Friday, March 18, 2011

Crit Group Ins And Outs

Oops. Got caught up putting the finishing touches on the EXTINCT files for epubbing yesterday. I'll discuss THAT headache in detail later next week.

So some people on Tuesday discussed why they did or didn't belong to a crit group. Check out the comments if you haven’t. In response, I present a very long, unedited ramble about what to look for – and look out for – in your search for a group. Seriously, you’re not really expecting anything more than some accidentally useful advice, right?

It’s not, of course, all about what you want out of a group but what you’re willing to give – or are capable of giving.

And that’s where things get tricky. Mature writers who have mastered the basic craft and are looking for critters to bounce new ideas off of or to help sharpen really good writing into great writing may not have the patience for newer writers still finding their way around a story or through the maze of grammar.

Skills Of The Trade

Not having the right skill sets in a group is one way the crit experience can go bad. If there’s no one on board with matured skills, you may be getting bad advice, no matter how well intentioned. Ideally, a group will have a mix of skills. If you’re a newbie and can’t find a group with anything but newbies, you might want to consider taking a class or two instead of joining a group.

Another way things can go bad is not having critters who read or write in your genre and don’t know the necessary conventions of it. You could wind up being praised for clich├ęd writing because the group thinks your stuff is cool and original or be damned for the very things that genre readers expect. Sometimes it’s a delicate line between an overused trope and a necessary convention (push-me-pull-you love affairs in romance, the quest in epic fantasy, a red herring in mystery, etc), so it’s easy for even well-intentioned writing to go astray, and having a critter who can point out where you’re on- or off-target genre-wise is much more valuable than having someone unfamiliar with the genre trying to do it.

Then you have to know what you need a crit group for most. Some critters may do a great job copyediting your work but miss the big picture of how all the parts – internal logic, voice, tone, motivation, pacing, etc – work together. Or you could have a group where no one knows enough to help anyone in any area. Worse is having people who don’t know they don’t know and spout wrong advice.

Information Processing

The way the group conducts critiques also needs to fit your style and comfort level. I was surprised at the number of commenters who mentioned groups that meet in a physical location and read everything aloud. While there are certainly people who process information better through auditory learning, they need to be matched with folk skilled delivering info that way. The same goes for visual learners and learning.

Read-alouds work best, I think, in situations – such as conferences – where no one is able to read work ahead of time and where there isn’t a single dominant voice in a group (unless it’s a “teacher”). Reading work aloud CAN pinpoint problem areas in voice and dialog, but a skilled voice can also minimize those problems.

If the style of critting doesn’t work for you, get out. Fast. There’s little worse than being miserable about your turn at being critted. There's enough anxiety there as it is.

That comfort level carries over to venue and frequency too. Do you get inspired knowing you have to produce work weekly for a face-to-face meeting? Do you need the discipline of having established quotas to meet? Does the group expect you to spend more time reading and critting than in writing your own stuff?

Size Matters

Which means size and dynamics have to be weighed as well. Too few people – 3 or 4, say – and you may be asked to participate 100% of the time. Too many people – 50 or 60 – and you may not get YOUR work seen often enough for 1) anyone to get a good handle on your style and what you want your story to accomplish, or 2) to get enough quality feedback in a timely enough manner to help. Much depends on how you write: Do you agonize for years over a draft, or do you churn out a new novel (or several short stories) every two months? Do you want validation as you go along, or is it enough to make sure your first chapter sets the right direction and then you just need a final validating read?

It’s Who You Know

Of course, beyond size and location, finding the right mix of personalities is important. The critters from hell, anyone? Some of the critters might be well-meaning, nice enough folk in a social forum but who really don’t know any more than you do about writing, know even less than you do, or everything they know is wrong and it’s their god-given mission to spread disinformation. These latter folk are generally easy to spot but hard to get away from.

Then there are the charmers who talk about everything else except the work at hand and who never have anything gainful to say. Or the rewriters, as commenters mentioned, who don’t know how to do constructive rewrites but take your work so far afield it’s not even in the same genre any more.

That you mesh with the dynamics of your group is critical. That your group gives you the support you need when you need it is critical. And that it doesn’t drain the life or the originality out of you in return is especially crucial.

Seems impossible to find the right partners, doesn’t it?


Over the weekend, be thinking about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what you realistically expect out of a group, and how much time you’re willing to put in. We’ll resume the discussion next Tuesday and see if there’s any matchmaking we can perform here or if we can direct you elsewhere to some helpful sites.


Wilkins MacQueen said...

This is like Everest, different perils at different levels. I think we all get a sense of the writers stage of development as we read across the query buffet table spread out here.
Matt made comments that stayed with me about the problems many query submitters are having. Characterization, plot, voice, flow so much to consider/master. Add in the technical tools and there is a lot to manage especially for newcomers recently out of the closet.

You should always play tennis with a better player to bring up your game, that drags the better player down. Both games change.

Excellent point Phoenix about the more experienced having a stronger say and tremendous writers not having the time/patience maybe for us with less accomplished skills.

I had the benefit of a tremendous author with tons of books behind her for awhile. I had another on a workshop who was outstanding. The key for me is that these talented writers were always right and didn't change the story.

That's an art.

Will amiable but level or similar stage writers really be able to help each other? Will multi experienced writers be held back or slowed by less accomplished?

When I read the voices of experience here coming through and so simply identifying problems I think I may not have enough of those skills yet to be of much help.

We can't improve without guidance and being shown where we took a wrong turn or two. We can't improve without learning how to correct those problems.

Practice doesn't make perfection, perfect practice gets the job done. To practice perfectly requires a different set of skills.

I'm going to do a post on perfect practice on my blog. When I moved out of jumping and into dressage I gained valuable philosophical rules that I've used since on the value of
perfect practice.

Long winded today, there is a lot to think about in your post.

Chelsea P. said...

Some of the critters might be well-meaning, nice enough folk in a social forum but who really don’t know any more than you do about writing, know even less than you do, or everything they know is wrong and it’s their god-given mission to spread disinformation.

I once had a critter tell me my story featuring an Unseele heroine was unoriginal because the Unseelie Court was created by Laurell K. Hamilton (modern day author of A Kiss of Shadows).

Phoenix said...

@Mac: I bounced around critique sites absorbing for a couple of years before I joined my crit group. That made me a better player as both a writer AND a critiquer all the way around, and so I was better able to contribute to my crit group.

It's a hard balance to find. Looking forward to reading your post!

@Chelsea: *head - desk*