Fiction, MFA

So it begins…

I’m thrilled that residency is less than a month a way. This June to January stretch feels so long. I’ve had a nice one day break between the end of the undergraduate semester (my TA work) and starting working on my peer critiques. I have 150 pages of fiction to critique by Jan. 7.

It’s definitely doable, but more than that, I’m looking forward to the work. Even more than that, I’m looking forward to the actual peer critique sessions. Here’s my process:

  1. Read through a short story just to get the lay of the land.
  2. Read through again, marking what works for me and what doesn’t with check marks or underlined text.
  3. Read through a third time, making in-margin comments.
  4. Write the 1-page letter critique that goes to each author in my group.

First Read-Through

On my first read-through, I’m really just trying to get a feel for characters and the story as a whole. This is the type of read-through that prevents me questioning something only to later find out the answer exists in the story. Reading through without a pen in hand also helps me enjoy the story as a reader. After all, my job as a peer is not to edit the text.

Rather, it’s to provide a reader-response from a fellow fiction writer and MFA candidate.

Second Read-Through

For this step, I pick the pen up for the first time. I don’t write any words but just mark what works and what I feel could be improved. That’s the only purpose of this read through–registering my reactions.

I’ll mark beautifully-turned phrases, awkward word choices, etc…but I lay off grammar/typos. My purpose is not to proofread the story, especially at this stage.

Third Read-Through

This is where I will call attention to any typos or grammatical snafus. But, far more importantly, I’ll write why something works or me or doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I might offer some ideas for how a particular passage can be improved. As I read through, I’m also thinking about my big-picture reactions because that’s what I’m going to highlight in the letter.

Writing the Letter

There are some things I’m required to cover in the letter. I have to provide a one-sentence summary of the story. I have to describe what I liked and why, and offer a suggestion for moving forward that can include anything from trying a new point of view to changing the ending. These letters are a nice way to personally connect with writers in my group, especially if I haven’t met an author.

The letter will also serve as a reminder later. The night before someone’s story is critiqued, I will re-read the letter I wrote for them and glance through the comments I wrote on their story so that everything comes to mind quickly and easily.

Have you ever participated in a peer critique?

Peer critique is my favorite part of residency–and there’s so much to love, from readings to classes, from seeing dear friends to the party at the end of the week. But there’s something so unique and special about critiquing in a group in person. I was both tired and sad when it was over in June and even though it can be anxiety-producing to be critiqued, I’m still looking forward to it.

So here’s my question for you: Have you ever been critiqued in a group setting? Did you like it? Why or why not? Toss your thoughts up in the comments!