Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Tuesday, 12 June 2001

It is really hard to know the best way to divide time among writing, critiquing, and socializing. Kelly spoke out yesterday in favor of critiquing as being arguably more useful than writing. She wasn't trying to discourage writing; I think she just wanted to lay out the counter-argument to the concern that the critiquing was taking too much time away from the writing. Certainly I have no doubt that I'm learning more from critiquing than I am from being critiqued. The way we do critiques helps: everybody goes first sometimes (and lays out their critique with no sense as to whether other people have read the story the same way) and later other times (and is able to agree or disagree with what previous people have said).

It is really, really interesting to hear the critiques by the people who have studied literature critically before. They pick up on stuff that I don't consciously notice, like having the texture of the prose match the texture of the scene being described.

I've been trying to do most of the large-group activities (Mafia games, group lunches and dinners), but I haven't done much smaller-group activities, except a couple of sessions in the gym. It's the best compromise I can think of between doing as much socializing can and still having time for writing.

The critique of my story went okay. There was one bit that everyone made fun of. I knew that bit was weak, so that wasn't too bad. The verdict was mixed on other things. It was interesting to see the range of reactions. That's probably the most useful thing of the critiques--not the parts where everyone agrees, but the parts where lots of people read it lots of different ways. Some people had very different takes on pieces of the story, pointing out some off-hand bit of description or turn of phrase that had led them to suspect I was going in an odd direction. Some really good ideas there.

The conference with Kelly also went well. She read my two submission stories, as well as the one critiqued this morning. She saw many of the same problems with the story that had been critiqued last week, but she liked the other one!

It mostly isn't too important to me to be "validated" as a writer by my classmates and instructors. I'm here to improve my writing, not to have people tell me how good it already is. But still, when it happens, that's great.

She also suggested that I persist with short stories for a while longer before tackling a novel. She thought that the kinds of problems I have would be a lot easier to learn to fix in the course of writing some more short stories. She mentioned learning to distinguish between the telling detail that adds depth and richness versus trivial minutia. (I do a pretty good job with the former, but it is mixed in with too much of the later.) Taking a novel ms and fixing all of that would be a huge task compared to taking a half dozen or a dozen short stories and fixing it in each of them--especially if each short story is a bit better than the previous one. If I can learn to do that before I write a novel, it will be enormously less work to go from my first draft to a final draft.

I think I know how my next story is going to go now. I have the protagonist and I have his dilemma. I think I know the choice he needs to make.

For me, this is the best part of the writing process: where I have a vision in my head and I haven't yet had to go through all the struggles to get it down as prose. I like most of the phases, though. It is rarely a struggle to get the vision turned into prose. (Although there are plenty of times that it is hard.) Sometimes I'll be about to have a character do something, that is motivated by something that I understand, but that I haven't put into the story. When I can spot that, and then go back to some early point and put in a scene or a thought or just a brief phrase that lets the reader understand the motivation--that feels great.

I guess the point is that I like a lot of phases of the writing. It's why I want to be a writer, at least as important as seeing my work published, having readers tell me how great it is, or even getting paid for it.

My cold is nearly all better. I slept great last night. I had a bit of a cough again when I woke up, but a dose of cough syrup took care of it in the morning, and it hasn't returned later in the day.

I had decided not to go out for the group dinner. The cafeteria has the tomato rice soup that was edible and I still had a bunch of critiques to do for tomorrow. But then I heard people saying that they were going to walk to some restaurant, and I decided that I had to do that. We went to a Mediterranean place that's about a 15 or 20 minute walk away. We got the Sultan's Feast, which was yummy. Seven of us split a "feast for 6" and managed to eat less than half the food. I'm glad I went, although now I'm both staying up late and not getting all my critiques done for tomorrow.


Philip Brewer's Writing Progress homepage