When I decided to try writing a novel, I sat down and carved time out of my busy life to do it. I wrote for an hour a day, 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., keeping my head down and slogging onward until I’d produced nearly half a book. One Saturday I read through what I’d produced, and judged it to be pretty damn good! Time, I thought, to find an audience, a group of people to affirm my opinion, a place to accept the accolades I was due after writing 150 superb pages.
So off I went to the Southside Writers Group in Minneapolis. It’s an open, eclectic group of about twenty writers and, like every critique group, it has its own process. Each member reads aloud for five to ten minutes, then accepts comments and critique before the next person begins. I listened for a meeting or two, then decided to take the plunge and read my novel’s first several pages.
When I’d finished, I looked up, grinning, waiting for the attagirls that would surely follow. Betty, a lively, opinionated 70-year-old who was working on a memoir, smiled at me. “Honey,” she said, “you have the makings of a writer, but you need to lose the first four or five pages. Start at the explosion.” I felt the heat rise up my neck and into my face. What?!? Toss the beginning? The beginning where I introduced my character? Where I described her in detail? Where I set the scene (and what an unusual scene it was)? I clamped my jaw shut, nodded graciously, and vowed never to return.
Funny thing, though: Betty was absolutely right. I slept on it for a couple of nights and rewrote the whole first chapter. It now starts with a bang (literally) rather than several pages of boring exposition. In the new version, the reader gets to know my character on the fly, learns about the setting as the action unfolds. It’s a MUCH better beginning. You can judge for yourself: http://tinyurl.com/7pz7qbo. Just use the “Look Inside” feature.
Accepting critique is hard work. It threatens, sometimes, to overwhelm me, to make me think that all my work is crap. But in the end, my writing is almost always better for it. Here are a few of my own “rules,” though, that have helped me to get the most out of critique:Rules for Critique
- 1. Always try to phrase criticism neutrally. Remember: it’s always about the WRITING, never the WRITER.
- 2. If you work hard for your critique group, they will work hard for you. Be thoughtful and thorough. In your critique of others’ work, consider all—or most—of the following elements, even if you focus only on one or two:
- • Plot
- • Character
- • Point of View
- • Dialogue
- • Setting
- • Pacing
- • Voice
- • Mechanics (grammar, punctuation, format, etc.)
- 3. Begin with the good: what about this manuscript is excellent?
- 4. Don’t just criticize; offer suggestions for improvement and provide examples if you can.
- 5. Understand that critique is offered, not mandated; listen carefully, then choose what to use, what to discard. Remember: it's YOUR manuscript.
- 6. Never argue; nobody ever wins and people go away mad.
- 7. Acknowledge that fresh eyes will see things you cannot; things you take for granted may not be as clear as you think they are. (If somebody asks a question, explain, but understand that if you have to explain, you may have a problem in the writing.)
For everybody out there who’s writing, alone at the computer day after day, I’m urging you to find a critique group. If you can’t find one that already exists, start your own. Find some serious writers, preferably some experienced writers as well as novices. Find people who want to learn, who’ll work hard, and who share your passion for the written word. I guarantee you won’t regret it!
Bio: Karen E. Hall
Karen Hall, environmental engineer and writer, lives with her husband Jeff Nelsen (and their orange tabby, Junior, who really owns the house) in the Black Hills outside Rapid City, S. D. Her first Hannah Morrison mystery, Unreasonable Risk, a thriller about sabotage in an oil refinery, was published in 2006 and the second in the series, Through Dark Spaces, set in South Dakota’s mining industry, followed in 2012. Karen is currently finishing a novel about infertility and working on the third Hannah Morrison mystery. She is also a member of the Pennington County Planning Commission and is currently president of the Black Hills Writers Group.