This weekend I attended Darcy Patterson’s Novel Retreat held in my area through SCBWI. Revision and critique groups are something I’m rather intimately familiar with but I wanted to try a new format for looking at a particular book that was stuck. I’d put it through an online group twice, but still hadn’t been able to articulate what it needed. The retreat was focused on whole book critiques, done by a focus group who had read each other’s whole novel all at once. I was successfully able to figure out what the book needed this way, which has made me ponder why my online group has worked so well for some projects but not for this one. I think the answer is in that there’s two basic ways to critique a novel: a chapter at a time and the whole book at once. Each process has different advantages and disadvantages.
Ideally, a novel should be taken in as a whole. It is a complete artwork and so when getting feedback it’s invaluable to get it on the whole book. When a critiquer reads a whole book they can comment on key things like plot, pacing, character arc, setting, tension, and message from a place of understanding the whole story.
However there are several downsides. Critiquing such a large work is a strain on the reader, which means unless you pay someone to do it, often people who offer either don’t get to it, or give a very brief reaction. It’s rare someone will have the time and energy to give line by line suggestion in an entire novel unless you pay them to. So, other than a few typos, it’s rather unfair to ask someone to offer editorial comments on that scale. Still, even asking just for general reactions, I’ve found sometimes the critiquer has only a brief reaction of a few things they liked and disliked. While that is helpful, it doesn’t really dig into the novel to help dissect what it needs.
Usually if you exchange a novel with another author, the process is more reliable since the person is also awaiting your feedback. What made the novel retreat stand out was that everyone had three other people who had read their book, which meant the whole small group could debate each novel in detail, answering specific exercise questions posed by Darcy. This was extremely effective because when one person was unsure why they felt a certain way, either the question or other member’s ideas would help spark them to find words for why this or that part was something they felt worked or didn’t.
While the experience was intense and awesome, it did take a large chunk of time reading the three other novels and thinking about what I thought before the retreat. Then, it was an intense weekend that I had to set aside for the process. Unfortunately, not only do critiquers not usually have that much time to put aside to help me, I don’t usually have that much time to devote to the process. This is where chapter by chapter critique groups come.
Usually there’s a set meeting schedule where everyone comes together and critiques either a single chapter, or in some groups a set amount of words. The most common schedules are once a week, every other week, or once a month. Everyone comments on the chapter, whether aloud (in a real life group), or in email/forums, on an online group. While this make some overall things harder to see, it gives more time to individual scenes and chapters, allowing for more in depth comments, and also help with sentences, grammar, description, or other specific writing problems.
Both processes are very helpful, and I think this weekend’s retreat underscored to me that ideally a book should be critiqued both ways. When one doesn’t help me find the problem, it makes sense to try something different, until I do. Hopefully, this next draft will be a definitive one!