Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lessons from My Critique Group

The talent and wisdom of my critique group members amazes and humbles me. Our group meets every Tuesday at a local coffee shop/wine bar to read and critique one another's works.

Either Lou Turner (CEO/Editor of High Hill Press) or I "run" the group by calling on readers and trying to get things moving, although the group runs mostly on auto-pilot. Sometimes things get messy; sometimes people get testy, but we all respect one another, and mostly we all learn.

Occasionally, like last Tuesday, we are treated to a song by Nick Nixon, a local country-western legend and an amazing singer/songwriter who is working on his memoir.

Generally I don't read; I offer comments, suggestions, and encouragement, but lately I've been trying to bring something to read once or twice a month. Last Tuesday I brought a flash fiction piece I thought was ready to be mailed off to a contest--and would, no doubt, be a winner. How wrong I was!

Here's what I learned (or re-learned) this week:

* Even though I've polished, reviewed, rewritten, and revised my manuscript, comments from my group always make it better.

* Respect. I try to treat all members of the group with respect, even when our writing style or sensibilities are vastly different.

* Everyone in the group brings something to the table. A few of our members grew up on farms, so if my setting is on a farm, I get advice from built-in experts. Nick explained the difference between "Haw, Haw." and "Come up," commands for a horse. One member is an expert (and uber-fast) copy editor. Alice always manages to find double words, misplaced modifiers, and spelling mistakes. She also will run off copies for you if your printer is on the fritz if your e-mail your ms to her in advance. Lou has a lot of contacts in the publishing industry, including editors, agents, and bestselling writers. When Lou talks about structure, plot, or what she thinks makes a piece marketable, I value her advice. All other members have their own special areas of expertise, which are too long to mention here.

* Listen. Sometimes it's a comment from a writer who doesn't always say a lot that is spot-on. The quiet ones are usually deep thinkers whose advice on character motivation, theme, or literary merit offer fresh perspectives.

*Read the marked-up copies. Not all suggestions from the group are spoken, so I make sure to read all comments written on the copies.

* Check your ego at the door. This has been a long-standing saying at our critique group. Sometimes I need a reminder because no matter how good I think my writing is, an insightful suggestion can help.

* Use what works and discard what does not. I've learned to be selective in which suggestions I incorporate into my final manuscript.

* Stay true to my vision and vioce. Many comments are valid, but if they change my voice or vision for the piece, while I'm grateful for their suggestions, I stay true to my voice.

* Always say "Thank you." Although I try to remember to do this after each critique, it doesn't hurt to say it more often.

I'm sure there's more I learned this week, but that's all I can think of for now.

Yesterday I mailed off my critique-checked flash fiction piece. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Even if it doesn't win, I know it's a much improved story.

Oh, and Happy July! Can you believe the year is already half-way over? Time to revisit my writing goals and check out my progress.

18 comments:

  1. Love when a group works so well together! I particularly liked your "lessons" about trusting your vision and voice, and also remembering to say "thank you." Good lessons for life in general, too! :)

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  2. Super advice. I don't have a 'live' crit group - all my crit buddies are online - but these are invaluable tips regardless.

    Good luck with the flash piece!

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  3. All good advice, and what you say is true. I've recently joined a group and I value their opinions so much. They always see things I overlooked, even after multiple edits.

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  4. Hi Madeline,
    You are so right. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.
    Donna

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  5. Hi Jemi,
    A good critique group is truly a blessing.
    Donna

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  6. Hi Lisa,
    That's great that you've joined a critique grou. Good ones are invaluable for a writer who wants to improve.
    Donna

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  7. I've heard wonderful things about your group! No wonder!

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  8. Donna, sounds like an awesome group! And thanks for some of those timely lessons/reminders! There's something very humbling about a writer's group, isn't there? But I'm very grateful for the writers who share their insight-I need all the help I can get!

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  9. Donna,
    You are right, we certainly can learn from others. When I see an announcement for a class on a topic I know well, I hesitate, but then I go, and I come back home energized because I did learn something I didn't know. Your group has some real movers and shakers who know their stuff.

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  10. Hi Tammy,
    Becky mentioned you might join us while you're on summer break. I hope you do!
    Donna

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  11. Hi Cathy,
    It is an awesome group. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.
    Donna

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  12. Hi Linda,
    We are fortunate, indeed. One of these days you'll have to make a field trip from the South Side and visit us.
    Donna

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  13. One of these days I'll burn another vacation day so I can sit in. I miss seeing everyone and benefiting from excellent advice!

    Pat
    www.critteralley.blogspot.com

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  14. Hi Donna! You said it all so well, which is no surprise, since you're such a Splendiferous writer-gal!
    I, too, get SO much from the group. Even when I don't bring anything to read, I learn something every time, and the comraderie is "blissful"! :D

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  15. Excellent report Donna. One thing I would add is a good critique group is a learning experience. Even when one doesn’t submit something, you still learn from others mistakes and suggestions on a piece.

    Everything from proper format to better use of the English language.

    While we all think we learned how to write in grade school, until one tries to actually apply the skill with peer review do we realize how much we need the assistance of others to improve our work.

    You can’t wear your feeling on your shirt sleeve and it is difficult not to try and defend one’s work at times, however, a critique is still an excellent way for a writer to learn and improve his skills.

    I recommend the experience.
    Stan

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  16. Pat,
    We would love to have you come by on a day off.
    Donna

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  17. Hi Becky,
    And we love it when you're there.
    Donna

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  18. Hi Stan,
    You are so right. Learning from listening and critiquing is equally as important as reading.
    Donna

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