by Rosalyn Eves
A few weeks ago, at one of our bi-monthly writing group sessions, one of my critique partners paused during a discussion of my new pages and said, “I don’t understand what’s happening here. Why would the character do this?”
I looked at the passage in question, then back at my friend. It was a good question, one that dug into the weakness of that particular scene. “I don’t know,” I admitted.
Scenes like this are pretty regular in our writing group—and are a big part of the reason that I’m a huge advocate for writing groups, or at least, for outside readers of your work (sometimes called beta readers).
My first writing group was when I was in graduate school—and I’m convinced that my monthly responsibility to turn in pages is what got me through my dissertation. There’s something especially humiliating about having to tell women you admire that in an entire month you didn’t get enough work accomplished to show them something. It was very motivating.
As an English teacher who teaches writing to undergraduates, I make my students participate in peer reviews for their major papers. Almost inevitably, they grumble. Equally as inevitably, several of them comment in their final evaluations for the class how helpful that feedback was.
Readers are essential to good writing.
When we draft, we tend to write for ourselves. But when we revise, we write for other people, readers who don’t have access to all the information in our heads about how a scene was supposed to unfold, or why a particular magical talisman works the way it does. Outside readers can help us identify where our explanations fall short, where character motivations seem unrealistic—or even point out that in our make-out scene, one of the characters seems to have three arms.
The process of critiquing also teaches us about our own writing—a study done on kindergartners found that those who could recognize where their alphabet letters fell short of the ideal shape were much more likely to make progress in literacy later. Similarly, part of improving our writing means learning to recognize where other people’s writing succeeds and where it falls short. Writing groups (and reading for others) can teach us this.
I love my beta readers, who read the full manuscript and point out issues with pacing and characterization. But I couldn’t survive without my writer’s group, who tend to read my work piecemeal, as I’m drafting. There’s a curious kind of synergy that happens when we meet together to discuss our work—almost invariably our critiques together are smarter than our individual critiques. One person’s comment jogs loose an idea for someone else, and those ideas snowball into (sometimes) brilliance. (Sometimes they just snowball).
While I rely on my writer’s group for feedback, they provide much more than that. As someone who tends to be motivated by external validation, having a regularly scheduled deadline is much more useful to me than self-imposed ones. I don’t mind blowing by my self-imposed deadlines—there’s no consequence. It’s harder to have to tell my friends that I don’t have pages ready (though they’re always gracious and understanding).
There’s no right schedule to a writing group. Some people meet weekly, some every other week, some monthly. The key, I think, is consistency. There’s also no right way to present pages. Some groups, like ours, let everyone bring pages each time we meet (our general rule is up to 15 pages). Other groups rotate, focusing on one writer and longer sections each time.
More than anything, though, my writer’s group members are my friends—tough enough to tell me when my writing isn’t measuring up, but generous enough to cheer me on when I need it.
If writing takes a village—and I think it does—then my writing group is the heart of mine.
What has your experience been with writing groups? Do you love them? Hate them? Why?
*If you’re looking for more details on how to give feedback as a writer, here’s a helpful post using strategies I teach to my writing students:
Rosalyn Eves grew up in the Rocky Mountains, dividing her time between reading books and bossing her siblings into performing her dramatic scripts. As an adult, the telling and reading of stories is still one of her favorite things to do. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her chemistry professor husband and three children, watching British period pieces, or hiking through the splendid landscape of southern Utah, where she lives. She dislikes housework on principle. Her first book, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.
Blood Rose Rebellion
The thrilling first book in a YA fantasy trilogy for fans of Red Queen. In a world where social prestige derives from a trifecta of blood, money, and magic, one girl has the ability to break the spell that holds the social order in place.
Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.
Her life might well be over.
In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.
As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romanies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.
A big thank you to Rosalyn for this post! We never hear enough about the friends, partners, and writing help that get us all through our darkest times in our manuscript adventures. I know that even I have my own writing warriors to help me through the bad days.
As always, a huge thank you to everyone who has participated in this feature! Your words are so appreciated!
We hope you have a wonderful rest of your week! =)