Critique. It’s not everyone’s favorite thing, right? But as a writer, critique groups are necessary for me, a good hurt. Of course, not every circle of writers is a good mix or a constructive influence. I don’t know the secret formula for finding the perfect critique group. Somehow I’ve been super lucky. I attend three amazing groups that suit my location, my genres, my commitment, and my skill level. They accept my writing for what it is, yet challenge me to do better without insulting my ineptitude. Sure, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Critique hurts sometimes, no matter what. And we still debate the common trivialities: the Oxford comma, clichés, and the ever-popular-bad-apple, adverbs.
Today a writer in my critique group lost his battle with cancer.
William Barnes wrote historical fiction. His latest work-in-progress dealt with the sordid history of the Texas Rangers. Before I continue, I must confess—I’m a Yankee. When we arrived at the “Western Expansion” portion of our U.S. History books in high school, our teacher skipped it, claiming this part of U.S. history wasn’t important, as it contained dubious facts and silly folktales. In contrast, my children took two Texas history classes before graduating from elementary school, which I considered suspiciously xenophobic. Bill read his work-in-progress at critique group and shot bullets through my prejudice. In his native Texan drawl, he read his excerpt aloud, a complex tale with Rangers hunting down Mexican-heritage citizens while those in Congress debated boundaries and laws. Conflict, complexity, humor, and action surrounded the historical facts of his story and I was surprisingly intrigued. Funny how a brilliantly scripted “silly folktale” can change minds, huh?
But I gained more than a new respect for Texas history from Bill. That same night, I shared my piece with the group, a flash fiction horror story. Bill liked it so much he emailed me later and volunteered to beta-read anything I had. I sent him a YA fantasy short story. He sincerely loved it and detailed the reasons. When I lack confidence in my writing abilities, it helps to recall Bill’s words. A Texas grandfather and longtime-writer of historical fiction went out of his way to encourage me, a YA speculative fiction writer.
Though cancer stole Bill from the world, his encouraging words live on. They lend me confidence on days of doubt. Before he passed, I had the precious opportunity to thank Bill for his encouragement. I imagine him riding into heaven on a wild mustang.
Critique is important. Facing tough criticism molds us into better writers. But there’s a flip side. Encouragement also makes us better. If there’s someone like Bill in your critique group, thank them today.