Using Beta-Readers and Critique Groups
“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner
Faulkner obviously said this before the advent of the computer. As writers, we never kill anything we love. We just put it in foster care until we can find a home for it. What do you do, though, when you birth that baby? Most writers are “single parents” when it comes to their artistic creations. We need help! Those of us fortunate enough to attend the August Third Thursday at BookPeople were enlightened by successful authors and editors who had solved this problem in various ways.
Editor Jody Edgerton, who is also an actress, comedian and is actually a birthing coach for real babies, suggests that at any point in the development of a manuscript it can be helpful to have a beta-reader. This is someone who reads your work and gives feedback. She advises to pair carefully with your reader. Do you need a drill sergeant, a cheerleader or a supportive hugger? It’s probably best not to involve your loving spouse or child, however, as you do want an honest opinion.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The three authors on the panel, Varian Johnson, Julie Lake and Lynne Kelly, have extensive experience with critique groups, most of it positive. One important point I gleaned is that these groups are in need of sustenance be it wine, cake or chocolate. Participants tend to do more than just read each other’s work. They develop into supportive literary communities that spawn lifelong friendships. Just as a single parent needs family, these groups cooperate to raise the “little darlings” from infancy until they are ready to venture out into the world of publishing. As Varian pointed out, though, don’t pass the little darling around to an abundance of breasts. It still belongs to the parent. The parent has final say. Julie and Lynne agree with the rest of the panel when it comes to village law. Always emphasize the positive and vibrant points of the creation. Where work is needed, be gentle and make suggestions with a possible solution. You are counselors not enforcement officers. That role goes to the publisher in the editorial letter.
FINDING A HOME
If you are “expecting” to have a manuscript developing soon and need some input there are a number of suggested paths. Of course you can always hire an editor. Lynn and Jody mentioned the importance of finding someone you feel comfortable working with. Remember, anyone can call themselves an editor. It is a good idea to check their credentials by asking about their successful projects. You don’t want to drop your child at just any old unlicensed day care. One attendee suggested Meet Up as a resource for locating or forming a critique group. I was fortunate to find an excellent poetry and short fiction group there. The Writer’s League of Texas has a listing of critique groups in the “members only” section of the web page and will soon post a new Zip Group page where groups that form are listed by zip code for ease of location.
Writing can be a lonely calling that those of us with the passion know we have no choice but to follow. When it comes time to show your “little darling” to the world, a beta-reader or critique group can be a comfortable and productive first step.
Tony Burnett is a director of the Writer’s League of Texas and an award winning songwriter. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in national literary journals including, most recently, Tidal Basin Review, Fringe, Fiction 365, Red Dirt Review, The Vein, Toucan Magazine and Connotation Press. He lives in the middle of Nowhere, TX. with his trophy wife where his hobbies include having philosophical conversations with melons, poking wasp nests with a short stick and wandering aimlessly about.