Writing critique groups

Over recent days I have been working hard on editing and rewriting my novel for children. I am going over every word and sentence, making each one earn its place in the finished work. Some words were deleted. Some were added to make the text flow or to add to the meaning.

Yesterday I presented the totally reworked first three chapters to my critique group at university where I am doing my Master of Arts. I thought I almost had these chapters licked, though I did admit I wasn’t entirely happy with the opening chapter. Three of the group had never before read any part of the manuscript, others had read some or all of the earlier drafts. Even after working on the 7th draft, readers still found little things to comment on, and many valuable suggestions for improvement. Is there no end to this process?

That last statement seems very negative. One of the important lessons I have learned during my course and while writing this novel is that I needed to change. I was threatened by the scary prospect of sharing my writing with others. Strange as that idea appears, many writers have this fear. We want our words to be read – but we are often too scared to show them to anyone!

I have learned to welcome my words being read and critiqued by other writers. My precious writing can be scrutinized by others whose eyes are not rose coloured. They can see the good parts and the parts which need improvement, changing or even eliminating. All in a pleasant, constructive way, of course.

Belonging to a writers’ group is an excellent way of improving your writing skills – and your chances of getting published.

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How to write a pantoum poem

Yesterday I wrote about how I write poetry.

It’s a simple formula and one that usually works for me. My only regret is that I far too often either don’t have the time to devote to poetry – or I don’t make the time. As a prize winning poet I know I should be writing more.

The regular monthly poetry writers’ group I attend is one thing that keeps me writing poetry on a regular basis. Each month we set a writing challenge for the following meeting. Some of the challenges last year were really inspiring, and hearing everyone’s take on the one challenge is very interesting. The critiquing of each poem is also valuable. There are many benefits to belonging to a writers’ group.

In this coming month we were set the task of writing a pantoum on the theme of obsession. Now, I’ve never written a pantoum and have resisted doing so until now. I thought it was too hard, too complex. I was wrong. A few days ago I managed to write a pantoum called Obsessed by Sonnets. That’s right – I wrote a pantoum about writing sonnets! Go figure.

What is a pantoum?

Good question.

It is a poem of Malay origins and has undergone a few  adaptations on its way into English poetry circles via the French. Essentially it consists of the following:

  1. A set of four lined stanzas (quatrains) – anything from three stanzas and up.
  2. It has a simple abab rhyming pattern throughout.
  3. It is often metred but I believe that this is not a strict rule. However, metred poems always sound wonderful when read aloud.
  4. Lines are repeated in a strict pattern.
  5. Lines 2 and 4 of the each stanza become 1st and 3rd lines of the next stanza. This is repeated throughout the poem until the last stanza.
  6. In the last stanza, the so far unrepeated 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza become the 2nd and 4th lines – but in reverse order. This means the poem comes full circle and the last line is a repeat of the first line of the poem.  This gives the whole work a very satisfying feel to it.

I’ll now be very brave and publish here a pantoum I wrote this afternoon. Note that a few words here and there have been changed to make grammatical or narrative sense.

What is a pantoum?

A pantoum is challenging to write,
It’s a poem of elegance and grace.
With stanzas of four lines – that’s right –
And a rhyming pattern to face.

It’s a poem of elegance and grace,
With quatrains for stanzas I’m sure,
And a rhyming pattern to face,
Not to mention a message that’s pure.

With quatrains for stanzas I’m sure,
And a metre so regular too,
I won’t mention my message so pure,
For I’m planning to entertain you.

It’s my metre that’s regular too,
With stanzas of four lines – that’s right –
For I’m planning to entertain you
With a pantoum that’s challenging to write.

All rights reserved.
Copyright 2010 Trevor Hampel.

My latest publishing venture

Now for something a little different.

I’ve had another poem published, this time in a small collection of poems called a chap book. There’s quite a story to this poem being published.

Every month I attend a poetry writers’ group at the university where I have almost completed my Master of Arts in Creative Writing.  Poetry writing has been a love of mine for decades, but it is only now that I’m having some small publication successes. Poetry was a big part of the course and my skills have definitely improved in the last 2 years.

Every month we set a poetry writing challenge for the next meeting. One of the challenges last year was to write a poem on the theme of poverty (the Global Financial Crisis even crept into our little group).  Some of the poems were brilliant and deserved a much wider audience than the group. We decided that this was to be the the first compilation published by the group.

I was nominated to be one of the three editors and I also set up the design of the booklet. We called it Shifting Sands. We had a very successful launch at our monthly meeting last Thursday. Normally we might only have about 5-7 members attend. This time we had 14 people present (including 3 new members) despite at least 3 or our regular attendees being away.

This month our theme was New Year’s Resolutions and the standard was extremely high. As a result we are now planning our next publication.

Good writing.

The importance of a writers’ group

Ken is one of my newest readers. Yesterday he left the following comments:

One of the benefits in being part of a group of writers is to see your story in action. Many people make the mistake of reading their own work. This is kind of protecting it. One day it will have to grow up and leave home. The best approach is for someone else to read the story to the group and have them comment on it. The writer must stay right back and observe the reactions. That way you can see when people wrinkle their brows or laugh or look thoughtful. You also hear the reader stumble or read smoothly.

Sometimes we keep our stories too close to us, while they are growing up. But we write our stories to share with others. People in performance arts get direct responses from their audience. Writers can miss out on this step unless they organise to put themselves in that position.

Well said Ken.

Too often – most of the time actually – writers get far too close to their ‘babies’ to see the faults, errors and structural problems that are obvious to other readers.

This is probably THE most important lesson I have learned doing my Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide, especially under the guidance of Rosanne Hawke.

  • At first I was threatened by having to share my writing in a public forum like a workshop.
  • Then I felt challenged by what others were writing in response to the set activities. This lifted my own writing to a new level.
  • Now I’m at the stage of actively seeking feedback from other writers and readers. Their reactions, perceptions and comments can only make me a better writer.

Isn’t that what we all strive for?

And a spin-off bonus is that our writing is improved making it more likely to be accepted for publication.

Consider being a part of a writers’ group. In Australia there are many such groups in every capital city (contact your state writers’ centre) and in many large regional centres. Even some of our smaller country towns have writers’ groups. I’m sure this is true of most other countries too.

And if you can’t find a group near where you live, start one. Even meeting regularly with just one or two like minded writers can be beneficial.

Good writing.