Critical Mass

I wrote about critiquing once before (Like Minds and Other Sounding Boards, May 22, 2017), and said at the time that it is hard to sit and listen to people critique your baby, the words you’ve sweat and bled over. Now I’m back on that topic to change my tune.

I’m currently attending my second 6-sesson fiction workshop at The Muse Center in Norfolk. This time, the facilitator is Lydia Netzer. She’s awesome with her astute observations and her quirky comments that catch me off-guard sometimes—in a good way—and I’m really enjoying myself. I’ll probably take her class again. Sessions like that are so helpful! One week before each class, half the students submit a 15-page segment of their work. During the class, each of us gets a chance to offer critical input to the writer – what worked, what didn’t, any patterns we see in the narrative, foreshadowing, and so on. It’s incredibly helpful, and not only when the class critiques my work. Reading the work of others or listening to the students in the class offer input on someone else’s work is also useful and informative.

Classes aren’t the only way to accomplish this. Beta readers are also helpful, as I mentioned before, whether or not the readers are themselves writers (though fellow writers can offer more focused and technical input). I’ve called on beta readers numerous times, and have served in that capacity for fellow writers. Same as with the fiction class, both sides of this coin are useful to the aspiring writer (and probably accomplished ones too). There is actually a website called Critters Workshop that seems to be set up for this very thing. I keep meaning to check it out, but here I am still talking about it.

The one thing I haven’t yet found is a regular writer’s critique group. The one I mentioned in my earlier critique post never actually met again after I joined them. (Was it something I said?) After this long a wait, I decided to look elsewhere. I know it won’t necessarily be easy to find just the right one, but at the moment, I’d be happy to find one at all. For a couple of years now, I’ve been searching for one that meets near my home because I didn’t want to spend an hour or more behind the wheel to get two hours of networking and critique. (Time, people; it’s a four-letter word.) So far, the only ones I’ve found that meet regularly are all at least half an hour away, and that’s on a good day. If traffic snarls, which is a frequent occurrence, that half-hour can stretch on. I thought about starting one in this area myself, but when I mentioned this possibility to my hubby, he laughed and said “You know what will happen if you do that.”

“No, what?” I said, all innocence.

“You’ll end up running it. It’ll be your responsibility to keep it going.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but shut it again. Unfortunately, he’s right. If I’m the one who starts it, I’ll likely be the one who has to send reminders of our meetings and schedules of submissions, etc. It doesn’t sound like a lot of work, and it probably isn’t. But when you add that to all the other tasks that make up already full days, it’s not something I could maintain. So I’m looking again, because the critique process is proving so helpful to me.

Mind you, I still haven’t been published. But I can see an improvement in my work after it’s gone through this process. I don’t accept every change that is suggested. It’s important to keep in mind that every reader is different. Some will like your work and others won’t, no matter how you write or revise. But if six out of six readers all point out something in the narrative or dialogue or plot as problematic, chances are it needs a tweak. And sometimes, other writers can point out a better way to resolve the plot. In our last class, half the students agreed on a plot point change for my story “Murder of Crows,” so I made the change yesterday and set it aside. When I read it again this morning, I liked it much better.

In the end, your stories or essays or narratives are your own. You decide what goes and what stays, but it pays to listen to input from others. I highly recommend classes or other critique opportunities to anyone who is trying to break into the writing world, as long as you understand going in that you will get both positive and negative feedback. And that’s exactly what you should want. Your mom or your sister or your best friend can tell you how great your story is all day long, but if someone isn’t also pointing out the problems with plot and characterization and technical details, your work will never be as good as it could.