So you’ve been furiously typing away on a novel for several years, have developed your characters down to the last detail, have spent hundreds of dollars in research materials, have sliced the fat from your prose, and, after turning off the printer for the last time, you finally have in your hands what one part of you truly believes could be the biggest blockbuster since the invention of the pen!
But then the other part of you takes over—that insufferable nagging voice that continually questions all of your hard work—and you wonder, “Am I kidding myself?”
No, you think defiantly, my spouse, my friends, even “Crazy” Aunt Shirley praised the chapters I gave to them, calling the novel “a masterpiece.” And then that nagging voice comes alive once more, telling you that your spouse and friends were perhaps just “being nice,” and also reminding you just how “Crazy” Aunt Shirley earned her nickname.
Any author who claims that he or she has never experienced the above (except, perhaps, the part about the lunatic aunt) is nothing but a bold-faced liar. It’s human nature to question your work, for glory’s sake, so let no one fool you into thinking you are the only one who has been in this situation.
But now what do you do? Get another opinion, obviously. But from whom? Oh no, you think, not a crit…a crit…a critique group?
Heavens, just the name can turn an otherwise intelligent, outspoken, talented individual into a quivering pile of mush, or have the power to send them into a tizzy that even a healthy dose of Aunt Shirley’s narcotics couldn’t still. Yes, authors new to the art of writing may be fearful of these dreaded groups—they might even picture themselves as Buffy with a single stake facing a gaggle of bloodthirsty vampires. But would they be correct in their assessment?
Good question. All I know is that, like or lump critique groups, you certainly can’t kill them—and believe me, there have been many times when I’ve tried. Like Buffy’s vampires, many simply refuse to die! But I’m not, however, convinced they deserve extinction. I’ve learned to face the truth—in the business of writing fiction, critique groups go with the territory. A required evil, if you will. There certainly is no experience in the world like presenting your work for review amongst peers, especially for the first time, except, perhaps, being stripped naked in front of a crowd at the Rose Bowl.
So why put yourself through the turmoil, you might ask? Easy answer—so you will improve your craft. By no means am I suggesting that you rely on a critique group for the rest of your life, nor that it is the right thing to do for every individual, but from personal experience I must tell you that finding a solid group of writers who are not only willing to read your work, but who give encouragement and much-needed advice—correction: honest and trustworthy and unbiased advice—can make all the difference between a lifetime of rejections and that seemingly unobtainable sale.
Now, finding this group is not an easy task. How well I know. It took me years, literally, to gather around me people who have aided more than hindered me. Granted, there will be bad days, when your chosen audience seems to have nothing good to say about your work. But then there are the good days, days when you leave your group with the plaudits ringing in your ears and that euphoric, almost orgasmic feeling of accomplishment filling your soul.
As the former moderator or co-moderator of a few such “beasts,” and as a past participant in several others, I have taken it upon myself to put forth for you the golden rules—the 10 Commandments—regarding attending a critique group. I guarantee, adhering to them will not only make your time spent with a group worthwhile, but also steer you on the path to finding those unique individuals who can help you in honing your skills.
1. Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Moderator In Vain.
Every good critique group has a moderator, whether specifically designated or not, who leads the conversation toward productive criticism, who salves ruffled feathers, who cuts off the windbags when oxygen levels in the room drop to dangerously low levels. If the moderator says it’s time to move along to the next topic, by all means, bow to their will without question.
2. Thou Shalt Listen Carefully When Others Speak.
A successful critique-group member will learn much of their craft in this manner. We learn what and what not to do by listening to brilliant and not-so-brilliant prose, and by hearing suggestions proffered from the authors who have tackled similar problems and mastered them.
3. Thou Shalt Be Willing To Offer Opinions.
A vital key to a successful critique group are members who are actually willing to participate. All members. What a concept! Perhaps the commandment should be renamed “Thou Must Be Willing To Give And Not Just Receive.” If this commandment is not heeded, you will quickly find yourself alone, and will, in all likelihood, not be invited to return. It stands to reason—why should others listen to your work and offer their learned advice if you are unwilling to return the favor?
4. Thou Shalt Be Tactful.
A commandment that should, in a perfect world, be common sense, but alas, ’tis not. People are different—some have grating personalities while others are lamb-meek. Believe me, a surefire method of losing respect within the group and forfeiting your welcome to return is to accuse another member of stupidity. You must remember, not all members of the same group will have equal skills. Some authors excel at dialogue, some at description, some at plotting…simply because one has exceptional talent in a certain area of writing does not give one license to belittle others. Use your head, think before you laugh at someone’s clumsy prose, and by all means, talk to them as you expect others to talk to you.
5. Thou Shalt Not Participate With A Closed Mind.
There is nothing more infuriating than an author supposedly seeking advice who is not willing to take any. If you are enamored with your prose, have chiseled your words in stone, and you feel that other authors cannot aid you, then stay home and make passionate love to your manuscript!
6. Thou Shalt Not Argue Nor Justify, But Be Thankful.
This goes hand-in-hand with the above commandment. The authors in the group are volunteering their time to help you develop your craft. True, it is a natural instinct to defend your work. If there is a reason behind why “such-and-such” happened in your story, it is perfectly acceptable to voice your original intention, thus providing insight to those in the group who might be unaware. But, if you are defending your switch in Point Of View halfway through a sentence, or spitefully digging in your heels regarding broken rules of grammar, you will find few allies. Believe me, a smile of gratitude goes a long way.
7. Thou Shalt Beware Of Those Who Offer Advice Yet Cannot Construct A Decent Sentence Without The Aid Of A Hammer And A Thirty-Man Workforce.
A tough commandment to follow, but one of the most vital to your mental health. Yes, the opinions of people matter, and have the power to destroy, should the ego be delicate. But you must hear the work of others in order to access whether their opinion is a credible one. If someone is offering an opinion that you know in your heart goes against all logic, before taking their advice and altering your story, ask yourself several questions…
In which genre does this person write? In other words, are they standing in similar shoes or are they unfamiliar with your particular genre? Second, is there any logical truth when they say, for instance, that your clump of historical research in the middle of an otherwise spellbinding scene is boring, or that your dialogue is stilted? Third, does this person’s own work warrant their criticism? In other words, do they have a similar style of writing, or are they asking you to alter your style to fit their own taste? Tricky, to say the least.
But there are some things you can do. When confronted by an opposite opinion, first ask yourself—does this author write in the same genre or have a comparable writing style? After all, it may not be wise for a Horror author (as an example) to happily take advice from the author of fluffy Romantic Comedies who suggests “brightening things up” in a story. Or it’s perhaps not the wisest choice for an author writing Historical Romance novels set during the 17th Century to immediately follow the suggestion of the hardcore Science Fiction author who thinks it’s better to “remove all those silly and unnecessary historical details from your book along with all that romantic junk no one cares about.” Get what I mean? Know Your Audience—or rather, know the individual members of your critique group who give suggestions. Before shredding your prose or frantically rewriting entire chapters based on one person’s opinion (no matter how learned they sound, or how many times they’ve been published, or how many admirers they have within the group), identify the author who gave the advice and weigh their opinions based on their preferences and knowledge of your particular market.
Once you identify a like-minded author, however, then listen carefully to what they have to say. They, after all, may have faced similar dilemmas when it came to plotting novels in your genre, may know something about the ever-changing market that you do not, may have an actual point regarding problems in your research, etc., so take notes on what they say. Additionally, if this author is consistent in his/her own work, then do not even think to discard their opinions, especially if they create, say, stunning dialogue or breathtaking descriptions, and suggest ways to improve yours. By all means, take what they say to heart and reexamine your work.
Which leads me to the following commandment…
8. Thou Shalt Use One’s Intelligence.
Again, before you run home and make changes to your work based on all the suggestions you receive, use your head. First (in your mind, at least) weed out comments from the “bad apples”—you know the type, the participants who are there only to find a mate (who could care less about the quality of their own prose), who are simply there to stroke their egos (appalling, right?—who would have thought?), or the ones who like bragging that they are “authors” simply to impress those whom they believe are less intelligent. Yes, you will run into these irritating monsters from time to time, but fear not. Follow your instincts regarding the participants…I always found several authors to whom I was naturally drawn. You can usually tell within a few minutes of listening to their comments whether they are knowledgeable or motivated by hidden agendas. The bottom line with this commandment is to learn which members of critique groups are credible—and avoid, at all costs, those that are not.
9. Thou Shalt Ask Specific Questions.
Arrive prepared with a list of what you are seeking to accomplish in the work you have elected to share. Trust me, if after finishing your reading, you look around at the faces and ask, “What do you think?,” you are going to receive a plethora of responses, ones that will always make you wish you had not gotten out of bed that morning. If you know your passage has a dialogue problem, ask how to improve it. If you know your descriptions or metaphors are shaky, seek advice. But never, NEVER, ask for generalizations, because in a group of 10 people you will receive 10 varying and opposite responses—you will end up rewriting your story for the umpteenth time, and more than likely, destroy any semblance of brilliance that might have been there in the first place.
10. Thou Shalt Bring The Moderator An Expensive Gift.
Just kidding. Hey, you gotta give this boy credit for trying, right? 🙂
Anyway, the bottom line is this…
No, it’s not an easy chore to swallow your pride and face a group of virtual strangers with verbal claws, sharpened and gleaming, who are likely to rip your hard work to shreds.
But is it worth the effort?
Yes! If you are a beginning writer, or one who has remained “in the closet” without presenting your work to the unbiased eye, then I wholeheartedly believe it behooves you to find a group—if you have the mettle, that is. Frankly, if you can’t confront criticism from a peer, who does not have the power to break your career, yet who is a person facing similar obstacles, how will you confront your first rejection letter from the “High-And-Mighty” agents/publishers?
Another good question, huh? Enough to make you think, I hope.
So please, do yourself a favor and join or form a critique group—after all, how far would you get relying on the all-knowing wisdom of “Crazy” Aunt Shirley?
—Trace Edward Zaber, owner of ByThunder LLC