Getting critiqued

I was perusing this morning’s blog posts and came across one that I thought all you writers out there might find interesting. Roger at Writing Is Hard Work wrote about writers groups and forums. You might want to check out his links, if you are looking for a way to get your manuscript appraised. He also gives some good advice about accepting critiques and provides some cautions when doing so on public sites. Please check it out here, then come back and I will tell you a little about my writers group experiences.

The first novel I wrote was based on a TV series that ended abruptly. It infuriated me that all the main characters appeared to be killed in the last episode. I was so upset that I was compelled to come up with a suitable ending, myself. Thus began the start of my writing career about 18 years ago.

However, not knowing anything about fan fiction at the time, I realized that nothing much could come of the story I had created because the crew from Blake’s 7 was the property of Terry Nation who created the series. So, I took the characters that I created and put them in their own story. Once the novel was finished, I joined the Manitoba Writers’ Guild to figure out what to do next. In one of their newsletters I noticed a call for fan fiction about Blake’s 7 and other British SciFi series. I got very excited but, not knowing anything about fan fiction, I called the woman who wanted to create the fanzine. She gave me the particulars, I submitted my story and won the contest. (Anne Rice presented the prize to me at World Con when it came to Winnipeg!) The husband of the fanzine creator ran a writer’s group and invited me to join.

All full of myself because of getting one of my first stories ‘published’, albeit in a very minor way (maybe 50 copies of Badlands were printed) I said sure, and submitted my novel to the group. I was crushed when they didn’t think it was the most marvelous thing since sliced bread! Trying to hold back the tears, I went home and began to read their detailed critiques. I realized that they were not intentionally being mean, they were honestly giving feedback on how to make my manuscript better.

In the meantime, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a dream I’d had when I was 16. At the time of my dream, I had tried to figure out what might have happened if I hadn’t awakened, but was too young to come up with a suitable story line. Being a more mature person (supposedly) I wrote out an elaborate quest story and submitted it to the group. Again, I was given some harsh criticism, but each time I received a negative remark my skin thickened a little.

I continued to write.

Next, inspired by Jean Claude VanDamme, I wrote an adventure story about a young boy who was bullied. Many tragedies befell the poor boy but everything eventually led him to a lovely young woman. Suddenly, after about 250 pages, the perspective suddenly switched to present the woman’s point of view as well as the boy’s. Egad! The group went crazy when they got to that part of the story! Biggest writing faux pas ever!

By this time, I had joined another group as well, since the other one was beginning to break apart and meet sporadically. With this second group, the criticism was less harsh and more encouraging. I’m not necessarily sure this was better than the previous group’s critiques, but I think by that time, my writing had greatly improved because of what I had learned that there was less to criticize.

Anyway, we created 2 chapbooks of short stories (Sex Death & Grain Elevators & Where In The World Is Carmen, Manitoba?) and were brainstorming for another that we wanted to come out around Halloween. I wracked my brain to think of something scarier than the kids’ ghost stories I’d written and came up with the idea of running around a church three times at midnight. Both groups thought it was a great idea and one member said the ritual was called Widdershins. I was amazed at how little effort it took for the story to take off (my muse was in fine form) and I suppose it showed. Both writers groups said it was the best thing I’d written to date and encouraged me to keep going, helped me edit and polish it so I could send it off to publishers. When it was finally accepted by a publisher, the name was changed to ‘Withershins‘, which I was told was the Canadian term, to set it apart from other stories using ‘Widdershins’ as a title.

I can honestly say that without the help I received from my writers groups, I probably would still be awaiting publication. I haven’t, as yet, tried to get my earlier work published as it still needs a lot of changes. Those stories may never be ready for publication, but I don’t consider them failures. They were my practice pieces, those stories from which I learned most about how to improve my writing. Without making mistakes – and finding out where we’re making our mistakes – we can’t learn from them. So, if you haven’t found a writer’s group, critique partner or beta reader, go back to Roger’s site and check out his links.

If you have had experiences with writers groups, critique partners &/or beta readers, what was it like for you?