On Using The Sandwich Method In Critique Groups

Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013
Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013

After working for a huge oil corporation, sitting in on RWA critiquing workshops, and running a business for almost a decade, experience has reinforced my use of “the sandwich” method in criticism. Even when I was taking too many sick days from Chevron, they laid it out simply and succinctly (I was doing movie extra work).

Being in a critique group is hard work, no mistake. You have to listen hard to criticism and use it to hone your craft, revise works in progress, swallow your ego, and often “kill your darlings”. What I was taught using the sandwich method is to start off with good things, fill with what needs improvement, then end on a positive note.

Example? “Dolly, I really love the second part of your story. It’s lovely and I really enjoy the premise. (Elaboration.) But. I have some issues about the first part. I just don’t get a clear idea of what’s going on, or who the people are like in the story. I really want to know more. (Then show examples in the manuscript. Elaborate, but chose your words carefully.). There are some punctuation and grammar issues, but I’ve marked them for you to look at later. I really enjoy reading your manuscripts and want to hear more about Edna and Reginald. Thanks for sharing.”

There are those of you who are in critique groups that sometimes resemble Roman arenas, and that type of organization may use the open-face sandwich. “Tessie, your book stinks, but I think it has potential. I don’t know what’s going on in the plot and found so many errors that I stopped reading. Let’s go over what I found.”

If you’re like me, the open-face sandwich leaves me feeling like I’m driving a convertible in a hail storm. After the initial salvo, I just hear white noise and the faint “blah, blah, blah” of the critique partner giving me the bad news. And want to curl up and hide in a corner. If I’m still in my right mind, I’ll make notes, but it’s usually robotic. Yes, my skin is thin, has been since childhood. Please give me the two pieces of bread sandwich every time.

I want to learn, I know my writing is imperfect and often crap, but I need some sugar-coating before the bad news. No writer can exist in a vacuum. No writer can create without pain. “Killing your darlings” out of editorial need happens all the time. I have a lot of partial novels, some of which are so personally painful I’ll probably never finish them.

All writers have baggage, flaws, and imperfections of writing skills that have to be exorcised. To enter into the covenant of a critique group is an acceptance that help is needed, growth desired, polishing accomplished. Anyone who goes in thinking it’s going to be unicorns and lollipops is quickly disabused of that fallacy.

If you have a thin skin like me, the open face sandwich critique group is not going to work for you. Probably. Maybe you need some molly-coddling like I do to swallow helpful criticism, and that’s when the two pieces of bread sandwich will work. Give me the bad news, tell me my work is crap, but first give me a taste of the good.

The Vampires That Hold Us Back

Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013
Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013

“You’re lazy and good for nothing, and you’ll never amount to anything.”

“You’re too thin-skinned.”

“I was only joking.”

“You’re so lazy you wouldn’t pick up a $100 bill off the floor.”

“You don’t care for anyone but yourself.”

“I want to remember what it was like before you were born.”

“Little Johnny One Note.”

Just a few things told me as a child or adult. You’d think that over time kids would develop a mental thick skin, but when the crap comes from a much-loved relative, you can’t. I knew at an early age that I was spiritually alone and defenseless, and those feelings made me stop relating well to people.

Those comments only made me pull inside myself, crave isolation, reject trust, friendship, and become incredibly depressed. Self-doubt was my childhood companion, and later the vampire that always holds me back. It sucks dry creativity, hope, relationships, and success. It sucks away joy and happiness.

I grew up in a very creative family, and anything I created was found lacking in talent and effort. Nothing stifles childhood artistic ability more than harsh and complete criticism. Now that I’m almost sixty, I see how self-doubt and depression crippled other family members, the ones I depended on for my sense of worth. It’s hard to nurture others when you’ve never been nurtured yourself. You have to seek it from teachers, friends, or friends’ parents. I’ve wasted decades to self-doubt and ridicule.

Thousands of hours of therapy gone by, I still can taste the seeds of ruin.

It takes a strong person to survive abuse; it takes a miracle to survive intact. We have to learn to accept failure as not the end, but a challenge. I had to raise myself in many ways, and not knowing how created a lot of mistakes, missteps, and failure. Sometimes I handed my happiness over to another person, then was shocked at misery that followed.

Many of us who grew up in these circumstances are hard-wired to allow these vampires to hold us back. However, here’s the thing: you only surrender control to these life-suckers if you allow it.

Don’t let them drink your life. Stake them when they rear up and attack your attempts to succeed.

Writers are an odd lot. We create, edit, polish, publish, and then wait for someone to like it. For many of us, the lack of recognition or acclaim is crushing. To be a writer and ignored is like putting on your best clothes and going to a party, only to never get a dance.. We can go home, go to bed, pull covers over our heads, have a good cry, or we can stand by the punch bowl and make notes for the next story.

Writing is very, very hard work, and the very thing that drives us to write doesn’t always do well with criticism. Are we failures because our efforts need work? Does perfectionism feed failure and kill?

Sometimes I’ve really loved a chapter just finished, and take it to critique group only to feel flattened with reality. It feels horrible. I drop what I’m writing and can’t even bear to look at it again.

“Failure” seems stamped all over it. I’ve done it again. I’ll never succeed, never be good enough to publish. If I don’t stake those feelings right then, my creativity dies. My party dress turned out to need more work. It was found lacking, but that’s not the end.

I can let the negativity of my past win, or I can correct, edit, revise, and try again. Let my failures become strengths and not the finale of the story.