Thursday, January 20, 2011

Know When Your Critique Group Doesn't Fit

I belong to two writer's groups. I've been asked to join two more. At this rate, I'll be spending more time at groups than writing. But I carefully study these invitations, even attend to see if they suit my needs, because marrying into a writer's group is not a decision to make lightly.

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.


BECKY said...

Great advice, Hope!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Also, if it lapses into a mutual admiration society, where each person just gushes, "I love it!" after each reading...It's not a good fit.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's a good problem to have a wealth of invites! :)

Having just returned to creative writing, I'm looking to join a group, it was of great value to me in the past. I've just started taking a writing class locally and am about to attend AWP, so I'm keeping my ear to the ground for possibilities.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the tips.
Donna v.

Jfinn said...

Hi Hope, I moderate a successful long-running international Internet write/crit group that was featured in Poets & Writers in 2008 when we had our first conference. Your comments are spot on--every group needs not only rules but the willingness of its members to be generous with their time and expertise. When the match between writer and group works, it's magic.

Hope Clark said...

I belong to a long-time running international critique group, too. Grand collection of people. Gosh, I'd adore meeting them face-to-face. I've met three of them - two because I knew them before they joined. One came over from Paris for a visit. Love those people.

B.L. Hamilton said...

Hope, I can't agree more! Several years ago I joined an online critique group which I thought would be very helpful, but after a couple critiques from the group I realized all they were flagging were grammar and spelling errors.

When I complained about it they informed me they couldn't "get past" those mistakes to notice anything else. So I went so far as to have my niece proofread the piece before I submitted it to the group.

The result? A mailbox full of "I loved it!" and "It's perfect."

It was not perfect! At that point I'd never even heard of Echo and I had quiet a rundancy in it as well. I was also telling a great deal.

Needless to say I quit that group pretty quick.

quietspirit said...

All you say is true. I had to separate from a writing group for most of these reasons. Plus, the one who took over spent two extra weeks dealing with something that should have been dealt with and put behind us. And it really wasn't about writing.

Jfinn said...

Hi Hope, my group is having its fourth conference in October. Face-to-face contact for an international group has been amazing. I'd be happy to share with you the article in Poets & Writers about how we arranged our first conference. Our sessions are geared for what our group needs. Something must be working because we've had 4 members nominated for the Pushcart Prize and another was just nominated for the Edgar.

Hope Clark said...

Would love to see it, Jfinn.

Lesley Galston / Sloanwriter said...

Would love to try a group, unfortuately none appear to be in my area. So hey plod along on my own for now! :-)

Viv said...

I have little desire to belong to any groups, but that said, for those who do, it's worthwhile chosing a group that does not critique something that is still in progress. There are good reasons. If you share chunks of an incomplete work, the words of the group will change the course of how the work goes and it ceases to be your own work.
I feel that any work in progess should be kept close to the chest until it is finished. Some love to talk about their WIP (*sigh*) but to me, you lose the purity of your creation as well as the energy.
Just my thoughts, as a non joiner.
Oh and grammar and spelling Nazis are a big put-off.

Annette Lyon said...

Fantastic advice. My group runs much like you describe in #3.

We started out as all aspiring writers, and our skill level grew together. We've had some growing pains (having to leave behind a couple of members who had different goals and weren't contributing, others who moved on for other reasons), but overall, we've had some amazing success.

Among us, we now have close to 30 books published and lots of awards, including 2 members on the verge of being able to write full time. I know a lot of people in my area that hear about my group and are immediately jealous--"You're in THAT group?" We're almost legendary. :)

(One former member: NY Times Bestseller James Dashner, who read some early chapters of The Maze Runner at my kitchen table. Fun now to say I knew him when.)

Andrea Wenger said...

A critiquing group is a must if you want to get published. They will improve your writing in ways you can't imagine. If you can't find one locally, then look online. For some people, a critiquing group during a first draft helps them understand what's working and what's not, so they progress more quickly. Others need to listen to their unconscious mind and ignore the rest of the world during a first draft. It's important to figure out which of those groups you fall into.

Two things I recommend looking for in a critiquing group: critics who tell you when something's not working, but don't tell you how to fix it; and critics who don't just give you reactions, but also tell you *why* they felt that way. For instance, a comment like, "Your protagonist is so mean!" can be incredibly destructive. But "This line of dialogue makes the protagonist sound mean -- did you intend it that way?" can be incredibly helpful. If you intended her to sound mean, then you know you've hit the mark. But if you didn't intend her to sound mean, you know what passage you need to change.