Like Minds and Other Sounding Boards

Earlier this year I signed up for fiction classes at my local writer’s center (The Muse Center – the-muse.org). Two were one-time workshops: one to focus on finding and querying an agent, and one to discuss the importance of the first 1000 words in a manuscript. Both were excellent, and gave me a lot to think about. The third one broke up into six sessions on writing fiction. For each class, three students submitted up to 15 pages of a work in progress, while we all critiqued each other’s work.

Critiquing is new to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having gone through it a few times now, I can tell you this. It’s sometimes a challenge to listen to critical input without defending what you wrote. Our workshop mediator, Lamar Giles (www.lrgiles.com), set up a “cone of silence” rule. When others in the class are commenting on your work, you may not speak. At all. Afterward, you may only ask questions for clarification. You may not, under any circumstances, defend your work.

I didn’t expect it to be so hard.

But from what I understand, this is typical of critique groups, and it makes sense, if you think about it. Once your novel is on the shelf, you can’t be there to defend or explain unclear plot points or character actions to your readers. If they can’t figure it out for themselves, you’ve lost your chance to win them over.

A writer spends an enormous amount of time with her characters and plots and devised worlds. Between their initial creation, early drafts, revisions and subsequent rewrites, she understands her stories intimately, so it’s impossible to see problems that lurk within the narrative. That’s where fresh eyes come in. Believe me, it goes way beyond picking nits. A new reader can easily pick out overused words or plot flaws or character weakness. As the writer, I’m grateful for the feedback. I always have the option to disregard any of the input offered to me and sometimes, if it goes against the grain of my intent for the story, I do. Far more often, though, my critics’ words hold water and I make changes accordingly.

I’ve also joined a local critique group in the hope of ongoing support from other like minds. So many published authors I’ve met say this is helpful—not only to polish a story or manuscript, but to improve your writing skills. Of course it would; when you aren’t listening to feedback on your own work, you’re providing feedback to other writers on their work. Believe me, when you’re spotting glitches and weaknesses in another person’s writing, it’s a natural next step to see the same sorts of mistakes in your own work.

It took me a while to find a local critique group, so as I mentioned in a prior post, I enlisted beta readers, people who (hopefully) haven’t heard me yak ad nauseum about the story or its plot and characters before they read it. They don’t need to know the essentials of story structure or what the industry will buy. They only need to provide input you, as the writer, need to know. Did they enjoy the story? Was the plot clear or confusing? How did they feel about the characters? I always give my beta readers a set of questions to answer, so I can have targeted input to help me polish my work. With their help, it’s easier to spot flaws on the pages, especially if every single reader makes the same or similar observations.

But here’s the thing—and pay attention: this is important—regardless of how well it’s done, not everyone will love what you’ve written. In my own admittedly limited experience, I’ve had beta readers (and critiquers, too) comment with completely opposite feedback on the exact same point in my manuscript. One reader will love the characters, find them well-fleshed-out and engaging. She’ll love the protagonist and root for her. She’ll despise the villain and cheer when they fall. Another reader will say the characters are flat and uninspiring. One reader will fall into the settings and imagined worlds, while another will be confused and bored, or feel that there is too much description. Same characters. Same exposition. Same settings. Same manuscript. Wildly differing opinions. Even the best of bestsellers doesn’t appeal to everyone, so take all feedback with a grain of salt. Use what makes sense, and discard the rest.

It’s a challenge, sometimes, to listen to people—even well-meaning people—tear down your baby, especially when you’ve worked so hard to write it in the first place. But whether you plan to take a traditional route to publishing, or self-publish your best-seller, you only get one chance to wow your reader. It seems the better option, to me, to take a few figurative gut punches before your manuscript sees the light of day. I keep reminding myself that none of the comments are personal; they are about my work, not about me. That helps (some).

All that said, I still sweat a little when handing over my current work-in-progress. What’s your experience with critique groups or beta readers? Any advice or helpful tidbits to offer?

2 thoughts on “Like Minds and Other Sounding Boards”

  1. Drema, a very useful article. I think what stands out is the idea of giving your readers a set of questions. Brilliant! And thank you. I had help with the actual writing of my book from a few people. Because of the way it worked I think they overlap the usual categories, that is, they read, they critiqued, they edited, they spent untold hours with me reading the manuscript out loud (which is, finally, my sure-fire way of finding the problems in my own or anyone else’s book). I can’t imagine having ended up with a manuscript I liked half as much without all that help. At the moment, I am co-authoring a novel (my first piece of fiction) with a friend. We have very different skills and, as it has turned out, very different life experiences, values, and tastes in reading. That said, this process has been of tremendous benefit to my writing. It has also been difficult, emotionally fraught, sometimes angry, sometimes hurtful. It has produced what I believe to be a creditable piece of fiction. Possibly even a page-turner. I’m not sure I would ever try this kind of collaborative writing again.

    So, I absolutely agree with you that critics and readers are essential to the final integrity of a piece of writing.

    Not defending those characters, creatures of our hears that they are, surely must be one of the great challenges.

    1. Dean, at least one of my “gamma readers” said she found little editing things to mark, but since I didn’t ask for it, she didn’t actually do it. Next time, I’ll ask for that too — nothing elaborate, just a note saying “Hey, if you see something glaring, make a note so I can fix it!”

      My hat is off to you, taking on a collaborative work. I know others who have done it and I might too, one of these days. But I can see how it would be difficult.

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