Tag Archives: constructive criticism

When it Comes to Imagination, it’s Horses for Creative Writing Courses…

Last time, I talked about whether good writing could be developed with the help of a writing course.  This time, I’m focusing on one writing course in particular:

Help!  My writing’s in a rut!  How do I dig out?

Okay, so maybe you like writing and you want to improve?  Or maybe you want to write, but you’re not sure how to start? Maybe you don’t have access to a local writing group, or maybe you do, but it’s just not working for you?  Maybe you’ve been considering doing a writing course, but haven’t got around to it yet?  Maybe you’ve heard good and bad reports about them – there’s so many on the web it gives you a headache to choose?  Maybe you feel you haven’t got the time, or maybe you’ve heard they’re expensive, and you think they’re not a financially viable option for you?

Decisions!  DECISIONS!!  I don't want to be a grown up.

Decisions! DECISIONS!! I don’t want to be a grown up.

Whatever the reason, you can tie yourself in knots, so sometimes, it’s good to have someone else’s opinion.  Someone who’s done a course already, who’s soared the highs and survived the lows.  Yes, you’re right – that person’s ME!

When I was researching my options, it was around the time that university fees had gone through the roof, and I was an indecisive mess (something you’ll quite frequently witness if you know me well) until I stumbled across the York University online creative writing course.  (Yes, it’s a mouthful, but really, once you get over the hurdle of the tongue-twister, you won’t be disappointed).

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When you said I could tie a cherry stalk with my tongue, you didn’t say THIS would happen!

So, what’s it all about then?

So, practically speaking, the course is set into five modules, which are taken flexibly over three years:

  1. Core Module – an introductory overview of fiction, prose, scriptwriting and critical analysis;
  2. Critical Analysis – looks at what successful writers incorporate into their writing and what it achieves;
  3. Fiction;
  4. Poetry;
  5. Scriptwriting (including scripts for radio, film and stage).

The cost of each module, and the accompanying books, won’t break the bank (between 2011-2014, the cost was approximately £200 per 11 week module.)

How was it for you?

Overall, I absolutely loved it, though there were some peaks and troughs, and yes,  it improved my writing no end.   Not just my writing, but my confidence too.  From completing the first module, I’ve shared things I’ve written with anyone who’s interested (as well as anyone who’s not).  I’ve posted on writing platforms, entered competitions, submitted to magazines, became a staff reviewer for Readwave, and also, have been asked to contribute to short fiction website Storgy.

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Where’s the bridge? You said there’d be a BRIDGE!!!!

Yet, while it was money and time well spent, I have to admit that there were moments when it felt like an ordeal that was never going to end (though, fortunately, I’m not one for giving up).  Maybe all courses are like this?   As you reach the last few miles of your journey, the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away.

It made me think, whenever we do anything, there’s often a downside.  In fact, there’s very little that’s all good or bad, but it’s useful to know, before you commit, the advantages and disadvantages of this type of course:

Bloody brilliant!

Firstly, there are a lot of reasons to sign up for the York Uni online course:

  • The knowledge of an experienced tutor, who teaches at a degree level, but gives you the support that suits your ability.
  • Flexible learning.  An online course means you can do the course whenever you’ve got time rather than having to attend timetabled classes.
  • The certificate was far less expensive than a degree, though the course was still taught to an extremely high standard.
  • Suits writers of all abilities, from novices to the more experienced.
  • Invaluable feedback and support from tutor and peers.
  • Connections made with like-minded people that continue beyond the course.
  • The focus on fiction/poetry/scripts gives you a strong understanding of all types of writing, regardless of your main interest.  For example, the concrete imagery in poetry, and the scene-setting and dialogue in scripts, create a better understanding of writing good prose.
  • The end of module assessments give you a clear indication of your current writing standard, your strengths, and where you can improve.
  • Lots of inspiration for writing new material.
  • You don’t have to do every module.  If you want the certificate, you have to complete the whole course, but it is possible to do the fiction, poetry, scriptwriting courses individually if you so wish.
  • You can do the course from anywhere in the world, so you’re not limited by location or travel. (Though getting hold of resources, or watching the recommended programmes etc, could be more difficult).

 

And is there a shit end to the stick?

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Like everything, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  Here are some of the negatives – or rather, the aspects of the course that affected me negatively.

  • It’s time consuming.  You need at least fifteen hours a week for all the reading, writing, research and critiquing required for the course.  Tough if you’ve got other commitments.  I found it took me much longer.  But I’m a slow reader and a slow writer.
  • Some of the course members do not get as involved as others which can be frustrating. (If you’re anally retentive like me and expect everyone to put in an equal effort).
  • Sometimes the sheer amount of critiquing required can be tiresome – I found by my fifth module it became more of a chore (though my personal commitments changed too, which put more pressure on my time).
  • Completing the many course exercises means you have a lot less time for writing for pleasure.
  • With an online course, you miss the joy of knowing people individually; a personal relationship; putting a face to a name.

Enough whinging!  How was it overall?

Though there might seem to be a lot of negatives, there are definitely far more pros than cons.  I certainly don’t regret doing it, and if I was in the same position, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  The course was invaluable to writing improvement, and I felt fantastic when I finished it.  What an achievement!

Bleurgh!  I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Bleurgh! I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Also, I’ve developed continuing relationships with some of the course members – we continue to critique each other’s work and offer friendship and support.  They are my safety net when I don’t have anyone else to turn to. (Not many within my family and friendship circles are interested in writing, so it can be a lonely business, especially when you’re feeling insecure – and it’s likely you’re in the same boat too).

In the future, I’m intending to do a Master’s, but at the present time, I’m all coursed out.  For now, I’ll keep on writing, but I’ll write for me, take some risks, and send off more submissions to competitions and magazines.

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I better get my hat back. I’ve got a big head, and I look stupid if it doesn’t fit.

And remember – all writing’s good, whether you do a course or not.  Practise is practise, so keep at it.

You know you want to.

Obviously this is all my opinion.  There are lots of good courses out there, but as I’ve had no experience of them, I can’t tell you what they’re like.  If you’ve taken part in a writing course, please stop by and let me know your experiences, whether they were online or on campus.  I’d love to hear.   Or maybe you don’t think they’re necessary. I’d like to hear what you think about that too.  

 

 

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Filed under Writer's resources, Writing, writing courses

I’m Not Hungry Thanks

What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed?  Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Or do you lie?

As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion.  If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task.  You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect.  The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced.  Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving.  I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices).  They call out:

You can’t tell them the truth.  

You’ll hurt their feelings.  

And then they’ll be upset.  

And you know who’ll be to blame!

YOU! 

When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say).  The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).

It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:

  1. throw up;
  2. hide under a blanket;
  3. run away

I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction.  I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)

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She wished she’d got some net curtains. She was sick of every Tom, Dick and Harry looking in when they walked past.

or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).

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She knew she shouldn’t have left that open invite on Facebook.

Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear.  My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me.  I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.

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This circus trick course wasn’t all it was made out to be.

It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them.  The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:

  • Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
  • Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
  • Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing.  I could go on).
  • It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
  • Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer.  You can always leave a few out.  The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it.  It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.

Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again.  Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.

So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.

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Tell me what the pros of writing are again?

Those two positives I mentioned earlier?  Those are the bread.  And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling.  You’ve got that, right?  The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow.  You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)

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Mmmm, Warburtons. My favourite. What did you say that brown stuff was? Marmite?

before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth.  (Do you need some water?)

It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh.  Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful.  What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.

So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)…  Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.

And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.

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Not that I’ll be eating that bread after I know what’s been on it.

 

 

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Filed under Short fiction, Uncategorized, Writer's resources, Writing

Okay, so why am I here?

Why This Blog?

First, of all, I’ll be honest.  I’m not comfortable with all this blogging business.  That is, when I say not comfortable, read that as ‘I’m panicked at having to reveal things about myself to a bunch of people I don’t know’.  There’s the fear that I’ll be JUDGED on what I’ve written… Is the content funny enough?  Is it well thought out?  Does it make sense? What about the punctuation and the grammar?  All of this is scary.  (Apparently, the average writer is an insecure type, and I can vouch for that).  So why do it?  Well, see, there’s the question.  I really want to make it in writing.  I really, REALLY want to.  And the common consensus is, to be a writer, you have to get yourself out there.  And being afraid isn’t an option.  So, here I am!  I’m out there!

Hello.

It’s good to be here.  Outside my comfort zone.

Or so I’ve been told…

Reading over that first paragraph, I’m having a strange sense of deja-vu.  At one time, I had exactly the same feelings about creative writing itself.  I remember the awful crawly-skin of having to show someone something I’d written, the tightened chest as I realised I might be JUDGED, and even worse (dum… dum…. DUUUUUUM!!!) being really proud of a piece of writing, only to receive a critique which made me realise I wasn’t quite the natural I’d been led to believe.  (‘Your emails are sooooo funny, Sally.  You’d make a brilliant writer.’  PAH!)

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Accepting Constructive Criticism

Yes, criticism is tough.  But the key to improvement is to accept criticism from people you trust (and not simply show your writing to people who will tell you what you want to hear).  Believe me, in the end, you will value and even welcome those negative comments on your work.  As long as the comments are constructive.  And there’s the word – constructive.

Before I consider what constructive means, let’s look at the word trust. I trust my husband, Mr W.  With everything.  Well, with everything apart from my writing.  He just doesn’t get it. In the few times I’ve let him read what I’ve written, he’s nit-picked every typo (which, I’ll grant, is important), but then never mentioned anything good.  After he’s fed back, I’m the writerly equivalent of a snail that’s been crunched under someone’s shoe.  And that is not good.

You see, basically, he’s not interested.  And he doesn’t understand the whole reviewing thing.  For starters, it annoys him that I use words in my writing that I’d never use in real life.  Duh!  He can’t seem to get over that.  I assume it’s because he knows me too well.  To add to this, he only likes certain genres of writing – action, crime, thrillers, and war.  That’s it.  I don’t write that kind of stuff.  He can’t get over that either.  Thirdly, as you may have already realised, he’s pedantic to the core.  For him, this means that on a grey and cloudy day, he’s certain of rain.  He’s seen the weather report, and the meteorologists agree with him.  They forecast rain too.  But, he’ll focus so much on the rain, it means that he’ll not see the rays of sunshine peeking out, or the rainbow above the trees.

Don’t get the wrong impression – Mr W likes to laugh, but complaining is so much more his bag.

So, what I’m trying to say is, though I trust Mr W, I don’t use him as a reviewer.  He’s virtually useless to me, as my confidence becomes pancake flat with every word he reads.  This should not be the purpose of critiquing.

And here we have it.  The crux of the issue.  He’s not constructive.  He can only see the negatives.  On the other hand, my teenage daughter, Ms Backchat, (known, henceforth, as Ms B) is.  She’s not cruel, but neither does she tiptoe around trying to keep me happy.  I’m her mother.  Why would she want to make me happy?

Anway, back to the point.  Once you’ve got someone whose opinion you trust to review your work, you have to be ready to not always like what you hear.  A critique is only helpful if you are told the truth, even though it’s likely to hurt.

However, as with the word trust, there are levels of truth too.  For me, when I say truth, it’s preferable if it’s a truth that’s wrapped in cushions and feathers, so that it doesn’t hurt like a rock smashing into your face as your reviewer clumsily hands it over to you.  If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience constructive criticism yet, the cushions-and-feathers part of the review sounds like this: ‘I like how you set up the scene.  It’s really vivid, and I feel like I’m there.’  But wrapped within it is the rock of: ‘But do you need to use shimmering, hovering, and searing all in the same sentence?  (But I like ALL of those adjectives!)

What I want to know is, why is it always the bits I like best that have to go?

For a novice writer, no matter how small the criticism, it always feels brutal.  The cushions and feathers might help, but like the princess in the famous fairy tale, they don’t hide the discomfort of that tiny dried pea.  No matter how many soft mattresses you might pile up on top of it, you still come out of the whole experience feeling bruised.

But, you have to remember that, if all that someone tells you is, ‘OMG, that’s amazing, that’s the best thing I’ve ever read!’ it’s actually not very helpful. Neither is them telling you that your writing is ‘Pap!  Utter Pap!’

What we all need is a reader who can highlight the good, but also identify the bad.  From this, as writers, we can learn and move on.  We can get better.  And for those writers who don’t want to hear about the bad, or who are not willing to act on constructive criticism, I’d say, their writing is never going to improve.

If you’re serious about improvement, you will realise that every time you write or re-write, it helps you to achieve your purpose – to become a better writer.  And the consequent result, of hearing more positives in the constructive criticism that you receive, will make the pain of the rock a little easier to bear.

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Filed under constructive criticism, Creative writing