April 16, 2012

In Search of a Stylist


When I started writing stories…correction, when I started telling people I wrote stories, the first thing they wanted to know is if anyone had read them.

“No.”

“Well they should.”

And yes I agreed but years later I’m still trying to decide who ‘they’ should be. With close friends and family there is always the fear that I'm getting polite or clumsy comments from people who were just curious and not necessarily interested. Worse is getting overzealous feedback I’m not 100% on board with but now feel obliged to use. I could hire a professional editor but for some novice projects that feels like too big a jump and I don’t want to start paying people to tell me I’m not close to being ready. The best option is a critiquing group but they come with a different set of problems.

The first critiquing group I joined was part of a creative writing course. There were twelve of us, which meant a huge hunk of my time was spent reading over someone else’s version of art and entertainment. While I can appreciate the skill critiquing others provides for myself, I ended up spending more time following the adventures of a dildo in a box then I did writing my own stories. Prioritizing my work is one of the reasons I don’t join Blogfests despite how inspiring or sociable they can be.

The second group I joined was part of a writer’s organization in Switzerland that meets once a month for a workshop and critiquing class. With sweaty hands and pasty throat, I stood up and read to over fifty other members clutching red pens. Half the room loved my story and half the room hated it. One person stood up and said she thought comparing one of my characters to a “mannish lesbian” was offensive. Another woman stood up and said she was a lesbian and wasn’t offended at all.  Several people felt there was a problem with the pace and suggested I eliminate details that were designed to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ except they had only heard 1500 words of the story, putting pace at a disadvantage. Caught between good and bad, I sided with comments I preferred with no real idea if it was the right choice. Ok. So maybe this group was too big.

I enrolled in a smaller group that met every three weeks. Although less work and easier to convey in, the more intimate setting made me uncomfortable. The first story I had to critique was more like a personal diary filled with yearning, abandonment and loneliness. Someone had to tell her there needed to be a setting, character development, a plot or at least a point. Another narrative I had to read was a non-fiction travel piece written in first person. The author assumed she was a generous protagonist when in fact she depicted herself as callous and self-absorbed. How do you bring that up diplomatically? As we went around the room handing out suggestions I noticed mine were more constructive and everyone else’s more supportive so from then I started to tame my comments. Two meetings later, instead of gently providing my honest opinion, I had become a farmer who carelessly named his livestock, attached and struggling to do The Deed with a group of writers who were becoming my friends.

So I can’t say I have much luck with critique groups other than using them for moral support. I’ve decided it's kind of like finding a personal stylist. Someone who understands your taste, knows what you can pull off and what you can’t and most importantly will not let you leave the house with a boob hang out. I have one person in my life like that. When I find two, I’ll finally have my group.

6 comments:

  1. Nicely written.

    And I'm not just sayin' that.

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  2. The pay off paragraph was great. And absolutely spot on. Less is always more. That seemingly tired old quote applies doubly nowadays. Everybody is so intent on "getting out there", garnering followers, networking, "follow me and I'll follow you back", "let's get together" etc. When really all you need is exactly how you described it: someone who understands you. And indeed not easy but not impossible to find.

    I like the Voice of Stobby. And really happy we somehow stumbled upon each other. See, now that's the awesome side to all this 'networking'. There are gems to be found.

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    1. Veronika, I agree. While I don't normally follow fashion blogs because they tend to either make me feel inadequate or they focus on looks way out of my price range, I love the layout of your blog. It's bright, fun and most importantly inspiring in a creative kind of way. I pulled out my sewing machine last week. When I get the extra kg off, I'll be rock'n it!

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  3. I don't rate critique groups, for as they say, everyone's a critic. I don't rate professional critiques either, in anything, actually - movies, restaurants etc; I think, largely, professional critics have other agendas; most wanting to be feared and revered for their own reputation and usually I don't agree with them, and I think I have very good taste in most things. And then there's always the attitude that another writer's way is better.

    I personally prefer to deal with people, about my work (and most other things actually) digitally, but I abhor the kind of sites where every one strokes everyone else's ego; don't care that they are doing more damage that anything else, largely, a passive aggressive society. But, indeed, while I agree about the follows and the 'fakeness' and the popularity contest that social media is, gems can be found when you have rooted those out.

    It's taken some years for people to (really) understand that about me (that I only want the truth and nothing but) but now, after establishing a more personal lasting online relationship with some, I actually TRUST that they know my feelings cannot be hurt, that they know I only embrace pure honesty, that I put myself out there because I needed to grow and that they'll be dumped from my gracious presence for anything less. And I, in turn, have ALWAYS been nothing but honest about their work and others - getting kicked in the teeth for it, and so am careful what and who I review - even where they've given me glowing reviews; somehow nurturing my cows even more so BECAUSE I've named them, but if they feel hurt; well, get over it, I say; they should know I'm well intended simply by the fact that I'm even communicating with them.

    But it's easy to see how people can't take, or give, the truth, or in the case of your class, how they're spurned into a meanness, almost, by group mentality, or by wanting to be perceived as seeming to know what they're talking about by the rest of the class.

    I keep my writing removed from anything and anyone in my real life, because I hate, and always recognise, albeit well meaning over-exuberance, especially in reviews. I wanted to include them at first, but disappointed that real life friends didn't take me seriously back then, I now smile enigmatically, respond almost monosyllabically when they do ask me about it (which is frequent) because they've seen relative success come of it, and now want to pretend that they've always encouraged me on the journey.

    But I like them being removed, they don't have to feel obligated, and I don't feel like I'm pressuring them into anything. My writing world is mine, and mine alone.

    When I write, at this point on the journey, I realise that I'm my own best critic, and have the cliche attitude that you cannot please everyone all of the time, settling only for a proofreader who isn't scared to opine either. That works (for me). But there has to come a point where you put yourself out there publicly, I feel the only way that your confidence can really be allowed to grow. I still think, when I get notified of a review from people who've bought my books, that it's going to be terrible, even though none ever have been.

    I personally see that you understand the formula and technicalities of writing by the things you've blogged about, I see a wit and a cleverness in your choice of words and metaphors etc; and it seems to me that you don't need a critique group at all (which is probably why they don't work for you) but anyway, I think you might just be your own (biggest critic). Put your work out there; the anonymous public will soon tell you what you need to know, and perhaps develop a reciprocal online relationship that you trust.

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    1. Very flattering S.P. Mount but I'm a work in progress. Stobby is still learning how to sing. I think you're right about relying too heavily on critique groups to guide me (I've never perceived comments as mean) but I do notice, in my vain attempts to describe riveting adventures, I forget that after four chapters I should probably mention, ..say, my name.

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