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To Share or Not to Share, or: My Critique Group and Me

Now that I’m more confidently self-identifying as a novelist when people ask what I do with my days, I’m finding myself more often having to answer questions about my process. People want to know how much time I spend writing (answer: a target of 2.5-3 hours every day, with late morning and early afternoon proving to be my most productive time); they want to know if I outline (answer: yes, but always in pencil and leaving room for characters to change their minds); and they often want to know if I let people read my work-in-progress.

The answer to that last one’s a little more complicated.

In an earlier stage of this project, about 2 years ago, I was very into the idea of getting feedback on my work. Since my first draft drew inspiration from a collaborative storytelling effort I’d undertaken with friends over a period of several years, I was reworking a world and a tale that I’d already spent a long time living with, and trying to gauge how much exposition and backfill I needed to make that world and tale accessible to newcomers. I was also struggling through the process of finding my story’s backbone, never an easy process regardless of your inspiration. So I decided to go in search of beta readers, to see if the story I was telling would make a real book. After taking a private writing class, I connected with a few other people who were working on vaguely similar books and shifted into meeting them for a twice-monthly informal critique group. Our rules were loose: each person would submit roughly 25 double-spaced pages roughly once a month, and we’d discuss three submissions in each meeting. For about a year and a half, this group was a major part of my social life; I saw one of the members almost every week, threw plot questions at the others when I bumped into them on Gchat, and marked my progress by my success at producing 25 clean pages for their perusal each month.

And then, in late 2013, things fell apart. I received an email one night unceremoniously informing me that the group didn’t think I was a good fit for them anymore; the person who sent it elaborated, when asked, that my former critique partners felt they no longer knew how to give good feedback on a project that felt “too intimidating” and “too unfocused.” The experience was painful on a number of levels, but my first creative reaction was straight-up anxiety. I wondered how I could continue to make progress on my book without regular, in-depth feedback.

I fretted over that for a week, and then I set to work and finished my first draft in 3 months.

Once I’d completed it, I spent 6 more months patching holes in my worldbuilding; and now, in the last 6 months, I’ve completely rewritten the first quarter of the book, made major changes to the second quarter, and am well on my way to halfway done with a second draft that I know in my gut is more focused than the first. I have a core plot now; I have consistent character motivation; I have a setting that feels rich and deep in a way it didn’t before. And I know, in a way I don’t think has to do with the impulse to seek a silver lining, that I wouldn’t have any of this if I were still in that 25-page-a-month writing group.

When I was taking professionally-led writing classes, my favorite teacher spoke more than once about the fragility of first drafts, and about their inherent messiness. She noted that when you’re writing a first draft, figuring out the story you’re telling, it’s more important to get your ideas down on the page, however that works best for you, than to worry about how they’re going to fit together. And although I didn’t realize it until my critique group disintegrated under me, what I was writing was a first draft. I was shaping a world and a character and a story, adding new elements to the tale I’d been familiar with, and I needed the space to be messy.

When I was obligated to produce prose for others to read, I felt like Dickens writing for the serials: if I decided after-the-fact that a particular plot point didn’t work, changing it required a lot of handwaving and constant reminding thereafter that the events as read didn’t line up with the events as remembered by the characters. Not only that, but I felt the pressure to produce clean prose and integrated exposition. Like those of my colleagues, who were on second or third or fifth drafts, my pages had to be pretty. In those wild three months of finishing the draft, I caught myself over and over again thinking “how can this be so easy?” The answer was that for the first time in two years, I wasn’t writing for anyone but myself.

Looking back, I’m glad that I had the experience of working with a long-term critique group. Critiquing other people’s work helped me get a better sense of how to break down a scene to figure out what’s not working, and gave me practice with brainstorming ways to salvage the best parts of something that’s not doing its job. Hearing critiques of my work gave me insight into my weaknesses as a writer and the particular weaknesses I was prone to with this piece. My main character has a nasty tendency to become passive, especially when there’s Big Plot happening around him; my soft spot for depicting angst and suffering means my action scenes can tend toward melodrama; and I too-often err on the side of showing where I should be telling, which means my prose takes too long to get to the point. These are useful things for me to know and watch for as I cut my first draft to pieces and stitch it back together again; I’m a better writer because I had that year and a half of sustained feedback from people who stuck with my book for 100,000 words. But the biggest thing I learned from my experience is that workshopping isn’t always the answer.

When this book reaches the point of a solid second draft, which I’m hoping will happen by the end of next summer, I’ll certainly be looking for people to read it. I’m already keeping a list of potential beta readers. But in the meantime, I’m keeping it to myself. I need the freedom to play with my story when I need to, to set a troublesome chapter aside and come back to it later, to decide mid-stream that a major character needs to be reworked. As Husband (my one ever-present beta reader) says to me regularly, a reader can encounter something for the first time only once, and I only want this book’s next crop of readers to encounter it once I’m confident about the beginning, the middle and the end.

So, when someone asks if I let people read work in progress, these days, my answer’s always the same. I shake my head, smile, and say “only when it’s done.”

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