Fishing For Compliments: Getting the Most Out Of Your Critique Group
Some people do it face-to-face; others prefer doing it online. Let's talk critiques. As I'm sure you're aware, a successful critique group isn't about getting a few friends together once a week for a communal pat-on-the-back. Cerridwen Press author Sydney Laine Allan (About Monday, release date September 2005) said it best. "When I was a new author, making my first attempts at writing romance, the feedback I received from my first critique group made a huge impact on all aspects of my work."
So why do we do it? What are we all looking for? I asked writers from several critique groups, in various stages of the publishing journey, for their opinions-what works, what doesn't-regarding critique partnerships. From their replies, I came up with a list of qualities necessary for success.
Requirement 1: Other writers of a similar skill level, with varied strengths and weaknesses. Kristi Knight (www.kristiknight.blogspot.com) said, "I look for someone who brings something to the table that I don't -- my strength is plotting/character growth/GMCs, so I look for people who have spelling, grammar, etc. as their strengths."
Anne Trueman stated, "I want critiques that tell me if the work is falling on its face, has merit, is dull or interesting. I am considered to be a good grammarian and excellent speller, so need neither of those. Above all, I want the critiquer to look at my work as objectively as possible, to read and evaluate, even if my work is not their particular 'cup of tea.'"
Requirement 2: Trust. "First and foremost," Randy Bruskrud (www.randywrites.blogspot.com) told me, "I must have a feeling?that the person doing the critiquing is giving honest feedback based solely on the merits of the writing, not some subconscious agenda."
Kimberly Starrett said, "I share everything with my longtime cp. In fact I rely on her excellent eye and her familiarity with my voice and style when I'm uncertain about whether a story works or needs radical revisions."
Requirement #3: Tough skin. Not everyone is going to love the words you labor over, the characters you adore, or the book of your heart. Get over it. If you want only glowing compliments, let your mother read your manuscript. Critique partners worth their weight in gold will point out the flaws in your manuscript that garner rejection slips. The idea is to catch the errors before an agent or editor does.
"Well, this is kind of embarrassing," Rachel Taylor admitted, "but, I entered a contest and came in second to last. The judges all made comments about how hard to read and follow my writing was, but none explained why that was so. I posted the same chapter in an online critique group, and someone (a very kind someone who I feel eternal gratitude toward) spent a huge amount of time reading my story and explaining to me how I wasn't using any backstory and very little interior dialogue to explain why my characters were behaving/reacting the way they were. I won't pretend that the entire process didn't hurt (it always hurts to have negative feedback, but it is SO worth the pain). In the end this person's suggestions not only changed the chapter in question, but the entire way I write. And afterwards, when I went back to what the contest judges said, I could make sense of it."
Red Sage Publishing's Amber Green (Hawkmoor in Secrets, Vol. 13) added, "Several people have induced radical changes by asking why a person did a certain thing or reacted a certain way, when it seemed out of character. And I'll never forget one comment: 'Shouldn't she put on some clothes before she answers the door? Or shouldn't he react to a naked woman opening the door?'"
Requirement #4: Tact. We've all seen the critique-from-hell. Melissa Lopez (www.melissa-lopez.com) recalled, "Years ago, I once had one of my heroines called whiney and told she lacked backbone."
Rachel Taylor offered a direct quote from one of her critiqued submissions: "'I'm totally not saying that your story sucks...it doesn't. It just needs some serious work. The only reason why I kept reading was to critique it. Really horrible one.'
"I just about curled up and died when I read this," Rachel said, "but I've kept it as a reminder that you can't please everyone, and not all readers have manners. The biggest problem with this person's comments is that her lack of courtesy made me write off her entire critique. She completely wasted my time and hers. As it was, my response was to ignore everything she said and not invite her to read for me again."
Leslie Ann Dennis (www.leslieanndennis.com), owner of the critique group, Romance Writers Unlimited (www.rwunlimited.org) has this gem in her House Rules for critiquing: "We aren't here to discourage others. Pointing out ONLY negatives can severely hinder a writer's confidence. This is not to say that you can't point out negatives - they are vital in ANY critique, but try to also find POSITIVE points in the submission as well."
Requirement #5: Ability to see the big picture. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a story won't gel. Honest and experienced critique partners will let you know that before you waste too much time struggling with a plotline that won't ever work. "I've only once erased something from my hard drive and sworn never to go back to it," Signet Regency author Janet Mullany (Dedication available September 2005) told me. "I realized I was writing the wrong subgenre. EVERYONE who saw it jumped all over it."
Requirement #6: Flexibility. If you think a critique partner just plain didn't get the gist of your excerpt, take a step back. Breathe. Many critiques that seem totally off the mark have at least one kernel of wisdom within them. Perhaps what you're trying to convey isn't coming through in a clear manner. Catch it now, and you'll avoid that dreaded "R" letter later. You may even discover a way to keep from repeating the error in the future.
Author Geri Davis (Pray With Purpose, coming soon from Treble Heart Books' Mountain View series) recalled, "An error in the timeline of one of my contemporary novels was pointed out. It made me aware of its importance, and I watch for it in the novels I read. I now type out a timeline for every piece of long fiction I write."
Randy Bruskrud agreed. "Thinking about the first crit I got? We 'argued' back and forth at the time, but for me it was a real learning process. I can even remember some of her points. One was that nothing germaine to the story was going on at the beginning. (TRUE) The other thing I remember her observing was that my heroine kept making judgments about things that hadn't happened yet?"
If, however, you really can't find anything constructive in a critique, chalk it up to a personality clash and move on, which brings us to our last requirement?
Requirement #7: A strong belief in your own talent. One writer who preferred to remain anonymous (we'll call her Ms. T.) confided, "I had my previous WIP in a critique group and? a well meaning critique partner tried to steer the story in the direction that she wished to see it go. My story was plotted, I had a vision, and knew the way I wished it to flow to get to my ultimate goal?. The partners I have now understand that I have a style of writing and do not badger me to change it or explain it. They also assist me in writing the best story that I can write, not the story they would write if they were writing it."
"I had to drop from a group last year because they were trying to change my writing to their writing," Anna K. Lanier explained. "This is not what a critique group is about."
When critique partners try to put your writing into their little box, whether intentionally or not, it's time to move on.
So what are the benefits of all these inconvenient requirements? The general consensus is seeing someone's work published is a tremendous reward. "I'm an avid reader and I love to help someone else make their writing stronger," Sammi Masters said. "Most recently, one of the writers I critique for, Janet Mullany, (and I've been critiquing some of her WIPs for about five years now), will have her first book published. What an honor to have been a small part of that process!"
But there are short-term perks as well. Anne Trueman said she appreciates "the knowledge that my prissiness in grammar and spelling just might be helping some really creative minds express themselves more clearly!"
Many of those I interviewed discussed how helping someone else actually made their own works stronger. Geri Davis noted, "I enjoy reading others' work, and always strive to help. Oddly, I have often found in one person's manuscript the answers to problems in mine."
Katherine Warwick added, "I love it when someone sees something, especially a detail that my mind just doesn't picture for some reason or another, and shares it with me. It can make a great difference. If I can do that for someone else, than I am happy to do that, knowing how profound it can be."
Janet Mullany summed it up for everyone. "Romance writers are such a generous crowd. I know if I ask for help, someone will provide it, and I like the feeling that I can be part of this, and share what expertise I have. And I love hearing success stories about things I've critted."