the reader third, everyone stands to learn something from such a CRIT, whether agreeing or not agreeing with its point. From experience, I know it can be fascinating for a writer to discover the very different story seen by a reader from the one the writer meant to pass along.

For our last homework:
Think about some of the things we’ve touched upon in these five training posts when you’re reading other people’s SUBs and your own writing. Carve out your personal style for CRITs and use it freely.

Thanks  for being a part of The Desk Drawer.

See  you around on the list!


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