Lesson From Critique Group

A few weeks ago, I submitted the first scene of my novel to my critique group. This is a scene that I’ve rewritten many times since I wrote my first draft in 2008. When we met to discuss our submissions, my colleagues (that’s what I’ll call my fellow critique group members, though I could just as accurately call them friends or even “fellow travelers along this difficult road we call writing”) gave me a number of suggestions and I went home and rewrote the scene and submitted it again.

We met this week and my colleagues had more to say about my scene. Before I tell you what they said, let me tell you a little bit about the scene.

My protagonist is a young doctor, a senior resident, responsible for a number of interns (first-year residents). The scene begins when she strides into the hospital and a nurse comes up to her to complain about an intern harassing another nurse. The protagonist listens to the story as they ride up on the elevator, tells the nurse she’ll take care of it, and goes off to investigate.

While I’d like to say it’s more dramatic than it sounds, it really isn’t. Can you say “passive?” And I never saw it. I keep seeing the protagonist striding confidently across the lobby, but really, the whole scene is her listening to someone talk.

Both of my colleagues had the same thought: rewrite the scene so the protagonist walks in on the intern harassing the nurse—instant conflict, instant tension.

Wow, why didn’t I think of that?

The reason, I believe, that I didn’t think of that is because I’m too familiar with the story. It’s really difficult for me to change things after rewriting the novel so many times. It seems set in stone—which doesn’t bode well for a creative rewrite.

But now that my colleagues have offered their insights on how to make this scene better, I hope that I can approach the next scene in the same way. Maybe if I write out a summary as I did above (when it became totally obvious that the scene was a snore) I’ll be able to see what does and doesn’t work.

If not, I’m sure my colleagues will tell me.

Rather than feeling discouraged, I’m excited to get back to work on my novel. I’m so glad I got this feedback on my first scene because I feel it’s given me new eyes.

I’ve also noticed that my attachment to the words I’ve already written seems to have “loosened” a little. While I’m not going to throw out my previous drafts, I’m ready to make some major changes and take some creative risks in my quest to master the craft of writing—and write a novel I’d really love to read, not one that will put me to sleep!

Do you show your work to anyone else? Do you find this helpful?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon is a life coach, physician, writer.

Happy 4th of July everyone! Don’t forget the sunscreen!

30 thoughts on “Lesson From Critique Group

  1. Even if I am not going to seek a formal critique of my work, I almost always show it to my wife after the first set of edits. This catches the exact issue you highlight, that the story seems so clear in my head that I do not see where the actual words on the page deviate from the vision that inspired the scene.

    • Hi Dave,
      Yes, having someone else look at my work is very important to my process–I just can’t do it too early. I’m always amazed at how easily I catch errors in my critique group’s pieces when I miss the exact same errors in my own work. Sometimes, if I’m trying to catch things when I don’t have access to my critique group, I read my piece out loud. That definitely helps.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s story writing tips was to “Start as close to the end as possible.” I’ve always tried to keep this in mind, and I’ve found it eliminates a lot of unnecessary scenes/narrative.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your comments. That’s a very helpful writing tip. I’ll keep it in mind.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. I have mixed feelings about critiques. On one side I know I need them and seek them out. I’m hungry to learn and need to know where I’m going wrong. On the other side, my ego demands to be nurtured and caressed and showered with lies. So far the “hungry for critiques” side wins, but my ego manages to drag me down for a couple of days after reading them.

    • Hi Aerisa,
      I hear you! It’s hard to hear that our work isn’t perfect, but the learning far outweighs the bruise to my ego, so I keep looking for critique. Of course, you need to make sure you give your work to someone who will be kind as well as honest. If someone is brutal or cruel in their critique, I’ll definitely seek someone else out the next time.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  4. I joined a critique group about a year ago and it has been invaluable. It’s hard when I have a scene I think works, and they tear it apart or simply shrug and say “I didn’t get this.” But the constructive suggestions more than make up for the bruised pride.

    • Hi sonworshipper,
      I totally agree. Improvement is my goal and I can handle the criticism to get it. I’ve been in groups where people take the critique personally, but it’s not personal–it’s all about the writing.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. I wish I had other people I could show my work to and see it freshly through their eyes, but as a rule I don’t. As I have several different roles in life and this amounts to having different personas, what I do find is that I can show my work to them and get a different perspective. Does this sound mad?
    On another note; have you tried writing a scene that involves dramatic action as if you were writing a screenplay? You have to visualise everything extremely clearly as if you were watching it happen and I find this is very different from just writing as though you are simply telling the story, and it’s easier to see where things are getting boring or bogged down in dialogue or are just plain unconvincing. I love your posts! There’s always something creatively challenging there to get thinking about, and you’re so generous about sharing your highs and lows and everything inbetween. Thanks for all your blogging!

    • Hi dapplegrey,
      First, you don’t sound mad, you sound creative. Second, thanks for the writing tip. As I rewrite, I’m definitely trying to visualize it more and it does help me find the places where the drama gets bogged down. Third, thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you enjoy my posts.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. Although difficult at first, I find it much easier now to show my work to my husband – my biggest fan – as well as to my critique group. Writing a memoir, as I am doing, can be such a sensitive issue in so many ways when seeking out advice from others. But I have found wonderful help within my group that have only serve to make my manuscript come alive in sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and sequels. This is why I am determined to remain teachable.

    • Hi Mary,
      I love that you are “teachable.” Me, too. I can think of certain areas in my life when I get more defensive, but I think in my writing life I am definitely teachable, too.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi abuzzinid,
      I wrote for years before I found a critique group, but at this point, I find the group very valuable. I have invested a lot of time and yes, there were many times when I felt I was wasting writing time, but I was lucky early on to find a great critique group so after I moved to NH I spent time looking because I knew what I was looking for. I joined a number of groups and left when I didn’t get what I needed, but I’ve found a great group again so it was all totally worth it.

      When you are ready you will be willing to put the time in. Good luck!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  7. Looking for a group in SoCal. Any suggestions where to check for one? Been looking at MeetUp which shows some to look into. Until then I show it to my friends and husband. They generally give me constructive criticism but I want other also Thanks for the insight.

    • Hi riversofeden1,
      I suggest you check all of your local bookstores and your local libraries. Most of them have writing groups–some formal and closed, but many are open and looking for new members. One of the women in my current group is someone I met at an open writer’s meeting at the Nashua Barnes & Noble. They met weekly and anyone could go. We’d get a prompt and we would all write for 20-30 minutes, then read our work. Since it was all first draft, we only made positive comments to each other. It was a great way to meet other writers and I’ve kept in touch with a few of them.

      Also, there are usually local “Write-Ins” during the month of November for National Novel Writing Month. You can sign up at http://www.nanowrimo.org., join the group that is local to you, and find other writers who are also going to be doing NaNo.

      Also, if you go to a writer’s conference in your area, you will find aspiring writers in your area. That’s worked for me, too.

      I hope this information is helpful. You can also put a flyer up locally saying that you are starting a writing group. Then meet somewhere public and see what happens.

      Good luck!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. I have recently submitted some work to a couple of critique groups and found it very helpful. The particular groups I’ve met with tend toward more “technical criticism” and encouragement is lacking. It’s not so helpful with the creative process, but it does help me discover what needs to be revised.

    • Hi tonyroberts64,
      I was looking for more of the “technical criticism” that you mention, but I’m lucky that my current writing group is also very encouraging. I hope you can find the help you need in other places (this blog, perhaps?)

      Good luck!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  9. I do share my novel with just a few. I’m only 40k words into it but I have been writing it since November 2011…

    I have rewritten the firs chapter so many times because as the following chapters profess the introduction to the premise of my novel needs to evolve. It isn’t easy when one sits and pours their heart and imagination out to a computer. My few friends have given me some wonderful ideas.

  10. I think that is very insightful feedback. I had one of my colleagues review my query and she had similar advice: “show me rather than tell me.” I thought that was a great articulation and one that I always try to follow.

    • Hi jbglazer,
      In my case, that’s really good advice! I thought I had learned it, but obviously I needed a refresher!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  11. Pingback: 4 More Blogging Awards, A Total of 27 Blogs to Visit, An Awesome Video I Found + Tips On How To Accept An Award | LORRAINE REGULY'S LIFE

  12. I have nominated you (given you) blogging awards. Claim your awards on my blog, please. Just check my most recent post. Thanks!

      • I hope you do, and I hope you accept. It’s nice to “pay it forward” every once in awhile. I am sure that there were days when this was a “young” blog and had few readers…

        I think that recognition of others is important. Cooperation, not competition, is great to have in today’s blogosphere! 🙂

  13. Pingback: 4 More Blogging Awards, A Total of 27 Blogs to Visit, An Awesome Video I Found + Tips On How To Accept An Award | Wording Well

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