THE PROS AND CONS OF REAL LIFE VS VIRTUAL CRITIQUE GROUPS
For several years, I was lucky enough to live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—an area renowned both for its beauty and its long association with writers, among them James Michener and Pearl Buck. Ensconced in a house reminiscent of a Cotswolds cottage, and surrounded by ten peaceful acres, I was living a would-be writer’s dream, and therefore had no excuses not to begin my long-postponed novel.
The isolation did prove to be conducive to creativity, but my initial euphoria at finally filling a blank document with words was short-lived. I truly wanted to create a story that others would enjoy reading, but I understood I was not necessarily a good judge of whether or not I was actually achieving that goal. This led to a cycle of obsessive, time-consuming revision at the expense of any progress toward a completed manuscript.
A course in nearby Doylestown, entitled “Write your Novel in Nine Months”, seemed like the solution to my frustration. It was taught by Bram Stoker Award winning author and dynamic motivator, Jonathan Maberry, who managed to pull off the miraculous feat of getting five very different women to finish the first drafts of their novels within the allotted time span.
Once the gestation period was over, however, we all faced the reality that there were many more months of revision to go before our “babies” would be ready to make their way into the world of potential agents and publishers. So, in the spirit of “it takes a village to raise a child”, we agreed to form our own support group. We began meeting at regular intervals in each other’s homes, and those of us who could bake (not me!) would serve delicious homemade goodies along with the coffee. Some time later, we made the joint decision to venture into the daunting new arena of blogging. Three years on, it makes me very proud to know that, although I am no longer a regular contributor, Birth of a Novel is thriving as a valuable online resource for both writers and readers.
I moved away from Bucks County last year. Now that I’m back in the New York City area, I greatly miss the camaraderie, encouragement and support of those talented women who helped me prove to myself that I was actually capable of writing an entire book…especially now that I’ve begun my second novel. Without the good fortune, this time around, to be presented with a ready-made critique group, I went searching the Internet, hoping to find an online community that would allow me to exchange feedback with others. When a long-distance writer friend invited me to join her on a new site called Author Salon, I knew I’d found what I was looking for.
As a member of Author Salon, a writer connects with peers in the same genre and, following a detailed set of criteria, gives and receives at least five critiques before moving up in the hierarchy. The process is repeated as many times as necessary until a project is deemed worthy of being placed at what is known as the Marquee Level. Once this is accomplished, the payoff for all that hard work comes in the form of direct exposure to highly regarded agents and publishers.
This rigorous and demanding process forces the writer to place all the elements of a manuscript—especially his or her own—under a critical microscope, often leading to major changes and always resulting in improvement. But it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. As I’ve discovered, the major difference between real life and cyberspace is that the latter encourages brutal honesty.
The benefits of meeting in person are many, primarily the face-to-face encouragement and support. Plot problems can be talked through and, with a joint effort, often solved on the spot. While getting to know each other in person, you also learn where individual critiquing strengths lie, relying on this one to point out illogicalities in a narrative, and that one to catch the typos and spelling errors. Each person becomes emotionally invested in everyone else’s efforts, and individual successes are celebrated by all.
The downside is, of course, that the closer you become, the harder it is to deliver the bad news when you think the work isn’t up to standard. That’s not such a problem when you don’t have to look the recipient in the eye.
Even so, although I’ve never met the other members of my online peer group, I still don’t find it easy to offer negative comments. I struggle to choose words that will be not only constructive, but as diplomatic as possible. Author Salon requires any opinion, positive or negative, to be substantiated with an explanation for its basis. Now that it’s necessary to write a coherent critique, rather than deliver it verbally, I tend to analyze the reasons for my conclusions more carefully, and to force myself to articulate my thought process. It’s a workout for my brain that, at times, literally makes it sore.
The compensation comes from knowing that the exercise is strengthening my critical thinking muscles, and that the results will be reflected in my own writing. Still, I miss my wonderful Birth of a Novel sisters, not the least because criticism always goes down so much more easily when it’s accompanied by homemade chocolate chip cookies.