It takes guts to participate in a critique group. The first group I joined – many years ago – was connected with a writers’ retreat. As the facilitator of the group, I helped other writers polish their manuscripts and encouraged them to keep writing. It was a grand experience until my manuscript emerged from the pile. I received one scathing critique from another writer. My face turned red with embarrassment even though the other writers disagreed. But for many years, because of that experience, I refused to attend critique groups.
However, as a newby to the fiction genre and desperate to escape the house during that long year of unemployment, I decided to uncork my courage and try again. So I chose a group that included several fiction writers and seasoned authors from the Heart of America Christian Writers Network.
I love Panera’s. The smell of the pastries and the roasted coffee beans always provide a welcoming atmosphere. The same could be said of my critique group – welcoming, encouraging, honest. I passed the pages of my manuscript to the group and tried not to let them see my shaking hands.
To my amazement, they laughed at the funny parts and said, “Ah,” in the sad parts. They also gave me valuable feedback and on sections that didn’t make sense or needed stronger words. I left that critique session energized about my project and encouraged that maybe I could indeed – possibly (really, Lord?) be a novelist.
Two weeks later, I brought another chapter. Again – the same reaction. Honest feedback with great ideas, encouragement and genuine enjoyment of my story. So the first meeting wasn’t a fluke. I might actually be a fiction writer and God was right all along. Surprise. Surprise.
For the next several months, I met with the critique group and brought pieces of my soul to the table. As every writer knows, when we type our words into the computer and then spit them out on the printer – those words are not just a story. They represent the heart of our existence and the reason we call ourselves writers. When the words come fresh to us, inspired by the God who holds the entire idea in his marvelous mind and we obey by transcribing what He has given us – we hold a precious piece of literature. Then when we rewrite and improve it to the point that it’s ready to publish, we send it out and hope our souls’ fragments will influence someone else.
So I brought my tremulous soul to the table and trusted the other writers with my words. Throughout those months, they helped me hone the story so that it spoke the message it was meant to speak. They encouraged my writing and prayed for me. They never, ever condemned my attempts, but held me up so that I could breathe the fresh air of creativity.
Critique groups help writers stay focused and give us the accountability we need to write with excellence. Then those same writers rejoice with us when we publish our words or grieve when we’re rejected. But most of all – they help us stay in hope as we reach for the next step.