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  • Sarah McKnight

Critical Critiques

This past Tuesday, it was my turn to submit at my local critique group. The setup is pretty simple. Every month, two people are signed up to submit up to 7,500 words of anything they choose. I absolutely love this group because everyone writes such a wide variety of genres from screenplays to psychological thrillers to space operas. Everyone in that group, both "amateur" and professional writers, are extremely talented and I'm fortunate to be able to get feedback from them.

This time, I decided to submit the sequel to LIFE SUPPORT I've been trucking away on for the past couple of months. I never intended to write a follow-up to this particular novel, but the characters ended up having a lot more to say! I submitted LIFE SUPPORT (formally The Suicide Club) to the group this time last year and received all stellar feedback. (Well, almost all, but I'll get to that later.) A handful of people in the group read the first book in its entirety, some had only read the small chunk I submitted, and several new members hadn't seen it at all.

I was toying with the idea of writing this sequel in a way that could also be read as a standalone, so I specifically asked for feedback in that regard. The thing about taking on this endeavor is that it's incredibly difficult to fill in potential new readers with all of the necessary information from the first book (because a LOT happened). I don't want to info dump, I don't want characters to overstate things other characters already know, and I don't those who read the first book to get bored slogging through all the info they've read before.

As always, the feedback I received was invaluable, and it made me decide to just write it as a sequel and not worry about potential new readers. If they pick it up first, most of the blanks will be filled in, but I think they'll definitely want to pick the first book up to fill in everything else.

For critiquing in general, there are a lot of different ways to do it. I prefer the "sandwich method" in which you state something you liked, suggest areas for improvement, and end with another thing you liked. It's my goal to always put a positive spin on my critiques, even when discussing spots that need work, because just the fact that someone wrote something (and likely worked very hard on it) is an accomplishment in itself.

When I was critiqued, I got lots of compliments on a kiss scene that I agonized over for a while (romance is not my genre), and suggestions for adding more details here and there in the manuscript. It was exactly what I needed to both improve my work and feel motivated to continue working on it, and that's why I love this group so much.

Critique groups or just finding a single critique partner are essential to the writing process, in my humble opinion. When you write, you're very close to your work. A critique partner might find a minor plot hole you missed, point out if a particular sentence made them stumble, find those pesky missed or doubled words (I am notorious for this in my own writing), and just go over what worked for them and what didn't in general. There are pros and cons to both groups and single partners, though, so it's important to keep that in mind. A single critique partner can only offer feedback from one point of view, but a large enough critique group can offer so many contradicting suggestions it'll make your head spin. This has happened to me several times.

However, the main takeaway from critiques is finding out what worked for some and what didn't for others and adjusting your work as you see fit. In the end, your work is YOUR work and no one has a right to change it to suit their personal taste. You can't write something to please everyone, and even though I have to fight that urge every day, I know in the end that I'm proud of my work and what I've accomplished, and someone's negative opinion is just that - an opinion. Take everything with a grain of salt but also listen closely to what those critiquing your work are saying. Their words might just spark an idea that'll improve your manuscript significantly. This has also happened to me several times.

My experiences with critique groups have been overwhelmingly positive. Even those who feel my work isn't for them set their personal feelings aside and critique from a mechanical perspective. Well, most of the time anyway. My critique group has one person who seems to have a difficult time viewing the world from outside their narrow perspective. This person has a tendency to make back-handed comments about LGBTQ+ characters and not-at-all subtle racist remarks. Recently, he's gotten on fellow writers about using words such as "tresses" and "apex predator". He says he doesn't know what these words mean so no one else can be expected to either, and if a reader has to pause to look up a word in the dictionary, they will not want to continue the story. Forget context clues. (Ginger tresses = red hair. Is it really that hard?)

This person sent me a rather nasty email after I submitted LIFE SUPPORT for critiquing last year. They told me my story was "due to failure" because they "couldn't relate to any of the characters". This person is in their 80's. The characters in the book are high schoolers. This person wanted me to come to their home so they could layout a better way for me to write my book (such as establishing a central character instead of shifting perspective between the five main characters in clear-cut, labelled sections). Doing so would have completely dismantled the point of the book and turned it into something it wasn't supposed to be. They continued to tell me my book wouldn't stand and anyone who picked it up would put it down before finishing the first chapter.

Despite everyone else's critiques being positive and encouraging, I hate to admit that I let this one person's negativity get to me. They weren't the target demographic for this book at all, but their words fueled that old Imposter Monster, and I began to question if my book really was that bad. Luckily, after some time, I learned to ignore this person, laugh off their "critiques", and submit my book for self-publishing. Patience is not something I have a lot of, and I didn't want to waste time slogging in the query trenches when I could just put my book out there myself. The slew of five-star reviews that have come in since its release eased my worry, and I may have bragged a bit about them when this person was within earshot.

The point here is that getting critiqued can be emotionally taxing in both a positive and negative way. Learning to separate the useful feedback from the not-so-useful feedback is a skill that takes time to develop. But at the end of the day, finding someone to critique your work is a critical part of the writing process. Find critique partners through social media, join a local writers group (or start one)! One way or another, get a fresh pair of eyes on your work. You'll be glad you did.

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