I’ve been writing my entire life. Starting at 15 years old, I was a sportswriter, columnist and feature writer for my local weekly paper. In college I spent a huge part of my time cranking out stories for my journalism classes, frantically handwriting articles at the last minute. And then, somewhere in my 20’s and 30’s, as career and motherhood changed my direction, I began writing fiction.
For whatever reason, having someone read my fiction was completely different than publishing an article in a newspaper. Newspaper work, in general, is no reflection on the writer as a person. It is hopefully unbiased, clearly written, and concise. In a way, everyone reads it and nobody cares, which is fine with me. Yet fiction felt so glaringly personal and intimate that the mere thought of someone reading it caused me to break into hives.
Therefore, when I decided to get serious about my fiction writing, one of my first steps was to join the DFW Writers' Workshop and open myself up to critique. How could I submit a manuscript to an agent if I was terrified of anyone reading it?
The set up at DFWWW is structured and simple: meet once a week, break into small groups, read your work aloud for 15 minutes, then listen to 5 minutes of critique without comment (and without breaking into hives). After 5 months of reading my manuscript aloud to this diverse group of writers, I’ve learned several valuable things about critique groups.
1)Genres don’t matter. Good writing does.
At first I was concerned that the sci/fi fantasy writer and the romance novelist would have nothing to offer me. How could they understand the nuances of Southern Fiction, my genre? What I’ve realized is that if the story holds up, writers of other genres can have great insight into your work. They see things you didn’t even consider and will tell you if it’s boring. And if they tell you it’s boring? Take them seriously, because it probably is. Don’t dismiss them just because their genre is different than yours.
2)Constant praise is not necessarily a good thing.
A writers’ group that tells you how great you are is not helpful. My first crucifixion (or cruci-fiction, you decide) by the group came Week Two. I was trying too hard, they said. Overwriting, said another. One even said, “It’s not the story, it’s how you’ve written it,” which Pamela Hammonds reminded me sounded like “It’s not the dress; it’s how it looks on you.” It was painful, but necessary. I went back to the drawing board, and came back with a much stronger piece because of it. Keep what makes sense and fix it. Don’t take them too seriously, yet don’t dismiss all critique either. Find the balance.
3)Meeting weekly keeps me writing.
I like reading at a writers’ group, therefore I write every week, no excuses. They keep my procrastination habit at bay. Knowing that I am expecting myself to read each week keeps me going. Sometimes it’s good sometimes it’s great, hopefully it’s never garbage. If it is, I know that they will tell me.
My advice to a new fiction writer? Find a critique group, or form one yourself. Don’t rely on your spouse or your best friend to give you the best possible feedback, they probably like you too much. Grammar, sentence structure, and spelling will all work themselves out in the end. But glaring issues and overriding flaws need to be corrected, and quickly. A writers’ group can do that for you. Just be prepared for the occasional hives.