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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Critique Boot Camp

A number of years ago, Nancy Martin organized a critique boot camp for five of our Pittsburgh Sisters in Crime chapter members, including me. We met for four consecutive Sundays, submitting 50 pages the week prior to the meetings and then reading and offering feedback on each other’s stories. Each week. It was a ton of work but we all walked away better writers. Four of us stuck together to create a critique group, meeting once a month—a breeze after meeting weekly! Over the years, one of those boot camp survivors chose to move on, and we brought in a new addition. For the last four years, Jeff Boarts, Tamara Girardi, Mary Sutton, and I have worked tirelessly on each other’s books and gone from aspiring to published and/or agented authors.

So when Nancy asked me to head up a new group of critique boot campers, I had no choice but to say yes. Last month, five new boot campers and I met for each of the five Sundays in July. We submitted 50 pages and read 250 pages EACH WEEK. In addition, we were editing or drafting new pages. There’s a reason we call it boot camp!

The month became more than just a critique boot camp. I love to teach, and reading the members’ submissions highlighted their individual needs. Each week became a cross between an intensive and a master class on everything from POV to putting tension on the page to police procedure to showing emotion.
Pittsburgh Sisters in Crime Boot Campers: Anne Slates, Sharon Wenger, Annette Dashofy, Carol Silvis, Audrey Snyder, and Peter Hayes
Our last Sunday was a “debriefing.” We shared homework (I assigned everyone the task of writing a killer opening line). And we discussed in more depth the shared issue within the group: Point of View.

When the final meeting concluded, I sent them on their way with the suggestion they consider staying together as a group. I think some of them will. I also asked for their reflections on the experience. Here are a few.

From Sharon Wenger: “Going through the review and critique process helped to reinforce ways to improve our stories to make them marketable. I learned from critiquing others and definitely learned from the group's critique of my writing.”  

From Anne Slates: “What was wonderful about the group was the diversity of writing styles, so individual to each author. Each person also tended to make different mistakes. Except POV. There are a few of us with POV issues. Every person brought something different to the table. We all have different strengths when critiquing which, in the end, gave each manuscript a thorough review. There was a great deal of respect, kindness, and levity thrown in. The hours tended to fly by. I will miss our weekly meetings.”
From Carol Silvis: “Boot camp was an invaluable experience. I have learned a lot over the years from conferences and workshops, but boot camp allowed me to see if what I learned transferred to my manuscript pages. Having my work critiqued each week gave me an opportunity to see my strengths and weaknesses. It was also beneficial to me to read such a diverse section of writing.
“There were many lightbulb moments as Annette used examples of our work to drive points home. I can’t thank her and my critique pals enough for their input that was instrumental in improving my manuscript. Everyone offered suggestions to make it stronger and more accurate. It’s amazing what someone else picks up that the writer misses.”
From Peter Hayes: “I found Boot Camp to be tremendously useful. One of the problems I’ve always had (and continue to have) is self-editing my own work, but I’ve discovered over the years that it’s a learnable skill. Fortunately, reading 250 pages every week for critique purposes (in a variety of genres), and hearing everyone’s critiques of each other’s work, reminded me (and hammered home) all the types of things I need to look for in my own work. So I feel like my own self-editing skills took a big step forward.”
While I was the leader and facilitator of this group, I also became a student as well. I love my regular critiquers, but new eyes and new perspectives brought to light some lazy writing habits I’ve fallen into and am working to change.
Have you ever taken part in a high-intensity, high-pressure experience like this? If so, what was your experience like? If not, would you even want to sign up for a writing boot camp?


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'll sign up. I've taken criticism face-to-face so often I don't even flinch.

KM Rockwood said...

This sounds like a great, intensive experience. The need to immediately address concerns, both in next week's submission and in revising last week's (I find I can't wait to get home & revise after a critique group meeting) couldn't help but have a concentrated, educational impact on your writing.

Annette said...

I hear ya, Margaret. I'm on my way to my regular critique group today and can't wait.

I hope that's the experience they had, Kathleen. Seems to be. :-D

Kait said...

Wow - 250 pages a week is daunting, but what a great experience. I have never had the benefit of a face to face group - this makes we want to seek one out pronto!

Annette said...

Kait, this was a critique intensive. My regular critique group is four members strong, so if everyone submits the full 50 pages, it's "only" 150 pages of reading in a week. And we only meet once a month. But the boot camp premise gives everyone an idea of what it's like to work under pressure in addition to all the other lessons learned.

Warren Bull said...

I have not had an experience like that. I would definitely try it.

Liz Milliron said...

I missed the boot camp experience, but I will tell you that I don't think I'd be published without my critique group.

Liz (aka Mary Sutton)

Annette said...

Liz, we've put you through your own personal, I mean boot camp. And I'm thrilled to tears for you!

Warren, it was a challenge but I believe a productive one.

Jim Jackson said...

Nothing as intensive, but for the first few years of my writing I belonged to a weekly critique group and had similar experiences (plus, I learned how to write!)

Over the years, I learned more from critiquing others than from critiques about my own work because when I was doing the critiquing I had to figure out WHY something wasn’t working, which required me to learn about writing craft.

Annette said...

Exactly, Jim!

Holly said...

What a fabulous idea. I have belonged to good (miss this one) and not-so-good critique groups. I love your page volume, it shows commitment to the group. Well done!

Annette said...

Thanks, Holly.