Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Writing Critique Group

Sorry I didn’t get to finish this series of posts last week, as planned. Life got in the way, as it sometimes does.

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I belong to one online and two in-person writing groups currently. I’ve belonged to others of both types in the past. Some of my experiences with writing groups have been better than others, but I’ve learned a lot from both the more positive and less positive experiences. I will say that both of my current in-person writing groups feel like family, and hanging out with them is the best.

1. Chemistry matters.

Critiquing can be a stressful experience for both the person giving and the person receiving the critique. No matter how much I try to tell myself it’s not personal, it absolutely is. I pour my heart into what I write (as most writers do) and any critique, no matter how well-intentioned, can sting a bit. Critique stings a lot less (and actually can feel good) coming from someone I genuinely like and respect. When everyone in a group respects one another, I can tell, and it makes a huge difference to how the group functions.

2. I always have more to learn.

When I first started the process of being critiqued, I’m not sure what I thought about it. But knowing me, I probably assumed I wouldn’t need someone else to critique me forever, that at some point, I’d “get it.”

I understand now that my learning will constantly evolve, and once I master one skill, it’s time to learn another. At this point, I want my writing to constantly improve, no matter how “good” I get.

Like most beginning writers, I used to have a love affair with adverbs. I don’t anymore, but I do tend to repeat words. I get a favorite word in a chapter, and that word is repeated 8,375 times. I don’t even notice, no matter how hard I look for it. But my critique group does.

3. Talking to other writers is like taking a mini-vacation.

In all of my groups, we stay and talk after we’re done tearing each other’s work to shreds. (Just kidding. We don’t do that… usually.) The conversations we have are generally the type of things that might make non-writers a little nervous. I speak loudly, and not everyone appreciates flippant comments on murder, the apocalypse, or how we can disagree and still respect one another. Luckily, my group does, and they laugh even louder when they realize we’re scaring people.

4. Good criticism energizes me.

Most of the time, I walk away from my writers’ groups eager to make the changes my fellow writers have suggested. There have been many times when I know something isn’t right about my story, but I can’t pinpoint what. When good critique is offered, I suddenly know exactly what needs to be done (or at least, where to start) and I want to get to it immediately. I wish I could bottle that feeling.

5. Other writers’ successes feel fantastic.

There’s lots of advice out there about how to deal with jealousy when the writers nearest to you are becoming more successful than you. I’m so competitive that I worried this would be a problem for me. But when two members of my group found agents, I waited for the jealousy, and it didn’t happen. All I felt was, “Of course someone recognized how amazing their stories are! I can’t wait to buy them!” Do I want to get an agent and start that path to publication? Obviously. But I want us all to be successful, and it doesn’t matter which of us is first. We’re all going to get there.

6. Everyone works at their own pace.

I can whip out a really good first draft fast, but then I have to spend a long time tinkering with it. I struggle with the editing process because my first draft is so close to being right that I don’t know what to change. (This is not a humble-brag. It really is frustrating and I haven’t learned how to edit my work the way I need to.) As a result, I probably spend more time editing and rewriting than anyone I know. It sometimes frustrates me because I feel like I should be able to get this faster than I do. But if I’m being honest, it can sometimes take me a while to learn a new skill. But once I get it, I get it. I’m frustrated with my “always a bridesmaid” status, in that most of the rejections I get say that I made it to the final round, or that they loved it, “but…” However, I’ve started telling myself that this is just part of my process, and the fact that I’m getting closer to success means that I’m on the right track. There was a time I didn’t even get to be a bridesmaid.

7. Most of us are socially awkward introverts.

We like books! People are… ugh. We’re not unfriendly (well, sometimes we are), it’s just that, as socially awkward introverts, we don’t always want to meet new group members, no matter how great they may turn out to be. It’s hard to be friendly and hard to welcome new group members. After all, we’re going to be putting our hearts on the table, handing out knives, and saying, “Go on, slash at it.” I remember being new to groups and feeling, while not unwelcome, not entirely welcome either. I also remember being wary of new group members, eyeing them suspiciously. I try to be better about it because what I’ve figured out is that no matter how “normal” they pretend to be, they’re just as weird in the same ways as me.

8. You really do have to be willing to put your heart on the table.

This is so hard for me. Most of my group members love my supporting cast of characters but call my narrators “secretive,” “gray,” or “blank.” (Most of them don’t come out and say this, but that’s what their comments boil down to.) It took me a long time to figure out that while my narrators aren’t me, they carry bits of me, and my normal habit of being secretive spills over onto them more strongly than any other trait of mine. People want to know characters; it’s what makes them sympathetic, even when they’re making bad decisions.

I have to keep reminding myself of two things. First off, no one is going to know what bits and pieces of my heart I used to mold and shape my characters unless I tell them. Secondly, even if they did, people love vulnerability. Presenting an impenetrable facade is intimidating. I know this, and I’m still working on it.

 

9. Not everyone wants you to succeed.

There are people join writer’s groups for their ego and they will tear you down if they get the chance. Sometimes those people are harder to recognize than others. But if you more often feel bad about their criticism than energized or good, it may be time to part ways. Writing is hard enough without the discouragers.

10. Some writers have no desire to improve.

Some people will never change, no matter how many times you offer the same feedback. There’s a difference between “I thought about what you said and I disagree” and “I’m not really interested in changing.” Those people can be difficult to deal with because anyone who’s growing and changing will feel dragged down by people who are stuck. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve found that works long-term with people who don’t want to improve is to leave them alone in their unchanging ways.

I found my current writers’ groups through Meetup.com, but I also use Scribophile for an online critique group. (Feel free to find me on Scribophile as Doree Weller.)

What have you learned from your writers’ groups? Is there anything I’ve covered in this series that you’re interested in learning more about?

Related posts:

8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

9 Things To Remember When Receiving Writing Feedback

4 Myths About Critiquing

Throwing Out the Beginning

I don’t do beginnings well.  I’ve never had a novel published, but I think my novels, in general, are pretty interesting.

It’s the beginnings that are boring.  I’ve read all kinds of advice on how to start novels.  I’ve read more novels than I can count, paying careful attention to the beginning.  And still, I can’t seem to get it right.  I’ve just received the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about how to start a novel.

Throw out the first chapter.

In my novel, the first chapter explains some vital backstory and introduces the characters, but I realize now that it’s my lazy way of putting those things in the story, and it doesn’t have to be that way.  With a little effort, I can weave those elements into the story, making them more interesting, but also starting the story with the action, instead of the backstory so boring even I don’t want to read it.

I’ve been cutting and cutting that first chapter to just the essential elements.  I’ve edited it so many times I can probably recite it by heart.  Recently, I had an agent request chapters, and I was so excited.  My heart pounded and I really hoped this would be it.  She didn’t accept it, saying the story wasn’t as interesting as she’d hoped.

And I knew it was that boring first chapter.  I knew I needed to start with action, but I didn’t know how.

Now I do.  I need to throw out the first chapter.  And let the story start at the beginning.