I read a blog post a few weeks ago, and the writer gave reasons why she thought writers’ groups weren’t very helpful. I happen to love mine. Not only have I learned a lot from the comments people give there–for my work, as well other peoples’ pages–I also come home recharged, ready to dig into my manuscript. Just being around fellow writers, talking nuts and bolts, shared successes and disappointments, news and markets, gets me excited about pounding the keys again. Some people join our group and stay. Some people join our group and run. It’s not for everyone. It’s HARD to read your work for 15 minutes and then get critiqued. After all these years, I still get nervous when I share my stuff there. Everyone works hard to give positive, helpful feedback, but we tend to be honest about what could be better. After all, that’s why we share, right? To find our flaws and make them better. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
It took me a long time to learn to listen–really listen–to their feedback without getting defensive. Writing is personal. We pour our minds and passions into our words. It’s no fun to hear that we messed up, but I’ve finally learned that if I just leave my friends’ comments alone for a few days and let them stew, then I can look at them and decide what works for me and what doesn’t.
The blogger who found writers’ groups lacking stated that readers only share a small number of pages with each other at a time, that it’s too hard to determine story and character arcs, to feel if the pacing works. I suppose some of that depends on how often a writer gets to share. In our group, writers read consistently enough for the rest of us to remember how the chapters flow. But the blogger’s right. Reading a work in its entirety is a different thing than hearing chunks of pages at a time. But who says we have to choose between a writers’ group or critique partners? Not so. Most of us break off into smaller groups to trade manuscripts. We rely on Scribes to catch trouble spots and brainstorm ideas to make them better. And then we have critique partners who look at the entire manuscript.
Not every group is like ours. Ours is dedicated to encouraging writers and trying to make their works better, to make them publishable. So, what can we offer each other? What exactly do we look for?
1. Opening hooks. Did we start the story/novel/article at the right place? Or is there a spot 2 or 20 pages farther into the book where the story really starts?
2. Will the first chapter grab and keep a reader, or did we introduce so many characters at once, we drowned the reader and left him confused? Did we bury the book’s big question under backstory? Are we grounded in the story’s setting? Do we know what type of book it is in the first chapter, and what it’s about? Do we know what the protagonist’s problem is and how he might try to solve it?
3. Did we show, don’t tell? Did we use active verbs? Were we careful with word choice? Our group REALLY notices word choice. Did the ideas flow? Did the characters grab us? Do we CARE about them? Did the characters feel REAL? Did the dialogue feel real? Did all of the characters sound the same?
4. Did the tension build as the chapters flow and keep building all the way to the end, or did we go off on a tangent somewhere? Did the story sag? Did each scene move the story? Did each scene have tension? Did we use the right POV to tell the story or that particular scene? Did the characters stay true to themselves, or did the author try to force them to do something to move the story along?
5. And the biggie: Did the pages WORK? Did they have the right tone/mood/style for their genre? Did the tone stay consistent from one chapter to the next? Each genre implies a promise to its readers. A mystery has a crime that needs to be solved. A romance has boy meets girl and a happy ending. Did we deliver?
Our group is pretty eclectic. We write different things–YA, fantasy, Regency, espionage, mystery, urban fantasy, and literary. We even have a memoir writer and a nature writer, who specializes in articles on birding. We don’t always read each others’ genres, and we admit that, but we know what’s expected from them. So we focus on if they’re well-written, not if they’re something we’d read.
Do I value my group? That’s a big, resounding yes. Quite a few of the people who’ve moved away, though, tell me that they can’t find another group like ours, so I know that not every writers’ group is created equal. I value our group’s feedback. If you can’t find a good group, though, I recommend Victory Crayne’s advice on critiques. He gives a good, solid list of things to look at in writing.
I added a flash fiction story to my webpage. Not a “nice” story. It’s early times in River City.
There’s a reason the voodoo spirit Manette has downturned lips. http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/