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Hey, it's "black Friday" and is everyone shopping, or avoiding shopping, or sleeping or eating or visiting or reading or basically enjoying a day off? Maybe you're at work??? In any case, thanks for dropping in. Today is our last section about "balance," and it's about finding balance in critique groups.

On a side note, allow me to explain that for whatever reason, the TB blog this week won't let me do my nice big sized fonts, my different colored fonts, nothing. This explains the rather basic look of my posts the last few days. Can I figure out what happened? Nope. But I will.

Enjoy your weekend and come back Monday!

"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing."
---Elbert Hubbard

"One should never criticize his own work except in a fresh and hopeful mood. The self-criticism of a tired mind is suicide."
---Charles Horton Cooley


When you first began writing, I'm going to guess that at some point, someone, or some book, or some conference, encouraged you to find a critique group. Right?

And let's say you found one. And you've had a few visits. And your head is reeling.

If your "starting out" experience with critique groups is like mine, you will find tons of advice not just from the members of the group, but from people telling you HOW to utilize your group.

And once again we find conflicting advice, and we find ourselves struggling. It's not supposed to be a 'struggle,' we tell ourselves. According to the writing world at large, it's supposed to be as easy as:


1. Invite members of all genres, to gain as many varied perspectives as possible.

2. Invite members that only write the same kind of stuff you do, because they will be more in tune with the sensibilities behind your work, and give better advice.

3. Listen to everyone with an open mind and do not be afraid to act on a piece of advice, even if it seems radical. This is how you find solutions you would never find alone. This is the point of the group.

4. Listen to everyone with an open mind but for heaven's sake, hang on to your vision and maintain your focus. Take the advice that makes sense and reject all else (with a smile.) Don't let someone lead you astray.

5. When you are critiquing someone else, be honest. They are here because they WANT to improve and they are not afraid of criticism. (If they are, they do not belong in the group.) Be honest, be kind, but be direct. Don't be afraid to say it all, including that perfect scene you have dreamed up that will solve his/her dry third act. If necessary, jot down a rough outline for them.

6. When critiquing someone else, edit yourself. Do not, repeat, DO NOT, TELL someone else HOW they should rewrite their story. You can offer an opinion like, "The climax is a bit understated, can you oomph it?" But you must never tell them the WAY to oomph the climax is to have Bruce discover Jennifer with the chauffeur, reach for a gun, then in the ensuing frenzy, shots break out and there is an unexpected murder. That is far too specific and dishonors the writer. Just give them a general nudge.

7. Use the time to also socialize and eat!

8. Don't eat. Don't socialize. Stay focused and keep it about writing.

There. Now you have all the rules of being part of a critique group.


Hold on. Some of those items kind of.....clash....don't they? Do you see a few contradictions???

Well, I have heard all of the above, and I have had to sort out for myself how to participate in a critique group, and how to get the most from my peers. And I'm guessing you are too.

1. For me, I want to mix writing and socializing. And cookies. Lots of cookies.

2. I want to help someone make their book the best it can be, but I do NOT want to tell them exactly how to write it. I keep my extremely detailed scenarios to myself. UNLESS they are asked for.

3. I want everyone to be brutally honest with my work. (But at first, I couldn't handle it.) I do not mind if someone tells me how exactly I should structure the first act or rewrite that critical scene. I am able to take what I want and ignore the rest (with a smile.) (But at first, I was not able to.)

4. I prefer a group of children's writers. I have nothing against adult fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, sci-fi, whatever. But I want peers who have read all the same books I have, who are in tune with the same readers I am, and who are struggling with many of the same specific genre-related issues I am. And besides, how can I, with a straight face, offer criticism to someone creating a sci-fi book? Or adult non-fiction? I don't read those kind of books. And it seems to me a critique group should be about surrounding yourself with people who are knowledgeable in YOUR field. It would be a discredit to them and to me.

So I guess what I'm saying, once again, is.....it's about balance. And finding what works for you. And staying true to it. With no apologies.

Good luck.

And I'd love to hear what works for YOU in critique groups, and what doesn't. Please feel free to send in your comments!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 27th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
Tanita Says :)
I'm glad you added YOUR preferences; the other list is a bit ...unrealistic, in many ways. In grad school, there were RULES to critique, and the worst one was that the person whose work was being looked at wasn't allowed to speak. That was to cut down on explanations --- the writing has to speak for itself --- but it was tough, and actually created a pretty chilly environment sometimes. I think discussion is good. Socialization is also good, for the first ten minutes, just a check-in. And mixing YA and adult lit is difficult. The best groups I've been in are all YA/MG.

The one thing I DO agree with from the first list is the "no telling someone how to write their own story" rule. There are degrees of assistance one can give, and asking the right questions goes a long way, but if you're telling someone else's story, you're neglecting your own.
Nov. 28th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Tanita Says :)
Yes, Tanita, is'nt it so much easier to see solutions for someone else's work than our own? It's such a fine line, too, between helping and horning in.
Nov. 27th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
This is really helpful. I have always been afraid to go to a writer's group...
Nov. 28th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
Fear not! Give it a try. Many groups don't work for one reason or another...do not be afraid to leave the group if you sense it's really not the fit for you. Don't get trapped into staying. Keep searching til you find the right fit, and if you don't find that fit, consider sharing critiques via email with some trusted writer friends. Frequency and length vary among people too...some need a lot of pages read, others need only a few. And not everyone needs a critique on a regular basis either. It's possible to find a group of people open to critiquing "on demand" for each other, if you are lucky. In any case, don't be afraid to join a group. But don't be afraid to leave it, either.
Nov. 27th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
I've moved away from traditional critique groups in the last few years. I believe in peer critique- absolutely!- but I find the cookies and the friendship of a local critique group might make honest critique harder. Now I email manuscript pages to trusted readers who know what I'm trying to accomplish at a particular stage. I can absorb and process their ideas better when I read them rather than hear them in a group (I forget all about the positive things instantly.)
At the same time I'm a huge advocate of meeting up with writer friends for friendship, support, and advice. Most of my friends are children's writers and rarely a week goes by when I don't have lunch or coffee with one or a dozen of my writer buddies. I email writer friends every single day. This sustains me. But I don't think it's realistic to ask someone to lift you from despair one minute and give you a candid critique the next.
Nov. 28th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
Good point, Tami. Our writer friends cannot be all things to us at all times. And I am like you, I forget the positive things immediately. That's why I like having comments in writing...it helps me if I can go back to them a few times and really absorb them.
Nov. 27th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC)
As someone who just had a weird experience with my critique group, I'm reminded that, to use a group wisely, you have to have confidence in your own work (even if it's just in a vague concept of what your work could be). You have to be able to distinguish brilliant, insightful comments from pure piffle, because you'll hear both, sometimes from the very same person.
Nov. 28th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
That is so very true, and one of the quirks unique to a group. And I would add (again) not to be afraid to leave the group if it really is not meeting your needs at all. Everyone in the group needs to want to be there. If they don't, they are not doing anyone else a service.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )