Thursday, January 20, 2011
Know When Your Critique Group Doesn't Fit
A writer's group can rejuvenate, drain, and frustrate you. All of them do so sooner or later, if you stay with them long enough. I've belonged to one for six years, another for five. Inevitably someone says the wrong thing. We're human, for goodness sake. In one case I made a dear friend with someone I wanted to strangle once upon a time. Now I can openly fuss with him. We take each other for who we are and move on, knowing that nothing that happens in a writer's group should be permanently damaging.
But I've quit groups when they didn't fit. When do we know a critique groups isn't a good fit, and when the members are just being human?
1. ONE PERSON TAKES OVER - Any group needs a moderator, but if you have an individual taking over, dictating what's good and what's not, she can impact the others. Her strong-willed behavior might influence the others to echo her, change their original opinion, or simply hush. If you have a group where everyone looks to one soul before they speak up, then it's time to leave. It's supposed to be a group effort, not a classroom.
2. GENRE AND SUBJECT MATTER CENSORED - Unless the group clearly defines itself as a mystery, scifi, romance, poetry, children's or other sect of writing group, all subjects are open for critique. If you present a piece with the potential of insulting someone, mention the fact the scene is graphic, violence gruesome, or language dirty. Offer members the option to sit this one out. But the group is about constructive assistance, regardless of the topic, unless clearly defined from the outset. Understand the nature of the group when you join. If they rule out horror, then respect the rules or move on.
3. ARGUMENTS ENSUE - One of the best structures I've seen in a critique group is when the writer reads her work, with others following along on copies making notes, then the group takes turns commenting on what each person found. The writer should not question the critiquer or attempt to justify or override an opinion. Take it, make notes, go home and decide whether or not to follow the advice. On the other hand, a critiquer should not bash the writer, or attempt to cross the line from suggestive to derisive behavior.
4. EXPERIENCE IS LOPSIDED - A group can be too advanced or too elementary for you. While we all want to learn from the seasoned writer, we have to offer that writer something in return. From the other side, if your talent is more honed, you'll soon tire of receiving no beneficial critiques. There's nothing more frustrating that offering your work and receiving no comments other than "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." Find a balanced group for your talent level. The group doesn't have to be homogenous, either. That's boring. The best groups consist of multiple levels of writers without extremes from the opposite ends of the spectrum.
5. JUDGMENTAL - Critiques are suggestions. The writers do not have to implement the suggestions. If someone gets riled at his critiques not being implemented in your work, the moderator needs to deal with the member or you need to move on, because this spark has potential to turn into a bonfire.
6. NEVER RIGHT - Don't critique without finding positive in the writing first. If the members love to tear down, find another home. But you do need a certain degree of toughness. If you are sensitive, you'll crash and burn. Crave the suggestions, and you'll grow - oh my goodness, how you'll grow.
In the best groups, all are williug to critique hard and respect each other's comments. Regardless of your skill set and experience, you can critique. I mean mark each and every page - finding both the positive and negative. Even if it's perfection, say so, and note the remarkable passages. Leave no page blank. That's an insult, noting the work left no impression on the reader. On the other side of the fence, respect everybody's critique of your work. The most novice writer may spot an issue missed by others, simply because she hasn't been jaded by the absolutes of how-to books.
Bottom line? Seek balance. If you're off balance in a group, move on. When you find balance, cherish it.