I had written a half page summary of a novel that is almost finished. It stated the concept and the theme, the major characters and the key plot points. Over lunch at a Taco Villa, I handed it to my friend and critique partner, Janda Raker. After she read it, she made the comment that if the group had seen it before I started reading to them, perhaps they could have done a better job of critiquing. Hmmm.
There is a lot written about the responsibilities of critique groups—be constructive, don’t get sidetracked on gossip, don’t get sidetracked on grammar, don’t get in arguments. The main reason for reading each other’s work is to help the writer make it better.
Janda’s comment got me thinking about the responsibility the writer bears for getting the most from the group. For helping the group do its job. Let’s look for a minute at the big picture. A novel must contain characters who grow, a plot with a sticky problem that is structured correctly, and a setting that evokes a picture in the readers’ minds. If the group doesn’t know where the author is headed, it can easily get bogged down on details within a scene—word choices, the hero’s granny walking through a closed door, the dog morphing from a collie to a setter. I don’t mean to imply that those things aren’t important, but the possibility exists for hammering a point to death, when, if it is taken within the context of the whole story, needs to go anyway. That’s why you skip the grammar for now, by the way. Your manuscript does need a close edit, but save it until you’ve got the rest of the issues addressed.
For me, this means that the next time I go to a critique group with a new project, I will first present them with a summary, or an outline—some representation of the guts of what I am about to write. That, of course, means I must quit writing by the seat of my pants and actually know all those things they need to know before I start writing. Having done the seat-of-the-pants thing, I realize it is possible to get to the end that way, but man, does it ever require a lot of revision. So, this is the bottom line for me. Put in the work of structuring, thinking through the whole plot, identifying the character arc before starting to write and get better quality help from your group, or do that work as you go—again and again.
One more suggestion for the writer. If you know what you have written isn’t good, don’t waste the group’s time. When you don’t need them to tell you how to fix it, don’t make them do it.
How do you help your critique group with your work?
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