Monday, November 15, 2010

Critiquing critique groups

© Kathryn Miller Haines 2010 all rights reserved

I’m a big fan of critique groups. Ever since my first fiction workshop as an undergrad, I’ve thrived in an environment where I not only get a variety of opinions about my work, but the chance to read and respond to other writers work as well. I don’t think I would have ever gotten the Rosie Winter series published if it wasn’t for the beloved critique groups I joined after grad school. They gave me hope in my writing while pushing me to do better and I’ll always be grateful to the writers who were part of them.

But I know critique groups aren’t for everyone. Some of us work much better alone.

I think, in fact, I’m becoming one of those writers. One of my long time groups is starting to implode and I’ve found myself struggling with cutting the cord because I just like everyone so darn much. But there are folks who submit the same projects over and over again and never seem to never integrate anyone’s feedback*, an ongoing issue with quality of participation**, and, perhaps most egregiously, the caliber of snacks has greatly declined.

Actually, the food is fabulous, and I could probably overlook the other stuff, except that the group takes up a lot of time (especially now that there’s behind the scenes drama to dissect after each meeting) and as my life gets busier I need every spare moment I can find to write.

Recently, I did an experiment with a small group of published writers. We met over lunch once a week for four weeks*** to critique proposals and pages. The idea was to help jump start new writing projects that we were all struggling with.

The experience was revelatory.

Abandoning the usual rules that these groups involve, we bombarded one another with work, provided our fellow writers with the questions that were bothering us the most (Is this character too stupid to live? Why do you think my agent doesn’t want to try to sell this? What does this project need to help take my writing – and career -- to the next level?), and then sat back and listened to each other. I found myself stunned as projects I’d had problems with for years that had been praised by other groups were finally, ruthlessly, evaluated by the folks in attendance. It was like walking around with a nagging pain and having doctor after doctor tell you it was only in your head, only to finally land upon the one person who not only listened to you, but was able to name your disease and suggest a cure.

My disease, incidentally, is called “stop-stalling-and-get-to-the-dramatic-action-already-itis.” I’ll be starting a foundation to find a cure with my next advance check, if I ever get this damn book finished.

By meeting so frequently, we forced ourselves to respond to the feedback we agreed with and revise, revise, revise. It was amazing to not only learn about my (more successful) friends’ writing processes, but to see how they responded to our comments and banged out increasingly improved work. At the end of the four weeks, I hit the ground running on my latest book, feeling confident that I was finally over the hurdle that had stalled me for months.

Part of the reason it was so successful may have been the experience and wisdom of the writers I met with, but I also think that for where I am right now, and my own muddled writing process, intensive, frequent meetings, followed by months of just working, might be a better formula for me.

So what about you? Do you find value in critique groups? If you do, what do you think is the ideal set up for a group?

*The first rule of a critique group is, of course, that you don’t have to listen to everyone. You have to find the voices in the group who seem to get what you’re trying to do and are trying to help you accomplish that goal. They’re rarely the people who praise you the loudest nor the ones whose comments are the most harsh. That being said, when people ignore what everyone is saying, it does make you start to wonder if they’re just there for the free food.

**A group is only as strong as its weakest member. Note I’m talking about quality of participation, not of writing, though if all you’re contributing are tired proverbs in footnoted blog posts, you might want to consider another vocation.

***Full disclosure: I skipped a meeting. Thanks, horrible head cold.

About the author

Kathryn Miller Haines is an actor, mystery writer, and award-winning playwright. In addition to writing the Rosie Winter mystery series for HarperCollins, she's also writing a young adult mystery series for Roaring Brook Press, a division of MacMillan, the first of, The Girl is Murder, will be out in 2011.


Kim Smith said...

God love you Kathryn! I have been in crit groups live and online and never found one that really fit with me. I would LOVE to have one that fulfilled the need to "know" the disorder I have!

Marta Stephens said...

"They’re rarely the people who praise you the loudest nor the ones whose comments are the most harsh."

This is so absolutely true. The pats on the back are great (and we all need them), but it's the constructive criticism that helps us improve our skills! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

thewriterslife said...

I loved this! Been a long time since I was in a critique group, but they can be very valuable players!

jhtwriter said...

I hate those critiques that start out, "I really like the story..." Unless a useful critique follows, whether a story is liked or not doesn't help the writer or the story.

There is a writer in one group I attend who continues to make the same mistakes in every piece he/she submits. After 3 years, this person repeats the same writing errors. It tends to be very frustrating for the group and lowers the group's drive.

Pauline Alldred said...

I've been part of good and bad critique groups. By that I mean some groups helped me improve and some groups led to stagnation or me wanting to crawl on my belly from the room.

I find it helps to let the critiques sit a while and then decide how to use them. Sometimes, I've had to make myself move on because the group wasn't nourishing my writing, even though I still liked the members.

Marta Stephens said...

Pauline, I've seen the same thing happen in groups I've been--some writers grow while others stay put. It's so important to make sure you're getting as much from the crit group as you give.

On the matter of liking the members, I've met some wonderful people in crit groups and still value their feedback and friendship. :)

Terry W. Ervin II said...

I've moderated two online crit groups. The dynamics and effectiveness depends more on the members than the rules/guidelines. But the most important thing to remember is that it's not a social group first. The primary purpose is to improve the output/quality of writing of the membership.

Cheryl said...

Like Terry, I moderate two critique groups. I love mine with the exception that it's too easy not to stick to your commitment. There are only four of us in each group. We submit once a month and offer feedback on submissions. Problem is life gets in the way, so the first thing that gets dropped is writing.

Some weeks people don't submit. Others, the critiques will be late. I'm guilty of it at times too.

I feel it's good to have writers at all different stages of their careers in a group so that you can all learn from each other.

Kim, here's hoping you find what you're looking for.