Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Meandering observations on Critique Groups

Almost all writers join a critique group at some time during their career. I personally have been in five. I’m no expert, but I do have some idea of what kind of group works best for me.

Deciding to find a group should start with what you expect to get from it. A number of new authors will say seek out a group to improve their writing. In reality they come expecting to hear how good their work is. They have trouble listening to criticism, even the softest time. These authors rarely return. In my experience two out of three new members will quit the group—some within the first meeting or two, others later when they find they’re not getting what they want, of they can’t take to see the errors in their work pointed out.

Groups all have their own way of operating. Some have authors hand out copies and read a short piece of work. Then the others comment on it. This type of group can be very good or useless. The good ones look for more than grammar mistakes, they look for story arc, character development and conflict. They can help point out flaws in structure, unlikable or dull characters and dialog that doesn’t move the story along.

A bad one is often inexperienced and not used to examining a manuscript for what works or doesn't work. They will focus on minor things like grammar, spelling and other inconsequential matters—inconsequential for early drafts. A novice misses that what’s being read is raw. It has a lot of errors that the author will find on rewrites. What an author wants—if they’re serious—is a critique that delves into the heart of the story.

Another type of critique group is one that passes out copies of the work, sometimes ahead of time, sometimes at the meeting and everyone goes through it without talking. The readers mark up the manuscript, then they talk about it in a round robin fashion—though some will open the floor to anyone and the critiquing is a back and forth effort. This can work very well, if the participants are good at finding out flass.

Some critiques are strictly online. No physical group exists. Chapters are swapped and critiqued, then sent back. I’ve seen some that have a strict set of rules. There will be a time frame, there can be instructions on what to look for, even sheets that lay out the requirements for every critique. A group I’m in asks for a critque—a full read through, a quick one, a final draft read, etc. In these groups it is often done on credits owed. You earn so many credits depending on what kind of crit it is. When you request a crit, you need X-amount of points. This type of critiquing is usually labor intensive.

There are online critique groups where manuscripts are swapped. Those tend to be more casual.

My favorite type is a one on one. Two authors at a similar level of skill sit and talk. A good group like this will brainstorm ideas and search for the best phrase. These can be fairly intense and the only way for it to work, each author has to be open to accepting what the critiquer is saying. This does not mean you need to do any of it. In the end you are the final decision make on what to change and what to leave alone. And trust me, it is painful.

In a good critique group the author cannot interrupt and explain something. The author has to realize that there will be no one standing over the reader telling them what you meant.

Bad groups can do more than disappoint. Some can be destructive, without any merit. Some can be ignorant. Or insist they’re only one way to write a scene. Others have an even worse character. The one who is nasty in their words and actions. They will attack the writer as opposed to dealing with the work at hand. I quit one group when one member laughed at everything. He was very juvenile and would laugh like a ten-year-old at the most infantile words that ‘sounded like a gay man.

Finding a good group can be rough. It’s best to sit in on a meeting or two and judge what you hear in terms of how it can benefit you. Entering a group whose members all write non-fiction, or fantasy and you write historicals like I do.

I highly recommend checking out some critique groups and give them a try. Some places aren’t big enough to have a regular group. In such a place, you may need to find one online. Or start one. Some people feel strongly that groups should be divided by genre. SF/fantasy, historical, romance, etc. I find I can learn as much from criticizing another author as I learn when they critique me.

Find a good group and it will pay you back four-fold


Tina Donahue said...

Insightful blog. Finding the right critique group is critical. A newbie might be so devastated by thoughtless or hurtful comments, that individual may allow it to color her/his writing for a long time to come.

P.A.Brown said...

A negative, unhelpful critique can leave an author never wanting to write again. But on the flip side crit groups that are too effusive with praise are also bad. A well known writing teacher told me that kind of group is the worst thing that could happen to a promising writer. There's no reason to grow when those around you are slapping you on the back and saying how good you are. This is especially truthful if the author is published. They may never move beyond that skill level that got them a publisher in the first place.

Adele Dubois said...

A good critique group is worth its weight in gold. I have worked with small groups and with a single partner and found them all invaluable.

However, I choose my partners carefully. They are talented authors whose work and opinions I respect. When they make a suggestion, I know they have my best interests at heart, and vice versa.


Fiona McGier said...

Whenever I get a chance to help teenagers with their writing, I always remember how I felt when people would criticize my writing when I was their age. I thought of my every word as my "baby", and the thought of cutting any of them hurt too much! Now I have learned that editing is my best friend, and I rewrite until I'm blue in the face, then let my editors get at the same manuscript and have at it!
A good critique can help you grow...a bad one can give you monumental writers' block.
Great post on a different subject!