Writing: Writer Interaction (3 of 3) : Critique Groups

writing groups can be a traumatic habitat of sharks

Writing: Critique Groups and Writer Circles

Perhaps you got a taste of read-and-critique at a conference, or the idea just intrigues you. Is it the thing for you and how do you find one? If you can’t find one, what do you do then?

We’ll try and answer some of those questions. The first issue is whether or not a writing group will work for you. That’s a loaded question. The more viable question is whether you will work for a group.

What is a read-and-critique group?

For those who’ve never participated in read-and-critique circle here’s how it works: All of the writers in the group show up in a prescribed place, each with piece of material of limited length (2500-3000 words is a happy medium). Hopefully, the group will have a leader who will run things, and pick who will read and moderate feedback. Usually, the readers will have multiple copies of their script and these copies will be distributed among the members. Once distributed the reader then reads his/her material ALOUD to the group. Yes, that’s right you must SPEAK, talk, e-NUN-ciate. After the writer is finished, the workshop leader either calls on respondants or they go around the circle with each member of the group taking a few minutes to give their responses to the material.

There’s a lot at work here. Some people might automatically wonder—why read aloud? Can’t people read for themselves? I’ll answer. NO. Why? Because when you read it you will often say what you MEANT rather than what you wrote. People who have the script in front of them will likely mark this for you. Speaking aloud is a POWERFUL editing tool. I scream this all the time to people trying to improve. If you stumble when reading it, then so will the reader. There is a whole host of psychology involved in this process, not the least of which is that you’re self-consciousness around others making you REALLY sensitive to your material and hence more critical. I always read to the group with a pen in my hand because I invariably stumble over something I didn’t catch.

Reading aloud also paces everyone. Some people read fast, others slow. So when you’re done, they’re done so to speak. In experienced groups, they’ll be line editing as you read, so there may be some lag as they catch up.

So, that’s the process; not too complicated. Any reasonable group of adults can do it. All you need are participants. In my experience the perfect size is eight to ten members. Ten minutes to read, ten minutes to critique. With slack for breaks and readers that take a little longer, it makes for a three hour session. Not too heineous a chunk of time for people with busy schedules.

The big rub is finding people. Writers who live out in the sticks have the worst time of this. There just aren’t any writers nearby. Best place to start hunting for candidates is the nearest college or university in their graduate and undergraduate English and Literature programs. Lots of times there are collectives of students and teachers.

Networking at the big conferences can sometimes net you a member or two. It’s not uncommon for bookstores to sponsor groups as well. If you have any locally or relatively local publication for writers, that’s a good place to look for groups (or advertise to create one).

The internet is always a resource. Haunting the online writer resources can turn you up folks who live close to you.

Sad to say, some people are simply so geographically challenged that online will be their only recourse. Maybe it’s time to consider moving…

You’ve found a group—now what?

Congratulations, you’ve hit paydirt—or have you? A good group is heaven, a bad group is misery. How often do they meet? Do they charge? Are they organized? Is there a workshop leader and how good are they? These are just a few of the questions you have to ask yourself. Another question is whether you are ready to make the commitment. A group reaches its maximum effectiveness when everyone is producing consistently, and the people get familiar with each other’s work. If you skip meetings and rarely read, you are doing both yourself and them a disservice.

One of the big perks of consistency is that people can read novels, a chapter a week. If everyone is there, they can follow the story in serial installments and can then provide feedback on elements of plot, character development and aspects like continuity. If you miss all the time, you will always be lost and use up valuable time while the writer recaps what has gone before.

So, you’re ready to commit. What constitutes a good group? While it’s easy to quantify, it’s probably better to enumerate bad groups. Identifying why they fail or don’t work makes you appreciate the aspects of a good groups.

Types of Writing Groups

  • The shark den. They smell blood in the water and go for the jugular. Destructive criticism with little or no constructive feedback. They live to point out your flaws, and half the time wouldn’t recognize good character or plot if it bit them in the eye. Little if any work pleases them except for the leader’s pet people. The sharks are usually so full of themselves that they feel everyone is entitled to their opinion at length, ad nauseum. Usually to detriment of all around them. Easy to spot. Pass on it.
  • The mutual admiration society. The opposite side of the coin from the sharks. Everything is okay with the admirationists. They either don’t have the heart to crash your party or they simply don’t possess the technical know-how to help you improve. What you do get are lots of kudos. These are the groups where you’ll find the thin-skinned and bleeding hearts. The mutual admirationists in many ways are more destructive than the sharks because the damage they do is far more insidious. Telling a person he’s great when his work is actually flawed is setting them up for a nasty shock. The admirationists are often difficult to spot. The best way to recognize them is the detail of their critique. A lack of nit-picks and suggestions for improvement might point to this. You MIGHT be that good, but if everyone is just “terrific” how is anyone going to improve? There is always room for improvment, and members of the group should be looking hard for it.
  • The java joint.They aren’t a group at all. They say they’re writers but usually by the time they’re getting down to work half the time is gone. Even then it seems like more time is spent chit-chating rather than working. Writers they may be, but serious they’re not. How much time are you willing to waste?
  • The politicos.The politicos were once a good group. Usually their leadership has become splintered, or has left for parts unknown. Mr or Ms X has come to fill the power vacuum. For some reason Y and Z have a tiff with that. Meetings breakdown, digress, or change locales suddenly. Factions form, emotionally slanted critiques ensue. Somehow it’s always the newcomer who gets the shaft. Sometimes the politicos straighten out, splinter groups come into their own and stabilize. If you’re good at riding turbulence and can separate emotionally biased critique from objective comments perhaps weathering the storm will be worthwhile. Maybe not.
  • The anarchists and neo-nazis. These two are listed together because their problem is usually leader oriented. In the case of the anarchists, one or more people think they’re leader. The anarchy part is that none of them can assert enough control to keep the others in line. Consequently, they stumble over one another and group control becomes tenuous. Some groups get by despite this problem but focus usually isn’t on the par that it could be.
    The nazis are another case entirely. The leader is a domineering figure. Things are done the nazi’s way or else. This can be to the point that something is bad simply because it wasn’t done the way he/she would have done it. Nazis have a way of trying to rewrite your story. They tell you how they would have written it and never seem to get around to how you could improve the story the way you did it.
  • The twilight zone. Not always apparent right away, you generally know you’ve entered the ‘zone’ when the first person reads or as late as the first remark. Then the theme music rolls and Rod Serling begins narrating… ‘Zone’ groups are more common than one might think. Depending on your wavelength, a writing collective may simply think entirely different. Most groups tend to govern themselves along the leader’s guidelines. How strictly they enforce point of view, passive voice, action and story, etc. This can be even tougher if you don’t even know what some of those things are. A romance writer might have a difficult time fathoming (or being fathomed by) a group largely made up of horror and action/thriller writers. A group may be excellent, but only for certain kinds of writing. Science fiction and fantasy writers sometimes have trouble meshing because of intolerance or pre-judgement. Depending on the leader, the ‘zone’ could possibly become a safe haven, but only after you and they make certain adjustments. This group situation should always be approached carefully.
  • Combinations. Of course these are general types, more pure in scope than they often appear in life. The symptoms are typical however. Enough of any of these flavors should be enough to make you wonder. Weigh the positives against the negatives for your decision to join. Perhaps you have confidence in your own leadership skills and your ability to lead them away from the dark side…

Anatomy of good group

A good group has a strong leadership, a rigid meeting structure, and a core membership of four to six serious writers. The rigid structure is necessary for longevity. If the group doesn’t have it, chances are it won’t be around long enough to help you anyway. Turnover rate should be mentioned here. How many people have come and gone under the current leader’s auspices? Are there a lot in a short time? This could possibly indicate one of the problematic stereotypes mentioned above.

Another reason high turnover is bad is because books aren’t written overnight. If you read one chapter a week, nobody who’s heard the start of your book will be commenting on the end. This results in all sorts of strange commentary that can only confuse you.

If you’re writing short form this may not be as much of an issue.

The leader. A group MUST have one. Anarchistic and democratic groups tend to be ineffective unless the membership happens to be extraordinarily disciplined.

The leader needn’t be a published author, but an authority the members respect. Someone who is capable of keeping things running smoothly and restricts criticism to the technical merits of a writer’s work, not the subject material addressed in the piece. If they are a great editor or critic (the two are definitely not synonymous), that’s a bonus. The leader’s most important trait will be their ability to maintain group cohesiveness.

The leader should have the ability (and courage) to weed out undesirable members. Optimally they should have a broad acceptance of writing genres. Diversity is healthy and educational.

As important as the leader, is a membership of differing skill levels. If nobody is turning out publishable material it’s difficult to know when someone reaches that plateau. At least one person should be experienced, otherwise it’s simply the blind leading the blind. Remember, education does not necessarily take the place of experience. I’ve been in the presence of degreed English teachers who didn’t know what point-of-view was. Experience is knowing fiction writing, how to critique it, how to make it better.

If you’re building a group and don’t have a qualified person to run the collective, consider charging show-up dues and enticing a local author into running your group by paying them from the weekly collections.

Fees have another effect on a group. People who are paying cash tend to take the work more seriously. If a member is really committed to the art they’ll pay for the schooling. Where there’s commitment, you’ll find professional level talent.

Critique. If you’re forming a group, it’s absolutely essential to know how to do constructive criticism. You may think you do. Do the others? Does the leader? Make rules. Four suggested ones are:

  • Limit reading and critique time to 15-25 minutes. This is enough to read about 2500 words and have 5 minutes of comments. Reading the work aloud is slower and more clumsy but it reveals a great deal about the clarity and readability of the piece. Try it before you knock it.
  • The workshop leader should make his/her remarks last for the sake of critique tone. The members of the group are less likely to speak their own mind if the authoritative leader disagrees up-front.
  • The writer cannot defend the work (or even talk) while it’s being critiqued. He/she may have a few moments after comments are finished to explain (not defend) what he/she was trying to do. The reasons for this are manifold. Foremost being that it speeds the critique process up.
  • Listeners (Critiquers) should coach all of their comments in terms of positives. What was good? Rather than pointing out something didn’t work, suggest instead what would improve it. If possible write all your remarks down. The writer who receives them will be happy for it.

If the group you’re in doesn’t use some of these. Think on trying to implement them. These tend to be the most essential to smooth functionality.

Revisiting The ‘Is It For Me’ Scenario

The people who best benefit from groups are focused on the art of writing; not on the writing itself. Groups are not for the thin-skinned or faint-of- heart. This is true of even the best writing collective, because eventually they will tell you what you need to hear. A good group will admonish your mistakes gently until the day comes they lay the word on you. Maybe you’ll be ready, maybe you won’t.

The truth can be devastating.

The ones most adversely affected are the writers who do not distance themselves from the work. Once written the literature must stand on its own merit. If you don’t have anymore attachment to it than a photograph, then comments can’t hurt it or you. Allowing yourself to become attached to it in any way is to invite the idea that criticism of the work is directed at you.

Do NOT allow yourself to fall into this. This goes toward online circles as well as personal critiques.

Criticism is subjective. Eventually there’ll be someone in the audience who happens to find your one sore spot, either intentionally or not, and lay into it with both barrels.

I’ve seen the tears when someone’s babies (those cherised oh-so-beautiful lines of aesthetic prose) get shredded into cole slaw. It’s ugly. If all you’re looking for is kudos— stay away from a group. To quote Stan Lee of comics fame, ‘Nuff said?

Let’s assume now that we’ve pared down our group seekers to only those folks with inch-thick skin and a determined attitude. These are the individuals that flourish in a group environment. It’s not necessary to have those attributes at the start, but it’s best to plan on building them. Regardless of the group joined, you will take a few shots to the head before you get out of the ring.

No writer is born perfect. Everybody stumbles, and even the best turn-out a stinker or two during the long haul.

Know what else?

It’s good for you.

A nice stern reality check keeps us honest. There are some best-selling authors who could use a few upper-cuts to make them get back to basics and start writing like when they were hungry.

Getting the most out of a group.

Okay, you’re in a good group but you want the most bang for the buck. The best thing with a writing group is to remember the nine laws of writing collectives: Distance, Chronology, Taste, Skill, Prevalence, Style, Genre, Property and Pertinence.

  • Distance: Once completed, your written material should be as a photograph. Make yourself numb. Care about it, but only as a piece of art to improve. Treat critiquers as people all wishing to help you improve the art. Often there’s too much of your art and they’ll suggest heavy pruning. In the long run it’s only their opinion.
  • Chronology: (This one applies to long form mostly) People have lives of their own. Even if your group meets every week there will be memory fallout about the different pieces of literature being read. Take into account and look for remarks that come from someone forgetting what came before. It can color the critique, in some cases majorly. Especially if someone forgets the chapter where a character is introduced or any other important event ensues.
  • Taste: If you are writing something that makes everybody uncomfortable, I don’t care how disciplined the critiquers are, the feedback will be colored. Reading something for shock value is infantile, don’t do it. Take into consideration the sensibilities of your co-writers. If you don’t, it can only serve to have ears blocked to whatever you read. A waste of your time and their time.
  • Skill: A remark really bugged you. Consider the source. Is person X a better writer than you? How good are their instincts? Do they have a good ear and eye for your kind of writing. Do you like their material? If you consider their skill to be superior and their remarks usually pertinent, then however painful their point might be— think about it. Don’t do anything about it. Simply think about it. If you decide to go with it later, fine.
  • Prevalence: Somebody makes a point about a subjective aspect of your work— for example: pacing. Your group has 10 people present. A concensus results in four people having a problem with it, the other six, including the leader, don’t. What does it mean? It means that forty percent of an audience could feel that way about that aspect. That’s key to remember— you are playing to an audience, the listeners represent the public who might pick up your material and read it. Do the four people who have the problem, always have trouble? Do they represent a group of people who would never read your material? The more people who agree on a point about your work, the more weight you should give the remark.
  • Style: The flavor and voice of a work is your own. Style can have a way of irritating a percentage of your readership (and listeners). If you pick a narrative voice or story telling technique that could be abrasive, warn the listeners ahead of time. Don’t let them hear it cold. If they still have problems with it… Think about it.
  • Genre: The general rules of fiction apply to everybody. Each genre may have its own special rules, but the basics still apply. Point-of-view, passive voice, distancing, tone, story, voice… they apply across the board. Nobody is sacrosanct. Nobody. The guy with green-skin and pointed ears, the axe murderer, and the flouncing bodice ripper all have to be characterized using the same story-telling techniques. All genres are created equal. The comment— “I’m not qualified to remark on that”— is baloney. All genres have recognizable story elements that share common ground. Constrain your remarks to that and there won’t be problems. If the rest of the group does too— better still.
  • Property: When all is said and done it’s your story, remember that. All the remarks on the planet can’t force you to change it. Don’t feel harried or attacked. It’s only opinion. Only if you feel it will improve the work should you change it. If you’re not sure, save the original and make the changes on a duplicate copy. Read it— if it doesn’t work for you… forget it. It’s your story.
  • Pertinence: The person that sits in the corner really seems to like your work, but he/she’s always coming up with these off-the-wall nit-picks. Things about editing, a character’s clothes, manners, etc. Do you care? The nit-picker who comes up with valid nits is definitely to be heeded. Especially editing points. Never annoy an editor— fix it. Authenticity details are great for your work too. Keep in mind, too much detail will bog things down— but a dash here and there is great spice. Weigh the relavence of the nit-pick, note it and give it thought. Can’t hurt to think about it. In the end the nit-pickers are your friends— who’s more picky than an editor seeing your script for the first time?

These general rules primarily help you to keep things in perspective. By and large, a group that is well established is much like a machine. You put material in one end and you get feedback out the other. Discounting the occassional clinker, the resulting remarks will always have the same bias, tone, and philosophy of the group.

A computer rule called ‘GIGO’ applies to writing groups; Garbage In Garbage Out. Like a machine if you give them something outside their parameters chances are the result will be less than satisfactory.

Listen to everything but learn to heed the voices who best represent your own thinking. Make sure that those in agreeance are truly helping you to improve and not giving you strokes. Some members will never be on your wavelength. Don’t shut them out— sometimes that obtuse angle results in a viewpoint that reveals something important.

At the base of everything, the writing group is there for support. That support will inevitably encourage you to be more productive, and help you to prioritize your writing endeavors. Beyond the support, are simply just great friends and acquaintances to be had. Something of great value that goes beyond mere monetary and time concerns.

In this section we talked about writing collectives, the good, the bad, and how to make the most of them. Some people are simply not cut out for a group but I’d like to think they are a minority. There is some behavior modification and some learning involved to be effective, but that’s what writing is about— learning and expressing. By and far they are valuable part of a productive writing lifestyle, that involves healthy interaction with people likely to become good friends and acquaintances. In the next section we’ll tackle the ugly truths of publishing industry and what it takes to get published.

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