Photo of a boat without the sail up, which makes it look unfinished. Like the book I put down forever. Photo by Kate Ota 2019
Rather than write a negative review of a very popular book that I couldn’t finish, I decided to write about what I learned instead. Why couldn’t I finish it? Can I avoid my book having the same fate? Can I help your book avoid the same fate? Let’s hope so.
An intriguing opening scene doesn’t mean the next few chapters can be an info dump.
Yes, start with something exciting and interesting. This book had a very strong first chapter with a scene that was completely unique and will probably stay with me for years. Unfortunately, the next fifty pages were backstory. All I wanted was to get back to that opening (which had a dead body) and work on solving the mystery. I didn’t care about the main character’s sad childhood, especially not on pages 10-60. If it was pages 210-260, after I knew and liked the main character, then I could empathize.
The main character needs agency.
This main character of this book did a lot of looking. Watching. Observing. Seeing. Not a lot of action. While the dead body was initially exciting at the opening, when the main character did nothing but stare and watch others, I got annoyed. In fact, I questioned if this should be the main character at all, since she was the least interesting person in several scenes.
Flashbacks kill pace.
It was like being in stop-and-go traffic. The plot would creep ahead, then freeze for backstory. Don’t get me wrong, flashbacks have a place in storytelling, but they need to be strategically placed. This story had multiple flashbacks per scene, often without warning, and the timeline became murky. The flashbacks also didn’t help move the story forward, and often repeated information. The other problem was that theses flashbacks were told, not shown. Meaning the character was thinking about what happened, not showing the reader in a scene. Great for unreliable narrators, but this was overkill.
Wondering how long I stuck it out? I got to about page 100 of a 400-page fantasy. By that point in a story, I need to be hooked and invested. This story had barely gone beyond the inciting incident. At least I learned why, and won’t repeat these issues.
Did you ever set a book aside without finishing? I recommend going back and learning why, you never know what you may learn!
All About Critique Groups
Photo of feedback from three years in Tidewater Writers. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
I joined my local critique group, Tidewater Writers, in March 2017. Over the last three years, I got a lot of feedback. Seriously, look at that photo. That’s eight and a half inches of feedback. Eighteen pounds! Six of those inches (and fifteen of those pounds) are dedicated to one novel. One inch of that is all the feedback I got on chapter one alone. I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have finished my novel (currently #amquerying it!) without the constructive criticism, knowledge, advice, and overall help of my critique group. After all, when there’s a meeting every week, you feel the pressure to bring something new (or at least edited since last time) and that push got me to write the end.
Joining a critique group takes a lot of courage. Tidewater Writers is open to all, and the members who attend fluctuate, with a core group showing up most often. It was extremely welcoming, and I have zero regrets! Some people are nervous about joining critique groups, so I’m writing this post about all things critique group!
Types of Groups
There are two major types of critique groups: in-person and online. I’ve been part of both, but personally found the in-person critiques have been the most impactful on my writing. It’s easier to explain your opinion in person, rather than in writing, especially if you have more questions about what you’re reading than comments for it. In-person allows more back and forth, clarifications, even lighthearted jokes. Online allows more anonymity and security, and offers more partners to people in isolated locations or smaller towns. It also allows more flexibility, since you don’t have to be in X location at Y time to meet. Choose the type of group that fits your needs, but I recommend trying both and testing your comfort zones. You never know who you’ll connect with!
How to Find One
The easiest answer is the internet. But where? I found Tidewater Writers by googling writing groups in Norfolk. But there are more direct ways to do it. Meet Ups is a good place to do general searches for groups in any given location. This is great if you have no idea what the local critique group is called. If you know the name of a group, Facebook is an easy way to search since the odds are high they have a page. Other writing-related groups on Facebook are also great places to find online partners to trade with, especially if you join one that specific to your genre. Twitter has an active writing community under many hashtags, (WritingCommunity, amwriting, amquerying, amediting, the list could go on endlessly.) You can post asking about critique groups that already exist, or you can ask if anyone wants to form a new one. Some events exist specifically to match critique partners, so keep an eye out for those too!
Let’s say you don’t want to look online. How else do you find people? Connect at writing conferences, ideally local ones, or at local writing events, like classes, book launches, and events at libraries. Wherever a writer may go, search there!
Quick Dos and Don’ts
Never been part of a critique group? Not to worry. Some quick tips for what to do:
Do: If it’s an in-person group, bring multiple copies of your work, enough for everyone present to have their own copy, ideally. I recommend printing double sided, double spaced, twelve-point Times (or other easily read font.)
Don’t: Bring only one copy to read aloud and expect line edits. If no one can see your commas, how can they catch a comma error? Reading aloud without giving copies would get you feedback mostly for flow, concept, pacing, or voice. But you can also get that feedback with copies in their hands!
Do: Bring/post an unpublished work that is beyond the first draft.
Don’t: Bring/post something that is already published (self or traditional) or something that is only a first draft. Already published work won’t benefit from feedback, but feedback is the point of sharing in this context. If you only want to share your published work but not hear criticism, schedule a reading at your local library or indie bookstore. A first draft is also a no-no because they’re riddled with easy to catch mistakes, like typos, autocorrections, homonym mix ups, etc. Your readers will get stuck on these tiny details and not be able to focus on bigger picture feedback that you could also benefit from.
Do: Follow the rules of the group. Often there are restrictions on how much you can bring/post (word count or length in terms of time.) Some in-person groups also restrict how long anyone gives verbal feedback.
Don’t: Assume you’re the exception to the rules. If you’d be unwilling to stay late to finish critiques, don’t expect others to. If you’re unwilling to read an extra thousand words, don’t expect others to. And if you are willing, don’t assume others are!
Do: Give feedback about the writing on the page, any and all feedback you can give. Be constructive and offer why you think something doesn’t work. You don’t always need to offer solutions. Feel free to point out things you love as well!
Don’t: Only offer feedback such as, “this was great!” or, “this was terrible.” Both are equally unhelpful. Don’t critique the writer, for example, “this makes you look like an amateur.” Don’t be mean.
Do: Try out a few critique groups, if you can.
Don’t: Feel obligated to return to a group if you felt unwelcome, unsafe, or that the feedback was unhelpful.
The Most Frequent Feedback I Receive
Over time, the group’s most frequent comments have made me more aware of what my weaknesses are. That way I can address them before going. At this point, I can read a draft and guess what each person is going to say about certain parts. I’m frequently told my early drafts go too fast, and I need to add more internal reactions and narration to slow the pacing so the reader can absorb everything. My other weaknesses are repeated sentence starts (especially the, I, and pronouns) and repeated words (especially just, back, so, and be verbs).
The Most Frequent Feedback I Give
I tend to also point out repeated sentence starts, since I’m sensitive to them after hunting for them in my own work. Usually, I also notice grammar issues like commas and verb agreement. Had, be verbs, to, and I are words I catch as overused. I tend to pick up on the wrong word being used, or perhaps not the best word being used, where the author could make a stronger choice for a clearer message. Most often, I make this comment about verbs.
I’m about to move across the country and what I’ll miss most is my lovely critique group! We’ll keep in touch online, but I’ll miss the regular meetings holding me accountable for making progress. If you’re a writer in Bremerton, WA, leave a comment! I’d love to connect! And if this post helped you find a critique group, or the courage to try one, let me know in the comments.