I remember the feelings and sensations running through my body when I walked into my very first critique group, some twenty years ago: terror, excitement, sweaty palms. Curiosity, fear of rejection. I only tangentially knew one person in the room. I was faced with exposing my writing to strangers. My hands shook. My heart raced.
What I found pleased me. The focus remained on the writing—noticing strengths first, then encouraging in areas that needed improvement. I was very lucky in my first group. They had the sense, with the beginning writer that I was, to choose two main areas for me to work on: maintaining point-of-view, and learning to control narrative distance. Point-of-view means that the reader knows what is going on in the thoughts and feelings of one character, but can only observe the other characters from the outside. Narrative distance describes whether the writing brings us in, an intimate experience, or holds us away, at a distance. A writer needs to learn to control this sense of distance, because writing demands a range of distances.
After feedback over a few weeks, I caught on to holding the point of view to one character, and not jumping from one character’s mind to another, which can make the reader feel jerked around. Books can have more than one point-of-view character, but it needs to be handled skillfully.
My understanding of narrative distance took longer—writing thousands upon thousands of words, and listening to other people’s writing, and the comments offered about their use of narrative distance.
The beauty and strength of critique groups is that it’s easier to first learn to identify weaknesses in other peoples’ work—then eventually we can see those weaknesses in our own. I don’t this this value can be underestimated. It’s huge. We are protective of our own writing. It takes time and skillful critiques until we can view our own writing with a less-filtered lens.
Tomorrow, some specific suggestions for running a critique group.
© Skye Blaine, 2015