One of the key literary questions all good writers ask themselves (pay attention: trade secret forthcoming) is “does my book suck?’ It’s good to get an answer to that question early enough as you slog your way through writing a mystery, for example, so that you can decide not only whom to kill off, but whether the book should get buried, too.
We’ve found that a good way to improve our writing is to work with a small group of other aspiring authors to critique each others’ work. These groups, as many authors have discovered, are essential for several reasons. The first, of course, is to have readers for your work, who can point out the shortcomings in your writing (dialogue stilted, no sense of place, character behavior doesn’t make sense, way-too-convenient-and-utterly-implausible coincidences, boring-as-all-get-out plot) and point out what is working and what they like. These other authors can also help you fix the shortcomings through their suggestions for improving dialogue, descriptions, even little plot twists. A fresh pair of eyes, or two or three, will often hone in on just those things that you were worried about anyway, confirming that the book isn’t quite ready for prime time, but needs more work. (Maybe another dead body. Or more gratuitous sex.) Let’s face it: unless you have multiple personality disorder and have a second psyche lurking within, it’s very hard to be completely objective reading your own work.
Equally valuable is that through their affirmation of your work and tales of their own struggles and successes, other authors can encourage you to keep going. Having deadlines like “submit 10-15 pages for review every other week” also motivates you to stop thinking about writing and just put something on paper. Anything. (And we do mean paper: it’s really tough to critique an entire book on the computer screen.)
Need the others in the group be writing in the same genre? Our experience is no. One of us has been in groups with writers of science fiction, young adult, fictionalized memoirs, self-help, and fantasy. Even those who are not fans of your genre can provide key input. We once had a retirement-age male who admitted to an intense dislike of our main character. Nevertheless, he read our submissions closely, and found several inconsistencies not picked up by the others in the group who were, fortunately for one’s ego, much more outwardly supportive. (Should that be out-wordly supportive?). Mr. “I can’t stand your book” may have been grumpy and just trying to find things wrong, but he did provide a valuable service. (He wasn’t in our target market segment, anyway, which is a literary way of saying, ‘nanny, nanny boo-boo.’)
And that brings up another reason to join a critique group; by carefully reading the work of others, you will become a better writer. We believe this has happened to us. A fantasy writer we critiqued was very talented in describing the world of her story, which contained a number of creatures not found on earth, except perhaps in Hollywood back lots and nightmares. (Or possibly the Marianas Trench, which is still hiding some huge squids. Oh, and Godzilla goes there on his summer vacation.) This author not only painted a picture, but also imbued it with vivid smells. Reading her story has impressed upon us the important role that smell plays in description.
It is helpful to be part of a group where the authors are at a similar stage of development because being able to share the non-writing aspects of an author’s life are also important. For instance, those authors at the very beginning can trade helpful hints about the process of writing: finding time, setting short term goals, outline versus character driven, number of words, and so forth. Authors further along are in the throes of attending conferences, looking for agents, or deciding whether and how to self-publish. And established authors have their own issues with publishers and agents. One such author recounted a story wherein she was complaining about such issues, and the unpublished authors in her critique group were rather unsympathetic: they were searching desperately for an agent and publisher, and thought anyone who had already published was in nirvana and should have no complaints. When you are unemployed — and, alas, so many are these days — you want a job so you can complain about work like everyone else. So it is with unpublished authors.
As a pair of writers, we already function as a small group: regular feedback on what we’ve written, encouragement from one when the other frustrated with the writing, and so forth. Although I must admit, we’ve not had the experience where one of us has said “I can’t stand what you’ve written.” Nope, we don’t do that. Putting rubber roaches in the other’s sugar bowl — absolutely. Loathing the other’s writing — nope. Mostly, this is because in general we are on the same literary wavelength — common DNA will do that for you. But if one of us were to feel that way, we’d just quietly make changes, turning off the track changes so the other would never know what happened. We both have extensive experience from childhood denying that we, in fact, Did Something. It must have been the dog; after he ate my homework.