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Critique Groups for Honest Feedback

Often we novelists work in a vacuum, turning to family and friends when we need honest feedback. Our family and friends, wanting to support our efforts, tell us how wonderful our writing is.

We wish we could believe them.

The need may be so great that we submit our work to competitions, even inappropriate competitions, just to get some honest comments. Here’s a much better way:  Critique groups. I belong to two critique groups, one of the many benefits of membership in the Maryland Writers’ Association.

These critique groups taught me to avoid point-of-view shifts, talking heads, adverbs, and fancy attributions. “She said…” and “He said…” are just fine, thank you. They caught all those mistakes in continuity, where a character drinks tea in one paragraph and coffee in the next. They pointed out their puzzlement over a character named Shirl in one section and Tammy Lou in the next. They groaned over the sequences that didn’t make sense; the characters who didn’t ring true; the plot points that went awry.

I am grateful for their help.

Sometimes their critiques were harsh, if not brutal;  sometimes they reflected lack of experience and depth; sometimes there was a pull toward the predictable, calling it “more believable,” rather than the preferable unexpected.  Sometimes a group member might be overbearing or pushy or biased. I bore up. I needed every one of them to develop my writing so I could present it with confidence.

And so, I give a sincere and heartfelt thank you to every member of my critique groups, and I recommend them to you.

About Self-Publishing

I received a comment from a “rookie writer” who’s afraid to self-publish because she doesn’t have any money and because promotion is a dark mystery.

I think the fear is misplaced. The real fear should come from the act of self-publishing, not the cost, which can be minimal, or promotion, which is daunting. A self-published book means that it doesn’t have the approval of an agent, review panel, editor, and publishing house and, therefore, lacks credibility to the buying audience. The praise of friends and family doesn’t count.

When I self-published my novel, Shadow of the Rock, I met that fear head-on. I’d been working on the novel for years. Now I was throwing my baby out to the wolves. Was I going to be obliterated by the steel blades of heartless reviewers? Would a reviewer even notice? Would all my friends and family snicker about the book behind my back?

But I surged ahead, because I had years of the sometimes savage critiques of my novel from the two critique groups I belonged to. These groups, formed under the auspices of the Maryland Writers’ Association, helped me hone my writing, throw out the information dumps, kill the adverbs, delve more deeply into my characters, and refine the plot points. Sometimes the critiques were hard to take, but they were always valuable.

I self-published because I couldn’t get an agent. But I knew my book was a good read; that I had written it well, and that it provided interesting insights into Florida and Moroccan history. It also had the foundation of excellent and painstaking research.

I’ve received two positive reviews from the reviewing media (Midwest Book Review called it “a riveting story of time and humanity, highly recommended”) and positive comments on Amazon.com and from friends and family, I feel good about Shadow of the Rock. Most comments do say it’s a good read and hard to put down.

So my best advice is to write, write more, read books about writing, and join a group of writers to critique your work. That’s the way you’ll grow as a writer, become a good one, and self-publish with confidence.

As for the cost of self-publishing, you can learn how to format your book as an e-book and mount it on smashwords.com (which has a complete manual on formatting) and Amazon.com. This costs little.  You can also use a print-on-demand house to print your book, but your book needs a professional layout and cover. This can be costly (around $1300 for both layout and cover) although you could learn to do the interior layout yourself, but it needs to look like a book interior. It needs to look professional. You absolutely do need a professional cover design.

Caution: Don’t self-publish until you know what the business of publishing is all about. Join the Independent Book Publishers Association (ibpa-online.org) and your regional publishers affiliate. Read about self-publishing. Learn. This is a highly complicated business with a steep learning curve.

Promotion, aka, getting the book out of the basement, is another issue, for another time.

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