Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Can't see the book for the words.

By R.J. Harlick

Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons? If not, how do you get feedback on your writing?

When I started out on this writing adventure I knew I would need other eyes to assess my work before I sent my book off to an agent or a publisher. Like many new writers I was convinced my hard fought words had the makings of the next best seller. I just wanted someone to tell me that. So I passed chapters out to friends and family, none of them writers. Some did tell me it was good, but I ended up not believing them. I realized it was more a case of them not wanting to hurt my feelings because deep down inside I knew it wasn’t very good. Those who were more forthcoming were only able tell me what they liked or didn’t like. They couldn’t tell me why. I realized it was the why I needed to know if I was to improve my writing.

Shortly thereafter I joined a writers association and before long found myself becoming a member of a critique group of fellow writers. We met monthly with each of us bringing a chapter or two of our novel in progress or a short story for critiquing. I tell you, this critique group proved its worth many times over. I might not have always liked what my fellow writers had to say about my writing, but without their constructive criticism my writing never would have improved. It’s also likely that my first book never would have improved enough to be published.

I put the success of this critique group down to several things. We were small, only four, so could easily handle works by all of us in a single session. We were all committed enough with our writing to be able to offer something for critiquing at pretty well every meeting. We were all at the same level in our writing careers, the beginning. We had learned enough about creative writing and the writing process to offer useful criticism and advice.  We had a tacit understanding of offering good news along with the bad and not being overly critical.  We also endeavoured to make our criticisms constructive not destructive. No one ever went home in tears. We were also all mystery writers, so were able to offer advice pertinent to the genre.

I think we probably met fairly regularly for about seven years. But as some of us became published while others didn’t, we gradually grew apart.  By the time I finished writing my third book, I knew the monthly, piecemeal format no longer worked for me. I wanted the critique to be done on the entire book not a chapter at a time.

 At no time, though, did I consider giving up this critiquing step. I am one of those writers who can’t see the book for the words, so I need the critiques of others to get me looking objectively at my writing.

The critiquing approach I now follow is having the critique done on a revised first draft by two to four fellow authors who are published. I incorporate their comments along with my own into the revisions to produce the third draft, which is the draft the publisher receives. This approach has worked very well for me and as long as I don’t find myself in time constraints with my publisher I will continue to follow it.

What about you? What has your experience been with a critiquing group?


Paul D. Marks said...

R.J., I think you make a good point when you talk about people not being able to tell you "why" they liked or didn't like something. Without the why neither positive or negative criticism means much. I always tell people who read my stuff "I don't care if you like it or not, just tell me why and how to improve it."

As to my experiences with critique groups, I was in one that turned very hellish after a couple new people joined. And they made life hell for others in some larger groups as well. But I'll leave the details for another time...

RJ Harlick said...

Sorry to hear that your critique group experience wasn't a good one, Paul. But I suspect, unlike me, you are able to stand back and be objective about your writing and so don't need a second pair of eyes.

Art Taylor said...

Good points here, RJ. I was in a group that critiqued short stories--really great feedback--but when several of the members started moving toward novels, they were reluctant to bring in bits and pieces of the manuscript for the same reasons you discuss here (the piecemealing is tough, rather than seeing the full manuscript). I agree that it's better ideally to take a manuscript on the whole rather than offering feedback that might (a) slow momentum or (b) address issues that you deal with in other parts of the whole. Thanks for the insights here!

Patricia Filteau said...

These are useful comments Robin. Thank you for providing your perspective. I have just launched my career so consider my writing in a phase where critiquing is invaluable. I was unable, perhaps too shy (Yup, even Pat Filteau can be shy) to approach existing critique groups established by what I saw as novelists who had become mature writers. I finally found a sci-fi group to which I contribute and gain from the process. It is very helpful however most are short story writers. I continue to search for a critiquing crime group that is willing to embrace and critique my futuristic, slightly sci-fi thriller approach to crime writing. I find in considering what I have to say in offering my critiques that it is extremely helpful self feedback to my own writing. – I share Art Taylor's sentiments. Since Vantage Point has just been released, I have received a flood of emails from friends and acquaintances that essentially say , 'we love your book' but say little what they loved about it. I received one extremely valuable 'critique' from an American that stumbled across my book by accident thinking he was going to read a crime suspense thriller ... and he did but he wrote to say he thought it should be submitted for a debut Lambda award. I was so blown away by his remarks that i am taking them very seriously. any suggestions for a critique group I can join – virtually or physically or both are welcomed.

Susan C Shea said...

The crit group I founded was small, built on the premise that we were all dead serious about getting published, and were ready to have full manuscripts read and discussed. It worked well - 3 of the original 5 are now published. But when writers are under contract, timing is everything, and the group dissipated. My next book was harder without the extra eyes, and for the new one I'm going to get a professional editor to read it once before submitting the manuscript to my editor.

Who else hires a pre-submission editor?