Writers sit at our computers, thinking, planning, plotting, writing and revising until we have exhausted our abilities to improve our story. Maybe there is a little nagging voice in our heads telling us that it needs something, but we aren’t sure what. Or maybe the voice is silent, leaving satisfaction that it is well ready to submit for publication or at least share with our friends or fellow writers. It is such a lonely business, and we seek out and need encouragement from fellow writers or readers. I can still remember the first time I attended a writers’ club after I had felt isolated and rudderless for the first three years. Two other wannabees and I were invited to this exclusive club after meeting at a workshop.
Nervous to be among such accomplished folk, I left sweaty fingerprints on my sample manuscript as I clutched it tightly. The routine was for a volunteer to read aloud to the group. One of the fellow newbies volunteered, something I learned never to do in school even when I knew the answer.
I was acquainted with fellow novices’ co-written manuscript from the workshop. It was a picture book, well written and funny. At least a full minute of dead silence followed the reading before the first member spoke up. It was like opening the dam. One after the other challenged the anthropomorphic fantasy, and by the time they had all questioned its validity, they had destroyed the story and the writers. They never returned, and I heard that they took up needlepoint to relieve the need to create.
I crumpled my manuscript into my purse. My years as a news reporter toughened my resistance to adversity, and I stuck it out long enough to learn that among the 15 or so members, only one had sold anything for publication, and that was not in the unique genre of picture books. Nor had they read a picture book since Little Red Riding Hood.
There is a moral to this cautionary tale. Group critiques have the potential to become a genteel equivalent of a mob with torches and pitchforks, even if the participants honestly believe that they are helping. Just as “too many cooks spoil the soup,” too many opinions can ruin your hard work. There are ways to get around the traumatizing tradition of group readings. The simplest one is to tell the group before you read exactly what your concern is. When you limit the comment to a specific problem, i.e., does the dialogue sound natural, or did the character’s reluctance to go along with the adversary come across?
One of the best tests is to ask someone else to read aloud your story. When it is our story, we tend to read dramatically where someone unfamiliar with it will stumble through the passage. As a listener, you will hear the difference.
Another drawback to group reading is that you are among such close friends that they will tell you that it is wonderful when it is not.
Also, if you are limited to reading a chapter per meeting, the group will judge each chapter as its presentation. They will miss the flow or lack of flow between chapters and fail to recognize whether or not you carried every thread of the plot to its conclusion.
We need feedback that we trust. There are always professional critiques. But there are also others out there in the same situation. Consider trading critiques with someone in the same genre and in or above your stage in writing. For groups, consider silent reading instead of reading aloud. An editor will read your manuscript silently.
We eventually changed the group routine. We printed out three copies of passages. That way, only three commented. The reader wrote comments on a blank page at the end with no knowledge of the others’ comments. They couldn’t build momentum, and if all or a majority made the same comment, you could be sure that you needed to revise that portion. It was private so that no writer felt as if they were the honored guest at a public hanging.
However you share your manuscripts, remember that when it is published it will have only your name on it. You are the final word. If you believe enough, hang in there. Write on!