A few weeks ago, I recommended the excellent book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine. Today I’m delighted to welcome Becky to Flubs2Fixes in this first interview on the blog. I’ve known Becky for a few years (although we have yet to meet in person) and she is a delightful and insightful person.
Becky Levine is a writer living in California’s Santa Cruz mountains. She is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide and has written two nonfiction children’s books for Capstone Press. She is a former book reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. Becky currently writes middle-grade fiction and picture books, with the support of her brilliant and creative critique group. You can find her blog at this link.
Welcome to Flubs2Fixes, Becky! And now, on to the interview —
Beth: As you know, a few weeks ago I featured your excellent book, The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. Thank you for writing it! Could you tell us a bit about your writing and critiquing background?
Becky: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I didn’t start critiquing until I was in college. I took creative writing workshops at UC Irvine with Oakley Hall, and he really started me off on my critique path. His approach was that a critique’s purpose is to help the author write the story they wanted, not the story the critiquer might want to see. And, you know, we were all pretty beginning writers at that point, but he never made any of us feel that our stories didn’t have potential. They did, and the critiquer’s job was to help the author bring out that potential. This is still how I try to critique today, and where I believe the value of critiquing lies.
Beth: It sounds as though you have a lot of experience with critique groups. What made you decide to share your experience in this book?
Becky: I guess I just talked to so many writers who seemed afraid to join a critique group. Or to writers who had been in a critique group and had horror stories to tell. And I have gotten so much help and support from my groups that, well…it’s my soapbox. 🙂
Beth: In your view, why is it important for writers to get feedback on their writing from critique groups or freelance editors?
Becky: The first reason is that we are so immersed in our own writing, we often can’t see it clearly. We actually know the story, maybe not as well as we should, but in more detail than we might manage to get on the page. It takes a fresh set of eyes to catch what we haven’t got there.
Beyond that, the power of a group brainstorming session, with truly creative people who trust each other, is immeasurable. I can’t count how many times I’ve felt stuck and, after meeting with my critique partners, come away with a heap of ideas that get the words flowing again.
A good freelance editor can also provide a lot of help, but I do think working with an editor is different than working with a critique group. Since the editor is only one person, you don’t necessarily get the magical exchange of ideas that you do with a strong group. Also, depending on the cost, many writers just can’t afford to go back and forth with the editor as many times as thorough and deep revision may demands.
I sometimes suggest that an editor can be a step after your book has been through a critique group several times. By that time, your critique partners can be almost as immersed in your story as you are, and the editor can definitely catch holes and inconsistencies the group isn’t seeing anymore.
Also, being a good critiquer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a strong copyeditor; it’s always helpful to have someone with an eye for sentence flow and grammar take a pass at your close-to-finished manuscript. Finally, if your editor is immersed in the publishing business, they may very well bring a stronger sense of the current market to their editing, and that can be an invaluable help.
Beth: What are three elements of critiquing that you think are of key importance for beginning writers?
Becky: The most important element is respect—you need to respect the time the writer has put into their work, the vision they have for their story, and their courage and strength in sharing their manuscript with you. This means that, for every critique, you put in the time and thought their writing deserves—the same time and thought you’re hoping for from them, when your roles are reversed.
Also, think about how you’re saying things. Yes, you’re digging deep, you’re letting the writer know what isn’t working, you’re asking them to make changes. Okay, but you can do all that nicely, or you can do it harshly. And Mary Poppins was right about that spoonful of sugar.
Beyond that, don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of writers worry that, when they start critiquing, they won’t be able to come up with anything to say. They’re afraid their suggestions won’t make sense or won’t be substantial enough to really help. But critiquing is a skill that can be learned and strengthened, just like any other.
Take a chance, put your ideas out there—even if they’re just questions or possible changes. And, over time, as you and your critique partners share and discuss, you will contribute more and more to help the other writers in the group.
Finally, think. Remember those teachers who would circle a word or phrase in your essay and write “Awkward” in the margin? Awkward, how? Awkward, why? When you’re critiquing, you’ll read something (or many somethings) that doesn’t work for you. You’ll hear the discord in your brain, or you’ll feel it in your gut.
Don’t stop there. Take a few minutes more to reread the passage and ask yourself why it doesn’t feel right, why it’s jarring. See how far you can get to understanding the problem, and then see if you can come up with one or more possible solutions. Offer that understanding, those ideas, to the writer in your critique. It will take them so much further in their revision than a simple “Awkward.”
Beth: On December 4th, I posted about how to deal with critiques when a writer receives them (in particular, I addressed receiving a critique from a freelance editor, since that’s my perspective.) What would you say to a writer about how to deal with feedback from critique group members?
Becky: Listen. Listen, listen, listen. And then go away from the critiques for a while, come back, and listen (okay, re-read!) again. It is so hard, at times, to really hear what a person is saying about your story, especially when so much of their critique is telling you about things you need to change.
There is a golden rule that the person being critiqued can’t defend their work, can’t even—in some groups—open their mouth while they’re being critiqued. While I think that’s a bit harsh, it is really important to try not to argue or explain. The person critiquing your work has tried really hard to describe what isn’t working for them, and you know what? That’s also really hard to do.
So be patient and hear all their thoughts. If you really don’t understand something, ask questions and have a conversation. See what the other people in the group think. And then, even if you’re not satisfied or happy, take time away from the critique and let it stew. Give it another chance later, in your own private writing space, to make sense. Sometimes, it won’t. Sometimes, obviously, a critiquer’s suggestions are going to be wrong for what you’re trying to do. But sometimes, often, they’re going to be right.
At the very least, always go back and re-read the passage that caught the critiquer’s (negative) attention. You’d be surprised how often, as I grumble and mutter about a critique, I’ll reread the problem section and suddenly see something I could improve. Even if it’s nothing like what the critiquer wanted me to do.
Beth: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Becky: Joining a critique group or hiring an editor can often feel like a risk. We write and revise a manuscript, and we feel like it’s reached a certain stage of “good.” And then we think about asking someone else to look at, and all the doubt creeps in. Or, you know, blasts in!
But the dream for all of us, I think, is that there is an audience at the end of the book, whether that’s a child laughing with our picture book or someone older totally immersed in our novel. And dreams aren’t achieved without risks.
Besides, a good critique group doesn’t just support you in your writing. They will be there with you for every step of the journey, consoling you and cheering you on. And they’ll bring chocolate.
Thanks so much, Becky, for being with us today! I so appreciate your insights about critique groups!