Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 1, 2010

What I’m Reading: The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine

Critiquing someone else’s manuscript can fall into the category of difficult things people expect to happen without much or any training. I thought of this recently when a writer whose novels I admire confessed to me that she wasn’t a great critiquer. I suppose just because someone can write well doesn’t mean she’ll be great at giving advice. Knowing what to say and what not to say may take practice or the old learning through mistakes.

Or we can get help. Just as we read books on craft and save ourselves some anguish, a guide to starting and keeping good critique partners can save us time and friends and tearing out the wrong lines or pages . Many of you have seen the posts and comments here of Becky Levine, so you won’t be surprised by the humor, clarity and wisdom she put into The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. And if you don’t know her, she introduces herself as someone who always wanted to write but never longed to live in a lonely garret. A practical dreamer is someone I want on my side.

It’s a pretty book to have around, with its collages of mangled and rescued writing.Inside, Becky breaks down kinds of writing, so we get examples of how to examine travel writing, memoir, picture books, chapter books, and more: the examples of good and not-so-much are entertaining to read on their own: they made me want to go back to some books she’d pulled examples from or pick others up anew.

Becky not only cites problems to pay attention to in a manuscript, from the levels of sentences to themes, but she writes about the different ways groups can manage time and space, and notes some warning signals re fractured dynamics. Um, that was something our group learned the hard way, and how we became a closed group of four, which has worked for us lo these twenty years, not to sound old. Becky moves beyond critique to note what other gifts a group can bring: support, which I is so valued in mine (who else really cheers so loudly for a success, knowing how hard you worked for it, and who else can frown as deeply at the snares along the way, since they’ve been there, too.) She mentions pluses like brainstorming together. I love when someone points out not only something wrong, but a possible way out, though that’s something that must be done with delicacy, since after all, this is the writer’s book and the solutions must be theirs.

Becky goes into all of this with a compassionate tone. If my fiction-writing friend in college had read this, would she have said, “Jeannine, you may finish writing your novel, but will you have friends to celebrate with?” Okay, that was more about me turning down a coffee date or something, but still I think this is the kind of thing you’re not supposed to say. All of us will experience some awkward moments, but kind guidance and common sense, which we sometimes find is not as common as we thought, helps. Thank you, Becky, for all you put into this wonderful book.

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  1. Jeannine, thank you! It means so much to me that you like the book. 🙂

  2. Becky knows I have this book–I got it instantly–and it will be such a help to me in my private coaching and when I teach in summers.

  3. I knew it would be great, but I didn’t know how great it could be for me as I’m very happy with my critique group: whatever we’ve been doing these decades seems to work. But, and I remember Jama writing this, there’s so much that goes beyond the critique process to ways anyone can examine a ms that is helpful. Plus I just liked hearing your voice at length!

  4. I’ve been wanting to read this for a little while, but, while I love reading for research, it slows down everything else I want to read. So great you can look forward to using this as a resource! It’s the kind of book to dip in and out of, (if you’ll excuse that dangling “of.”)

  5. This is definitely a must have book! Thanks for reminding me. 🙂
    And how wonderful that you have such a tight writing group–I’m sure that is such a support.

  6. Ooh! I’m getting my copy this Thursday!

  7. Some people seem to get to these things fast, but never me, so I’m glad I could remind you! And, yes, I’m so grateful to my writing group who’ve become wonderful friends through the years. The process would be so much lonelier, for one thing, without them.

  8. Lucky you! And you’re probably in the right neighborhood to get it signed!
    I am going to have to do a Bay area trip one of these days!

  9. Already got it signed at Becky’s launch party. I had to miss it but a friend got a copy for me! 🙂

  10. Thanks so much for this in-depth review, Jeannine! I haven’t been able to read this yet, but it’s one of the few new releases that I’m allowing myself to buy (along with Borrowed Names).

  11. Thank you for calling the review in-depth, because I felt there was so much I was leaving out. But I do try not to go on and on. Thanks for your support!! (two exclamation marks, for me and for Becky!)

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