Sunday, February 19, 2012

Writing critiques are not all alike

Sherwood Smith

I attended a Greater Los Angeles Writers Society critique session yesterday afternoon that was different from any I have ever been to before. It was led by author and writing workshop leader, Sherwood Smith.

First a little about Sherwood. She walked in at exactly 2:30, the time we were supposed to start. She was wearing a long flowing blue skirt that only showed her Birkenstock sandals and a ruffled jacket type top that matched. Her reddish brown hair pulled back from her plain unmade up face fell down her back past her butt and seemed to fold into her skirt. She had a black leather tote bag and carried a parasol – it was definitely not an umbrella. She sat down, got out her bottle of Fuji water, and arranged herself while Tony, our GLAWS leader, in his usual way started the meeting late, made lengthy announcements, and didn’t introduce her until almost 3:00. As she was waiting she took a fan out of her bag, unfolded it, and began to fan herself furiously. I was impatient too. I wanted the reading and critique to begin. Tony then told us to move our material to the table in front. And then Sherwood explained how our critique would work.

She told us first to move our seats so they were in two sections facing each other, not facing her up front. She said she would read two pages of each piece herself and not mention whom the author was. She told us to keep our eyes closed while listening to her read unless we were the author of the piece she was reading. We were to raise our hands – still with our eyes closed – if we had a reaction to what we were hearing. The author could keep his/her eyes open to see any audience reaction. At the end of each reading she would take a comment or two, make a comment or two herself and ask the author for a question or comment – about a minute critique total for each piece.

After shuffling the pages up, she started reading promptly at 3:00 and finished at 5:15. In between keeping my eyes shut during the readings I wrote down several comment points that I thought were applicable to my piece:
  • Start with a story
  • Name the characters – editors aren’t interested in a pronoun
  • Provide detail
  • Present a scene before the story – telling can be deadly
  • Move fast
  • You can create a strong character by talking tough
  • Get rid of the italics
  • Provide a big time hook
  • Don’t instruct the reader what to think about the character

All of this sounded very familiar. I’ve heard it many times before, so as the readings progressed all I could think was how my opening pages violated all those rules. I was gearing myself up for a comment to trash all my story and history telling and get on with the scene already.

My turn finally came – she read my piece near the very end – and as she read several hands bobbed up and down. I was encouraged by that.

When she finished she said even though she had told us over and over to get rid of the telling, my book, which she characterized as literary fiction – the best comment I could have hoped for – needed it. It needed a slow start with a retelling of the history involved at the time my book takes place. In fact, she suggested I add some more details about that history.

Well, for a two-page read and a one-minute critique, I felt my wait was very well worth it. Thank you Sherwood, you made my day.

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