I joined my first critique group when I was about sixteen. It was a group of poets, short story writers and novelists who met at Wendy’s and read their pieces while children ran passed us and threw salad at each other. It was run as an off campus club through Clackamas Community College by the advisor, Alan Widderburg, to help encourage and assist new writers. I recall with fondness those days of word tossing—not to be confused with the salad tossing by the screaming children. Alan used to tell me I would be the next Jean Auel. Apparently my prehistoric-feeling dystopian science fiction reminded the group of her work. The piece of advice I was given every week was: show not tell. It took me another ten years to figure out what that meant.
During college I went to the Willamette Writer’s Conference and monthly meetings in Portland, volunteered at events and submitted my stories and poetry to literary magazines and contests. I even won a few. When I travelled overseas and taught English, I continued to write short stories and novels. In my next critique group, Visionary Ink, run by Douglas and Sandi, we brought stories to read in someone’s house and received constructive criticism. I joined the online critique group, Critters.org, and tried to start one with my friend, Corinna who had been part of Visionary Ink before moving to Japan and was the one who told me about the job in Japan, but I really missed my old group. I was so grateful to have the continued support, correspondence, friendship and encouragement of my friends from the Visionary Ink while I lived in Japan. The members would read my story and they taped the critiques—for which I am eternally grateful. Though I don’t typically attend the critique group anymore, I am happy to still visit and correspond with these wonderful people.
When I moved to the Eugene area, two separate writers told me I had to go to Wordos: Eric Witchey and George Walker. Eventually I did. Had I known that some of the authors I met, socialized with and was critiqued by were well-known science fiction and fantasy authors, I probably would have peed my pants. Fortunately, I was slow to catch on and just thought they were normal people. Heh. Now I know otherwise.
I now know the writers I rubbed elbows with were nerdastically famous. In addition to writing fantasy novels, my fairy-photographing, feather-collecting, craft night pal, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, wrote a Star Trek novel in the 1990s. And Jerry Oltion who has shown me his telescope several times (yes, his wife knows) is the most published author in Analog, and wrote a Star Trek novel in the 1970’s. I have met NY Times best-selling authors, Patti Briggs, and Devon Monk, and Hugo Award Winners David Levine and Mary Robinette Kowal through Wordos. And I would just like to mention how freakin’ cool it was that Mary bought one of my fascinators. Also as a result of Wordos, I met the talented Mary E. Lowd who I have watched Star Trek in the Park with, celebrated story sales with dessert at Sweet Life and shared many wonderful moments of friendship with.
Also since returning to America from overseas in 2009, I joined the Portland Romance Writer of America Chapter, Rose City Romance Writers. I was able to run elbows with big name authors like Delilah Marvelle and Jessa Slade as well as many others.
What have these experiences taught me?
The more time I spend around writers who are doing what they love, are successful and continue to strive for their goals, the more I am inspired. I learn new tips and insider secrets. I know more about the markets. I hear gossip about publishers and editors—and their reputations. The expectation that I will produce something professional and polished increases as a result of being surrounded by those who know how to produce marketable work.
It was only when I was critiquing about 6 stories a week and hearing other people’s critiques of the same stories that I began to learn more quickly than I had in the past. Experts are always saying things like, “If you want to write you need to read,” or “Read what you want to write?” but how many of us say, “I’m too busy!” The thing is, you can’t expect to pass a math test unless you do the practice homework. Selling a story is the ultimate A+ on a test.
As a result of my constant critiquing, seeing the mistakes and successes of others, and being critiqued, I was able to apply these skills in my own work and finally become published.