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Yesterday, I decided to try my hand at critiquing, again.

Once upon a time, over three years ago, I belonged to the O.C. Writers’ Meetup Group. This was when I first started writing my novel. I ended up leaving the group because I was frustrated with the coddling and lack of honesty. I didn’t see how these writers were going to become better at their craft if they continued to dance around the problems they found in their fellow writers manuscripts. If someone uses too many modifiers, tell them. If they’re targeting the wrong audience, tell them. If their dialogue is cliched, tell them. Or, so I thought.

I was wrong in my assumption about what a critique group was for. I realized that critique groups are more for camaraderie than feedback — unless you are truly comfortable with your fellow critiquers. I realized that I may have seemed like a bit of an outsider to this group, considering they had been critiquing each other for months. And here I was, criticizing their leader.

It happened when the organizer of the group offered to email a few of us (his critique partners) his first six chapters. I was really excited to see how being in this critique group had helped him, since I had yet to submit anything to the group. This man was in his late 50’s and had been writing since before I was born. He had started the group and was highly admired by other members of the group who had read his work. As I waited for his email, I was expecting a polished, if somewhat flawed, manuscript. What I got confused me.

It looked like the manuscript of a teenager who had read one Clive Cussler novel and said to himself, “I can do that!” I wasn’t sure if I should be honest or diplomatic. I decided on something in between. I was honest in my critique of the writing, but diplomatic in my delivery of the critique. I went through the entire six chapters, making digital notes throughout. I then wrote up a thorough summary of my notes and included some suggested reading. Then I sent it back to him.

His response came a couple of weeks later. The verdict: My critique was so detailed in its execution that it literally made him reconsider whether or not he should be a writer. I felt awful. I left the critique group with a sense of guilt and sadness. In the world of critique groups, I was the wicked witch.

I slunk off into a solitary corner to mull over what had gone wrong. I pored through all the writers’ group’s guidelines on critiquing. Had I not followed the guidelines? Had I overstepped some boundary? And then I found it! Tucked away in one of the guidelines was a sentence stating that critiques were not to be “too detailed” so as not to hurt the writer’s feelings.

Writer’s have feelings?

I realized I was not cut out for this critiquing thing. I packed up my manuscript, clicked on the “Leave Group” button, and never looked back.

Then last night, in an attempt to find someone to critique my work, I decided to join an online critique group. I won’t say the name of the group or website to protect the writers’ works. The group organizer immediately sent me three writing samples from three different writers for me to critique.

The first story had a rage-aholic protagonist who was being very nasty to his wife while she expressed concern for his safety. I stopped reading after a couple pages. I couldn’t sympathize with raging hubby.

The second story’s protagonist was a psychotic, unremorseful serial killer. He had not a single redeeming quality, unless you count the fact that he was literate. Apparently, he used some sort of serial killer guidebook to carry out his gruesome deeds. I was not at all interested.

The last story appeared to be a paranormal romance. I read further into this one because the protagonist had a “save the cat” moment early on. For me, this moment is crucial in keeping me interested in a story. For those who don’t know (and are too lazy to click on that link), a “save the cat” moment is the moment when your protagonist does something nice that makes the reader say, “Hey, I like this guy.” From that moment on, if the writing is good, the reader will root for your protagonist’s success. Without the “save the cat” moment, readers usually have trouble finding a reason to keep reading.

So, this third entry kept me reading a little further based on his somewhat likeable protagonist. But then his protagonist quickly faded out of the story. He switched point of view to another character, without any indication whether the new character was 10 or 40 years old and what time period we were in. I was very confused and put off by the writer’s excessive modifiers. “Romance filled eyes.” Is there not a better way to say this?

Needless to say, I only critiqued the third story because of the “save the cat” moment. I figured that, though his grasp on grammar and style were not enough to keep me reading, the writer’s ability to realize he needed a likable protagonist warranted a critique.

I emailed my critique and decided I would not be returning to this online critique group. There was no reason to. I didn’t want my story critiqued by any of the three writers I had just received samples from. If these writers were a representative sample of the rest of the group, it was possible I was wasting my time.

If you have any of your own experiences with critique groups, please feel free to share them with me.

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