Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I'll confess. I love titles. For any given story I can generate a dozen or more titles. In fact I have a file full of titles with no stories attached to them–yet. Every once in a while I'll go to that file, pull out a title and write a story for it. Mostly, once I do that, the story outlives that starter title and finds another one more suited to it.

Minds are rambling things that work in complicated ways. Mine just happens to like the notion of short, snappy collections of words that serve no purpose other than to lead to more permanent words. Sometimes in my classes I organize title swaps, where students generate titles for the sole purpose of giving them away. At first that takes courage–it's hard to get over this sense we have that we shouldn't "give" our words away. It's a good exercise in developing the ability to cut your own words as you must do in revision.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The nature of critique groups

Criticism always hits me over the head when I get it. It's why, in a writers' group, authors must remain silent while their work is being discussed. It isn't easy. I often feel the urge to protest, "You don't understand why I wrote this story!" I did once burst into tears, I must confess. We got over it, as a group, and remain a working group to this day. They were gracious and did not throw me out for my sorry behavior.

Here's what I know about the process of reading and commenting on work in progress in a group setting:

1. You don't have to use all the criticism you get. Use only what works. Remember each member of a group would otherwise take your story and turn it into something else. In revising you can't and shouldn't try to serve everyone in your group. But you shouldn't serve yourself either. You should serve the story. What does IT need?

2. You do have to listen to what the members of your group are trying to get at. Pay attention to precisely how they understand or don't understand your story. If they're confused, readers might be too. Think about why is someone suggesting a certain change? Even if you don't make that particular change in the way that's suggested, you might consider addressing the underlying concern in some other way. That other way will be all your own, reflecting your individual genius, but get off your writerly high horse and think about what your readers are saying, and why.

3. If it all feels overwhelming, take 3 positive comments from the criticism you got, and sing them to yourself all day long. Then look at 3 things that need changing. Reserve some time to write.

If you feel you're in a state of disequilibrium, that's great. You're getting ready to make the next growth spurt. That's the nature of living things, so it's the nature of writing process as well.