Thursday, March 10, 2005

Why a critique group? What's in it for me?

What benefits are there to a good online critique group? While I don't have vast experience with these circles myself (or with their sisters, the walk-in crit groups), I think different people expect different things when they hear the term.

Not every writer needs or desires a team approach. I know several fine writers who write, polish, and submit without any other eyes looking over their manuscripts. Some of them sell stories and books, too. It's a sound way to do things.

My understanding of many published writers (alas, I am not yet in a position to know this for myself...) is that their agent and editor act as a crit group for them. The writer pitches an idea, and the agent may suggest changes. The writer writes the story; the editor suggests changes. And the line editor will go through every sentence with a fine-tooth comb. Etc.

Some folks may think that a bunch of unpublished writers have nothing valid to offer each other: what do these unwashed writers actually KNOW, what expertise do they actually HAVE that another writer should listen to them? I firmly believe that we have much to offer each other.

These are specific areas that we can help each other with. Complex worldbuilding can use an extra set (or more) of eyes. Sometimes when I am neck deep into building a backdrop I don't see the inconsistencies I've created. I've been at it for weeks, eating and drinking it, sleeping and dreaming it, and I can't see the forest for the trees.

I also appreciate comments on the plot outline before I start to write, for the same reason. Sometimes I think a character will do one thing when it is obviously not in his character to do it, or it is not consistent with the worldbuilding. Is it just sloppy plotting on my part? Maybe. But it is hard to think of everything when *everything* is so all-encompassing. Someone with a narrower field of view can zero in on potential difficulties more readily.

As I critique another writer's work, I come to understand some of the flaws in my own work reflected in theirs. Perhaps their villain's actions don't seem logical. And as this makes me think of my own villains, I begin to see similar problems, and possibly ways to solve them.

Some groups require each writer to submit a certain number of pages each week for critique. To my lopsided way of thinking, that may not be useful. My preference is to push my way through the entire first draft without formal feedback, with few exceptions. In one story I wrote, I had a child nearly drown. I submitted that particular scene to a lifeguard for review before going on. I needed to know it was valid, the way I saw it in my head.

After the first draft is complete, I think it should rest a bit, if possible. Go do something else: write another first draft, plot out a new novel, or revise an earlier work before coming back to it. When you think you've gotten the bulk of the tweaking done, that's when I think new eyes can be helpful once again. Line edits may be useful here, but maybe the story isn't ready for them. I wasted several people's time when I asked them for line edits, but the story had more fundamental problems that needed addressing. Don't waste time on line edits when vast paragraphs or even chapters need to be ripped out and rewritten.

Should writers in a group be jealous of another writer's more advanced skills? No. When that writer sells, it benefits the whole group. They all stand to gain much information and encouragement from it. Should a more experienced writer look down on those who have less skill? No, not if they're willing to work on their craft. A little mentorship can go a long way. Every writer's learning curve is different, but I believe it is valuable to give a helping hand where needed, as much as I am thankful to those who reach down and give me the same.

If you sell a book, does that narrow the market for me? Not really. Maybe this particular publisher now has a full list for this quarter, but the real problem is not how many books are available, but how few people are readers. Support the industry: give books as gifts whenever you can! Help turn your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews into lifelong readers.

Is there a difference between Christian crit groups and *regular* ones? Yes and no, with emphasis on both.

There is no difference. Both should hold up the highest standards of the craft to each other. Both should treat each other with respect, encouraging and cajoling one another to meet their goals.

There is a difference. A group of Christians who band together in such a way has the added benefit of a more focused goal, that of glorifying God through their stories. They also pledge to pray for one another through the journey, sharing and supporting one another at a deeper level.

Is this view of critique groups *the last word*? No, not at all. It is simply my personal viewpoint; what works for me. There are a few other people who share this vision with me, and we have formed a small group. Others are considering joining us. While many have certainly traveled the road alone, and reached their destination, others may falter or lose their way at an unmarked crossroad.

Share the burden. Share the joy.


Paula said...

I've learned a ton from my crit group members! I also have found a few friends that really understand this insane pursuit and offer their support. Cost? Priceless.

Violet N. said...

Excellent post, Pat. You've covered so many angles of this.

It never ceases to amaze me what gaffes other writers find in my work -- or for that matter, what I find, when I let writing cool for a while.

I think it's important too, to work with people whose judgment you trust... perhaps that means on the same level--I don't know. I was once in a group where every time I used past-perfect tense (as in a flashback), I was told it should be changed because it was in 'passive voice.' Arrgh!! After a few weeks I dropped out as the critique seemed uninformed.

Violet N. said...

Oops!! Sorry, Valerie, I thought I was on someone else's site!! Doesn't change the comments, though. I still think they were excellent - only I should have doublechecked my work - as usual, or passed it by a critique group!!

(I see we might be neighbors-you're also from bc)