by Anne R. Allen
I generally advise new writers to join a critique group or participate in writing workshops. Getting feedback on your own writing and discovering what works—and what doesn’t—in other writers’ WIPs provides an education you can’t get from simply reading craft books, blogs, or listening to lectures.
Joining a writing group is one of the easiest ways to learn your craft. And it’s way cheaper than hiring an editor as soon as you write “the end” on that first draft. Editors are very expensive (for good reason, as Belinda Pollard tells us.)
The best use of an editor is to polish a book that’s already been workshopped in a group or critiqued by several beta readers.
So how do you find a critique group and/or beta readers? Here’s a fantastic post from author Jami Gold to help in your search. She’ll be bringing us more information on the subject when she guest posts for us right here next week.
However, critique groups pose a unique set of problems. They’re usually made up of other newbie writers. Who often give terrible advice.
So why am I telling you to join one?
Because writing in a vacuum is worse. Writing without feedback can waste tons of time. And critique groups are made up of other writers, so they understand the process. They know about s***y first drafts and the need to improve them.
You can effectively use groups to improve your writing skills and polish your book if you:
- Learn to read between the lines.
- Always consider the source.
- Wear your psychic armor and ignore everything that’s irrelevant.
When there’s a problem with your opener, the thriller writer will say you need more violence and the poet will say you need more description. The budding romance writer may suggest you show the heroine looking in the mirror describing her appearance, and the scifi author wants to land a spaceship on the roof.
They’re very likely all wrong.
But now you know you need to rework the opener. Go read some articles on how to start a novel or how not to start a novel, rewrite and take it back to the group. If you’ve learned from what you’ve read, they probably won’t feel the need for spaceships and mirrors anymore.
If there’s a problem with clarity, you’ll get suggestions to slow it down, speed it up, add a prologue and/or a flashback, or have the characters explain what’s going on in dialogue.
Those are probably all bad ideas, too.But now you know you’ve got confused readers. What you’ve learned is you need to spell things out more clearly.
In other words, critique groups draw your attention to places where you have problems. The members may not know how to fix those problems, but what they choose to talk about can help you focus on what needs work.
Groups that meet in person offer the benefit of actual human contact, but online groups are helpful too.
Either type works better if it has a strong moderator who enforces the rules and keeps the conversation focused on improving the work…not furthering the critiquers’ personal agendas.
As bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde says, “nobody does anything without an agenda, conscious or not.” She has a great piece on “The Care and Feeding of your Critiquers’ Agendas” our book How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.
Which is, ahem, only 99c this week on an Amazon countdown special. See details below.
BTW, Catherine’s new novel Take me With You hit #3 on Amazon this week and it made #1 in about six categories. I’m in awe of this woman.
Good moderators keep the feedback from being one-sided: either all negative or all positive. The best critique is a sandwich: two bits of praise surrounding one piece of criticism.
For an excellent, comprehensive set of guidelines read Sharyl Heber’s Critique Group Guidelines written for the SLO Nightwriters.
Unfortunately, even with good moderation, groups can lose sight of their purpose and end up fulfilling the needs of the most dominant members of the group rather than helping ALL members produce their best work.
So it’s good to be aware of what type of group you’re dealing with so you can get the most out of their feedback and ignore the stuff that’s not relevant to your own writing goals.
Groups of any kind can fall into bad habits. I’ve been in dozens of writing groups over the years, and I’ve seen how one or two members can often change the nature of a group entirely. Here are a few common deviations from the solid critique group we’re all looking for. Some can be repaired, but sometimes you just have to move on.
1) The Literary Salon
This kind of group is usually dominated by readers and writers of literary fiction. There will probably be a couple of poets and a memoirist or two. They may write brilliantly and have a vast knowledge of literature, but their critiques can be less than helpful. They often veer off topic to discuss a recent article in the New York Review of Books or the Paris Review.They tend to be old school, so won’t consider self-publishing. They may send out a few half-hearted queries comparing their work to Kerouac, Joyce, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but probably don’t attempt to get published outside of small literary journals.They can have very useful things to say about character and setting, and are probably fantastic at helping you weed out clichés. But on plot and structure, they can be pretty useless.
What to ignore:
These people will tell you (with great authority) that you must describe each tree and rock your heroine passes while running from the Orc army into the Forest of Doom. They want every nuance of emotion recorded while your starfighter hero is battling the droid hordes from Betelgeuse. They abhor cliff-hangers and want “closure” for every scene. Ignore this stuff if you are writing to sell.
Ask that every writer state their genres and the kind of feedback they’re looking for before they read. A logline can be very helpful too.If you remind people you’re asking for feedback on a political thriller, they may have more helpful suggestions than “add more description of the landscape” and if you know you’re critiquing a metaphysical meditation on the oneness of the universe, you won’t be as likely to say “where are the zombies?”
2) The Enforcers
These people never met a writing rule they didn’t love. They want to enforce each one with a “zero tolerance” policy. At least one member is convinced the Harlequin submission guidelines were etched on stone tablets by the Almighty.
For them it’s all about finding and shaming the rule-breakers, not improving their fellow writers’ work.
They tell you the word “was” is taboo. (For more on this see my post on the “was” police) They insist on no prologues, EVER. They tell you a book can’t (or must) be written in the first person or present tense. They have a search-and-destroy policy concerning adverbs.
What to ignore:
Pay attention but keep your shaker of salt handy. Sometimes the “rules” can hold a key to a big improvement in your writing. I once went to a workshop where an enforcer hated the word “just”. I went through my work when I got home and discovered my overuse of the word was almost comical. 90% of the time, I could just eliminate the word and my sentence was stronger.
On the other hand, these people can drive you nuts. Humor sometimes helps, and using some in your own critiques may help. But mostly you have to put up your personal deflector shields and let a lot of it bounce off.
3) Group Therapy
One of the most common pitfalls for writing groups is the tendency to slip into psychotherapy. This happens most often if there are several memoirists in the group who are working on their break-up, wartime, or health issues through writing.
The line between creating and confessing gets very thin. (And some people use their writing to dump their troubles on the group.)
Critiquers often feel they should give supportive, “attaboy” feedback, no matter what the quality of the writing.
There can also be an element of the “suffering contest,” if two or more memoirists are using the group to detail the horrors that tragified their lives.
When you’re hoping to get a little help with the plotting of your chick lit novel or breezy romance, you can feel like you’re crashing the pity party.
You’re also going to get terrible advice from the tender-hearted members who have fits whenever your protagonist makes bad choices. They want you to stop every character from dancing with the judgemental aristocrat, fighting the fascists in Spain, or accepting the owl’s invitation to wizard school (who would be dumb enough to do that?) Plotting is not their strong point.
What to ignore:
Almost all of it. You joined the group to polish your writing, not practice medicine without a license. There’s a reason shrinks get paid the big bucks to listen to this stuff.
Give professional, balanced critiques when it’s your turn. Groups like this can be kind of toxic, so unless there are enough members who can rein in the psychotherapy drama you may have to move on. Especially if you write comedy or light fiction. (And remember laughter really is the best medicine.)
4) The Golden Girls
A group that consists mostly of an older demographic can sometimes be dominated by people with memory issues. (Hey, age happens to all of us, with any luck!) But this means critiques of longer works like memoir and novels can be difficult because people don’t remember what they heard in the last installment.
What to ignore:
They’ll insist that you remind the reader of plot points and character relationships in every chapter. Don’t do it! This can result in repetition that can turn your book into a repetitive mess. They also may want to go off on tangents about how this story reminds them of the time back in ’65…
Try giving a short “in our last episode” recap before each reading. A logline helps too, as a reminder to people that this is a chapter in a mystery or a romance or a thriller and the action is moving toward a certain goal. If reminiscences start to take over, you may need a stronger moderator who will time the critiques.
5) The Punctuation Police
Some groups ask that members bring printed copies of their work to hand out to everybody in the group. This can be super-useful if you need help with proofreading, but meetings that use printed pages can often devolve into drawn-out arguments over use of the Oxford comma.
Groups that focus on grammar will do very little to help with your overall storytelling skills, but if you want to brush up on basic skills or need a proofreader, they’re great.
What to ignore:
This isn’t so much a case of ignoring something as going elsewhere for useful feedback on character, setting, story arc, plotting etc. These people can be golden for proofreading, so the group can be very valuable.
Try not printing out the pages for several meetings. Just read aloud and give feedback on the characters and story instead of the punctuation.
6) The Coffee Klatch
This is the group that never quite gets around to more than a couple of critiques per meeting because so much of the time is spent catching up on personal news and enjoying elaborate refreshments.
Providing the refreshments can become a competitive sport. If the group meets in the evening there may be some lovely wine.
Groups like this can be a godsend to a writer who’s been holed up in a writing cave for years and needs some human contact, but their feedback is usually skimpy. Groups like this can be made up mostly of hobbyist writers who only want to share a few written reminiscences or verses with the group, but aren’t on a path to publication.
What to ignore:
Don’t get sucked by the illusion you’re doing anything to improve your craft at these meetings. Treat it as a social event where you’ll get much needed moral support. But if you’re on a career track, don’t let them hold you back.
If you find that giving an honest critique gets cold stares, look for people in the group who are hoping to be career writers and suggest you meet separately for a small no-nonsense workshop. Serve only water. (In my experience, alcohol—or other mind-altering substances—and critiques do not mix.)
7) The Reality Checkers
There are groups where the fact-checkers hold sway. These are super detail-oriented people who want a novel to be as close to real life as possible.
They want everything to be “realistic” down to knowing when and where your heroine goes to the bathroom when she’s running from the mutant raccoons on Mars. Their most scathing criticism is that your scene is “like something out of a (insert your the latest blockbuster) movie.”
They will be sure to point out that your Regency duke will have terrible B.O. after fighting off those ruffians, so the kiss the heroine has been anticipating for 30 pages would not be the glorious experience you describe.
They will never let you use the word “gun”: you must give the make and caliber every time anybody gets off a shot during the battle between the sentient sea lions and the Norwegian mafia Lutefisk-smuggling ring.
What to ignore:
Anything that gets you bogged down in detail or defies accepted genre conventions in order to be more “realistic.” A novelist is not a news reporter. As James Patterson says, “I don’t write realism. I write larger than life. It’s what I do.” What Patterson also does is sell more books than any other writer in the world.
If only one or two people in the group are hung up on tedious details, give them a nice smile and ignore them. If the whole group stresses mundane details at the expense of story, you probably need a new group.
8) The Poetry Slam
Whether or not the members are actual poets, some groups turn out to be less like critique groups and more like competitive poetry readings. These groups can be full of people who want to perform, but tune out when anybody else is reading.
Their critiques may careen from lavish praise to savage criticism, or they may order you to write an entirely new plot, which they will outline for you in detail. That’s because they will say anything that allows them to hold the floor as long as possible.
These people can build you up one week and say devastating things the next—anything that comes into their heads—entirely without empathy. You are not real to them: you are just a bit of warm protoplasm that makes up their “audience.”
What to ignore:
Most of what the prima donnas say. They probably didn’t listen to more than a few sentences of your piece anyway, so their comments are irrelevant.
If there are enough people in the group who do listen, and their feedback is useful, you might suggest timed critiques.
9) The Mutual Admiration Society
Like the Coffee Klatch, this group is all about schmoozing and bolstering flagging egos. To give them credit, these people are not focused on the ginger-pear Linzer torte and imported Gewürztraminer. They are actually interested in the work.
Unfortunately, everything brought for critique is always wonderful! marvelous!! and worthy of publication in The New Yorker and YOU MUST SEND IT OFF RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! They don’t want you to change a thing.
What to ignore:
The illusion your work can’t be improved. Groups like this can send clueless newbies out into the mean streets of publishing where they’ll be devastated by real-world feedback.
You might start by asking for specifics on your own work. If you are having trouble choosing whether to go on with the book in first person or switch to third, or add a prologue, or delete a character or whatever, ask each member to to state an opinion.Or join a second group, maybe online. Don’t leave this group—praise is hard to come by in this business, but look for some balance
10) The Vicious Circle
This group is dominated by a handful of Dorothy Parker-wannabes who are waiting for the right moment to slip a verbal dagger into your heart.
They may have published a few things—which they feel makes them “experts”—but it was probably some time ago.
Like in college. When they got some harsh feedback from the writer-in-residence, who may have used words like “puerile”, “self-indulgent”, and “derivative.”
Since then, they’ve been honing their bitterness till it cuts like a samurai sword.
They have a way of sighing before they deliver their scathing critiques that shows how much pain your very existence is causing them.
It only takes one or two of these—plus their devoted (and fearful) minions—to turn a critique group into one of the darker circles of hell.
A workshop like this at a well-known writers’ conference was the inspiration for my comic mystery, Ghostwriters in the Sky. I got to kill off the workshop leader who created this Vicious Circle. Very satisfying.
What to ignore.
Every. Single. Word. People like this are operating from a place of envy and fear. Nothing they say can help you, because they’re only half-listening to your piece. They’re too busy rehearsing their bitter bon mots.
Run! Get out while you still have the will to live.
Know your Goals
The main thing a writer should consider when joining a critique group is the group’s goals. The level of skill of the participants isn’t as important as knowing whether the members are working toward publication or if attending the group is an end in itself: either for therapy, company, or an audience.
As Jeannie Miernik said in a comment on Ruth’s great post on editing last week, “love of rewriting and editing is what separates serious writers from people who just have an emotional need for an audience.”
If you’re on a career track and want to polish a WIP for publication, you’ll get little help from a hobbyist writing group who enjoy “in class” writing exercises and book club-type general discussion.
There’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. As I’ve written before, it’s a great hobby. There’s only a problem when career-track and hobby writers mix without being clear on their needs.
And the most important thing to remember when joining a critique group, as Sharyl Heber says in her critique group guidelines:
“Leave your egos at the door: You are not present to show how brilliant you are or how stupid others are. It is not about you. It is all about the work, and making it the best it can be, for ALL members. It is also about supporting ALL members to enhance their skills. You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others. No need to ‘defend’ your work. If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group.”
So put on your armor, learn to consider the source, and jump in. These people may turn out to be your best friends and support as you fight the perils of today’s publishing world.
And if you haven’t seen it, check out David Congalton’s wonderful film, Authors Anonymous, a gentle satire of a critique group where some members are on a career track and the others…not so much.
posted by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) August 3, 2014
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