When I started writing stories…correction, when I started telling people I wrote stories, the first thing they wanted to know is if anyone had read them.
“Well they should.”
And yes I agreed but years later I’m still trying to decide who ‘they’ should be. With close friends and family there is always the fear that I'm getting polite or clumsy comments from people who were just curious and not necessarily interested. Worse is getting overzealous feedback I’m not 100% on board with but now feel obliged to use. I could hire a professional editor but for some novice projects that feels like too big a jump and I don’t want to start paying people to tell me I’m not close to being ready. The best option is a critiquing group but they come with a different set of problems.
The first critiquing group I joined was part of a creative writing course. There were twelve of us, which meant a huge hunk of my time was spent reading over someone else’s version of art and entertainment. While I can appreciate the skill critiquing others provides for myself, I ended up spending more time following the adventures of a dildo in a box then I did writing my own stories. Prioritizing my work is one of the reasons I don’t join Blogfests despite how inspiring or sociable they can be.
The second group I joined was part of a writer’s organization in Switzerland that meets once a month for a workshop and critiquing class. With sweaty hands and pasty throat, I stood up and read to over fifty other members clutching red pens. Half the room loved my story and half the room hated it. One person stood up and said she thought comparing one of my characters to a “mannish lesbian” was offensive. Another woman stood up and said she was a lesbian and wasn’t offended at all. Several people felt there was a problem with the pace and suggested I eliminate details that were designed to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ except they had only heard 1500 words of the story, putting pace at a disadvantage. Caught between good and bad, I sided with comments I preferred with no real idea if it was the right choice. Ok. So maybe this group was too big.
I enrolled in a smaller group that met every three weeks. Although less work and easier to convey in, the more intimate setting made me uncomfortable. The first story I had to critique was more like a personal diary filled with yearning, abandonment and loneliness. Someone had to tell her there needed to be a setting, character development, a plot or at least a point. Another narrative I had to read was a non-fiction travel piece written in first person. The author assumed she was a generous protagonist when in fact she depicted herself as callous and self-absorbed. How do you bring that up diplomatically? As we went around the room handing out suggestions I noticed mine were more constructive and everyone else’s more supportive so from then I started to tame my comments. Two meetings later, instead of gently providing my honest opinion, I had become a farmer who carelessly named his livestock, attached and struggling to do The Deed with a group of writers who were becoming my friends.
So I can’t say I have much luck with critique groups other than using them for moral support. I’ve decided it's kind of like finding a personal stylist. Someone who understands your taste, knows what you can pull off and what you can’t and most importantly will not let you leave the house with a boob hang out. I have one person in my life like that. When I find two, I’ll finally have my group.