Putting yourself up for critique – Leslie Johansen Nack
By Leslie Johansen Nack
As I wrote my first short story I felt stranded on an island, alone and afraid. I typed out the sentences and read it out loud to myself and cringed. I didn’t know what was wrong with it then, but I knew there was something wrong. I am a reader after all and can tell bad prose when I read them. And it was bad. Really bad. ♥
Not knowing what to do about it and not wanting to give up, I kept writing (badly). I yearned for other writers to talk to and I craved community. And not just any community, I needed a supportive, patient, encouraging, yet brutally honest (in the kindest possible way) community of writers. I didn’t know it then, but what I needed was a really good read and critique group.
But since I didn’t have a community, I kept writing (badly). Eventually, I signed up for classes and writing workshops in order to meet other writers. And I kept writing (badly). Through these classes and groups, I got invited into what I felt was a pretty exclusive read and critique group. Heck, several of the members already had published books for goodness sakes! I considered myself extremely lucky to have landed a spot in the eight-person (all women just by luck and chance) group.
When the group started rules were established and commitments were made. I felt I was in over my head immediately, but I didn’t want to give up my spot to the throngs of people on the waiting list, so I hung in there (like that cat on the tree branch).
For the writing portion of the meeting it was explained that we would alternate weeks submitting pages: four writers would submit five to eight pages each week. On the weeks I was “up,” pages were to be e-mailed on Sunday evening (we met on Wednesday evenings) to the other members of the group. Nothing gets me more amped up than a deadline! Submitting pages the first time gave me heart burn and a stomach ache. I couldn’t sleep or eat or write (really) the first month. Additionally, there was a cost of $100 per month, and a commitment to try and never miss a meeting.
The critiquing portion was a whole other ball of stress and nerves in the pit of my stomach and it came slower to me (if that’s even possible). The rules for critiquing were shared little by little the first few weeks as we each waded into the waters of giving constructive (yet brutal and honest and meaningful) criticism to each other. Some were experts already, some were not. I listened and learned and tried to participate in a significant way, but I’m sure I wasn’t very helpful in the beginning. But I was encouraged greatly by the women in the group and soon began to get a little confidence. I considered myself a good reader. I could read a story and say whether I liked it or not, and why. That’s the foundation of a good critiquer.
The group had all different genres and I found it most interesting and intriguing to be reading what turned out to be their next novels. My genre was memoir along with two other women.
The group morphed and changed. Men were added as people dropped out, finished projects, lost their jobs and had to quit writing for a while, and a few of us even stuck it out until the end. I attended the same read and critique group for three years and that’s where I wrote my first memoir. I needed the group badly for so many reasons, the least of which was I needed help in crafting my writing techniques. I learned everything from these generous and amazing writers.
If you haven’t tried a read and critique group, here are a few suggestions that might help you. Make sure you know the moderator (mentor or teacher) who is running the group. If you admire and respect him/her then you’ll probably have a good experience. Their experience in dealing with problems in the group, and teaching the art of critiquing is essential.
I had a brief experience with another writer in our group who seemed to have it out for memoir writers. She didn’t like them and was particularly harsh on them. When she turned her venom on me I wavered, cried a lot (at home to my husband), tried to be an adult about it, but in the end I sought out the leader of our group and asked for help. Some people critique harsher than others, and some cross the line. It’s a fine line. I wanted the truth. I didn’t want anybody to tell me my writing was good when it wasn’t. But hearing the truth when presented with personal attacks was different than hearing the truth about my skill as a writer. The problem was solved when the other writer left the group, and after a short time of licking my wounds and gathering my thoughts, I started up again and began producing pages.
A good leader is essential. Like I said, make sure you pick somebody you admire and respect in your writing community and somebody who’s facilitated a group before. That person is the foundation of the group (and picks the other members of the group). And make sure you pay them. In my group we each paid $100 per month (and met 4 times a month). I felt the fee was a pittance when I thought about how much work she did and how much I was learning. Free is no good. The leader must feel valued, committed, respected and they must be paid – very important! The leader in our group read and critiqued up to 40 pages a week, every week for the life of the group. That’s a lot of work! They should be paid!
My other suggestions would be to be firm and kind, humble and happy, grateful and giving. Good luck and most of all believe in yourself!
Leslie Johansen Nack graduated UCLA with a BA in English literature. She is a member of the National Association of Memoir Writers and San Diego Writers Ink. She lives in San Diego and has two children with her husband of twenty-five years. Connect with Leslie on Facebook, Twitter and her website.