What’s a Love Story Without a Few Bumps Along the Road?
When last we left you, we were extolling the virtues of our critique group. Nothing has changed on that front, but it’s not the whole picture. We have our dysfunctions and challenges.
Several challenges were logistics out of our control: managing four time zones; Manitoba weather causing power & Internet outages; Zoom’s penchant for playing freeze tag; moving to the other side of the world to help family; grieving the deaths of a parent and precious fur babies. Resilience and deep breaths have been essential.
“How Are We Going to Do This?”
Other logistical challenges rose from figuring out how to approach critiquing. We started with all four members sharing a scene in each of our weekly meetings. But often there wasn’t enough time, and someone was left frustrated. Eventually, we found our rhythm: no more than two critiques each week, at least one hour per submission. We go page by page, each of us bringing up items to discuss.
Janet admits to taking the wrong approach early on. She came to the group after two years as a freelance copy editor. She stated, “I focus on what pulls me out of a story. Initially I made the mistake of doing that on the micro level of punctuation and grammar. Most of our scenes needed more developmental work, but I didn’t feel comfortable talking about that as a critique partner, afraid I was overstepping a boundary. Talking commas felt safer.” After starting Author Accelerator’s book coaching program in 2022, she realized her mistake.
Our critique approach comes with another challenge. Even if we strictly work on two scenes per week – each person getting two scenes done per month – it would still take two years to get through one novel. Reading a novel over so much time means threads get dropped and details forgotten. When reviewing each other’s scenes, it’s hard not to focus on nitpicky things because so much context is lost. We’ve begun to talk about restructuring our approach to dedicating a month to each of us, where we’d read the entirety of a particular novel then spend the next several sessions focused on bigger-picture issues like character arcs, story logic, narrative drive, effective use of dialogue, etc. – whatever the manuscript calls for. We’re still figuring that out.
“Please Take Me Seriously.”
In our first article, we wrote about establishing our writer identities. It can be a challenge to get family members to believe in our writer identity. Reactions have ranged from pleasantly supportive of our “hobby” to, with Janet’s first husband, furious when writing threatened to become a serious focus.
Brenda was luckier. “The first time I actually considered myself a writer was when my husband introduced me to a work colleague as ‘my wife the writer.’ This opened a door; I went flying through it and never looked back.”
Liz says, “The only available space for my desk is in an area open to the whole house. My family and our dog have easy access. So I got curtains as a visual reminder that I wasn’t to be disturbed. When that didn’t work, I sat everyone down and explained that writing is important to me and I need them to take it as seriously as I do. I still get interruptions, but now only for important things.”
Soleah says, “My mother is old school. She takes time to realize that when I’m on a call at home, it’s still ‘work.’ For her, if I have time to ‘chat on the computer,’ I’m available to answer questions. Sometimes the interruptions made me want to leave our meeting early, but it wouldn’t have been fair to the group. So, even if the mood wasn’t there anymore, I had to figure out a way to make my family respect this boundary. Indirectly, my writing group has helped with my self-care and healing journey.”
All of us have struggled to get spouses, kids, and/or parents to take our writing and meeting time seriously. We’ve had to set boundaries and continuously reinforce them – to those we live with and to ourselves.
“Imposter Syndrome, Anyone?” (How About Everyone?)
Being a writer comes with plenty of challenges – a vast number of which live under a red neon sign that screams SELF-DOUBT into the night. Frequently we drag those unresolved challenges into our critique meetings.
Liz again: “Despite the excitement of feeling I was finally in the right place at the right time when I joined this group, I still felt like an imposter. I either talked too much from nerves or felt too insecure to speak up. I’ve gotten better at speaking up, and I’m still working on talking too much. Now it’s not so much from nerves as from being comfortable with my partners.”
Brenda says, “I had no ‘education’ for writing. I’d never been part of a working critique group. In the beginning, I often felt my ideas were childish and unhelpful. Then I noticed the others were actually using my suggestions in their stories. It was an AHA moment. Even when editing this article, I felt smart enough to make suggestions on what to add and what to delete. I wouldn’t have felt this way 18 months ago. I still have lots to learn, but this group is the place to do that.”
Imposter syndrome can produce major resistance. Janet says, “Why should I endure those icky feelings of being a permanent wannabe, when I can just re-binge Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Why should I prepare something for critique when opening my manuscript hurts?”
So she’s submitted only a few times in the last two years.
One time Brenda, Liz, and Soleah went on strike, refusing to submit anything until Janet did. That worked for a month. Janet hopes the possible whole-book approach will inspire her to finish her fourth draft and just let the group deal with it.
“Discipline? What’s That?”
Yes, our primary misstep has been not sticking to an equal and consistent submission schedule. Soleah says, “I know the group appreciates me and won’t kick me out…and that lets me give myself permission not to submit any work. I do have excuses (moving, personal challenges, other jobs, etc.), but we still need to figure out a plan to get regular submissions from everyone in the group. Most of our missteps have come from lack of discipline.”
It’s true. We’ve become too undisciplined about handing in work. And too undisciplined about holding each other accountable. At our next meeting, we’ll set our writing goals for the fall; that’s a perfect time to talk about an accountability plan.
Often as individuals, we’ve also lacked the discipline to focus consistently on a specific thing, bouncing from our primary novels to additional novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc. We do share them with the group. We learn from that, and we’ve created good work. But each of us is still editing the manuscripts we brought to DIY MFA Small Group Coaching in 2020. For one reason or ten, we’ve held ourselves back from producing a final, polished novel. Lack of discipline: Yes. But imposter syndrome sometimes is a fifth member of our group.
On the positive side, our lack of discipline has allowed us to bond so well that we’re committed to our weekly meetings. Dedication to that commitment keeps our writer personae alive and strong. We trust each other so much that we can go deeper in our explorations of each other’s stories. We have richer conversations about the work at hand and about writing in general.
Writing this article made us look at our issues more clearly. Now we must figure out how we’re going to resolve them. More on that next time.
What about you? Do imposter syndrome and lack of discipline sound too familiar? If you’re in a critique group, do those issues impact how it functions?
Please feel welcome to share your experiences in the comments section.
A Discovery of Writers is made up of four DIY MFA Small-Group Book Coaching graduates who were partnered in the program in 2020, stayed together after our terms ended, and have turned into a tight, very effective writing support group. We love how we work together and would like to explore/share our experience with the Word Nerd community. For more about us individually you can find us here.