Should Critique Groups Include Children?

Most of this story actually occurred, but I’ve changed names and details so my writers’ group won’t rage and come after me with pitchforks and torches. I added some exaggeration as well, but not much.

Once I took the only remaining seat in the writers’ circle, I stared at the person next to me, noticing the wholesome face, bright eyes, and glint of braces on her teeth. Having heard about us from a poster on a bulletin board, sixth-grader Daphne radiated happy enthusiasm at joining the adult group.

I wondered how this new situation would play out. The assembly at the table included mostly those nearing retirement, my middle-aged self, and two twenty-something ladies. Some of them were hobby writers while a few were interested in a career in publication. But a kid? Daphne happily bounced in her chair, whispering to me questions about the group, which only added to the dull roar of everyone else talking at once.

The leader shouted for attention and we started going around the room, reading our selections. The doubts ate at my mind as I brought my selection out. Why is she here? My stuff isn’t kid friendly. How can I possibly read this out loud?

As the evening progressed, the memoirs and poems that folks read aloud stayed G-rated and lovely. Daphne added comments here and there but mostly asked sotto voce questions to me about “what did she mean…?”

When I answered in a low voice, the leader glared at us for talking around the others, and loudly suggested only one voice at a time should speak. Okay, now I feel like the twelve-year-old who got caught passing notes in the back of middle school English class. My sense of professionalism limped away to cry quietly in the corner.

The next contributor’s story focused on funeral arrangements in some detail. Daphne’s eyes widened a bit as she whispered more urgent questions to me on the side.

“People read about this?”

“Yes. You can write about anything. Lucy’s making a point about how this major event really changed her life.”

“So this is real?”

“Yeah, it is a memoir. Sometimes people find creative ways to write about the events in their lives.”

Her blue eyes widened even further. “I didn’t think anyone wrote about dead people.”

I smiled at her and nervously shifted my thriller/horror piece about a kidnapper tormenting and then killing his victim. “Uhm, yeah. Adult fiction often does.” Thank God I didn’t bring my ghost story then.

Her 12-year-old attention span swung back to the offered comments on Lucy’s piece while I stared at my manuscript.

Holy crap, how could I read this aloud while she was in the room? At the same time, I wanted this piece reviewed before I started submitting it to a few choice contests.

            Brenda went next, taking time to explain to Daphne who the characters in her fantasy story were, including a weasel the size of a horse. Once she finished, I raised my hand and offered a suggestion. Yes, we are back in grade school again, I thought.

“The part where you’re talking about describing her as a ‘courtesan in rags’ caught my attention. The word, courtesan, has very specific meanings as an entertainer beyond the obvious connotation. They usually look beautiful, like geishas. The rags part kind of doesn’t fit.” My eyes flickered over to young Daphne for a moment. “Perhaps it would be better to use a more, ahh earthy word… you know, “earthy?” Like a “w” word that is more … aah, well…earthy?”

The older poet on the other side of me turned and said, “like woman?”

“Ahh, yeah…” Daphne watched with the intense laser vision of a child trying to comprehend some mystic secret. “You know, earthy woman…” Now I’m squirming a bit, wondering why I spoke up at all.

Brenda nodded, “Yeah, I get it. That kind of woman,” finally relieving me of my discomfort.

Next it is my turn. “Ahh…” I hesitated, biting my lip. Since we pass out copies for folks to read along, skipping the offending parts wouldn’t work. “My material has some rather fruity terms. I’m not sure I should read it tonight.”

The reviewers, which included at least three-fourths of the women in the “grandma” category, exchanged looks just as Daphne calls out “Hi, Mom!”

We all turn to the tall figure by the door. Flooded with relief, I thought, great, I’m saved by the parent!

            Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Mom, probably encouraged by the fact an adult group was taking her young author seriously, offered the child more time for us to finish up.

When I protested, again mentioning the fruity language in my content, she laughed and said, “she’s probably heard it all before.”

            Okay….at least they were warned.

So I started reading. The “bullshit” phrase flew off with only a giggle from Daphne, but then we got to “his foot first connected to the man’s genitals” phrasing and I paused. Damn! Forgot about that phrase. After a nervous cough from one of the others, I continued.

“Attack me one more time and you’ll learn there are quick ways to die and slow ways. I’ll just blow a finger off or put one into your balls.”

Another nervous cough came from the leadership section and a giggle from the junior chair. Luckily, the rest of the material proceeded without much more than a few death threats and references to Edgar Allen Poe (and Daphne asking, “Who’s that?”).

The reviewers chimed in their comments, which were positive and helpful. I wrote them down while fielding questions from the youngster,

“Why did he kidnap the guy?”

“He wants revenge.”

“Why is he in the cave?”

“I’ll explain that next week when I read the next section.”

“He’s really mean.”

“Uhmm, well yeah. He’s the bad guy.”

On my way home, I pondered the conflict that I felt with having a kid in our group. On one hand, I believed in nourishing a love of reading and writing from a young age, picturing little inquisitive Daphne as the next great literary genius. On the other, I realized I couldn’t read the rest of the story, which included such fine quality words like “prick” (as in the body part) and a graphic description of rats eating their way through a man’s stomach. Nor could I later read sections of my book, which included a tasteful but necessary sex scene and joking references to necrophilia. My ears already burn a bit red at the thought of reading controversial stuff to friends and colleagues. Daphne might find it amusing but, channeling my own motherly concerns, I didn’t feel comfortable with her hearing my material.

Personally, I hope she finds us boring enough after a few visits to stop coming. As selfish as it sounds, I want the ability to provide R-rated material to the critique group. It is what I write and the way I think. Keeping myself to G-rated stories really limits my options for feedback, and I didn’t plan on leaving the thriller and horror genres. In addition, I’m can easily picture the scenario where she brings in her work, with all the mistakes and issues found in the very young author’s material. Sometimes it is hard enough to listen to bad amateur writing from an adult. Will she really understand the nuances of “show, don’t tell?” If we offer a range of suggestions for improvement, will she react with pouting, exasperation, or even a fit? Some newbie adults do and it is unpleasant. I dread finding out how a child would react.

So dear readers, what is your opinion on this issue? How would you feel about having children present during your critique group?

 

First Blunt Truth About Writing

Last week, a college-age person put a note on a chat forum that featured a wide range of writers. He requested that someone volunteer to act as a mentor in helping him finish his novel and getting it traditionally published. The individual knew in his heart that it was a great story and he had put part of his soul in it. He went on to say that he now knows that writers work as a community and he needed and desired help to make the next steps in his career.

I waited a day or so to see if anyone else would respond because my own answers were less than flattering. What happened?

Silence.

And more waiting.

The silence was so profound that you could hear the distant chirping of crickets in cyberspace.

I get frustrated because I rarely get feedback from agents on my queries. Simply saying “it’s not right for me” doesn’t help me understand what was wrong. So I figured this writer, like me, deserved an answer. I wrote my less than flattering opinion as nicely as possible. Happily, several experienced people responding with the general equivalent of “yep, that is the way it is,” and “tell it like it is, girl!” I have not heard back from the college student to know if he believed me or even wanted to discuss the issue further. His non-reply was disappointing. What the kid (yep, at my age college students are kids) failed to realize was that I had stepped up to a mentoring role he asked about.

I told him the blunt truth.

We all want an older, wiser expert to take us by the hand and guide us through the pitfalls of creating and publishing books. Personally, I would choose Patricia Briggs or Charlaine Harris because they really rock in the urban fantasy world.

Guess what? It does not work that way.

Let us break it down by the kinds of people who might consider being a mentor to a beginning novelist.

The Theoretical Authors have finished but unpublished manuscripts sitting in  desk drawers at home. They should not give advice because they have not “leveled up” in the game of traditional book production. Whatever they are doing to reach the Elysian Fields of the big publishing houses has not worked yet. Most authors never get their first, second, or often third book accepted by an agent or publisher because these manuscripts are not good enough yet. These early works act as the training grounds for creating a story that is exceptional enough to see a bookstore shelf. Read about the struggles of some of your favorite authors and you will see this is true.

The Debut Authors have one or maybe two books on the market. They will not step up to help because they are busy promoting their paperbacks or working on the next manuscript because chances are, their first published book will not be a breakout novel. Plus, publishers like having a second book to quickly follow the first, particularly in a series.

The Veteran Authors are the Gods of Literature. We wish we were them and gather at conferences to hear pearls of wisdom flowing from their lips. Individuals with a breakout novel will not volunteer either because they are running hard with promotions, book signings, and conventions. They also must continue to write the next great hit. However, it is more than just being too busy. To be honest, dozens of newbie writers want the established folks to help them. After all, success is sometimes related to whom you know. However, helping one may result in a new flood of requests so it is easier for the bestselling author to simply say no to everyone.

Finally, the main reason why no one will serve as a mentor comes from the answer to this question: what is in it for me?

Nothing.

As altruistic as most folks want to be, time is money.

More importantly, we writers viciously guard our creative time from any and all intrusions. This includes spouses, pets that want to go outside ten times in an hour, day job demands, self-promotion, or even sleeping. No matter how long an author sits at their desk every day, it never seems like enough. So taking time out of our schedules to do everything we can to promote your new work, particularly without anything serving as payment back, simply is not good business.

So where should young writers go for help? The answer is easy but potentially expensive: conferences, workshops, writers’ retreats, and critique groups. The review clubs provide one-on-one feedback, while most of these others include how-to-write information, how-to-query secrets, and interactions with experts in the industry. Invest in these opportunities to get the tools and knowledge you need for your own career path.

It is not easy, but nothing worth doing well is ever easy.

Find out about more blunt truths in the next blog