More on Critique Groups

Phew. My brain is full from yesterday’s post! There was so much good information there — I’m going to share Deborah’s group’s organizational system with my current group, as well as tell them that Ann’s group gives presents for every new book. Presents are good! Henry’s response to the question about staying motivated brought to mind the quote from Madeleine L’Engle: “The writer who only works when he feels like it, is not apt to build up much of a body of work.” I appreciated Sara’s suggestion to ask for specifics when bringing a piece to critique. Sometimes we just need a thumbs’ up or down as to whether we’re headed in the right direction with a piece. Martha’s witty answers are a good reminder to pack our sense of humor when we head out the door to a critique group. And Conrad’s comment about a group upping “the ante all around” really spoke to me. I know I would hate to disappoint my own group by bringing less than my best (well, my best at that particular time) in terms of my work both as a critiquer and a creator.

We’ll wrap up this conversation with an exploration of the interpersonal component of critique groups — the good, bad and the ugly.

Playing Well with Others: It is a scary thing to share one’s writing. How does your group affirm the work but respond to it honestly?

Ann: Compliments are always shared, not necessarily at the beginning, but they come out during the discussion. Meeting as we have been doing for so many years means that we understand that the comments, however critical, come from a place where we are all trying to make the manuscript the best it can possibly be.

Martha: Just know going into it that someone at some point will say something that hurts your tender artist’s heart. Guess what? She might be TOTALLY WRONG. Or maybe she’s right. Everyone’s just trying to help, and your job is to separate yourself from your work, which is not a child but instead is malleable ink on paper (or pixels on a screen).

Know that your first draft might suck mightily even if it’s the best you can do. Time and work and thinking—which is best done with many brains—will make it better.

In our group, we do the compliment sandwich, where we say something we like, something that could be improved, and something we like. When I give feedback, I also think about whether the piece is ready to submit to an agent or editor. And I ask that of others: Is this ready? Most stuff isn’t. Good partners don’t let you waste your bullets.

Conrad: It can be scary, but mostly it’s humbling. One of the greatest gifts a writer can receive is a careful reader—or readers. That’s what a good group can offer. Vanity and pride have no place. We hurl them out the window before we even sit down.

Have you ever outgrown a writer’s group? If so, how did you break up and move on without offending anyone?

Martha: I left a group because of scheduling issues, and everyone understood that. So, even if it’s not true, that is apparently an excuse that works. J But seriously, you don’t have to say, “I have outgrown you, suckers.” Just thank people for their help and wish them luck. And bring cookies or something.

Ann: Yes. I told the group I didn’t have the time anymore. I guess that was a chicken way to do it, but it was what I felt comfortable with.

What if the group is good, but there’s one person who either doesn’t “get” where you want to take a story, doesn’t understand the form you’re writing in (e.g. picture books), or just doesn’t like your genre?

Deborah: That person has to learn to critique it anyway.

Ann: This hasn’t happened in our group, maybe because we are so careful about who we bring in and also because we’re all writing picture books.

Martha: This is a hard one. Most of us come equipped with enough self-doubt that one more doubting voice can sink a story. When I feel this happening, I think about books that I like that other people don’t. There is such a thing as taste. If you love your work, keep going.

I do think it’s really lame, though, that people say, “I don’t like this genre.” Critiquing isn’t about reading your favorite kinds of books and only giving feedback on those. It’s about understanding how story works in its many iterations. Sure, we have things we respond to more readily than others. But if you’re going to be an artist, you’re wise to expand your palate.

That said, people not “getting” something can be a great gift. Your readers aren’t as invested in your work as you are. They will be if they can access it. Give yourself a break from the manuscript and come at it with fresh eyes in a few weeks or months. You might understand the criticism later (and there might be a simple fix).

Sara: There are always going to be people like that, even when your story is published! So if you love the group, practice being gracious with the one who doesn’t “get” it. Seriously, the skill will come in way handy.

What do you do if there’s someone in the group who’s just there for her/himself; that is, wants feedback but doesn’t give back?

Conrad: Think of a critique group as a Jacuzzi. Those who get the most out of it sink neck deep and press their backs against the stimulating power jets. Those who perch ambivalently on the side, dipping a toe here, a calf there, shiver from the bellybutton up. The more you immerse yourself in the process, the more you gain.

We have never had to ask anyone to leave our group, but several have left voluntarily.

The person who does not give back, ultimately loses out—and drops out.

Ann: We all understand that there’s learning to be gotten from the critique on one’s manuscript and on others. We learn from everything we do. For that reason, most of us come to the group, even if we don’t have a story, because we know we’ll learn something anyway.

Martha: This is where some structure helps. You have to make sure people have read the work. That’s the first thing. If people haven’t, they should excuse themselves from the discussion—or limit it to what they read. Then, set an agenda so you know how many people are sharing. Divide the time among readers. That’s probably as much as you can manage it.

Deborah: That kind of person does not belong in a critque group and you should ask him or her to leave and say why.

What’s your worst experience with a writer’s group and how did you handle it?

Ann: One of our group members saw it more as a social meeting rather than a work meeting. We had to set a time limit for non-work conversation and then got down to work.

Martha: I once got feedback that really demoralized me: it wasn’t anything I could act on, and many comments were phrased in ways that felt subjective and sort of mean. It was written, so I simply stopped reading it.

Conrad: About ten years ago, a new member shellacked my pages: “This is sooooo depressing, and the dialogue is sooooo stilted—ughhhh!” I wanted to slink away and sob. Our group’s founding member (bless her heart!) explained that we have a policy: before you say anything critical, say something positive—of course, it must be sincere. Follow this with constructive— not destructive—criticism. Always use a respectful tone. The new member embraced this philosophy, and my shattered ego healed. In fairness, my critic that night is a superb critiquer and wonderful writer. She’s long been a good friend. I admire her talents enormously.

What was your best experience with a writer’s group?

Martha: < /span>I’ve had so many great ones; it’s hard to choose just one. It’s probably the intense satisfaction of getting a piece of feedback that helps you snap a piece into a puzzle. So exciting when that happens.

Sara: Reading this tiny bit of a YA novel I’d been hording to my retreat group one afternoon. I’d been stuck at chapter one for two years. They listened with great anticipation, and then cried “But then what????” They ordered me back to my cabin to write more. I did. I finished a draft of it a year later. It’s still in revision but I don’t think I would’ve had the guts to start without them.

Conrad: Two members of my group persuaded me to send my manuscript to an agent. I doubted their wisdom at the time but nonetheless followed their advice. The agent and I hit it off. Eventually she signed me up, and this paved the way for the publication of my first YA novel, ADIOS, NIRVANA.

Ann: Just being in my wonderful writing group has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I would not be the writer I am today or would have published as much as I have without their constructive criticism and support.

If it hasn’t been covered already, what advice would you give to a writer looking for a critique group?

Ann: One thing our group does is give small gifts related to the book whenever there’s a sale. It’s that kind of fun support that keeps us going.

Martha: Look for a group where the writers are as good or better than you are. Know that the time you spend critiquing manuscripts will help you be a sharper reader and writer—so spend the time. And use your group to help you stick to the goals you set. If you plan to finish a manuscript this summer, ask them for encouragement and accountability. It can really help!

Conrad: A critique group has many advantages but also potential hazards. Probably the most egregious is over-dependence on the group, resulting in disorientation of personal vision. Never lean so heavily on your critique group that you lose your way. A group should be the crew of your writing ship—not the captain. Do not yield your vision, voice, or gut to anybody. Hold fast—and sail free.

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom and experience with us!

No Responses to “More on Critique Groups”

  1. Caroline Starr Rose

    I’ve been a part of several critique groups in VA, MI, and LA and have grown as a result. The downside, however, is that I’ve found it hard with a group that meets once or twice a month to get feedback that covers the entire ms. Character arcs, holes in the plot, conflict, motivation, these are all hard to see as a whole when working with one bit of a ms. at a time.

    I’ve been fortunate to find through the blogging community other writers who are willing to read my work in one sitting (and vise versa). As I wrap my first-round edits next week (fingers crossed!), I know their read-throughs will give me the insight I need. Conversely, I love to watch their work grow and change.

  2. Grier Jewell

    Fantastic follow up to yesterday’s post. Now I’ll know I’m getting the brush off when someone’s got “scheduling” problems. At least it’s better than saying they have to wash their hair that day/week/month/life.