By Mary Feliz
Whether we’re at the puppy stage or sailing over tricky hurdles, writers need training, support, guidance, positive feedback, and constructive criticism.
From conferences on a grand scale to critique groups on the smaller end, authors push ourselves and our writing to greater heights when we work together. We smooth over the rough spots in our manuscripts, lives, and career trajectories while celebrating successes others might need a microscope to observe.
Finding or creating a critique group is the subject of another blog. I’m of a mind that they work best when you nail the perfect combination of similar skill sets and objectives.
But what if you’ve found the perfect group? What can you expect from the experience? How can you make the most of it and minimize frustration? The first step, I believe, is recognizing that you have at least three (and maybe more) roles. First, you’re there to provide feedback. Second, you’re there to receive constructive comments on your work. Third, you’re a social member of a group in which people will feel vulnerable. The relationships within the group may be more high-maintenance than you’re used to in other spheres of your life.
Provide timely feedback based on the writer’s needs. If an author’s spouse is a grammar whiz and punctuation police officer, she won’t require line edits, but she may need your take on whether her dialogue rings true. Don’t waste your time and hers. If she has a Monday deadline and you don’t get back to her for a month, you’ve squandered goodwill on a fruitless chore.
Find something good to say. No matter how awful you consider a submission, find something useful to say. Was the formatting impeccable or did a three-word turn of phrase capture your attention? Mention it. Doing so nurtures relationships, but also makes it easier for authors to listen to your recommendations for improvement.
Find something that could be better. No one’s writing is perfect, particularly in early drafts. Blockbuster authors may write too-wordy passages, dialogue that sags, or unimaginable plot twists. Even if a submission blew you away with its brilliance, find something that could be improved. No one appreciates a critique group member who consistently responds with “terrific, you’ve outdone yourself.”
Say thank you. Each critique took time away from a group member’s writing. There is nothing authors value more than their time.
Look beyond the comment. Prolific genre-busting English author Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” No matter how bizarre a comment seems, something tore the reader away from your manuscript long enough for them to write you a note. Even if you disregard their advice, examine the passage to determine what might have made a reader stumble.
Busted? Be grateful. When I struggle with a passage in my novel and decide it’s good enough only to have an editor later tell me there is still a problem with it, my initial reaction is that of a child sheepishly caught in the act. I’m angry, then thrilled that someone brought me to task for wimping out. I take the reader’s advice very seriously, even if their solution is not my solution. For example, in my latest book, my editor suggested the murderer needed more explicit motivation—something about the character didn’t ring true. He offered suggestions. Instead, I shifted blame to a new character I wove into the story. That move provided a double-barreled benefit. I fixed the nagging problem and created what I hope proves to be a very satisfying plot twist.
Don’t argue. And don’t continue ask for feedback as you fiddle with your manuscript’s faults. If you need more help, consider taking a class or asking another friend, beta-reader, or editor. Nothing kills a critique group faster than someone who keeps asking for advice on the same tired paragraphs.
Reveal expectations and needs. If you’re on a deadline, let your critique partners know. If you need a quick read and response on a specific portion of the work—rhythm, characterization, believability, etc.—let your readers know that, too.
Critique groups are meant to be helpful and fun. If your group feels burdensome or feedback isn’t useful, take a break, change the structure of the group, or bow out. Likewise, if a group member becomes argumentative, incapable of meeting deadlines, or provides useless feedback, consider asking if the group still meets her needs.
A supportive critique group is priceless, but the organization that needs care and feeding. Nurture it. But don’t hesitate to end an unsatisfactory group experience. A lousy critique group is worse than no group at all.
Mary Feliz writes the Maggie McDonald Mysteries featuring a Silicon Valley professional organizer and her sidekick golden retriever. She’s worked for Fortune 500 firms and mom and pop enterprises, competed in whale boat races and done synchronized swimming. She attends organizing conferences in her character’s stead, but Maggie’s skills leave her in the dust. Address to Die For, the first book in the series, was named a Best Book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. All of her books have spent time on the Amazon best seller list. Visit her website at http://www.maryfeliz.com
Professional organizer Maggie McDonald balances a fastidious career with friends, family, and a spunky Golden Retriever. But add a fiery murder mystery to the mix, and Maggie wonders if she’s found a mess even she can’t tidy up …
With a devastating wildfire spreading to Silicon Valley, Maggie preps her family for evacuation. The heat rises when firefighters discover a dead body belonging to the husband of Maggie’s best friend Tess Olmos. Tess becomes the prime suspect in what’s shaping up to become a double murder case. Determined to set the record straight, Maggie sorts clues in an investigation more dangerous than the flames approaching her home. When her own loved ones are threatened, can she catch the meticulous killer before everything falls apart?
Thanks for this interesting post, Mary!
Great advice, Mary! I was in a critique group when I first started selling. They were terrific, but it gradually fell apart.