Thursday, October 9, 2008
CRITIQUE GROUPS: ONE WRITER'S VIEW
Recently I read about how Eudora Welty sent William Faulkner a love scene she'd written. She wanted his opinion. After waiting and waiting for his response, she decided to call him.
"Did you receive that love scene?" she asked him.
When Faulkner said he had, Welty asked him what he thought.
"Well, it's not how I would do it, honey," he told her. "But you go right ahead. Go right ahead."
As a writer who has requested more than her fair share of advice, I'm comforted by this tidbit. To think the masters sought feedback from others, too.
My early advice came from critique groups, formed by classmates who still hungered for input when the class ended. So with ten-twenty pages in hand, we gathered in each others homes once a week. There is something painful and amusing about a critique group of new writers. I imagine every writer that has gone through such groups has their own stories. They are probably like me, recalling the cast of characters with smiles, chuckles and gritted teeth.
Some of the home environments we met at were less than ideal for creative endeavors. One fellow member owned about seven cats. A few minutes into the session, I figured out that those cats ruled the house. We sat around the kitchen table while the felines circled on top, sizing us up. If they didn't like us, they stopped, arched their backs and hissed. If they did take a shining to us, we were not much better off. They would spring into laps and rub against chests and under chins until we sneezed. It was kind of like playing spin the bottle. No one knew where the cat would stop or what was in store for them. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I suggest you forgo the refreshments.
I left the group fairly soon and tried to start one of my own. I wrote an announcement in a local writing organization's newsletter, stating that I wanted to start a critique group for people interested in writing for children. We met on Tuesday afternoons at my house. The session lasted about two hours. Then everyone left to go home.
After one session ended, I happened to glance out the window thirty minutes later. One member was still in my driveway, sitting in her car and staring straight ahead. I went to check on her, but when she noticed me opening the door, she drove off. The next week, she did the same thing. Finally she confessed that she had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She had trouble driving off because she had a strong feeling that she'd left something. That also explained why she was usually late. She kept checking the front door to see if it was locked.
These kind of inconveniences and oddities come with the territory. What we really are concerned about is the advice, right? This is where it can get interesting.
If you become a member of a critique group, you'll find out quickly that some folks are really there for the refreshments. When it's time for them to comment on your manuscript they will give you the kind of advice your aunt Betty Lou would give you if you showed her your newborn baby's picture. "It's so sweet! You should be proud!" They usually follow this up with an offer for more snicker doodle cookies. If you are the sort of writer that cries when anyone says your manuscript needs improving, you might want to have a lot of Aunt Betty Lou types in your group.
A few members would be better off plopping down eighty bucks and stretching out on a psychiatrist's couch. They are there to share drama. Their drama. Their manuscripts are thinly disguised autobiographies and when you suggest something, they will say, "It didn't happen that way."
You will tell them that you are sorry. You thought they were writing a novel.
They will say, "Yes, I am, but you see this happened to me." The next thirty minutes they will cover exactly what happened to them and why it must be exactly like this in the book. This is if they bring their manuscript. Because many times they didn't get a chance to write that week. Because of the drama.
Almost every group has a Punctuation Queen. Bless them! They tell you, "There's a comma missing in the third sentence in the fifth paragraph of page eighteen." Actually I love these meticulous people who catch my sloppy oversights. But do not expect them to comment on your characters or plot. Their eyes are too dizzy from your missing punctuation.
Beware of Hatchet Man. He uses his pencil like an ax. Chopping, chopping, chopping at your prose, ignoring voice and rhythm. "It should start here," they inform you. How did you not see that?
Closely related to Hatchet Man is Connect-the-Dot Dotty. Repetitive words cause her hand to draw little circles around them. Then as if you could not see them clearly enough, she joins them with a continuous line that zig-zags down your page.
With all the above warnings about critique groups, you might assume I've soured on them. Not at all. I've learned from almost every person who has been generous enough with their time and comments. In those years of being a new writer, I'm embarrassed to admit, many times I made a lot of the changes that were suggested without really thinking it out for myself. At the time, I lacked the confidence in my own work.
After trying several groups, I was invited to join a group of children's writers. They'd been meeting for ten years and when they asked me to join them, I felt like I'd received a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.
These women taught me something new every week. I valued their advice. Each had their strengths. I can only hope I offered them something of worth during the four years I met with them.
Today I still depend on a small group of people--my friend Charlotte, my mom(who borders on an Aunt Betty Lou type, but that's okay. I need one of those.), my daughter (my first reader since she was seven) and four friends that I meet up with for a week every year at a writing retreat. And of course--my editor.
Although I don't participate in a traditional critique group any more, I rely on those folks and welcome their input. They inspire and challenge me.
I wish I knew what had happened after Welty received Faulkner's opinion of her scene. Did self-doubt seep in? He was the William Faulkner. Or did she say, "Thank you very much, honey. I believe I will go right ahead."
Because after all, even if we seek advice from others, our stories belong to us. Sometimes that means just going right ahead and doing it our way.
Kimberly Willis Holt is the author of ten books for young people, including the National Book Award winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.