About ten years ago I was desperate for someone who wasn't my husband or my mother to read my early pages to see if I shouldn't beg for my job back or commit myself. After all, who believes they can actually write a novel? I needed a dose of reality.
So I attended a one-day romance writing seminar organized by a local writers group. I had no intention of writing romances, especially after outlining a story on a half-sheet chart as the teacher had suggested, but I'd gone to the seminar with quite another purpose in mind--to find a critique group to call my own.
At the end of the seminar, one of the organizers asked for writer news, like Grand Junction is the hotseat for all that's literary in North America. I stood up, swallowed hard, and asked for anyone interested in starting a critique group to talk to me afterward. It turns out I'd been sitting with the only three women at the seminar interested in starting a critique group. It was a divine seating arrangement.
We've been together for twelve years. Imagine that.
Anne writes about changes she saw in four of her students after they'd become a group: "...helping each other has made their hearts get bigger. A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn't protect itself and it doesn't hide. It stands out, like a baby's fontenel, where you can see the soul pulse through. You can see this pulse in them."
A critique group, which may sound too editorial for you, or a writers group, which may sound a little ambiguous, is an absolute necessity for a writer. (Actually, I think all Christians should be in a writers group.) This is where I learned to see the best in what others offered and to speak the truth in love about their homely "children" without eviscerating them. It's also where I learned to hear the truth spoken in love...and to listen. In other words, my heart got bigger. And my writing improved.
Our critique group's motto is something like this: We love each other enough to tell the truth about our writing and believe we are capable of choosing what to listen to and what to do with what has been said, even if that means totally ignoring everything.
Here's a typical conversation when my work is being critiqued. I'm the quiet one:
"I wasn't quite clear on what you were trying to say here, Patti. Did anyone else have a problem?"
"I was totally confused. Is the girl trying to scale a wall or emote on the history of bricklaying?"
"I loved it. I cried my eyes out. Although, you may consider taking everything out about the wall. You have twenty-three metaphors and two similies in this passage alone. Maybe limit yourself to one a chapter."
"I'm a little confused about the relationship between the baker and the rapper."
"I found the premise of their relationship flakey." Lots of laughing. "Sorry, no, really. Perhaps the rapper's brother knows the baker, maybe they served in the war together."
"That's brilliant! That way the whole motivation for what happens between the rapper kid and the girl makes sense. You should use that."
"Did you mean to use the word "emigrate" here or did you mean "immigrate?" According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "emigrate" is when someone leaves a country to live somewhere else and "immigrate" means to come to a certain country. But then, this is another one of your extended metaphors. You could delete that whole page without losing any meaning."
"Are you bummed about the metaphors?" She holds up a page from my manuscript. "Check out all the smiley faces. I loved the way you developed these characters. However, you are a little heavy-handed with the clever descriptions, and check out how many prepositional phrases you have in this one sentence. But, overall, this is your best writing yet. This is a New York Times best seller in the making. If anyone can get this passage to work, you can. I love what you're doing here."
"All it needs is a bit of tweaking, kiddo."
I may not feel loved at just that moment, but I do after I've gone home in a funk, tossed and turned in bed for hours, and finally gotten up to read my critique group's margin notes. Clearly, they looked at my manuscript with the intensity of surgeons. If my literary slip is showing after I've revised, it's nobody's fault but mine.
Are you in a writers/critique/blood-letting group? Online or in person? What is the greatest benefit of a writers group? Pitfalls? How did you find your group? Do you have a bigger heart?