by Karen Finnigan
I love those blogs that consist of a list. If I could create one, it would sound neat and tidy and imply there are answers to all our publishing dilemmas, like these:
Ten secrets to getting published.
Eight traits agents want in a client.
Six tips for writing a successful pitch.
Top three ways publishing will be different a year from now.
The number one reason a book idea stands out.
I would not try to create a list listing the secrets of successful critique groups. I don’t think they’re so easy to pigeonhole. Not that any of the above are easy either, but critique groups provide such unique challenges. For starters, each individual writer brings different talents and expectations to a group.
Some members write by the seat of their pants.
Others outline every scene in detail.
Some rewrite umpteen times.
Others can turn out a quality first draft.
Some of us want to be critiqued with brutal honesty. Give it to us straight, we say. Lay it on thick. We can take it. It’ll toughen us up for the real world of publishing.
Others prefer we go gently on their creative efforts, want lots of positive feedback for what they do well, praise being the sandwich bread into which are spread a few mild suggestions.
Some have outgoing personalities that relish the give and take of off-the-cuff talking.
They thrive on the show and tell of sharing every time and might enjoy a leadership role.
Others are shy, preferring structure, where an agenda guarantees they’ll get a turn to talk or read. They might beg off easily or wait in the wings to be asked if they brought anything.
Some hate agendas and don’t see the need.
Some watch the clock and see time as a pie to be divided fairly.
Others measure time by creative moments.
Some prefer critiquing the storyline like a beta reader.
Others can discuss the nuances of characterization and motivation.
Still others like to get down in the weeds and correct grammar.
Some come for treasured friendships that go back decades.
Others come once and never return, though we never know why.
Some see traditional publishing as their holy grail.
Others are thinking about e-publication or self-publishing.
Still others are content to write for the joy of it and leave their writing in a bureau drawer for their literary heirs.
A few are too tired, sick, weary, busy, distracted to write.
And maybe, every meeting, someone is secretly thinking about quitting it all.
A different someone each time.
But I do think we have this in common--a need for mutual support of our writing dreams, camaraderie, and once a month lunch out. It’s a list, I guess, but barely.
So, it’s not surprising that frustrations will occasionally surface. But for all the dissymmetry, it’s still preferable to not having a critique group at all. Through the din of personalities and differing styles, goals, and pen colors, there is headway made. There are glimmers of inspiration, commiseration over rejection letters, writing news brought from conferences, names of agents taking submissions, and contest deadlines. A few guidelines are helpful maybe, like toss your lunch wrappers, share your email addresses, and take turns talking. But nothing heavy, mainly because I’ve decided managing these groups is too akin to tacking jello to a laptop. In short, I think keeping a group going is more art, less business.
I see each meeting as a little incubation room, where we are free to learn our craft with each other as validators, but without the spotlight of the entire world watching as we clean up our mistakes. We celebrate successes together too, of course, because that’s an art form too and definitely worth incubating.
Maybe some of you saw the recent interview with actress/comedienne Amy Poehler. Either the Sunday paper or online news, I forget. But I definitely remember something she said: to paraphrase, she was glad she had been pretty much left alone in her 20s to practice her craft with no spotlight on her. Some of what she did was good, some was bad, but all of it gave her experience and maturity to handle the success she now has.
May we each someday (soon) share her creative experience with success. May we each look back when we are published or republished and think the same of our humble and imperfect critique group. That it was worth it. That it gave to us more than it took from us. That it readied us, step by step, along the journey to our dreams. That, when we get ready to write our list of thanks for the inspiration, our writing group is right up there.
Maybe even number one.