Having my Work Critiqued -
A Frightening (?) Experience
The Ten Copies
Several months ago, I joined a local writer's critique group. I'd been looking for a group for some time, searching for other dedicated writers who would meet in person on a regular basis, discuss writing-related issues, and who could help me identify flaws and weak spots in my writing - as well as give me the thumbs-up when a piece is working well. It was time to bring more people onto the "Gail Bridges, author" team.
My husband is my primary developmental editor. He does a stellar job treading the dangerous waters between: "This is wonderful! Send it to your publisher - now!" and: "This chapter goes nowhere, does nothing, and is boring. Do you even know where your story is heading?"
He isn't known for mincing words.
When I approached him about joining a critique group, he agreed with me that it would be helpful to bring in other voices, other opinions, other feedback.
"Give it a try," he urged. "What can it hurt?"
An online friend invited me to join her critique group. The group - No Safeword Writer's Group - seemed like a perfect fit. They're affiliated with (or used to be, it's hard to tell) The Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle, Washington. According to the group's blurb, a person is a good fit for the group if he or she has:
1. Written something that you thought was erotic,
2. Read erotica at least once. (Your own stuff counts!)
3. Learned to respect yourself...along with other people and their writing,
4. Decided you're ready to share your work.
Okay. According to those parameters, the group would be a good fit for me and my work.
I went to an introductory meeting. Nice people, great conversation, and an interesting, well-informed critique session for the person who was sharing her work (which turned out, coincidentally, to be my internet friend.) I joined the group, right then and there. I also signed up to share a chapter of my novel-in-process, Over the Edge, at the next meeting.
The Chapter...With Plenty of Red Pen Marks
The day before the meeting, I went to the copy shop and made ten copies of the fourteen-page chapter. They made a nice little stack.
I wasn't nervous. No. Not me. Uh-uh.
The day of the meeting, my husband and I went to the restaurant, a dingy, dim, throwback fifties-style place with booths running along each long wall and a jukebox in the front corner. We went into the back room, the room with surprisingly charming stone fireplace, and took our seats. My internet friend was already there, wearing a gorgeous hand-knit scarf. We ordered lunch, chatted, got to know the other people - and all the while those ten manuscripts were getting heavier and heavier, burning a hole in my shoulder bag. I had a hard time concentrating on the conversation. My thoughts were running rampant: What will people say? Will they like the chapter or will they tear it to shreds? I won't burst into tears...right?
No, I wouldn't. I could take whatever they'd dish out.
I knew how to take constructive criticism. I'd done this sort of thing before. In Art school I had my work critted (the way the cool people say it) many, many times. I'd even had my writing critted in Creative Writing courses at the University of Washington. So I'd had plenty of experience - but, somehow, that didn't make it any easier as I looked down the table at the faces eager to see my work.
It was time. Catching-up-and-chatting time was over. The food had been served. The group leader motioned for me to pass out the chapters, and she handed around red ball-point pens. "For the next hour or so, we'll eat our lunches and read your work - and write comments," she explained in her rich Texan accent. "Then we'll discuss it for maybe another hour after that. All nice and tidy. Sound good?" She turned to me. "Ready, hon?"
"Yep," I said, smiling, trying to seem confident. "go for it."
"I can't wait to read your work," said my internet friend, settling in with the manuscript. She popped the cap off her pen and held it at the ready.
Then passed the longest hour in the history of writing.
It was grueling. I nibbled at my hamburger while the people around me slashed and burned their way through my manuscript. At least that was what it looked like from the clandestine peeks I stole. Every time someone put pen to paper, I cringed. One person made slashes so large I could see them from where I sat. Another person wrote a paragraph of tight red writing on the margin of the page. Yet another had an entire list of things. When I couldn't take it any longer, I ate a French fry.
And then there was my husband. He had a red pen too. He, also, was slashing and burning. "Weird," he murmured, raising an eyebrow my direction. "...I didn't see this when I read it before."
All in Good Faith
"It's time," said the group leader. "Put your pens down. Who would like to start the discussion?"
A slim man immediately spoke up. He looked from the manuscript to me, his eyes bright. "I'm looking at the first sentence. It could use work." He tapped the paper with the pen, leaving little red dots on it.
"I liked it," said the group leader.
"I don't know...I think if she switched the words around, it would be stronger."
"She could use a stronger word, maybe," said the man sitting at the end of the table.
"Or eliminate the sentence altogether," said the first man.
The woman shook her head. "Don't listen to them, hon. Keep it like it is."
"I agree," said my internet friend.
And so it began.
I took notes, my husband took notes. We filled our own copies of the manuscript with hurried, cramped, barely-legible writing, trying to put their suggestions into our own words. These people were good. The suggestions were right on, most of them. One after another, without respite, they suggested places I could tighten up this, expound on that, provide a bit more background...and so on.
After the discussion wound down, the leader collected the marked-up manuscripts. She patted them into a neat bundle, set them on edge, and tapped the top. "Remember what I said, hon. It's your story. It's your voice. You get to make the decisions." She handed the bundle to me. "But here's the thing. If only one person has a suggestion about a particular thing, think about it. If six people all say the same thing...really think about it."
"Thanks," I said, stuffing the papers into my shoulder bag again. "This was amazing. I'll think about everything, for sure. I'll go over the notes with a fine-toothed comb."
"We both will," added my husband.
The leader put her long-nailed, black-polished fingers on my arm. She leaned in close. Her breath smelled like French fries. "Hon. They loved your work. They never get this excited unless it's for something they're absolutely crazy about."
I grinned. Nice to know.
Working on the Changes
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Was it frightening? A bit, but in a good, helpful way.
Will I do it again? As often as they let me!