A Month of Critique Circle

I have been a user of Critique Circle http://www.critiquecircle.com for a month now. I want to record and share my experience, thoughts and feelings about the last month.
I had been trying to put together a group of people who could meet once a month or so. It just wasn’t working. I kept writing but I didn’t share.
There is a monthly ‘Dare’ program here as part of the North Shore Writer’s Assoc, but it is really just a chance to read your work. You don’t get more feed back than ‘I liked that’ or ‘Where do you see the story going?’
I needed real criticism.(And not from my mom.)
I have taken some writing courses, and have received that sort of ‘Single-threaded’ critique where the Prof gives his feedback. One person every week or so. I needed something better. And more.
Then I found a web link that pointed to a dozen good sites for writers. I decided to try Critique Circle.
I joined and began to work through the check list. I read a few critiques and then tried my hand at a few. I did four over a two week period before I posted my first piece.
Giving critiques I found harder than I expected. First I had to read 3 or 4 pieces for each one I wanted to critique. Some I didn’t like and some I thought were such poor quality I didn’t know how to tell the writer that. I wanted to say nice things, because I want people to say nice things to me. Or so I thought.
I asked a couple of questions on the forums and got good friendly responses. I read quite a few critiques, trying to get a feel for how to criticize professionally. And I found some great critiques. I so liked one critique I saw, that I wrote the critter and asked him if he would be willing to crit my work when it came up. I wasn’t sure if this was out of line. I was afraid I was committing a CC faux pas but really liked this guy’s critiques. He told me not to worry, most people here are pretty friendly, and that he would be happy to crit my work.
So then I took the plunge and posted a chapter from a novel I am working on. (In hindsight a mistake.) And held my breath. The next week was exhausting.
It took a day or two to get my first critique, during which time I feared getting no feedback. Did people think my work was so bad they wouldn’t give it the time of day? Did I write crap? Should I give it up now and go back to ditch digging, or whatever. (Writers can be brutal on themselves I learned.)
And then the morning I got my first crit. I’ll admit, I was excited. I opened it up and it was about commas. A whole critique on commas. I had too many, not enough, in the wrong places and missing from the right places. That was it. WTF? Alice through the looking glass I thought.
File that one away and wait. I had to wait two more days. I would compare it to waiting for a child to be born, but that would be a stretch. But I was on edge for two days.
And then someone smiled on me. I opened a crit the third morning and it was just what I was looking for. No sugar coating. She pointed out spelling mistakes and grammar errors. (I thought I had read the piece 10 or 15 times. How had I missed those?) But the critter also made suggestions that I instantly knew were right. ‘How about saying this instead?’ Yes I thought. ‘I am not sure that sounds natural, how about this?’ Yes, your right, that is better. Every suggestion was good. I looked at my work and realized I could make it better. A lot better.
Then another crit came in. Same pointing out the spelling, grammar and formatting errors. But helpful suggestions. And questions about the story. ‘What is the MC thinking?’, ‘I don’t understand why she did this”, and I realized I had not been clear enough. I thought things were obvious but I know the piece too well.
The week became a bit of a roller coaster ride. Up to get a critique at all, down to have the same spelling mistake pointed out, up to have a helpful suggestion.
Then I got the critique I had solicited. Ouch. But in a good way. I realized I have way too many spelling, formatting and grammar errors. I want feedback to help me with the story, the plot, the feel, the characters, the themes, the experience of a reader. But my critters kept seeing these ‘table steak’ issues. I realized I need to submit work that is as close to perfect as I can, so that the critters can move past the spelling errors and get to the real substance. A light came on.
And then I got what I thought was my best critique. (Although I rated three perfect). Questions or comments that probed right into the story, the characters, the motivations. Echoes. And a comment about POV and breaking the story flow. Showing vs telling.
I ended the week exhilarated. I spent as much time re-writing my 1,500 words as I had spent on all the editing I had done in weeks before. I was motivated. I was encouraged. I was inspired even.
Five of the Six critiques I got were gold. Solid Gold. I was a little overwhelmed at times. I am now looking at the larger work and realize I have a ton of work to do. A mountain of work. And just that thought exhausted me. I need to do to those 60K words what I have done to the 1,500 words this week. And I am not done with the 1,500 yet.
Exhausted and Exhilarated. But happy. I have found what I was looking for, what in my heart and head I know I needed. What my writing needs.
Thank you.

Danny Aldham

Vancouver Maker Faire, So Great

A good friend invited me down the the Vancouver Maker Faire at the PNE yesterday. I am so glad I went. http://makerfaire.ca
I was impressed by the people. I am a techy from way back, so the robots and 3D printers and laser cutters were right up my alley. But what I was really impressed by was the energy of all the people. Every booth was staffed by people putting their hearts into things. Real enthusiasm. There were electronics & robots, beside furniture makers & hand spinning wool exibitions. There were rocket launchers & jewelry makers, Lego machines & Hack space providers, Bee keepers & Sailors, Universities and the Boy Scouts.
But the most impressive thing was the people. These were bright energetic people putting their hearts and passion into whatever they were showwing. I spoke to a few and evesdropped on a dozen more conversations. It was worderfull to find such a large space full of so many positive happy people. I know it is hard work, my friend told how long it took to setup on Friday night, and I am sure it will be just as much work to break it down and take it home. Plus all the long hours staffing the booth. They all do that. But you could see they loved what they were doing.
Go for the crafts, the tech, the learning. But savour the dozens of interesting, passionate people. It is good clean fun. A really great event.

http://makerfaire.ca

Review of ‘All the Light We Cannot see’ by Anthony Doerr

I read Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ in about 4 days. It was one of those books I didn’t want to put down. It is truly wonderful. The best book I have read in at least a year. Superb.
The main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, are wonderfully developed. You care for them, you worry about them, they light up the book.
You see characters act with courage in fightening situations. The huge scope of war with armies moving across Europe tosses all the characters about. So many show goodness and compassions, and some show greed and malevolence. As in real life.
I give this book 5 stars. I wish I could write this well.

Book review of Station Eleven

I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’ this week. Really enjoyed it. A dystopian novel with some nice people.

There are 4 or 5 main characters that are tied together through 20 years, tied back to the night it all began. And St.John Mandel does it really well. Little clues like the name of the dog, Luli. What are the chances? The intersection of Kirsten, Jeevan and Arthur. It held the book together.

I like books with characters you come to like, or at least come to care about what comes next for them. This book has that.

And I like books with a positive message. This book sort of has that. As compared say to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Finishing that book was painful.

I didn’t understand howTyler could go so bad, and I would have liked to know. But then I am not sure how the good characters went and stayed good.

And a few of the plot elements didn’t quite work, like believing that nobody at the airport was exposed to the flu. Or that such a devastating flu could not be caught, like ebola or Sars was before it. But never the less, I enjoyed it. Well worth a read, and I will look at reading other books by the author.

Book review of ‘The Sun Also Rises’

I finished reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises last night.
Spoiler alert: I am going to discuss the plot, characters and themes as though I have read the book. And I didn’t like it.
About half way through the book I nearly put it down. The characters are mostly horrible people. I was struggling to find a reason to keep reading. I actually read a couple of reviews, and they raved about this as Hemingway’s break out novel and that it was a novel that came to epitomize that ‘Lost Generation’. So I stuck with it. I was hopeful the nihilistic characters would learn, would grow and would become better people. It doesn’t happen.
I worked in a bar while in University. I learned about myself that I don’t really like being around drunks if I am not drinking myself. Well this book was about being around drunks all the time. They were either drinking, planning on where to drink, getting over the affects of drinking or behaving poorly while drunk. One character, Jake, calls Brett, the woman he loves, ‘a drunk’. They are all drunks.
But worst than drunks they are terrible people. Lady Brett has sex with every main character. They use and abuse others. They toss people aside like disposable possessions. None of them display any empathy or even decency.
I suppose the elite that like this book find it thoughtful and edgy. But just as Mike tries to be edgy by being mean and rude to Cohn, so most of this book is just rude.
Why the narrator, Jake, was made to be impotent has me scratching my head. He certainly lacks self awareness. But at least he has a job. Most of these characters are unemployed bums.
I am at the point where I read books as a writer, looking for what the writer does and how she accomplishes things. The prose is nice and tight. Some of the descriptions are beautiful. A lot of the action they observe is great. But they just observe, they never engage. And I found I got sick of how ‘Swell’ everything was.
A while ago I re-read Hemingway’s short story ‘Hills like White Elephants’. It is a wonderful piece. But the man in that story could be one of the characters in this book. He probably is. And he sucks.

Review of ‘The Empathy Exams’ by Leslie Jamison

It is not often I don’t finish a book. If this had not been a NVCL book club book we reviewed as a group March 2nd, I would have dropped it.
I found the book a little bewildering. What exactly was the point? It wasn’t about empathy so much, as pain. Did the author want to share her pain, bare her soul? Well she didn’t. She shared a few times she was hurt. And shared the same experiences more than once. But I never felt empathy. Her writing didn’t work to do that, if it was the point.
The part I liked. The Immortal Horizon, about the Barkley Marathons. Not incidentally, the essay where Jamison most steps back and doesn’t find a way to make it about her.
Other essays I couldn’t understand. The Lost Boys, as much as I read it I couldn’t understand the facts of the case, why they were found innocent so much later. Like it wasn’t important.
The academic language. “I am just so tired of Sylvia Plath”. That stinks of ivory tower elites who are so much better than you and me. And Jamison exhibits a bit of that intellectual arrogance herself.
The foul language of the final essay. Blood, menstruation, wounds, abortions, self pity, Steven King’s ‘Plug it Up’. I can’t say I understand women any better for having read this.
And then I was asked ‘Why do you think she wrote this?’ To exercise some demons? To really try to understand empathy? To explore pain and sympathy? To tell us all about her personal experiences?
My thought was more cynical. This was an academic exercise. She told us many times she was at Harvard & Yale. Her career needed a book. She dusted off some old essays, and without even editing them to remove the repeats of stories and events, she pushed it out as a book. She is in that ‘Publish or Perish’ environment and this is what she pushed out.
A swing and a miss.

Review of Eudora Welty’s ‘The Optimist’s Daughter’

I don’t know why I had never heard of this book. It was incredible. It is not often I read a novel start to finish in a single session, but I couldn’t put it down.
The language, the prose is perfect. I am embarrased to admit I have never read a Eudora Welty book or story before, but I will read more now.
Laurel, Dr.Courtland and Judge McKelva are perfect Southern characters. And poor Wanda Fay, trailer trash before it was called that.
The funeral scene at the McKelva home is so awkward you can feel for Laurel in your heart. And a great writer makes the reader feel.
And think. The things that Wanda Fay cannot comprehend or know or value. ‘Without power of passion or imagination.’
I would love to know what becomes of Laurel. I am sure it is good.
A wonderful book. 5 Stars.

Book Review of ‘The Faulkes Chronicle’ by David Huddle

I really liked Huddle’s ‘The Writing Habit’ so decided to try one of his fiction works. Mixed opinion.
Whether by design or not, the use of ‘We’ to describe the children was confusing. Who exactly was talking? And the number of children, their names and ages and characteristics was impossible to keep straight. Maybe that is what he wanted, to show a group who were more alike than different.
I first thought it might be something like Aislinn Hunter did in ‘The World Before Us’ with all the spirits, and it was a puzzle to put together. (And incidentally, the best book I have read this year.) But with the Huddle book there is no payoff in trying to sort out the voices.
I like to pride myself in always finishing a book I start. But near the half way point I put the book down and was not going to finish it. I wasn’t enjoying it. But one night I had nothing to do, and that pride kicked in, and I tried again.
I am so very glad I did. Because the second half of this book is magic. It was a real joy to read, and I finished it in one sitting. The character sketches of Karen as a young girl are so delicate, touching and moving. Absolutely beautiful narrative. Some of the chapters could well stand as sweet short stories in themselves, not surprising as Huddle is an accomplished short story writer.
So I am happy I read this book. It is a quirky, beautifully written, loving portrait of characters and story.

Virginia Woolf on Writing

‘It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in the beginning a book quiets down after a time, and goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of impending shape keep one at it more than anything’ Virginia Woolf.

Review of Salman Rushdie’s the Satanic Verses

This is a tough book to read. It is an important book and so many people talk about it that I felt as a reader and a writer I needed to be able to say I have read it.
I am not sure that Magical Realism is my thing. And there is not doubt this book is blasphemous. It would not be published today. Parts of it I really liked and some of the characters I really liked, such as Allie Cone, and the Ayesha that leads the townspeople to Mecca. And there are some very funny parts, like the Jahalia whore house scenes.
But there are dozens of characters, and some that have the same name. Keeping them all straight is just too much work.
I can say I have read it, and understand parts of it too. But I will not be recommending it to any friends. Maybe to someone I don’t like at that much