What a Critique Group Can…and Cannot…Do For You

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Today, we’re pleased to welcome editor and writer Debbie Burke back to TKZ.

by Debbie Burke

Critique groups are invaluable, if not essential, to the serious author. But they may not provide all the answers a writer needs. First, though, let’s talk about their benefits.

What are critique group strengths?    

Support – A CG provides much-needed camaraderie in this oft-lonely business. They throw us a lifeline when we get discouraged, nag us when we’re slacking off, and lend a shoulder to cry on when we receive rejections. They serve as our cheerleaders, therapists, and comrades in the trenches. They’re the first ones to open champagne for our successes. CG members are not only writing colleagues, they often become close friends. We develop a high level of trust and respect for each other, both professionally and personally.

Brainstorming – Here, critique groups really shine. If two heads are better than one, six or eight heads are exponentially better at throwing out suggestions. Feeding off each others energies and ideas, CGs solve many dilemmas that stymy a writer. I can’t count the number of dead ends CGs helped me work through.

Accountability – CGs exert pressure, either subtle or overt, to produce a certain number of pages for each session. They act as a de facto deadline for writers who don’t yet have an editor or agent breathing down their neck. If you show up empty-handed, you’re not meeting your obligation. Dozens of times, I’ve heard writers say, “I wouldn’t have written anything this week, except I needed to submit to the group.”

What are some CG limitations?

Diagnosis – CGs generally do a good job of homing in on a manuscript’s weak spots. If two or more people mark the same passage, you should pay attention. But while they recognize there is a problem, they can’t always diagnose exactly what it is or how to fix it. If CG suggestions don’t help enough, consultation with a developmental editor may be worthwhile.

Overlapping relationships – CG friendships may cloud our judgment of the story. A member of my group, psychologist Ann Minnett (author of Burden of Breath and Serita’s Shelf Life) recently offered a perceptive observation: “When I read A’s chapter, I hear her voice and accent. When I read B’s chapter, I think of her sense of humor, and can’t help but laugh.”

Which made me wonder…Does your CG like your story or do they like you?

When you’re face-to-face with your friends, you hear her charming British accent, see his playful wink. However, when a book is published, most readers will never meet the author, meaning the words must shoulder all the work. They need to be effective by themselves, without explanation or amplification.

Here is where online CGs might give a clearer, more “book-like” perspective. Without personal, visual, or auditory cues, their effort focuses entirely on the words.

Time constraints – My CG meets every two weeks, submitting 15-20 pages per session. At that rate, reviewing a novel-length manuscript takes six months to a year. By the time the group reaches the climactic chapter on page 365, no one remembers a subtle, but important, clue on page 48 that set up the surprise twist. This piecemeal approach is the most vexing limitation I’ve experienced with CGs.

Micro vs. Macro View – A corollary to the time constraint problem is the micro view by a CG. They examine your 20 pages per week and help polish each passage till it shines. When you string all these perfect chapters together, the resulting book should be excellent. Right?

Not necessarily. Close examination under the CG microscope may not adequately address global issues of plot development, pace, and momentum that require a macro view from an airplane.

At this point, beta readers or a professional editor may be more useful than a CG to determine how well the overall scope of your novel works.

Objectivity – Your CG works for months or years on a manuscript. They are mindful of the original draft and every subsequent rewrite. They help you build the story and become almost as vested as you are. But, like you, they’ve grown too close to the novel. Even if they beta-read the whole book, they may subconsciously insert things from earlier drafts that you later cut. They might not realize the missing part is missing.

At what point do you need to move beyond the critique group?

In my experience, CGs are probably most helpful for a work in progress. They provide invaluable suggestions to get you out of corners. They catch typos, misspellings, word choice goofs, and awkward phrasing. They tell you if characters are flat and boring or ridiculously over-the-top. They pull you out of the ditch and keep you moving forward.

After your CG has reviewed at least one complete draft, and you’ve incorporated their feedback, suggestions, and polishing, now it’s time to find beta readers and/or a professional editor. In fairness, you should submit a draft that’s as clean and error-free as possible. Beta readers or editors shouldn’t spend time line-editing when what you’re really seeking is the Big Picture. The cleaner the draft, the more their efforts can be focused on important issues.

Depending on how extensive the rewrite needs to be, you may want to run the revision draft through your CG one more time to ensure you’ve achieved improvements suggested by betas and/or editors.

Critique groups can be a writer’s best friend. By understanding both their strengths and limitations, you’ll receive maximum benefit from them.

How about you, TKZers? What is most helpful about your critique group?  What are the biggest limitations?

IMG_2585(1)Debbie Burke has participated in critique groups for more than twenty-five years. She credits critique buddies with keeping her sane (almost).

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Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due To Over-Analysis

 

frustrated-writer300x199Got a lengthy email from a writer who has attended my workshops in the past. He gave me permission to paraphrase the gist of his lament.

This writer has worked on his craft for years and felt he was making progress. He produced three novels, and at a conference had good feedback from an editor with a big publishing house. This editor told him it was not a matter of if, but when, he would get a contract from them. He was invited to submit at any time.

That was in 2012. To date he has not submitted anything.

What happened? He describes it as “paralysis by over-analysis.”

I cannot seem to get past the prison of being perfect in the first draft. Like writer’s block, it’s a horrible place to reside. Sometimes its paralyzing to start. At other times its critical negative talk in my mind remembering those sessions I attended.

The sessions he mentions came from joining a local critique group. Unfortunately this was one of those groups that was run by a large ego. The group sessions seemed mostly to be about “building themselves up by tearing down others.” Though this writer had great feedback from beta readers, his confidence was completely shaken as his pages were systematically massacred in the meetings. He finally left the group, but…

… I’m left with a nagging residual feeling that whatever I am writing it not good enough. I continue to write and rewrite my first chapters, never satisfied they’re ‘good enough’ to move on. Even though I’ve not lost the love of the story and series, I have lost confidence in my writing.

Finally, he asks:

Are we wrestling ourselves to be so perfect in a first draft we do not allow for a full first draft to later tackle or add (or subtract) to or from in revision? And why are we so pressured to get it perfect in the first draft? What can we learn or do to get out of that futile mental process?

I wrote him back with some advice, and thought it would be good to expand upon it here. It is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing and Bell’s Corollary.

Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write

Bell’s Corollary

  1. You must fix what you’ve written, then write some more

You must write

Like the old joke says, if you have insomnia, sleep it off. And if you suffer from writer’s block, write yourself out of it.

With the paralysis-by-over-analysis type of block, your head is tangling itself up in your fingers, like kelp on a boat propeller. The motor is chugging but you’re not moving. You’ve got to cut away all that crud.

How?

First, write to a quota. I know some writers don’t like quotas, but all the professional writers who made a living in the pulp era knew their value. Yes, it’s pressure, but that’s what you need to get you past this type of block.

Second, mentally give yourself permission to write dreck. Hemingway said that all first drafts where [dreck]. So tell yourself that before you start to write. “I can write dreck! Because I can fix it later!”

Third, do some morning writing practice. Write for 5 minutes without stopping, on any random thing. Open a dictionary at random and find a noun and write about that. Write memoir glimpses starting with “I remember…”

If you’re an extreme paralysis case, try a dose of Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die. This nifty little online app (you can also purchase an inexpensive desktop version) makes you write fast or begins spewing a terrible noise at you. Set your own goal (e.g., 250 words in 7 minutes) and then GO. This could be extremely nerve-racking for some that are trying very hard but not getting anywhere, some writers have tried to free their minds with CBD products like cbd gummy bears and other products.

You are teaching yourself to be free to write when you write.

You must finish what you write

I always counsel writers to write their first drafts as fast as they comfortably can. This means:

  • You step back at 20K words and make sure your fundamental structure is sound (are the stakes high enough? Are you through the first Doorway of No Return?) If you are worried about structure, just think of it as writing from signpost to signpost.
  • You only lightly edit your previous day’s work, then move on and write to your quota.
  • Then you push on and finish.

You must fix what you’ve written …

The time to dig into a manuscript is after it’s done. Put your first draft away for at least three weeks. Then sit down with a hard copy and read the thing as if you were a reader with a new book.

Take minimal notes. Read it through it with one question in mind: “At what point would a busy reader, agent, or editor be tempted to put this aside?”

Work on that big picture first.

Read it through again looking at each scene. Here is where craft study comes in. It’s like golf. When you play golf, just play. Don’t be thinking of the 22 Things To Remember At Point Of Impact on The Full Swing. After a round is when you look back and decide what to work on in practice. And when you have a good teacher to help, you learn the fundamentals and you get better.

Same with writing. There are good teachers who write good books and articles and blogs, and lead workshops. Learn from them. Use what you learn to fix your manuscript after the first draft is done. When you write your next book, those lessons will be in your “muscle memory.” You’ll be a better writer from the jump.

And here I should issue a general warning about critique groups. As with everything in life, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you find a good, supportive critique group, fantastic. But know there are toxic critique groups, too. Those are usually dominated by one strong voice, with iron-fisted rules about what can never be done, like: Never open with dialogue! No backstory in the first fifty pages! Don’t mention anything about the weather in the first two pages!

There can also be a tone of such ripping apart that soon enough, when you’re all alone, you’ll freeze up over every sentence you write. That’s what happened to the writer of the email.

For further advice on critique groups, see these posts by P. J. Parrish and Jordan Dane.

Paying for a good, experienced editor at some point is worth it. How do you find one? Research and referrals. There is now an abundance of editors out there who used to work for New York houses, until the staffing cutbacks of the last few years. The cost of this is high. Expect between one and two grand. If that’s beyond your budget, then hunt down and nurture a good, solid group of beta readers. See the advice of Joe Moore.

Then write some more

The name of this game is production. My correspondent mentioned a writer he knows who spent eight years workshopping and conferencing the same book, until realizing it would have been much better writing eight books instead.

Make a book a year your minimum. If you want to be a professional writer you have to be able to do at least that. Is it easy? No. If it was, your cat would be writing novels. But as Richard Rhodes put it once, “A page a day is a book a year.” One book page is 250 words.

Just. Do. It.

The good news is I got an email from this author after I answered him and he said

I spent the bulk of Tuesday at the keyboard and wrote/fixed about 4500 words in one of four sessions. I feel liberated and just wanted to thank you. So thank you. Your Rx for my dilemma has been like a reset button. One long overdue.

So, TKZers, have you ever suffered from paralysis by over-analysis? How did you free yourself up to write?

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What Makes a Critique Group Work?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Yesterday I attended the first meeting of my new critique group, the first group I’ve been in since 2004. I’ve never had much luck with such groups, probably because I was so new to writing that I didn’t know what to even want from a group. I had even started one and had to drop out, but this time should be different.

There are four of us. Very experienced authors. We have a mix of genres, which could make things interesting. I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in. I’m the only crime fiction and YA writer, but after our meeting and the fun we had brainstorming plots, it became apparent very quickly that genres won’t matter. Storytellers know how to kick start a plot.



Texas Hill Country Bluebonnets

We met in the beautiful hill country of Texas, outside Boerne. Gorgeous drive up to a member’s beautiful home. The scenic drive is enough to start the creative juices flowing. Our hostess had lunch prepared, something easy and way too yummy. She knew the other two authors and had gotten us together after I whined about not finding what I needed in a few of my local (larger) writers’ groups.

We chatted via email on what we’d like to get from our group. At first I wasn’t sure my goals would match up. Initially we had planned on meeting once a month to talk about the business of writing and maybe brainstorm on plot or scene issues, but after the meeting yesterday, we are getting together once a week and it will be much more on craft and pushing each other to be the best we can be.

Yes, we talked promotion and I learned some new things there and we shared contact info for promo things that worked for each of us. We chatted about plotting methods and storyboarding, but when we got to brainstorming a plot, that’s where my mind was blown.

One of our members had purchased three covers from a designer, images that spoke to her. None of us realized what her intentions were until we got into it, but she bought the covers BEFORE even knowing what any of the books would be about. Basically our session turned into a major Flash Fiction exercise of brainstorming what a new series would be about using the cover designs for books that didn’t exist. HA! When you get the right people together, the ideas flow and we had a blast doing it. We set the stage for a world she’d be building from those three covers that would be bigger than three books, something she could grow into. I’d never done that before and I can’t say I would recommend it as a method of plotting, but with the right people, you never know where things will go.

So we set up our basic crit group intentions as follows:

1.) We will endeavor to get together weekly and bring new material from our current projects. The author will read (& hand out copies of the material), but advance copies will be made available to the other members prior to our meeting for “track changes” feedback. This will allow us to focus on the reading.

2.) None of us are very interested in line edits (unless something is glaring), but we want to get feedback on character, plot, scene choice, motivations, etc. (Craft issues)

3.) We will help each other through plot glitches and even do a “getaway retreat” for serious plotting sessions on future books.

4.) We chatted about limiting our reads to a number of pages and/or a time limit per member, but none of us liked the rigidity. So as we get into this, we will be considerate of not overstepping each other’s time and bring what we need to read to keep us on any publisher’s deadline. We will stay until everyone gets what they need.

5.) We’ll rotate the meetings between member’s houses, as long as the commute isn’t too much on any one person. (Two authors are located more conveniently for all of us.)

6.) We are at four members and like that headcount. Whatever we say in the group will be confidential.

So that is a summary of my new crit group. I’m sure we will define things as we go, to suit the needs of the group, but I’d love to hear from you, TKZers.

For discussion purposes, my questions to all of you (who have way more experience than I do with critique groups) are:

1.) What works in your groups? What do you look for in a crit group?

2.) What doesn’t work?

3.) What do you wish you could add to your groups?

http://jordandane.com/YA/crystal-fire.php

Jordan Dane’s Crystal Fire (The Hunted Series with HarlequinTeen) now available for pre-order. Release November 26, 2013.

“The Hunted – Strong characters and a wild and intense story.”
4.5 Stars – Romantic Times Magazine

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Getting pecked to death:Are critique groups worth it?

By P.J. Parrish

I recently joined a critique group. Those who know me might think that’s weird. I’ve been published professionally for more than 20 years. I’ve done my share of teaching and should know how to do this by now. And I have a built-in critique group with my co-author sister Kelly.

So why do I need the tsouris?

Three reasons really. First, just because you’ve written some books doesn’t mean it gets any easier. Second, I now have a second home in the suburbs of the ebook Wild West and you need all the neighbors you can find out here among the wolves and cacti. And third…I’m lonely.

We’ll get back to that last one in a second.

But let’s ask the main question here: Are critique groups worth it? Worth it in time, energy and the bruising your ego will surely take? Should you expose your hatching to the cruel world to be pecked at before it’s barely had the chance to sprout feathers let alone wings?  (Whew, labored metaphor alert there).

I used to think critique groups were a waste of time. Maybe that’s because early in my writing life I got involved in one that was really bad. We met at a local bar once a month. (first mistake: combining wine and whine). The members weren’t very good at articulating what was wrong (or even right) in stories and a one guy was really defensive about being rejected by the “Manhattan cabal.” That’s what he actually called New York publishers. I left the group after two sessions, figuring it was cheaper to get depressed at home with a bottle of pinot.

But I think writers are better these days at taking constructive criticism. Maybe it’s because the new world of self-publishing has stripped us of the delusions we might have about how easy it is to write (and sell) a book.  Maybe it’s because in these days of change and turmoil, good editors (even those in the Manhattan cabal) are worth their weight in gold. Whatever the forces at work, I think we’re seeing a shift among writers, a new willingness to get help and get better.

So I’ve come to believe that a critique group can be one of the best tools a developing writer can use. Even experienced writers can benefit from them. But there’s a bunch of caveats that go with this. And I’ll get to those in a second too.

First, let me tell you about my little group. There’s four of us and I was the last to join about two months ago after one of the group, Christine Kling, literally sailed off into the sunset. (She’s an avid sailor and decided to pull up anchor and cruise the Caribbean, though she’s back now). That left Sharon Potts, Neil Plakcy, Chris Jackson…and me, the new cucumber.

We meet every two weeks at a Starbucks but in the week prior we send each other our 10 pages. We each then read and “red pencil” our comments on the pages. We use Word’s TRACK CHANGES function. It’s an editing program that lets you insert comments on a document. Track Changes is a little hinky to learn at first but it’s a cool tool. And most editors in publishing are now using it for their author revisions and expect you to know it as well.

Why just 10 pages at a time? Well, too much makes you skim over surfaces. You can really focus down on a book’s problems if you take it in small bites.

What things? We try not to nitpick and line-edit. That’s for second and third drafts and hopefully copy editors. What we try to help each other with is the Big Picture. Where the plot is going into the ditch, where the character development is lacking, and what — and this is important — to the cold eye seems confusing. But we try to stay flexible. We made an exception to our 10-page rule last week for one of our members. She is struggling with a very complex thriller. Her plot had become a hyrdra-beast and she wanted help simplifiying it. So she gave us a concept and we went from there.

At Starbucks, we pick one author to critique and we take turns going over our Track Change comments (we bring printed-out copies to give to each writer). We also encourage the other critiquers to jump into the conversation if they want to add something to the point at hand. These sessions run about four hours, three lattes and at least one pee break.

Have they helped me? Immensely. I am working on a new Louis Kincaid series book and after I offered up my opening chapter, I was told the tone was completely at odds with where I had left my hero in the previous book. That was a major revelation that has made me rethink my first six chapters. I also came to realize I’ve lapsed into a lazy habit of underwriting. My critique mates want a little more description and detail from me. (Ironically, my sister tells me the same thing). I also learned my treatment of my series backstory (always a tricky thing) was deficient. I was mentioning characters and situations from previous books that weren’t explained enough in the present one to stave off confusion.

What’s really good about getting this kind of feedback is not that they are trying to tell me how to write my book. It’s that this will save me valuable time. In rewrites, of course, but also later when I am deeper into the plot. It’s like hiking through a forest. Alone, I might have gotten far into those dark woods, realized I had  lost my way back on that first turn, and now I have to backtrack to find my way out. Without falling off the ridge.

My hiking mates aren’t telling me where to go. They’re just keeping me on the path I have already chosen.

So, is a critique group for you? I can’t answer that, of course. But I can pose some questions for you:

1. What kind of group do you need? Ideally, face-to-face. If you can stay within your genre, also good but not essential. Good writing is the same whatever the genre. But I’d stay with fiction. Non-fiction folks have their own unique needs.

2. Where are you in your skill level? You need to find like-minded writers but it’s always better if you can link up with some folks who’ve been published. As the saying goes, you want to play tennis with someone better than you or you never improve your game. But be willing to take the heat. If the group seems like a mere pity-party — ie, everyone bitching about their lack of success — get out as soon as you can. It’s cathartic to exchange tales of woe but it should be limited to small-talk after the hard work is done.

3. Where can you find a critique group?  If you’re isolated geographically, there are online groups but it’s pretty gnarly out there, almost like cyber-dating. (There’s one group, Ladies Who Critique, that’s females-only).  Start here for a list. The best way, I think, is through writers organizations. I found my group via contacts I made through my Mystery Writers of America Florida chapter. If the organization doesn’t offer critiques, network and start one yourself. All you need is two or three other committed people. Here’s some good advice on starting your own.

I can also give you some advice on how to handle yourself if you do decide to join a group:

1. Make a commitment. You’ll get only as good as you give. If you join up, be willing to spend whatever time it takes helping the others with their WIPs. Nobody likes the guy who shows up at the party empty-handed, drinks all the good booze and sits in the corner with nothing to say.

2. Be tough but kind. The best editors I’ve had always know how to make revision letters sound like they are really praise letters. They always tell you what you did brilliantly before they smack you upside the head and tell you where you royally screwed up.

3. Don’t get defensive. We are all soft-shelled about our writing but if you can’t take constructive criticism, don’t join a group. Hell, don’t even try to be a real writer for that matter. At our last session, I got defensive about fried pickles. My hero Louis orders a basket of fried pickles. It was one throwaway line but one of my critique buddies wanted more about the pickles. (It’s hard to explain but she was right.) I spent five minutes trying to justify why I didn’t want to write more about those friggin pickles. Later, I realized it had nothing to do with pickles and everything do to with me being prickly.

4. Don’t ever say “Yeah, but…” This is a variation on No. 3. One of your critique mates says, “I can’t figure out what is going on in this scene where the guy is stealing the fried pickles.” And you say, “Yeah but if you just wait until chapter 26, it will all be explained.”   If someone is confused by what you’ve written you should listen to them.  Misdirection is a great writer’s tool. But it is not the same as confusion.

5. Don’t get depressed. Having folks tell you what is wrong with your story is not easy to hear. But a good critique group can be really inspiring.  It can teach you that all writers struggle, that first drafts are never meant to be perfect, and that you can, despite what all the demons in your head are whispering, fix it. Yeah, you might feel like that guy in the picture at the beginning of this blog — that’s Prometheus, who Zeus tied to a rock and sent down an eagle to peck the guy’s liver to shreds. But you can also get a big dose of camaraderie through a good critique group.

And that brings me back to my last point — the thing I said about feeling lonely.

We all do, right? We sit here in our old yoga pants and Bob Seger t-shirts, poking away at our keyboards, hoping this STUFF we are storing away each day might actually coalese into a book and be read someday. We surf the internet, read articles about how to improve our craft and blogs about how to market them. But sometimes, as that great western philosopher Bruce Springsteen says, all we really need is some human touch.

We need to know we’re not alone. We need to hear other footsteps behind us on the path.

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There’s Nothing like the First Time: Getting Published

My critique group hit a double this week. Two members of the writing group announced that their short stories have been accepted for publication in an anthology. 

You could feel the pride in their emailed announcements. Both of these writers had been struggling over the months and years to refine their writing; they honed their craft, bringing in pages week after week with revisions. Finally they got the payoff: officially dropping the “pre” from “pre-published.”

The rest of us in the critique group are thrilled for them. That’s the way it is with writers. The rise of one doesn’t diminish the others–we simply spread the joy. 

So readers, let’s hear about your recent triumphs and struggles. Where are you in your own writing journey? And if you have any announcements, we hope to hear it here first!

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