The Connection Between Critique & Getting Published | Author Joyce Sweeney
I started an ongoing critique group in Fort Lauderdale in 1994. My reason was, at the time I was teaching five-week workshops where everyone would make great progress – for five weeks. I’d check in with the participants later and find out they had gotten caught up in life again, weren’t writing much etc. So that made it clear to me. Critique groups had to be ongoing and forever. Not just because people need the critiquing. Because they need the support.
In 1995, our first workshop participant got a book contract. It was Noreen Wald, who now writes successful cozy mysteries under the name Nora Charles. Her book was non-fiction, a memoir about her life as a frequent contestant on Jeopardy. Our group was energized by the vision of one of their own actually getting a book published.
This made everyone suddenly raise their game and by 1997, we had two more people with contracts. Still only non-fiction, which taught me that valuable lesson. The fiction writers take longer. By 1998, we had seven people published and we began holding ceremonies to honor contracts, with ‘magic beans’ given out, rattles shaken and huge fanfare. The point of all this was to put a goal in front of the participants.
Writers need to know two things to be successful — that they can get published (because if they do everything they need to do they can) but that it takes a long time and some of the tasks are harder than others. Today I have three groups that have taken 33 people to traditional publication and we show no sign of slowing down.
Here are some of the things the critique groups do for the members:
– Give them a sense that someone is expecting them to show up and bring writing
– Comfort them and reassure them when the writing isn’t going well or the rejections are piling up
– Offer information and suggestions from their own agent and editor quests
– Share war stories
– Learn how the industry works from each other’s paths
– Celebrate successes together
Oh, and they critique each other, too! Yes, that’s the stated intention, the thing we do 90% of the time. Group critique is wonderful for correcting your inherent language flaws; the over use of the adverb, the cliche, the wrong balance of narration to dialog, all those little notes they give each other.
But most of my group members rely on me or other professional editors to work with them on the bigger issues of plot, structure, workable concept etc. That’s hard to work on in a piece by piece, week by week setting. Most of my successful group members also take classes and seminars to work on their weak areas of lack of knowlege about some aspect of craft. What the group does for each other is to continually set and raise the bar for the participants.
These people know you. They know your work over a long period. They know when you’ve stumbled on the greatest idea of your life…and when you’ve headed down a blind alley. They can tell you you are better suited to mystery than romance or that your real voice comes to life when you bring in a children’s book. They get excited when you have a breakthrough and jump to the next level.
They give a warning when you are slacking on craft or just not trying hard enough.
But most of all they are people in the same boat. Let’s face it, our family and friends don’t have a clue what we’re doing…just that it takes a long time and doesn’t bring in much money. The industry communicates to us through cryptic rejection letters that Sherlock Holmes can’t interpret. Only the critique group feels your pain, shares your success, understands your progress.
A really good critique group will keep you in the game long enough to win…and throw a very nice little party for you when it happens. That’s all we as writers really need or want.
Someone to say, “You’re good. Keep going.”
Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels for young adults, many of which are award-winning. Joyce runs a successful manuscript critique business, is partnered with Jamie Morris in The Next Level weekend writers intensives and retreats, and conducts three ongoing workshops in creative writing which have so far produced twenty-nine published authors. She lives in Coral Springs,Florida with her husband Jay and cat, Phantom. Find her at www.JoyceSweeney.com
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