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.
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?