Saturday, December 28, 2013

In the Footsteps of the Inklings: Some Thoughts on Critique Groups

I’ve been wanting to write this post for over a week now. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten much writing of any kind done lately. The new notebook that I have continued Raiders’ Rise in sits near my bed, begging me to use it and reminding me that Chapter 21 is almost done. But things keep intruding. I just finished this awesome trilogy by Pamela Aidan called Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman. It managed to draw me away from my writing more than once. If you like Pride and Prejudice, I would highly suggest it to you. And then there was Christmas shopping, present wrapping, errand running, and, of course, Christmas. Oh well. I did write a book for my little brother as his Christmas present, so, technically, I have written something.

Anyway, now that my life is updated, let’s move on. I’ve been thinking a lot about critique groups and partners over the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to this post and its follow-up on The Writers Alley, an awesome blog full of neat writing tips. And, in considering the idea of a critique group, I thought of the Inklings. For those of you who do not know, the Inklings were a club started in the 1930’s in Oxford, England by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It was composed of several writers, along with a diverse set of Lewis’ friends. They met at “The Eagle and Child” tavern or in Lewis’ rooms at Oxford to discuss any number of topics, including writing. Though it was not a critique group, per se, I still draw some thoughts from the Inklings.

  1. Members of a critique group should be friends. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were close friends before they ever started the Inklings. Tolkien helped bring Lewis back to Christianity. And, as mentioned, most of the members of the Inklings were Lewis’ friends. His doctor, lawyer and brother all attended the meetings. Many of the members had fought in WWI, like Tolkien and Lewis. What this says to me is that they would have had a healthy respect for each other and a genuine desire to see good come to them. While I know it’s possible to critique someone’s work without being close friends with them, I would think that, with an ongoing endeavor, friends would understand you and give their advice in love.
  2. Honesty is required. J.R.R. Tolkien read many excerpts of The Lord of the Rings at meetings of the Inklings, and C.S. Lewis, in particular, was quite brutally honest about his opinion. In fact, the two often disagreed on each other’s works. But they were looking for the best way to improve the writing of the other. In fact, Lewis wasn’t always tough on his friend. If I remember correctly, he was moved to tears by “The Choices of Master Samwise”, and he told Tolkien that. Honesty – though honesty cushioned by praise is recommended – is essential to a good critique partner/group.
  3. You don’t always have to talk about writing. The Inklings discussed topics as varied as their members. They had many interests that bound them together. And I think they benefitted by not being so pinpoint focused on writing all the time. Sometimes the best thing for writers is to talk about or do something completely unrelated to their profession.
  4. Successful writing requires opinions besides your own. The very point of a critique partner or group is that more than one opinion can be fed into a work. Honestly, the impact of someone’s input can’t be measured. But just imagine, for a moment, what Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia might have been without the critiques of the Inklings. Tolkien and Lewis were both literary geniuses, but would their stories have impacted the world the same way if they hadn’t been a part of the Inklings? No one could truly say. Yet I think the Inklings must have been integral to their writing, if only in morale. I know that my writing certainly benefits when I get others’ thoughts on it.
I used to be part of an online writing forum where I was able to engage and receive critiques. It was rewarding for me to help others by giving input, and gaining their thoughts was extremely helpful for me in writing my first book. This next year, I want to look into finding a critique partner or becoming part of a critique group. What about you all? How do you view critique groups/partners?

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