Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You Call That Prose?

For me, critique groups are essential. I need feedback from other people--specifically, other writers--to let me know if I'm on track or lost in the deep weeds. In addition, I learn a tremendous amount about writing by reading other people's manuscripts. Fortunately, I’ve been involved in two excellent groups, and I know—for an absolute certainty—that they both helped me improve my writing immensely.

What do I look for in a critique group?

Honesty. It does me no good if all I get is lip service. I want substantive comments--I'm trying to make the work better, not get validation (or trashing) of my writing skills.

Both big picture and little picture suggestions. Anything is fair game, from overall plot ideas and themes, down to comma usage and word choice. I prefer a "no comment too small" policy. (Don't like the paper the ms is printed on? Let me know.).

Fair, balanced, and constructive comments. It's fine if someone has an agenda; I just don't want to hear about it in the guise of criticism.

Writers in similar genres. I don't think I can provide much feedback for stories in genres I don't often read, such as historical fiction or vampire lit. I want to be able to contribute to the group!

Writers in a similar "writing stage" as me. I don't want to feel like I'm teaching all the time; conversely, I don't want to feel like I'm holding everyone else back, either.

Writers who take constructive criticism well. I know this may sound harsh, but if a writer can't take criticism in stride, then things are bound to get unpleasant. The road to publication is paved with rejection after rejection after rejection after....

No sad sacks. Writing is hard and so is getting published. I don't suffer whiners very well. I want my time in a critique group to be pleasant, as well as productive!

As far as structure/format, I prefer a group that:

Reads pages ahead of time. I've been in situations where the writer reads a selection aloud and feedback is provided on the spot. Frankly, with my auditory processing issues, I stink at it. (I'm still working on the first sentence as the reader plows into the third paragraph.) Plus, I need time to think. Typically, I like to read pages at least twice, the second time after I've had a chance to stew on things for a while.

Has only two or three others in the group. Small groups mean you can get through your pages more quickly, and you have enough time to do a thorough job.

Meets frequently. I don't want to lose the momentum of what I'm reading (I forget names, too, after a long absence). A regular meeting time helps.

What do you look for in a critique group?



Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You and I are on the same wavelength! I'm blogging on this topic this weekend.

Critique groups, unfortunately, didn't work out for me. In one group I was the really serious one who really needed feedback and the others were socializing (and didn't give meaty criticism.) The other groups flew through critiquing--each of the 4 members would send chapters more than once a week. I couldn't keep up.

I'll be interested in hearing from people who've had successful experiences.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Odell said...

I love my crit groups, although right now I'm down to a couple of on-line partners. It's hard to find a good match. Ideally, one wants someone above one's own writing level, but that's impossible for a whole group.

They also need to be small enough so everyone can keep up. I found that we couldn't meet often enough to move at a pace that would keep up with my writing.

But for brainstorming, there's nothing better than a live group where you can play 'what if' until the spark ignites.

Anonymous said...

Alan - You are right on target about what's important in a critique group! I don't belong to one, but I benefit tremendously from informal feedback that I get. It truly does have to be honest, supportive, constructive and thoughtful (i.e. not given after just a quick glance). Lev Vygotsky theorized that we all learn best when we are challenged just a little above what we're currently able to do. For me, that means that I learn best from feedback I get from writers who are just a little further along in their writing careers than I am, and from writers who've mastered a few more skills than I have.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

When I started my fiction writing life, I didn’t much like critique groups for some of the reasons you mentioned. Now understand, this was without ever actually being IN a critique group. Yeah, that sounds kinda nuts, but I don’t have to have the car roll over my foot to know I won’t like it. Same idea, I guess. However, as time has passed, and I’ve listened to my online friends, I’ve come to think I’m missing out. So, I’m going to try to find a group, or maybe start one. The stumbling blocks you mention, though, Alan, are for sure real and constitute an impediment. Still, I think I’ll try, maybe start with the library. CGs seem to be universally praised as helpful, but they also seem like a lot of work.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Elspeth Futcher said...

I agree with everything you've said! If you find such a critique group, can you let me know? I'm guessing it's somewhere down the yellow brick road.


Alan Orloff said...

Elizabeth - I've heard great stories about critique groups--and I've heard horror stories. It's hard to find the perfect fit. I'll definitely check out your blog post.

Terry - I agree. Bouncing ideas off real, live people is very energizing. Sometimes I talk to myself, but it's not quite the same.

Margot - "Thoughtful" is a good way to describe valuable feedback. Didn't Lev Vygotsky play second base for the 62 Mets? (just kidding).

Galen - Well, I'm no expert either, but I don't think a bad critique group hurts any worse than a car running over your foot--maybe the same, but not any worse.

Elspeth - They're out there, but you might have to kiss some frogs first. (I've been lucky. Both the critique groups I've been in have been golden.)

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm one of the lucky ones. My critique group was formed early in 2004 when a few students from a novel-writing class hooked up. We've gained and lost a few members over time, but we now have six (our perfect number). Our newest member was the instructor of that 2003 class. Our procedure is to submit ahead of time and give detailed verbal critiques, brainstorm, and discuss writing problems at our every-other-Monday meetings. I love this group.