Think Critically! My First Critique Group / @StephanieKeyes / #scbwi

We’ve talked on this blog before about the often solitary life of a writer. Many people believe that they don’t need critique groups, or even other writers for that matter, to thrive. To those peeps, I say this: Nothing good has ever been created in a vacuum. Vacuums suck. Suck up your energy. Your inspiration.

Before you argue with something akin to, “I am a creative Hoover,” look at it this way. As writers we need inspiration from the outside, we need to grow, but we also need validation. Now, if you are really good at self-validation, just stop reading now. Then go find a corner and hug yourself.

For the rest of us…two things happened that drove me in this direction:

  1. A driving need to be the best writer I can be.
  2. An overwhelming sense of loneliness.

So I discovered the first organization that changed my life: The Society Of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Ironically, two days later I found my SCBWI critique group through one of my first freelance editors.

Now, I won’t lie to you. I went to that first meeting with a book already planned for publication–so I expected minimal feedback on the first chapter of that same title. Man, was I wrong. They flayed my book alive! Now, I should add that this was done in such a kind and supportive way that it didn’t feel like my work had been dragged across barbed wire and left to bleed in the street.

photo credit: 131 via photopin (license)

photo credit: 131 via photopin (license)

So why did I go back? Because I learned more about writing in those two hours that I had in the previous four years on my own. Naturally, I immediately wanted to rewrite my first book. I didn’t. Instead, I took what I’d learned on things like deep point of view and getting inside a character’s head that I applied to my second book.

What was even better? My critique group was right there with me, coaching me chapter by chapter. When my publisher’s deadlines prevented me from reading the entire manuscript in group, several members offered to read the entire manuscript–over five hundred pages–and give me feedback.

Dave Amaditz, who blogs on this site and also co-leads my critique group, gave me some of the most valuable feedback on The Fallen Stars. “What’s Cali feeling? She’s going through these major changes and she’s coming across as cold.”

“Well, she’s feeling–”

“Don’t tell me. Show us. How are you going to do that?” Dave asked.

I thought about it. That thought resulted in gutting my second book for one purpose: two add a second point of view. In went Cali’s reaction to the cold (something new for an immortal Star Child), in went her growing infatuation for Kellen St. James, in went her fears and all of her determination. Could I have conveyed her emotions without Cali’s point of view? Maybe? But probably not. The Fallen Stars is a completely different book because of that single question.

The truth is that since that day when I went to my first meeting three years ago, my writing has never been the same. It all has to do with how I spend my Monday nights. My critique group calls it like it is (with kindness) and they’ve made me a better writer. No, they make be want to be a better writer.

I hear stories from people all the time about how they tried critique groups and everyone was miserable. They didn’t care about helping anyone–just gave extremely harsh feedback. Others tell me that they were bombarded by platitudes. “This was wonderful! There’s nothing wrong with it!” Which, let’s face it, helps no one. Especially, a writer.

To those folks I say: keep trying. Obviously, that wasn’t the right group for you. The right group is out there, though. You just have to find them.

Be brave. Be strong. Be open to being better than you are and they will come.

To those still hugging themselves in the corner? Yeah, I guess you can stop now.

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6 Comments on “Think Critically! My First Critique Group / @StephanieKeyes / #scbwi

  1. I love that you love your critique group! I spent two and a half years in an MFA program (Pine Manor College MFA Solstice Program) and had incredible experiences with my group and teachers. Those critiques still live with me today when I’m revising. Since then, I’ve done some online critique groups but nothing has matched that experience. I’m still looking for the right group. But having had that experience for those years lives with me still!

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    • Hi Hannah! I do–they’ve been a wonderful influence on me and my writing. I’m holding on to them as long as I can! Yeah, there’s something about finding the right one. It can be so powerful. 🙂

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  2. Ah, yes, Stephanie…… The old, show don’t tell. It is absolutely necessary to do that, but no matter the comments and criticisms, it is you, the author, who is responsible for applying them–which you have done, and continue to do, so well.

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  3. I’ve been in a few critique groups and I’ve met some very good writers and made some great friends, but none of those groups have been the right fit. I’ve been debating about joining a new one forming in our SCBWI chapter, but this post made the decision easy. Thanks!

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