Monday, January 10, 2011

Column: What I Learned About Writing From... Critique Groups by Debbie Meldrum

What I Learned About Writing From... Critique Groups
By Debbie Meldrum

I have been a member of two different critique groups over the past 10 years. Which, I hear, makes me pretty lucky. Some writers bounce around a lot more than that. I met all the members of my current group, Creek Writers Council, at the first one, Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group. Many lessons were picked up along the way. Here are some of them.

1. If you have to explain it . . .

I've been on both sides of this one. A reader will say, "I don't understand how George went from standing on a hill in Italy to hanging from a flagpole in Quebec." Once the writer starts explaining that, "Well, you see, he boarded a blimp in Tuscany, then he flew to Madrid where he hopped a train for Calais . . ." Yeah. But if it's not on the page, the reader doesn't know this. And you, as the writer, don't get to sit down with every reader to explain that. At least you hope not.

My friend, Jenny, calls it "getting it on the page." What I see left off the page most often is setting. Where am I? What's it like there? How's the weather? All things that the writer has in his head when he's writing, but that he needs to show me as the reader.

I'm trying my best right now to overwrite my submissions. Most of my critique group find it easier to show where to cut than trying to figure out what was left out.

2. Don't assume everyone knows what you do.

I stand by my previous lesson of "Don't underestimate the intelligence of your readers." However, not everyone has the same specialized knowledge. And the terms from that specialized area may not be easy to decode for someone not in the club.

Dancers, musicians, computer programmers, accountants, teachers, doctors, etc. all use terms that people outside of those realms may or may not know. Or it may mean something different to other specialties. A paradiddle in dance sounds like a paradiddle in drumming, but one is executed with the feet and the other with the hands.

This is a hard one, because once you learn something, it can be hard to remember that you didn't always know it. This is where critique groups from diverse backgrounds are essential.

3. No two people read exactly alike.

Everyone approaches submissions in his own way. Some read straight through the first time, then go back and dissect. Some mark as they go and only read once. And each person has his own focus for critiques.

I've seen puns be a pet peeve for one reader and a delight for another. Some will add a comma to your sentence and others are just as likely to mark one out. I once had a woman tell me that I had a male character describe a room as only a woman would. The scene didn't bother the man in our group at all.

All of this can be really frustrating. But it is good practice for when your work goes out into the wider world. Get used to people misreading your work, your intention.

I'm learning to weed through the feedback so I can determine what to act on and what to leave as is. Notice I didn't say "ignore." I do listen to and read all feedback. I just don't always agree with all of it.

4. It's your work.

That's the biggest lesson from working with critique groups. Your work has to reflect you. Your voice. Your story. Your style.

We recently shook up how we run our critique group, because the original format was no longer worker for some of us. It's not that it was wrong, just that we are at a different place in our writing. The strength of the group was tested and held. We discussed the issues and made a change that everyone could work with.

I've learned that I need to speak up when something isn't working. Because of Lesson #3. It's my work, and I'm the one who needs to take responsibility for making the best it can be. With the help of my friends.

5. Listen to all the feedback.

Even if you disagree. Violently.

This can be a hard one--it is for me. But even if you don't agree with the feedback, you should listen. Because something didn't work for that person. It may be a style thing, which you don't want to change. But the thing is, what they may have given as the reason in the critique may not be the real cause of their discontent with your story.

I'm not saying that anyone is lying to you or purposely obfuscating. But sometimes a piece of a story doesn't gel for us, and we can't quite say why. So we might look at the things we can identify: sentence structure, pronouns, adverbs--anything to try and help the author.

So do yourself a favor and try to figure out what really went wrong. Remember that one reader in your group represents a lot more potential readers for your finished work. Do you really want to lose that many people for something that you could have fixed, without giving up your personal style?

Debbie is a daydreamer. A fact that caused her much grief during her school career but has served her well as a writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, The SCWP Marathon Anthology, and The S’Peaker. In addition to being a member of PPW, she belongs to Creek Writers Council—a tough but fun critique group.

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