Monday, February 22, 2016

The Right Critique Group

By: Natalia Brothers

At his workshop in Midlothian, Virginia, Donald Maass mentioned the PPWC as one of the top ten conferences in the nation. I jotted down “Pikes Peak Writers Conference” and immediately decided to relocate to the foothills of the great mountain. (Kidding. My husband and I saw The Broadmoor Hotel on the Travel channel and were smitten with the mountain views.) I joined Pikes Peak Writers as soon as we moved to Colorado. My genre is Dark Fantasy, but as a newbie I thought I was writing Paranormal Romance. So I also became a member of a local chapter of Romance Writers of America.

The group offered an open critique, and I remember my panic at our first meeting, when I listened to other participants and thought, I don’t have a slightest clue how to evaluate someone else’s writing. “I probably shouldn’t be here,” I said.

“Yes, you should be here,” the hostess said. “That’s how you’re going to learn.”

She was right. Ten minutes later, I made my first suggestion.

How do you decide which group is right for you?

Every person sees your work and critiques it differently. For example, I will comment on the pace of your story, the conflict and stakes in every scene. I’ll tell you whether your main character solicited my empathy. Someone else might evaluate the dialogue, your tags and beats, or make suggestions about your characters’ emotions. Another critic’s forte might be grammar and typos.

After years of being a member of various groups, I knew exactly what I was looking for in my critique partners. Some of the groups were too large. In others, not every participant brought his or her work for critiquing, in which case a person who didn’t write could offer only a general opinion. I needed deeper insight. That’s why I teamed up with several local authors who write regularly with the goal to get published. We occasionally meet in person, but all critiquing is done online to ensure an in-depth evaluation of our manuscripts.

The main difference between a critique group and an open critique is that the members of your group know your project and know you. My critique partner has seen every chapter of my manuscript countless times. After I finished my first novel, I wanted to hear feedback from people who had never read my work. Pikes Peak Writers offers terrific Open Critiques, and I’ve attended several of them. The benefit is enormous. I received great advice on two of my projects. I also honed my critiquing skills by listening to experienced guest critiquers.

There’s another way to get an objective evaluation of your work. For me, the ultimate critique has always been a writing contest. It’s nerve-racking when a stranger reviews your manuscript, but that person is impartial. How can you tell whether you should trust the judges’ suggestions? Sure, I’ve huffed through my share of comments. Someone wrote to me, “If it was so chilly that the characters could see their breaths, there would be no mosquitoes!” 

Oh yeah? You don’t know Russian mosquitoes. On a bright late-September morning, I opened the door to the unheated banya, a Russian sauna, hoping the structure would warm up faster with some air circulation. The frost still whitened the grass and fallen foliage, but the first sun rays broke over the birch grove. There was a mosquito just inside the changing room. It sensed my presence. The determined insect tried to find me but kept bumping into the walls. Flying nevertheless. In freezing temperatures. But that was one comment from one contest judge. It didn’t deter me from entering more contests.

I’m a firm believer in soliciting as much feedback as possible. The more people who get to see your work, the broader range of suggestions you’ll receive. Some comments might point out the same issues (definitely a reason for revisions), but the advantage is in getting an unexpected opinion and often surprising advice. I found a critique group that was about helping me and not changing my vision of the story, my idea how the plot should unfold, the pace, the voice. My critique partners helped me every step of the way.

Then, boom—I knew the manuscript was ready.

About the author:  Born in Moscow, Natalia grew up with the romance and magic of Russian fairy tales. She never imagined that one day she’d be swept off her feet by an American Marine. An engineer-physicist-chemist, Natalia realized that the powder metallurgy might not be her true calling when on a moonless summer night she was spooked by cries of a loon in a fog-wrapped meadow. What if, a writer’s unrelenting muse, took hold of her. Two of her passions define her being. Natalia is an orchid expert and she writes dark fantasy.