One of the questions new writers often ask me: how do I know when it’s good enough?
You have to Get Crit.
That is, unless you’re so supremely confident in your writing skills, your choice of markets, and that your prose quality mirrors published material, you’ll probably find it instructive to have someone (preferably, more than one someone), read and critique your work. (This assumes you aspire to professional publication).
Critting is the basis structure of most MFA programs, the Clarion workshops, many adult ed courses, various online forums, and face-to-face groups that meet in private homes, bookstores and libraries all over the world. Finding one is pretty easy. Finding one that works for you can be harder.
The most important criteria for choosing a crit group is: can they help me? Do they know the basics of writing? Can the group members clearly articulate what is and isn’t working in your text? Does the vibe of the group feel comfortable? When you leave meetings, do you feel inspired to go back and work on the material that was critted? Do you want to write more and are you eager to attend meetings?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then this is not the group for you.
The group members, for the most part, should know their shit. That means understanding mechanics, POV, narrative exposition versus scenes, flashbacks, physical beats. All that nitty-gritty stuff that has to be in order for professional publication. If most of the group members are new writers, with little or no experience, then there are limitations as to what improvements they can suggest. (Writers who don’t understand POV themselves are not going to be able point out POV issues in your work). They can still be valuable as cold readers, and most folks can pick out some grammar and spelling errors for you. Having a simple Reader’s Response to a story is still valuable.
Your crit group should be able to tell you—precisely and coherently—why a problem in your story is a problem and be able to suggest a fix. Floaty, ethereal “oh, Jane is such a quirky character but this just feels so bleak” crits are not helpful. Perhaps bleak is what you’re going for. Perhaps you need to be using more cold descriptors to evoke bleak and you need to change the setting for the couples’ Talk about Their Future to a cemetery instead of a cheerful café. Concrete suggestions are what you need. You may not use the exact suggestion but it can still get your brain whirring to come up with a better solution.
I’ll post Part Two of this tomorrow! And I’d like to get other writers’ suggestions on what makes critique work for you. Whether you’re using an online resource, a Real Life group, or some combination, how do you get the most out of your critters?