I’ve had multiple critique partners and have read lots of other writers’ manuscripts over the years. As several of the Ladies converge on NYC, I’ve been thinking about what a great opportunities our McDaniel program has afforded us, not only the craft lessons we learned and the friendships we forged, but in the critique group we’ve now assembled. We speak the same story language. Drop the words ‘missing conflict lock’ into a manuscript critique and boom! – the Lady receiving critique will immediately know the problem with her manuscript. Finding the solution…well, that’s another story, but here at 8LW we’re always happy to brainstorm and help each other find our way out of the corners into which we’ve painted ourselves.
It’s to see what a person receiving a critique gets from the process. But paraphrasing Shakespeare (and who doesn’t love a good Shakespeare paraphrase to start off the week right!): “The quality of critiquing is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
In my experience, critiquing comes more easily when I’m critiquing something in the genre(s) I read frequently and even more easily when it’s in a genre I write. But critiquing outside our safe spaces can provide the kind of mind expansion and inspiration that helps us take our own stories to new and exciting heights. By seeing story from somewhere other than the ruts of the well-worn story paths we each tend to walk, we gain new perspective and maybe even see a few genre conventions we can apply to our own work that turn it on its head – not a bad thing to do to fiction. It’s like your exercise routine. Sure, you can do the same thing everyday – run on the same treadmill, do the same yoga routine, life the same weights in the same sequence. It will help you stay healthy, retain muscle mass, and burn off some of the gummy bears you’ve eaten from the 2-lb bag your husband brought home from the warehouse store (ahem!). But if you want to see real growth and change, you’re going to need to mix it up. Try new things. Keep your muscles guessing.
If you want your writing muscles to grow, it will take the same dedication to trying new techniques and learning new things. And while reading outside your genre of choice is a good start, there’s nothing like deconstructing a story to see what makes it tick (or not) to wrap your brain around the ways different genres approach the same problems all writers face (like the dreaded missing conflict lock or character arc). For example, I’ve always had a problem with pacing in my stories. I tend to take slow boats to China with stops in lots and lots of extraneous ports before I arrive at the destination of my plot. But over the years, I’ve had a chance to critique thrillers and suspense stories and little by little I’ve learned a thing or two about pacing from genres that have mastered it. I’ve improved to the point of getting an honorable mention in rejection letters from agents, which have consistently said two things about My Girls: great writing and good pacing. No contract yet, but hey, progress!
Other great gifts I’ve received from critiquing outside my safe zone include meeting characters I’ve loved, finding out maybe I do love a different genre after all, and watching good writers (and good friends) become great ones. So next time someone asks you to provide a critique outside your own genre, don’t cringe or qualify it or worry that you can’t comment on genre conventions. Likely your fellow writer has someone else to do that for you and has come to you in spite of, or even because of your lack of genre-specific knowledge. Critique what you know – structure, plot points, character development. And don’t be surprised if, by the end of the critique, you know a little more.
To friends of the blog who will be at RWA Nationals this week, look for us! We’d love to meet you in person. For those of you not joining us in the city that never sleeps, look for some reports live (or slightly delayed) from the trenches. And get some sleep for us while you’re at it.