Thursday, August 11, 2011

Critique Conspiracies: Infiltration of the Secret Society

Again, there is a bit of drama purposely chosen in the title of my posting. I couldn’t resist though, because in a sense, as you seek out a critique group, ready to fill out a membership card, you are going to go through an initiation of sorts.

In the most honorable aspect of the budding writer/critique group relationship, the initiation comes to that new member in the form of broader perspective to his or her work. In theory, a critique group—oh hell, let’s refer to it as a CG so I don’t wear out the name—should enable one to see shortcomings with his writing that he could not see himself. This is a very good thing, and most CGs accomplish it. Since those revelations are tough to swallow sometimes, it’s a bit like an initiation and a good writer should gladly embrace them.

Unfortunately, unruly CGs exist and there are some telltale signs that can help steer you away from joining the wrong gang.

No rules, or they have rules and don’t follow them. When you get a few people together with a common objective in mind, it’s been proven time and time again that some kind of policy serves the general good better than no policy at all.

Lack of published authors. The absence of published authors in a CG is not necessarily a sign that the collective is bad, but you will definitely need advice from a veteran before long. More on this and the other indicators below.

Members who are critiquing fail to find anything good in a submission. Or sometimes the worse scenario, they say something nice about the writing being evaluated that’s so generic that it’s obvious they didn’t take it seriously.

Members who are critiquing fail to find anything wrong in a submission. These are called fluff groups.

The CG is fussy about letting their existence be known. The only exception to this is if the group is so large, the sign-ups for the readings are pushing out beyond a couple of months thereby prompting a ‘closure’ to new members. Then again, there are solutions for that problem and there’s nothing wrong with the CG making it public that they’re closed rather than keeping it secret.

They offer opinion rather than teaching points from well-known books on the craft of writing. This is the most important flag.

Keeping in mind that it’s a pain-in-the-toot to just get a bunch of people pried away from their day jobs and families to assemble for a CG, I acknowledge that these signs are to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps in order to simply get started on your path to publication, you’ll have to settle with an entourage that has all these markings. Just be aware of the snags.

A good rule for a CG to have is that the person being critiqued refrain from all comment to those offering advice. In fact, the author should remain silent as the feedback comes in. I joined a pretty good group for a while that for the most part, upheld this rule. It had a few published authors, scholars, and just all around good people. Unfortunately, the leader didn’t always abide by the ‘quiet when being critiqued’ understanding when it came their turn to get feedback. As a result, I’m pretty sure that many members who might have turned out to be outstanding writers quit within a short time due to the lack of professionalism.

A published author in the midst helps keep perspective. If you wanted to be a black belt in karate, wouldn’t you want to learn from a black belt? Of course you can pick up tips from writers who are on their way, but nothing speaks like experience. Often, CGs that don’t have published authors at least dropping in from time to time, will get so clicky, and tunnel-visioned in their own misconceptions that they lose sight of what’s really getting published. If someone pounds their chest like they’re an authority in writing, you should check out their credentials. And self pubs (even though I support them) don’t count as credentials unless they made substantial profit. I’d be willing to bet that the assertive critique 'authority' has no publications under his or her belt. Yes, feel free to check my bibliography, but I'm the first to admit that I’m not a hot shot. However, with ten years of experience, and pretty much mutual consensus from my colleagues, I can help you optimize the critque process. And I'm actually pretty easy-going when looking at someone's submission. In fact, I evaluate it more by comparing it to what's on the market, but I'll expound on that in another installment.

I mentioned well-known books on the crafting of writing. Here are some: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. There are a lot of good ones, but my point is the CG should know some of the lessons from their pages. If your submission demonstrates scene setting, conflict, oblique dialogue, or etceteras, the CG should call them out specifically with a compliment before addressing your rough spots. If member critiques consist mainly of what they want or like without citing standards…well, you’re not writing for them. You’re writing for a market and those craft books will point you toward that with the help of an experienced, knowledgeable CG.

A CG that can’t give you an earful of constructive criticism is no friend of yours. No, they shouldn’t necessarily just look for things to bad-mouth, but there’s probably something in all those writing rules you probably missed, and someone should catch them. If they meet the criteria I've dilineated for the most part, yet you feel a little sting after they render their appraisal of your work, you've probably found a good bunch.

We’re all human and make mistakes. You’re not going to find a utopia CG. But you can find a real good one if you carry these guidelines with you.

The ever opinionated E.C. Stacy


Dean K Miller said...

And so it seems we "can't live with them and we can't live without them." Our group is currently evovling and sometimes the growing pains have been uncomfortable.

Honesty and respect are hugely important, as is the ability to say "this doesn't fit me" and continue the search.

CG nirvana is tough to find. But coming close is worth the search.

Chiseled in Rock said...

Ooooh, love that Nirvana choice. Truer words couldn't have been spoken, Dean.


Giles Hash said...

Finding a group is difficult, especially with how much I work. At this point, I'd settle for almost anything... as long as the other writers are all professional and serious.

I'll be networking more as my work schedule eases up, and I'm REALLY excited to meet people at the Colorado Gold conference. :D

Marlena Cassidy said...

Is there a difference between writer's groups and critique groups? And is one better than the other?

Anyway, loved the post. These are all great points to follow and if I ever find another group to join, I'll stack them up to these criteria. Thanks for the heads up!

Karen Duvall said...

Terrific points! Each and every one.

A good crit group is so valuable, and at the same time you really do need to be cautious when choosing one. It's a good intro into what the editorial process is when you get that coveted agent and/or editor. The process is quite similar.

Be careful not to pick up any bad habits your group may inadvertently inflict upon you. As a new writer, you won't know what those are and probably won't be able to identify them until another professional points them out. I'm speaking from experience here. And bad habits can be hard to break. I'm still working on breaking a few of mine.