I have had several kinds of critique partners on Girlish. I didn’t have a writing group that met once a week and read each other’s works in progress, but I did have several key people, all located in different parts of the country, who read my work and helped me whip it into shape.
Some of the chapters were written during my MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I had the benefit of faculty advisors as well as my fellow students, but most of the book was written post-graduation.
I have a few close writing friends who read my work at my earliest stages and not only encouraged me—which was really necessary—but also helped me look at the bigger picture. We talked about where I was heading, what I could leave out, what I needed to include.
Since Girlish is a memoir, I was writing about real people. This can be tricky, as we often see our family so clearly in our minds that we don’t realize where the description is lacking. The only problem with my writing partners who were dear friends was that they knew me too well to know what I was skimming over or giving short shrift to—like me, they could unintentionally fill in any empty spaces in my story as they already knew all the major players and my biggest life events. I had to find some people who didn’t know me quite as well.
I have a friend I met blogging, and she was willing to exchange manuscripts with me. She not only looked at what the book needed in terms of the narrative, but she put that fucker under a microscope. We had lengthy discussions about commas and the merit of particular words, discussed whether passive writing voice was a valid way to portray passive people, and gave each other secret editing short cuts, such as, “do a search for the word like and see if it can be replaced with as if.” She was sure that I would benefit from using Scrivener, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it. We shared blogs on revision and query letters and how to write a synopsis. Reading her work forced me to look up rules of grammar and helped me look at my own work more critically, and the fact that we were in it together helped me stay focused and enthusiastic. I was accountable to keep moving forward in the same way that I had been during school.
Next I sent my book to a beta reader who was a complete stranger—a friend of a friend. We had never met, chatted, texted, or liked each other’s posts on Facebook. She was as close to an “average reader” as I could hope for, and she sent me six pages of notes which I integrated into my revisions.
Then I realized that all of my writing partners/beta readers had never met my family IRL. They couldn’t know if I was portraying people accurately or leaving out major events. I needed people closer to home to help as well. It was finally time to show Girlish to my SigO, who knows me better than anyone else in the world. He was able to say what major holes my manuscript still had, and if I had portrayed my family on the pages accurately, since he knew them all IRL.
Once I thought it was “done-done” as opposed to mostly-done, I had a few mom-friends read it as an anxiety check. Did I overshare? How did they feel about my family members? Did I sound bitter? Could I be both a writer and a mother?
Finally, I had my best childhood friend read it. She had spent the night at my house enough to know what my life was like, but since she didn’t live with us, she had a bit of distance. She’s also one of the best-read people I know.
I didn’t always take other people’ suggestions, but I always valued their opinions. After all, sometimes I don’t know how strongly I feel about something until I have to defend it. I got something valuable from each of my readers/writing partners, and I’m grateful to them all.
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