I’ve posted previously about how vital critique groups can be. A trustworthy critiquer is at once cheerleader, first-reader, editor, and therapist. But, don’t take my word for it. The next three blog posts feature the critique group expertise of seven prolific writers. If you’ve ever considered joining a group, you’ll want to read what these wonderfully talented writers have to say about the ups and downs of collaborative feedback.
Meet our first two featured authors…
Author P. J. Hoover first fell in love with Greek mythology in sixth grade thanks to the book Mythology by Edith Hamilton. After a fifteen year bout as an electrical engineer designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to take her own stab at mythology and started writing books for kids and teens. P. J. is also a member of Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing Kung Fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, and watching Star Trek.
Her first novel for teens, Solstice, takes place in a Global Warming future and explores the parallel world of mythology beside our own. Her middle grade fantasy novels, The Emerald Tablet, The Navel of the World, and The Necropolis, chronicle the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s part of two feuding worlds hidden beneath the sea.
Meredith Davis trades pictures books and middle grades with her critique partners. She recently earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College, and is busy putting the finishing touches on her most recent middle grade. She is happiest when immersed in a story, whether it’s someone else’s or her own, figment of imagination or backyard foible. She chronicles some of her life’s stories at www.storiesinthestreet.com.
What’s the secret to a successful critique group?
P.J.H. For me, the secret to a successful group is finding people of comparable level who are willing to put in a comparable amount of work while critiquing. In addition, let’s face it. Personalities matter. Sour grapes and jealousy and bitchiness are not for the win and don’t belong in your group.
M.D. Being able to listen without talking back. If everyone spends their time defending why they wrote what they wrote, the time isn’t very productive. Take everything in, agree or disagree in your head, ask for clarification, then take it home and let it simmer. Another advantage of being in a critique group is having multiple opinions regarding your story. You can see if there is consensus with an edit, or dissent. If everyone agrees that they had an issue with a particular thing, you can be more sure that there is, indeed, a problem.
How has being part of a critique group helped your writing?
P.J.H. From a craft standpoint, it’s made me realize areas where I really need to focus. One critique member may excel at setting whereas another may really hone in on how characters are feeling. Each person brings something new to the table, and all these aspects feed into a great story and make us grow as writers.
M.D. It makes it tighter, I edit more carefully when others are reading my work. It also pushes me to allow my work to morph and change. if I don’t have feedback, I often can’t see beyond what I’ve already written. Bringing in other points of view helps me expand my own universe.
Where does your critique group meet? Why did you choose that environment?
P.J.H. Online! Well, let me rephrase. Most of my critiquing is done online with people across the country I’ve found through the Internet. In addition, I also have a writing group (which is not a critique group). The writing group encourages each other to write, commiserates, celebrates, and talks book and everything that goes along with them.
M.D. I currently meet online with my groups. They are all need-based, meaning we have an understanding that we’ll look at each other’s work wen we need to have something looked at. There is great freedom in this arrangement. We all have busy lives and different times when we’re productive, or working on other aspects of our careers. It also saves time to not drive to meet physically, and gives freedom to look at work over a period of several days, instead of carving a specific time out of our calendars. None of us need prompting to write, I think our challenge is finding the time to write in busy schedules. When we find it, we take it, and then we benefit from everyone’s edits.
What are the biggest challenges of critiquing someone else’s manuscript?
P.J.H. Making sure to include enough positive comments. So much of the time, when critiquing, the default is to mark everything that needs to be changed. But it’s so important to realize that marking the positive is equally important. Receiving those encouraging remarks is what, many times, keeps writers on the forward path and inspired. And I just want to note: there is always something positive to be found in any piece.
M.D. It’s hard to mess with someone else’s baby and not offend. I remind my self to be sure and note what I love, and not just what needs fixing. There is always something to love, even in the most first drafty of drafts, or in the most beginning writers. Sometimes I’ll have a beginning writer ask me to read their story. I remind myself of those who read my work when I was first starting out, and encouraged me because they saw some sort of spark. I look for the spark.
What are the biggest challenges of having your own manuscript critiqued?
P.J.H. Accepting feedback. This may seem obvious, but a natural reaction when receiving a critique is to move into denial mode. To pretend that none of the points are valid and perhaps the critiquer misunderstood the manuscript. More realistically, we need to read the critique, step away from it for a period of time, and then come back to it when we can accept the feedback rationally.
M.D. For me, the challenge is to hold back and not immediately start changing everything that’s suggested. I can change my manuscript a million ways. To be quiet and decide what resonates and what does not, that can be difficult.
How do you handle situations when you, as the author, disagree with someone’s feedback on your manuscript?
P.J.H. One thing that makes it easy when a critique is online is that there is normally time to think before reacting. If I disagree with feedback, I may discuss it with another critique partner, but I don’t find the need to try to defend my position to the person who critiqued the work. It is okay to accept the feedback, say thank you, and choose not to use it!
M.D. First, I make sure I’m understanding them correctly. Then I hold my tongue, and when I get home, and I consider it again if it still doesn’t seem right, I toss it. Sometimes, I might try their idea, just to see. I may not agree with it right away, but when I work with it, I may come up with an entirely new way to take the story that was sparked by the edit I didn’t agree with. It’s important to leave your ego behind, whether you’re receiving an edit or giving it. If a writer doesn’t agree with an edit you’re suggesting, after they’ve given it time to simmer, you’ve got to let it go. It’s their story, and they have reasons for writing it the way they are. Even if they can’t articulate it. As a writer, you’ve got to disentangle yourself from your ego and distance yourself from your story to be able to consider the edits.
How do you handle critiquing a manuscript you’re not comfortable with? For example, if you don’t care for horror, or paranormal, or rhyming picture books.
P.J.H. In general, I am selective about what I critique. I accept that I am not the best person to critique rhyming picture books, and I won’t pretend to be. But some aspects of the craft of writing extend across many genres, and with these, I believe I can offer help.
If something reached far outside my comfort zone, I would most likely politely send a note that I was not able to give an objective critique on the piece and move on.
M.D. First, I disclose that I’m not comfortable with whatever it is, as a disclaimer. The writer needs to know this. Then I critique as best I can. I look at character and setting and story arc. I use what I do know to give my honest feedback. Your edits might be even more valuable if you aren’t the “core” audience, because you have a different perspective or can distance yourself in a unique way.
Would you like to share a funny, sweet, or unusual anecdote about a critique group situation?
P.J.H. I have no particular story, but I do want to say that not only do I respect my fellow critiquers for their writing prowess, I also consider them friends and people I can share the journey of my writing with.
M.D. At one time, I was part of a critique group where several of us had children. We decided we’d meet at one of our houses, and we’d just bring our kids with us and let them play while we critiqued. It wasn’t ideal, there were distractions, but the fact that we persevered together in the midst of chaos meant we got things done. We progressed. Taking steps forward, no matter how small. I also remember a funny story one time where one of our members had done an alphabet book and forgotten one of the letters of the alphabet. Oh, we laughed together over that one.
What advice would you give to a writer joining a critique group for the first time?
P.J.H. If you aren’t feeling the critique group love—if you feel like there are bad group dynamics—either address the problem in a non-confrontational manner or politely excuse yourself from the group. Different people belong in different groups, and just because one group doesn’t work doesn’t mean all is lost for critique groups. All it means is that you should try elsewhere.
M.D. Find the ways you will trust your group. There has to be trust if you’re going to continue together. You’ve got to trust that you will get honest feedback, and that it will be helpful. That the members are capable of giving good feedback. The only way to do this is with time. It may take several tries to find the right group. It may take several meetings for that “right” group to really connect. To find things to laugh about. To see how others take edits and watch their stories progress. The writers life is such a journey, and finding good traveling companions is worth the effort it might take to find them.
Check back for Part Two with Emily Kristin Anderson and Lindsey Lane