WRITER CRITIQUE GROUPS

WHY A CRITIQUE GROUP?

While I’ve published three books and working on a fourth, I meet regularly with my critique group composed of other writers. Why submit myself to criticism? In my mind I’ll always remain someone who never stops learning the art of writing fiction.
Writing, I’ve found, is a learning process like any new endeavor. When I hear someone say, “I’m going to sit down someday and write a novel,” I wince because I started with the same mindset: just sit at a word processor and let words magically appear on the page. Like 99% of other writers, I soon learned acceptable good writing required a certain amount of research and study (the other 1% possess a gene denied the rest of us⸺meaning we admire them and hate their guts!). But for those like myself, learning a new skill meant reading books on writing, everything from how-to books to more esoteric works on rejection and writers’ block, all the while reading books by authors whom I admire.
In addition to digesting books on writing fiction, I consider critique groups an extremely valuable tool, especially for aspiring authors. Maybe the likes of Elizabeth George and Denis Lehane no longer see value in critique sessions, but most top-end writers have staffs and experienced editors to assist them. Me, I value the eyes and opinions of fellow writers.

A PERSONAL CHOICE

If you’re a writer, participating in a critique group comes down to personal choice. First, you should have some bark on you i.e., a willingness to listen and accept criticism. Some people thoroughly enjoy and benefit from them, while other writers won’t go near one. Find the right one for you even it means test-driving several until you feel comfortable. I suggest you seek out people who have at least a modicum of writing experience or have been published, and who write a genre you can relate to. Don’t be argumentative or overly sensitive to negative comments. After all, that’s one of the reasons why you’re there.
Participants do more than sit around, drink wine, and talk about writing. In effective groups, each writer passes around a written chapter of a work in progress (usually no more than ten pages), then reads it aloud. Members make notes, observations, and critical suggestions for improvement, discussing them before moving on to the next author. I don’t have to agree with every comment or criticism or word change. In the end, it’s a subjective judgment. After all, it’s my book and I ultimately decide what changes are germane and what I want to remain unchanged, but I try hard to put aside my ego and kill off poor word choices, confusing passages, or unclear writing.
Ultimately, the best thing about critique groups is interacting with other writers. It’s a catalyst that recharges my writing batteries, that validates what I’m doing. In most instances, I can’t wait to get back to the keyboard to incorporate perceptive observations that improve what ends up on the final pages.

Learn from the Best

One of my favorite authors is Howard Bahr, a writer who has taught literature and creative writing at Mississippi and Tennessee colleges and universities. He was curator of the William Faulkner house in Oxford, Mississippi for 20 years, served in the navy, and worked for railroads after his military service. Two of his novels, The Black Flower and Pelican Road, rank among my personal top 25 books. I’ve been fortunate to occasionally correspond with him, and knowing I was an aspiring writer, he sent me the following: “Uncle Howard’s Ten Commandments for his Students Wandering in the Wilderness.” I cannot recommend his writing strongly enough since he one of today’s most moving and sensitive authors.

  1. Thou shalt not be afraid, neither shalt thou be daunted.
  2. Thou shalt take chances.
  3. Thou shalt study the world about thee: he who hath ears, let him hear; he who hath eyes, let him see.
  4. Thou shalt steal liberally from thy neighbors, godly and ungodly alike, and from thy friends and kinsmen: their stories, their sayings, their manner of speech and dress.
  5. Howbeit, thou shalt not steal from thy fellow artists, unless they giveth thee the green light.
  6. Keep holy the writing time, for it is sacred and belongs to thee alone and no other. Likewise, the talent, a precious gift from Providence.
  7. Thou shalt create a world out of the firmament, and lo, it shall be peopled with men and women, with beasts of the field and birds of the air, with trees and houses and gardens with taverns and funeral parlors and automobiles – with all good things that Providence hath shown thee. And thou shalt sublimate this world so that even the most common thing is robed in wonder and light. And this world shalt be real so the reader looketh thereon and say unto thee: Behold, I am with thee, even unto the end of this thou hast made.
  8. And out of the dust of the earth shalt thou create them: men, women, drunks and dope-fiends, tree-huggers and cheerleaders, suckling babes (though not too many), the infirm and the insane, the evil and the good, the ugly and the beautiful, and thou shalt love them all, even as the Good God loves his own. This thou shalt do so that, by the power of thine own love, the Reader will love them too, and say unto thee: I care about these who thou hast made, no matter how humble, for thou hast exalted them.
  9. Remember thou comest not to bring peace, but to stir up the hearts of men with conflict. Thou shalt create all manner of chaos and trouble, for without these, there can be no story.
  10. Honor thy reader.

History Buff?

Stay alert for a great upcoming HBO miniseries by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg based on the marvelous non-fiction book, “Masters of the Air” by Donald I. Miller.  This new series will take you along with 8th Air Force B-17’s over Germany during World War where losses exceeded those of the entire U.S. Marine Corps during the war. 

If you enjoyed “Band of Brothers,” this series will be offered with the same scale and production values, following a cast of characters as they struggle to complete 25 missions. Filmed on location in Great Britain with enhanced modern visuals that take you on missions inside and outside the bombers, the officers’ and enlisted men’s personal experiences are woven into a part of history that’s almost unbelievable.  

If you like history that reads like fiction, you might also want to check out Donald Miller’s book.   Spielberg’s and Hanks’ previous collaborations have shown they’re dedicated to accuracy and a finely-honed sense of drama. They’ve committed a huge cast, budget and resources to this marvelous project that’s tentatively scheduled for release sometime in 2020-2021. You shouldn’t miss it.

 

2019 Maxy Award Winner

I was fortunate to win this year’s 2019 Maxy Award for Best Mystery-Detective Novel (www.maxyaward.com). Books are chosen in eight categories with awards given to the winners and runners-up. It’s a special honor in that the award not only recognizes achievements in writing, but more importantly, most of the entry proceeds go to assist developmentally challenged children. Check them out and read how it all got started.

New News

My wife and I recently moved to Atlanta Georgia, our original stomping grounds (actually, we moved to Sandy Springs, a northern suburb of this beautiful city,).  Despite the endless hassles associated with moving, it’s good to be home although we’ll miss our Texas friends and I’ll especially miss my Houston critique group.

Coming back to Atlanta brings a strong sense of déjà vu since we’ve both been away for almost 30 (!) years.  Coming home to Georgia ends my corporate wandering that took me to St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston during that time. Each was a pleasure, unique in special ways with new friends, but returning to one’s native state definitely feels like coming home, bringing both of us closer to family and memories.

To top off my return, I’ve joined the Atlanta Writers Club, a 115-year old organization with almost 1,000 members.  I’m in the process of helping form a critique group, believing interaction with other writers is not only a distinct pleasure, but keeps the skills sharpened while helping newcomers with the pleasures and pain of writing.