As I sat in the library’s meeting room, the other members of the writer’s group trickled in. There were six of us, four original members and two new members. This was my first time going to a writing critique group and I didn’t know the rules. It soon became apparent that there were no rules. As the three author’s works were critiqued, I could feel the tension in the room and I came to the realization that this wasn’t the group for me.
Authors could speak, and even yell at the people who were critiquing them. No one was in charge of the group so whoever spoke the loudest , spoke the longest. The remarks were cutting, mean, and unhelpful. For every one positive thing mentioned, there were about twenty negative things mentioned. I could feel a sense of jealousy among the members. The first author seemed to be at peace with what was said, while the second author seemed to almost shrivel up into a ball.
We got to our last piece, which belonged to the leader of the group. Everyone shuffled their papers nervously. I quickly gave my own thoughts, trying to focus on the same amount of positive things as negative and ending it by telling the group leader that although some things confused me, I think he had a good start. The other new member sitting next to me, an older gentleman, cleared his throat and declared, “This just wasn’t good. In fact this was the worst of the three pieces submitted.”
Silence blanketed the room as I struggled to keep my mouth closed. The piece belonged to the group leader. He had submitted a science fiction piece and it was part written word, part outline, with “Insert love scene here,” every other page. It was confusing, jumbled, and even though it had some good elements to it, the man sitting next to me ripped it to shreds and did not say a single positive thing.
The group leader stood his ground, fighting back and telling the man that he didn’t know what he was talking about. At one point the group leader stood up and then sat down again, like he was ready to jump across the table and rip his manuscript out of the older man’s hands. The older man hated the characters, despised the plot, and didn’t understand why the main character was at a grave yard. The group leader let out a large sigh and kept repeating, “you would know this if you read the other chapters.”
“Well, what do you want me to do then? It’s still nonsense.” the older man continued.
The rest of us watched uncomfortably as they continued to go back and forth. The meeting ended with the two men staring each other down across the table. The leader of the group left in a huff without even taking the marked up manuscripts from the other group members.
None of the other members even said goodbye to each other as we packed up our things and left the room. I convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer if this was the type of criticism I would receive.
So when the group leader ended and abandoned the group that night with a hastily written email, I wasn’t surprised. However, one of the other members started a new group with rules, and I found myself submitting my work there a few weeks later.
We returned to the same room where the fight had almost happened. I looked around the large table at my fellow authors. Was I ready to get into a fight over my work? Of course not. I went into it with an open mind. Although the first critique was the hardest, I had to get it over with. I had to hear my weaknesses and then I had to move on. And yes, I did dwell on what some people said to me, including the man who almost fought the old group leader. Perhaps, I’ll share some of the critiques he has given me some day. They are quite…interesting. Especially the ones that tell me to change my horror story into a sex story. Yep, he’s one of those writer’s group members.
So here’s the things that I learned from my first nail-biting critique:
It’s your work. Don’t feel like you have to change every single thing that people pick to critique. If you love that your main character is an alien from the ocean and someone tells you that they don’t like it, stick to your heart and what you know. It’s your story and tell it how you want to.
Listen to what people have to say and if you see a pattern, then it’s probably something you should work on. For example, in one of the first stories I submitted to the group, every other comment was “I hate the narrator,” and I immediately realized that I didn’t want the reader to hate him, so I knew I had to go back and rework his “stubbornness.”
Ask questions. Sometimes I write questions for my critique partners to consider as they read. Did I end the chapter with something that makes them want to keep reading? Should I make it scarier? Was it easy to read? You can always jot dot notes during your critique on the points that people made and highlight them if you need further explanation.
Let the critiques sit for a while. When I first got them, I went home and stewed over everything that was said. I looked at each of the pen marks and comments like it was a personal scorecard against me. It was too much at once. I’ve learned, it’s better if I let it sit for a couple of days before I review my notes and manuscripts, unless someone says something that clicks for me and I immediately want to rewrite or fix an obvious mistake that was pointed out.
Don’t argue with the critique. As much as you want to tell them they’ll never understand your artistic expression and you have a license to do whatever you want, hold back and keep those thoughts to yourself. For some people, it’s just as hard to critique as it to submit work. Also, some people are not good at critiquing. I later found out that the man who harshly critiqued the group leader loves his work to be harshly critiqued because he says thats the only way he learns anything. The more red pen marks the better. So in his head he was doing everyone a favor when he ripped them to shreds.
Don’t take it personal. It’s not you that they are critiquing. It’s just your words. Which can always be edited, shined up, and made better. Just consider a critique part of the writing process.
And to restate, it’s your work. You know what it wants. You know the story. If it feels right to you, keep it.
Stayed tuned for next week’s post…The critiques you shouldn’t listen to aka just smile politely and zone out while they rip you apart.