The power of the critique group – Emily Brett

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By Emily Brett

It’s hard to image writing a novel; a lot of people wish they could but never do. Most people don’t think they can. And then there are those who write a bestseller in six months and shortly after see their words put into movies. But one thing is for sure, authors never write complete works without having someone take a look at it first. They formulate a draft, revise it, and revise some more, but 99.9% of the time, there is some kind of critique group, writers group, pre-readers, or editors that help a first draft become a huge success.

When I was asked by a close family friend to join her critique group, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My skin isn’t thick enough for critique, much less a group of them. And, it didn’t help that my friend was a known journalist and had published several books already, or that the other woman in the group was a Harvard grad working on a literary novel. There was no way I’d be able to sit through their assessment of my little work in progress. But, with some encouraging words that my writing is good and I have a great story to tell, I yielded and prepared the first three chapters for judgment day.

I arrived at my friend’s home and hesitantly took a seat on her long, circular couch. The erudite mood of the room caused my heart to race and my self-doubt to flow from every pore. I was introduced and welcomed followed by a brief description of how the evening would go. These were the rules: 1) no speaking when your work was being critiqued by the group. You are to wait until everyone is done with your chapters before you can respond. Coming from someone who always speaks her mind, very often without thinking first, I already wanted to go home. 2) It is okay to disagree with the critique and with each other. Oh good, they’ll hate it but it’s okay that I disagree. 3) The group is here to help, never to harm and never to hurt. Wait, what?

It was decided that because I was the newest member, my chapters would be evaluated first. I took a very long sip of wine and braced myself for an onslaught that never came. One of the group members admitted to being a grammar Nazi and warned me ahead of time. She asked that I look at all the grammar mistakes another day and focus on her developmental comments. She loved my character’s voice, my dialogue, and the plot, but also pointed out several holes and areas that needed to be fleshed out. She had a page-full of questions regarding time, setting, emotions, etc., but overall, she was happy I had joined them and thankful to see the early phases of my novel.

After a long exhale of relief, I got ready for the next critique, which was very similar to the first. A lot of positive remarks followed by issues that needed to be addressed. When they were done speaking, they did not look at me with pity, they did not tell me to keep my day job as a nurse, and they did not discourage me from writing my first novel. In fact, they ignited a fire in me that still is burning bright.

Over the next few weeks I splayed out the marked-up pages and examined every inch of their comments. I answered all their questions within each chapter and fixed the many grammatical errors. Shortly before our next meeting, I submitted my re-writes to the group to make sure they knew how committed and how serious I was taking this. The response was overwhelming. They loved the revisions, loved the changes, and wanted me to keep going. For the next two years, my critique group met every other month, exchanging two to three chapters at a time, and doing multiple revisions in between. In 2015, all three members of our group had produced a final novel, each under 100,000 words and ready for submission.

Critique groups don’t work for every writer and in fact, there are some that may do more damage than good. But, we can’t do it alone. Whether it is with beta readers, friends, editors, or complete strangers, authors must be open to having their work evaluated by someone on the outside. Four and a half years after starting my novel, I realize it is a completely different manuscript than when I began. My critique group helped me create a richer, deeper, more moving story than I ever could have done on my own. Even with all the marks across my chapters, the cross-outs, x’s, and “get rid of this” comments, I constantly felt empowered by these women to keep writing, keep revising, and most importantly, to keep coming back. And I am so thankful I did. My debut novel, Found, accepted and published by SparkPress, was released October 18, 2016.

Emily Brett received her first bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado Boulder in Kinesiology, after which she went on to Arizona State University to receive a bachelor’s degree in nursing. While working as an ICU nurse, she earned a master’s degree in nursing at Arizona State. She has been in the nursing profession for over ten years and shares a medical practice with her husband, a physician. A member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Emily lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, three kids, and their rescue dog, Farley.

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