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As an author, I’d taken the appropriate classes, but nothing prepares you for when you actually hunker down to put your heart on the page.
When I first started “writing seriously,” I joined a group of novice writers as we developed our craft. Typically, once one of those writers finishes their journey, they aren’t sure where to go on from there, and they tend to drop out, so it can be a challenge finding a group that “sticks,” a group who is interested in more than just trying their hand. When that initial group fell apart, I moved on to another group of more experienced writers who were very gentle with my mistakes, and I didn’t feel I was getting the type of feedback I needed to improve.
Moving on to the next group, I ran into more constructive criticism, and a partner name “Glee” who frequently told me I was a victim of the “-ing monster” (passive phrasing). There was a more serious writer/author in that group who helped us all to improve, but still I was lacking in experience and “seasoning.” I stayed in that group for several years, through my first two writing attempts, which I thought (at the time) were pretty good. Until that group fell apart and I moved on with an acquaintance of that serious author (and if you have the opportunity to find/read Michelle Perry, I encourage it! She had some personal tragedy which stopped her from writing, and I hope to see her return – she had a gift).
I have been in my current critique group for several years now, and we’ve seen some people come and go as they complete projects or become distracted with personal life issues. Those of us who remain are committed to moving forward, and we’ve been together for several books for each of us. This group is TOUGH! They don’t pull punches, they point out what you’ve done well and more importantly, they don’t pussy foot around what’s been done wrong. THIS group has helped me to develop, pointed out my repeated mistakes without trying to cushion the blow. Shown me plot holes and skipped over descriptions. Working with them, I have been able to refine my writing skills, and picking up those first two writing attempts from earlier groups, I’ve been able to see the mistakes for myself—and correct them.
We may not always want to hear that we’ve screwed something up in our writing, our babies, and the toughest part of being an author is being able to develop that thick skin required to see the good intentions behind the criticism. Telling someone they’re good because it’s hard to hurt their feelings doesn’t make them better. (Don’t misinterpret that to mean it’s okay to be mean.) There have been several times over the years where I was offended by comments, but nine times out of ten, my partners were right and I just didn’t want to hear it. Removing myself from the emotional response by a day or two usually gives me the ability to see the comments for what they are, and weigh their value. They aren’t always right, but if it was worth pointing out, it’s worth considering.
As much as I value my critique partners, I’ve also learned that a professional editor is worth their weight. My critique partners work with me through the development stages, reminding me to use “who” instead of “that,” one chapter at a time. The editor gets the whole thing and can offer an outside opinion, specific to your genre, which can be as detailed as word choice, to construction, to flow. After you’ve fixed all the points (or not) your critique partners argued with you over, an editor can give you that final “you should have listened to them here” moment, or validation that standing your ground was the right choice.
The jury’s still out on beta readers for me. My experience is that they are helpful, but they also tend to be happy to get a sneak peek at your next book and can be “nice” with their criticism. If you want to use beta readers, I’d suggest preparing a list of questions for them once they’ve finished for pointed feedback. They often don’t know what you’re looking for and will only say “I liked it” rather than “I want to see more xxx on the page sooner.”
In the end, all three of these “pre-readers” give valuable feedback that help to make an indie author better. From there, it’s up to the author to know their craft and create a work of art.