Monday, November 18, 2013

Critique Groups: Yay or Nay?

After a sizable hiatus, my critique is finally going to meet again tonight. We started this summer, but were all so incredibly busy that we only met twice before having to pause. While I'm not sure we're really any less busy, I'm excited to be back at it.

One resounding thing I've heard over and over in the writing world is "You must get a critique group!" It's usually said forcefully, but with a pleasant smile. Inside they're saying, "Get a critique group or FAIL!"

By Alice, clker.com

Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic.

At conferences, conventions, and workshops, I repeatedly hear that writers need a critique group, that a critique group can help you get your manuscript ready for submission. Some people swear by them, with thanks to critique groups showing up in the front of books.

However, there's also an outspoken contingent who say critique groups can ruin your book, or possibly your self-esteem as a writer. That it's poison to go into a group and deal with people who rip your work apart. Some cite groups they've gone into where there was at least one really nasty person who did nothing but criticize, never giving construction criticism, just nastiness.

I've witnessed several panels where an argument has ensued over whether or not you should join a critique group.

By OCAL, clker.com
In my opinion, you should try it out and see if it works for you, but only if you're interested. Don't be bullied into deciding one way or another. Do you feel your manuscript could benefit from having a fresh pair of eyes on it (or a few)? Have you read your book so many times that you have it memorized, so you can't pick out any issues? In that case, it would be a good idea to seek out a critique group. Be sure you are prepared to do critiques, as well as receive them, and that you're dedicated to the group. Otherwise, you shouldn't start until you can be completely dedicated. Critique groups work both ways, and you need to be a full partner in it.

On the other hand, if you feel there's nothing to fix, that it really wouldn't matter what they're going to say to you, skip it. You won't be open to what anyone is saying, anyway, so this isn't an option for you. In order to get anything out of a critique group, you must be open to hearing what other people have to say.

There's another reason not to do it, as well, though, which comes up on the opposite side. If you will be too open, if you'll take everything they say and think you need to make those changes, you should probably avoid it, as well. I feel like you have to have some confidence in your story to be able to get it critiqued. Of course, that's true for submitting it, too. If you have no confidence, you could end up tearing apart your story while stressing yourself out and questioning your ability to write, all because you couldn't pick out the useful feedback from the white noise.

I'm not saying it's easy. I'm starting over on a book that very nearly became a trunk book, all because I took everything to heart that was said in critiques. When I couldn't reconcile my opinion with several mixed opinions, all of which differed from each other on various aspects of the story, I gave up.

By OCAL, clker.com

Once you decide whether a critique group is for you, you've got to hunt one down. If you have some writer friends whose opinions you trust, see if they're interested in starting a critique group. They don't have to be local; you can email the critiques. We like to meet in person, but I think that's because we enjoy the social aspect of it, as well.

If you don't have writer friends you'd like to start a critique group with, you can check into local writer's groups. Go to meetings they offer and meet other writers. Check on their website, any forums they may have, etc., and see if they have any critique groups or if they have a mechanism with which to hook you up with any.

If that fails, start searching online. There are Meetup groups you might be able to find online by plugging in your location. Search for forums or online critique websites. There are some websites dedicated to allowing online critiques, but you must earn them by giving critiques first and maintaining a certain amount of points.

Once you've found or created your critique group, figure out the group's rules and get started! How are you expected to submit? What does the critique consist of (flow, grammar, answering specific questions, numerical judging, etc.)? How long will you have to do the critique? When do you need to get your piece in by? Will you email it or meet in person? If you're meeting in person, will you get the piece in advance to go over and make notes on so you can come prepared to the meeting? How many words/chapters will you submit at a time? How often will you critique?

Getting these and other questions hammered out in advance will make your life easier as you go into the critique group world.

Tell me about your experiences with critiques. Are you strongly on one side or the other (pro or con)? Have you had any especially nasty experiences in critique group? Any wonderful ones?

May you find your Muse.

24 comments:

Cathrina Constantine said...

I've never been part of a critique group, though, sent my very first ms out to be critiqued and evaluated at a cost. A critique group would be cost effective if you trusted what they had to say. Good Post, Shannon.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I found a wonderful critique partner at a writing conference years ago. She helped me a lot in those first years and taught me a lot. I have a different critique now and I think she could be tougher on me.

shelly said...

I loved my critique group. We were together almost 6 years until we each had unique circumstances that split it apart.

Now I have 2 crit partners overseas.

However, I've had my share of some nasty critters out there. I say keep going forward and ignore the meanness.

Hugs and chocolate!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never been part of a group either. I have two test readers who are local and a couple critique partners who are online.

A Beer For The Shower said...

Probably the worst critique group I was ever in was just a big group of friends that all scratched each other's backs and said everything was awesome. So what the hell is the point?

We're each other's critique group. We can both give each other good, honest feedback without being too mean and without taking it personally. It's helped both of our writing a ton.

D.G. Hudson said...

Quote: "I'm starting over on a book that very nearly became a trunk book, all because I took everything to heart that was said in critiques."

This can happen if aggressive types are part of that critique group. (never heard of literary bullies?)

I've attended several events including a writing class online where the critique group did what it wanted,and the course supplier said 'oh well'. The teacher of that course said to me 'they're wrong, ignore that feedback'. In that group of 15, reciprocal feedback did not happen. This was a course hosted by a high profile company, too.

All critique groups are NOT created equal, and too many opinions spoil the book! In the next class, I opted out of the critique sessions and told the supplier why.

I prefer critique partners, individuals, like Alex said. With a healthy background in English and an eye for story arcs and gaps. I found my best critique partner in that course with the shabby critique group. Gems do occur.

I'm not a fan of 'critique groups'. Good luck to those who find them helpful. The problem: too many do not understand HOW to critique.
So, Shannon, hope your group works for you, but if not, discard it.

rosaria williams said...

Test the waters and go with it.

Sometimes it's not what you hear about your work that helps but what you hear about somebody else's work. You can gauge each person's strength and perspective at these meetings and decide if they can help you meet your goals.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Getting another set of eyes sounds valuable, but I'm sure it depends on what group you join. Great question Shannon!

Andrew Leon said...

I am not for group work. Almost all of the data shows that work (of any sort) suffers the more people you have involved in it. That quite goes against current popular opinion that says everything is better the more people you have involved in it, but people believe a lot of things that the research doesn't support.

Kimberly said...

I've tried groups but prefer partners now. Plus, the groups I've been in tend to take things slower, like one chapter at a time and I prefer to do more at one time, or even the whole thing. :)

M. J. Joachim said...

It truly depends on the writer, but also on the manuscript. Some books can be harmed by critiques, because all they really need is a good editing. Critique groups are great for brainstorming, socializing and building each other up, but they should never be used to tear each other down. Your comments about this give me pause. It's so easy for people to offer "constructive criticism," whatever that means. I've always felt like constructive criticism was a free pass to judge others, and when it's offered, I take it with a grain of salt more often than not. That said, I'm never opposed to receiving solid, strong advice that will help me improve my work and further develop my skills.

Julie Luek said...

I've never had a reason, yet, to belong to one so read through your post and the responses here with interest. Thanks for bringing this up.

M Pax said...

It took a year to get a crit group that worked going and took all the years since to get it where it is. I've learned that when my gut insists I'm on the right track to listen to my gut. I hear what my group says and put their crits in a file. I'll leave them there for a couple of weeks and I'll think about what was said. Some I'll incorporate, but in my way, others I will disregard.

It's important to find other writers where you are - my group is all serious writes and we all write fiction. We're committed to meeting every 3 weeks, but make exceptions around the holidays.

Overall, it makes me better and helps me thicken my skin for the review part, which is waaay harder than critique.

klahanie said...

Hey Shannon,

Personally, I have no need to be involved in a critique group. I'm stubborn and I just get on with it by myself. Okay, not quite true. Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar, is my critique partner. I pay heed to what she has to say.

I'm going now.

Gary

Cynthia said...

Right now, I'm taking an online class that functions as a critique group. We post our pages each week for others to give feedback on. So far, things are going fine. I don't always agree with every piece of feedback I get, and it's likely that not every classmate agrees with all the feedback I give them either. But I feel that everyone involved seems to want the best for the other person, and it's important for me to know that I'm being supported going into this.

mshatch said...

I think finding the right group is the hard part, more so in rural areas. Luckily there is the internet...

Ella said...

I so appreciate this post! I have tried, but it didn't work for me. I might try again after the holidays. I went to a local bookstore and I was promised this was going to be great. First try two older gentlemen...I had to pull teeth to get them to talk, but finally they did. We all have our dreams...
I tried again later on-similar dance. So I stopped-I do think being in a rural setting makes it a difficult.
I might go to the city next time.
It was a yawn fest-I have heard they can be life changing, but no luck for me-yet! Thanks for sharing~

Trace A DeMeyer said...

Nay to critique. But writers and artists can meet and be supportive of each others work - I belonged to one in Seattle for painters! It was amazing to share what you are working on and get comments. If you have a manuscript that needs work, send it to a pro - that way you are paying for criticism. (Just my two cents)...
Love this blog!

Michelle Wallace said...

I've never been part of a critique group.
However, I would welcome a critique partner or two... if I could find the right people... especially for brainstorming sessions...
Writer In Transit

Al Diaz said...

Happy birthday, Shannon. Dragon hugs!

Jak Cryton said...

If what Al said is true, Happy Birthday! I was so stoked to see you commenting back in my neck of the woods, it seems like it's been ages really :( I know everyone has been super busy and I'm pretty much so slow I stick to blog hop commenting lately.

Then there is this NaNo business as you know >.< Bah! Failing there lol

Anyhow, I've never had a critique group, but I've contemplated them. I think it's really important to know yourself, however.

I've had a few things of mine critiqued by friends/family and really like A Beer For The Shower said, if all that takes place is back patting, then what's the point? This is mostly from family, but sometimes you have those individuals who are truly non-biased in terms of critiquing (like my father) BUT also, even if capable, have issue with the content and fully detaching said individual from the work (Yes, Dad, religion is an underlying them for this piece, no this has nothing to do with our previous "discussions" about it) and are unable to offer really helpful critique.

Sorry, off track about knowing yourself... I know that I want critique that is unbiased, which I feel is hard to find sometimes, but also want to keep my "voice". Everyone has their own writing style and voice. So while I appreciate most grammar help (wouldn't this just simply be editing process, though?) and being told about the flow and if someone can picture themselves and/or characters in the world I'm attempting to create, I'm still very picky about it. I've found people will rip apart someone's work even if it's already fundamentally sound, because it's not like theirs or what/how they prefer, or sometimes just to be a prick lol from the sounds of it according to a handful of the comment above.

I think I fall into the category some have mentioned above about a smaller group of those you know offer sound "constructive" criticism (yeah, I believe it's a thing). Even then, I'm mostly interested in flow and if people feel pulled into the story, as I feel everyone has different writing styles, which is important to maintain, in my opinion.

Like you implies it's basically a balancing act (thrown in with knowing yourself) that most definitely isn't for everyone!

The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink

Shannon Lawrence said...

Cathrina, were you happy with the paid critique you got?

Susan, hmmm, if she can't be tougher, you may need another critique partner.

Shelly, wow, 6 years! That's great. Glad you got some new critiquers after your group ended.

Alex, I like beta readers. I've got a really good one who I haven't sent anything new to. I should get on that.

B&B, I wouldn't last long in a critique group like that one (the rub my backs one). What's the point? Seems like a major waste of time, and time isn't something most of us have to waste.

D.G., I would have definitely opted out of the critique portion in that instance. Glad you found a gem, though! I do like this critique group. We're all an active part of the local writer's group, and so far I've been blown away by the value of their critiques.

Rosaria, it's interesting, because each person brings a different perspective. I also get a lot out of critiquing other people, because I discover something I maybe have been doing, but hadn't noticed in my own work.

Maurice, definitely. After we've been over the same thing again and again, it helps to have someone who hasn't seen it before look at it.

Andrew, interesting! I can see that being true of a lot of things. And, yes, writing being one of them. As far as critiquing, if what they said makes me nod (basically), I look at what they've said. But after the initial damage, before I reached that point, it will be a lot of work salvaging this manuscript. Hopefully I already learned my lessons and can approach critiques in a healthier way.

Kimberly, that makes sense. For the most part, we're all done with the novels we're critiquing right now, so we're doing three chapters every two or so weeks (holidays have thrown that). It should help us kick each other's butts, though!

M.J., bad or overly harsh critiques can certainly harm the manuscript. I've been thinking of going back to an earlier version of the novel that was almost a trunk book, just to erase everything I fiddled with. Luckily, I do save each set of edits as a new file with a date, so that's entirely possible.

Julie, good luck on deciding if it's something you want to do. There are some great comments here!

Mary, yeah, I can definitely see critique being a bit of training for, and yet so much nicer than, reviews. That's one aspect I'm certainly not looking forward to. I like your idea of putting them in a folder before doing anything. I've done the same, but unintentionally. I think I'll make it intentional from here on out.

Gary, well, when you have a partner like Penny, you'll never need for anyone else!

Cynthia, that sounds like an interesting class. What does the class consist of outside of critiquing?

Marcy, definitely! I was part of an online group for a little while, but was terrible about submitting there. I need to see people face to face and know I'm expected to have sent something in.

Ella, oh no! That sounds awful. Are there any writers groups in nearby cities at all? Have you tried an online one?

Trace, thank you! How cool that there was one for painters. I wonder if that is common? I mean, it makes sense, but I guess I never thought about it.

Michelle, I wish you luck in finding critique partners!

Al, thank you!!

Jak, it was good to "see" you after all this time! I realized I hadn't visited in awhile, so dropped by. I've been trying to be better about that lately. Oh yes, the family thing. I gave up on that one when I asked who wanted to read my WIP, got several people saying they were interested, and then I don't even know, to this day, if they ever even read it. One thing I like about this critique group is we each send what specific questions we have and what we'd like looked at when we send the next piece of our manuscript. Of course, two of the people said no grammar help, which made me sad, because I'm the grammar nazi of the group. ;)

Mina Lobo said...

I'm in the market for a critique partner. I'd solicit you, Shannon, if I didn't know you're already so very busy. :-)

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