My Critique Group

There are writing critique groups, and then there are writing critique groups…that suck. I’ve been in the latter kind several times. The groups always broke up because there was at least one person who couldn’t/wouldn’t follow the Golden Rule of critiquing someone’s work:

Say what you like before you say what could be improved; and never never never direct  personal criticism to the author.

Meatlocker Writers, my current writing group, was so named because for several years we have met weekly at the Bay City Art Center, which is always at least 20 degrees colder than the outside temperature. We wear gloves, hats with ear flaps, and our heaviest winter parkas when we meet. Lately, we meet in a lovely warm room at the Tillamook Library. But we all have fond memories of the Meatlocker, where so much good writing was spawned, read, critiqued, and improved, sometimes several times until we “got it right.” The members are all top-notch writers, several have completed novels and are now seeking a publisher, and as editors, there are none better. They are always kind. And they often burrow in to get at the feeling or thought or idea that they feel isn’t quite there yet. They remember the story after so many weeks of half-finished chapters, and remind me when I’ve left something out, or already said it. Or when a character’s eye color changes from brown to blue.

And they are all, unfailingly, my biggest encouragers and supporters and cheerleaders. The day I delivered my final draft manuscript to each of them at our meeting, Richard brought a cake, decorated with pink and yellow squiggles and the words “Happy Book Day”. Then they each read all 400+ pages (it’s down to 320, now) and gave me their welcome feedback. Phil read it twice—once for overall story, and once for line by line editing. Karen brought champagne when the novel was accepted by a publisher. (OK, it was sparkling cider, now that I recall…but it’s the thought that counts.) Linda moved to Lake Oswego, but is hosting my very first book event, on Pie Day, January 23—reading and homemade pie around her lovely wood-burning fireplace. She’s bringing out her grandmother’s beautiful bone china tea set, and baking the pies, for which she is renowned. Sue is new to the group, but working on a mystery novel, and was (along with Karen) the first one to order my book online. Nancy left the group after many years to give birth to a baby daughter, and start a whole new phase of her life, but her professional writer’s voice echoes in my mind as I edit my own work, as do the voices of the other writers in the group, each with their own unique way of approaching a critique.

And then there was the day when, after reading for the group, I came home and seriously contemplated moving all those text files to the Trash icon and chucking the whole project. I went to see a therapist about that, because I had invested years in this story! His helpful advice was to recommend I rent a movie about a writer whose obsession was writing an opus that grew and grew, eventually consuming his life. I did rent the movie. A key scene is when the writer drives to a windy dock to sit and contemplate his life. His manuscript is in a loose stack of pages on the back seat. He opens the back door of the car and a whirlwind picks up the pages, whipping and scattering them onto the wet dock and into the bay, ruining the manuscript. It was before word processing, I suppose, so of course it was his only copy. The writer then abandons his obsession and discovers he has a life waiting for him.

This movie did not cheer me up.

Instead, I confronted the fact that I had to tell this story! It seemed ordained in some way, destined. It was impossible to give it up. I had to simply pull up my socks and wade back in. The therapy was successful. It helped me to clarify my purpose in writing the story.

So now it is finished, and it is published, and I have recycled those reams and reams and reams of scrappy printed pages covered with scribbles, and the files of the hundreds of subsequent versions I’ve saved on my laptop. I kept the “Deleted Scenes” file—I could use some of that for later, for short stories.

When the brown-uniformed driver skidded into my driveway and dropped off my first copy of the novel, I couldn’t get it open fast enough. After the multiple final edits, multiple proofs, final changes, cover photography and design by Jack Allen, and more proofs, here it was. I balanced it on my palm. There was a heft to it, all those words squeezed down into this compact, lovely blue volume. The finished product. I allowed myself to savor the moment.

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