This month, I’m starting a new feature at my blog. I’m invited writers to come and post about their critique stories. When I happened to see Dawn Simon mention at her blog, Plotting and Scheming, that she wanted to post sometime about evolving with her critique group, I quickly sent her a note, asking if she’d like to do that here. She very nicely agreed to do so, and to be my first guest poster about critiquing. (If you’d like to share your critique experiences at my blog, or be interviewed about your critique group, send me a note at beckylevine at ymail dot com!)
Read down for Dawn’s post, including a wonderful photo of her critique group! And don’t miss her wonderful reference to a writer’s “bunny trails.”
Dawn Simon swears that no more than five percent of her writing energy comes from the caffeine in Frappuccinos. She is a member of SCBWI and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and she has also been actively involved with Field’s End, a local writers’ community. Her manuscript PERFECT VISION was a finalist in the young adult category of the 2009 PNWA Literary Contest. She thinks kids are some of the coolest people, which explains her elementary teaching degree and her undying quest to write for teens. In addition to writing YA, she loves reading it, and she dreams of seeing her own books published someday. Soon.
Becky invited me to do a guest post here because of something I’d said at my blog when I’d touched on my own evolution in my critique group. The idea interested her so she flew me out first class so I could be here with you guys today! Okay, that’s a total lie—everything was done via email. This is my first time doing a guest post, so I’m all excited and acting immature about the whole thing. I’ll settle down now and get to my topic: My Evolution in Critique Group.
I’m fortunate to be in an author-led critique group with author Sheila Roberts at the helm. When we first came together, most of us had recently taken a class taught by Sheila. In the class, she’d given us weekly lessons as well as critiques on the first three chapters of our works in progress. Knowing we had a good thing going, we asked Sheila to take us beyond the first three chapters and lead us in a critique group. Lucky us—she agreed!
(Below–Dawn’s Group. Front Row, L to R: Sheila Roberts, Sarah Shepard. Back Row, L to R: Bev Young, Martha Schoemaker, and Dawn Simon.)
Since I knew everyone from one writing class or another, sharing my work for the first time wasn’t as scary as it could have been. I already had a completed manuscript, and I’d bring one chapter a week. In my mind, this was the “right” way for me to be in a critique group. I knew it might not be the right way for everyone, but it was for me.
When I read Stephen King’s ON WRITING, I totally related to his philosophy about writing the first draft with the door closed. Besides, I needed to know the first draft was all me. I imagined I’d see the novel as less of an accomplishment or that it somehow wouldn’t be as true to what was in my own mind and heart if I received input before I had a completed draft. I was open to revision. I just first needed this draft to exist.
Once I received feedback from Sheila, my other critique group members, and faculty members at conference manuscript consultations, my manuscript became better and tighter. Having Sheila was my biggest asset because she helped me apply what I’d learned in classes to my own work. The continuity was priceless.
It was a little more frightening when I started turning in chapters for a book that wasn’t already written. The other three ladies had been writing this way all along, but it was so new to me. By this point, we’d been together a while, our editing skills had improved, and critique group already felt like the safe place it was. But turning in chapters as I wrote them was different. It made me feel a little more vulnerable, like I was leading people I respected down an unknown path rather than walking them home the safe way.
Once things got rolling, I saw the benefits. I used to be prone to bunny trails: taking off in another direction, getting sidetracked with things I, as a novice writer, thought might be interesting to a reader or add color to my work. Turning in work as I went meant Sheila and the other ladies could cut me off before I wandered. This saved me time and, I think, trained me to focus.
An even bigger benefit was having the opportunity to discuss my ideas on a weekly basis, ideas that were on pages being handed in that week or that maybe hadn’t even been written yet. Another time saver. Plus, I felt less married to my original ideas. My new method was making me a better, more efficient writer.
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Nowadays, I no longer think twice about turning in pages as I go. And since I’ve grown so much as a writer, my weekly chapters are way better than they used to be, even when I handed in pages from a completed manuscript. Trust makes this possible, and I think it’s an essential ingredient for a successful critique group. Also, there’s a comfort that comes with being together so long. It’s kind of like family that way. Knowing that the other people in my critique group are fully aware of my abilities (and vice versa) allows me to take chances. I can stretch myself, attempting to create something better or crash and burn trying without the fear of being judged.
There isn’t one right way to be in a critique group. Different things work for different people. I doubt Stephen King would disagree. I think the goal is to find the best way each of us works and to keep our minds open to ideas that can help us improve individually as writers.