About M. Jaynes

A female educator with anger-management issues, M. Jaynes is causing change in the world by inspiring (some may say forcing) young minds to think for themselves and question everything.

How to Run a Writing Group: Dealing with Feedback

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

Dealing with that other F-Word: Feedback

The stocks

The stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know the social contract that stipulates that you don’t tell someone their baby is ugly? Well, as a member of a writing group, you will break that contract. The baby, in this case, is someone’s novel, screenplay, blog, or poem.

Let’s face it, the tendency is for most people to fall into one of three categories when it comes to commenting on someone’s writing: The “Hack and Slash” types, the “Lukewarm” types and the “Shiny Happy” types. Hack and Slash seems to take great pleasure in totally decimating everyone else’s work. There is not one positive nugget they can find in anyone’s writing, save their own. Lukewarm will often take the middle road on everything. The feedback they provide is wishy-washy and they will not give you direct feedback on anything. Shiny Happy, on the other hand, treats everyone’s ego as a fragile Tiffany egg and, while pointing out all things positive about a piece of writing, often fails to give the writer notes they can use to better their work. All of these types tend to be non-productive, especially in the group setting.

Believe it or not there is a tactful way to go about letting someone know that their writing needs work. We know it as constructive criticism. The key word here is “constructive.” Feedback given by members of a writer’s group must be the type that propels a person’s writing forward. Feedback such as “I really like your work. I found it interesting,” while positive, doesn’t really tell the writer anything specific that he or she can use.

Having been in the same writers group for the past eight years and having offered feedback on student papers as a teacher, I have found the following model to be helpful:

a. Point out one or two things you really liked about the piece and why. Give specific details so that the person receiving the feedback can tell you read his or her work closely. What specifically did you like about the writer’s work? What exactly made it interesting? Compared to what? Try to point out specific sentences or paragraphs that work well.

b. Point out one or two areas for improvement. Don’t just mention the problems you saw, offer potential solutions and “What ifs”. For those sentences and paragraphs that don’t work well, explain ways the writer might adjust the ideas or content presented so that they add rather than detract from the overall piece.

c. Ask clarifying questions of the writer. This often helps generate new ideas and helps sort out problem areas in a piece of writing. For example, “Where do you see this character going in the story?” or “What if you took the dialogue from Chapter 2 and incorporated it into Chapter 1 instead?”

Sticking with the ugly baby metaphor, I have always viewed writing as a little like giving birth. Heck, writing gives birth to ideas, right? In that sense, when one of our “children” happens to be the focus of constructive criticism, it is important that all members of the writing group understand how to accept such critique of their work gracefully. When members of a group are familiar to one another, they are often aware of how they need to approach critiquing a fellow member’s writing. But when the members of a writers group are an unknown quantity, so to speak, it often becomes a little nerve-wracking for both the constructive criticizer and the constructively criticized. It might be helpful to put the following protocol in place, especially if members of the writing group don’t yet know one another:

  • When receiving constructive criticism, instead of speaking, take notes and write down questions you have for those offering their feedback.
  • Allow each member of the group to offer feedback and then address each member’s comments and questions.
  • Always keep in mind that the goal is to help you develop your writing.
  • If something someone says strikes you the wrong way, be sure to ask questions to help clarify their comments. Chances are, they did not mean the comment to be taken in a negative manner.

The fact is that most everyone is nervous about giving and receiving constructive criticism. As long as clear expectations are conveyed to the entire group, there should be very few problems with the process. Not everyone is going to agree and sometimes you might be providing feedback on a piece written in your least favorite genre, but try to put personal feelings aside and look at the writing itself. Ask yourself how you can help the writer make the piece better. And always remember that each person in the group has a common goal: to improve their writing. Listen to one another. Work together. Read thoroughly and provide meaningful feedback. Those are the keys to using constructive criticism in a writer’s group.

Cakepan II: Chapter One – No Way Home

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”. This is our second story.

For this story we used a random plot generator, which gave us: “The story starts when your protagonist gets lost. Another character is an anesthesist who is researching something terrible.” Each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter One: No Way Home

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film.

Image via Wikipedia

The hospital smell churned his stomach as he swung his legs to the floor and yanked needles from both arms. Tubes dangled and the medicine inside sloshed. Another wave of nausea was hitting; he had to get out of the room. He needed air. He needed it now.

Russ Winston ambled down the hall, feet bare and saggy tush exposed. He ducked behind a vending machine just in time to miss two nurses padding down the hall in squeaky shoes. At least he could hear them coming. The newly waxed floor and white sneaker tread made sure of that. He felt a chill. No wonder. His hands wrapped behind him as he attempted to close the vent that is the bane of all hospital patients.

He wasn’t sure where he was. A hospital obviously, but that was all he remembered about his location. The ambulance trip was a blur and the medicine they had given him earlier in the day made his mind foggy. He didn’t like the feeling. At seventy-three years old his mind was already showing signs of slowing down. The medicine didn’t help. All he knew was that he had to escape. He had to leave. He wasn’t even sure why they had brought him here or what they planned on doing to him. That scared him more than anything. It was time for him to move on. If only he could find the damn exit.

He continued to wander what he thought might be the sixth floor, occasionally dodging a nurse or a visitor or two. “Don’t any damn doctors work here?” He wondered. “I can’t believe that I haven’t seen a doctor yet. So much for quality care! Maybe I have. Maybe he did come to visit me. Maybe I just don’t remember. Getting old stinks.” He continued to try and organize his thoughts as he moved about an empty hallway. Looking up he saw the door to the stairwell. Just at that moment a familiar face rounded the corner. So caught up in his own thoughts he hadn’t heard the approach of what turned out to be the nurse assigned to him. “Mr. Winston, what are you doing out of bed? And look at your arms! Did you tear out the IV? Let’s get you back to your room.” Russ considered making a run for it but opted instead to grab the flaps of his gown so as not to expose himself anymore to Nurse Ratched, as he called her.

His eyes darted to and fro as he desperately looked for a means of escape. He didn’t know exactly where he was, but if he could get outside he might have a chance to make it home. The door to the stairwell got further and further away. The nurse talked on and on in what she thought was a soothing tone. It grated on his nerves.

A couple of turned corners led them back to his room, his nauseatingly sterile and stark room. No one had sent him flowers. No one even knew he was in the hospital. Hell, no one cared. Suddenly, as Nurse Ratched settled him back in his bed, alarm bells sounded in the hall. A pale, red-haired man poked his head into the room, “All hands on deck, Leslie! Trauma Team is bringing in fifteen to twenty severely injured. They are pulling up to the ER doors now. We are short-staffed today so we need you downstairs pronto.” Leslie tucked the covers tightly around Russ, “Now stay put, Russ. I’m going to go get one of the medical assistants to hook up your IV again. Be a good guy for me and don’t wander again!” She patted his arm and left the room, quickly following behind the red-haired man.

Russ was still for a moment taking it all in. “Alone again,” he thought. “Wish I knew the way home.” He wiggled out of the swaddle of blankets in which Leslie had bound him and went to the curtained window. A peek outside told him he was not on the sixth floor, but much higher up. “Damn. What do they want with me? How do I get the hell out of here?” Russ pressed his head to the window and let out a sob.

(Continued in Chapter Two)

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Cakepan Manuscript – Chapter Six: Chapped and Trapped

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”.

You can start reading at Chapter One, which began with the premise: “An unemployed teacher, in a wine store, runs into a former student.” Each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Six: Chapped and Trapped

The Thinker

Image by srice13 via Flickr

The insistent knocking continued. Dietrich looked at the door hesitantly, the dampness of his pants had irritated his thighs and though he had taken the wet pants off, the chapped skin glowed red under a fresh pair of boxers. No time to put on pants. The person at the door meant business.

If someone had somehow followed him from the store, he would rather deal with it sooner than later. As he moved toward the continuous knocking, he instinctively grabbed the small statue sitting on the table next to the door. Rodin’s “The Thinker” in miniature. Well, he would crack someone’s skull with it if necessary. Pee rash or no pee rash, Dietrich was a man fed up with being pushed around. He was NOT to be fucked with. Not anymore.

Without glancing through the peephole, Dietrich tore open the door brandishing the statue. He blindly took a swing and heard a meaty thud.

“Jesus D! What the hell!” Terrence stepped back grabbing his arm, a garment bag held up in front of his face in a defensive position. The Rodin statue plunged to the floor and shattered. Dietrich reeled back and shook his head. Adrenaline pumped in his veins making his breath come quickly and vision tunnel.

“My God, Terrence! I am so sorry. What are you doing here?” His brother continued to rub the spot on his arm where the statue had connected, “I brought some clothes by for your blind date. Thought you could use some hipster duds.” Terrence glanced down at his brother’s Van Gogh boxers and his chapped thighs, “I see I am just in time.”

(Read on to the thrilling conclusion…)

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Is a Good Mystery Hard to Find? Part II: The Lehane Addiction

One of our blog readers made an excellent point in response to Part I of this series of blog posts (Thank you Katie!). She stated that most mysteries are more plot-driven than character-driven. This explains why in some mystery novels, the characters seem a little flat.

Luckily, I believe I have found a mystery writer whose stories are both plot and character driven: Dennis Lehane. So far I have read two of his novels (and am almost done with a third): Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Both of these novels are compelling stories with fascinating and well-developed characters.

Shutter Island revolves around a U.S. Marshal traveling to an insane asylum on a remote island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. The characters and the plot of this story are quite complex. For instance, along the way we learn that U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is on the island for personal as well as professional reasons. I don’t want to give anything away (although many have probably seen the film), but suffice it to say that this is one “missing persons” mystery with a whole lot going on. If you pay close attention while reading the book, you may well figure out a significant part of the mystery, but the strength of this book is that even if you have figured it out before the end, the storytelling abilities of Mr. Lehane inspire you to read on.

In this novel the characters and the plot were very well-developed and as a writer I was fascinated to see how the author wove the complicated threads of the story together. For those of you that saw the movie without reading the book, I encourage you to pick up a copy. You will find the writing interesting and even knowing the end can’t take away from the power of the characters and the potency of a truly great mystery.

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Is A Good Mystery Hard To Find?

As a child, I grew up admiring and reading such super-sleuths as Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. My tastes changed as I grew older and I found myself drawn to true crime novels where the only mystery was what made a person crack and commit such heinous acts as serial killing and cannibalism.

Somehow, and I’m not sure how, but one of the most prolific mystery writers escaped my notice. Until recently I had never picked up an Agatha Christie novel. So at the suggestion of the book club to which I belong, I went in search of a good mystery by Christie. The library shelves literarily brimmed with her books. I chose the novel Crooked House and rushed home to start enjoying a good mystery.

The truth? I hated it. I really wanted to love it because I figured that if I could find a liking for her books it would be a long while before I stood in the aisles of the library scanning titles in desperate search of a new author with whom to connect. Why didn’t I like this book?  Was my love of true crime novels tainting the experience?

It dawned on me then why I didn’ t connect with the book: Too many underdeveloped characters. I understand you need an array of characters in a mystery or else you end up with something like: “Well, the butler did it because the only other character in the book is dead.” But if you include several characters who qualify as potential suspects, you darn well better develop them so that I, as the reader, can form a connection.

Crooked House takes place in an old mansion where several members of an extended family reside. When the patriarch ends up dead, everyone is a suspect, but not everyone is developed into an interesting character. Out of all the characters, and there was upwards of 14 in all, only two were developed. One was the protagonist and narrator and the other was the killer. Not much of a mystery then and I wonder if I read more of her books if I could pick out the killer simply by picking out the developed characters.

A good mystery is hard to write I am sure, and sometimes it is also hard to find. Ultimately, I think I learned that in order to compose a decent mystery you have to rely very much on the development of your characters. And next post I will discuss an author I feel does this well.

I don’t think I am ready to give up on Agatha Christie just yet. Such a legend deserves another chance I think. So if you could suggest a few of her novels to look into I would appreciate it.

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