Good critique – the opinion of readers and other writers whom you trust – is vital to writers who want to improve their craft. Critique helps a writer make that piece of writing they just birthed, even better, and therefore increasing the odds of publication.
However, critiquing another writer’s work is a delicate, potentially hazardous proposition (to friendships and or family relationships) if you forget a few golden rules. I’ve seen writers receiving critique, drop into despair, eyes water, some even storm out of critique groups and never come back. That serves no one. Keep in mind that often writers tie their entire sense of self worth to their writing. A critique can seem like criticism if not handled carefully. In my beginning years critiques were hard for my thin skin to take. These days a critique is just part of the work, a necessary part, and I’m happy to edit, cut and rewrite to make my work what I want it to be. In other words, I now have thick scaly alligator skin.
Conversely, I’ve seen writers who want ONLY praise, who will not and do not read the craft books, understand the art of writing, and have no intention of doing so. To protect yourself, your time and energy keep this golden rule; DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME AND ENERGY on any writer who is not working on their writing as hard as you do, or more so.
No one learns anything if you are too kind, not brave enough, and your feedback is done hastily and is not helpful.
In critiquing, remember these golden rules;
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- ONLY work with writers who want honest feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just respectfully decline to do a critique for them.
- Put yourself in the critique receiver’s shoes. EMPATHY is key here.
- Always be brave enough to tell them the truth, in the kindest way possible.
- Take time to consider your feedback and how it may be received, then hopefully both parties come out unscathed, wiser and with mutual respect.
And for those receiving critique;
Not letting writing critiques wound you is easy to say. It necessitates a change of perception and a ton of practice to earn my kind of alligator skin. Constantly remember; your writing is not a reflection of your value as a human being. Keep reminding yourself that a critique is an opportunity for evolution. Keep reiterating to yourself; to become a better, stronger writer will take growing pains, as does all transformation. I remind myself of what Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Then I take every opportunity, including receiving critiques, to become better at my craft.
Bottom line, it’s your work, your words, your story. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
A Sense of Home
My childhood homes were many, chaos filled and transitory. My mother’s wanderlust disrupted life whenever we found a place to call home. I attended too many schools to remember, learned to disconnect from friends with ease, finally making no friends, because within that ‘ease’ was heartbreak every time I had to say goodbye. Those goodbyes generally occurred every year. That was the timeline: one year. Then mom got itchy feet, sold everything she owned, and move on to a new life, believing the grass is always greener somewhere else. It never was.
These days I jokingly call her the merchant of chaos, but that appellation is a thin veil masking the pain, abandonment and shattered reality of what should have been a refuge. Because of her, the concept of ‘home’ was alien to me; what is home? What and who should be in it?
I recall vividly, when I was ten years old, returning from school one day to a garage sale on the front lawn, all our furniture being sold, my bedroom set included. I loved that bedroom set with a French provincial white four poster bed and matching vanity. It was mine. How could she sell it?
That day, my bedroom furniture went off with an old woman. The red tail lights of her truck at the corner of Stanton Street, blinked, then turned onto 35th and disappeared. A deep root of resentment set in my bones that day. I knew with the fading of those tail lights we would soon move, leave our house, school, friends and start over, again.
Over the next three years my parent’s fights grew to legendary proportions; arrests, house fires, crashed cars, broken bones, or them disappearing for days on end, leaving me to tend my three younger brothers. I learned home was not a safe place, not a place where I could get attached to anything, or trust those whom I should have been able to trust the most. And though they loved us, my brothers and me, we were forgotten in their war. Dad slipped into alcoholism and mom, her bizarre gypsy ways, including, but not limited to giving things away with no regard for what was paid for those things or what they meant to the holder. Twice we ended up in a house with no furniture. Dad would buy new, she’d get mad and sell it all again. Dad finally disappeared with the last furniture sale.
I left ‘home’ at thirteen, then moved back because I had nowhere to go. At sixteen I left again, for good. I couch-surfed, lived in a car, a church basement and was blessed by a cousin who took me in.
It took forty years of roaming humanity’s desert to finally find a safe place to call home. Now, I have one with gardens, water view and a loving husband who swears (after our last move) we will never move again–music to my ears. We lived in our last house over a decade and we will stay in this one till we’re too old to go up the stairs, then it’s a condo, we’ve decided. I thrive in the normalcy of his steadfast plans. I’ve learned home is more than a house that can be sold, left and abandoned, it’s who is in that house that makes it a sanctuary. Home is no longer an alien concept to me. Home is my unwavering husband, no matter where we live.
My wander-lusting ‘merchant of chaos’ mother resents my normalcy and mocks me with her teen-angst voice whenever we argue. We argue a lot. Thankfully I’ve come to understand she is not a well person. She is an eternally rebellious and trapped teenager who wants to leave home, and I am the parent. To her any belongings, children, husbands or homes are shackles and must be banished, escaped and left behind.
For example, last year after we moved her into a fairly posh retirement residence, they had a Halloween dance at a neighboring rec-center. After not speaking to me for a week because I left her in a ‘home’, she called and asked if I’d drive her to the party. When I arrived she descended the stairs slowly so I could take in the full view of her costume; a black and white striped prison uniform with a chain belt.
She got into my car without a word, sat smiling and looking forward, her point made.
I shook my head, started the engine and said, “Do we need to stop somewhere to pick up a ball and chain?”
Now, that one year mark has hit. She’s serving her sentence in the ‘home’ but is planning an escape. She has one friend left who can drive (during the day) and they think they’re going on a road trip, you know to where that grass is greener, and apparently where men have hair and teeth. They are in their eighties and need naps about every two hours. I don’t think they’ll get far, I think that hair and teeth will be fake, and I know the grass won’t be greener.
We have told her if she tries to leave this safe haven we will never help her find one again. She knows we mean it this time. And though she has these little rebellions, I don’t think she will actually leave the retirement center where they feed, medicate, entertain and allow her the freedom to come and go with no strings. I think she’s finally grown up enough to recognize the need for a home.
Our mother, regardless of antics loves us deeply in her own dysfunctional way, and in that love is our sense of humor, humility, and yes, finally a sense of familial home.
By the 1970s the now trendy and oh-so-cool Portland Oregon #PDX was known as the ‘porn capital’ of the northwest. Deep Throat seemed to play on a loop at ‘certain’ local theaters, and drugs -pink hearts, cross-tops and pot – were handed out like candy.
Like me, Portland in the 1960s and 70s was struggling to come of age. It was populated by people deeply wounded by WWII, weary from war, ever-suspicious of the Korean War, and ambivalent over the Vietnam War. Everyone was touched by warfare in some way – many sought escape.
Somewhere between 1967 and 1978 a great tide changed in Portland, at least in my life. Portland went from free-living-loving hippies in the parks, to disco in the clubs, drugs on every corner, and in every shadowy crevice of the city. From free love to cash-for-sex and porno, from dancing in the streets to the throb-throb-throbbing pulse of Donna Summer’s voice in the cocaine-laden disco nightclubs. Portland changed, and as I went from guileless teen into my awakening twenties, from innocently dancing in the parks, into the dark world of nightclubs, so did the landscape of my life, and the city I called home.
My current WIP (work in progress) is a collection of stories that draws upon that complex and layered backdrop. Why does that matter? That backdrop, setting or milieu, resonates with the theme of the stories, provides a mood and a frame of reference for my coming-of-age themes of ‘lost innocence, lost power, and soul death’.
When creating a narrative – fiction or non-fiction – it’s vital to have an in-depth understanding of your story world. Think about the cultural mores of a Jane Austen novel. Those quiet sufferings and tight reins on emotion in a polite society, would never work in today’s world.
The milieu or setting of a story consist of both the time and physical location within a storyline, either nonfiction or fiction. As a literary component, the setting helps introduce the main background and mood for a story. Essentials of setting may include culture, geography, and the historical period – it pains me to say the 1970s is now historical, but it is. It’s official, I’m old. Along with the character, theme, plot and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.
If you are interested in reading about Portland’s sleazy background, check out author Phil Sanford’s books, Rose City Vice and Portland Confidential.
All stories have themes – whether they’re intentionally explored or bubbling under the surface – and the exploration of different themes adds layers and depth to any story, especially if those themes are universal, tapping into what Carl Jung called, the collective unconscious.
The other day I mentioned to a class I was teaching, that discovering what your theme is not only helps you tell the story, it keeps you on track. For example in my novel, Return To Sender, I tried to keep only the letters my protagonist, Theo wrote from war (Korean) that had to do with saving someone. Why? Because he wants to be saved. Redemption is the theme.
I didn’t abandon the theme when I revealed his letters, but instead used them to support the theme. This excerpt from his letters is an example;
It rained hard the night we evacuated the children from their orphanage, harder than I’d seen, even on the Oregon Coast. The smell of wet dirt, trees, and napalm, that’s the smell I remembered most, the chemical and petroleum of burning napalm. We scrambled with the kids up Korea’s dominating T’aebaek Mountain—the mountain was nearly the same height as Neahkahnie but had limestone caves tunneled deep within. Massive stalagmites hung heavy throughout the corridors. Ancient bamboo-roped bridges built across chasms linked the vast rooms of the caves to one another. It was otherworldly. But the surviving nun knew the place, the Karst Caves, and said we’d be safe. Water spouted from innumerable cracks and seeps – the sound of rain and falling water was everywhere.
We clawed our way up the hills and out of the valley of death. The CCF had entered the war that week and were as ubiquitous as the rain. The NK were ruthless and bloodthirsty and wanted those kids—and now us—dead. The kids and that dedicated nun were too vulnerable for us to abandon for slaughter, so we, my buddy Lieutenant Peters and me, abandoned our orders instead.
Sometimes we writers aren’t fully aware what our theme is until we write a good bit of the story, set it aside, let it ruminate in a drawer for a day, ten or 30, then read it. The theme(s) should emerge, jump off the page, even sometimes, surprise you. Then when you rewrite and edit you can shore them up and explore them in more satisfying (to both you and your readers) ways throughout the story.
There are tons of themes, and in a story of any length, there’s generally more than one. Death, War, Prejudice, Freedom…and it shouldn’t be a shocker that the number one theme in literature is love. It’s one of the most prevalent topics in books, movies and music. Love is a universal, a multi-faceted theme that’s been examined in a number of ways throughout storytelling history.
Puppy love, unrequited love, first love, lost love, forbidden love, married love, the love between parents and children, siblings, friends, pets… the power of love to triumph over all…except when it doesn’t.
What are some different love theme examples in literature?
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragic tale of forbidden love with dreadful consequences.
Pride and Prejudice explores the type of love that develops slowly over time, from misunderstanding and disdain to friendship, respect and love.
Wuthering Heights explores love by emphasizing how its passion has the power to unsettle and even destroy every unfortunate life in its path.
To create more layered tales, explore themes in your writing.
Recently, I taught a three week series on how objects make great storytelling strategies. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years back for Willamette Writers magazine about the use of objects as plot devices and metaphors.
In 2011 I embarked on one of the harshest undertakings; I placed what I thought was the final draft of my novel in a drawer for one year. Why? Because, as I told others in my most knowledgeable author voice, “A writer needs distance from their material before editing and rewriting.”
While that’s true, the real reason was, the story didn’t work. I thought it worked, it worked in my head, but based on a few shrewd readers it didn’t work in theirs.
During that year–fighting the wicked temptation to tweak pages, chapters and plots–I turned my attention to books on rewriting, in search of a magic key to unlock my manuscript and turn it into a novel, the kind people wanted to read. I took workshops, and reaped too many tips to list. All that matters is that nothing helped, until one day . . . .
I read yet another craft book, and SHAZAM! You know how it feels when something simple smacks you like a Mack truck of a good idea? Well, chapter 14 in the The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray, did that for me. The ‘objects lesson’ taught me to utilize my story objects (often called plot-devices) as shorthand for backstory and eliminate a lot of dense narrative.
“Objects tell your story.” Ray writes. “When you rewrite your novel, you can tighten your story by repeating a single object; car, train, statue, slipper, harpoon, book. There’s a good chance the objects are already there, in your manuscript, waiting to be found, to be selected, to be repeated, to be laid down like neon breadcrumbs in the forest. Readers follow breadcrumbs.”
I began to see the power of storytelling objects everywhere. What’s Lord of the Rings without the ring, Cinderella without glass slippers, The Notebook without the book, or poor little Forest Gump without his box of chocolates?
No glass slippers, no enchanted tale, just a barefoot girl with an unfortunate name who probably does not go from rags to riches and who likely does not find her fella . . . what’s the point?
In Nicholas Spark’s novel The Notebook, that evocative leather bound book literally contains their love story. And that chocolate box on Forest Gump’s lap is a metaphor for the story to come; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” And oh-boy does that plot device set up and deliver a story.
Though easily overdone, an object that’s well-crafted, or emerges organically from setting or characters can establish a character’s values and thus inform and enhance the story.
In a Willamette Writers Conference screenwriting/storytelling workshop taught by Clark Kohanek, he too touched on the objects lesson. “Think about Die Hard,” Kohanek said, “when Bruce Willis enters with the teddy bear. We immediately know that object defines what’s important to him; family.”
That fuzzy teddy bear represents Willis’s values and reenters the story burnt and dirty, but safe, like him, ready to reunite with what he values so much he’d kill for. That object represents the driving force, and heart of the story because it’s valued by the protagonist.
Eventually, in rewriting my novel, the protagonist, Theo Riley, now has a toy soldier, a stack of blood-stained returned love letters, and a photograph of Korean Orphans. This trinity of objects define him, inform his moral compass and ultimately chart his destiny. These objects give the reader an understanding of Theo on a deeper level. They are backstory shorthand, and explaining it once eliminated pages of narration, because when the reader sees the tin soldier, letters, or pictures (Neon Breadcrumbs), they remember . . . because objects are a writer’s magic keys.
I’m a storyteller. Most of my friends are storytellers; playwrights, poets, novelist, singers, songwriters, and artists of all mediums. We all tell stories for different reasons, and yet for the same purpose, storytelling aids us in understanding the world around us.
Storytelling predates writing. The most primitive forms of storytelling were usually oral expressions. Storytellers come in many forms, with many voices and tools, from poetry and literature to graffiti and fine art. We need storytellers, artist and writers, to elicit passion and emotions, especially in dark times when we can so easily avert our eyes from troubling events like a cultural revolution, rebellion, social injustice, corrupt politicians, police brutality, the imprisonment or genocide of an entire people.
Though the ancient origins of storytelling have vanished into the mist of time, the importance of storytelling and those who tell stories has not. From cave dwellings to the recontours of Native Indian lore, families and cultures with strong narratives and passionate tellers, thrive in their collective story.
Think about times spent sitting around the kitchen table with your family – your witnesses on this journey – as they tell and retell all the often cringe-worthy memories of you as a child, or their experiences during the Great Depression, or whatever the family stories are. Think how bonding that is/was, how it informed your sense of who you are and where you come from. At my grandma’s house, all of us crowded into the yellow-vinyl kitchen booth, drank weak Folgers coffee, my aunts’ chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and talked like ‘mag-pies’ grandma always said. And at that jam-packed table every story started with “I remember that time you….”
Capturing and retelling the stories of our collective history is vital to understanding our existence on this planet – trust me, when grandma is gone, you’re gonna wish you took notes, and you’re gonna remember with heartache and joy, every story she ever told you. Our stories are important.
Storytelling is vital to the human experience. It allows us to digest information with greater ease by more effectively linking that information to our feelings and then our thoughts. Generally, once we’ve felt something, we don’t forget it. I recall years ago, seeing the movie, Dead Man Walking, and how when my friends and I left the theater we talked about the death penalty, I recall feeling very differently about that controversial topic after seeing one man’s poignant story.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel, Return to Sender was to reiterate the history (lest we are doomed to repeat it), and the stories I grew up with as the child of a Korean War veteran, about the atrocities of the brutal North Koreans against their own people, and most especially against their own orphans. A topic as timely today (sadly) as it was in the 1950s. In my novel I paid tribute to the most haunting aspect of the Korean War for both my father and my father-in-law; the slaughter of innocent children by their own people. Having these precious photographs of many of these children made their stories personal to me.
There are certain aspects of history that resonate deeply with all of us. For example, my talented neighbors, Jan and Chris Hopkins, who make a great mead (home-made wine), but who are also internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artists, illustrators and storytellers. Their most recent creative endeavor of depicting the WWII internment of the Japanese in America, was motivated by Jan’s desire to learn more about her cultural identity. As a child of detained Japanese Americans, there was a lack of information about her family legacy and the ordeal of internment that they endured. Jan needed to know her story, so she and Chris have set out on a mission to share their stories through visual arts. Their joint exhibit at Everett’s Shack Center for the Arts starts June 21st thru September 2018.
Chris is a historian through his art. His paintings tell very specific aspects of the American story that resonate with
him on a soulful level. He captures moments that harken back to moments like this young Japanese-American woman who is pregnant, alone and just ‘relocated’ to an internment camp – what does the future hold for her and her unborn child now that her country (America) has turned on her? It is important to humankind to keep those stories alive so they never happen again.
Chris also painted an entire series of over 60 paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen which travels the country in art shows, like locally at the Shack Center in Everett. The Tuskegee Airmen series portrays the adventures of the first African American fighter pilots, their crews, families and legacy.
As an illustrative historian Chris has captured this pivotal moment in time; At the onset of World War II, the segregated US armed forces declined to train African Americans as pilots until a lawsuit opened the door. The Army Air Corps acquiesced to an experiment training pilots at Tuskegee University, Alabama. In March 1942 the first class of African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings and became the nation’s
first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over 1,000 black aviators for the war effort. Chris started his Tuskegee Airmen series as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program. Over the years, the series evolved beyond the Air Force Art program to become a personal mission and passion for him. Every one of these paintings tells us a vital part of our history; who we were, who we are now, how far we’ve come, and sadly how far we have to go.
Or below, this modern-day image, social commentary, where a homeless mother and her child sit starving on the steps of the land of plenty, a posh bakery, where inside, too busy to notice, are two girls on their phones. Just as I tell stories with words, Chris uses images, and is a perceptive storyteller of our times, the good and the bad.
Regardless of medium or craft, storytelling is significant because it can illuminate moral, ethical, spiritual lessons in non-preachy ways that people can easily contemplate. Great stories engender empathy by helping people relate to someone they may never have connected with before.
Just as important as our intimate family stories are in reminding us where our faith and courage comes from – be it strong Scottish, Jewish, Irish, or French roots – and what our ancestors overcame, it’s also vital to keep historic stories alive so we never forget what our fears and prejudices can become.
What stories matter to you? Tell them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
And, big kudos to my neighbor; Art Work by Chris Hopkins Selected for Inclusion in Major Traveling Exhibition Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum – Reimagining the Four Freedoms
In 2017, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sent out a call to artists to create works that would reimagine President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear— or explore the meaning of freedom today, for possible inclusion in the major touring exhibition: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. From 1000 submissions, 36 artists were accepted—including two works by local artist, Chris Hopkins—for the contemporary section of the exhibition, titled “Reimagining the Four Freedoms.”
In our time of troubling HOMELESSNESS in a country of plenty, this painting is particularly poignant.
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Lately, I’ve become especially in tune with the way people describe their relationship with cancer – and trust me, it is a relationship – or the words they use when expressing compassion toward me. It’s very common to hear statements like “You’re battling this disease” or “you’re gonna win the war” or other combat-like metaphors. I, myself even use the term ‘cancer-warrior’ just because I like the sound, and besides, who doesn’t want to be a warrior, right? But in my recent reanalyzing of this relationship with dis-ease, I am reviewing my own language. I’m a writer, words are my play things, I can do this.
I’ve come to realize that being a warrior requires a battle, it is a combative term after all. And therein lies my problem.
I’ve been living with cancer for two decades now. I have had three major surgeries and two minor. I’m down a couple organs and twice have had my throat cut from jugular to jugular – only nicked once – and have lived to tell. Alas, here I am again exhibiting irregular tests, shadowy images on scans and abnormal even ‘aggressive’ tumor indicators. Mine is a rare cancer so there isn’t much study available. As a matter of fact last week I was told that my closely-monitored 20 year old file is a great resource in the search for answers about Medullary Carcinoma – cool, glad I can help. Anyway, I’m tired of partaking in such an adversarial relationship. Besides, maybe all that fighting has added to the struggle. Besides, words are powerful things, and as my gramma used to say, ‘you can never rise above your words.’ So if I can’t rise above them, then I need to raise them to level at which I would like to live.
Cancer, at least my cancer is something I have to co-exist with. Oh sure, it may be like living with a troublemaking roommate I can’t get rid of, but live with I must. It’s in my throat, so I live with a mostly metaphorical knife at my throat, but sometimes that metaphor turns literal and surgical cutting ensues.
For a long time I also used antagonistic, rebellious ‘I’m goin’ to war’ metaphors. But now I’m attempting to alter my orientation from combatting my dis-ease to embracing and partnering with it. After all, we do share the same space, so it follows that we have to learn to connect and peacefully co-exist. HA! As I write this I keep imagining the roommate, Spike (played by Rhys Ifans) in the movie, Notting Hill. It made me smile time and time again when I was recuperating from one of my surgeries a few years ago. It hurt to laugh then, but Spike, cracked me up!
Anyway, I’ve come to realize that I can’t truly heal myself of something I’m not connected to. Have I spent all these years putting my energy into fighting instead of healing, meanwhile thinking the two were synonymous? What’s that Tony Robbins quote, ‘where focus goes, energy flows’… so true.
Well, I’ve decided to focus my energy and thoughts on healing instead of fighting and that requires a new set of skills and language. Kinda like Hugh Grant’s character, William Thacker in Notting Hill, had to do with Spike. He really had to make peace with his undesirable roommate because they shared the same space. Ultimately they became great friends.
Making peace, not war may be the best motto in life in general and may serve the overall quality of life whether you’re a patient or not. Aiming our energy towards the healing process helps us connect with our journey through any kind of dis-ease (illness, mourning, divorce, horrible roommates, etc.). It’s far more empowering than directing energy towards the anger linked with the cancer, which keeps you interlocked in a victim role and feeling you need to fight. Maybe changing the words, the language of war to a language of compassion and self-love is the path that will illuminate this often exhausting and emotional journey. Either way, since I play with words, that’s what I’ll be doing.
Oh, and if you aren’t familiar with these images of Spike, then you have to watch Notting Hill. He’s brilliant! Still laughing.
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