"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
- Mark Twain (Thanks for quote, Julie Dao)
Four years ago, just after I wrote my first rough draft, I tried to join a critique group. I was far from home and to say I was nervous doesn’t express the terror I felt having strangers look at my work. I wound up being lost and late. Only one person showed up, and she intimidated me. She was kind enough about my work, but I knew I clearly wasn’t in the same league.
I dropped out.
Then I wrote another manuscript. I think I waited a year before finding someone through SCBWI. I e-mailed her and she wound up living in the same city as me with children of similar ages. We cliqued on-line. We cliqued in person. We exchanged manuscripts. She helped me grow as a writer. But then she got a job and wrote less. While we maintained our friendship, we didn’t keep up our writing exchanges. (It didn’t fair to submit to her if she had nothing to submit to me and a job and family to keep her busy.) Now she’s returning to writing, so we’ll see if we rekindle our manuscript exchange relationship. (And she started a blog:
My husband looked at my first manuscripts, but said it was hard for him to be objective. (Besides, he’s a little mean in his delivery and doesn’t know anything about the sandwich method. More on that later.) My sister has read them all and given me good feedback. Here and there, family members, friends, and others have read manuscripts.
This past January I tried a critique group, but after three months, I had to drop out. There were too many people. Seven is too much to commit to reading and too many writers were sending within two days of the meeting. In addition, nobody wrote children’s books and only one wrote fantasy. While I liked them, it wasn’t the best place for my manuscripts or me.
I have another beta reader, Jackee, whom I met through Mary Kole’s kidlit site. She’s been awesome, but we don’t have a consistent schedule. She's busier than me with little kids at home.
Then I offered to read Aubrie’s manuscript and she’s offered to read mine. That has been awesome. Not only is she a prolific reader, but also she’s a fast responder to my pieces. She’s made my manuscripts waaaay stronger.
Justine Dell just had a nice series about her Beta Reader relationship, if you want to check it out: http://justine-dell.blogspot.com/2010/06/beta-week-how-we-changed-and-why-it.html
Truth be told, I prefer beta readers to groups. The one-on-one suits me. Having to read a bunch of work, while it takes months to get through mine, makes me antsy. But then I read these blogs with these built-in support systems and thought, I need that.
In May at the NESCBWI conference, I met a nice writer. She asked if I’d be interested in joining a critique group she was setting up. I said I would. We’re to meet every two weeks so the manuscripts should move ahead steadily. And we’re to post our work a week in advance, so everyone has ample time to critique. I like the parameters.
In the last few weeks, I read a post (I wish I could remember whose it was) by someone who was reluctant to join a critique group or even have a beta reader. By the ends of his comment thread, he seemed to have been convinced of the benefits.
There are many benefits:
- Objective feedback. (Not, “My dog loves it!”)
- Other people’s strengths may counterbalance your weaknesses.
- You’ll have more confidence your manuscript is strong before submitting.
- Finding someone else’s mistakes will make you a better writer.
- When your book is on Amazon.com, you’ll have thicker skin when someone skewers it.
How to be a good critique partner:
What can be improved.
What’s also good.
And there’s ALWAYS something good. It’s not your job to crush dreams. You’re no authority on who will fail and who will succeed. We all start somewhere, and where we start is usually horrendous. It’s your job to give them idea how to improve their piece.
Beth Revis, in her series of posts that chronicled her writing career, wrote that someone told her she was a terrible writer. Thank goodness she didn’t give up because now she has a three-book deal and quit her day job, thankyouverymuch.
But what about when you get negative feedback? And you will. You’re supposed to smile, thank everyone, don’t argue, and sit on the information for THREE DAYS. Nearly everyone swears this is enough time to process it and be ready to make the changes to make your writing better. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests this method. Stephen King in On Writing recommends at least three people look at your piece. If the readers have conflicting opinions, do what you want. If they’re all saying the same thing, change it.
After three days, if something isn’t sitting well, don’t do it. Show it to someone whom you trust. That’s my advice.
This happened to me with my new critique group. I’ve put more into this manuscript beginning than any other. It’s been on my blog. It was on Miss Snark’s First Victim contest. It won Miss Snark’s First Victim contest. An agent liked the beginning as is. This new group wanted me to change the beginning.
I’ll sit on the idea for three days before making a final decision. But I’ve already discussed the suggested changes with my beta reader to get her advice. And there other suggestions were helpful so I've already strengthened my manscript by joining.
There are examples of writers who say they were given advice, ignored it, and wound up being successful. This puts writers who are considering critique groups and beta readers off, but it doesn’t need to. Trust your instincts. And make sure you can separate your instincts from your ego.
If you are submitting without people looking at your work…
If you are submitting after little changes from a rough draft…
If you aren’t scouring blogs and books about what agents expect…
…then your chances of getting published are slim.
Even if you’re getting requests for partials or fulls, don’t fool yourself. If the beginning is solid, but it falls apart later and you haven’t had anyone (besides your cat) reading it and telling you how to fix it, then you’ll just receive rejections on those partials and fulls.
Swallowing critique from other writers can be intimidating but if the goal is to be published, you’ve gotta suck it up. And if something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.
Remember, we’re in this strange journey together. Good luck!
Where are you on your writing journey? Who reads your manuscripts?