Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Tis Better to Give or Receive?

By Hannah

When friends find out about this group, two questions always arise, from non-writers perhaps more than from writers. Before they ask what we write, who we are, or how we work, their faces crinkle up with sympathetic worry.

“What is it like getting your story discussed? And what if you don’t like someone else’s?”

Or, seasonally put, when it comes to criticism, is it better to give or to receive?

It is hard to have something you create taken apart. I am used to being edited, but before our first several meetings, a surprising case of nerves hit as soon as my twenty pages flew away by e-mail. Each time, however, Amy, Lisa and Lynne started with what they loved and then pointed out what needed attention, with honesty and kindness, and a goal of making the work stronger. So while I delight in their enthusiasm, their criticism has become addictive.

Do I take every comment? Most, yes. If three people react the same way, it’s a no-brainer. Do I rewrite along the way? Yes, unfortunately. I start with an outline, but my characters surprise me, and certain Group edits pave the way for dramatic shifts. 2002 Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park describes herself as more a rewriter than a writer; when I heard her say this, I wanted to hug her. I write ahead, make mad notes on old pages based on Group comments, shift things about, and push forward again. Because of my writing style and Group, my first draft looks like a Jackson Pollock, but because of their honest critique, I will pour out the second full draft quickly and with confidence that those characters are real, settings are clear, threads are tied.

As for giving feedback, I find it hard to take apart something created by another. If it's a good story, I get swept away, and I have read three amazing stories over the past year. But in addition to offering Grammar and Punctuation Nerdliness, I continually try to make my critique more useful: pointing out foreshadowing that makes me excited but asking continuity questions; doodling under character comments that deliver a crystal clear voice, and checking any that seem out of place.

The answer to the seasonal question at hand? Simple. It is always nice to receive, but if I can give back even a small piece of what has been given to me, it is my pleasure to do it.

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