I’m always surprised at how many people tell me that they don’t want anyone to read what they’re writing until they’re completely finished. Most agents say they don’t need to read more than five pages to tell whether they’re interested in the rest of the manuscript. You’re hoping they’ll get through at least the first three chapters. My thoughts are you might as well get those first five pages out there as soon as possible for some feedback so you don’t make the same mistakes throughout the rest of your writing.
I was very lucky to find an excellent critique group through SCWW that met my needs. That doesn’t always happen. Critique groups are different. You may have to shop around a bit. Whether you wish to start a group on your own or attend one already in existence, here are my rules of thumb: 1) Look for some members where at least a few people have already published or have some professional experience in publishing, even if it’s in the local newspaper. There’s no better educator than experience. 2) Stay clear of family members and friends. They tend to be too kind. You need honesty that is cushioned with respect and appreciation for the work and method involved in writing. 3) Establish the guidelines for participation in the group. Everyone should be writing something. Meetings should be regular. Submission requirements should be consistent.
Here is the way my critique group works. Our group has ten members. Average attendance is about six, which is a good number, because it means each person can submit for every meeting if they wish. Larger groups allow people to submit only every few months. We have an excellent coordinator (that makes a difference) who e-mails reminders before each meeting. We meet twice a month for two hours. Anyone who wishes to submit may do so four days prior to the next meeting by e-mailing to every member up to ten pages (double-spaced in submission format) of whatever they are writing. Participants are asked to critique each piece prior to the meeting. I stress the word “prior” because this is a point on which a lot of critique groups differ. Some critique groups read the submissions at the meeting. We have found it much more effective to individually critique the submission before the meeting and then discuss it at the meeting. This allows things to move more quickly and also gives the readers adequate time to review a submission before commenting on it. Group members say they often read a piece 2-3 times before the meeting.
We are not an “editing” group. While we may note misspelling or grammatical corrections on our copy of the manuscript that we return to the author, this is not what we come together to discuss. Our role is to make comment on the character development, plot and background stories. “What worked for me when I read your piece,” and “What didn’t work so well.”
During this process, I have learned that my weakness is my inability to give enough descriptive detail to a scene. “I can’t see this scene in my head, yet,” is the critique my group makes. “What’s in the room with them? What noises are going on in the background. Are there certain smells I should be aware of?” Incorporate all of the senses, not just the visual.” The group will often give me ideas and make suggestions of what might work. Some of my best descriptive scenes have come after a round-table discussion in my critique group.
We remain respectful of each individual’s efforts and their particular genre, recognizing that we don’t have all the answers by a long shot and reminding one another that what one publisher may not like, another might love. One of our members joined another group in addition to ours where they worked specifically with children’s books. She shares what she learns from them.
We continue to remind one another that one person’s opinion does not an absolute make, but we suggest that if two or more people raise the same issue, it might be something the author wishes to consider. In the end, the author always has the final say on whatever they choose to write.
As for me, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have made it as far as I have at this point without the insights and recommendations from my critique group. I would have wasted valuable time submitting one manuscript after another to agents without understanding why they got rejected. I now have a publisher and a book in print. In fact, several of our members have published and received awards and recognition during the past years. We celebrate every victory.
In addition, I have a new group of friends, who remain kind and compassionate in regards to my writing. More importantly, they’re not afraid to challenge me to do better and continually improve my writing skills. For this I am grateful.
Brenda Bevan Remmes is the author of The Quaker Café and is member of the Camden Chapter of the SCWW.