Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Critique Groups

[Author's note: Sorry this didn't post yesterday, chalk it up to too many brownies and operator error.]

The weekend before last, I took part in an F/SF convention at BYU called Life The Universe and Everything. I think I collected enough material for about a hundred blogs. One comment that I heard a couple of times really caught my attention. Several authors mentioned that they had previously been part of critique groups, but didn’t need them anymore because their writing had improved beyond that point.

Hmmm. Is that really the case? Yes, the writers who were speaking are very good. And it is quite possible that their writing skills surpassed the critique groups they were a part of. But can your writing get so good that you don’t need peer critique anymore? I don’t think so.

I’ve been a part of a critique group since shortly after my first book, Cutting Edge, was published, and I probably should have been a part of it before the first book was published—maybe someone would have told me about not starting your book with a chapter of flashback, oh well. And even before that I was part of the on-line critique group on Scott Card’s web site.

What do I get out of my group? This might surprise many of you, but possibly the most important thing is the support and empathy of a group of friends who understand what it’s like slogging through writer’s block, edits, rewrites, abridgements, meager royalty checks, etc. It helps to have people who “get it.”

From a writing perspective, I guarantee my writing would not be half as good if I did not have the feedback of many quality talented writers and editors. Would you want to watch a movie that was written, directed, edited, produced, and starred in by the same person? Regardless of how talented that person might be, they can’t look at their own work with fresh eyes.

That’s the benefit of peer review. Some people are good at physical actions. “How could he open the door when he’s holding her with one hand and the gun in the other?” Motivation. “Sorry, I just don’t buy that she’d walk into the barn without at least turning on a light.” Pacing. “The story moves really well right up until this point. But you need a beat after this scene, before you move on.” Believability. “Women don’t comb their hair, typically. They brush it or pick it.”

Of course I get grammar fixes, since I still haven’t figured out things like the correct usage of commas, but I also get insights that make the story so much more powerful. In a scene from my upcoming book, Farworld, I got a ton of wonderful advice. Not just from my critique group, who was amazing, but also from other writers I respect. Let me give you just two examples.

LuAnn is a school teacher with a major focus on reading and writing. She is also soon to be a librarian. She is an excellent writer and a great editor. In the feedback she gave me, she pointed out a scene where the protagonist is trying to accomplish a difficult task. As a writer, I was focused on the cool thing that would happen once she finished the task. What I overlooked was the power of having her initially fail at the task. As soon as LuAnn pointed that out, I changed the scene and the emotion increased ten times.

Our own Kerry was also kind enough to read Farworld for me. Among many helpful edits, she spotted several key physical errors that would have killed me if the book had gone out. She also gave me a huge fix on the last three paragraphs of the paragraphs of the book that no one else caught. Think about that. The last three paragraphs. Other than the first three paragraphs is there anything more important than the part of the book designed to convince readers to look for your next book?

Of course my editor has been great, and she catches a lot. But she’s only one set of eyes.
It scares me enough just to think about the fact that in six months I’ll be facing a national audience for the first time. But it absolutely terrifies me to think of facing those readers without the feedback of many, many talented writers.

So maybe other writers are good enough that they can just write a book and send it off to their editor with full confidence the story is great and the public will love it. But for me, you’ll have to pry my critique group out of my cold lifeless hands.


At 2/26/2008 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Jeff:

Where can I find a good critique group?

David G. Woolley

At 2/26/2008 1:06 PM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

Good to know, Jeff. We've been worried about losing you when Farworld is released.

At 2/26/2008 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Woolley, I was just about to ask the same thing, but with the addition of "online." Maybe we should form our own.

Melanie Goldmund

At 2/26/2008 3:59 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I'm sure you've been equally helpful to your group -- that's the great thing about a team. Everyone helps everyone else.

At 2/26/2008 4:41 PM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

I would love to have an "in person" group. Anyone want to travel to Colorado?

At 2/26/2008 10:51 PM, Blogger Terry Finley said...

We need all the help
we can obtain.

Terry Finley

At 2/27/2008 12:58 AM, Blogger Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Thanks, Jeff. You've made me blush again, and I'm also glad to know you don't plan to abandon us anytime soon! What would we ever do without you telling us all those things a MAN wouldn't do?

At 2/27/2008 4:59 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Amen, Jeff. SO glad you're part ours.

For me, the day I think I'm too good for critique group is the day my writing turns into garbage.

Heck, if Amy Tan and Stephen King still attend a critique group, it's got to be a good thing.


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