Critique groups are an essential part of a writer’s world. I think finding the right group is like finding the right spouse, and with two ex-husbands, I should know.
In the right critique group, you’re excited about what you are doing. Your work moves forward and you become a stronger writer. In the wrong group, you become stagnant, bitter and eventually, you stop writing. At least, that was my experience.
I found the right group, but only after I found the wrong one.
I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There is a local chapter here in my community and last June, feeling bold, I attended a critique meeting.
I brought with me a manuscript that I had written two years previous and had shared with a critique group in Anchorage, Alaska. The group in Anchorage had been the right fit. Though I didn’t click with their leader, I found the other members to be welcoming and their input valuable. But traveling from my home in eastern Washington to a critique group in Anchorage is just a little too far.
I took a manuscript the Anchorage writers had critiqued to this new group. It’s a picture book, entitled “The Carwash Dragon.” This was a short tale I wrote when I attended the 2010 SCBWI Western Washington conference in the Seattle area. It’s about a little boy who is afraid of carwashes and dragons. He finds a lost dragon and takes her home on his bicycle, all the while facing his fears in order to help her. A shout-out to my husband’s niece, Emily Miller. Emily invited me to stay in her apartment because I couldn’t afford the swanky hotel where the convention was held. Thank you, Miss Emily.
I read the manuscript to four critique members – two of whom have published books and one who constantly referred to his agent. After I finished reading, the critique began. My manuscript was too long; my manuscript was too short. The ending was weak. The dragon cried too much. Why on earth would the dragon wear a bow in her hair? Everybody knows dragons have scales.
After they were finished, I wanted to apologize to them for reading this tripe. I wanted to apologize to the paper for assaulting it with my ink. What I didn’t want to do was write, and I didn’t for three months until my husband told me, “Find another group.”
So I did. I attended a writer’s group at Auntie’s Bookstore, and I stumbled upon two women who shared my belief that critique groups make for better writers. We met at a local library, we three writers who all were composing vastly different things. Cherise is writing a medical thriller. Caroline is writing about her experiences moving from southern California to rural Washington. A few months later, the group grew by two – a police detective and a teacher. The police detective is contributing to a textbook on how to conduct sexual-assault investigations. The teacher writes a cross-cultural romance.
Every Wednesday night, we read our work aloud and pour over the pages with one goal in mind: to improve the story. To help each other.
My work is stronger thanks to these four people. My writing is tighter; my scenes are more alive. Every now and then, when I share my novel with them, I see their eyes riveted on the page. They are completely absorbed in my story. And that, dear reader, feels like pure joy. Kind of like a good marriage.
Hands and arms inside the cart, please. Tomorrow, we talk horses.