Tried and Tested: Joining a Critique Group

There’s strength in numbers…sometimes

At the tail end of 2020 I was feeling pretty frustrated. I’d completed one project and was just waiting to raise some cash to submit it to a professional editorial service (which I did, and I’ll share my thoughts on that in the next post), I had a WiP that I’d started but couldn’t get into, and another one just blossoming from the seed of an idea. Honestly, it felt like one step forward and two back. I was massively lacking in motivation, and eager for help.

So when a fellow writer friend of mine told me about a critique group she had used before, I was well up for it. My theory was that if I had to submit something to the group for review every few weeks, then I’d surely have to get my skates on and start writing. It seemed like a reasonable hypothesis to me, and I am sure that for a lot of people, including many of those in the group I joined, it works like a treat.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case for me. I will say that I really liked the group I was part of, and having the opportunity to read other people’s work and hear their perspective, ideas, and concerns was very valuable. But in terms of helping motivate me to write more, no such luck. In fact it seemed to have the opposite effect. I’d been on a bit of a writing roll before submitting my first extract for critiquing, and yet after receiving the feedback (all of which was very helpful and supportive I must say) I kind of stopped. I wrote a brief rambling section when I had to submit again, but other than that I basically seized up. Which is pretty much the opposite of what I was aiming for.

Now, a few points to note. Firstly, the pieces I submitted were of a completely raw first draft, i.e. I had just written the words on the page and not even looked at them since.

Secondly, this was a brand new WiP and I hadn’t figured out all the details yet, so a lot of the feedback I received was around how different elements of the story fit together, how the characters were portrayed, and their motivations. In short, stuff I hadn’t really explored yet. This made it quite hard to absorb the feedback and integrate it into the work, because I was basically working on a moving target. That said, it was quite useful to hear other people highlight potential issues in the story that I already had a niggle would be problematic. That at least, gave me a bit of steer in terms of how the story might progress. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t (and still aren’t) at a point where I can really use that feedback, so it felt a little premature.

Thirdly, there were lots of different writers from lots of different backgrounds, with very different writing styles. This in itself was a great thing, and I loved reading all of the extremely varied works they shared. But in terms of getting feedback, it perhaps wasn’t the most effective route for me, because while some of the suggestions about general writing were useful, not everyone was familiar with the genre I was writing in. So in terms of creating a great thriller, not all of the feedback was directly relevant. Just as I wouldn’t like to comment on how an author should approach historical fiction or sci-fi, because I don’t really read or write in those styles, not everyone in the group was familiar with thriller writing. And that’s definitely not to say I’m an expert in it either, I’m a fledgling author with no published novels or accolades, but I will say that the most valuable feedback I got from people was from those familiar with the genre, and this new-found knowledge (i.e. get input from people who know your genre) is something I will carry with me moving forward as I seek feedback on my work.

Lastly, the biggest thing I learned is that for me, I don’t operate at my best with the threat of feedback lingering nearby. I say ‘threat’ and I know that’s quite extreme, but it’s how my mind interprets it. Criticism, no matter how well meaning, feels like a threat to me, and it’s something I need to work on, but equally, I now realise there is no point exposing myself at my most vulnerable writing stage. Sharing a half-baked, barely plotted, random idea as a raw first draft is, for me, just foolish. I can’t respond to any queries properly, because I don’t know the answers. Any criticism hurts all the more because it feels so close. And I know it’s not just about the criticism. Although I’ll readily admit I’m not great at dealing with it, I will say that when I shared my first manuscript with my friend, and when I shared my more recent one with an editorial service, the feedback I got back didn’t feel like such a sting. They offered helpful pointers and advice on improvements, and while implementing them still feels overwhelming, it also feels more achievable, because I’ve already done the hardest part – writing the first draft. And more importantly, I’ve been able to detach from it a bit, so the feedback feels like it’s about the novel, not me or my writing. In the group critique situation, it just felt too personal, too close, too vulnerable. I wasn’t ready for it. And because I had no context for the novel either, it was just handed to me and I could do nothing with it.

So, for me, I now know that working in a bubble is what I need to do, for the first draft and initial edit at least. Then, once I know I’ve done everything I can to make it as good as it can be, that’s the time to hand it over. To ask for feedback from someone in the know. To be brave and vulnerable and admit I don’t know everything.

But until that point, I’m happy to hide in my land of denial and vacillate between feeling like I’m the best and worst writer ever in the space of a few paragraphs. At least then, it’s only my criticism I have to handle. 

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