Monday, February 20, 2012

The Goldlilocks of Critique Groups

A lot of writers post about writing. I don't. Not because I don't enjoy talking or reading about writing but because, after spending hours upon hours immersed in any given WIP, I need a break.

But this week I'm going to talk shop. Non-writers beware!

And to kick off the week I'm going to make what, might possibly be, a controversial statement.

I'm allergic to critique groups. That is, I'm allergic in exactly the same way my oldest child is allergic to broccoli. In short, I hate them. Passionately!

Right now some of you are thinking, "She's just never had a good critique group." And the rest of you are thinking, "What's a critique group?" For the rest of you, here's a quick explanation. A lot of writers give their unfinished WIP's to other writers who then provide feedback. Many, many writers swear by this process. And, in theory, I can see how sharing your fledgling baby bird could have a tremendous amount of value.

Unfortunately, I went to law school. It was those (not so) hallowed halls that sparked my critique group allergy. Even though in law school we called it a study group, the net result was the same.

There was the jockeying for position, the quoting of arcane rules and cases to make equally arcane points. There were different study styles accompanied by protracted arguments about which study style was the most effective, the most certain to guarantee success.

Outlines of the course material were shared and then picked apart. One person thought the outlines needed more case background, another thought they should be focused only on rules of law.

Sound familiar?

Let me rewrite the above paragraphs with a twist.

There was the jockeying for position, the quoting of arcane rules of grammar and punctuation to make equally arcane points. There were different writing styles accompanied by protracted arguments about which writing style was the most effective, the most certain to guarantee success.

Works in progress were shared and then picked apart. One person thought each WIP needed more world building, another thought they should focus on the characters and their internal motivations.

At some point during my first year of law school I decided squabbling study groups were a waste of time. It seemed more efficient to just prepare my own outlines and then swap the finished product with a friend, so we could make sure our Torts were elemented and our Contracts analyzed.

After reading other writer's blog I've realized my novels are written just like my law school outlines. First I write then I edit. When I've built the whole book I send it out to the Betas.

But I'm curious.

I want to hear about all of your writerly processes. Do you forge to "The End" on your own or do you get your feedback chapter by chapter? Have I got it all wrong about critique groups?

Do the writer's who read this blog found that if the writing styles are too far apart the critique group melts down? If they're too similar does it end up being less valuable? Which bring me back to Goldilocks

Stop by on Wednesday and I'll tell you about the chair that fits just right.


Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I'm from a small town, so I had a hard time finding a critique group. I did finally find one, I start in a few weeks. Hopefully I won't hate it. :)
Otherwise, with my last WIP I shared along the way, mainly because my husband wanted to read it. My current WIP he has no interest in, so I'll wait until it's done to share with other readers. :)

Beylit said...

I have a couple of people who I am close to and are writers that know my style and can critique me with that in mind. I have one person that I turn to only when I feel I need grammar or punctuation help. One person is designated for character issues. There is also a person I use for overall world building. They stay in their realm of expertise and it makes everyone happy. I sometimes will send them just a chapter, or sometimes an entire section of the work, it just depends on how I am feeling about what I have written thus far. Sometimes I feel I need to do more before anyone sees it, and sometimes I am happy to just show a little.

I did try being critiqued in a group and found that I hated it because my style was so vastly different from the majority of people in the group. I also hated critiquing them because I simply didn't like the way they wrote and was certain that I couldn't look at their work in a fair and unbiased way. I didn't like it because it wasn't the style I lied to read or write in, but that didn't make it bad or wrong; it simply made me ill qualified to critique it.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think a critique group that meets in person would drive me crazy -- for just the very reasons you list.

But I have two writer friends (never met them in person but they ARE friends)with whom I exchange chapters as we write them. I find the process very helpful. The little things they critique along the way are useful, but even more so, they are able to help me when I get stuck or don't know how to work out a plot or character dilemma. Because they know everything I've written so far, they can brainstorm with me where to go next.

Nicole Zoltack said...

My critique group is virtual - it's all done through emails. I went to a local writer's group and it just wasn't for me. They weren't helpful and everyone else already knew everyone else and it wasn't very welcoming.

But I love my beta reads and critique partners. They definitely help to point out my flaws, with great suggestions.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I write the whole story, make numerous editing sweeps, and then send it off to my three critique partners and two test readers. Sometimes I'll send a revised section back, just to be sure I did it correctly. And my critique partners are all blogger buddies.
And I almost never discuss writing either.

Johanna Garth said...

Rachel, I'll keep my fingers crossed for you and would love to hear how it works out.

Beylit, it's great you were able to back away when you realized it wasn't productive.

Dianne, that's what I don't have and I spend a lot of time fixing those things later on.

Nicole, that sounds perfect. The virtual world gives us so many more options for finding the write crit partners.

Alex, that sounds similar to the way I write and your blog is always a treasure of newsy goodness!

Weaver said...

You're not part of the right kind of critique groups then. I belong to two of them, and I've found their input incredibly valuable. You can decide within your group what you'll want critiqued. My in-person group decided to use Orson Scott Card's Wise Reader input:

Don’t tell me how to fix the story. I need to figure that out. (So no diagnosis or what’s wrong or prescriptions). Just tell me places you think didn't work for you.

What you need to do is answer questions:
• Were you ever bored or found your mind wandering (tell me where)
• What do you think of the characters?
o Who do you like?
o Who do you not like?
o Why to both the above
• Was there anything you didn’t understand?
o Did you get confused anywhere?
o Did you have to read any section twice?
• Was there anything you didn’t believe? Any time you said, “Oh, come on!”
• What are you still wondering about?

My betas just tell me if I entertained them generally. But my critique group is good at this other stuff. You just all have to agree on an approach that works for you.

And my online critique group (through Dave Farland's Writing Forum) is fantastic. When I joined them I'd just dropped a college course because it wasn't teaching me what I needed to know. This group did.

Good luck. There IS hope!

Unknown said...

I am way too shy about my writing to ever use a critique group. I write, edit, write, edit, then hide away so nobody ever sees it. Yes, I've pretty much assured I will never be published that way; however, I've also ensured I will never have to deal with people actually seeing - well - my soul, which is a much worse proposition.

Hart Johnson said...

I believe strongly in the peer review process, also, probably because of my grad school experience. But sitting in a circle all discussing one person's stuff isn't my thing either. At ALL. I have a writing group, but it's all online. Early on, I felt like I wanted feedback as I went, but now I really prefer to get the whole book out and do a revision before I'm ready for feedback. And I have my crit partners pegged well enough that I know who I want to read an early version and who I want to help when refining. Different people have different strengths.

Anonymous said...

I earn my living as a fiction writer. I have written both with and without critique groups.

In my experience, I usually do not share works in progress. And if I do, I share it with a VERY limited number of people.

Everybody's got a different vision for your story. Everybody wants something different.

There's a quote by Stephen King that I remind myself of, whenever I get feedback on my work:

"Show your piece to a number of people - ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story - a plot twist that doesn't work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles - change that facet. It doesn't matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with your piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I'd still suggest changing it. But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say." :)

I have, occasionally, shared a WIP with a couple friends I could trust to be completely honest, and ask them if the story was working and pulling them in. If they cared about the characters, wanted to know what happened next, etc.

But usually, most of the time, I don't share anything until after it's finished, proofed, and ready for publishing.

And, when I do get feedback on WIPs, I ask NON-WRITERS. Writers -- especially wannabe, yet to be selling authors -- rarely give me useful feedback. They'll tell me how "they" would write the story, or what their college teacher or some book on writing told them. But they've over-intellectualized it. And are not representative of what my audience will actually think or feel about my story.

When I ask for feedback, I ask potential readers from my target market. And I ask them just to read it as if it were a book they picked up off the shelf. Read it to enjoy it; not to analyze or edit it. I make this very clear when I hand them my manuscript. I want their EXPERIENCE, not their edits, analysis, or coverage.

If they lose interest, get bored, don't care about the characters, get lost/confused in the story, or feel it's too slow/hard to read/whatever -- then I listen.

People don't buy books to be impressed by proper writing styles and perfect grammar. They buy books to be entertained -- to be taken on an emotional journey. They want to FEEL something.

So I never ask anyone to help me edit or improve my WIP. I simply ask them if they're enjoying the story so far.

If they love it, I keep writing. If multiple people don't, then I probably need a re-write.

Angela Cothran said...

I think there can be terrible critique groups...FOR SURE. What works best for me is to find people who write in the same genre as me and write in a similar way, because then I feel like I'm getting the best feedback for my story.

Botanist said...

The two critique groups I've used most are both online, and both work such that the critiquers don't see other people's critiques until after they've posted their own.

So there is no discussion amongst them, just direct personal feedback to the author. How much attention you pay to that feedback is entirely up to you, and is an art in itself. I look for comments that make sense to me, or where I see a common thread coming up from different critters.

I found it valuable to have different perspectives/styles, but I also have to be cautious where it's obvious that the critter's perspective is at odds with my own vision for the story.

Unknown said...

I haven't had much luck with critique groups. I like the idea of them, I really do. It seems to be a nice idea of sitting around getting honest feedback about my writing. But I swear, it never freaking turns out as nice as I dream. I write. I edit. The end.

Anonymous said...

I asked for feedback for my ending since its the second in a trilogy. I appreciate what people told me. Most of it was encouraging so this helped me close it the way I did and feel confident I was doing the right thing.

Tamara Narayan said...

I belong to a critique group and have had mixed results. There are some strong writers in the group whose comments and insights have been tremendous to me as a writer. And there are members whose comments I disagree with. But the hardest part is getting everybody together. Everyone is busy with work and families. It's frustrating to drive across town and have one (or none) others show.

I think your method is fine. I just need to get out of the house and talk to other humans once in a while.