“Maggie” asks: I’d like to know how critique groups work and your opinion of their value. I live pretty far away from the nearest RWA chapter, so I’ve just been typing in the wilderness. I’m not ready to have my babies butchered by strangers, and my friends are not romance readers (plus, they’re my friends. And I want to keep it that way). How many of you depend on critique partners? Who goes it alone?
As a former English teacher, I know I’m pretty quick with the red pen. As an avid reader, my eyes glaze over at the first sign of cliches, even though I know there’s no new plot under the sun. I wouldn’t want me for a critique partner! Any advice?
I’m answering this cry in the wilderness since it relates to my own experience as a beginning author. I lived in a very rural area, didn’t know RWA existed, and struggled alone for years. I believe there’s an on-line RWA chapter now, so you don’t have to go it alone these days, but choosing a critique partner… That’s tough even in person. On-line, it has to be worse.
I attempted a critique group once, after I’d met enough people wanting to write in my rural area. We used rules from another group, read our material aloud each week, and then let the others react to it. So if there were five people there that night, it was possible to get five different reactions. With enough experience, it was possible to learn which ones were almost on the same wavelength as I was, but it was slow going. I write much faster than they could critique, and I didn’t find the advice valuable since there was only one other romance writer who understood the emotional resonance we have to deliver, and my experience put me on a different learning curve than the rest.
Over the years since, whenever I’ve attempted to start a different kind of book, I’ve looked for someone familiar in that genre, whose work I respected, to read my opening chapters to see if I was on the right track. None of them were ever as hard on me as I was on myself, although occasionally they’d point out a missing bit or make useful suggestions.
I finally found a person who does professional editing who has the same romance sensibility as I do who reads all my material before I turn it in. That’s as close to critiquing as I get these days. I have friends who will read opening chapters and tell me if I’m off base when I first get started on a book, and sometimes I’ll run other bits by them during the draft stage. Since these friends are already familiar with my story, they help me find places where I can up the ante or where I’ve forgotten a thread or where a thread needs adding. I consider all of the above invaluable advice because my eyes start drifting past passages that I’ve read and re-read a dozen times. But I don’t consider any of them as critiquing partners.
So, from my point of view, critiquing may work if you’re lucky enough to find someone who understands you and your book and where you’re going with it, someone with equal experience or better. But that will only last as long as the two of you continue on that wavelength. Finding more than one person who is that understanding may be impossible, especially if you don’t have a large group of writers to draw from.
Your best bet—should you join a critique group or find a partner—would be to ask for critiquing of specific elements of your book: is it emotional, does the pacing work, are the characters memorable, and so forth. Given a definite task, most writers will be able to read a book with that in mind and possibly give you a straight answer. I should think the on-line groups might be good for that.
If you’re not ready to send your book to strangers, then the contest route won’t work for you. It’s not totally reliable since even other writers can go off on strange tangents or have different interests, but contests that critique your work might give you some ideas to gnaw on. Really, that’s the most you can hope for out of any critique partner—giving you a different, fresh perspective.
But once you ask someone for a critique, you need to be prepared to bring out that red pen in return! Finding the balance between cruel destruction by red ink and helpful suggestions isn’t easy. But if each of you specify your concerns, there’s no need to correct grammar and punctuation. It’s enough to underline a cliché, compliment a particularly striking passage, and focus on the concern at hand. If you happen to notice something is missing in the storyline, that can be noted, or if you have a bright idea that might take the work in an exciting direction, maybe jot that down. The point of critiquing is to be helpful, not destructive.
I’m sure others on here can give more informed points of view on the subject, so please, anyone with experience, add your comments!