Do you belong to a writer's group? You do? Congratulations! It's essential to the process of growing as a writer, of honing your skills, of becoming an ace at the craft. By joining one, you've taken a major step in your career.
But here's a question: is your group a critique group? Or a chorus of cheerleaders?
We all need cheerleaders. Pom-poms and rah-rahs. Undying support from someone—anyone—that we can latch onto in those dark moments when the blank page seems the hardest thing to face; when your words, once sheer genius, have begun to look like so much crap. Ordinary crap, at that.
We need cheerleaders to help us believe we can do this thing, that we have it in us, that our talent exists, that our writing is not ordinary.
If your goal is not only to get published, but to grow as a writer, to become the best writer you can be, you also need a helping hand in terms of craft. I know—you've read the books, you have an MFA from a prestigious program, you've been doing this for a long time. Hell, for all I know, you're Stephen King or JRR Tolkien. Whatever. If you're committed to this career, you want to be better. Write better.
Cheerleading is for the spirit. It's to keep you sane, focused, motivated. But it won't improve your writing. Unless it's balanced against objective critiques, it may even damage it.
What is the function of a good critique group? To improve your writing. How? By providing a bunch of objective opinions on it—what works, what doesn't. Suggestions on how to make a scene more alive, give a character depth, draw the reader into the narrative to the point where they cannot put the book down. A critique group is the foundry where your skill is tempered into cutting-edge precision. Like iron ore, you need to be smelted and continuously honed into the hardness of brilliance.
What a critique group is not: a cheerleader faction for your work. A support group? Certainly, when it comes to true improvement. Like AA, your critiquing partners shouldn't encourage you to hit the bourbon no matter how desperately you think you need it, but rather push you—hard—to stick on the right path, to rise above yourself. A good critique partner will tell you the hard truths you need to hear—and listen to—in order to take your writing to the next level.
A critique group is like your editor—but careful here: not your spellcheck. You wouldn't send a first draft to your editor, right? You'd check for misspelled words, for echoes, for repetitious scenes, for character and plot arcs. When it's as good as you can make it, and only then, you'd send it out.
And then your editor would come back with suggestions and remarks, and you'd start work on your final draft.
Revise your expectations: a critique group should get your writing as good as you can get it in order to help you improve it. A rah-rah might feel great, but how much does it help, really?
When you join a critique group, you leave your ego at the door. You bring only your story. It's all about the story, about making it better, making it shine.
Guilie Castillo is a 38-year-old Mexican writer currently exiled in the island of Curacao. She misses Mexican food and Mexican "amabilidad," but the "laissez-faire" attitude and the beauty of the Caribbean is a fair exchange. Plus, the bounty of cultural diversity on the island inspires great culture-clash-based topics that her talent is seldom good enough to bring to fruition.
Guilie is currently in the final revision process of her first novel, Restoring Experience, and working on another spawned during NaNoWriMo 2011. She blogs at http://guilie-castillo-oriard.blogspot.com, and her short stories have appeared in www.fiction365.com, http://www.ladyinkmagazine.com/home
, as well as a few blogs, including an honorable mention in Clarity of Night’s contest in July 2011 (http://clarityofnight.blogspot.com/2011/07/entry-97.html).