April Lurie, author of the newly released The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine (Delacorte, 2008), Brothers, Boyfriends and Other Criminal Minds (Delacotre, 2007), and Dancing in the Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002).
Frances Hill Yansky, author of The Bug Cemetery, illustrated by Vera Rosenberry (Henry Holt, 2002).
Bryan Yansky, graduate of the adult program in fiction at Vermont College is an assistant professor at Austin Community College and author of Wonders of the World (Flux, 2007) and My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket Book, 2003).
No matter how knowledgeable or how relaxed the writers’ group, getting it to flow is another matter, whether you are critiquing or being critiqued. Some of the dynamics has to come from the sheer chemistry of it. Like marriage, chemistry makes for a partnership made in heaven or in hell.
Here’s what Frances writes:
Certainly chemistry plays a part, and it helps it you like everyone in you group but it is more important to respect all the people in your critique group. Ideally, participants should be on the same level and have the same attitude as you do towards writing and/or craft.
I think chemistry is very important. We need to "get" each other, especially if our writing is quirky, or if we're tackling something new. Also, safety is a must. How can we let loose if we don't trust?
Safety is a big issue if flow is going to happen in a writers’ group. No one wants to feel afraid for their work or their egos.
I like Brian’s take on trust:
One thing you absolutely have to have in a group is trust. You have to trust that everyone in your group is doing their best to give criticism that will improve the work you've submitted. You don't want to worry about other motives. Sometimes you agree with their comments and sometimes you disagree, but you know that they're giving an honest reaction to your work. That's helpful.
So flow comes down to respect, safety, and trust—and to the knowledge and fundamental belief that your work is being critiqued to help improve it. Oddly, I understand that fully as a writer being critiqued. I always hope my manuscript will be liked, but I’m realistic enough to know that the candid reaction of my writers’ group is the only way I can really see parts of my story—I’m too close to it otherwise.
My torment is in the critiquing. Because I worry about my own analytical ability when commenting on someone else’s work, I have a fair amount of angst when reading over a manuscript. I want to love it. Lots of times I do, but sometimes I don’t. How do I say what needs to be said? Gently, of course. There are almost always things in a manuscript that work and can be points of praise a fellow writer needs to hear. But also, I want to be honest. I want the writer to know exactly why the manuscript doesn’t work for me, but I’m worried how the writer will react.
I love this comment from Frances:
Sure, state your opinion, but it is not the job of the critiquer to convince the writer to change his or her mind.
Giving a writer honest reader reaction and the specific detail to support that feedback is the value of a writers’ group. It’s fair to state opinions, just don’t belabor them. And nothing says the writer has to respond in any given way to the group’s comments. They just are.
One other note from my own experiences: writers’ groups work best when the discussion is based in the particular rather than the general. Specific questions about plot points or character motivation or word choice can lead to the kind of discussion that informs every writer in the group. This kind of flow of ideas can reenergize everyone, and can make the lonely task of writing less daunting. There’s that flow again.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the Reader of Perfect Sympathy with Kimberly Willis Holt.
Anon. Helen Hemphill