Joining a critique group can be scary, like dipping your toe in vast and shifting ocean. Once you step in, you don’t know what wave of criticism will crash over your head and douse your writing courage out like candle. If you've ever felt that way, it’s understandable. When you toil over your precious story, it’s intimidating to let others see your work and open it up for review. It’s safer to hold it close to your chest so you can protect it from the prying eyes of everyone who won't “get” you.
Although it’s easy to feel that way, if you’re serious about your writing, I encourage you to jump into the critique process with both feet. Over the years, I've been in many critique groups and the education I received by accepting other’s critiques and reviewing other’s manuscripts has been priceless.
To get over that initial feeling that my manuscript might get trampled, I told myself that it was just a manuscript, one of many manuscripts I would write. It wasn't the one and only crown jewel I was putting out there, so there was no need to be so protective. After this manuscript, I’d write another, then another.
And so I began. I found my first critique group through a message board. Anyone who wanted to be in a critique group signed up and I became a moderator. There were eight of us. Two people posted per week, and everyone got the chance to post something once a month. As people regularly posted something, I began to develop an educated eye about what worked in a manuscript and what didn’t. We gave well-deserved praise, as well as our two cents about what could be better, always with the understanding that the author could take it, or toss it. Ultimately, everyone knew that their manuscript was still their manuscript and it was up to them if they were going to revise it or not.
For critique groups to work, however, there must also be trust. Trust that others won’t flitch someone else’s idea. Trust that what’s shared in a critique group will stay in the group. When trust is lost, the critique group crumbles.
As I read a parade of manuscripts, I imagined I felt much like an editor would feel. Some manuscripts struck a chord, and others didn't connect with me at all. Sometimes I saw story patterns that I’m sure editors saw as well, such as several stories about grandpas taking their grandsons fishing. (If I saw that many, I could only imagine how many an editor saw.) To succeed, I knew I’d have to steer away from familiar story lines that might pop in my head at first, but had become cliché to editors that read hundreds of manuscripts each month.
I learned that the strongest critique groups were focused on the same genre rather than a smorgasbord of genres. One time, several of us banded together and critiqued only rebuses—short 120-200 word stories published by Highlights, The Friend, Ladybug and others. Focused and determined, it wasn't long before we sold many rebuses to several magazines.
Over the last sixteen years, I've worked hard and have had many successes including titles with Clarion, HarperCollins, and Random House. And along the way has been the priceless suggestions by members of critique groups who looked at my manuscripts with fresh, unbiased eyes. We shared our words, along with our ups and downs. My writing journey would not have been nearly as fun or successful without their critical, yet kind eyes.
So if you’ve been wavering about joining a critique group, I say—jump in! The water is fine.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than three dozen fiction and nonfiction books. A writing instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature for seven years, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools and SCBWI conferences and is represented by Eden Street Literary in New York. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, named one of Amazon's Best Picture Books of the Year, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). Visit Lori’s website at www.lorimortensen.com.
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