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From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksI first came across D. Wallace Peach on Bookvetter; her fantasy novel Sunwielder was one of several suggested to me. It joined my tbr list and climbed steadily until I read it. That was a few months ago, and still find it twirling in my head.

Peach has created not just a great fantasy world, but also one of the best books I’ve read this year, so be sure to check out her “ask and ye shall receive” giveaway! It couldn’t be simpler: just leave a comment on her website saying which book you’d like to receive. The first twenty visitors will get a free copy in their email!

One of the best things of our era is the ease with which we can get in touch with our favourite authors. I contacted her to let her know how much I enjoyed her book, and she agreed to a guest post for my blog, where she shares her thoughts on writers’ critique groups.


Writers’ Critique Groups

My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. Then I sent my newborn tome to agents and publishers, certain they’d coo with delight and sign me up with a fat advance. The result: Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…

“What went wrong?” silly, starry-eyed me asked, a clueless look on my face. Little did I know (literally).

I discovered the answer to that question when I joined a writers’ critique group. With tender support and pointed criticism, my peers taught me that my baby was far from beautiful. Apparently, I was determined to describe every character’s point of view in every scene. Among other lame verbs, I found “was” extremely handy. It became painfully clear that I couldn’t write a sentence that didn’t include the word that. On top of that, I overwrote with reams of tedious detail; I could sink an insomniac into a coma. This embarrassing confession encompasses only a teeny-weeny sliver of my writing transgressions, but you get the idea. My baby was a toad.

The good news? After two years with my critique group, the toddler emerged transformed. I landed a publisher and the rest is history. I know now that well-informed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining my craft, and joining a critique group was the smartest step I took in my writing career. Without hesitation, I advise all new writers to find one or start your own.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike and finding the right group is like finding the right psychotherapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow. Some groups are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to write in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer is a group of military sci-fi
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding. New writers often bring fresh energy.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged or angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

Structure varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I’m a strong proponent of in-person feedback where verbal and physical cues (like smiling) augment the words we chose in our critiques. Meeting in person offers an opportunity to elaborate on comments and ask/answer questions.

However a group is structured, there are generally norms related to timing, submissions, and how critiques are returned to the authors. My critique group meets twice a month for approximately three hours and we provide written critiques between meetings.

This is how we work:

  1. Via email, we distribute our submissions to other group members. Submissions are limited to 20 double space pages (with occasional exceptions).
  2. Group members critique each submission and return it via email to the writer with comments. (Word has a “comment” tool that is very helpful in this regard.)
  3. Prior to the in-person meeting, we review our comments so we’re prepared to discuss ideas and answer questions for the author.
  4. Meetings start with a focus on one member’s work. One at a time, critiquers offer feedback and respond to questions. The process repeats itself until we’ve discussed every submission. (Set time limits if meetings run over. Don’t skip someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking.” Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns in for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A critique of an early draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, and believability of action and emotion. Often an early draft will benefit from a second look after the writer has smoothed the rough edges. For a later draft, the critique may focus on word choice, phrasing, grammar, and/or punctuation. Remember, a critique group does not eliminate the need for careful editing prior to submission or publication.

Giving Feedback

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. Critique groups, on the other hand, should offer a balance of support and criticism. Writing is personal, and when a writer shares his work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, section of dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

As much as possible provide suggestions so that the writer gets the gist of your comments. If you identify a weak verb, give a couple suggestions for stronger ones. If a sentence is awkward, suggest a possible rewrite. If you think a section of dialog sounds stilted, explain why. If you feel the character’s emotion is inappropriate, offer your reasons.

You may end up critiquing the equivalent of a chapter or two every two weeks. Remember that this isn’t a typical pace for pleasure reading. A book may seem as though it’s dragging, but that may be more a result of the group’s schedule than the book’s pace.

When we critique another’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. We are cognizant of our personal preferences and writing style and separate these from our critiques. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective, and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly-crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths she can build on.

A note of encouragement: When I joined my critique group, none of us were published. Four years later, we all are! Happy Writing!

D. Wallace Peach in her own words

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksI didn’t care for reading as a child – I preferred Bonanza and Beverly Hillbillies reruns, Saturday morning cartoons and the Ed Sullivan show. Then one day, I opened a book titled The Hobbit. Tolkien … literally changed my life.

I love writing, and have the privilege to pursue my passion full time. I’m still exploring the fantasy genre, trying out new points of view, playing with tense, creating optimistic works with light-hearted endings, and delving into the grim and gritty what-ifs of a post-apocalyptic world. Forgive me if I seem schizophrenic in my offering of reads. Perhaps one day, I’ll settle into something more reliable. For now, it’s simply an uncharted journey, and I hope you enjoy the adventure as much as I.

For book descriptions and excerpts, please visit Myths of the Mirror.

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Don’t forget to check out her “ask and ye shall receive” giveaway! Just leave a comment on her website saying which book you’d like to receive.