posted by Leann Sweeney

I'm talking about my critique group today. They are a wise and wonderful bunch. I've heard stories about other writers having very bad experiences with critiquers. I've also heard this topic presented as a panel discussion at conferences, have listened to agents and editors warn new writers to be very careful about what others say about a work in progress. I guess this can be a problem, but I said "guess" because that has not been my experience.

When I first joined my group, we would cram into a back room at a Houston library. I think there were thirteen people. Bad number, right? Not so. I got so much great feedback I wished there had been more folks to learn from. We do not have that many people anymore. We're down to seven (a more manageable number when everyone has something to read) and we meet in one of our member's living room. Very nice, very homey. With seven or eight, there's plenty of time to really work things through, especially if one of us is having trouble making a scene or a chapter work.

Mind you, these are not writers who are just beginning, and maybe that's what makes the difference. They know so much about the craft it's amazing. And each person has something special to offer that another critique member might never pick up on. I am grateful to have the chance to share what I am doing with them and for them to put on their critique hats and deliver the good news and the bad news. No shying away from the bad news. That wouldn't get any of us anywhere.

Does that mean I make every change they suggest? No. And I wouldn't expect them to do that when I offer suggestions either. An important part of writing--something I believe you can never learn from a writing book--is that you have to listen to your own words and the way you are presenting them in a scene, then listen to your first readers with an open mind. If all you want is a pat on the back and a "that was a wonderful chapter" then my critique group would not be for you. Even if I do not make a change one of them suggests, it doesn't mean I didn't think long and hard about what was said. I respect them as writers and readers that much. We bring chapters to hand out to everyone and by the time I finish a novel, I have a mountain of paper with marks all over the chapters. In other words, I have a wealth of information for rewriting. If five out of seven readers had the same problem, then I definitely have a problem, one that needs fixing before it ever goes to my editor.

But what I love most about this group is the ability we all have to take criticism not as a personal attack, but as an attempt to help us all write better books. We care about each other and we meet every single week. Why? Because if you want to get published, you need to be around folks as committed as you are--or who are even more committed. Since I have to travel a toll road to make the meetings, I add up the tolls at the end of the year for tax purposes. In 2006, I made 44 meetings and I'm betting everyone else in the group made a similar number. They say getting a publishing contract is a lot about luck. Well, half of luck is just showing up.

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