I’m feeling very grateful to NESCBWI (the New England chapter of The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) for their commitment to helping new writers get plugged in to local critique groups. It was through this channel that about a year and a half ago I walked on shaky knees into a meeting of other children’s book authors. I remember clutching my notebook like it was my mom’s hand and I was headed to my first day at Kindergarten. And just like school, I was greeted by smiling people who have turned into wonderful friends and teachers.
One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing is to take the scary step of reading it aloud to other people, with the hope that they will tear it apart and tell you what’s wrong with it! If you have taken this step: bravo for brave you! A critique group is ideally friendly, as mine is, but not so friendly that they are not going to steer you away from dangerous cliffs, such as confusing dialogue or repetitive adjectives. The most helpful comments are usually “gently ruthless.”
Author Marion Roach Smith, in her slim but powerful book The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, recommends you try to find a place between “nastiness” and “uber-kindness,” as the former doesn’t move you forward, and the latter “kills excellent writing.”
She also cautions against turning to family members for feedback, as “…gratuitous support begins at home, where reading your work to someone who depends on you for food, shelter, or sex can garner only one response: ‘Nice,’ or worst of all, ‘Neat!'”
Trust me, you really don’t want people to tell you your first draft is “great!” So, take the plunge. Seek out some people who don’t care what you made for dinner, but do care about helping you elevate your work. If you are looking for a critique group, you often have to look no further than Google to hit on some good online support. I prefer the face-to-face kind, because so much of what is being communicated can be picked up through someone’s tone of voice or flicker in their eyes. It’s not always what you want to hear, but it usually is what you need to hear.
You might get as lucky as me, and a few years later, find yourself sitting around a cozy farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by a fantastic group of talented pre-published writers (and one published author, sharing her beacon of light and hope!), swirling a glass of wine and thinking, “so this is what it feels like to realize a dream!”