Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Critique Groups

Wow, it's different doing the blog during the week instead of on Sunday! No one has their week of blog posts up for me to review and link to. The week-in-round-up posts aren't there. No one's screaming more than usual about the e-book v. hard copy version price war. What to do, what to do? Well, actually they are, but I'll touch on that Sunday.

So, with your indulgence, I'd like to venture once again into the always explosive topic of writers groups. More specifically, critique groups and the good and bad that can come from them.

Right now, I'll admit I've written, deleted and rewritten this post at least three times. Part of the reason is I'm still trying to get enough coffee flowing through my veins so my brain can work. Another part is because, as I said, this can be such an explosive topic. Finally, because it is very easy to get academic on this topic in order to keep from stepping on toes. Well, here's fair warning to those of you currently barefoot or in sandals -- hide your toes because here I come.

I've written about critique groups before. In that post I discussed the rules successful critique groups should follow and linked to some very good posts on the subject.

Today, I'd like to talk about another aspect of critique groups. And I'll admit this is partially brought on by Dave's post yesterday about working through real life issues and how they impact your writing. As a relatively new writer, I rely on my critique groups to help point out when I'm letting real life impact my work -- especially when it does so in a negative way. I'm not disciplined enough yet to always see it myself and the group setting allows me to see what others see in my work and then talk out possible solutions. Both of the groups I belong to are excellent for this and I appreciate their help more with each day that passes.

But there is a downside to critique groups, one I'd done my best to forget about until recently when a friend of mine asked me to read something they'd* written. This was the first time this person had shared anything with anyone for years. Which is a real shame because this person happens to be very talented. But, like so many writers I know, when it comes to their own writing, there is little confidence.

So, you ask, why had this person been hiding their work under the bed? Very simply, just as with me in my first group, they'd been torn down one too many times by someone else, someone who represented themselves as the expert. They'd been told what they were writing made no sense, wasn't worthy of submitting, was badly written... Well, you know the litany.

Hearing all that, I flashed back to my first group and my feelings of utter defeat. Our so-called expert expected us to write just like her. She gave revenge critiques if we didn't all just adore her submissions. And no one, ever, would be as good as she was. She crushed all of us down, just as my friend had been crushed by their critique group. How many other aspiring writers have faced the same situation?

A critique group should, in my opinion, serve several purposes. It should assist us in becoming better writers. It is a chance to socialize with others who share similar interests. Even some online critique groups have figured this out and have started chats and message boards for that purpose. These groups -- or even just critique partners -- aren't there to serve solely as ego boosters or as a platform to prove you're the best. Finally, a critique group is a chance to network. It is surprising the information you can get from a group. That writer sitting next to you might be a lawyer or a cop or a rocket scientist, a mother or a teacher or a doctor. They have knowledge that might help you make a character more believable. And, if they don't, they might know someone who does and be willing to make an introduction.

So what are your thoughts on critique groups and partners? Advice or warnings? Horror stories or success stories?

* Yes, I know I'm violating any number of grammar laws with my pronoun use here and later. But I am doing it to preserve the anonymity of my friend who reads this blog and would run and hide if they thought I was writing about them. All I can say is this person doesn't belong to the Bar, so the two of you who have been holding your breath can breathe now.

26 comments:

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It is a difficult topic, Amanda. I can honestly say my writers' group -- the original one, in which I became a real pro -- both held me back and propelled me forward about ten years. You'd think it was a wash then, right?
well, yes and no. Let me be brief because right now I find myself in the position of being "eldest" in my writers' group.

NEVER trust a group that has ONE expert, and one that insists you write just like her (it's usually a her.) PARTICULARLY if the person hasn't published in more than five years. This was what held me back.

Weirdly I learned more in a group of total newbies, all of us fumbling in the dark.

C Kelsey said...

Fumbling in the dark... Yeah, that would describe me. Luckily, folks here are willing to provide the ever-loving shotgun of gentle correction. It's painful sometimes (especially pulling the shot out of my hide after willingly subjecting myself to it), but I'm reasonably certain I'm learning... slowly. What have I learned in the last week? Stop trying to fit a novel into a short story. Just stop. (My inside voice keeps going "no no no! I can FIX IT!" Like I said, slow learner. ;)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda,

I was lucky.

Bot the Critique groups that I belonged to in my early days were really supportive. One was a romance group and the women were wonderful.

The second was VISION, which I started with Marianne de Pierres. We set it up specifically to improve our writing craft and be supportive. I made so many good friends.

The next group was ROR because Marianne and I wanted to push ourselves even further. No holding back, but always done with a passion for the craft of writing and the motive to make our books better.

Chris McMahon said...

I think we have all run foul of the loud-mouth expert. Unfortunately there seems to be always one person who had learned they can get attention - and even followers - by simply being the loudest and most obnoxious. They are usually in need of getting knocked down a peg, but unfortunately are the type to enjoy a fight.

Despite the risk of finding someone like that, it was worth perservering with a crit group, for the simple reason that most people there won't usually read in your genre - and will give you a 'cold' objective critique. Its very useful to have a good writer who does not 'get' your work read it and critique it. Its hard to cope with emotionally, and needs to be balanced against other critique, but they usually point out global craft issues that might slip past a more sympathetic reader.

There are a few simple rules that can really improve a group - such as limiting the time, making it form to just accept the critique not argue with it, and making all critiquers say something good and something bad about what they have read. We had a rule like that at one of my groups at one stage. The obnoxious male loudmouth had just finished a two minute trash of my story (which had just been published online) and I said, 'OK. What was good about it?' You could see the steam come out of his ears. In front of the group he was compelled to come up with something. Lets face it - there is something good about every story.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I must add, that Chris and I used to meet along with Marianne, Trent Jamieson and Lynn Ulhmann to critique our works in progress. And that I really appreciated Chris's input.

I think if the people in the group have a real love of writing and their motive is to improve their craft, and you observe a few simple rules, you can't go wrong.

Kate said...

One thing that should be so obvious it doesn't need saying but probably isn't: at least one other person in the group, preferably more, needs to have a passing familiarity with the genre(s) you write.

It's probably not terribly helpful to get crits saying that your science fiction would be better if it was more like Star Trek.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I really enjoyed those meeting at Riverbend. Little Brigit can say she attended critique groups from the age of three:) (my daughter used to tag along).

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, that's great advice. And it's something I learned the hard way. I can also see how a group of total newbies could be more meaningful than what I had. At least if the newbies are not only wanting to write and learn but willing to do the work that comes with finding out what is out there about the industry. As it is, I appreciate the help I'm getting from both my current groups, the in person and the on-line one.

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, quit fumbling in the dark and turn on the light before you fall over something ;-p

All of us know that sting as a critique finds its mark. The questions for you are: do you understand why the story is more than a story but is a novel? And, do you have an idea how to expand and fill in to make it one?

Oh, wait there's another question -- when do I get to read more?

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, you have been lucky. But you also hit on several very important things every critique group should be -- supportive, passionate for the craft, and motivated to make your books better. If every crit group kept that in mind, maybe fewer folks wouldn't be scared away and so discouraged they keep shoving their work under the bed.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc, what you said! The rules are important and it is even more important to make sure everyone follows them. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when you asked that one fellow what was good about the story.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I'd add one other rule -- or at least suggestion. That no matter how long you've been writing and no matter how much you've published, you can still learn from everyone in the group.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, yes and no. Yes because then they know the trends in the genre and the general tropes. No, because sometimes it is very good to have someone not familiar with the genre tell you what they see as the strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, I have been known to remind folks that Star Trek, Star Wars and Lost in Space are not the end all - be all of science fiction any more than all fantasy has to be like Tolkien's.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc -- sounds like you've been exposing her to the right things from an early age. Go you!

;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, one more thing. At one time, I joined a group that said right there on the masthead "we're a critique group, not a support group." I only attended maybe half a dozen meetings and dropped out. Why, you say?
Well, since this field often resembles a series of kicks in the teeth, support IS needed. without it, all yo have are the kicks in the teeth.

Rowena and Chris and Amanda and Kate, what we REALLY need is a time/space portal and we could have a kick ass group!

Amanda Green said...

Sarah,

YES!

C Kelsey said...

Amanda,

Do I know why it's a novel and can I expand it to be one? Yes/no. The story I am speaking of takes place several years after the start of this whole saga (which might explain why it seems more novel-ish than short story-ish). As for when you can read more... Err, if I'm writing a novel it might take some time. Especially since I'm delving the depths of hell on my Xbox right now... :S Yes, yes... Back to writing pronto.

Ellyll said...

This is a great post. Elsewhere, I'm part of a beginning online critique group, and these are helpful suggestions. If you don't mind, I'm going to post your links to them.

I have one sort of off-topic, but related question (and probably kind of stupid, too), if you don't mind.

How do you go about finding people for a 'live' critique group? Not to be disingenuous, but it's like this: I'm surrounded by lots of folk who don't write, or who don't read fantasy/sci fi, etc. Many would happily read my stuff, but I really do want the 'harder' reviews of a critique group. Maybe the online group will work out, but for some reason, I think it would be helpful to have a real world group, too...

Sorry if this is a ridiculous question, but how did you all find people?

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, I can't say anything about the depths of Hell since, er, I've been replaying an earlier version of the game. As for writing a novel so you might need time, that's a given. What is also a given is that you need someone to bounce things off of from the start -- or at least I do. So remember, I'm here if you need anything.

Amanda Green said...

Ellyll, finding folks for an in-person group can be daunting. The easiest, of course, is to find a group that's already in existence and join it. When that doesn't work, talk to you library. That's what I did. They offered to "sponsor" the group as long as I took responsibility for running it. It works out well -- for us at least. They don't charge me for the meeting room. People are more comfortable coming to the library to meet folks they don't already know than meeting at someone's house, etc. Now that we know one another better, we meet on occasion at the local B&N for a change of scenery.

I don't know where you live, but there's a website called meetup.com that can also be used. You simply input the type of group you're looking for and your address and it will bring up a list of groups in your area. If I remember correctly, it is a 25 mi radius.

And -- and I should have said this earlier -- this wasn't a stupid question. If there is anything else you want to ask, please don't hesitate. I know I speak for all of us when I say that.

C Kelsey said...

Amanda,

You've no idea how much I appreciate the offer of help. This entire universe has been in my head for years now. I know so much about it that I now MUST write it (and it's all first person which I've never written before to completion)... but what I wanted to do in short stories is novels. I confess, I'm lost and struggling. Too many firsts.

OTOH. I'm learning new things and trying stuff that is hard. YAY! :)

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, welcome to the insane, unbelievable, wonderful world writers live in. If it would help, email me off-list and let's set up an IM and you can talk some of it out if you want.

Mike said...

Time/space portal? Why not use something such as Google sites or groups? Sites would let you share files and add comments and what not, while groups is oriented more towards the exchange of messages. But I think you could use either one to create a virtual critique group. Might not be as much fun as face-to-face, but... it's the closest thing we have to a time/space portal right now?

your local engineer, tipping his hat...

Amanda Green said...

Mike, thanks for the suggestions. Actually, for my online group, we use skype and will be changing to tokbox for real-time videoconferencing and email exchange of submissions ahead of time. The portal would be good to let us share not only our work and comments but think of all the goodies we could each bring to the table -- Monkey could bring the fish, Chris or Rowena the timtams, John could grab a bottle of aged John Jamesons, etc. ;-)

Ellyll said...

Amanda - THANK YOU!

That was great information. I've already found several leads on meetup, and I'll be checking with my local libraries. I've asked this question of others, and never gotten the simple, practical answer I needed. That was perfect. :)

Amanda Green said...

Ellyll, glad I could help. Please feel free to ask any writing related questions you might have or suggest topics you'd like us to consider.