How far would you go for a critique?

[September 2010] My short answer: 450 miles.

I’ve been part of two critique groups over the years, and recently joined a third. Very recently, in fact—we met for the first time last weekend. More about that later.

My first critique group was virtual. A handful of people who posted on a private message board decided to start sharing our short stories with each other and posting critiques. It was a useful exercise. Some of the members weren’t writers but instead were avid readers who provided useful feedback. Others were, like myself, writers on the verge of breaking into print. At least one other member of that group has gone on to publish professionally.

Then a joined the local writers guild. That experience was significantly different. Instead of being given something to take home and read at leisure, each week we presented our new material live. Each author would bring a number of copies of the work and read it aloud while the others followed along. While it did provide the opportunity to receive instantaneous feedback, it rarely yielded criticism with any depth. At best, we got a decent line edit, and most of the critique focused on grammatical gaffes and poor word choice. There was little by way of big picture feedback, mostly because the readers didn’t have time to reflect on the big picture, or to read through a work a second time to appreciate foreshadowing or symbolism or character development. A few of us got together and circulated manuscript segments for review between meetings, but that process didn’t gel. Ultimately I decided that I was wasting precious time spending two hours twice a month attending these critique sessions.

I’ve never paid for the services of a professional editor. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did pay $1 a couple of years ago to enter a raffle where I won the editorial services of Ellen Datlow. Best dollar I ever spent! I sent her a paper copy of a short story manuscript and an electronic copy and, in due course, received some useful, detailed feedback. The story was ultimately published in When the Night Comes Down from Dark Arts Books earlier this year and was one of the stories that drew the best reviewer comments.

My agent has been my primary editor for the past several years. He and I worked extensively on my first novel, and he also gave me pages of notes on the current work in progress that I’m trying to assimilate into the second draft. However, I’ve been struggling with the revisions, and when a fellow writer in the area asked me if I would be interested in joining a small critique group of professional writers, I thought I’d give it a shot. The group consists of five writers, three in the Houston area and two in San Antonio. I was especially pleased to discover that one member of the group is a homicide detective, as the book is a crime novel and his viewpoint might prove valuable. For logistical reasons, we decided to hold the meetings in San Antonio, which is a solid three-hour drive from home.

The closer we got to the first meeting, though, the crazier it seemed to me. A three hour drive each way for a two-to-three hour meeting? What was I thinking? However, after our first meeting I decided it was well worth the hours spent on the road listening to 70s radio stations (and heavy metal the closer I got to San Antonio—who knew S.A. was such a mecca of heavy metal music?). Two of us submitted material for the first meeting two or three weeks in advance, which gave us ample time to consider and reconsider the selections. In both cases, we submitted first chapters of completed drafts, so we were able to provide some future context for the work.

Each of us had a different kind of perspective on critiquing, but we were all able to provide “big picture” feedback in addition to stylistic and grammatical suggestions. Character motivations, voice, style, consistency, mood—all of these were explored, and I came away from the evening with some seriously useful suggestions that I will now have to consider before tackling the next draft of that chapter. To my delight, the main criticism was that the chapter was too short, whereas mostly I struggle with things being too long. I need to spend more time with characters reflecting on the import of significant things happening to and around them instead of just plunging ahead with the next incident. Not a ton of time, but my protagonist takes a lot of things in stride without flinching or cogitating (very Canadian, my wife suggested) and I can do more to give the work and the character depth by revealing how these things impact him. Wonderful feedback, along with the exposure of some flakey motivation that also provides opportunity to reveal more about character. Okay, they’re behaving this way toward each other, but why? What’s the background that causes this.

Well worth over six hours and 450 miles on the road one afternoon. Can’t wait to make the next critique road trip!

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