Where We Do Difficult Things:
Good AF Writers

pen writing - Good AF Writers

Writing is often a solitary activity, well suited to introverts. We thrive in a sort of solitude where we rarely feel alone, thanks to the people or creatures, historical or imagined, who fill our stories and books. But several essential writerly activities require us to interact with contemporary, fellow humans in challenging ways. Three of these happen over and over again at the twice-monthly meetings of a local critique group, Good AF Writers. (AF is for American Fork, Utah. What were you thinking?)

Different critique groups operate in different ways, but most have three nerve-wracking activities in common:

  • reading an excerpt of your writing aloud
  • hearing others’ feedback on your writing
  • giving others your feedback on their writing

At the beginning of each Good AF Writers meeting, each person answers two questions: Are you reading tonight? Are you being critiqued?

“No” is a perfectly acceptable answer to either question — and feel free to translate critique into feedback, both in the meetings and as you read this. Some find that term gentler. In any case, typically most of us will answer yes to one question or both. New members are welcome to jump right in or simply to observe for a meeting or two or more, before presenting their writing for critique or critiquing others’ work.

Reading and being critiqued go together. If I’m reading tonight, it’s an excerpt of something to be critiqued at our next meeting. If I’m being critiqued, it’s because I read an excerpt at the last meeting and sent my writing out for others to read in advance and critique at this meeting.

Writers are welcome to read and be critiqued at every meeting; the group has never quite been large enough that we had to take turns, meeting by meeting. A few members have guided entire novels through the group, one meeting at a time, reading from the next chapter and having the current chapter critiqued in the same meeting.

Where, when, etc.
Good AF Writers is a member organization of the League of Utah Writers. Based in American Fork, it typically meets from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the American Fork Library on the second and fourth Thursdays at 6 p.m., with some flexibility for holidays and other circumstances. New members are welcome.

Reading

If you’re reading, you’ll read aloud for a minute or two from whatever you’re presenting for critique. For most writers in the group, that’s the next chapter of a novel-in-progress. Sometimes it’s two short chapters or half of a long chapter. It might be a chapter from a nonfiction project, or all or part of a short story. We’ve seen memoir, query letters, poetry, essays, plot outlines, and business-related web copy.

There’s a slightly soft cap of 2,500 words per writer per meeting. The portion you read aloud is a small fraction of that, but enough to give the group a sense of it.

You don’t need me to tell you that reading aloud from your work-in-progress can be daunting, especially with talented writers in the room, when you know they’ll be critiquing your work. You may suspect it’s good (it probably is) or think it’s garbage (probably not), but either way it’s personal. You put a piece of your soul into it, and when others find room for improvement, you’re tempted to feel personally judged.

If it helps, remember that “Are you being critiqued?” is shorthand for the real question: is some of your writing being critiqued tonight?

Reports from the Front Lines

I’ve been doing this regularly for a few years. Before that I was a seasoned writer and editor of other things, but not the fiction I’m trying to write now. Often as not, I’m still a bit nervous about reading, even when it’s the last chunk of a short story the group has liked so far.

I asked other veterans to remember their first few meetings at Good AF Writers.

Karen (YA fiction and romance) replied, “I was scared, but everyone was super nice. I was surprised that not only was it easier to share my writing with others, but that they were accepting and had good things to say about it. People actually enjoyed what I had to say. The advice I got was invaluable.”

Gayelynn (clean Regency romance) wrote, “The first few times, I just watched. It took me a month or two before I gathered enough courage to read a sample of my work and ask for feedback. I no longer shake when I read, much.”

Paul (who says he writes “Words. Novels. Lies.”) recalled, “It was nerve-wracking, and I could feel the sweat in my armpits. Those words, my words, tumbling out of me onto the varnished wood table before they bounced about and diffused in the ear holes of those attending …”

Before the next meeting — ideally, at least a week in advance — you’ll send your writing to the group, usually as a Word doc. Those who choose to read and critique it will usually respond in two formats: a few minutes of oral critique in the meeting, followed by returning your file to you after the meeting, with markup and comments.

Being Critiqued

(Again, you could translate that to “receiving feedback,” if you prefer.)

Our critiques tend both to both praise what works and identify opportunities for improvement. My wording there is not euphemistic; the object is to improve as writers, to improve our writing, not to be judged once and for all as talented or not, real writers or hopeless pretenders. Every work we see is a work in progress. So is every writer.

We subject ourselves, each other, and our writing to this process not because we love pain, but because it’s crucial to improving our writing. Writer Jenna England explains, “We wonder what separates the quality of traditionally published writing from unpublished. Is it talent? Skill? Experience? I won’t deny that these are factors, but I think there is something else that is often overlooked: having multiple pairs of eyes on your writing. And then, taking at least some of the feedback you’re given.”

Positive feedback is good for more than morale; it helps me know what not to break when I’m revising. Negative – but constructive – comments are even more valuable. I like to know what didn’t work for a particular reader, or what worked but could have worked better.

Reliable good intentions and the likelihood of some praise notwithstanding, having your writing critiqued may occasionally be devastating, but we hope it pulls up short of that. We’re peers, not judges and judged, and we understand that sometimes the part of you which you put into this writing is an especially vulnerable part — because we do that too.

Click for a sampler of oral critiques I received in a typical, recent meeting.
The last fiction I sent through the group was a short story about 5,000 words long, so it took two meetings. My notes from everyone’s oral critiques filled a two-page Word document. I referred to them as I revised the story. Note that even though this story was particularly well received, the group still found some things I could improve (and I did).

Each bullet point is from a different critic. I’m partly paraphrasing, partly quoting, and I asked specifically for thoughts about the mood I was setting.

  • Strong writing. I like it. From the beginning the mood says something will go wrong. He [the first-person narrator] is a loser, but we like him.
  • Fun read. By the middle I was guessing that one or the other was going to die. The comparison of the black rock to the dark sky is clumsy.
  • Expected fantasy, not disappointed that it wasn’t. Very satisfying twist at the end. Not sure the female character has the mental capacity to be a biochemist. We need more description [at a certain point]. I was a little disappointed that he [the aforementioned loser/narrator] didn’t get laid in the end.
  • Set the tone really well. The stone fortress is essentially a character in the story, so it should be involved in the ending, but it’s not. I’d like a little foreshadowing of the [spoiler omitted] at the end.
  • I want to know the female character better. Would like to be shown, not just told about [a certain action]. Maybe she should drink the wine first, before he drinks.”

There’s nearly always something valuable in each response.

You’re the Author

In the group we’re good at remembering that the author is the author. The author is the expert. The author (usually) knows where the story is going, beyond the portion the critics read for a given meeting. The author decides what she’s trying to say, which of the problems critics see are actually problems, and how to address them in revision.

That said, critiques can be confusing. Different critics may like and dislike different things. I’ve had them disagree over what my short story was even about – an illuminating ten minutes. Since I didn’t want that particular story to be so ambiguous, I knew I had some fixing to do. Beyond that, they uncovered layers of potential meaning which I hadn’t yet discerned, but could now weave more deliberately into the cloth, when I revised.

While the writer should mostly just listen to his critiques (which for me usually involves taking notes), and certainly should not argue (Brandon Sanderson’s rule, I think), it’s appropriate to ask for clarification or pose a question on a matter of concern which the critiques haven’t touched.

When I’m the author in this scenario, I usually find most of what the group says to be worth considering. Some of it I instantly recognize as helpful. Critics don’t always, and don’t have to, suggest solutions to the problems they raise, and I often choose a different solution when they do. (I am the author.) But my idea often comes as I listen to their ideas.

For me it’s as Gayelynn described: “I find it incredibly helpful to have honest responses to my writing. I have come to value hearing what my cohorts like, what they want more of, what they didn’t like, what didn’t make sense. I have learned, and continue to learn, how to better tell a story — more effective plotting, better characterization, pacing and such.”

Offering Critique

The third nerve-wracking activity I mentioned is critiquing others’ writing. For some this is more difficult than being critiqued, but it can be equally helpful – for you, not just for the writers you’re critiquing.

Karen wrote, “As I critique other writers I become a better writer. Seeing faults and strengths in others’ work helps me see them in my own. I did not expect that.”

Moreover, it’s one thing to see the polished, professionally edited, published writing of authors you admire; it’s quite another to read works-in-progress, to evaluate and report what’s working well for you and what isn’t. Gayelynn explained, “Previously, when I’ve had to write about a piece of literature, I entered with the assumption that the writing is of the best quality. That’s all I was required to read critically — the very finest literature. I’d never really looked at the structure of novels, the pacing, the plot points … but I’m learning as I listen to others critique my and others’ work.”

Critiques may consider any aspect of the writing, and different members of the group have different strengths and tendencies as critics. In part this is because we read and write in different genres, and, as group president Tim notes, different genres have different emphases. For example, romance highlights emotion, horror emphasizes suspense and surprise, and fantasy relies heavily on world-building.

I may not know all the expectations readers impose on Regency romance, for example, and I don’t love horror. But it doesn’t hurt me to experience and evaluate them. You may not feel the same enthusiasm for my contemporary realism as you feel for the urban fantasy you love to read and write, but your insights will likely help me anyway. Most writing needs the same basic ingredients, even if the proportions differ. Storytelling is storytelling.

In the group we disagree often enough, but we agree on this: Oral critiques should not get bogged down in line-editing issues such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. These can be important, especially in later drafts, but the place for such things is in the critic’s markup of the piece, not discussion in the meeting. Toward the end of a critique, we often hear something like, “I had some line edits and some other little things. I’ll send you the file.”

Click for a sampler of oral critiques I offered at recent meetings.
My own oral critiques in recent meetings have included notes like these. Some are paraphrased, and they’re responding to several different authors’ work.

  • This description is superb – not just vivid, but wrenching.
  • This is a newer usage of [a certain word]; it doesn’t fit the period [two centuries ago in England].
  • I like how it gradually grows on her what she just did, and what she’s doing; her delayed emotional response feels quite human.
  • You’re giving us a fast-moving action scene in long paragraphs built of long, complex sentences and simply too many words – all of which gums up the action. (As I sometimes do in the file, less often in the oral critique, I illustrated. I crossed out about one-third of the words, rearranged a few, suggested more active verb forms, and split up some sentences and paragraphs. But it’s always one guy’s opinion, and the author is the author.)
  • Your narrative is generally third-person limited, but we’re a full page in before we’re sure who is the viewpoint character in this chapter, and it turns out not to be who we thought. You also head-hopped for a couple of sentences [here], and [there] you slipped into third-person omniscient. (These sins, if committed, ought to be committed purposefully.)
  • The hook at the end of this chapter is so good that I really don’t want to wait a week for the next chapter.

We all want to resist the temptation to rewrite others’ work, to try to make it what we want it to be. An occasional, illustrative paragraph revision, as I described above, is about as far as I will go. You won’t be surprised that one learns quickly, if one hasn’t learned already, to practice a certain candid humility in both critiquing and being critiqued.

After the Meeting, Unofficially

After most meetings we go out for a late dinner, informally, at one local restaurant or another. This is optional. Officially it’s “to prove that we’re still friends.” Unofficially it’s quality time with good, interesting people. Sometimes we talk about each other’s writing, including joys and struggles which don’t come up in critiques of specific chapters. Sometimes we talk about favorite books or movies. Sometimes we just talk. It tends to be fun, interesting, and encouraging.

Is It for You?

If you’re local and you wonder whether Good AF Writers is for you, I have a suggestion: come and see. Confirm the time and location of the next meeting at our public Facebook group, ask any burning questions there, and come experience the meeting. You won’t have anything to critique from the previous meeting, but you can read your own writing for next time if you want — and it’s fine if you don’t.

If you’re concerned that what you write may not fit the group, it probably does. There are other groups on the Wasatch Front which specialize or have active subgroups for specific genres, but Good AF Writers is ecumenical. I even send the occasional blog post through the gauntlet, including this one.

Next time, or whenever you feel almost ready — don’t wait to feel completely ready — bring us some of your writing. Then see if the critiques you receive are helpful. Do that two or three times, then step back and ask yourself if it’s for you. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is.

Besides answering our common need to get other eyes on our writing, the group tends to encourage a certain rhythm. Having the next chapter ready for critique at the next meeting helps us to keep writing and revising, amid life’s many distractions and writing’s many setbacks.

Which brings us back to where we began. Aspiring and established writers who stubbornly persist in three difficult activities, reading their own unfinished work aloud to others, submitting it for critique, and critiquing others’ work, through meeting after meeting and month after month, see their own writing – and others’ writing – improve.

Good AF Writers FAQ
Q. How many people usually attend? What ages? What levels of writing experience?

A. Attendance averages 8 or 9. Occasionally it’s 5 or 6, sometimes a dozen.

We’ve welcomed teenagers and aspiring writers on the high side of eighty. The regulars have mostly been between their twenties and about sixty. Most have day jobs, are students, or both, with a wide variety of occupations. Several have had their writing published; most or all of the others hope to be published eventually.

Q. Do I have to live in American Fork to participate?

A. No. We’ve welcomed writers from several cities in Utah County and even Salt Lake County.

Q. Is there a fee to join?

A. Those who meet with the group regularly are encouraged to join its parent organization, the League of Utah Writers, at a cost of $30 annually, or $5 if you’re under 18. But we’ve never turned anyone away who didn’t join.

If you’re interested in the League’s spring and fall conferences, Pre-Quill and Quills, respectively, or in the annual writing contest, the Olive Woolley Burt Awards, the membership fee quickly pays for itself in lower ticket prices and contest fees.

Q. What about technology? The photos with this post all show pens and paper. Do you really write that way?

A. I rarely write that way, except under duress. More to the point, you’ll see laptops, tablets, and smart phones at our meetings, and we usually exchange Microsoft Word docs. There are alternatives if you prefer them, including hard copies. Speaking of technology, we usually can accommodate remote participation; last summer I attended a meeting from the shade of an evergreen tree on the bank of Lake Tahoe.

Q. What kinds of writing are welcome in the group?

A. Just about anything you’re working on and need others to see, and not just fiction. If there’s explicit sexual content or particularly disturbing violence, which some group members might prefer to avoid, we ask for a warning before you read to the group, so anyone who wishes to can leave the room temporarily. (This almost never happens, so far.)

Q. Is everyone expected to critique everything for every meeting?

A. Rather the opposite. Reading and preparing thoughtful critiques is time-consuming. We recommend selecting not more than three pieces to critique for a given meeting. Sometimes I try for four or five, but life intervenes and I manage only one or two. Sometimes I get to them all, especially if I resist one of my chief temptations: to line-edit everything along the way.

When you’re the author, you may sometimes get as few as two critiques or as many as eight or nine.

Q. What if I come to a meeting and discover that everyone else is a better writer than me?

A. First, you’ll probably be wrong. Second, if you’re right, your improvement will simply be more obvious at first. Third, there are so many aspects of writing to be better at that you’re probably already better at some of them. Fourth, critiquing others’ work, meeting after meeting, will expand your vision of how many things there are to be better at. If you want to stick to that for a while, you’re no less welcome.


Photo credits: Aaron Burden on Unsplash, and Hannah Olinger on Unsplash.


From the Author

David Rodeback

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