Monday, December 20, 2010

Critique Groups

Okay, this video has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with today’s post, but It makes me laugh every time I watch it. So, yeah, that probably makes me weird. But consider it my white-elephant gift to you.

Once again, I find myself in a position to do a meaningful holiday post, full of seasonal wishes and good cheer. And once again, I am thinking, “I'm not as funny as blogger x, as inspired as blogger y, as smart as blogers I and Q." Instead, I’ll leave the holiday stuff to my fellow bloggers, and write about, well, writing.

Yeah, I know not all that exciting. But wait, I have an excuse. Recently Julia (Not Julie) Wright e-mailed me and asked if I would post something about critique groups. Being the hero that I am . . .

. . . I was like, “You know I have a really good piece I did on marketing a couple of years ago. Or I could repost something of Rob’s.

And she was like, “No. You’re the best writer I’ve ever me. And the coolest. Please write something about critique groups.” (I may have taken a few small liberties with her exact words.)

How could I argue with that?

So, here goes.

When I first started writing, I had no ide what a critique group was. I wrote a book, had a few family members read it, sent it to a publisher, and six months later got a phone call that they had accepted it. Way too easy right? It was and is. But at that time I had no clue publishing was supposed to be hard. The good news was, my book got published. It just so happened the first book I ever wrote was a high-tech thriller. And the first publisher I sent it to was looking to add “guy books” to their line.

The bad news was, my book could have been much better. The first two chapters had pretty much every mistake you can make. Shortly after my first book came out, as I was finishing writing my second book, I moved from California to Utah. A whole bunch of great neighbors helped us move all of our stuff into our new house. I told one of them that I had just published a book. She immediately said, “Oh, you should join my critique group.” Again let me say that although I had published a book, I didn’t know the first thing about writing. I seriously thought she was trying to get me involved in a multi-level marketing scheme or something.

Once I figured out it was a kind of writing group, I agreed to come. It was right across the street and I didn’t know very many other writers. As if that wasn’t enough, it turned out that it was a group composed entirely of intelligent, attractive women, and I was the only guy.

I felt a lot like Snoopy in the above picture. At least I did until one of the women told me she didn’t think my first book was very good. Ouch! Then I discovered that the way things worked was that each person read aloud from their latest work in progress for six minutes. In those six minutes, you were supposed to read along on your own copy, and not only keep up but actually jot down useful comments that made sense.

And let me tell you, these women were brutal. There was the Grammar Queen. When you got your pages back from her it looked like James Bond had killed a room-full of nuns and blotted up the blood with your writing. Black white and red was everywhere.

There was the Inquisitor. “I don’t think he could fire a rifle while holding onto the back of a horse with one hand and hugging the hot blonde with the other. And you can’t laugh a sentence.”

The informer. “Ghosts don’t actually touch human skin. If they are going to choke your hero, he will have to be wearing a sweater with a high neck.”

And they were all good writers. One women was writing a romance set in Scotland in the 1400s or thereabout. I was afraid to make any comments about her work for fear I just didn’t understand the dialect. Another was writing a mystery that she made up as she went along. We’d ask something like, “So are you foreshadowing the death of the grandmother?” And she’d say say. “I’m not sure. I guess if the grandmother dies, I probably am.”

It wasn’t all stressful though. Every once in a while we’d discover a line that was so unintentionally funny that we couldn’t stop giggling. Like the woman who discovered her mother’s smelly chest. Or the investigator who urinated in the bushes while wondering if there was a leak. Or the rape victim who couldn’t decide because she felt torn. (Yeah, I know. That last one is really bad. But honestly, if you came across that line in a room filled with writers, could you keep a straight face?)

I had no idea at the time, that although a few of the members would come and go over time, nine years later, I would still be part of the group. By now, I think we have something like twenty books published between the six of us. We’ve added another guy, although he’s kind of a sissy, so I don’t know if that counts. More than anything though, we’ve all become much better writers. With nine years of critique experience, here are a few of the things I’ve learned.

1) It’s not as important as you might think to have everyone writing the same genre. It’s actually quite useful to have a romance writer, a historical novelist, a non-fiction writer, and so forth. Each of them can give you feedback that helps your work. Rob told me that my Hell in Demon Spawn needed to be “helled up” more. Several of the women told me what worked in my kissing scenes and what didn’t. Most books have a decent spicing of all genres combined.

2) It’s not even that important to have everyone writing at the same level. Admittedly it’s tough to combine a writer who’s still learning the basics together with more advanced writers. But the fact is that the newer writers either catch up quickly, or decide the group isn’t right for them. And while one writer may not know the difference between an em-dash and a hyphen, they might be an expert on the old west. The more important thing is that each writer is willing to listen and learn. Becoming better writers is what it’s really all about.

3) Location is a pretty big deal. When we first started our group, we all lived fairly close to one another, with several of us in the same town. Since then, we’ve spread out so that now, there’s a good forty-five minutes between those in the south and those in the north. That definitely makes it harder to get everyone together.

4) You learn as much from editing the work of others as you do from having your own work edited. One of the hardest things about being in a critique group is learning to give good feedback. One of our members is a great detail person. She really finds all the little punctuation flaws that I would totally miss. I’m more of a big-picture person. I’m kind of known for saying, “Okay. I just have a couple of things,” and then destroying a chapter. Personally, I have found that reading other member’s work critically has helped me find flaws in my own work. I tell someone what I think is missing in their writing, only to realize I’ve done the exact same thing in mine.

5) You have to be friends first. It can be hard to find a group that is both helpful professionally and good friends. I was really lucky that the people I joined were exactly the kind of people I would like to hang out with anyway. Sometimes you may join a group only to discover that you don’t get along with them. If that is the case, I’d suggest finding a new group. The reason I say this is because the actually feedback can be pretty grueling. There’s nothing like having a chapter you knew might need a “little” work, get dissected until you realize you have to write it completely over. That’s the hard part. The good part is being able to laugh at a really bad chapter, and encouraged to go back and make it better. Knowing that the members of the group are your friends first and last, makes the hard parts not as hard and the good parts even better.

6) Make sure you share more than just the critiques. This kind of goes back to the friendship thing again, but it’s about more than telling each other what works and what doesn’t in their manuscript. It’s about sharing joys and pains. About commiserating and celebrating together. Of course writing is what first brought us together, but sometimes we’ll spend the first hour just talking about what’s going on in our lives. We all have time when we don’t even have anything to bring that night, but show up just to enjoy the company of other writers. Writing can be a lonely business and you need good friends to share it with—friends who understand the ups and downs of writing and publishing.

7) Do what works for you. Our routine is pretty basic. We try to meet once a week. Each person brings enough copies of their manuscript to hand out one copy to everyone there. The first person to arrive goes first, the person who is hosting goes last. We hand out our pages, read for about six to ten minutes, and then get feedback in clockwise order. We write our notes on the pages we have been given and hand them back after giving our feedback.

Other groups work differently. Some do everything on-line. Some do an entire manuscript at a time. Some focus on just one genre. Some have a different person than the author reading. Mostly, you need to find what works for your group and then feel free to modify that as members and abilities change.

8) Find your niche. I will never be the king of grammar. I don’t do motivations as well as some. What I am good at is taking a chapter as a whole, and spotting what doesn’t work. Big picture stuff. I’m also pretty good at query letters. Don’t worry about not being able to do all things. The point of a critique group is to give enough quality feedback that the author can see for themselves what is working and what isn’t. If you are really good at creating realistic dialogue, use that. If you know romance inside and out, use that. It’s important that every member gives as well as receiving, so find what you are good at giving and focus on that.

I know critique groups are not for everyone. Some writers start with a group and outgrow it. Others feel like they don’t want feedback until a book is done. All I can say is that my group has and still does make me a better writer and a better person. At this time of year especially, I am so grateful for their talent. But even more I am grateful for their friendship. I can’t imagine any level of success, or lack thereof, that would make me leave this group of wonderful friends and writers. I truly hope that if you are looking to find a group of your own, you are even half as lucky as I’ve been.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to shout them out. I’ll answer what I can, and I know this really awesome group of writers who are happy to answer what I can’t.

Here's a shout out to the members of my group.

Annette Lyon

Heather Moore

Lu Ann Staheli

Michele Holmes

Rob Wells

Sara Eden

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask. I’ll answer what I can, and I know this really awesome group of writers who are happy to answer what I can’t.


David Glenn said...

I love that video. That was super funny!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post! I'm new to writing, but have decided that it is something I really want to pursue. Any suggestions for ways I can find other new writers and form a critique group?

Tristi Pinkston said...

Your critique group rocks. In fact, it rocks almost as much as mine does. I've been blessed with a really great group, and I'm so glad to have them in my life.