Monday, January 19, 2009

Interesting, contrary advice from a good writer

I've mentioned my passion for Google Reader before. It's a way to keep track of interesting and informative blogs without having to endlessly bookmark and click. I love it.

I subscribe to 157 blogs via Google Reader. I don't read 157 blogs every day. For starters, a lot of the blogs update weekly at best. With Google Reader I can see who's updated, and click on the ones I want to read first.

Sunday night is a good time to catch up on all the Cyberia Slinking I don't have time to do when I'm actually working.

Tonight my eye fell on this post at Moments in Crime. I'm one of those agents who suggests critique groups and lauds their value. It's really a default "this is a good idea" suggestion. I've never been in one so my experience is second hand at best. Some of my clients are in groups, some aren't.

If you think you need or would benefit from a crit group here's a contrary opinion and interesting suggestion from Blaize Clement.


Julie Weathers said...

Not sure I agree with this. I do have two writer's groups I belong to where I do exercises.

However, there are times a person is just too close to the story and they need fresh eyes to look at it.

Joyce said...

I don't agree with this, either, maybe because I'm in a great critique group. We're all crime fiction writers--some published, some not. If we submit something to the group, we tell them specifically what we want from the critique. Maybe we're stuck on something and need to brainstorm a bit. Sometimes we just need to know if a scene is working. Sometimes we just hang out and talk about writing in general. And eat.

BJ said...

It really does depend on the group, and who is in that group. I've been in both types, and have had good and bad experiences.

Things to look for when choosing a group:

1. Member experience

The worst critters are the inexperienced ones. They absorb everything they're told about the 'rules' and spout it back in their own crits. More experienced critiquers should understand personal style and creativity.

2. Published members

Now, being published does not give a critiquer more credence than others, but if that writer received important advice in that group that led them to getting published, the group is obviously doing something right.

3. Paid vs unpaid

A group you pay to join isn't necessarily a great group, but - especially in the case of online groups - members tend to be more serious about the craft.

4. Size

Larger groups are good for more varied (and more) input, but smaller groups are better for sustained help and support.

5. Genre understanding

Choose a group that has members who understand your genre - and subgenre - whether they write it or not. Although there are skills that transcend genre, every genre does have its own conventions.

The trick is to try the group out first. I've worked with three different online critique groups. The first, I felt, was a wash. It was a large free group, and the crits were usually unhelpful, and often mean. Not to say there weren't some folks who were good critiquers, but not enough for my taste.

After that, I joined an advanced group whose members were vetted before being allowed to join. It was a smaller group with more experienced writers, and I learned a lot there. I still work in a smaller, personal group with some of the people I met there.

I also belong to another large group now - this time, paid. Before joining, though, I researched it. I hung out on their egroup to gauge the members' personalities and experience. I tried their free one-month access to gauge skills of critiquers and writers. Then I paid my bucks and joined.

And that's the sort of research a writer needs to do when looking for a good critique group.

I hope that all makes sense. I shouldn't try to make sense at 7 a.m.

Jessica said...

I can definitely see this person's view. When I was a beginning writer, I took everyone's opinion on the first half of my book. Then I felt confident and sent it to an anonymous beta reader. The reader couldn't get into the first half, but loved the second.
It was my first clue that I may have killed something in my manuscript by trying to make it "perfect"
Thanks for sharing the link, Janet. :-)

Amy said...

I see both sides of this coin. Being in a writer's group has helped thicken my skin, which I still need help with. On the other hand, I've also left meetings feeling as though I don't have talent even though I've had a few short stories published. ?? Guess it's just about finding the right mix of people.

ryan field said...

Maybe it's all about the individual writer. Everyone is different. I'm not the crit group type. But some swear by them.

Maria said...

There are some critique groups that work and some that don't--and not all writers need or work well in critique groups. I've been in some where people feel they must find something to criticize in a piece. If they can't find spelling errors, they move on to some other complaint. In trying to improve a piece they equate it with, "I must make some suggestions even if the piece is really okay as-is." You end up with all kinds of conflicting views and may have a harder time finding your "voice" because of it.

As for the workshops described in the post, that would drive me nuts. Doesn't sound like anything I would enjoy at all, but my writing tends to be "edit" based. I'm fine with free-flow, but I HAVE to edit. It's a compulsion. I couldn't just read aloud without FIXING it.


I think every writer should try a critique group once, but I don't think anyone should be hung up on staying in one. It's a good experience--just to see how it works, how the writing is accepted or not and to learn in general.

PT Hammonds said...

I find emailing a trusted writer friend (or two) to read over my work a great way to catch flaws. My critique group works best for me when I present a polished piece, part of a larger work that's already complete. Then I'm not tempted to change the story to fit someone else's take on it yet it can be fixed if something isn't working.

Crimogenic said...

I'm not sure if I agree with it either, but I'm definitely digging the Moments in Crime site and will add it to my blogroll.

Paige said...

Hmm. Whatever blows your skirt up, but not sure I agree with this either. Her creative sessions sound . . . interesting but not my thing. And I could nurture something for a hundred years and still potentially miss the fact that I changed the protagonist's name half-way through.

Margaret Yang said...

The problem with crit groups that meet weekly, or even monthly, is that they are critiquing rough drafts. I prefer the term "beta reader" because that's what is more useful. The writer takes the work as absolutely far as she can go on her own, and only then gives it to her betas to read. I have betas and I am a beta and it works much better to read complete and polished work.

Anonymous said...

I don't really agree with the assessment. I'm part of a critique group and not one of us works in publishing :P

One is a lawyer, another works at a library, and two work for the Air Force (one as a civilian and one who is enlisted). It's nice to have varying opinions and many times they have helped me see something that needed fixed that I would never have picked up on. True, some of the things they have told me I've ignored because it would change the overall story in general, but for the most part they've given me valuable advice. I think a member of a critique group needs to learn what to take and what to ignore in the end. I also think it's helped me prepare for the criticism I'm bound to get from agents and editors.

Southern Writer said...

Why wasn't it brilliant WHEN I SAID IT? lol

I joined a crit group once. What a disaster. The only good thing that came of it was that I met S.W. Vaughn there, and consequently, Aaron Lazar, both of whom I count as my best writing friends. Oh, and I met Elizabeth Loupas, too. I am SO looking forward to finally reading her novel, which she would never allow anyone to read as a manuscript. I saw the first chapter, and that was it. Ever since, I've been crying to read the rest.

As much as I fear the karma I may receive for revealing this, it turns out the self-professed "bestselling" know-it-all author / leader of the crit group ended up starting his own "publishing company" because it was the only way he'd ever see his book in print. I'm still bitter about that group, and it's been years.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one's mentioned one of the key benefits of a critique group--it isn't receiving the critiques; it's giving them.

I've learned more about how to make a better story from giving critiques than from someone else pointing out things in my story. When my critique group critiqued my first chapters, they pointed out a lot of little things. The things were all different and seemed like they were part of a bigger problem--they were just too vague. A lot of people would have just gone and corrected them without understanding what else might be causing it.

Up on plate came eight authors with their first chapters that I critiqued. As I did, I started to notice a pattern, and gradually realized that we had all done exactly the same thing. It was a story setup issue, and if I hadn't given critiques, I wouldn't have been able to identify what was wrong.

I probably have had may 20 or so crits done of my work, but I've done at least several hundred of other people's. It also gives me a lot of appreciation of what the agents go through with their slush piles!

Melanie Avila said...

I dream of the day when I'll live in a place that has writing and critique groups...

Julie Weathers said...

For those of you who don't have writing groups in your area, go to Compuserve Books and Writer's Forum.

They have writing exercises, critiques sections and help for the odd writing question. Plus, most important of all, lots of support and encouragement.

You will quickly learn which people have "tuned in" to your work.


BJ said...

Melanie Avila said:

"I dream of the day when I'll live in a place that has writing and critique groups..."

You do. It's called the internet. But like I said, research them and figure out which one is best for you.

I agree with garridon - you learn as much from critting as you do from being critted.

I also think it's wrong to critique first drafts, especially of unfinished works. I've seen too many writers post their first draft of a first chapter, and get completely disheartened by the criticisms. Your work is meant to be rewritten, and it will be rewritten. Full-out, drag-out critiques of work that is not yet that person's best can be disastrous.

If I'm given a first draft to critique, I'll only give suggestions on ideas, or answer specific questions. Nitting (the detailed grammar/spelling/punctuation type of crit) should be left to the author's best. Otherwise, it's going to change and you've put hours into something that may not even be there later.

Oh, and in a critique group, writers learn (or should learn) that not every suggestion is valid and that not every change is for the better. It's got to fit into the story and the author's voice in order for it to work. If you take everyone else's suggestions without carefully considering how they fit your work, you're going to lose your voice.

Merry Monteleone said...

I think it depends on the writer. On the one hand, I can't show rough drafts to critique partners - the feedback somehow diminishes my need to tell the story. I usually wait until I've done multiple revisions before asking for feedback.

Beta/critiquers work best for me. I have a few tried and true ones, we trust each others' opinions and know enough to know that all criticism might not be the best for the story - sometimes it's just a matter of pinpointing the weak areas, and then the author will have a better idea of what needs to be strengthened - it's also a godsend to have a few people in your corner, to exchange resources with or just commiserate over rejections and rejoice over progress.

But I think everyone's process is a little different. Some writers can't help but take critique personally - we all like to say "grow a thicker skin", but being sensitive, especially in the beginning, doesn't mean that they aren't talented. A lot of times it comes down to how the critiques are phrased. No matter how much tact you try to use or how many compliments you sandwich between those critiques, some people will focus on the criticism and view it in a personal way. The fact that many of us only crit online makes it even harder to keep communication honest because you can't always tell tone from critique and in a face to face setting it might not sound as harsh as it does in our own heads.

I take any and all critique as an extra set of eyes on my work - but it took me a long time to get to that point. Just like every other aspect of writing, what works for one, might not work for another.

Elissa M said...

I agree that critique groups depend on the personalities involved. I agree even more with garridon, in that I've learned as much or more from giving critiques as I have from getting them.

I'm currently in a large, online group that focuses on my genre. My writing has improved exponentially. I think every writer ought to try out a critique group (or two or three) before making a permanent yes or no decision.

Sassee B said...

Nice find! Sounds like something I need to try just so I can say I experienced it. It seems very similar to the prompts we do over on AbsoluteWrite, except this is a set date/time with people in the same room. Who knows, maybe I can get my non-writing buddies to join in on this!

Richard Lewis said...

I live on a small island -- learned to write by reading all the books I could from a young age and then, when I took writing seriously, got some good textbooks (Burroway's for one) and did the exercises. While a member of a couple online writers' forums, I've never belonged to a meatspace critique group. I think such a group would be more than for just the writing but also for the sense of community, and as with any community, there are blessings and tensions apart from the actual writing.

With my online groups, though, I've discovered that I get most benefit and am of most help when I submit or critique an entire manuscript. Not partials or chapters or exercises. Perhaps this is a function of experience (I've been writing since I was six, and if I haven't learned anything by now, well, I'd be octopus prey).

Another thing I've discovered, especially for novels, is that a completed ms is a pretty rare thing to find.

Patrick Gabridge said...

While I agree that finding the wrong group could be harmful to a beginning writer, I feel strongly that a good writer's group can be an invaluable tool for developing stronger work.

I started out writing plays, and the two main groups that I started are comprised of a handful of writers (it turns out that six is ideal) and we hire actors to come in and read the new material for us twice a month. Chemistry is critical for such a group--if one of our members leaves the group, it might take us six months to find a replacement. The first group is still meeting (I've long since moved away) after 15 years.

I belong to a fiction writers' group that I find extremely helpful, but again, chemistry is important. The group I'm in is full of experienced writers, and we're all at around the same general level, in terms of having our work published. Having that balance means there isn't one person who acts as the sole voice of "authority" when it comes to the business end.

Sarah said...

The post had one point. A critique group isn't a place to find validation. (That's what mothers/best friends/sympathetic strangers are for.) A critique group is supposed to help you write better.

If the folks are ugly, ego-driven nitwits that make you want to burn your work just before you slit your wrists... they're an awful critique group.

But don't dismiss critique groups for everyone.

I learned to write through critiques. My first feedback included (still makes me blush) instructions to ditch the passive voice. After that, I worked to write clearly and precisely, but I could tell my stories lacked something. I joined the Slushbusters in 2007, and their critiques taught me how to flesh out my characters. They pointed out places where the story wasn't working- and where it was. The bimonthly meetings kept me writing even though I was working and going to school at the time.

Maybe a better writer wouldn't have needed it, but I've gleaned so much from my critique group. They made my story- and overall writing-better.

ICQB said...

The trick is finding a good critique group. I can't even find a good doctor.

Also, you have to be ready. I entered my first critique groups with a finished novel and was ready for critiqe.

Got good and bad feedback - you have to be able to tell the difference.

Then, upon beginning another novel, wasn't sure I wanted to have it critiqued as I wrote it. I'm thinking I want to finish it first so that I know it's what I wanted to write.