RMFW Critique Groups

Critiquing. If we’re writers, it goes with the territory.

Beth Shope has a very good description on Books and Writers.

One of her links to critiquing advice.

Her second link to critiquing.

Her third link to a Nathan Bransford blog post.

I strongly suggest everyone go read Beth’s post on Books and Writers. It’s excellent. She is one of those writers who are very skilled and also fantastic teachers.

Everyone has their own method. Mine is to always look for something the writer has done well and comment on that. One woman, who shall remain nameless, said, “Some stories are so bad the only thing I can say is I loved it when I read “The End.’” Me, being warped, guffawed.

I try to look for a bit more than that.

In the critique groups at Denver, there was no way to know where these writers were in their journeys. If they are experienced, they can handle in depth, honest critiques. If they are starting out, too many negative comments can take the starch out of them in a hurry. Then there are some who really don’t want critiques; they want “atta boys.”

We were supposed to have ten members and a moderator who was an agent or editor. Having no idea what level these writers were put me at a disadvantage. Two of them were very easy to pigeonhole. Courtney and Beth. Top notch, professional writers. It didn’t surprise me when I visited with Courtney later and she told me she already had an agent and they were getting ready to submit her manuscript. It was smooth, well written and an exciting story. Beth doesn’t have an agent, but she has a book I would pick up off the shelves in a heartbeat.

Everyone does it different, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Find something the author does well and comment on that.

2. Be honest. An agent or editor isn’t going to turn down a manuscript for fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. An honest evaluation should help the writer smooth out their masterpiece.

3. You can be honest without being brutal.

4. If the work is so bad you have to fight to keep yourself from setting it on fire, find a few things to comment on generally that need work. You don’t have to point out every instance where they ended a sentence with a “space period space.” Point out the pattern a few times and let the author correct course. (That being said, I like it when critiquers note every problem because my jaded eye misses them.)

5. If you find a particular passage that is exceptionally well done, point it out so the author knows what they are doing right as well as what they are doing wrong.

6. Critique to your strengths. If you have an eye for dialogue and plot, then expound on that. If you’re great with punctuation, do that. You don’t have to be all things to all people. That’s were having a solid writing group with different strengths comes in handy. They are each seeing different things.

7. Don’t rewrite the person’s manuscript. Respect their voice.

8. If the person is defensive or belligerent, just chalk it up to experience and move on.

9. Not everyone will agree with your opinion.

10. Have fun and don’t stress yourself over it.

Beth and I were fortunate enough to get in Ms. Kaitlin Heller’s critique group. RMFW sent out copies of the other participants’ first ten pages well ahead of time so we could critique them. We were supposed to bring them to the class and give them to the owners so they could study them later.

I have pros and cons about this. Kaitlin, obviously was a skilled teacher who gave some very good advice. That’s a big plus to get feedback by someone like her. It’s also a plus to get feedback from a variety of people.

The con is some people really don’t know what they are talking about, so you have to be skilled enough to recognize these comments and move past them.

Kaitlin wanted each of us to go around the room and make a good comment about the entry and one noting weaknesses.

One of our illustrious members apparently didn’t have time to read the entries or comment on them. He simply wrote, “Good luck” on every one of them. That irritated me. He basically told me, “I want your comments on my masterpiece, but I’m too important to take out time and read yours.” I do think he probably hurriedly glanced through them that morning or the day before. There were a few he knew nothing about and tried to read through the pages quickly so he could make a comment.

His comment on Beth’s was she writes in a passive voice. He’s completely wrong, but he’s fallen into the “If you see was it’s passive,” trap.

Several of them commented on the same points in my submission for good or ill. I knew some things worked and others definitely needed improvement. I was glad most of them got the humor.

Then there was Mad Mary, name changed to protect the whatever she is. She made extensive notes on everything. What made me feel bad was the amount of work and time she put into the critiques. On one part of Paladin, she commented, “it’s obvious she is getting married so–”and told me how to write the story. Well, no, she isn’t getting married so starting out with the wedding probably won’t work.

She made numerous, copious, overflowing notes about what all was wrong with Paladin. According to her, I really didn’t have a story and it was overwritten etc. The comments were mostly taken straight out of a writing 101 book and she quoted all the popular don’t ever rules. She even pointed out some adverbs and identified them as such. I wanted to give her a gold star for recognizing them.

Yes, I am sorry to say my manuscript does have some adverbs. Woe is me! She also told me to never use a semi colon or italics to denote thoughts. Thoughts should be like dialogue, but instead of saying “she said” you say, “she thought.”

She also criticized my setting, admonishing me that people in this time period wouldn’t white wash their walls. Umm, excuse me, this is a fantasy and if you want to be technical, people in a comparable time period did use whitewash. It’s used as a way of dating ancient buildings.

She shredded Courtney’s work, which was beautiful.

Beth also got shredded. I think the best line was when she told Beth, “A man in this culture wouldn’t use a harp, he would use a pipe or sing a cappella.”

For those of you who don’t know, Beth is writing a fantasy. I’m not sure how Mad Mary honed in on the culture so accurately in those first pages to tell they would not use harps.

One of the stories I had to force myself to read because it was so confusing I couldn’t tell who was doing what even after going back and rereading several times. I did force myself to finish and find something positive to say, but I honestly said it was so confusing I had no idea who was doing what or why.

Then there was the rape scene. A woman watches a barbarian army capture her keep and she waits in a tower. They break the door down and even though she can’t understand what they are saying she knows what they want when they knock all the maps off the heavy table that takes several of them to drag over to her so they can do the dastardly deed.

I’m sorry. I’m horrible and I admit it. I’ve played this scene out in my mind. Six or eight hulking barbarians splinter a heavy wooden door and spot their prize. They flash grins complete with broken, green teeth and wiggle their eyebrows at her then thrust their manly pelvises at her and grunt. She throws her hand to her furrowed brow and gasps, “Oh, no. I know what they want. Woe is me or is it woe is I? It’s definitely woe.”

Wait, they’re clearing off the five hundred-pound map table and dragging it to me. No! They intend to do the boom boom on Papa’s favorite map table. It’s heavy though, so I have time to do my nails before they defile me.

No, I did not keep my mouth shut in the critique group. You’d think I would, but I didn’t.

“Excuse me. This woman has just witnessed this horrific battle. The barbarians have broken into the map room and found her alone, alluring and vulnerable. She knows they’re going to do the dastardly because they clean off the map table and start dragging it to her. This doesn’t even make sense. Why don’t they just throw her down on the ground and defile her or pick her up and take her to the table if they need the table, though God knows why they need a table. I’m certainly no expert on raping a woman, but I don’t understand.”

One of the guys piped up. “This is why you need a guys point of view.”

“OK, explain to me. Why are they dragging the table over to her?”

“Well, I didn’t say I had any experience in this.”

So, later that night at the cupcake bash, I cornered some men. I needed a man’s point of view. Terry Wright and Jim Born happened to be the unlucky males gathered around the watering hole when I popped the question. I explained the set up and asked why they had to drag a table over to the hapless victim.

“She looked better over there?”

“Better lighting.”

“Thanks guys. No more cupcakes for you.”

Beth and I got the critiques and brought them down to go over with others who weren’t there. Others from other groups brought theirs down.

There were a lot of good and valuable comments. We all agreed Kaitlin’s comments were spot on. Imagine, an editor giving really good advice on how to improve your story. Who knew?

Other pieces of advice we hashed out. Some were valid and others the gnomes disagreed on.

We all agreed to pretty much ignore Mad Mary. Poor Riordan will never sing a cappella or play a pipe and I will continue to use semi colons. Yes, I know, I’m a rebel.


  1. Julie,

    This is Courtney, we were in the critique group together…I found your blog after the RMFW conference and I’ve been enjoying your posts. This one’s a great summary of the critique workshop experience, it brought back all my fun conference memories. 🙂

    Thanks for the kind comments on my writing. I have one teensy correction…I only wish I had an agent and was about to go on submission, hee! (Ah, the baby-induced sleep deprivation strikes again. I must have really mangled my words in my convo with you.) Several agents gave me feedback after reading my original full and asked to see a revised version (that’s what I submitted to the workshop). Right now I’m sending out my shiny new revised version and waiting for their responses. Hope springs eternal…but I am definitely still in the trenches of the Great Agent Hunt.

  2. Oh, gosh. I am so sorry. I thought you already had an agent lined up.

    As you know, Beth and I discussed your story before we got to Denver. I said I found one I loved and she agreed she had also. It was no surprise we fell in love with the same story. I have no doubt you will find exactly the right publisher for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *