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L.T. Suzuki

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Blogs by L.T. Suzuki

The Importance of a Critique Group
5/29/2010 5:09:52 PM
What a writers critique group can do to help you.
A writerís worst nightmare is to publish a book with typos, grammatical errors and inconsistencies, i.e. the main character has brown eyes in one chapter, and then blue in the next, even if these mistakes are few.

Iíve seen the occasional mistakes in even the bestselling novels printed by some of the biggest publishing companies, but there is more of a tendency for this to happen when an author decides to self-publish. This usually occurs when the author lacks the resources to hire a professional editor to peruse the manuscript before the final stage of publishing. Now, letís not kid ourselves. It is not cheap to acquire the services of a very good editor familiar with all the intricacies of polishing a professional quality ms that even a traditional publisher would drool over. On the flip side of the coin, a good editor is worth every penny!

I know many writers hold down a day job (or two) and struggle to make ends meet as they juggle a writing career with one that actually pays the bills. The reality is, anyone with a family will tell you their childís braces, medical needs or making the monthly mortgage payment takes precedence over the cost of hiring a professional editor.

So, what do you do if youíre not a traditionally published author with a team of professional copy and line editors to thoroughly scrutinize your work before your manuscript is transformed into a book?

Some writers will turn to their mom or a dear friend, but unless these people in your life have professional editing experience and can be completely unbiased when asked to review your manuscript, itís hard to determine if the feedback will be honest or if maintaining a relationship will override that urge to take the red pen to the work.

If you are fortunate enough to know someone with excellent technical skills when it comes to spelling, catching typos, missed words and grammatical errors, by all means, use this personís help. In doing so, just keep in mind, this person may not have a clue about story arc, character development, pacing, etc. So then what?

The solution can be as easy as turning to your local writers organization or checking with your local library for a listing of writers critique groups in your area.

In immersing myself into the life of a writer, Iíve met novice writers who bravely face an audience of fellow writers in order to gather constructive criticism to better their skills. On the other end of the spectrum, Iíve also met those whose response has been: ďWhat? Subject my work to the scrutiny of total strangers? I canít do that! Itís like letting them peer into my soul! And worse yet, suppose they donít like what they read?Ē

Well, yes! When you write, I guess your soul does tend to bleed onto the pages with each stroke of the pen, but this type of response will mean the aspiring authorís works will probably never see the light of day if the writer fears possible rejection. Iíve also met writers who go from one critique group to the next. If the first one found fault in the storyline, character development, sentence structure and so on, even if it was constructive criticism offered to help better the story, the writer will move onto the next group, looking for the praise she feels her story is deserving of because sheís already devoted so many years into writing this Ďmasterpieceí.

Sadly, the real world will scrutinize your work with much harsher eyes, especially if they paid good money for what they hope promises to be a great read.

Keep in mind, the key to finding a good critique group is to zero in on one specializing in your genre and the members can offer constructive criticism. If you encounter a critique group whose members are just plain critical, offering nothing in the way of bettering your story or they commandeer your story by wanting to put their own spin or voice to it, run away! A good critique group will help you to strengthen your voice. They will help you put a compelling tale to paper with sound, practical advice.

Now, if youíre wondering what is the point of joining a critique group unless it is comprised of professional writers or an English professor at the helm of the organization, hereís my response: I have found that everyone Iíve ever met in a critique group who is serious about the art of writing will have something important to contribute, even if they are not published authors or possess a degree in English. The advantage of a critique group is, even if they are learning how to write, many writers are avid readers. In fact, they probably read more than they write, so they have a definite feel for the elements that make for a wonderful story.

You see, writing a good novel is more than just typing down one word after another, with accurate spelling, correct grammar and punctuation until you have enough content to fill a book. It is the art of weaving words together to create strong emotional bonds between the reader and the characters. It is the ability to place the reader in the middle of a battlefield or in the cross fires of emotional conflicts. It is the skill to make each page meaningful so the reader will want to continue the journey with the hero. These are some of the elements that take ordinary words and shape them into a meaningful story.

Even if the members of a critique group are struggling with the technical aspects of writing, their feedback in terms of the elements in the story is what can make them beneficial in the writing process. After all, the idea is to create something the readers will find entertaining and engaging, to produce a story they will feel a connection with the characters and feel immersed in another world. Personally, my critique group has become my testing ground to see if I can invoke certain emotions with specific passages or if this is truly a story the book buying public will want to read (after all, they do buy books and most read voraciously).

I found through personal experience the readers are willing to forgive a few typos or grammatical errors if they fall in love with the story and the characters. Iíll admit that my books are not perfect and those I have come to rely on to help me polish my ms have apologized to me when they realized they got so caught up in the story, they forgot to search for mistakes. Should I be mad at them? Sure for the first while Iíd feel like tearing my hair out because Iíve assumed every little mistake was caught, if not by my eyes, then by those entrusted to review my ms, but alas, as Terry Brooks, the father of modern day fantasy had pointed out to me, those we rely on to catch mistakes are human, hence, we must allow for human error even in these bestselling, traditionally published novels. He also pointed out that people will forgive these mistakes as long as they love the story, however, they will not forgive paying good money for a perfect novel but the story falls flat.

So, going back to the question about whether I am mad at those who missed the odd typo or imperfect grammar. How can I be mad when theyíre telling me they were enjoying the story so much they just had to get through each chapter as fast as they could to find out what happens at the end! For a writer, it is like the ultimate compliment. This has been my greatest comfort. Even with the imperfections, the reviews from people who donít know me from a hole in the ground, will contact me with praise for a story well told, eager to read the next adventure. This, I owe to the people willing to invest their time and energy (for free) to proof and edit (even though I know part of their motive was to get a sneak preview of the novel).

But for those of you able to invest money for the services of a professional editor, just keep in mind, the editor is only human. Even if youíre paying the big bucks for the editing service, there is still a good chance not every single mistake will be caught. But even before you invest in a professional editor, a critique group can certainly help you pull together a cleaner ms the editor can jump into with a minimum of effort. It will help to reduce their time screening for typos, allowing the editor to focus more on the other elements to create a fantastic story.

So, if youíre not part of a critique group now, what are you waiting for? And if you donít have a group in your area, why not use FaceBook or Twitter to start one yourself?


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