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The Power of Critique

So critique groups. Good or bad?

It's like asking if publishing is good or if a book is good. Of course the answer's yes and no. Like everything else. It always depends on the people in them.

And just like everything else, what you get out of them is largely dependent on what you bring to them. Know someone who didn't like The Shack? Maybe their theology caused them to bring something different to it than someone without that filter. The same people are now angry at Rob Bell for Love Wins even though it's nothing Don Miller didn't say before, a little differently, maybe less pointedly in Blue Like Jazz.

But after I experienced disillusionment as a 19-year-old kid, I wondered if disappointment with God is a universal, that necessary moment when your eyes open and your innocence falls away and you know that God is not always going to save you from the worst attrocities life may bring. Everyone gets to learn this eventually. Even believers and the faithful. Life happens. And the point is to recognize that even still, God is always good.

So I believe it's a "writer fundamental" that what I'm able to bring to my writing is largely dependent on my willingness to accept that life will bring pain. And this is not bad, not to be fought off, but embraced as the gift it is. Fear of pain is instinctual, elemental–those who deny it, deny the very thrust of existence. But facing the fear of that pain, peacefully but forcefully, is at least one essential benefit a good critique group can offer.

This week, I'm working with one of my favorite future authors who's writing a genre western romance (what? That's not strange–one of my favorite books is Redeeming Love. Okay, maybe it's strange). I've encouraged her to trust her abilities, to let herself feel the fear of failure and to courageously believe in her inevitable success anyway. At the OCCWF conference a couple weeks ago, author Simon Tolkien claimed that a big part of his grandfather's success was because he had spent years studying language–words, their meanings and origins–and this allowed him to know how his characters spoke and how that defined them. 

I'd argue that this is what every author has to do–study words, learn, and respect that training. And a good critique group encourages a healthy respect for the symbols of words, their meanings, listening for where your "translation" is inaccurate or not revelatory enough.

Does this involve fear? Yes. But can you face it with courage?

Some authors discredit critiques, which is understandable. It's nearly impossible to find a good group that understands what critiques are and consistently applies their full attention and effort to it. It's often hopelessly idealistic to believe you can find an honest, dedicated, knowledgable group of writers who can regularly meet to thoroughly discuss your work. Especially within 30 miles of you.

Maybe they don't have to be within 30 miles.

A professional editor knows how to fix the things that need fixing. And a good critique group can point those things out. Where it's slow, redundant, and even not fully developed yet, a critiquer who's well-read, knows you, and appreciates the process of writing (through having done it themselves and having read the best books on craft) is worth a fortune. Professional agents are good readers as well, though until you've risen in stature a bit, you won't likely be told what isn't working. You need someone you can trust, who gets both what you're trying to do and what you need to do to pull it off and get peple talking. This could cost you a bit out of pocket. But that's why I started YWG and it's proving that just like a great book, what's truly valuable doesn't have to cost what it's really worth. Is it worth it to you? I don't know. It's not perfect and there's work involved. But I do think it's worth it to check it out–there's no charge to read the critiques.

Pro authors know early feedback is the best "promotional" money you can spend. But what can't a good critique do? It can't replace the need for a copy editor who will look for grammar mistakes, misspellings, wrong words, weak constructions, inconsistent elements like Suzy being 9 on page 4 and 12 on page 37. Critique groups shouldn't waste time on the minor things until the big things have been addressed. So authors, do not skip this step or you will suffer the consequences. If you're a good student of language, you'll save money when it comes time to hire a copyeditor. 

But just like the earlier stages, this one can be painful. It's hard to give up the pieces of ourselves that are holding us back. We fight for our ignorance and call it personality, style, artistic license. Most often, it's plain prideful stupidity. Sure, readers will accept your incomplete sentences. Even love them. But respect the refinement process. It's not just making your book better, it's making you better as well. And that's the big point.

The artist who demands he has nothing to learn soon finds he has nothing to say.

A powerful critique group is about growth, a shared journey of trust, fear, empathy, hope, and faith. It's powerful because it's built on relationships over rules, on embracing acceptance and peace amidst the striving for what's better. I have been in a few of them in my lifetime, and I can promise you the people you learn to write with will remain lifelong friends.

It's about being your vulnerable, wart-covered self and finding it accepted and improved. And as a bonus, you get to discover the true meaning of gratitude.

One of my critique partners, Rob Stennett has a book releasing today called Homemade Haunting. (I know. I'm a lucky dude.) Rob is a one-of-a-kind genius with character comedy and this time he mixed it into a thriller and asked "If evil is real, what happens when someone doesn't have the only true weapon against it?" If you think it was easy to blend comedy with such a serious subject, you're dreaming. But Rob figured it out and critiques played a hand in that. I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you if you asked. Anyway, get the book (it's only $10), read it and ask yourself how many people it really takes to finish a great book.

2 Responses to “The Power of Critique”

  1. Jan Cline says:

    I have discovered that a really good critique group experience is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes I read comments with a lump in my throat, but to coin a very bad cliche, “no pain, no gain”. (sorry) I think all of us unpublished writers want very much to know if we have what it takes. Not too many are willing to tell you if you do or dont. But you are more likely to find out when you have a trusted group of writers to bounce your work off of. It’s been great to be part of YWG!

  2. Cathee says:

    I almost like this post more than anything you’ve ever written. It cuts away the excuses we make for our fear or laziness when it comes to honing our work. Coming to terms with the pain of life is what my story is all about. Being willing to embrace it, process it, hold it up to the truth that God is always good, and then share the gleanings with others – well, it’s what I want to write. Trouble is, that takes a lot of solitude, prayer, humility, and plain hard work. A challenge for gregarious people like me. Yet I feel such deep disappointment when I avoid it. Thank you for always challenging us to go deeper, work harder, and believe in ourselves. What you do makes a huge difference in the kind of writers we turn out to be.

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