Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Critique is ...

By Julie

Critique is fun.

Critique is hard.

Critique is flattering.

Critique is confusing.

Critique can be helpful.

Critique can hack you off.

Critique is thought provoking.

Critique can mess up a good scene.

Critique can really improve your writing.

I could put a stamp on this and mail it in right there, but I won’t, because that would be cheating a little on my scheduled blog post. It should be clear from those sentences alone, though, that critique can be a mixed bag.

Used correctly, it can really improve your writing. Used incorrectly, or if you end up in the wrong critique group, it can really mess things up, too.

It is not easy to find a great critique group or partner. Several of the six of us searched for years for the right group before What Women Write was formed through a providential series of events. We don’t take each other for granted and often wonder at the serendipity of it all.

During our annual retreats, we spend time several evenings reading scenes aloud and offering each other critique. In the past, we’ve offered the same service to each other over lunch. Frequently, we exchange work for feedback via email. Any way we slice it, it has been a great way for the six of us to grow our writing skills by leaps and bounds.

Instead of telling you how to form a critique group or what makes one work, I decided to use this post to paint a word picture of how ours works. (Your ideal group will likely look very different.)

First and possibly most importantly, during our retreat critique sessions, we almost always laugh.

Last year, we got the giggles as we started out whispering the love scenes we’d labored over all year and spontaneously decided to read for critique. Our landlords were unexpectedly on the premises, and we had no idea how well they could hear us through the walls of their private suite – right next to the dining room where we met. We figured they’d think we were up to no good if they could. But I’m pretty sure the whispers escalated as the wine and chocolate flowed, and eventually, we no longer gave a hoot if they thought we were reading bodice rippers out loud to amuse ourselves.

This year, we laughed so hard we cried as Elizabeth read a scene she’d composed that day using real life experience, though she apparently changed it up a bit to make it unbelievably hilarious. I suppose if any one of us hears the word sugarbugs in the future, we’ll be snorting out loud once again.

But we also gripe at Elizabeth to “SLOW IT DOWN, WOMAN!” because she reads out loud faster than the Roadrunner finds new trouble.

We holler at Joan to “SPEAK UP!” because we’re dying for her to reveal the compelling new scenes she’s created in the faraway lands she’s always writing about, but she reads so softly we can’t hear her at times!

We are baffled by Susan’s flushed face and neck, because she is really quite a confident woman and her writing is downright breathtaking.

We sigh with envy over Pamela’s soothing voice that seems to float out effortlessly as she reads from the emotionally spot-on women’s fiction she’s writing.

We marvel at Kim’s detailed research and dedication to telling her great-grandfather’s story as true as she possibly can.

And my tongue stumbles ridiculously over words, and I gag when what seemed so lovely in my head sounds like drivel when I speak it. But in the next moment, I’m overcome with emotion when my fellow writers tell me they really think I have a good thing going and forbid me from quitting.

Most of all, we trust each other.

We trust each other to take the hard stuff – no sugarcoating allowed – and not throw temper tantrums when we don’t like it.

We trust each other to take the changes we suggest and weigh them carefully to determine whether it’s just one person’s opinion or a real problem in the writing.

We trust each other to believe our words of praise; sometimes they are hard won.

We trust each other not to withhold praise or be overcritical when we are just the slightest bit jealous because one of us received a request for a full manuscript or another has written a scene so mesmerizing it makes the rest of us want to stick forks in our heads and give up.

Ultimately, we trust the group to help us little by little and bit by bit hone the rough material we’ve produced into a thing of beauty.

I’m no expert on how to form or find the perfect critique group, but I can attest that when you do find it, it’s a treasure you guard carefully.

(This picture is totally posed. You should see where we had to put the camera.)

1 comment:

  1. As the leader of a Writer's Group in Owen Sound, Ontario, I was interested in seeing you sitting around a table with your laptops. You look like a vibrant group of women hard at work.

    I took time to look at your new photos - all very beautiful woman and found reading your biographical sketches most intriguing.

    What a great idea to go on retreat and work surrounded by nature. I wondered where you went? I could relate with Kim in needing her own space and it sounds like she chose a view to the outdoors rather than indoors. Being related to her, we both hate other people's noise and write best in peace and quiet.

    The Grey-Bruce Writers comprises over 30 men and women,both published and non-published writers. We average between 17-21 people at each monthly meeting and it's a challenge to make sure everyone gets an opportunity to read something they have written during the month. Of course, it is necessary to set boundaries around the length of the prose and the poetry, but it is working well. I seldom have to stop someone from reading too long. We start at 1:30 p.m. and depart between 3:30 or 4:30 p.m. depending upon how many read and how long they stay and visit with one another. We have a 15 minute coffee break to network and socialize.

    We too are a very bonded group of people and range from 37 years to 104 years of age. In fact, we just celebrated our founder's 104th birthday. Marion attends regularly and brings new prose and poetry to each meeting. She is sharp as a tack and has a wonderful memory that she shares in her poetry and prose. We presently meet in a spacious room of a retirement home.

    Of course, in a group this large, we don't have much time for lengthy critiques, so we have a separate group for that purpose and aanother sub-group for reading at more length for those in the process of writing books.

    When I took over as president of the group six or seven years ago, the group was very verbal and needy of communication. So I moved the then group of eight from a church to a restaurant that gave us a private room gratis as we first met for lunch. This gave everyone time to get their chatter out of their systems over the luncheon table. By the time we were ready to start the meeting, they had settled down and were ready to listen to one another.

    We also resolved to approach our critiquing with sensitivity. We resolved to try to first mention something we liked about the piece and then 'suggested' what 'we' might do with the area that had grated in some way. We writers are a bit like a turtle; we may have a hard protective shell, but we still hava a soft belly. But my point is that no matter how hard a shell we have grown around us, we can still feel attacked and deeply hurt when others criticize our work--so we erased eliminated the word 'criticize' and added "constructive critiquing" and promoted the idea of presenting our ideas in a gentle way. I think that this is why our group has stayed together and has grown.

    It takes courage and humility to listen to others tear your work apart and shoot you down in some way, despite how correct they might be. It seems you writers are a brave and courageous lot. You have to be very "mature" to accept shots from the shoulder. I visualized you healing your wounds over a glass of wine and good food--at least at your retreat.

    No matter what one says, critiquing stings! But for you writers it is working well as you appear to be all very fine writers and we salute you and send you our best wishes.


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