Jul 16, 2012

How to Form a Critique Group


(Permission to reprint in its entirety, provided attribution is given: (c) 2012, Sofie Couch.

You’ve written and bled over this manuscript or partial manuscript. You think you might be ready to submit that puppy for publication. But there’s something nagging you about page 73. You’re stuck, or it clunks, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. I see your wheels turning. You’re thinking you need the feed back of an unbiased reader. You’re thinking about starting a critique group.

 Screeeeeeeech.

One of my favorite topics is critiquing, forming critique groups, how-to-critique, etc. And over the years, I’ve found that my opinion on this yummy topic has altered – dramatically. But just so you know “she knows of what she speaks,” here is my resumé with regard to critiquing and forming critique groups:

1995 - in a critique class in the English department at a well-respected university, the professor's final summation of my manuscript was, “I just don't like your writing.” (I almost threw the manuscript in the trash.)
1995 – Took a life drawing class at that same institution and enjoyed one hour of “all-positive” critique every week. (You can read more about this in my blog archives under, “Cellulite and Asymmetry”.)
1999 – published my first novel, Cyber Bride. (That manuscript I almost threw in the trash.)
2000 – joined Romance Writers of America with the sole intention of finding critique partners.
2000 – found wonderful critique partners through my state chapter of RWA.
2000 - gave workshop on forming a critique group.
Interim – handed my work to various people for “slash-and-burn” critiques. 10 year writing dry-spell ensued.
2009 – found another writing group. The only rule was, “only positive feedback”.
2010 – published ANGELS UNAWARES: Fall for Grace.
2012 – published MOONSHINE: The Prequel
2012 - books coming out soon: Re-release of CYBER BRIDE, new releases BEQUEATHED BRIDE, FLIPPIN' THE BIRD, and STAR CROSSED.

I have a little bit of experience with critique groups. And what I’ve found is, although it sounds counter-productive, whenever I joined or formed a critique group, the purpose of which was to give feed-back for changes, I froze – sometimes for years. When I joined or formed positive-only critique groups, I flourished. I know, it sounds like a big-headed, mutual admiration society, but it works and I'm going to tell you why: you already know there’s something wrong with your work. Of course you do. Why else would you be looking for a critique group? You have to move beyond that, have faith, and recognize that what you need to establish are some disciplined work habits.

So here are my suggestions for new writers looking for critique partners.

1. Don’t.
Just don’t. First, you run the risk of being destroyed. You’re new and you need encouragement and if I, as an editor, am really doing my job, chances are I’m going to destroy your first draft. Second, if you haven’t even bothered to finish the manuscript, then you’re wasting my time. I know, I know. YOU know you’re going to eventually finish that manuscript, but trust me when I tell you, the manuscript you end with won’t be anything like the manuscript you began with and that critiquer will have wasted hours of time “fixing” what you’re just gonna dump in the end. Just don’t do it.

2. Finish your first book. Finish all the way through to “the end”. Just keep plowing ahead and write the whole frickin’ thing. Yes, of course it stinks like rotten cheese. This is your first critique – AND IT CAME FROM YOU! You KNOW it stinks like rotten cheese. Good job. Your new skill is that you can now identify a rotten stinky cheese smell when it wafts from your own book. AND you know you can finish a whole manuscript! Well done, you!

3. Repeat step 2, "finish the whole book". Then repeat it again. Repeat it a total of five times. YES! I said five (5) times. F-I-V-E. Write five manuscripts beginning to end! Why five times? Ah-ha! I thought you would never ask. Your desk has four legs. The first manuscript goes in the bottom drawer of your desk. Manuscripts 2-5 go under each of the four legs of your desk. Then you pull manuscript #1 out of the bottom drawer and you re-write it. Don't toss it and start over! Now that you've written five manuscripts, you know how to fix them. Now, you’re re-writing that book with the experience of having written five books! Is this hard work? HELL YEA! Writing is HARD! Don’t drag anyone else down with you. Don't ask anyone else to do the work for you! No one wants to read your first manuscript and after you’ve written five, you’ll go back and see why no one wanted to read your first manuscript. It stinks like rotten cheese! (But you already knew that.)

4. After you’ve re-written manuscript #1, re-read it… aloud. Yes, record yourself reading it aloud. Make a list of people you admire and respect and plan to have them over for cheese and wine. Imagine yourself telling them you’re celebrating the completion of your first novel and you want to prepare for the debut by giving a reading in your home. THEN, at random, plunk your pudgy little finger down in the middle of your manuscript and read ten pages aloud while imagining your dinner party. Could you read that to that group of people? If not, go back and re-write. Pick a different 10 pages and repeat this exercise for every page of your book.

5. Set-up the dinner party and allow one of the guests to plunk their elegant finger on a random page in your book. Read it to them. Make sure they know you’re not looking for critiques. You just want to share with them something you’re very proud of.

6. Repeat for the other four books holding up the legs of your desk. You’re getting faster and better at this re-write thing, aren’t you? Yep. And here’s the kicker. After you’ve re-written and edited book #1, you send it off to an editor. Yes, you pay someone to edit your book! (You pay them, because it's HARD WORK.) And while they’re editing book 1, you’re re-writing book 2, building momentum, so that when book 1 debuts, you’re ready to send book 2 to a paid editor, and you're starting re-writes on book 3. By the time book 2 is back from the editor, you're ready to clean it, format it, and send that off for publication, send book 3 to the editor and begin re-writes on book 4.

This is important for another reason. Readers who read book one and like it are going to start looking for other books by you. If there's a 6 months lag, they'll forget about you! But you've got multiple books in the hopper, ready for publication or in the final stages of publication. And THAT is the name of the game. Write fast. Write clean. Put it aside. This way, your next book is always coming out with the experience of having written five books after it.

So that’s my advice to you. Start a motivational group. Start a Nudge Group. Start a Mutual Admiration Club. But whatever you do, don’t start a critique group. Just get busy. You’ve got some hard work ahead of you and no one else can do it for you.

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