I read an article many years ago about the value of critique groups for writers. The only thing I really remember about the article is that it seemed to be picking on my grandmother. It said a lot of things like, “Your grandmother will love what you write no matter what,” and “Your grandmother thinks she’s being kind when she says your book is perfect the way it is,” and “Your grandmother doesn’t want to admit to herself that your book has flaws, let alone say that to you.”
I know what a generalization is and I know why that one exists, but I still sort of wanted to introduce the article’s author to my grandmother. She was a retired English teacher. She was sharper than the best cheddar and not afraid of hard truths. Her belief that letting students see her smile would make her appear soft earned her the nickname “Stoneface.”
When my grandmother read one of my early works, she only said, “The past tense of lie is lay.” Then she changed the subject.
While I’m not going to lie and say I wouldn’t have enjoyed a little praise mixed in – because this was my grandmother – she did actually tell me exactly what I wanted to hear. She gave me something concrete and fixable. (The only thing that would have made it better was the page number where I made that mistake.) Concrete and fixable is usually what I’m after when I look for help with my books. Once I have a book to the point I’m pretty happy with it, I find as many people as I can to read it and tell me about the things that shouldn’t make me happy, the mistakes I can’t see because I’m too familiar.
Imagine that someone pushed text under your nose that you know by heart, maybe the Lord’s Prayer or favorite song lyrics. You wouldn’t actually read it, would you? You might be looking at the words, but they’d already be printed on your brain. You probably wouldn’t notice if something was misspelled or mixed up unless you forced yourself to go slowly and study each word. I try. It’s hard to do that for an entire book. This is when I need help from those who don’t have parts of the book memorized.
So I ask for help.
And I get help.
Comments from other family members have included: “I just don’t think that would happen.” “Is it too late to suggest changes?” “You can call that a style thing, but it bugs the heck out of me.” “I stumbled over and reread that sentence many times.” “Your characters are so nice I want to gag.” “Can I have a copy of that manuscript so I can try to fix it for you?”
I didn’t need that article I mentioned above to convince me of the value of critique groups. I truly value any feedback I receive. I try to listen for valid points even when those points are stabbing holes in my pride. I have made changes based on some of these suggestions. But that’s not what Stage 5 is supposed to look like.
Stage 5 is about polishing. It’s about getting typos and concrete mistakes pointed out. The help stage is about people telling me specifically where I’m wrong. People handing me a list of mistakes. People making sure I know how perfectly human I am in nice, simple lists. I could call it proofreading. I call it help because everyone loves me enough to be more honest than I ask.