Friday, December 30

Critique Groups: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First things first: I'll be chatting today alongside a BUNCH of AWESOME Dreamspinner Press authors on the Coffeetime Romance (and More) group:

It is seriously worth your time to stop by and see what's going on. I think we're starting at noon and ending around 6 (Eastern Standard Time, or -5 GMT).

This will be my first time chatting via Yahoo group, so... wish me luck!  (I've tried to follow a few, but usually end up feeling lost. But surely a woman who can read a MARC record can suss it out!!)

All right...
Critique Groups, Part Two:

A week or so ago, I started writing about Critique Groups and some of the reasons a writer might want to belong to one.

I get different reactions when I tell other that I belong to a writers' group. Some people (talking fellow writers here) think it's great--but a few are surprised when I mention that I'm the only romance writer in the group (in fact, most of the folks in group I belong to tend to lean toward some flavor or dark speculative fiction). Yet other writers have admitted openly that they wouldn't be 100% comfortable with a critique group--and indeed, it does take a thick skin to have your work ripped apart and all the flaws pointed out. Even a year later, I'm still nervous when I submit something for critique, and this is after hearing fairly constant comment like "your writing is, as always smooth," "easy to read", "enjoyable".  In a way, hearing compliments makes it even more nerve racking, as I wonder if each new submission will live up to past "smooth, easy" reads.

Don't misunderstand, those nice things are always followed up with a laundry list of every flawed word, bad turn of phrase, plot hole, and logic problem. Yikes. And here I thought I'd written a masterpiece! (not really...)   But that's why I joined. I wanted the problems pointed out to me. I was frustrated by asking friends to critique my work and getting nothing more constructive than having my typos pointed out. That's great, but it didn't make my writing better.

Which bring me to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

These are (to an extant) subjective words. Good and Bad are going to be determined primarily by what you want. Do you want your every literary flaw pointed out? Not everybody does. Some people are just looking for camaraderie, the company of their fellow wordsmiths. There is nothing wrong with that. Just be clear about it from the onset.

Back when I was running a coven (y'all got the memo I'm a witch, right?) one of the things I said to potential members in our first meeting was that not every coven is for every person. The same thing holds true for any kind of group, religious or secular. What works for me may not work for you. Or maybe it does, but you'd rather have a root canal than have to sit in the same room as me. Hey, there are just people I rub the wrong way. I don't mean to. But I'm only human, you know.

Even if you find a group that meets your needs, you still have got to consider the human factor. Do you like these people enough to want to see them as often as the group meets? Do you want to hang out with them for several hours? Do you want to network and possibly socialize with them from time to time? (Because you may well end up at the same conferences, writing classes and conventions).

You also have to look at what you have to offer in return. Are you willing to give an honest critique? Are you okay with saying "I really hated that and here's why..."?  (Okay, I'm usually a lot nicer than that). If you find a group where everybody writes in a different genre, are you willing to read stuff you wouldn't read ordinarily and analyze the writing?

Being in a critique group where you are getting honest feedback means letting go of your ego.

Take an honest inventory of yourself and decide what you're really looking for.
Then figure out what you have to give in return.
Look for a group with the same needs and wants.

Regardless of your goals, there are a few universal things that makes a group "good":

  • The honest desire to see each member learn and grow as a writer (even when it hurts)
    Even if you're joining a group for the company of other writers, rather than for critiques, per se, your fellow writers should still want to see you learn and grow.
  • The honest desire to give and receive useful feedback.
    One of these days I'm going to talk about the art of receiving feedback...
  • You should find yourself surrounded by people who will celebrate your successes with you and encourage you to get back up and dust yourself off again when you stumble.
  • Respect. There should be respect for you, your writing, your views. Likewise, you must respect your fellow writers, their work, and their personal views. You may find yourself surrounded by people come for wildly different walks of life--you can learn a lot from them if everybody is respectful of one another.
  • The best group for you is going to be filled with people who are more or less on the same level as you are, as a writer. Now... I was nowhere NEAR the level of the crit group I joined when I joined it. I think I spoke once before about feeling totally intimidated. One guy has an MFA, another has a published novel, these other folks write and publish short stories... yikes!  I was terrified. But I decided to come back anyway, because I liked the kind of feedback they gave and hoped to be able to learn something--and I hoped I'd be able to contribute enough not to get the boot.  
  • Along the same lines, you should be in a group where everyone has the same level of commitment. Commitment does not equal output, it just means that everyone has the same overall writing goals you do. If you're a hobby writer, a group of serious (i.e. desiring publication) writers is not going to be a "good" fit.  
  • It is my personal opinion that it is very helpful to have at some common interests with at least a few of the members. You're already starting out strong because you all like to read (writers should be voracious readers). Having common ground helps establish trust and you're going to have to trust these people with your literary babies. You will never find a group of random strangers that love all the same thing you do. There are three or four members in my group who also go to science fiction conventions. One lady loves the same Steampunk band I do. I found out that another guy and I both really enjoy Steven Brust... he reads Robert Lynn Aspirin, too. Clearly this is a man with a wicked good sense of humor!  :D 
    On that note, it doesn't hurt in the least to stretch yourself. If the guy sitting next to you is talking about some great book he just read, check it out of the library. Invest in each other.
  • Laughter. Being able to laugh together, with each other is the sign of a very healthy and functional group.

Which brings me to the Bad...

I don't have much experience in writers' groups, but I do have some experience with group dynamics.
Nobody is perfect. Everybody has flaws. We talk out of turn, get a little egocentric (imagine, writers who like to talk about themselves!!), and have strong opinions (authors with opinion? What's the world coming to??) And yes, we can be snarky. What we should never be is mean-spirited.

  • You should never feel like the people around you need to put you (or anyone else) down to make themselves feel better.
  • There should be a minimum of jealousy. It's human nature to be mildly envious, to wish you'd done X or had Y, but there's a difference between that and the ol' green eyed monster. One makes you work harder to succeed, the other lends itself to sabotaging both yourself and others, it is an unhealthy expression of ego.
  • Group politics should be kept to a bare minimum--nobody should be on a power trip.  We are not meeting to tell one person (or a select group of favorites) how great they are.
  • Favoritism, one person always getting to submit (even when others want to), or one person getting undue recognition of any sort, is one sign of an unhealthy power dynamic. There is a difference between making concessions to help someone who needs to meet a deadline and ALWAYS reviewing so and so's piece because he's "teacher's pet".
  • One (or more) people who never submit. Yes, work and homelife may get in the way of writing and we all go through dry spells, but if realistically everyone should submit something, even if it's just a few hundred words, once or twice a year. (And you may find yourself in a group with an actual rule in place over this. Whether you need that much sructure or not is up to you.)
  • There should be a procedure for submitting material for critique, a procedure for giving and receiving a critique. These will vary from group to group and what they are doesn't matter. What matters is that they exist, that there is an established format for how meetings are run (and the group should stick to it).
  •  If a procedure isn't working, is the group willing to address ways to change it? How are decisions handled? Group vote? One person dictatorship? (Voting good, dictatorship bad).
  • Most members should show up to most meetings. We all have lives, but if nobody shows up, it's not going to be a very productive group.
  • Unreasonable obligations. It is healthy and normal for someone to say "hey, we're having a party, y'all wanna come?"  o "I'm teaching a class, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the information on to them."  It is not healthy or normal for others to pressure you into attending social functions, conventions, take classes, pay for workshops that they are putting on/hosting. I hope you want to spend time with your fellow writers, but it should never, ever be an obligation; no one should be put down or ostracized for not being able to attend.

As for the Ugly... that happens when the Bad gets out of control. I've only belonged to one in-person writers' group, but I belonged to a few online groups that fell into the category of Ugly. These were groups where certain of my fellow writers (who were just as unpublished as I was) took a Holier than Thou attitude about our craft. In one particularly hurtful incident, I found myself being picked at long after a conversation had ended. Someone with an opposing point of view kept snarking at me in a series of little jibes, in totally unrelated posts. The moderator never stepped in to say "hey, play nice". I left.

I consider myself amazingly lucky to belong to the critique group I belong to now. I am surrounded by professionals I respect and people I genuinely like.

Whew. What a post. As always, feedback, it's time for more coffee, brunch, and to get ready for my chat at Coffeetime! 

Happy weekend...and happy release day to Shira Anthony; Blue Notes came out today, and is going on my To Be Read list... not quite at the very top, but maybe second or third down from a couple of other things... seriously, violinists are sexy (and boys kissing are hot)!!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the shout-out! And I have your new release queued up on my Kindle. -S

H.B. Pattskyn said...

You're welcome, Shira! I'm starting to think we're our own best audiance! ;-) (Then again, we can use the excuse that we're reading all these romance novels as research.... heheheh)