Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Critiquing By Committee

Ah, critique groups. The joys and pain of belonging. Much like can be -- and has been -- said about agents, the right crit group can elevate your career, while the wrong one can do such irrevocable damage it'll take years to climb your way out. And, like with agents, some writers survive quite well without a formal crit group and some writers need (or simply want) that helping hand throughout their career.

How do you find the RIGHT one?

Do you hope to join an established one or form your own? Do you feel comfortable in a large, free-swinging environment where you don't know who might come along next and offer advice and so get the benefit of a wide variety of opinions, or would you rather share your work among a few trusted crit partners who know you, your work and what you're trying to achieve?

Today, I'll share my journey in finding a group. Tomorrow, we'll critique a query, then Thurday we'll discuss what makes a good group and look at the pros and cons of belonging, and we'll wrap up on Friday by trying to figure out how you go about joining (or creating!) one. My thanks to Michelle4Laughs for the idea of discussing critters this week.

My Group

My crit group grew out of a site that encouraged open critiquing of short bits of authors' works. (It'll be no surprise to most of you that this was Evil Editor's site.) More than that, though, the environment in its early days encouraged bantering and social interaction in the comments. From that, we were able to judge not just the merit of each person's advice, but whether he or she was a regular, fun person who wasn't prone to going all psycho or who wouldn't otherwise melt under pressure.

Our group didn't form overnight. We bantered for a couple of years, learning about each other's strengths and weaknesses as writers, as well as about each other's personal lives. In short, we became friends before we became crit buddies. I missed the actual formation stage of the group because I took a few months away from writing after my dad had a devastating stroke. But as soon as this awesome group saw I was back in the saddle, they invited me along for the ride.

For the most part, the group I'm in provides the support I need at the stage of writing I'm in now. BUT, what I need is likely different from what YOU need. Just as some of us tested out of certain subjects and earned "free" credits in college and jumped right into advanced courses; and some of us had to take remedial classes before we could take the regular, required course for our degree; and some of us followed the prescribed, regular curriculum to a tee, two freshman writers won't necessarily have the same skills or experiences.

Who We Are

My group is one of *thisclose* writers. We're a secret organization with a secret handshake and everything :o) Seriously, we don't advertise ourselves, so if any of the critters want to out themselves, I'll let them do it on their terms. Some of us are agented, most aren't. Most of us have published short stories and other works to our credit. All are highly talented, ready-to-be-published novelists waiting to hit the right formula of storyline and luck. We don't concentrate on grammar or story structure or general basics in my group, which leaves us free to work on the nuances of character and plot and encourage each other to ratchet the emotion and take our writing to the next level. We can rely on each other to "get" our work and to offer constructive help to take us from Point A where we are to Point B where we want to be without losing sight of the author's vision for the work.

How We Do It

Because we're all comfortable with our work and can all tell reasonably good stories in our first draft or two, we rely on each other to help with minor course corrections along the way. We see a lot of first chapters to critique early on to be sure the story's off and running on a good start. We see problem bits where the author sets up what they want to have happen in the scene or chapter and help them work through it. And we do beta reads.

We have a private blog site where we post our work, our comments, our questions, our observations, and our rants. We share resources via the blog and/or email. We tried Skyping a couple of times, but the time differences make real-time get-togethers difficult to schedule. There are 9 of us in 5 different countries and, depending on where we're at in our lives, some of us are more active at times than others. If we need feedback, there are generally 3 or 4 critters willing to help out. We engage in lots of group discussions via blog/email, and also take part in private, offline discussions when the fancy strikes us. As with any group, some of us have become really close friends -- the kind who drop by regularly to sit at the kitchen table for a chat -- and some of us are more like good friends who see each other only occasionally but have a blast when they do get together.

Like most everyone, we're all busy with our own writing and life in general, so we have limited time. We don't have minumum requirements (where each critter is required to tot up a certain number of pages of crits) nor do we regulate how much or when an author can submit. If anything, the group errs on the side of submitting too little because we don't want to intrude on our friends' time. We respect each other too much for that. But that also means that when something IS submitted, we all take it seriously because we know it's not lightly being offered up, so those of us who can, make the time to give it close attention.

If it matters to you that you don't do more than is required or that everyone always has a fair share or that your work gets exactly so many eyes-on or time spent with it, then an ad-hoc group like ours probably won't work for you.

Rant About Revisions (An Aside)

Which brings me to another reason why this type of crit group works for me and may not work for some of you. In my group, we all know how to revise and understand what revision means. If we see two versions of, say, a first chapter, you can bet that version two will either be completely different from version one or it will be so much better that it's simply presented as a checkpoint for the rest of us to say, "Yep, that's where you needed to go with it." In other words, we DON'T workshop each draft to death, tweaking the same stuff over and over. It keeps us all fresh.

Granted, queries and synopses DO receive more committee-approach working-overs. But that's the nature of the query beast. And it might relieve you to know that we all bicker and disagree about what works and what doesn't. No group can get away from the fact that so much of writing is subjective, and that opinions are going to differ -- often widely. Still, we don't waste each other's time showing each other minor revisions and getting feedback. We trust ourselves enough to know that when a critter points out we need to know what a character's motivation for doing X is in a synopsis, that when we put that motivation in, we know it works.

This level of trust in ourselves goes hand-in-hand with understanding where you're at in your own writing career and what kind of group support you need now. It's also a great benchmark for understanding that some crit groups aren't "for life." Some of the more formal online groups are great up to a point, and when you reach that point, you graduate from the group and find another, either leaving the group for good or sticking around to help teach.

What's Missing

An informal chat last week about what we are and aren't getting out of our crit group led to the following revelation:

Not only do writers need different levels of support depending on what stage of their career they're at, they need different levels of support depending on what stage their WIP is at.

My crit group is fabulous at fine-tuning. But sometimes, the author isn't ready to commit to having the work done; they just want to bring their WIP in for an estimate. One of my crit buds who has an early draft of a WIP recently told us she just wants someone to love all over her draft and assure her it's a delicious and riveting story and maybe gently point out areas where tension lags or the story falls apart a bit. Someone who will look at her work from the forest level and not start identifying individual trees. But she doesn't want to "waste" a read with any of us since she knows she'll want more critical input from people she trusts a couple of months down the road. She wants an experienced reader who isn't necessarily a writer, yet most of the folk she knows who would have the discerning reading ability she wants are also writers.

Where do you find such folk? We're still looking.

What's Working Great

Personally, I rely on my crit partners/buddies/friends for emotional support more than anything. Who else understands the rollercoaster ride of emotions that comes with this business? The best thing is that I have an outlet other than this blog where I can rant and cry and talk about people behind their backs. I can vent safely in private, then come back here and put on a wise and sane public face. I look to my critters to keep me grounded. We commisserate when that's needed, and give each other a sharp slap in the face when we start getting hysterical. And we celebrate all the successes, big and small. Because, you know, that's what friends do.

So with that in mind, be thinking about what it is YOU want or need out of a crit group. And if you have a group and want to tell us about your own journey to finding it and what you're getting out of it -- or not getting -- let us know in the comments!


Sylvia said...

Critique: commiserate only has one S.

Bwahahahahaha! Sorry, I couldn't resist. This is a great post.

jjdebenedictis said...

After a bit of experimentation, I decided critique groups aren't for me--not because they aren't very useful, but because I get neurotic and psyche myself out if I have to process criticism on a draft. I do much better if I write everything up to and including the final draft in a vacuum.

It would be useful, however, to have an experienced reader to give me comments on that final draft. At that point, I have enough confidence in what I've done that I can handle editorial comments without going all wibbley-wobbley.

Sylvia said...

A more serious response: I spent quite some time trying to find a critique group that worked for me. I had a bad experience with one, where effectively a group of people had a great time rewriting my story into something completely different. There was no recognition of my original intent or voice at all. I was devastated: I took that to mean that nothing about the story had any merit, it needed rebuilding from the ground up. It didn't take me long to recognise that everyone's stories were undergoing this treatment. Writers are not necessarily competent critiquers and in this group, submissions were pretty much treated as writing prompts to create new things with. Maybe it was inspiring to some but I hated it.

I can only work with an online group - I live far away from the markets that I write for and I travel a lot, so committing to a weekly meeting just doesn't work for me. I also don't like the routine. I know that for some people, it can be motivating and useful to have a critique group deadline for bringing in pages but I'm quite happy with my production levels generally.

Also, as Phoenix mentions, time is a limiting factor and a heavy traffic group would be problematic for me. I know I get very resentful having to try hard to phrase things positively when I think a draft is too early to be shown around. I have decided that for me, it is critical that the people I trade critiques with have a strong ability and aren't going to need basic help. If they write the kind of story I enjoy and it is competent, then critiquing isn't a drain on my time, it's an interesting process.

But it's taken me a long time to find this level.

Whirlochre said...

Before the internet, the whole business of seeking out other writers involved hopping on an ACTUAL pony and riding across the desert to a neighbouring town, there to wander round with a sandwich board reading, "any writers?"

Now, the internet is awash with writers and although the problem of having to ride an ACTUAL pony has been solved, the literary glut presents its own difficulties, ie who to choose from this frothing collision of avatars?

For my own part, I dip into the best sites I can find, watch for who appears to be talking sense consistently, filter out the freaks and the posturers, watch, listen, rinse (no, sorry — that's the 'washing my hair' list), and weigh up which of these total strangers is worth trusting with my secretest creations. In this regard, the key element is time.

Chelsea P. said...

What a great story, Phoenix. This is the type of thing I love to hear.

As for me, I've been through several critique phases in my life. In my younger days, I was very resistant to critiques (It's MY work and I'LL decide what's wrong with it. HMPH.) Of course, I inevitably realized I needed to get over myself. Then I went through the opposite phase -- I became overly dependent on people's critiques, to the point where I didn't trust myself to make a revision without an outsider's opinion. But through it all I came out a stronger writer, with thicker skin and a better intuition. In other words, I found the balance (or, at least, I'm getting closer to it.)

As for actual groups, I've been using critters.org for the past few years. It's definitely a mixed bag -- I've gotten some amazing critiques and some, well, less helpful ones. I've had people tell me THIS IS AMAZING SUBMIT IT RIGHT NOW and I've had people try to rewrite my work in their own words with their perspectives. Again, I found it's all about the balance.

Personally, I prefer online crit groups. It keeps an appropriate distance in case anyone is overly sensitive or just plain mean, but it also allows you to keep in contact with those crit partners who have been especially helpful and professional.

Great post!

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Balance is an ingredient that comes out in these posts. I suppose that comes with time experience and getting to the middle point where you trust yourself and you are fortunate enough to get into a group that can help you with problems you haven't managed or have not thought through.

I confess I re-write a lot of queries on this site, for practice, to see if I can solve problems. That is for me, and of course the story changes as I play with the word candy on the screen.

Also time is important. I have a lot of free time now but won't in May until end of Feb.

I was fortunate to be in two different groups at two different times. One group was encouraging and not all that helpful, it was more a forum than a critique group with an odd mix, mainly professors and wanna be publisheds.

The other group was a romance writers group. This group had a few writers who had several books under their belts. They were so helpful. The highest profile writer wrote so beautifully. It was a pleasure to have her comments. Direct and accurate, she was a valuable, wise and trusted critiquer. With her we all improved and a few members sold their first books as a result.

It was so valuable. The comments that come from experienced writers/readers here jump off the page. The comments are tempered and get to the point in a constructive way.

The world of writing has changed so much. My groups met face to face and it took longer to get comments and feedback. Today you can accomplish much more in a short period of time.

Valuable post Phoenix. I appreciate the insight the comments reflect. Thanks all for opening up on this.

Phoenix said...

I'm enjoying all these comments as a way to understand the struggles we all continue to go through as we work on our craft. Thank you.

Except for Sylvia. Who'll be commiserating by herself soon.

(I really should write my posts in Word first. I use Notepad. It's more of a challenge. Like doing crossword puzzles in pen.)

Jayne said...

Apologies in advance if this sounds whiny.

I envy folks like Phoenix who have found critters who have similar work styles and goals. Like Sylvia, I now require and prefer online communications. Both my previous groups relied on face-to-face meetings (and the first was fixated on reading _everything_ out loud _all_ the time. Highly useful for poetry but almost useless for in-depth work on novels).

I know approximately where my work stacks up, what elements I am struggling to hone. Often people seeking to swap crits show me work struggling with basic sentence structure, massive blocks of back-story and gaping plot holes. Not that I don't sometimes give a nudge if I think there's something in the work that merits careful excavation, but getting good crit in return is unlikely.

Sometimes a 'mere reader' can give great insight into what's not working, but they often don't have any ideas for fixing it. I've presently got two distant writing friends who can sometimes read my drafts, but I'm writing much more than either of them and hate to get too deep in page-debt. I daren't over-use them on early drafts because I might need their eyes to be fresh for a later one.

I've had a few pro authors give me feedback on a chapter here or there, but even when paid they don't give the detailed critique I crave at this point in my learning curve. What I yearn for is near-pro folks like me, who can help me find those last few steps.

Jo-Ann said...

Interesting discussion.
Like any group, it takes a while to feel comfortable with the dynamics. I joined a group that meets monthly (aside: how often do most groups meet?) and has read-aloud only critiques. (@Jayne, I agree the usefulness of this is limited). I personally prefer in-depth crits of written work, so I am trying to gently sound-out a select few to join a side-group in whch we offer this to one another.

The other point is, that it's a KidLit group, and my current WIPs are actually not children's stories at all - I really dont know why I've suddenly deviated towards more mature-age fiction.

@Sylvia... they re-wrote your work? How arrogant!
@Chelsea: thanks for the tip about on-line criters group. I shall look into it at once.

McKoala said...

If there was a 'like' button on this thing, I'd have to 'like' Sylvia's comment...now I will have to commiserate with her under the table while Phoenix throws pies in our direction...

I haven't heard of any other writers 'round my area - plus not sure I want to sit in a room and have stuff read aloud to me. I read faster than anyone talks. Writing is for reading - so online works well for me. I love my online critique group and would be completely lost without them.

Word ver: poopho. Which is sometimes what they have to say about my writing...