Lev AC Rosen is the author of All Men of Genius, a steampunk novel inspired by both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The novel follows Violet Adams as she disguises herself as her twin brother to gain entry to Victorian London’s most prestigious scientific academy, and once there, encounters blackmail, mystery, gender confusion, talking rabbits and killer automata. Rosen received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in Manhattan.
So you’ve read my love letter to my writing group and now you want to know more – how our group works, and how it’s lasted so long. Well, here are some more advanced tips, for once you’ve found that special writing group, and you know you want to make it last.
- Respect. This sort of goes without saying, but if you don’t respect everyone in the group, then you’re not going to get much out of critique. You’ll just be like “eh, what does that schlub know?” and ignore them. Pro-tip: If you find yourself doing this with everyone who reads the book, your problem isn’t them.
- The “I feel” rule. Especially when first starting out, it can make a big difference to remember to express all critique – positive and negative – with “I feel” or something similar. Make it clear you know it’s only your opinion, not some greater truth and the writer must obey you.
- Positive and Negative – this goes with the above, but don’t forget to say nice things, too! Encouraging people to continue is important. I always find the more “this needs work” sections of critique more useful (obviously) but those positive ones lets me know what’s working and makes me feel good about what I’m doing and want to continue it.
- A quiet, private space to meet. We meet at someone’s apartment. Lately it’s been mine, since I’m sort of centrally located, but when our friend had a small child we met at her place so she didn’t need to get a sitter. Peoples houses are good – if you’re not comfortable, or don’t have the space, there’s also places like schools and churches which might rent a small space to a group. I mentioned above once being in a group that met in a restaurant. I cannot tell you how awful this way. People talking, you’re trying to eat and critique at the same time, sauces on pages, taking notes while your food gets cold. It’s chaos and it doesn’t foster easy flow of conversation the way you’d think a restaurant would. Eating with writing group is great, but do it after the critiquing period. Like your mother said, it’s rude to talk with your mouth full. The key is to have a quiet, intimate space where you can really hear each other.
- The Grain of Salt. This is what I call the knowledge that when you give someone critique, they might not agree or take your advice on everything, or some days, anything. Everything you say is taken with a grain of salt; you come from a place on that day at that time and the author comes from a place and maybe those places don’t meet. It’s still important that they hear what you have to say, but don’t get offended if they nod and say “well, I don’t want to make the protagonist more sympathetic, I sort of like that you’re angry at her.” It’s their story, after all. In grad school, we’re taught not to write for the other person, that is, to give advice, or response “I didn’t feel I understood why she killed him” vs giving specific suggestions “if he said he was planning to blow up the city a page earlier, then I’d get why she killed him. Also, she should kill him with a bomb, not a gun, because it’ll have more resonance.” This is important in grad school. In writing group, we ignore it. But when we do go into the world of making specific suggestions, it is either at the writers request (“I want the reader to get why she’s killing him here, and clearly you guys aren’t. How do I fix that?”) or with a caveat (“Okay, so I’m totally writing your book for you here, but what if she killed him with a bomb?”). This is risky business, and I don’t recommend it til everyone feels really comfortable. But then it can be the most useful sort of brainstorming ever.
- This isn’t a competition. If you’re concerned with doing better than the people in the group, if you’re comparing yourself to them, or you find them comparing themselves to you, then stop. You should all be trying to help each other.
- The Letter. I recently discovered not all writing groups did this and I was shocked. Obviously, when you read the pages you’re critiquing, you should be red-penning it, if you have a red pen. But more important than that is the letter! It can be written on the back of the pages, it can be bullet-point, but write to the writer saying what you liked and didn’t like in the piece. That way they have a file to consult. They should be taking notes, of course, but those letters help them remember who said what and why. So write a letter.
In case you’re wondering about the logistics of my group in particular, we meet every other week, we critique one person a week, and we usually don’t hand out more than 100 pages. So everyone has 2 weeks to read. Sometimes, one of us will have a finished draft of a novel and they’ll want to hand the whole thing out (so it can be read in one fell swoop). When we do this, the writer asks the rest of the group how long they’ll need – usually 4 weeks – and hands it out 4 weeks ahead. We still do group and critique others in the meanwhile, but the pages have been handed out early. Also, if you can, I highly recommend printing out large works and binding them for group. They will appreciate it, and so will you when you go back over their notes.
So that’s our formula. You have to find your own, of course. But again I say find yourself a writing group. They will make you a better writer. Possibly a better person. And if you’re lucky, they’ll also become a little family.