Writers’ Critique Groups

image from thetinyprotagonist.wordpress.com

image from thetinyprotagonist.wordpress.com

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. And for that reason she’s an awful person to ask for a critique.

Joining a critique group may be one of the smartest steps we can take in our careers as writers. Pointed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining our craft. But finding the right group is like finding the right psychotherapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike. Some are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to work in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer is a group of military science-fiction buffs.
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding. New writers often bring fresh energy.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged and angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

How groups are run and structured varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I am a strong proponent of face-to-face feedback where verbal and physical cues (like smiling) augment the words we chose in our critiques. Meeting in person offers an opportunity to elaborate on comments and ask/answer questions.

However a group is structured, there are generally norms related to timing, submissions and how critiques are returned to the authors. The critique group I belong to meets twice a month in person for approximately three hours and a written critique is completed between meetings. This is how we work:

  1. Via email, we distribute our submissions to other group members. Submissions are limited to 20 double space pages (with occasional exceptions).
  2. Group members critique each submission and return it via email to the writer with comments. (Word has a “comment” tool that is very helpful in this regard.)
  3. Prior to the face to face meeting, we review our comments so we’re prepared to discuss ideas and answer questions for the author.
  4. Meetings start with a focus on one member’s work. One at a time, readers offer additional feedback and respond to questions. The process repeats itself until all submissions have been discussed. (Set time limits for face-to-face feedback if meetings run over. Don’t skip discussing someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking”. Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns over for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A first draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, punctuation problems, word choice, and grammar. Often a first draft will benefit from a second look after the writer has smoothed the rough edges. For a “final draft” the critique may serve as a last review before the manuscript wings off to the publisher. Either way, a critique group does not eliminate the need for repeated, careful editing on part of the author.

Giving Feedback

Writing is personal, and when a writer shares her work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect. Be cognizant of your personal preferences and writing style and separate these from your critiques.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, section of dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

As much as possible provide suggestions so that the writer gets the gist of your comment. If you identify a weak verb, give a few suggestions for stronger ones. If a sentence is awkward, suggest a possible rewrite. If you think a section of dialog feels stilted, explain why. If you think the character’s emotion is inappropriate, explain your perspective.

You may end up critiquing the equivalent of a chapter or two every two weeks. Remember that this isn’t a typical pace for pleasure reading. A book may seem as though it’s dragging, but that may be more a result of the group’s pace than the book’s.

When we critique another’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths he can build on.

Happy Writing!

Editing your Manuscript – the Peach Process

If you browse the internet for ideas on how to edit, you’ll find as many methods as there are writers. I might sound like one of those scratchy vinyl records, but find what works for you.

Whatever you decide, an editing plan is vital. A plan keeps you disciplined and on task through a process that, at times, is utterly grueling. And, most importantly, it prevents you from tripping into the rabbit hole of everlasting rewrites. Assuming your writing skills continually improve with practice, every editing round will reveal opportunities for tweaking. Of course, you want your work to be perfect! But since that’s pure fantasy, eventually you must drop the pen in the drawer and set your book free. A methodology helps untie the apron strings.

I’ve seen a range of editing suggestions including anywhere from two to ten drafts. For me, two would be impossible, way too much pressure! Yeesh! But ten seems a little punishing. I’m on the eight-draft plan–perhaps a bit of overkill, but it works for me. By the time I finish, it’s as good as I can get it based on the current state of my craft, and I’m ready to bid it adieu. (Plus I’m sick of reading it.)

 1.  Edit Round One

If you’ve been following this blog, I’ve already blabbed on about how a well-managed outline saves tons of rewrite time, keeps the story tight, the scenes relevant and helps tie up all the threads. If you missed all that blabbing and are desperate to indulge, click Here.

Most writers are encouraged to write the first draft without backtracking and making changes. I tend to ignore this advice, but only on the big issues. When significant glitches arise I go back and fix them, or make a note in the outline where the deficit it. The better the outline the fewer problems.

Round one is geared toward fixing the big plot problems and character issues. It’s solely about making sure your story is cohesive. Anne Lyle has a great article detailing her 10 editing steps including….yup…writing an after-the-fact outline. Because I’m an outliner and tend to rewrite as I go, I don’t use her steps. I include her article for those who might find it useful.

Once the major elements of the story itself are massaged into working order, I continue on to Editing Round Two.

 2. Edit Round Two.

Day one – I read chapter one and two and fix whatever I find.

Day two – reread chapters one and two; make more adjustments. Read chapters three and four and fix whatever I find.

Day three – reread chapters three and four; make more adjustments. Read five and six and fix whatever I find.

You get the idea.

On this round, I’m still making fixes to the story. I also focus on the flow of scenes and chapters, and  evaluate whether dialog, characterization, and emotion feel genuine. I often attend to some of my weak points, blind spots, and personal learning objectives as a writer.

 3. Edit Round Three.

Time for me to search all those weak verbs, crutch and wimpy words, and if I can, switch them out. I know mine really well, so I don’t search the whole list, just the ones that I use by rote. (Here’s a post with a list of weak, crutch, and wimpy words.)

I also look for other specific areas of weakness. For example, starting too many sentences with He or She and eliminating “said” where I can identify the speaker through the action.

I do all of this with the “Find” function in Word, so I’m not actually rereading the manuscript. If I am thorough, this will require some time, but it’s worth the effort. (Imagine individually looking at three thousand “was” to see if they can be written out.) Be patient and take breaks.

4. Edit Round Four

Change the spacing or font and read the whole thing from end to end. I’m always amazed what I notice with the visual change. This is also the first full read-through.

5. Edit Round Five

Read it end to end aloud. I catch tons of repeated words, awkward sentences, unnatural dialog, and dialog pacing issues. If you want 16 reasons to read aloud, click Here.

TAKE A MINIMUM TWO WEEK BREAK (Personally, this is torture).

6. Edit Round Six

Print the entire manuscript (I generally do this single-spaced, double-sided to save paper) and read it from end to end. Make notes in the margins, scribble, circle, and draw arrows.

7. Edit Round Seven

Back to the computer. I read the bloody thing through again. If I make any change to a paragraph, I change the font to blue and keep going. (Sometimes this ends up being whole scenes).

When I get to the end, I go back to the beginning and just read the blue paragraphs. If I am satisfied with one, I switch it back to black. If I make more changes, I leave it blue.

When I get to the end, I repeat the process. Over and over and over and over again. I may revisit certain blue paragraphs/scenes another ten times until I’m happy with it. I may read some of the more difficult ones aloud or print them. (Yes, some paragraphs end up with 20+ drafts this way.)

8. Edit Round Eight

Print the manuscript and read it aloud end to end. Start letting go… letting it be done. Jot down the final changes and enter them in the computer. Change the font to blue and revisit them until the font is back to black.

TA DA!

Now Available

100_0464

Yesterday UPS showed up with nine boxes full of books hot off the press. Myths of the Mirror is out there now waiting to be loved, hated and everything in between – wonderful and terrifying.

There’s something a little surreal about seeing your first book in print. I can only liken it to giving birth… all that time and energy, hours of rewrites, laboring over every sentence, wanting something real and tangible in your hands, something that hopefully will survive you.

And you want someone besides your mother to love it, right? Very few of us are going to get rich writing, so it’s about the love, really. Not the love of you, the author, but of your little creation, your baby.

So the moment unfolds. You lift that book out of the box, muse over the front cover, open the first page, prepared to be awed, and then you read and think– I should have put a comma there instead of an “and”.

Isn’t that the truth! But part of writing (and parenting) is knowing when to let go. So I set this one free to the aether and hope you enjoy the read.