Seeing Clearly

It never ceases to amaze me how valuable critique groups can be.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when they’re not so great — times when you’ve got a backlog of stuff to read and you’re swamped and all you really want to do is make time for your own writing; or times when you’ve got to deliver a negative critique to a good friend; or times when you are on the receiving end of a harsh or thoughtless critique yourself.

But all that is compensated for by those moments when your crit partner stares right into the soul of your story and says, ‘hey, why don’t you have X happen here?”  And X, it turns out, is the very ingredient you were missing, the thing that turns a fallen souffle into a golden-crusted puff of bliss.

I know there are folks out there who don’t fancy getting specific suggestions on how to fix problems — they’d rather just have the feedback on what’s not working and figure out how to fix it on their own.  But frankly, I usually know what’s not working in a particular piece of writing…and If I knew how to fix it, I damn well would have.  Sometimes I need a skillful, outside pair of eyes to point out what is blatantly, obviously, the right and awesome thing to do, but which I just couldn’t see because I’d been staring at the story for so long I’d lost all perspective.

This happened to me recently on the first draft of my novel, ABSENT.  Feedback on the early chapters indicated that I needed to move up the introduction of the speculative elements, but I was utterly stumped about a good way to do it.  One of my crit partners (thank you, Brent!), pointed out a way that I could alter an existing scene to solve the problem.  The change he suggested would be a matter of a few sentences, no more, but would bring the speculative element (time travel, in this case) roaring to the front of the story and accelerate the stakes 10-fold.  Genius.

In hindsight, it seemed not only brilliant, but also obvious.  Why hadn’t I thought of it?  After all, it’s my story and I’ve been laboring over it for months.  And…I just answered my own question.  I was too close, too deep in the narrative structure I’d already established, and my mind wasn’t able to jump on a new track and reroute the roller coaster in a different, more thrilling direction.

This is one of the great benefits of critique partners.  They aren’t invested in your novel, nor are they enmeshed in its plotting – heck, if they’re reading early chapters for the first time they don’t even know where it’s headed.  Thus, they can see clearly when you cannot.

What do you think?  Have you found critique groups to be valuable in this way?  Are you open to incorporating specific plot or character suggestions into your work?  Or, would you prefer crit partners to confine their remarks only to what isn’t working and why and then come up with your own ideas to resolve problems?