Friday, July 3, 2009

Lone Wolves N' Critters

So what's your critiquing style? How do you milk those nuggets of wisdom about your work from the minds of other writers?

There is the ever-popular critique group.

Advantages include the ability to bitch over coffee, or for late-night varieties, dinner and few choice glasses of wine. Networking is a bonus, and in the right company can be lots of laughs. Also on the upside, there is usually no shortage of opinions. In fact many groups bloat to such a size they are in danger of becoming dysfunctional. By the time you have reached the stage where you have a chairperson with a stop watch and you start talking in abbreviated code with words like 'Ditto' and 'Anti-Ditto' its probably time to lead a revolution or form a splinter group (or both!)

One disadvantage of the critique group is that they can fall into a rut.

The first species of rut is of the safe & predicable kind, where everyone is well known and overly careful of other peoples feelings (or just downright hedging/holding back and favoring potential networking over critique). Everyone enjoys a nice coffee and perhaps may leave with an glow of satisfaction, but key problems with work go unremarked.

Another species of rut is where a skewed dynamic takes hold. Perhaps most of the writers favor certain types of writing, genres, or characters. Over time a small clique emerges that dominates the tone and direction of critique - limiting the range of feedback as other opinions are squashed, or are expected to be so out of favor they are not mentioned in the first place. Perhaps people whose work is on the 'out' of the norm will be regularly targeted - and they find themselves in vehement finger-pointing territory. This doesn't mean that the clique are wrong, sometimes you get the most useful crits from the Hostiles, but if its so demoralizing that the writer's work ends up grinding to a halt - that's time to bail out.

Other writers go the Lone Wolf. Writing mostly alone, self-editing then getting critique only from one or two other writers they know and trust.

One example that springs to mind Louise Cousak. She told me once that she just cannot do the crit group thing. For the first draft she pretends she is the best writer in the world and does it all without external input. Only after the masterpiece is finished does she fish it out. There is an echo there with Stephen King from On Writing. In the book he says, 'Write first for yourself, then for everyone else'. Another version of this is: Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open. I think I also recall that Kim Wilkins also tends to go the lone wolf. So there are a couple of very successful Australian writers who don't favor critique groups, but produce good quality work regardless.

I guess I howled in the wilderness for a long time before I found my first critique group. Now I tend to gravitate toward groups, although I also have a few writers I will shoot material off to on the run. Now days I do find it hard to physically get to a meeting, although that's the time factor more than anything else.

What works for you? Got any traps for the unwary to share?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

You should give the VISION writing group a plug, Chris. It is still going after 10 years with numerous novel publications!

Francis Turner said...

Clique not click surely?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, thanks for a great post, first of all.

Crit groups have been a thorn in my side for years. The first one I joined was run by a woman who was a non-fic writer. She wanted to apply the same rules and conventions necessary for a great non-fic article to all forms of fiction. It was a painful exercise that destroyed a number of writing egos, mine included. As a result, when she left the area and the group tried to continue, it became a mutual adoration group where there was no meaningful crit given because we were so shell-shocked from before.

Some of the other groups I've been around, if not necessarily a member of, have suffered from the personal attack instead of critiquing the work syndrome. Then there is my personal favorite -- pay a huge fee (triple digits) per year for the "privilege" of maybe being able to read for 10 minutes once a quarter and then crit time is limited to 15 minutes. Sorry, not my cup of tea and certainly not helpful for someone trying to break into the business.

I've tried some of the on-line groups such as Critters but that is, to me, too much like reading the slush pile. You have to wade through to find something OR you tend to just crit the same folks over and over again.

Right now, I'm very lucky. I'm in a small, very small online group with a couple of other members of the MGC and one or two others. I'd prefer it to be face-to-face but, to be honest, the world might not be safe if we were all in one place at the same time. [G]

Anonymous said...

I forget who told me this, but it's helped over the years.

"Pretend that you're writing the greatest book in history while remembering that your book is the worst dreck ever."

Kate said...

Hi Chris,

A lot depends on what you as the writer want from your crit group. If all you want is warm fuzzies and coffee, you'll need a different group than if you want to look seriously at any flaws your writing might have.

I'm largely lone wolf, apart from an online group - who are good and trusted friends as well as writers - and the lone wolf approach has its dangers as well. Until I ended up with this group, I was doing a lot of flailing around, learning by trial and lots of error.

Some things I've found that help:
- genre specialization. If you're the only science fiction writer in the group, you can guarantee you'll get some wildly off-base criticism ("But it can't be science fiction: it's nothing like Star Trek!").
- a range of styles and skill levels. This is a delicate balance to get working. Everyone in the group needs to be within a reasonable range of skill, but if everyone is at the exact same level in every part of the craft, it becomes very difficult to judge. When you've got someone who's a bit better than you at plotting, but not so good with Heinleining the details, they can work very well with someone whose characterization is great but whose plots tend towards the 'stuff happens for 100k words' line.
- honesty and fairness. You need to be able to trust your crit group to tell you when your baby's ugly, when it's going to be still-born - and conversely, when it's awesome. I know I can't trust my judgment on anything I write, so I need to be able to trust my crit group to catch anything I missed and to point me in the right direction when it's time to get the thing published.
- sensitivity. This might seem odd, but most of the writers I've met have lurking demons of insecurity just like I do. It helps so much when your crit group recognizes that and settles you down before they give you the shredit!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Mea culpa.

Yes I neglected to mention that the writing group I found as I came out of the dark wilderness was indeed the Vision writers group, started by Rowena and Marianne Depierres. I really was like a haven in the storm. I still have fond memories of those meeting in the old writers centre on Wickham terrace, Rowena.

And Vision is still going strong both as a face to face group and on-line list.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Francis. It is clique. Yet another example of how I am an aural writer - hey they sound the same! Something was bothering me about that but could not pin it down on the run. Now if I'd run that through a crit group first . . .

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. Crit groups are a really tricky business. Important for improving your work, but like dynamite in terms of their potential negative impact.

I've certainly been badly burnt by a couple of them. My determination keep me coming back and keeps me coming back to the computer, but you cannot neglect the emotional side of things. Over a period of about a year I was had at one stage become so demoralised that I was taking a couple of hours to edit a single paragrath.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Good point about genre. I think my most negative crit group experience was when I was the only writer dowing heroic fantasy and the rest were either horror or urban fantasy - a rather cynical lot. I just don't go for the whole post-modern hero thing, so I guess to their eyes my work was naive and perhaps even cliched. These people would never sympathise with my characters in a million years. The crits were harsh, and verging on personal attack.

I think critique needs to be balanced. Its OK to give the negative, but I think you need to say what works in the piece, or what as the potential to work.

There is something subtle here too. Someone can give you quite pointed feedback, but you still get the sense they are trying to help you, whereas another person could say the exact same thing and you feel as though they just threw something nasty at you.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, warpcordova. Nice but of wisdom, although I will have to do some mental yoga to manage it. Unfortunately, I am notorious for my lack of flexibility.

Kate said...


Knowing the genre - and the subset of genre - matters a lot. Your example shows that it's not just the tropes, it can affect the whole mindset.

You're absolutely right about balance and pointing out the things that do work. That actually reminds me of the related issue of what the crit is supposed to do. If you're looking for whether or not the overall feel of the piece is right (the quick 'sanity check'), you don't want a line edit.

I think perhaps that subtle effect relates a lot to trust. If you trust your fellow critters to be honest, impartial, and do their best to improve your writing, then a very pointed crit will feel quite different than the exact same words coming from someone you don't trust - or someone you simply don't know well enough.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I write better with a writing group. No, let me be more specific -- I stay saner while writing with a writing group.

I grew up with a writing group, in fact. Grew up for a giving definition meaning at thirty when we moved to town I knew I needed input beyond Dan. I love my husband more than life, but he was so used to my glitches he did not see them anymore. Fortunately one of Dan's co-workers also wrote somewhat and his wife was trying to make a go of writing novels.

We got together, found a few more people here and there and started the infamous Farenheit 451 writing group. It lasted about ten very productive years -- and by this I mean very productive. I learned not only to write but that everyone's process was different and that my own process MIGHT be different at different times.

It was great by pulling me out of my head. It also gave us a socialization-routine. My house got cleaned because on Saturday the group descended on us. The discussions were great. Yeah, I got to know people really well, but I also knew their biases. Which meant if they critiqued against their bias or if someone who liked this type of story hated that particular one, that was the time to pay attention. Last but not least our kids had an extended family of kids who played with them every Saturday afternoon. Meetings started at three -- and we did the stop watch thing, mostly to prevent people from running the story down to much -- and were never done before nine sometimes ten.

Unfortunately various reasons, ranging from health to occupational changes, to its becoming really hard to find writers at a certain level in our small town and some members -- of course -- dropping out over time, spelled the death of our group.

Now I have the very small critique coven with three other people, all of whom I consider at least at my level -- though their experience and publication history varies. Problem is, it's on line. I miss the social part of it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I refuse to edit that last comment, but now you guys know why I need copyeditors.

I've been toying with the idea of a twice monthly writers' group, face to face, partly for socialization. There's a bookstore in town that would let us have a room to meet in. The only problem is to get more than four people or so, we'd need to pull from Denver as well.

Oh, and Kate is right on the trust thing. Hearing "Flush it. It's one long infodump" from a stranger would shatter me. From a trusted group-partner it just makes me go "So, should I start with the break in, instead?"

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I also miss the social aspect. I find it increasingly hard to get to meetings - mainly due to insane work commitments. More often than not I find myself shooting something off by email to one or two people.

I does really take time for a meeting to run its proper course, especially if you have a few people.

I think you and Kate are right about the trust aspect. I guess that leads me into even more questions. Like why you trust some people and not others. I guess its down to whether you feel like they have your best interests at heart or are trying to tear it down for their own reasons.

Food for thought!

PS: Don't worry about the post-editing. I misued click for clique for goodness sake! Dooh!!

Anonymous said...

I still think a crit group could work over video chat. Skype, AIM and Google all have video clients.
You'd be able to get all the partners each session to match time independently. And well, ye poor secluded writers could get a reminder that not all people live your head.