Skip to content

On critique groups – further thoughts

February 14, 2019

ODETTE ELLIOTT

I think Lorna’s checklist (On criticism: can we be kind, careful and constructive? Jan 31, 2019) is an excellent idea. I have been attending the Islington Writers Group for many years and have always found the feedback constructive and helpful. We look for something positive as well as something constructive. (Of course it is complicated when different people say entirely different things!)

I had an interesting experience lately. Unfortunately, at the moment I am not able to attend frequently but I did get a reading “slot” on my last visit. I presented Chapter 1, having completed the novel and thinking that I needed feedback especially on this start to the story. Criticism was quite hard-hitting. It was also almost unanimous, so I listened hard. I found this extremely helpful, but what to do if it is a long time before I can return? I know I benefited greatly from the criticism and planned to put things right. For me the whole situation was bearable because one kind person whispered to me that if I wanted to send a re-write to her, she’d be happy to read it.

Maybe the message I’m trying to get across is that even with guidelines and procedures in place and with a writer well-used to critique sessions, there is always room for kindness as this writing business leaves one quite exposed.

Advertisements

On criticism: can we be kind, careful and constructive?

January 31, 2019

LORNA HOEY

Having your work read aloud in a writers’ group can be very scary. You’ve slaved over the piece, re-drafted many times, changed the title and the main character’s name. What if they don’t like it? What if they think it’s lightweight – you’re lightweight – and shouldn’t be part of the group?

Who hasn’t felt their heart beat faster as the reader picks up those sheets of A4 and begins?

Now – picture the scene at the end of the evening. You’re heading home on the Tube, tears sparking behind eyes, mentally crumpling those A4 sheets into a ball and flinging them from you as far away as possible. You quickly go from ‘They’re all idiots – too stupid to understand what I was trying to say’ to ‘I knew I was useless – why did I even bother. I’ll never write another word.’

It’s never happened to you? Lucky. It has certainly happened to me, in my encounters with various Writing Groups over the years. I can clearly recall some particular vicious comments from – oh, maybe 30 years ago. Goodness knows what kept me writing.

But, to be fair, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to think of something pertinent and useful, moments after you’ve heard a piece for the first time. It’s so easy to fall back on ‘I liked the ending’ (you slept through most of it) ‘the pace felt about right’ (the reader didn’t stop once) or the inevitable ‘it’s all been said’ and ‘I agree with everyone’ which isn’t particularly helpful.

The Writing Group I lead in Sudbury, Suffolk, identified this as a real problem. Where some members, perhaps with years of practice, could comment specifically and constructively, others, when placed ‘on the spot’, found it very difficult to think of anything to say. To try to help, I put together a ‘Checklist for Constructive Criticism’. Each member has a copy and keeps it beside them, so that when it’s their turn to contribute they’ve got an aide-memoir to consult, however briefly. I believe that we’ve all found the list useful. Every member is now contributing a comment rather than ‘opting out’ because they can’t think of anything.

I also remind members at the start of every meeting, of The Three Cs (except they’re one K and two Cs, actually): Be Kind (find 2 ‘good’ things about the piece) Careful (if something isn’t working, or you ‘just don’t get it’, by all means say so, but remember that the writer really wants their piece to work), and Constructive (no more than 2 suggestions in which you think the work could be improved.)

Another thing we do is to ensure that each group member has a copy of each story read at the meeting, so authors need to bring along a copy for everyone. Instead of writing notes in a notebook while the story is being read, the members write their notes on their copy of the story, which they hand to the author at the end. This has proved not just useful to the author, but also when making comments.

While these systems seem to be working well at the moment, we are always open to new ideas and different ways of working. I’d be delighted to know what you think at Islington Writers for Children – where, I must say, I never had a vicious or unkind comment in my years as a member.

Checklist for Kind, Careful and Constructive Criticism


The beginning:

  • The title – am I intrigued? Or does it give away too much?
  • Does it begin well? Am I hooked?
  • Is the beginning – gripping; clear; difficult to understand; baffling; boring; tedious?
  • Do I want to know what happens at the end?

The structure:

  • Is the viewpoint clear?
  • Any clichés or clumsy sentences?
  • Any really effective description? Any sounds, smells, weather?
  • Is the dialogue realistic and/or convincing?

The plot:

  • Does it work or is it contrived and/or predictable?
  • Is the pace right or does it feel rushed or drawn-out?
  • Is there a dilemma or a high point – does it work?
  • The middle – does it flag?

Overall:

  • Was I gripped by the story?
  • Did the ending link to the beginning in any way?
  • Was the ending satisfactory?
  • Length – was it too long, or too short?
  • Did the story have that WOW factor?

 

Love Factually

January 9, 2019

LAURA MUCHA

My very first book is out this month – it’s been a massive project and I’m excited-relieved-exhausted-curious to see how it goes. Here’s the BLURB (it’s called Love Factually in UK / Aus (amzn.to/2CdGUkf), Love Understood in the US (amzn.to/2QQpXV9)):

Poets, philosophers and artists have been trying to explain romantic love for centuries, but it remains one of the most complex and intimidating terrains to navigate. Most people are afraid to be open and honest about their relationships … until now. For Love Factually, Laura Mucha has interviewed hundreds of strangers, from the ages of 8 to 95 in more than 40 countries, asking them to share their most personal stories, feelings and insights about love. These intimate and illuminating conversations raised important questions, such as:

• How does your upbringing influence your relationships?
• Does love at first sight exist? Should you ‘just know’?
• What should you look for in a partner?
• Is monogamy natural?
• Why do people cheat?
• How do you know when it’s time to walk away?

Drawing on psychology, philosophy, anthropology and statistics, Love Factually combines evidence, theory and everyday experience and is is the perfect read for anyone who is curious about how we think, feel and behave when it comes to love.

Little Fir Tree

November 12, 2018

MEGG NICOL

I brought the idea of writing a musical called Little Fir Tree to our Writers Group a good few years ago.  The synopsis of the story that David Stoll and I had written was read out to the group and it received a general thumbs up.  That was the signal for me to go away and get writing in earnest!

It was very important to me to have that nod of approval from the group, to give me the confidence to forge ahead. Happily I am now able to report that after a gap of some years, Little Fir Tree will be aired at two staged concerts at Kings Place on 18th December, both supported by the Woodland Trust. Excitingly, Sylvester McCoy will be the narrator and we have seven actors and six musicians.

The Woodland Trust involvement came about after Alan Rickett the producer of Little Fir Tree discovered that the whole of the London Borough of Islington had been declared an Air Quality Management Area with concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter exceeding the UK air quality standards, so we decided to do something practical.

Because of my connections to the entertainment world it seemed natural to think how it might be possible to link the message about needing more trees in cities and at the same time putting on a show to raise consciousness about the subject.

That’s when the idea of using Little Fir Tree co-written by myself and David Stoll,  as a vehicle for getting the green message out there, began to form. I went to a hear talk by some of the Woodland Trust speakers at the Sainsbury’s Headquarters on ‘How trees talk to each other” and although, this was a lecture for adults, all I could think about was how children would relate to the talking trees in our show, and how we instinctively knew that trees did have an inbuilt communication system

Of course as children’s writers we know all about making that emotional connection with characters that help children make sense of their everyday lives so the first aim of the story is entertainment. That said, there are lessons to be learned. The situations that Little Tree encounters parallel those of every child, and his adventures show the power of friendship and loyalty and especially the importance of never giving up.

But importantly for the Woodland Trust the story-line reminds everyone of the value in preserving our woodland areas for the future well-being of the planet. Little Tree, for example, is not chopped down and disposed of at the end of the story (as in the original) but dug up and replanted as a symbol of growth.

I have to say that I am very excited that Little Fir Tree is growing! Wouldn’t it be fun if at the same time it might be possible to open the door to a magical world of trees that city children might not even know exists?

https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/family/little-fir-tree-gala-premiere/

Little Fir Tree Gala Premiere

November 12, 2018

MEGG NICOL

Little Fir Tree – Gala Premiere

World Premiere

Little Fir Tree is a magical new uplifting musical for the whole family based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, re-imagined and composed by Megg Nicol and David Stoll. This concert performance, with celebrity storyteller Sylvester McCoy, cast and orchestra, is the world premiere.

Little Tree lives in a clearing in the Great Forest, far away from most human contact. He has wonderful animal friends, Owl, Benny Badger, Rabbit, the Squirrel Twins and Mouse who support him, especially when the bigger trees pick on him for being small.

Occasionally the human world and the Forest world collide, bringing hope and joy, as when Lara and the other school children arrive for a winter picnic and fall in love with Little Tree. But sometimes the outside world can bring danger, in the guise of Poacher Pete, who hunts animals and chops down trees.

Few people venture this deep into the Forest. But on this special occasion, you too can discover the magical world of Little Fir Tree.

Little Fir Tree is a feel good family story that will appeal to the child in all of us.

Suitable for all ages.

https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/family/little-fir-tree-gala-premiere/

Rousing Time – The Space Between Words

June 13, 2018

LYNDA WATERHOUSE

I love the spaces between words. Those powerful silences when emotions run too deep to be expressed by mere words. A poem or a song might fill the void but most people in ‘real life’ sadly do not burst into song or have the perfect poem off pat. There is usually just silence. Portraying these moments in fiction can be a challenge.

For my own sanity I have to spend at least five minutes of every day inhabiting that space. When I am not speaking there is time to listen to the noisy jumble of thoughts and ideas that are bouncing around inside my head. If I’m not given enough time to think, I become melancholy and irritable.

One day as I was walking along the South Bank I was accosted by a man who said, “London Bridge Hospital. Where is London Bridge Hospital?”

I was shocked and for a minute I was once again transported back to The London Hospital in the eighteenth century. I had just come for the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition. By the time I had pulled myself together, worked out that he probably meant Guy’s Hospital, he had moved off from me in disgust and was making his desperate appeal to someone else.

Thoughts like fine wine need time to breathe. They need rousing time!

Every morning as a child my mother would wake up my brother and I by calling our names from the bottom of the stairs. When we answered her call she would give us rousing time. Five minutes or so of precious time to gather one’s thoughts, banish bad dreams and prepare for the day ahead. I still wake up each day and give myself rousing time.

As a teacher I have learned the power of silence. If I wait long enough with the right attitude – judgemental or irritated waiting will not do – then the child will invariably find the right words or the courage to speak out. It is one piece of advice that I give to colleagues: “Give the child time.” In class rooms it can be horrifying how little time is given between asking a question and waiting for the answer.

Theatre and film are more obvious mediums for showing what happens in the space between words. In storytelling, there is interior monologue, or the narrator’s voice, or observations from another character’s point of view.

I often describe periods of time in companionable silence to show an emotional connection between characters. How do you write the space between words?

Picture Books: Discover and Be Discovered

April 2, 2018

JOHN O’LEARY

A week ago, I went to the SCWBI event, Picture Books: Discover and Be Discovered, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE where American illustrator, Paul O. Zelinski, spoke about his journey from being a compulsive child drawer to critically acclaimed children’s illustrator and Caldecott winner. During his time at Yale College, he took a class on the history and practice of the picture book which was co-taught by Maurice Sendak and it was this that inspired him to become a children’s illustrator.

Borrowing a line from an earlier talk about websites, “ It’s not about you, it’s about them,” Paul O. Zelinski tweaked and applied it to the job of illustrating. “It’s not about you or them, it’s about it,” he said, referring to the fact that each picture book cries out for its own style of illustration (or writing). Paul O. Zelinski is happy to oblige, successfully breaking the golden rule about maintaining a consistent, recognisable style.

The topic then switched to the marketing side of the business. Candy Gourlay focused on the target market and getting an understanding of just who actually buys books. She divides these into three categories; hot (dead certs – family and friends), warm (the ‘maybes’ who know who you are but haven’t got round to buying your book) and cold (those who’ve never heard of you). She stressed the importance of shifting efforts from the hot to the cold in a bid to move those on the outer reaches further down into the purchase funnel. Interestingly, independent bookshops feature high on the list of places where books are bought for all age groups up to 10, in addition to charity shops (0-4 and 5-7),  children’s book and toy shops (0-4), and bargain bookshops (5-7).

She also talked about what she termed as ‘eggs in your basket’ – what you’ve got, what you can control and what you can create? You’ll probably have a blog, website and archive, social media platforms, research, a publicist perhaps… All of these you can control, including your publicist with whom you should be building a relationship – he or she needs to get to know you. She stressed the importance of online content, especially useful information which helps to attract and grow a fan base. On Amazon, you can control the write up as well as create an author profile with an obligatory photo of yourself from ten years ago. You can create how-to videos in order to engage with fans and, if you visit schools, teachers will often show these to the children before you arrive. She added that the resources you create will also be appreciated by teachers who always need them. It’s important to build and join communities and visit schools, if that’s your thing. And it’s always useful to re-purpose existing material, create content that will increase your presence, and build and maintain relationships.

For the final segment of the afternoon, Candy put on her interviewer’s hat and spoke to Hilary Delamere who promptly dispelled the myth that agents are a tough, ruthless bunch, before discussing the search for representation and what happens once you’re taken on. Here are some of Hilary’s dos and don’ts:

  •    Think of approaching agents in the same way as a job interview.
  •    Don’t lie or be rude to the agent’s assistants.
  •    Make sure what you’re presenting is the very best it can be.
  •    Have a fantastic title and opening line and end on a brilliant line
  •    Don’t over-explain what your project is.
  •    Authors, don’t get your own illustrator on board – it will end in tears.
  •    And go for rhythmic rather that rhyming texts.
%d bloggers like this: