I couldn’t have done it alone. I got help writing my memoir about growing up an only child of elderly parents in the ’50s and ’60s when your dad is dying of cancer. The help came from my East End Writers’ Group – a writing group I started 10 years ago because I couldn’t fine one in my geographical area. I’m seeing my past and writing about it from my point of view. It’s subjective and often writers get too wrapped up in their own prose or poetry and literally can’t see the forest for the trees. Those leaves and branches can block what seems obvious to others listening to and/or reading your work.
For example, my memoir blends in some social and other history of the times. “Blend” is the key word, not go on and on about the history. One chapter I’ve quoted from in a previous post (“Time is Not on My Side,” 2009/11/20) “Riding the Rails with Dad” tells how Mom and I travelled with Dad on the CN railway my Dad worked for. I wanted to put some history of the CN in the chapter but got really carried away. The critique was “you have too much history.” So, I cut, cut and re-blended. The idea was to keep in some parts that tie in with Dad’s time at the railway and our travels. Gone went a whole diatribe on steam engines, except what I experienced as a little girl. Stayed were some of my Dad’s peculiarities relating to working for CN. One was his obsession with being on time – after all he was a timekeeper.
Another chapter covers tales out of school. Some suggestions focused on rewording and some on verb tense. In and out of school I was bullied a lot by one girl whom I refer to as “the Bully.” One of my classmatess, Tom, sometimes came to my rescue, but sometimes he teased in the process. Originally I wrote :
“Four times a day, including lunchtime, the Bully and I do the 15-minute walk to and from school, often accompanied by other classmates dawdling up Donlands. Some like……turn west along O’Connor, but Tom, the strawberry thief, continues on wih the Bully and I. The Bully teases me and I’m too timid to tell her off. Tom, disgusted by her behaviour, slashes back at her, telling her to ‘leave Sharon alone. ‘ And no, that doesn’t reward Tom with free strawberries. In class, Tom, who sits kitty -corner in front of me, listens as the Bully taunts me. I blink to stop the tears from sliding down my cheek. Tom swings around and stares mournfully at me with his baby blue eyes.
‘Don’t cry,’ he says.”
Excerpted from You Can Go Home. Copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford.
Comments on this passage included: “Tom disappears,” brackets around “I blink to stop the tears from sliding down my cheek,” (for a reword), a grammar correction for “the Bully and I” (with “I” crossed out and “me” substituted. And I call myself an editor? You can see the subjectiveness creeping in here).
Of course, I fixed the grammar error and reworded the business with the tears to “I blink to try to keep the tears inside.” But I didn’t do anything about Tom disappearing. The chapter focused on my grade school days – or tales of the most momentous occurrences – good and bad – not Tom, my friend and classmate; he was only part of the whole.
So, you don’t have to change your writing just because a member of your critique group says so. What I find is that if a number of them agree on one point I better look at it and it probably needs at least some tweaking. Also any critique is worth examining because even if you don’t agree, it might trigger a better way of writing something.
Writing critique groups are good also to find flaws in point of view, verb tenses, the balance between dialogue and narration, setting and time problems. The list goes on. But the critique is not all about finding the baddies – it is also pointing out what is good in your writing and also keeping the critique constructive, not destructive. We can get enough of the latter in the form of rejection letters from literary agents or publishers <g>.
My East End Writers’ Group (www.samcraw.com> is an in-person group meeting once a month. But there are many online writing critique groups. Either can work – whichever you are comfortable with. But check into them carefully to find out what is required of you. If they are asking you to critique 10 stories for your one, you might want to give them a pass. It’s a given that you’ll have to do some critiquing of others’ work, but watch the ratio. Also watch the tone of the critique – if you can, ask others who belong to the group, what it’s like, or if it’s an in-person critique, you can sit in for one session and audit it. Some critique groups focus on one writing genre, others are mixed. Some focus on one writer’s work per session and require you to read and critique before the session. Some meet weekly; some monthly, and of course the online ones may also have submission number and time requirements as well. So be aware of the group’s requirements and if you are comfortable with them.
I certainly have benefited from critiques received in my group and also from listening to and critiquing others’ work.