Critique groups are great. I have participated in several, of different sizes and styles, and each one taught me to be a better writer. Reading works in progress allowed me to see how stories grew and, from those lessons, I became a more astute reader.
Now that I work as an editor, I have my own process for critiquing a manuscript or work in progress. If the MS is complete, I do an initial quick read from a reader’s perspective. I want to find out where the story goes without thinking about how it happened, what it means, and if it makes sense. After that, when I know the ending, I start back on page 1 and read again, this time as an editor. In the editorial pass, I make lots of comments because now that I know where the story ends, it is my job to help make sure the path there was efficient, entertaining, and logical. When you’re in a critique group, you may do the same thing, or some similar process.
As I wear my editor hat more and more, I find it is can be easy to fall into that role and to think less about my impressions as a reader. When one critiques, the focus is on making sure the scene works. Is it plausible? Is it pleasing? Is it in the right spot, would the character really say/do/feel this, does it heighten the tension, etc. These are all vital considerations, when you are reading as a critiquer or editor.
But what about the reader?
If you are in a critique group, when is the last time you made a comment like one of the following when reviewing a colleague’s manuscript?
“I lost interest here…..”
“I would have stop reading at this spot because…..”
“I wanted to skim this section….”
“Right here is where I figured out the ending….”
When we are readers, we all give up on books that get boring, we all lose patience, we all skim, we all figure out the ending. Not with every book and not every time, but often enough that we learn to recognize what we enjoy as readers. Carrying over those considerations might be as valuable as noting that the woman who flips the light switch to the basement and finds the bulb out—but she goes down anyway—is Too Stupid To Live.
How would such comments be helpful, instead of simply mean, in a critique group? Because the people in your group are required to read to the end. People who buy or borrow your book are not. You are not writing to be read by other writers (well, mostly not). You are writing to be read by readers.
If you belong to a critique group, would you be blunt enough to answer these questions?
As a reader, where would you lose interest?
As a reader, what would have made you stop reading?
As a reader, what sections would you skim?
As a reader, where did you figure out that ending?
In a critique group, you have the benefit of a mini-focus group. Why not use that benefit? If you are in a group of 5 readers and 3 of them say they lost interest in Chapter 7, there’s something wrong with Chapter 7. If 1 person figured out the ending halfway through but the other 3 didn’t get it until the big reveal, your skills at keeping secrets are probably pretty good.
What do you think? Do you dare ask these tough questions of your critique partners?