Friday, February 26, 2010

A FINE LINE




There’s a lot of discussion about the value of a critique group. Those who don’t favor the idea ask: “Do you really want your work critiqued by a bunch of amateurs?” Other familiar questions are: “Are you willing to submit unfinished work for someone to pick holes in?” “Won’t that nip in the bud any spontaneity it might have?” “Is there a risk of turning out something that reads like a book by committee - a book that has nothing wrong with it, but which is completely lacking freshness or originality?” All are valid observations, but . . .

On the other side of the fence are those who insist they need all the help they can get before they subject their manuscript to the scrutiny of an agent or an editor. A fresh set of eyes can spot weaknesses you, as the writer, are too close to see. They can point out gaps that are not apparent because you, as the creator, know the back-story. And they can tell you when you’ve added too much back-story and need to let the reader have the fun of using his imagination.

Both arguments have merit. In the end, it depends on the individual writer – and the group.

I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful group of writers when I was writing my first book. In addition to the writing advice I received from these people was the unexpected bonus that came with having to meet a deadline. We met every two weeks and knowing that I needed something to submit imposed a discipline I had been lacking. And discipline is a huge part of writing. But the real value of the group came from the feeling of being part of a fellowship of kindred spirits. In that group, I was first and foremost a writer. Writing was not something I did in addition to my real life. I believe this is vitally important, especially to someone just starting out. You have to learn to think of yourself as a writer, to make time to write, not merely find time.

When I said I was lucky in my first experience with a critique group, what I meant most of all is that I was fortunate to fall in with the right people. Though we were a diverse group and were each writing a different type of book, we were all at about the same level of competence. We analyzed and advised, but not too much. Often there was agreement that something wasn’t working, but disagreement about how it could be made to work. I found that a good thing. It told me that I needed a new direction, but left me free to find my own path. Perhaps most important, we treated one another with respect. Enough respect that we did not give false praise. We were honest in our criticism, but not so critical that we were crippling. There’s a fine line there–but an important one.

How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

7 comments:

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Sandy, I'm so glad you had a positive experience. My first and only critique group was a devastating experience, and has left me eternally gun-shy of ever working with another critique group. One man in the group drew a huge red X over the first page of my story with a comment that "This s**t would never sell." The joke was on him, of course, because it was the first story I sold. Needless to say, I left and never returned. The group eventually broke apart. But, while they were together, none of the members were ever published. My critique partner (an Avalon author) and I have enjoyed 5 yrs together. Would I ever work with another critique group? I was bitten pretty hard by the first group--so, hmmm???

www.lorettacrogersbooks.com

off kilter said...

Hi, Sandy,
This is something every beginning writer has to think about. I've had both good and bad experiences with critique groups. I'd leave a group like the one Loretta describes so fast I would be a blur on the horizon. The most helpful criticism is constructive - thinking of how to make a piece better both the critiquer and the writer. Negative criticism stifles creativity, no matter how old you are.

Kay Finch said...

My critique group began in April 1992, and with very few exceptions we have met every week since then. We've had a few bumps in the road over the years, but for the most part it's a fabulous group of writers, 4 out of 7 published. Due to their help and inspiration, my first Avalon mystery is coming out this October.

Carol Hutchens said...

Great post, Sandy.
Interesting to see both sides of the critique group issue. Sounds as if you were lucky. Thanks for sharing.

Sandy Cody said...

Thanks to everyone who left a comment. We left town right after I posted and just returned. It's interesting to hear other people's experiences. After that original group broke up, I tried a couple of others with much less success. So it really DOES depend on finding the right mix.

Beate Boeker said...

Hi Sandy, I would love to find a writers group, but have never even heard of one in my vicinity. However, I have an American friend, a retired English teacher, who taught me almost all I know by now. She did a great job by correcting my manuscripts and returning them to me. I did the same for her, but as our level was very different, I couldn't give back as much as she gave me. It is a difficult process as getting a critique is a VERY touchy subject. It's almost as difficult as finding the right partner for life! LOL

Sandy Cody said...

I agree about the difficulty, Beate. As with most relationships, there's always the gorilla in the corner called EGO. You probably helped your retired teacher friend much more than you realize.