This post covers:
- Why joining a fiction critique circle can be scary
- The importance of mindset
- How critique can help you improve
- How to tackle the critique process
You’ve written your short story or novel, and now you want feedback. You’re fairly new to all this and are unsure of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. A friend suggests you find some beta readers and join a fiction critique circle or local writers’ group for feedback. First of all …
Embrace the fear!
This can feel scary! Especially if you’ve never shared your imaginary creations with anyone outside of your close family and friends. Your story is an extension of you, in a sense.
For me, sharing early works brought up feelings of shame. And a busload of worries: What if other people don’t like your story? What if they tear it to shreds? If shame is a fear of disconnection, I now know this told me this was a community I wanted to be a part of!
Mindset issues aside, the critique process can be a bumpy one and not all feedback is helpful. In today’s blog post, I’ll discuss some points to watch out for in the critique process, I’ll tell you why it’s worth doing, and I’ll suggest how you can tweak your mindset to get more out of it. What follows is the combined wisdom of my own experiences of fiction critique groups and of academic peer review (admittedly, the dynamic there is a bit different), and insights I picked up on through this excellent critique workshop with Polish and Pitch.
So, join me here to uncover why fiction critique matters (even if it can be brutal).
Fiction critique groups: are they that scary?
In my early twenties, I dabbled with fiction, playing around with ideas for cyberpunk and urban fantasy novels. Curious, but short of time, I found a critique website where you could submit a short piece and receive peer feedback. It sounded nice. They had a gift economy where you would comment on other people’s work to receive credits for further critique of your own works.
Back then, I was young, not particularly self-aware, and somewhat vain and insecure about my writing. My academic career as a cultural anthropologist was getting going, and I was focused on adapting to a work environment that didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Everything I had learned about writing had come through my network and role models. I’d never opened a writing craft book. I had no idea about the nuances of free indirect speech, point of view or the onion-like layers to showing vs. telling.
The feedback I received totally ripped my writing to shreds. While I can’t remember the details, I do know that it put me off sharing creative writing for the best part of a decade.
My experience isn’t an uncommon one. It’s not so different to problems that junior scholars have with peer review. My mindset didn’t help – I thought there was a magic to writing and it came naturally to some. Back then, I didn’t realise that good writing was often a deeply collaborative endeavour, facilitated by a sound knowledge of the craft.
So, before you consider joining a fiction critique group …
Point 1: Consider your mindset
Right now, you may not be in the right place to learn from or grow through the critique process.
If we assume that you are; even then, fiction critique groups can still be a minefield!
What are the possible problems then?
Possible problems with a fiction critique circle
(1) An unsupportive atmosphere
Not all fiction critique groups are supportive. If there is a competitive atmosphere (e.g. a graduate school writing workshop), a large dose of vanity, or both, then things can get nasty.
Sharing a piece of creative writing can be intensely personal. As with intimate relationships, not everyone is comfortable with vulnerability, and that discomfort can lead to conflict.
(2) Peer feedback isn’t always helpful
Now let’s assume that egos are kept in check and everyone is committed to the process. You may still receive unhelpful feedback as everyone brings different perspectives, knowledge, experience, and ignorance (better phrased: lack of knowledge) to the table.
If someone tells you ‘they couldn’t relate to your protagonist’ or ‘they hated the setting’, that doesn’t mean your story needs a rewrite. This could be their deeply personal response to your text. But if three or four people keep telling you the same thing, then you should take heed.
These possible outcomes don’t mean you shouldn’t bother with critique though. I believe writing is, at heart, a deeply collaborative activity – even if many works have one name attached to them, many more people have often given feedback on and helped improve that text.
Tips for making the most of a fiction critique circle
(1) Learn the basics of writing craft before you join a group
Get your head around POV, showing vs. telling etc. Sandra Gerth has written a great series of short books on these topics. You can read each one in a few hours – I often recommend them to new writers (Thanks, Gale Winskill, for pointing these out). Good critique will draw your attention to what you are missing, so it helps to be familiar with craft knowledge that will help you improve your story. Much of this also covers ground that a fiction developmental editor will engage with.
(2) Be intentional about the kind of fiction critique circle you join
If the group is small and has been around a while, it could be very cliquey, and the chances of gatekeeping in the feedback may increase. It’s important to find the right group for you. You may feel uncomfortable because of the contextual distance e.g. in backgrounds between you and other participants. Large groups with a blinded critique process may feel less personal, or you may prefer that kind of setup.
Also look at how the process is managed. As mentioned, my first online experience was negative and felt pretty impersonal, but my more recent experience with Polish and Pitch was fantastic – I felt the group organiser, Jaime Dill, held the space for everyone to participate comfortably, and the discussions on unhelpful critique and emotions helped direct our attention to some of the negative points I’ve also mentioned above.
(3) Filter critique through a growth mindset
When I receive critique, I look at a few things. Is the feedback specific or general? (‘Your writing style bored me’ is a vague, not particularly helpful comment that may indicate a real problem (e.g. overtelling, clunky rhythm) or it could be a power move coming from a place of ignorance. Pay attention to how critique makes you feel, and think about your relationship with the other group members and the person giving the critique.
One big mindset shift I switched from was to move from my unconscious question being ‘does this person like my writing?’ to ‘how can this person’s feedback help me grow as a writer?’
That made the comments feel less personal. From this new perspective, positive general feedback was not helpful, while specific comments – positive or negative – told me what I should keep or change.
(4) Read the comments, then put them in a drawer for a few days to digest the feedback
This is useful for so many reasons! First and foremost, after you’ve read the comments, your unconscious mind will continue to work on them. Second, if you’ve had a strong emotional reaction to the comments, putting them to one side for a few days allows the ego to subside a bit and you can get more clarity on what feedback is helpful or not.
Don’t give up!
Seven years after my first dabble with fiction, I drafted a novel and shared extracts with a few friends. This experience was much more positive! Unfortunately, I rarely found time to write fiction, as my job involved writing non-fiction (ethnography). Ten years and a couple of non-fiction books published later, I felt ready to jump into fiction again, and had a great experience, as mentioned, at this critique workshop.
I am now in the middle of drafting and revising some short stories and a rewrite of the novel I started ten years ago!
How do your experiences of fiction critique groups compare with mine? Drop me an email or add a comment to share your thoughts.