Today we welcome author Emily Roberson, now of Dallas, Texas, who shares five tips on getting past your fear of critique groups. Writers need to have a thick skin in order to succeed and having your work pored over and critique in your first writing group is what all successful authors have to go through. Emily is the author of Life, Motherhood & the Pursuit of the Perfect Handbag and is currently writing a middle grade urban fantasy about changelings, murderous fairies, and the end of the world as we know it. ENJOY!
It took me a ridiculously long time to go to a critique group. The process seemed so overwhelming (how do you find one? do you have to apply? what if they hate me? what if they hate my writing? you know the drill…) Anyway, after years of procrastination, I finally went to an open critique group (funny thing, with the internet, it’s not actually that hard to find one, if you’re willing to look).
I’m now convinced it’s one of the best ways to improve your writing. It’s free, unlike paying an editor; and it forces you to get out of the house and meet some other writers (never a bad thing).
I know it’s scary, but think about it. A critique group is a bunch of strangers who have no power over your life, while reading your work, telling you what’s wrong with it, and giving you tips to fix it. If you don’t use a critique group, you’re just sending the same writing off to strangers in New York or LA who will make a two-second decision that is crucially important for your life, without ever telling you what was wrong or helping you fix it.
But, there are some things you should know before you go:
1) Practice reading aloud before you go
If you have to read aloud for the critique group, for goodness sake, practice reading your pages out loud before you go. (In your head doesn’t count.) It’s harder than you think, reading for strangers, even though you wrote it. Also, don’t read more than eight pages. I know, I know, your first chapter is 10 pages or 15 pages or whatever and they might miss something, but really, eight pages is plenty. After eight pages, you’ll be tired of hearing your own voice, so you know everyone else will be. If people are begging for more, that tells you something important too. Listen for the breathing in the room. TIP: If people are sighing and looking at their watches, take a good look at your pages, they are either boring or confusing.
2) Expect at least one truly STUPID comment (and no, you still don’t get to respond)
Years ago, in a creative writing class, a guy said my characters shouldn’t be eating potato salad with barbecue. This was in Boston (my voice is dripping with sarcasm here. If you are looking for barbecue Heaven, Boston is its polar opposite). I’m from Arkansas. I’ve lived in Mississippi, Texas and North Carolina. I could write a treatise on barbecue, and potato salad. And I had to let it go …. In the critique setting, I had to let this guy be wrong. This is also true for any comment that says something like, “wouldn’t it be better if Romeo and Juliet figured out it was all a big misunderstanding?” Feel free to ignore these too. BUT DON’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT THEM—not in the critique session, not after, and not on social media. Except once you get home you can tell your cat. Now, you could say that I’m breaking my own rule by writing about that potato salad thing here, except it was like 10 years ago, and it’s for educational purposes.
3) Put your big girl pants on, if it was easy everyone would do it
Yes, those are clichés. There’s a good chance your writing has a bunch of them too. If anyone is standing ramrod straight, or has dewy skin, or starts the chapter waking up from a dream, expect to be called out on it. It doesn’t matter what famous writer you love has books full of ramrods, listen to the critiques and try to find another way to say it.
4) Look hardest at the comments that make you the angriest
Stupid comments are easy to dismiss or laugh at. It’s the ones that make you mad that you really need to look at. If it’s got you fired up, it’s probably because it’s hitting too close, and you know it just might be true. And it seems like too darn much work to fix it, and you really thought you were done. Give it a few days, look at the comments and look at the work again, and you may see the problems and better yet, a way to fix them.
5) Don’t despair!
This is the hardest thing. You’ll leave a bad critique (and everyone has them), feeling bruised. It will feel like someone just kicked your dog or called your child terrible names. But your writing is neither a dog nor a kid—it is something you made and something you can make better. The first step to getting better is seeing what needs to be corrected.
So put your big kid pants on, get on the internet and find a writing group. Also, don’t leave the potato salad out on the counter overnight.