Monday, March 24, 2014

Guest Post--Charity Bradford

So excited to have author Charity Bradford here today with an insightful guest post on Getting the Most Out of a Critique Group.

Not only is Charity a great friend, but she's also been a fantastic mentor these past few months as I've ventured into the realm of publishing. She always has great advice and tips for improving my writing, and I love her ideas on critique groups. By the way, I am still in need of a critique group so if there is anyone out there who would be interested, just let me know!

Take it away Charity!                    

     Getting the Most Out of a Critique Group

When I decided to get serious about writing years ago, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else. Okay, maybe two things—to get published, obviously, and to find an amazing writers group. I mean a real life, meet at a coffee shop or library and talk about writing, publishing and critiquing our work so we could get published.

I lived in a huge city. How hard could it be to find three or four writers who wanted the same things I did?

It turned out to be near impossible.

I tried to start one in my rather large neighborhood—825 homes in the HOA. Surely there were other writers there? I published an ad in our HOA monthly newsletter to gauge interest. It sounded like a good plan at the time.

Four people responded and we picked a day and time to meet. A testing of the waters so to speak. I graciously offered my home as the place to be. *sigh* It sounded like a good plan at the time!

One of the four showed up. She was a lovely older woman who admitted she always “wanted to write something” but never got around to it. For an hour and a half she told me her life story, barely breathing for me to get a word in to direct us back to writing. I was getting desperate. Then, she asked to use my guest bathroom.

Ten minutes later the door opens and she’s calling for help. After helping her off the toilet I decided I didn’t need a writers group.

True story.

Fast forward two years. I move westward two states and fall into the best writers group in the universe. No joke.

Another author with my publisher, Tamara Heiner, lived fifteen minutes away from my new home and had started a writers group in my town. How did she do it? She went to a writer’s conference and made friends. Turns out they all lived fairly close to each other and the group was born!

This wonderful group of people meets every Thursday at a local frozen yogurt place in the back room. Writers take turns reading from their manuscripts out loud, and then we all talk about it. The concept is simple, and it works.

Today I want to share with you my top three reasons I believe finding a real life writers group (as opposed to just participating in online groups) can make you a better writer.
A New Meaning to Hearing Voices

I love, love, LOVE my online writer friends and critique partners. They have saved my sanity more than once, but there is something unique and magical about sitting down with living breathing people. You can’t hide behind the keyboard. You must learn to communicate verbally as well as with the written word.

The first time I attended, I read the selection from the other writers before I got to the meeting and made comments in the document. Then I listened to the person read their story the way they felt and meant it. It changed many of my comments.

We always hear, “Read your story out loud.” Some of you are probably smart enough to do that. I’m not always that bright. I know I should do it, but I feel stupid sitting at my desk reading out loud to myself. The first time I read in the group I was sweating as much as when I run. My mouth was dry and I feared I would pass out. What if they hated my writing? I learned a valuable lesson though. You really do catch more of your own mistakes when you read aloud. 

Two Heads Are Better Than One

How many times have you been stuck at a spot in your story? You know its missing something but you aren’t sure what it is. Or maybe you know but you can’t figure out how to fix it. There have been times at our group where we’ve all pulled out our laptops and started searching for things to help one of our members. Be it names or how to build a warp drive. More people coming up with ideas can save A LOT of time. And it’s way fun!

If you have a sizeable group you will learn another very important lesson that will ease some post publication woes. Everyone likes different things, has their own perspective and you’ll never be able to please everyone. And that’s okay. You can still be friends over a dish of sea salt caramel frozen yogurt even if you didn’t “get” or like someone’s story. Being in a group makes the word “subjective” real.
People to Celebrate With You

When you have successes, there are people who are genuinely happy for you. They show up at every book signing you have. Sometimes they’re the only ones that show up. They give you hugs and tell you next time it will be better. And you believe them because you know they wouldn’t lie to you. I mean really, after telling you to completely rewrite that last scene, how could they lie about anything?

So how do you get the most out of a writers group? I mean, it could be a really scary thing, and I’ll admit after a year I still sweat like crazy when it’s my turn to read.
Don’t take criticism personally. You are there to improve. If your group has lots of comments about things that aren’t working, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It means you have some work to do. Look at it this way, if you were a hopeless case they wouldn’t bother to give you so much feedback. They believe you can make your story better and they are just trying to help.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. The first time my friend Hillary read out loud, we all laughed until we cried. She was pretty new to writing and reading a rough draft at the time. Some of the mistakes were really funny, but what made it fun was Hillary. She taught me an amazing lesson that night. Whenever she read something that screamed “new writer!” or a description that put crazy images in our heads, she would burst out laughing. She wasn’t embarrassed or scared of what we would think or say, allowing us to have fun with her. Her writing has grown tremendously over the last year, and her writing retained her amazingly humorous voice.
Learn the correct way to give a critique. We’ve lost a member or two in the past because the first time they read they were swept away in an avalanche of negative comments. There is a skill to being honest and still giving the writer some hope. It’s one you have to learn, and it isn’t easy because you have to learn to watch and read people. If there are a hundred things “wrong” with someone’s writing, you have to ask yourself what is the most important thing I can say to help them right now? Maybe it is watch out for passive voice or overuse of adverbs. Then you phrase it in the comment sandwich. EVERY TIME!

A comment sandwich is simple. Start with something you liked–great voice! Next pick one or two big things that could be improved upon. Finally, say something else positive about the person, the story, something so the writer is left with a good taste in their mouth.

And last, but not least…

Allow the Group to Grow and Change

When I started attending this group there were eight or nine people coming regularly. Lately we average three to four. We used to have one week a month where we would talk about a craft topic. That hasn’t happened in a long time. In November we just write. The point is, we talk about what we need as individuals as well as a group. Then we put it into action.

Life is all about change. We change. Our writing changes. Don’t lock yourself into a single idea because eventually it will choke you. Remember that the main point of a writers group is to help you become a better writer and for you to help others become better writers. That may mean sometimes you just sit and talk with other people who “get you”.

Good luck finding or starting a writing group and happy writing!

--Charity Bradford

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  1. Glad you found a good group in your new hometown. I admit, I've not really looked for one here.
    And you're right about criticism. There is a good way to deliver it and always something good there somewhere.

    1. I'm glad I found them too. Alex, you have such a huge online group that you may not need one at home, but it's nice too.

  2. Oh, the toilet story- that is priceless, lol! Your group sounds fantastic. And meeting over ice cream is a smart idea. *taking notes*

    1. :) Glad I could help you smile today. Good luck finding, starting or continuing a group!

  3. I so agree with you, Charity, about my online writer friends. I would still be chasing my tale without them. I live, well, kind of in no-man's-land up here in Maine. The closest writer conference is about four hours away and that only happens once a year. I've yet to be able to make it.

    In my personal critiques, I find the most effective way to build a CP relationship is to be kind but honest. I always begin with some positive thoughts. Then I get into the grit of my insights from reading, but still include some positive comments along the way.

    1. Marcy Hatch from Unicorn Bell lives in Maine too. Wonder how far apart you guys are? Thank goodness we can find great online writer friends! Honesty is so important in a critique. Sounds like you've found the right way to share that honesty.

  4. I was in a horrible critique group before joining my wonderful current one. There are certain situations and people that can make a group disastrous. I've been with my current group for almost five years and they have helped me tremendously.

    1. I'm so glad you have a good one now. The people really can change the dynamics of a group.


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