In April of 2011, thirteen Mermaids met at the annual WRW Retreat and soon afterward formed the Waterworld Mermaids. One year later, those same crazy Mermaids gave a panel at the 2012 WRW Retreat on group blogging and declared one person Mermaid for a Day. It’s safe to say that we are all thrilled to introduce you to Willa Blair, Mermaid for a Day, soon-to-be published author of Highland Healer and all-around amazing person. Take it away, Willa…
First, I’d like to thank the Waterworld Mermaids for having me here today. Being an honorary Mermaid is so much fun. I love what you’ve done with the Mermaid Pool and I’m happy to be able to add my own little touches.
My debut book, HIGHLAND HEALER, is coming soon from The Wild Rose Press.
I moved from Maryland to Texas early last summer. I know, I know, it was hot. And I had to leave behind the best critique group in the world, run by Ruth Glick/Rebecca York. Though we’ve arranged it so I can Skype in when they meet (so they haven’t gotten rid of me yet) I wanted to have the same experience with writers here in Texas.
My local RWA chapter, the San Antonio Romance Authors group, was doing online critique twice a month. It’s a terrific vehicle and I highly recommend it, but I missed the face-to-face experience, so I volunteered to host a session at my house. In addition to meeting in-person, I wanted us to do what the Maryland group does — read aloud.
Ruth warned me that not everyone can do that – it’s uncomfortable at first for the reader, and not everyone is an “auditory learner” who can hear and make note of things they want to comment on. But reading aloud is the best way I’ve found to discover mistakes in your own writing. And it develops a useful listening skill – I can feel my brain stretching every time I sit in on one of these sessions. I have to pay attention to what is being said and that allows me to catch the flow and rhythm of the story, not just the mechanics of the punctuation, grammar and so forth.
The real benefit, though, is in the discussions, sometimes passionate, that these sessions provoke. The topic may be something within the story or the history or culture related to it, but inevitably that leads to the craft of writing or something about the writing business. We’ve celebrated each others’ successes, comforted each other through our disappointments, and taught each other a lot about writing. Even the most experienced, multi-published authors among us learn as well as teach. Oh, and yes, sometimes we just talk about men. We do like to talk about men, don’t we?
Here are some tips for establishing and running critique groups that I’ve learned at the feet of my mentors:
State a goal: The purpose of the group is to improve its members’ writing and help them get published. Always. No exception.
Establish ground rules to establish trust: The way to establish trust is to mandate that criticism is being given for the goal purpose and is always and utterly well-intended. That means that you have to be honest in telling someone what you think needs improvement, but you have to be able to do it in a way that protects their confidence in their abilities. You don’t necessarily go into the finer points of technique with a brand new writer; you comment in ways that they can use and learn and grow. And you can’t like everything. It’s not helpful. I belonged to a critique group early on in my writing career where everybody loved everything. And frankly, no one learned anything. That group was a good example of how not to do it.
Establish a process: Each person doesn’t read each time, but each person offers comments and critique. If someone is up against a deadline, they jump to the head of the line. If someone hasn’t read for a long time but has been an active participant, they jump to the head of the line when they have something to read. Otherwise, it’s up to the group – if there’s time for everyone to read, great. If not, some people volunteer to wait for the next meeting.
Try out different methods: In our SARA group, we’ve had people read their own writing and we’ve had each person read someone else’s writing. Some people need to see the words on paper and bring multiple copies of what will be read so that each person can mark up their pages. Personally, I prefer to read my own writing, but others are more comfortable taking notes if someone else reads their selection.
Be sensitive to each others’ moods: There are times when you can accept and even relish strong critiques, dissension of opinion over what you’ve written, even suggestions that mean you’ll have to tear your story apart and rework it. Remember that those comments are made to help you improve. But sometimes, for whatever reason, comments hit too close to home and the group needs to moderate its enthusiasm for helping you. Because of my years of experience in Ruth’s critique group, I’ve become much better at accepting criticism, and I’m a Leo — we don’t typically do that well. I’ve learned to use the critique – or to reject it if it doesn’t suit my purposes. It’s taken time to grow that extra layer of skin and to accept well-intentioned assistance, but it’s been worth it.
I know authors who say they can’t imagine being part of a critique group. They write too fast, or they get confused by the variety of opinions their work engenders, or they just want to go it on their own. That’s fine, but for me, a good critique group is a necessity of my writing life.
Willa Blair won the 2011 WRW Marlene contest in the Paranormal category for Warrior (now Highland Healer) and she was also the 2012 Merritt Winner in the Paranormal category for Empath.