18 May

DIY MFA: Working the Workshop

Posted in Community, Critique, DIY MFA

When it comes to finding a workshop for your work, you have many options available.  You can try to find critique partners (CPs) and beta readers (betas), form a critique group or even take a writing workshop.  In fact, it can be overwhelming to make sense of it all so here’s a handy dandy cheat-sheet to help you figure it out.

Critique Partners:  Critique partners (CPs) are individuals who critique your work and you critique theirs.  These are your partners in crime, writers who will accompany you on your journey.  These are the people who will be willing to read and re-read, and re-read yet again that one scene you just can’t get right.  In terms of numbers, you can have just one or two CPs, or a whole group.

Critique Group:  This is like having a whole bunch of critique partners.  Most of these groups meet in person and can stay together for years.  My own critique group meets every week, when we critique one writer’s work, rotating through the members so everyone gets a turn every few weeks.  We’re basically like a workshop, only without the teacher.

Beta Readers:  Beta readers (betas) are writers to whom you send a full version of your book.  They’re called beta readers because they essentially “beta-test” your book, the way beta-users will test out new software.  Usually betas are different people from your CPs so you can get fresh feedback on your work, though sometimes these individuals can overlap.  Betas differ from CPs in that the latter usually read your work as it’s in progress and look at more specific problems.  Betas, because they see the whole book, can give you more global comments on the book overall.

Writing Workshop:  This is a great way to meet new writer-friends and maybe even form a critique group after class is over.  My current critique group grew out of a writing class where a handful of us started the group.  The group has changed and grown over the years, but it all started with that first class.  The advantage of a writing workshop is that you have the teacher there to keep discussion moving and to answer questions on craft.

Stay tuned for more workshop and critique tips!

Now you tell me: Do you workshop your writing? What kind of workshop scenarios have worked best for you?

This post is part of DIY MFA.  For more information, check out the DIY MFA Facebook page or join the DIY MFA list to get a FREE workbook.  You can also find links to previous DIY MFA posts by going to the menu tab.


05 May

4 Core Elements of the Writing MFA

Posted in Community, Critique, DIY MFA, Reading, Writing

Even though April is over, DIY MFA continues, though in a more relaxed fashion.  Since many participants from April are new to DIY MFA, I thought I’d do some review posts every week to go over some of the DIY MFA concepts we discussed back in September.  Today we’ll go over the four core elements of a Writing MFA (Master of Fine Arts) and how you can do-it-yourself to create your own DIY MFA. 

In a Writing MFA, writers must…

Read.  Most MFA programs have a literature component, where students must take a series of literature classes along with their writing coursework.  At The New School, not only do you have to take literature classes, you actually have to write a literature thesis as part of your graduation requirement.  In that sense, reading is a huge component of the MFA process.  Similarly, DIY MFA puts an emphasis on reading the literature.  By creating a reading list, reading the books and writing responses to what you read, you can simulate the literature study you would do in an MFA program.

Write.  Of course a writing program must include a lot of writing, and so must DIY MFA.  In a writing program you’ll receive instruction on the craft of writing and be pushed to produce a substantial number of pages each semester for your workshop.  This process of writing and rewriting helps you hone your craft and strengthen your own abilities.  Without a writing component, the MFA (including the DIY MFA) would miss the point.  To be a writer, you have to write.  It’s that simple.

Workshop.  The workshop is a central component of any MFA in writing.  By giving critique to other writers, you sharpen your reading skills.  In receiving critique on your own work will learn to make your writing stronger, as well as develop skills to handle rejection and criticism on your work.

Connect.  One component that many writers forget is connecting to the writing community.  Connecting can happen in many different ways.  Attending readings, going to conferences, connecting with other writers via the internet… these are all great ways to engage with the writing community.  The reason community is so important for writers is that otherwise writing can be a very lonely enterprise.  Community gives us a reality check and helps us stay motivated.

Which of these elements is easiest for you?  Which is the biggest challenge?


18 Oct

Going it Alone

Posted in Community, Critique, DIY MFA

As a writer, at some point you’re going to find yourself alone.  Maybe it’s because a deadline has got you shut up in your house for days, weeks, months even.  Maybe it’s because you’re just not ready to share your work even with your most trusted readers.  Maybe it’s because you feel your work is fragile right now and you have to protect it from interlopers.  Whatever the reason, you and your work will become each others best company, so you’d better get along.

This is why I love this tree in the picture.  It’s a lone cypress tree just of the coast of the Pebble Beach golf course in CA.  It’s the only thing of green on that rock and yet it holds on with such tenacity.  It stands there, daring the world to get in its way: proud, tall, and alone.

Sometimes as writers we have to be the tree.  When people say “you can’t grow there, it’s a big rock” we just have to dig our roots in wherever they’ll squeeze and show those doubtful meddlers we can grow.  When people say “you’re all alone, a freak, an outsider” we just shrug, look out at the ocean and remember that while we might be alone, we’ve got the best view on the planet.

When it comes to writing, community isn’t just about knowing when to connect with people, it’s about knowing when you need to go to that room of your own and close the door.  When nurturing a small sprig of story, we can’t let everyone water the plant or it will drown.  New ideas are fragile and can get easily squashed if not protected.

Julia Cameron calls this “containment” and I agree.  I’ve made the mistake in the past of letting too many writers and non-writers into my “circle of trust” and subsequently stories have been pulled in every old which-way and got torn to pieces.  Now I have a smaller circle of trust.  One person reads my rough drafts and pushes me forward, five readers form a critique group that reads more polished work and one reader is my go-to person for career stuff and big-picture notes on my work.  The rest of the time, my best company is me, myself and I.

What about you?  Are you comfortable going it alone sometimes?


23 Sep

Taking Critique

Posted in Critique, DIY MFA, Process

We’ve talked a lot about critique: forming a good group, giving critique, etc.  Now we come to the tricky subject.  What do you do when you find yourself on the receiving end of a critique?

Writers are a brave but fragile species.  After all, anyone who pours her soul out onto a piece of paper, no matter how thick-skinned she may want to be, has got to have some nerve endings somewhere.  As soon as we let our work out into the world we open ourselves to the possibility that someone might not like it and, let’s face it, getting our work squashed is painful.  The only reason we allow this pain to happen is because we want our work to get better.  But how do we, as writers, reconcile our desire to improve our work with our desire not… to hurt?

Below are some lessons I have learned which have helped take the edge off critique.

1)  It’s not personal.  This is probably the toughest piece of advice to swallow, but also the most important.  As writers we must remember that a critique of our work is not a commentary on us as people.  Instead, we must accept it for what it is: a critique of our work.

2)  Critique is like a bottle of wine, it needs time to breathe.  The temptation after a workshop session is to go home and read all the comments right away, but don’t do it.  It’s too close.  Too soon.  This is especially true if the critique fell on either the extreme positive or extreme negative end of the spectrum.  The more emotionally charged the critique session, the more time you need to gain objectivity.

3)  There’s no such thing as a perfect critique.  Sometimes overly-positive critiques can be just as painful as the negative ones.  You’re probably saying “What?!?”  After all, wouldn’t any writer want to have someone else say their work is perfect?  I myself find positive critiques to be especially crippling because rather than telling me what needs fixing, a positive critique leaves me thinking: “Now what?”  We’re writers, after all.  It’s in our nature to be perfectionists and having someone tell us our work is perfect can sometimes do more harm than good.  So if you find yourself feeling disappointed after an overwhelmingly positive critique, remember this: anyone who tells you your work is perfect is either lying or insane.  In either case, do you really want to heed their opinion?  Which brings me to our next point.

4)  Critiques are not commandments handed down from on high.  They’re just opinions, and sometimes opinions are wrong.  Self-serving writers who want nothing more out of a critique session than a glowing audience tend to latch on to this advice.  They chalk up all negative critiques as being someone’s misguided opinion and fail to hear what their critique buddies are saying.  But writers who are really serious about their work often need this point hammered into their brains.  Critiques are just people’s opinions and sometimes opinions might conflict or someone might misunderstand.  If you find yourself thinking “What the…?” about someone else’s comments on your work, allow for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they didn’t get it.  Of course, if ten people all say the same thing…

5)  Learn to identify critique buddies who are there to help you and those who are there to help themselves.  Then ditch the latter.  A good critique session should include feedback that feeds the writer and leaves the writer wanting to hurry home and keep writing.  A critique session that tears a writer down so other people can feel “smart” or leaves the writer feeling empty and directionless do not serve the writer being critiqued.

Curious as to how good you are at taking critique?  Take this quiz.

So, what do I do when I get that stack of papers and have to make sense of critiques?  Here’s a quick look into my process:

  1. First I let the pile of papers sit for at least a week.  Maybe longer.
  2. Next, I go through and read all the end comments and overall notes.
  3. After that, I go through the margin notes, copying important ones down on a clean copy so that I can see all the comments next to each other (that way if two people have differing opinions on a particular point, I can see that contrast).
  4. Later, I’ll let the comments sit again and mull them over.
  5. Finally, I take my one copy with everyone’s notes and my stack of end comments and start implementing the changes, usually starting with the easy ones first and working my way up to the tougher edits.

What about you?  What’s your critique process and what do you do to ease the sting of negative comments?


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