On Critique Groups by Stephen L. Brayton
A little over ten years ago, I learned about a writers’ group that met every Tuesday from 7 to 9 pm at a large book store. Since I had been writing mysteries and short stories, I thought this would be an interesting place to learn more about writing and to share material.
There are benefits to be gained and pitfalls to be avoided. First, I love critique groups: the friendships built, the connections made, the insights given and received. You may think your story is the next War and Peace, but when you read it to others, their perspectives may relegate it to the bottom of the bird cage. You need that critique, though. You need the fresh ears to hear your mistakes and catch errors. You’ll enjoy the praise of a chapter well done, but you also want the ‘clunks’ pointed out.
Critique groups also push you to keep writing. I could count the number of occasions on one hand when I didn’t have something to present, and I felt guilty. I wanted to write. I wanted to share and learn. Critique groups led me to writers conferences and ultimately to getting published.
However, the road hasn’t been easy. Critique groups have to be about critiquing the writing, not the writer. Yes, I’ve run into a jerk or two who would rather insult either the person or the material being presented than offer a helpful suggestion. Another thing: ideas are fine, but the written word is the key component. Anybody can have ideas, but you need to get busy and write.
Three things about this. One: I can accept a few excuses for not writing. Busy, sick, family, and travel. Fine, but when the excuses keep coming, perhaps you aren’t serious about writing and you’re not keeping up with the practice of writing. Two: if you’re not serious, why are you in the group? To socialize? Socializing is okay, but after business is completed. Three: if you haven’t written anything in months, but keep attending the group, I stop listening to your critiques because I don’t feel you’re justified in commenting about my stuff if you aren’t presenting yours. I’m not talking about a quid pro quo deal, but you have to stay with it. You have to continue to practice the craft of writing or else you’re relegated to being an armchair reviewer.
Another trap writers fall into when attending a group is that they don’t continue writing the rest of the story. If you present chapter one and get a critique, don’t tinker with chapter one and present it again, then tinker with it again and so on. Where’s chapter two? You aren’t going to perfect your story by attending weekly meetings. You have to finish the story. I’ve seen so many writers fall into this rut, get frustrated, and either stop writing or start another story and continue to have the same problems.
The critique group needs to stay focused. Draw up some guidelines for members to follow. Set goals. Don’t worry about perfection, worry about completion. Then go back and polish. Keep your eyes on the prize. Seek out other authors for advice. Schedule time to attend writers’ conferences. Killer Nashville is a great one for whatever stage you’re at in your story. Stay impersonal in the critiques. Keep in mind the old saying, “If you have nothing good to say, keep your mouth shut.” Critique is about perpetuating strengths and overcoming weaknesses through support.
The critique group I currently attend has strong attendance and those who attend are eager to share their works in progress. Each has valid viewpoints and comments. I’ve learned a lot about writing, sure, but beyond that I’ve learned about my writing. The voice I use, the style. I’m reminded to stay honest with and about my characters.
Stephen L. Brayton owns and operates Brayton’s Black Belt Academy in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He is a Fifth Degree Black Belt and certified instructor in The American Taekwondo Association.He has written numerous short stories both horror and mystery. His first novel, Night Shadows (Feb. 2011), concerns a Des Moines homicide investigator teaming up with a federal agent to battle creatures from another dimension. His second book, Beta (Oct. 2011) was the debut of Mallory Petersen and her search for a kidnapped girl. In August 2012, the second Mallory Petersen book, Alpha, was published. This time she investigates the murder of her boyfriend.
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