I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I’ve been editing for a long time too. And, truth be told, I edit way more than I write. (Yes, I’m outing myself to you, dear reader!) It tends to pay a lot quicker 😉 My editing style was influenced in a lot of ways by story critique that I’ve been exposed to over the years.
I am a graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. I won’t go into how awesome it is here (but contact me if you want to know; I’ll totally talk your ear off!), except to say that it is the single best thing I did for my writing.
It was also the hardest.
Giving your work over for a story critique is possibly the most difficult thing a writer can do, on an emotional level. It’s even harder than the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the manuscript itself. Writing a story isn’t easy. Getting feedback on the story can be even harder.
But it’s necessary. Because we, as authors, can’t look at our work with an objective eye — at least, not without a lot of time in between the writing and the revision. And even then, I’m not entirely sure we’re very objective. Getting the feedback of other authors, particularly, can be incredibly useful. So I believe all authors should find good people to give them story critiques.
When I started at SHU, I’d never had a real critique before. I’d had some really nice comments on writing websites, but never a story critique from someone I felt knew what they were talking about. I must have had some raw talent to get in, because lord knows I didn’t know a dang thing about the best practices of writing. I’d never hung out with real writers before. I was both excited and terrified to my bones.
The set up: critique sessions at SHU are something like a roundtable. Whomever’s story is being critiqued doesn’t get to say anything at all until the end, when s/he can finally address any questions or comments that others have put forth. It’s generally a group of 6 to 10 people, including one of the program’s writing mentors as facilitator. Each person takes a turn talking about their impressions of the manuscript (which is usually around 10 pages long), both good and bad, with the facilitator going last. We generally did 2-3 critiques per session.
My very first story critique was in a larger group of about ten people (at least, in my head it seems like a large group!). I volunteered to have mine done first, because — well, let’s rip that bandage right off, shall we?
So, yeah, terrified.
My submission was a short story (that most people were unanimous about it needing to be a novel, which I eventually turned it into) about twin girls who learn that they’re guardians of Pandora’s Box. Everyone had both good and bad things to say, which is pretty normal, as I learned over time. The facilitator for that story critique session happened to be the woman who would be my first mentor in the program, Leslie Davis Guccione. At that time, though, I hadn’t even met her yet. (She turned out to be a lovely woman and wonderful mentor!)
Leslie’s really big on active verbs. I, on the other hand, was pretty clueless about active verbs. (Like I said, raw talent rather than any actual knowledge.) Leslie started by telling me that she agreed with those who were saying it read like the opening of a novel rather than a short story. She also said how much she liked it. She pointed out strengths right away. And then she schooled me about active verbs versus passive verbs.
If you don’t know, passive verbs are any that are “to be” verbs. So “was,” “were,” “been,” etc. Apparently enamored of these sorts of verbs, I had a lot in my ms. Seriously, a lot. When she passed me my hard copy (Leslie, at that time, only did hard copy edits), she’d taken the time to highlight all the instances of passive verbs in the first two pages. Thanks, Leslie! 😉
My first two pages were as yellow as a fluffy chick. There was so much yellow, you might have thought the page itself was yellow. I had no less than 15 — fifteen! — instances of “was” and “were” on each page. Almost every single line. Sometimes twice!
So that’s how I learned about passive verbs.
But here’s the thing — seeing all that yellow made me really aware of the use of passive verbs. So after that, as I wrote, I recognized when I went to type “was” or “were” and I checked myself. Could I find a better way to phrase this so the verb is more active? And, almost always, a better verb was there, just below the surface.
That critique session, all by itself, made me a better writer. It taught me how to create more vivid sentences, more accurate descriptions. Leslie’s tough love about passive verbs stuck. Thanks, for real, Leslie!
Maybe someday I’ll tell you how Leslie failed me on my initial thesis submission for messing up “further” and “farther” continuously (which I also never do anymore!).
Have you participated in critique sessions? Gotten a story critique? How was it for you? Did you learn things? What was your biggest take away? Tell me about it in the comments!
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