I've belonged to Fictionaires for about eight years. During this time, the group has shrank and expanded. We've lost members to death, attrition, life circumstances, etc. but the one constant has always been the high quality of feedback on my work, which I really appreciate (mostly.)
A critique group is a tricky balance between cheerleaders and critics. There are pros and cons about the benefits of a large group versus a small group. In a small group, your opportunities for feedback are more frequent and in-depth. A large group gives you a variety of opinions, and it's only natural to appreciate/value some more than others.
At a Fictionaires meeting, there are three readers who each read ten pages. Everyone in the group has the opportunity to critique for two minutes (we actually use a timer) during which they have the floor (meaning there isn't any back and forth discussion. If we need to discuss, we do so during the break, where we all stand around, eat treats, and talk about movies, books, and travels and tell jokes.) I love my writers' group. Occasionally, I'll feel sad and miss the members who are no longer with us, but in general, I love the group, not only for the individuals, but also for the way they've helped be a better writer.
To demonstrate what I mean, I'm posting what I read last night followed by the group's input and how I incorporated the changes.
This is from my yet-to-be-published, Fairy Tale Found. The premise of the series is that someone is stealing magical objects from the Fairy Tale Realm and hiding them in the Ordinary World. The seven dwarfs are in search of the missing Mirror on the Wall, and they believe Snow White, who is also missing, as taken it. Unfortunately, they mistake Grace, our seventeen year old ordinary teenager for Snow White. This scene is a little more than a hundred pages into the novel. Grace and her family have just moved from rural Oregon to Orange County California. Fitting into a new school is difficult--but it's infinitely more difficult when being stalked by seven little men. In this scene, Grace has determined to confront the dwarfs and she and her friends have gone to the circus to find them. They're wearing pig suits because a friend's dad owns a barbecue joint and he offered to pay for their tickets to the circus if they would wear the suits as advertisements.
FROM CHAPTER TEN
In Salmon Hill, the leaves would be golden brown. A crisp wind would be reminding everyone that winter rains would soon fall. But in Santa Magdalena, a hot wind blew in off the desert and the dying sun settled over the circus, raising a steamy warmth that mingled with pungent animal smells, the scent of popcorn, and the faint perfume of makeup grease. Amy, Gabby, and Grace wound past hordes of children, parents, a wandering clown, and candy-striped cages of lions and elephants. Horses adorned with enormous and elaborate headgear shook their manes as Grace made her way to the carousel where painted ponies bounced in rhythm. She felt more queasy than brave.
Despite the security guards patrolling the grounds and Chase and Oliver lurking somewhere close, she found it difficult to breathe normally. Where were the dwarfs?
Even though it seemed as if most of the town was at the circus, there was a really good chance the dwarfs wouldn’t show. They seemed to be everywhere she didn’t want them to be, and now that she wanted them—now that she was ready to confront them—where were they?
Behind the curtain of the Big Top, the ringmaster’s voice boomed while tinny joyful music heralded the beginning of the first show. A line of spectators filed into the tent while a large crowd milled around the sawdust-strewn grounds. Grace shoved her hands into the pockets of her pig suit to stop herself from wringing them. Why was she so nervous? Where were the dwarfs?
Amy and Gabby both turned to watch a guy lead a stallion through a wooden gate.
“Giddy-up,” Amy said, staring.
The guy had blond shoulder-length hair tied back with a leather thong and wore soft fawn-colored breeches and matching knee-high boots. His white shirt billowed around a wide leather belt that hung about his hips. His eyes and the small smile curving his lips sent a jolt of recognition up Grace’s spine although she knew they’d never met.
“Hot horse guy,” Gabby murmured. The tone of her voice made Grace feel sorry for Chase. “He’s totally staring at you, which is not fair. You’re not the only one wearing a pig suit!”
Grace tugged at one of the many nipples lining the Pepto-Bismol pink velour costume. She knew she looked ridiculous, but she’d rather look like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web than spend the twenty dollars entrance fee or stay at home. Gabby, Oliver, and Amy looked equally stupid. A passel of porkers, Amy and Oliver’s dad had called them.
“There’s something familiar about him,” Grace said under her breath, tearing her gaze away from him. “Don’t you think so?”
“He’s almost too perfect,” Amy said.
Gabby stopped short. “What’s he doing here?” Now her voice had changed, and Grace knew instantly that Gabby was no longer talking about Hot Horse Guy.
Oliver and Chase stepped out from behind a popcorn stand. For once, Chase looked bashful. (Wasn’t that one of the dwarfs’ names? Timide, Grace reminded herself.)
Amy elbowed Gabby. “Just talk to him.”
Gabby shook her head and her ponytail swung side to side. “No.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Amy whispered and all the S’s sounded like hisses.
“My mom…” Gabby began.
“Yeah, your mom has made mistakes…your dad being the biggest one out there,” Amy said, “but Chase is a good guy. I’ve known him my whole life.”
Gabby balled her fists and placed them on her hips. “Then why was he with Alicia at the beach the other night?”
“Wait. Alicia?” Grace interrupted. “Brock’s Alicia?”
“Alicia belongs to no man,” Gabby said.
“Or all men,” Amy added.
“Does Brock know this?” Grace asked.
Gabby smirked and motioned toward the Big Top. “You should ask him.”
Grace looked over her shoulder to watch Brock and Alicia standing in line, waiting to file into the main arena. As always, Alicia looked rock-star beautiful in her New Occult jeans, strappy sandals, and lacey top. She had her arm looped around Brock’s. Her lifted chin told Grace that she’d spotted them, but refused to acknowledge them because they were mere beetles on her own personal dung pile.
Amy stood a little taller and smiled a little brighter in a way that she wouldn’t do for her brother and his lovesick-for-Gabby friend. Grace turned to see Hot Horse Guy approaching.
Oliver and Chase also must have noticed him, because their steps faltered.
“My pet,” Hot Horse Guy murmured as he drew closer.
“Excuse me?” Amy scrunched her nose at him.
“I have followed you this great distance,” he said. “I entreat you, do not abuse me further.”
“You abused him?” Gabby asked Grace.
Grace squinted at him. “Are you talking to me?”
“Ma chérie,” he pleaded, taking Grace’s hand and drawing it to his lips. His kiss sent a chill up her arm even though his hand was warm.
“It means my dear,” Chase whispered in Grace’s ear. “’Pet’ I can understand. Some people keep pigs as pets, but not deer.”
“But I’m not his dear or his pet.”
“Ah, you have yet to forgive me.” Hot Horse Guy held her hand pressed against his chest. “It matters not. Our love is written in the stars.”
“Ew!” Grace pulled away from him. “I don’t know who you are, or what you want…”
Oliver squared his shoulders and stepped in front of Grace. “You heard her. Porker off.”
Chase cocked his head at the scene, as if trying to read the situation before also taking a protective shielding-step. “Yeah. You heard the sow!”
“The sow?” Grace pushed Chase and Oliver out of her way. “Look. I’m sure you’re a perfectly nice French person, but I’m not who you think I am.”
Hot Horse Guy lowered his eyebrows at Chase and Oliver. “I am not afraid to fight for my heart.”
Chase and Oliver braced their shoulders like roosters ruffling their feathers, which was so strange because Grace didn’t even know if the California boys had ever seen roosters squaring off for a fight. Or even seen roosters in the flesh and feathers.
She held her arms out, separating Chase and Oliver from Hot Horse Guy. “No one is fighting anyone,” she said, looking first at Oliver and then Chase. “And I’m not your heart,” she said to Hot Horse Guy.
“I’ve slain a dragon for you,” he said in a wounded tone.
“You mean that figuratively, right?” Grace wanted to believe that this guy couldn’t really believe in dragons, but the fierce look on his face made her question his sanity.
“What’s going on?” Brock’s voice came from directly behind her.
Grace twisted to see Brock. Alicia stood a little ways away. Gabby sent her a death stare, but Alicia refused to meet her eye. Something about the way Brook acted made Grace suspect he didn’t know about Chase and Alicia’s beach hookup.
“This guy thinks Grace holds his heart,” Amy said.
“If you’ve ever seen a real heart, you would know how creepy that sounds,” Grace said, thinking about the Salmon Hill Biology class where Dr. Holmes had dissected a cow’s heart.
He had only agreed to go with Alicia to the circus because he’d heard Grace and Dillinger making plans. Brock knew he should feel guilty about this, but it didn’t stop him from going. Maybe sometime between the acrobats and clowns, he’d find a way to break things off with Alicia.
He slid a glance at her. She had a secret. Brock felt it hanging between them. She’d been mad that he’d taken Grace home from the beach, but there was more to it than that. In some ways, she was like the whispering painting in the attic—just another something or someone he couldn’t figure out.
The ringmaster’s voice belted over the loud speaker, announcing the last show. The lights flickered on as the sun settled onto Saddlehorn Mountain, preparing to completely disappear.
Alicia took hold of Brock’s arm. “Let’s go, Brocky. I don’t want to miss the acrobats—they’re my favorite.”
He hated being called Brocky. It sounded too close to broccoli. He wondered what she’d say if he started calling her Alicia-sparagus.
Amy quirked an eyebrow. “Brocky?”
Brock glowered at her, before turning to the new guy. “What’s your name?”
He stepped in front of Brock so that the toes of his boots were touching the ends of Brock’s sandals.
“I am Roy Charmant. And who might you be?”
Brock swallowed a laugh. “I might be Batman.”
“You scoff at my devotion!” Charmant placed his hand over his heart.
“No. I never scoff at devotion. I scoff at—”
Alicia tugged at Brock’s arm, interrupting him. “What are you doing? Let’s go.”
Brock poked his finger at Roy’s chest. “Leave Grace alone,” he said, hating himself for allowing Alicia to tug him away.
Bafflement flickered across Roy’s face. “Why is he calling you Grace?”
“Because it’s my name.”
He cocked his head, considering her. “Mmm, I like it. It suits you.”
Grace laughed. “Of course it does.”
“If you wish to be called Grace, I understand.”
“I’m done with this,” Oliver said, draping one arm around Grace’s shoulder and the other around Amy’s. “Let’s go watch the show.”
“That was super creepy,” Oliver murmured on the way to the tent. “You better stay away from him,” he told Amy, “or I’m telling Dad.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “I liked him until he started talking.”
“It’s really sad. So many people are that way.” Gabby slid a look at Chase.
Chase opened his mouth to make an argument, but quickly closed it again, obviously worried that Brock would overhear him. After a few seconds of internal debate, he whispered in her ear, “She started it, okay?”
“But why?” Gabby whispered.
Chase lifted his shoulders. “Who knows? You’ll have to ask her.”
“She just couldn’t resist your charms?”
Chase stopped and the line of people surged around him. “Is that so hard to believe?”
Gabby frowned at him. “I don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t get you!”
“You’re right. You don’t.”
“Oh come on, you guys,” Amy said, pulling on Gabby. “You’re spoiling the circus for me.”
“I’m sorry, Amy,” Chase said. “But I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“You’re supposed to be helping me find the dwarfs,” Grace said.
Chase lifted his hands in surrender and walked away.
Oliver kicked up a bit of sawdust in Gabby’s direction. “See what you’ve done?”
“What I’ve done?” Gabby huffed. “He’s the one who made-out with her.”
“She kissed him!” Oliver and Amy said simultaneously, sounding, for the first time, like twins.
“But why? She’s with Brock!” Gabby looked on the edge of explosion.
Grace wasn’t interested in their drama, nor did she want to sit through a show of clowns, lion tamers, and acrobats. She wanted to confront the dwarfs, and she wanted to ask Hot Horse Guy just who he thought she was. She also wanted to know exactly who Blanche was and why everyone was looking for her.
“You guys go ahead without me,” Grace said. “I’ll catch up with you.”
She pushed through the crowd, searching for one tall blond head or seven bald ones, feeling a little like Alice lost in Wonderland. When she reached the stands, the lights flickered and then died with an electric sigh. The park disappeared into black. The Ferris wheel cars rocked, a few children began to cry, and in the distance a coyote howled. The moon and stars did their best to shine through the marine layer blowing in from the coast. She stood stalk still, listening and trying to get her bearings. All around her, children and adults stumbled in the dark, waiting for the lights to return. Someone, a tall weaving figure in a black cape, bumped into her.
“Pardon,” he mumbled.
Grace found shelter beneath a slim maple tree and waited until her sight adjusted to the gloom. Scanning the crowd, she took note of the booths strung with inoperable lights. She couldn’t see the dwarfs or the guy called Charmant, but she did see a security officer, or at least someone dressed in a uniform. She moved back into the crowd and then felt someone tugging on her wrist.
At first, believing there was a mistake, she said, “Excuse me.” But the hand holding her didn’t loosen. In the dark, she could only see the man’s cloak. She tried to shake him loose, but the grip tightened and pulled her toward a crop of outbuildings. She opened her mouth to scream, but the man must have been expecting this. He shoved an apple into her mouth as he pulled her behind the restrooms.
Grace tried to spit the apple out, but he just pushed it deeper. She gagged. Her nose burned and her vision blurred. Shadows loomed around her; she saw buildings, rocks, and trees. Stumbling forward, she hit her head against a building. She struggled against the pain, the apple in her mouth, and the hands holding her wrist, but within seconds a tide of warm lassitude spread through her and buckled her knees. She fell into the embrace of her captor. Right before she passed out, she heard, “Ah, princess. Must you make everything très difficile?”
The feedback (I'm only including the criticism, not the compliments, because I'm modest that way.)
Beth: (a frequent contributor to Orange Coast Magazine)
She worried about the "scrunch nose" and suggested I make it more obvious that Grace isn't wearing a mask.
Liseanne; (Check out her book here)
Suggested I get rid of the cliche "stock still" (Good call, Liseanne.) She also later made the argument that I had just the right amount of description of Hot Horse Guy.
Terry: (a Hollywood and TV screenwriter, writer of video games and also a frequent contributor of Orange Coast Magazine) He suggested that Hot Horse Guy should comment on the pig suit. (Of course!) He also liked the line about tugging on the many nipples.
Lori: (check out her romances here)
Being a romance writer, Lori wanted more about our hero, Brock.
Greta: (check out Greta here)
She suggested I make the POV shifts more smooth.
Mike: (check out Mike's books here)
Mike suggested that I get rid of Brock's POV in this chapter and after some consideration, I agree. (But to be honest, I ALWAYS listen to Mike.) He also said I need to make the French accent more distinct in Hot Horse Guy's first line and I need to be more clear about the staging once the lights go out.
She wanted more physical description of Hot Horse Guy and more of Grace's reaction to him. (This was contested and discussed during the break.)
Rhondi and Cary only had compliments, so their comments are missing, but they were there and I love them for their kind words and feedback.