Guest Blog: Alana Lorens on The Importance of Critique Groups

For the next few months, I’m not going to have time to update my blog regularly. Rather than let it go fallow, I thought I’d hand it over to my friends and fellow writers so they could talk about…well, whatever they want that’s related to writing. To kick us off, here’s Alana Lorens. Alana is an accomplished author whose deliciously sinister story “A Recipe for Success” appeared in my editorial debut, Sidekicks! Today she wants to expound on the benefits of a good critique group. Take it away, Alana!

As a writer friend of mine scolded, “It may be fun to chunk out novel after novel, but until you put in the work to edit, they will never go anywhere.”

For me, it is in fact, fun to chunk out novels. I enjoy the process. I’ve won NaNoWriMo twice, creating a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. Over the years, I’ve written maybe twenty novel manuscripts. I had to wait till I was past 50 before I saw any published, though I have been blessed enough to see many of them come to the light—in fact, I received five contracts in 2010, three for fantasy novels, one for a romance and the last for women’s fiction; in 2011, two romance novels, a space opera and a fantasy, as well as a paranormal mystery; last year, a YA post-apocalyptic series, a romance novella, a space opera, and a romantic suspense, as well as a spooky short story for an anthology, and set so far for 2014, another space opera, vol. 2 in the YA series and a straight suspense. What has made the real difference for me is my critique group.

My personal editing process is stimulated, challenged and greatly aided by a talented critique group I met through Pennwriters. I can’t stress enough the value of a good critique group for any writer. While your mother/partner/daughter may rave about the wonders of your manuscript, if you’re serious about editing for the reading public, you need critical eyes of a variety of sorts. Our group, which meets every Thursday, is a veritable mashup of varied bodies of knowledge; a retired police officer, a therapist,  a lawyer, an artist, a technical copy writer, a barista, some students, some working, some retired–all gifted. Many are published in short form, in newsletters, newspapers, or short story. The group boasts three published novelists, though others are coming up close behind.

This brings me to my first point: find a critique group at the level you need. If you’re just starting out, you’re still learning about everything—grammar, rhythm, metaphors—and need to become comfortable with the use of words on the page. What you don’t need in a critique group is a bunch of snippy professionals who will tear your piece apart as soon as you share it. You need a group with other beginners and a few mentors, a group that runs exercises each week to help you grow as a writer. Hold out for that group.

Conversely, if you’ve been writing some time and you’re ready for publication, you need a group with some published writers in it, to learn about queries and marketing and how to set your work before the public. You’ll want some harsher critiques—in a constructive way! Hopefully, your writer’s skin has thickened to the point where you can hear some criticism of the work, but still understand how changes might make the work better.

My second point: ego has no place in critique groups, on either the writing or reading side. In order to get the most from your feedback, you should listen, not talk. When group members comment on your work, take in what they say. They might not be right. They might not understand what you meant by a particular phrase or scene. Arguing with them just shuts down their urge to help you. Frankly, if the scene is so unclear that they missed the point—maybe the scene is that unclear. If only one person missed it, but the majority got it, maybe it’s fine. Listen. Then decide.

As a person giving feedback, remember your ego doesn’t matter, either. A critique session is not where you score points for being brilliant. Your opinion of someone else’s work only matters as far as it improves the other person’s work. It’s their work. Constructive criticism helps; tearing someone to bits doesn’t. In a business where sheer persistence and will to continue is sometimes all that stands between a writer and publication, destroying someone’s self-confidence to prop up your own ego is criminal. It happened to me, more than once. Receiving scathing words from someone claiming to “help,” I decided to give up any hope of being a published writer. Thank the stars that my inner urges kept that from happening. Primarily because I found my new group.

What I like best about this group is the creative flow that works between us. Ego isn’t an issue. When we have questions, we toss them on the table, and they receive open, honest answers: Is this an information dump? Do you understand the character’s motivation? Is this too big a clue early in the story?

More importantly, in the discussion and exchange process, we’ve shared brainstorming moments that open the door to deeper understanding of my own work. What if your character did…? Perhaps the relationship between the girl and that boy could lead to…? What setting would make this scene most effective? What if the journey took on a more metaphoric flavor and…? I always love it when someone spots a meaningful undertone that I haven’t quite grasped, so I can coax it into the light.

Once you’ve worked over your manuscript with your group, then back to your computer to polish, polish, polish.

Though writing is a solitary process, editing can work best as a collective. I’d urge any writer to find a group, online or in person, that provides what they need. Be prepared to do your share to help others along the way ; keep your ego in check. And start chunking out those novels!

***

Alana Lorens dreamed for many years of being a spaceship captain, but settled instead for inspired excursions into fictional places with fascinating companions from her imagination that she likes to share with others. She has been a published writer for over thirty years, including seven years as a reporter and editor at a newspaper in Homestead, Florida, with a list of eclectic publications from horror to tech reporting to television reviews. She writes urban fantasy and science fiction under the name of Lyndi Alexander. The Elf Queen, her first novel, was released by Dragonfly Publishing in July 2010; the series continued with The Elf ChildThe Elf Mage and The Elf Guardian. She’s now working on the space opera Horizon Crossover series, and a YA trilogy, The Color of Fear—the first book, WINDMILLS, was published by Zumaya Publications this summer.  Writing as Alana Lorens, she produces romance and romantic suspense, including the Pittsburgh Lady Lawyer series, CONVICTION OF THE HEART, SECOND CHANCES, and the latest, VOODOO DREAMS, released by The Wild Rose Press in October 2013.

She is a single mother of seven, with two special needs children at home with her in Pennsylvania, and she volunteers at her local shelter for domestic violence victims, believing in every person’s right to be safe.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Alana Lorens on The Importance of Critique Groups

  1. Hi,
    Great article. Glad to be part of your veritable mash-up of varied bodies. 😉 I’ve learned a lot from you. I agree that critique groups are vital. I’d be no where with out you and everyone in our group. I hope everyone can find a group that gels with them and their writing level.

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