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.)