A New Approach to a Traditional Group–The Concept Critique

So a couple of weeks ago, we discussed critique groups then I saw something shiny and forgot to post the second part of the discussion. ::head desk:: Anyway, in Part One, I posited the question: Can a critique group do more harm than good? In my opinion? YES. Traditional critique groups can have severe limitations, and, if a writer doesn’t understand this and adjust accordingly, then she can do irreparable damage to her WIP and even her career. As a note before anyone gets huffy. Just because something is limited  does not mean it is bad. Critique groups, especially GOOD critique groups are worth their weight in gold. But just like my car has limitations–I cannot traverse lakes with it–critique groups are limited as well. Yet, when we understand the limitations, then we can adjust accordingly.

As a quick refresher, traditional critique groups:

Lack Proper Perspective

Since most traditional critique groups only hear/read a small section of pages at a time, there is no way they can tell if there are major plot problems in a manuscript. Many writers hit the slush pile because their plot has catastrophic flaws. Pretty prose does not a novel make.

Agents are overworked as it is. They can love our writing voice, but they don’t have the time to teach us our craft. As professionals, we should have the basics down when we query and it is rude and amateurish to expect an agent will fix everything for us. Not their job. They can fix some surface stuff, but not the deep structure flaws that cause many queries to land in the slush pile.

I have met countless writers who didn’t properly understand the antagonist or even narrative structure. They thought their WIP was ready to query because people in critique “loved their writing style.” Just because we have command of our native language doesn’t mean we have the skill set to write a 60-100,000 word novel.

Critique groups don’t have the perceptual distance to spot the big problems. So just understand this from the get-go and all is fine. But make sure your plot is critiqued before you query. Also, understand that the group is limited then take critique with a grain of salt. If someone says, “but this spot didn’t have enough action” and you know that those ten pages were part of a sequel and NOT a scene, then you know you don’t need to punch up the pace. Write good books, not 150 individual sections to keep people at critique happy.

Other Problems with Traditional Critique Groups

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.

Because the group can’t see the big picture, they can inject things like, “But how did Gertrude end up in Disney World with a flame thrower?” Well, of course they don’t understand why Gertrude is setting The Seven Dwarfs ablaze. They haven’t been at critique for three weeks, so they missed the part about a hell-mouth being located under Cinderella’s castle. Why do you think Disney got the land so cheap? And all these years you just thought it was because it was a swamp!

When people at critique say things like this, just hold your ground and give permission for some folks to be lost.

Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-By-Committee.

We have to stand strong here. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you must learn to stand your ground with suggestions. I have seen writers have a lovely writing voice literally hen-pecked out of them by people at critique. Just take critique for what it is and accept the good and ignore the bad.

Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of perfectionism.

The world does not reward perfection. It rewards those who get things done. No one ever had a runaway success with half of the world’s perfect novel. Lean to be a finisher.

Traditional critique groups can give a false sense of security.

Again, pretty prose does not a novel make. Is voice important? YES! But voice alone is not a novel. We have to make sure our structure is not a disaster area, and this is where traditional critique groups run into trouble. But today, I will give you guys a way to work within the limitations.

How can I get solid critique of my plot?

Beta readers are good for critiquing at plot. If you can, find a pal who loves to read and ask for her to read your novel. She can tell you if your book was great, boring, confusing, or made her want to gouge out her own eyes. Just make sure you allow your beta reader permission to be honest, even when it hurts.

Beyond the Beta Reader

But beta readers, especially GOOD beta readers are hard to find. A MAJOR limitation to beta readers? We have to finish the book before we get critique.

In my opinion, life is short. Why waste it writing books with fatally flawed plots? This is why I started WWBC (my critique group). I didn’t want to waste months writing a book that had a flawed skeleton. I don’t like having revisions from hell. I prefer to dedicate my time to books that actually stand a chance of being published.

Introducing Concept Critique

If you can’t find a non-traditional critique group or a good beta reader, then just modify the content you bring to critique. This is part of what we do in my writing group WWBC. We employ what I call Concept Critique. We do things a bit differently, but I have modified our methods to work for you.

Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed in Part Eight of my Structure Series). Or, for those pantsers, go back and use cards to show the scenes of the WIP you’ve written. Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.

If we are finished with a novel and it is solid and ready for critique, we should be able to say what our entire book is about in ONE sentence. (If you need help learning how to do this, then check out the above link about log-lines).

We should also be able to clearly see scenes and sequels in our WIP. Detailing our finished WIP scene-by-scene for concept critique is a far better use of time than taking a year to get line-edit on a potentially flawed WIP.

Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist a mustache-twirler or the stuff of greatness?

Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.

This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. And, since they have an idea of the BIG picture, their advice will be a lot better. They might even be able to offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words. Or, if you have already written the novel, you will have a better idea how to tackle revisions.

Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write/revise that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Gertrude is torching Cinderella’s castle.

Time to Get Real Honest…

I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show us why we are really in a writing group. Is it because we really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like I used to be? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I could believe the standard lies many of us tell ourselves when we are unpublished.

I just haven’t found the right agent.

Oh, it’s because my novel is a mix of genres.

New York just doesn’t publish any good writing anymore.

I hear vampires are hot and they are only taking vampire books.

Vampires are passe and they are only taking books with trained ferrets.

When I started WWBC I had to check my ego at the door. Now I couldn’t hide behind my glorious prose. If someone beat the hell out of my synopsis, there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t use the Standard Issue Line of Writer Denial–-Well, they just haven’t read the rest of my novel. If they had, they wouldn’t say that.

If we really long to be successfully published, then we need to hear the truth. As I like to say, Excellence begins with honesty. If we are attending a group only to hear how every word we write is a golden nugget of joy, we aren’t going to grow.

What are some of the problems you’ve had with critique groups? How did you overcome them? Any suggestions? Opinions?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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  1. #1 by Catherine Johnson on February 6, 2012 - 12:22 pm

    That sounds like a great idea Kristen. I am so lucky to have found two new betas recently on top of one beta and one online critique group for picture books. I have one new one specifically for poetry chapbooks now and another new beta for longer stories. I’ve also been invited to a local writer’s group since I got to knwo a new blogging friend and two illustrators live nearby. So I can swap with her too. There’s nothing worse that knowing people are busy at the moment or not giving you the hard truth. I am so grateful for all these new opportunities now. One was from a Twitter friend and the other through the 12 x 12 group. These groups are fabulous for connecting with people all looking to swap stories.

  2. #2 by Elena Aitken on February 6, 2012 - 12:23 pm

    It’s no secret that I have deep love for my critique group The Easy Writers and my wordbitches. We’ve definitely found a formula that works for us. And like you suggest, we’ve critiqued/workshoped all types of things. Book proposals, query letters, general plot over views, bio pages, and oh ya, chapter samples, we’ve done that too.
    I like your idea of sending in plot synopsis to the group. I may have to try that one too.

    I definitely believe in the power of a good writing group. Yes, I think you need to be careful, and always hang on to your own voice. And yes I’ve also heard some horror stories about groups that just didn’t work out. BUT one of the best parts of having the Easy Writers and the Wordbitches is that at least twice a month I get to go hang out with other people who ‘get it’. And there’s nothing quite like drinking coffee and talking about words with people who get it, because as much as your family and friends may love and support you, they still think you’re crazy for letting the voices ‘talk to you’. :)

  3. #3 by amyshojai on February 6, 2012 - 12:24 pm

    Another issue of many critique groups is having the author READ their own work. I am a great reader–no brag, just fact. I’m an actor. So I can make suck-isity read like glorious prose. Read-aloud IMO doesn’t help especially since it’s meant to be read silently by the individual, and eyeballs-on-the-page offers the chance of finding the comma out of place.

    I’m just now receiving back/digesting comments from beta readers. It’s the first time I’ve had this privilege and it’s so very valuable. Love your notion of the “concept” critique. Thanks for another terrific post, Kristen.

    • #4 by Mandy Allen on February 6, 2012 - 1:42 pm

      I couldn’t agree more with this!!! I am currently taking a class designed to increase creativity. It’s not focussed on structure, just helping to get the ideas flowing. I am loving it, except I feel like some of what my classmates read during class would be far more powerful, if I was able to read it on my own. Sometimes, people are wonderful readers and make their sub-par work sound glorious, and others have amazing writing, but they can’t do it justice while reading!

      Excellent point!

  4. #5 by Marcy Kennedy on February 6, 2012 - 12:26 pm

    I’ve never been part of a critique group for the reason you mentioned above, but also because I live in the middle of nowhere and my search for one has always come up empty. I would love to join a group that would critique my concept before I ever started writing. I often put off starting an idea because I don’t want to invest time in it if it isn’t any good. Having a group who could poke holes and help make sure the bones were strong would be ideal (especially since I’m a planner and pantsing gives me hives).

    Does anyone know if there are any online critique groups that do a concept critique at the start?

    • #6 by Jessica O'Neal on February 6, 2012 - 12:57 pm

      I have been looking for a critique group for a long time and coming up empty. I have been unable to find a good one in my area and don’t really know where to start searching online. But you know, I see no reason why we couldn’t start an online concept critique group ourselves! If no one knows of one already in existence that is accepting new members, then why not? I bet we could put feelers out and find other WANA members who would be interested. And since we would be the ones starting it we could employ the methods that Kristen outlines so that we get the most out of it. What do you say?

      • #7 by Adele on February 6, 2012 - 1:07 pm

        I’m in, ladies. What are you writing? I’m working on a fantasy novel which i’m hoping to get back into within the month… we could set up a private FB group to chat, post stuff, have weekly tasks to keep on track etc…

        • #8 by febe on February 9, 2012 - 12:14 pm

          I would love to be in, I’m writing an urban fantasy chick lit novel.

      • #9 by Monique Headley on February 6, 2012 - 1:18 pm

        Hi Marcy and Jessica,

        I have been having the same difficulties. I live in Chicago and belong to a writers organization, but I’m having a hard time finding a critique group to join. I love the idea of an online concept group. If this is something you move forward with, I would love to be involved!

        • #10 by KM Huber on February 6, 2012 - 2:07 pm

          Hello Marcy, Jessica, and Monique:

          I’m interested in trying an online concept critique group. Have read Kristen’s WANA and am a member of WANA711. Please let me know if this develops further. I write literary fiction, if it matters. Thanks!
          Karen

        • #11 by Adele on February 8, 2012 - 12:22 pm

          Hi Monica – are you on facebook? Friend me at https://www.facebook.com/kiray007 and I’ll add you to the new critique group, if you’re interested x

      • #12 by annstanleywriting on February 6, 2012 - 2:31 pm

        I’m in. I belong to a writing group, but I don’t think the people in my group take it very seriously, with the exception of the sole published novelist, who has been incredibly helpful when it comes to reading shorter things. Mostly, it is just good for getting the creative juices flowing and for some social time with writers.
        I have also not found my choice of beta readers to be very helpful. I wrote a literary novel and am starting another one while I wait for at least one more beta reader to give me some feedback.

        • #13 by Adele on February 8, 2012 - 12:24 pm

          Hi Ann – are you on facebook? Friend me at https://www.facebook.com/kiray007 and I’ll add you to the new critique group, if you’re interested x

          • #14 by febe on February 9, 2012 - 10:41 am

            I’d love to be in this new critique group. Been looking for something like this online for a while now.

          • #15 by kosmopolite on May 6, 2012 - 10:16 am

            Hi, Adele. I just messaged you on Facebook (Andy Dainty). Is love to be involved.

      • #16 by Becca on February 6, 2012 - 3:25 pm

        I would love to be a part of this!! The entire time I was reading this post, I was wishing I had a concept critique group like she described. I say: Let’s do it!

        • #17 by Adele on February 6, 2012 - 5:06 pm

          Are we all on FB? Is that a good way to set up a group? I have a script writing group on there and it works really well.

          https://www.facebook.com/kiray007

          • #18 by KM Huber on February 6, 2012 - 6:27 pm

            Yes, I am. This is really sounding great.

          • #19 by annstanleywriting on February 6, 2012 - 8:11 pm

            Sure, a FB group sounds great.

          • #20 by annstanleywriting on February 6, 2012 - 9:49 pm

            Who wants to set the group up? What should we call it? Kristen Lamb groupies? Or – Mad Ferrets?

            • #21 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 6, 2012 - 10:19 pm

              I am diggin the Mad Ferrets, but maybe you can work WANA in there, LOL.

              • #22 by Adele on February 7, 2012 - 9:56 am

                Right then Mad Crazy Ferret WANAs, I will start a private group on FB – friend and also PM me at https://www.facebook.com/kiray007 so I can invite you in.

                Good lord Kristin, what have you started?!

          • #23 by Heather Marsten on February 8, 2012 - 12:42 pm

            I thought to reply here so my post isn’t one letter wide :)

            I am wondering what the critique group would entail, how much time, etc. I also wonder at the types of manuscripts that would be submitted. Mine is a memoir, and it deals more graphically than some would like with incest and child abuse – for the first 100 pages or so, then it goes into the occult and a wild lifestyle, then salvation – so I’m not sure my genre or content would be fitting for this group. Let me know what you think. I’d love a group along this guideline.
            Have a blessed day.

            • #24 by charlfk on February 8, 2012 - 1:05 pm

              hey, Heather, if it has an good ending tons of people would be interested. Have you tried the Christian book website? Not sure of the addy, but I can find out if you are interested.

              • #25 by Heather Marsten on February 8, 2012 - 1:28 pm

                Thanks, I will be trying those sites, but want to have my MS shipshape first. I was on Critique Circle and people loved my MS – they could relate, but my first draft was rough, and I’m tightening it up now. I am subscribing to various Christian editorial sites – and yes, the ending is good – real healing through Christ. Have a blessed day.
                Heather

  5. #26 by Pauline B Jones on February 6, 2012 - 12:30 pm

    I had a critique group fail as well, because of the ‘please the group’ problem. I was writing to make them happy, instead of writing my book. Now I use beta readers all the way. I wish I’d known this back when…

  6. #27 by Lori Oster on February 6, 2012 - 12:33 pm

    I love the way you question the status quo, invoke great discourse amongst your blog community, and THEN you come back and present a viable solution for the problem.

    It’s so refreshing. And helpful.

    Love this idea of the concept critique. I’m going to see if I can put it to use in my college English courses. Thanks so much.

  7. #28 by Annalise Green on February 6, 2012 - 12:34 pm

    Traditional critique groups are good for shorts. Actually, in college, a writing professor eventually banned people from bringing chapters to the group. I was very relieved. Whenever we critted a chapter, we invariably said things like, “I can’t really speak to this because I don’t know what happens yet,” or we would suggest things that we wanted to see more of and the person would say that it would happen in later chapters. Without the whole product in front of us, it was a big fat waste of time.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of concept critique. I agree that it’s not good to hide behind pretty prose. In my experience, people tend to be good at one or the other (i.e., plot or prose) and people who excel at prose sometimes have the most meandering plots. So I like the focus of plot/concept because I think all too often there isn’t enough of that focus in traditional critique groups.

    But I do think that delivery is key. I had a prof basically tell me once that my underlying concepts are ridiculous but that I make them work because they are authentic to my voice. You just never know who can pull off what. Someone could spin me fifteen pages about a detective ferret and I might be like, “What? That is silly nonsense,” and even though I couldn’t pull off an engaging, well-written story about a detective ferret, maybe THEY could, and maybe they could even make it deep and meaningful and philosophical. It’s not really fair to judge until you’ve seen the entire, finished product in front of you, the same way it isn’t fair to judge a novel by a chapter.

    • #29 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 6, 2012 - 12:40 pm

      But if you can’t sell it in 15 pages then how can you sell it in a query? An agent has to be interested enough to even look at the book in the first place. I think if we get too weird, the concept critique will show that early on. If your voice is unique and interesting, then you should be able to sell even quirky topics in 15 pages. If not? Then might not want to get too weird, especially if you want to traditionally publish. Have to make it past the pitch and the query.

      • #30 by Annalise Green on February 6, 2012 - 1:38 pm

        Hmm. I see your point. The concept critique is definitely an intriguing idea that I would like to try, even though I have some hesitations. I can see that even the act of writing one might be helpful – it gives you a vantage point of your plot, especially if you’re one who doesn’t work with outlines.

  8. #31 by Trish Loye Elliott on February 6, 2012 - 12:36 pm

    LOVE this idea, Kristen!!! I’m so going to do this with my group. I’m just plotting out my next book now. The idea of getting feedback on the plot BEFORE I actually write it, is so simple and so brilliant. Thank you!

  9. #32 by David on February 6, 2012 - 12:36 pm

    Kristen,

    These are some fantastic points you raise on some of the pitfalls of the writing group experience. In my own group we make up for some of these pitfalls naturally, but we also meet weekly so it’s a bit of a skewed perspective. For instance, you raise the point of the disjointed understanding of how the text is flowing on longer pieces. In my group we are reading chapter by chapter through the story, so we’re able to see the overarching story and not just individual scenes.

    As for having to stand your ground I think that’s actually one of the advantageous parts of being in a writing group. If you can’t stand your ground in a group setting, how would you stand your ground when an editor tells you to remove something? You also have to learn the opposite, when you’re not standing on any workable ground and you need to just accept the critique.

  10. #33 by Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson on February 6, 2012 - 12:39 pm

    As a member of your WWBC group, I LOVE the process you take people through. It makes us realize where our holes are and figure them out before we write ourselves into corners.

    Meanwhile, I also have a fellow writer with whom I exchange chapters weekly — to keep myself moving forward and to see what she has to say. She has a keen eye, and we work well together. She has made me kill entire pages.

    Four pages of little darlins, Kristen.

    I believe I will keep her.

    I’ve been in a few crappy writing groups where everyone sounds like the lemmings above. No helpful. At all. But that’s because I am ready for serious criticism. Others are not. Like you said, you definitely have to ready to leave the ego at the door. There is much hacking to be done.

    Which reminds me.

    This member of team Whiskey needs to talk to you. ;-)

    • #34 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 6, 2012 - 12:46 pm

      Yeah, I will have that back to you today. Had a sick family and got behind :D.

  11. #35 by Running from Hell with El on February 6, 2012 - 12:40 pm

    What really caught my attention above is the concept that our search for excellence hinges on honest critiques from trustworthy sources. It might sound elementary, but constructive criticism, assuming it is constructive and not hogwash, is one of the most important tools we writers possess. The key is finding the tool in the right place and to make sure it matches our needs. You provide a good explanation of how to go about securing that.

  12. #36 by KM Huber on February 6, 2012 - 12:43 pm

    Concept critique– absolutely brilliant and shiny–it gets to the heart of writing, telling a good story. Seems it would work with an online critique group as well. Yet another great tool to have. Thanks so much, Kristen.

  13. #37 by Darlene Steelman on February 6, 2012 - 12:52 pm

    Great stuff, Kristen. I belong to an online Critique group through Writers Digest. The one thing that annoys me about the critics in the group is they blast people for not telling the whole story. Example: someone posts a prologue or a particular chapter. Instead of critiquing the writing, they want to know who Becky’s sister is and what town they live in and blah blah… really?

    Hopefully after tax season I can find a writing group in my area. That sounds like a lot of fun.

    Great post, Kristen.

  14. #38 by Christine Ashworth on February 6, 2012 - 12:54 pm

    I am tweeting and facebooking this, and passing it to all my friends. YES! This is why I have such trouble with crit groups. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  15. #39 by Joseph Ramirez on February 6, 2012 - 12:55 pm

    This IS good. I’ve been attending a critique group for some time now, and I’ve felt like the group is way less useful than my beta readers as far as plot goes. Everyone in the group gets bogged down on whether writing is pretty or not, while missing the big picture. Sort of like critiquing the paint job on an airplane, overlooking the lack of wings. The paint job is good and important, but without wings… it’s just not gonna fly.

    I’ll ponder this. This could be the answer for them.

  16. #40 by Jami Gold on February 6, 2012 - 12:56 pm

    Great post, Kristen! Yes, what too many writers forget is that we have to be able to make this novel make sense and sell itself within a line or paragraph (the one-paragraph Amazon description is key to self-published authors too). You know I’ve struggled with this, but I’m trying to improve. :)

  17. #41 by Anne R. Allen on February 6, 2012 - 12:57 pm

    This is pure brilliance. Wow. I’ve been in critique groups for decades, and I’m in one now that’s excellent for what it does–which is catch the little nit-picky mistakes. But they cannot critique plot. With twice a month meetings, nobody remembers what’s going on. (I used to fall into the trap of over-explaining because of that.)

    So I have to use beta readers for plot/continuity critiques. But a concept critique session would work wonders. I think I might present a concept instead of a chapter at the next meeting. What a smart idea!

    BTW, I gave you yet another shout-out on my blog this week–and many more in the comments.. Blogging about what to blog about.

  18. #42 by colonialist on February 6, 2012 - 12:59 pm

    Very well expressed, and most valid. Lemming groups are pretty useless, unless all one wants is one’s ego massaged – or to be plunged into the depths of despair, as the case may be. The over-critical can be useful, but only if one sorts the wheat from the chaff. I have just been sent a poem of a USA writer edited to some very neat lines – but they entirely lose the spirit of what the poet was trying to say. And if the ‘discard everything that doesn’t drive the plot’ clique got hold of Alice in Wonderland, imagine what they would have made of it.

    Of course, I am a rebel when it comes to methods. My plots evolve from the writing, and I often have no idea where the novel is going – and yet the end result has earned me praise for how meticulous the plotting has been! Things seem to click into place and interrelate all on their own.

    Total honesty is, I think, best obtained from fairly young readers. If they offer criticism, take notice. If they love it, one can be reasonably happy.

  19. #43 by Adele on February 6, 2012 - 1:04 pm

    I adore this post Kristin, and wish I had a group like that. Might need to look at finding a small group of writers to put one together, this is exactly what I need.

  20. #44 by tomwisk on February 6, 2012 - 1:20 pm

    How true. People in classes or critique groups will feed the writer’s ego if they sense he’s close to success and want to move him onto the next step. The writer’s ego is key here. We don’t beat ourselves up, we let others do that. And we resent them for doing it. What to do? short of standing on a street corner and buttonholing strangers to read our opus we need an unbiased view. The crux of the problem is that writers really want someone to tell them they did good and all the blood, sweat and caffiene were worth it. I’ve been dazzled by my own work and the encouragement of my instructor. When the class critiqued the piece they missed flaws in the story and clapped me on the back. On a reread I found the flaws started somewhere around the first paragraph.

  21. #45 by Sharon Spencer Schlesinger on February 6, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    When I started gathering links to every writing craft site in the universe, I quickly weeded out those that were superficial. Even today, when I see a dozen in-comings, I duck & cover, except for you Ms Kristin. You’re an MFA in a box. I always read every single word of what you have to say, even when something ‘shiny’ catches my eye. You’re one funny lady on top of being wise as an owl.

    ISharon

  22. #46 by Author Shelly Goodman-Wright on February 6, 2012 - 1:39 pm

    Wow, Kristen this is powerful stuff!

    I’ve been in a writing critique group for over three years and although I’ve had success with it (my first novel comes out this summer–I should be working on the proof instead of reading this), I totally get what you’re saying and it’s brilliant! I’ve got quite a few story ideas I haven’t put down to paper yet, but I’m going to do this for my next submission. I’ve got a sequel novel finished, so I’ll have to do the couple of friends read it and give me the overall picture.

    I think traditional critique groups only work well for the writer if they actively seek out to better their writing. For example, my pet peeve is staring sentences with ‘ing’ (Gerands–mostly because they make the sentence wrong and they read chopping when overused. I’ve discussed this with other writers who do this, and yet they keep submitting work with the same issues. I believe the successful writers are the ones who take a critique and then go home and get on the computer to find out what the critiquier meant. I’m not saying everyone is right, the point is to find out for yourself. Someone had wrote on one of my submissions, ‘watch your passive voice’ and when I finally started working with my editor (after signing the contract) she said I didn’t have a problem with passive voice.

    So take a critique with a grain of salt–but in order to do that, you should educate yourself as you go along.

    Thanks again for that Kristen, again great stuff!

  23. #47 by Caroline Clemmons on February 6, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    Kristen, I know of a couple of people who stopped writing because of crushing critiques. I had a cp plagiarize my work. Fortunately, I am now in a super effective group with two other authors. When they work, they’re heavenly, but when they don’t…

  24. #48 by Ishta Mercurio on February 6, 2012 - 1:49 pm

    This a great, great, great post.

    I love the idea of concept critiquing. I’ve said countless times to my critique group that I don’t feel that I can give them appropriate feedback on a particular chapter, because what I have to say depends largely on what comes next in the book. I’m going to tell them all about this post – maybe we can all try concept critiquing our WIPs before we get into sending each other any more of our pages.

    And I agree with Shelly’s other point: that no matter how good your critique group is (or isn’t), you’re never going to improve if you aren’t ready to hear any critique. You have to be able to recognize when your crit partners are telling you the hard truth, and be able to step far enough away from your own ego to fix the problems.

    Thanks so much for your insights!

  25. #49 by Tony McFadden on February 6, 2012 - 1:52 pm

    PuttIng the brilliant idea of a concept critique group aside for a second, the 15 pages per act (and polish) then scene breakdown of each act is an *excellent* way to find and the sloppy plot holes before you actually start writing.

    Of course the critique group can assist with that, but this post is very timely because I’m just starting plotting number 6, and there are a LOT of that which need pullIng at exactly the right place.

    By the way, dead on about Disneyland. Obvious Hellmouth.

    • #50 by Tony McFadden on February 6, 2012 - 1:54 pm

      *find and FIX the sloppy plot holes

      Posting comments from an iPhone is fraught with danger.

      • #51 by Tony McFadden on February 6, 2012 - 1:57 pm

        *sigh*

        A lot of ‘threads’ which need pulling.

        Where’s my laptop. My thumbs hurt.

  26. #52 by K.B. Owen on February 6, 2012 - 1:57 pm

    I love WWBC, but I’m a sucker for punishment, LOL. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, right? I just hope I survive the process without taking up chain-smoking and drinking (well, excessive drinking, that is). :)

    Thanks, Kristen!

  27. #53 by Libby Grandy on February 6, 2012 - 1:59 pm

    I agree with you about critique groups. I’ve facilitated a group in the Southern California area for a number of years, and the first thing I do is give out Critique Guidelines. By following them, our group has been very successful.

    · Critique honestly but thoughtfully, and, if possible, begin with positive reinforcement. Although
    the definition of critique is “to criticize,” there is a subtle difference between the two words.
    · Correct grammar and punctuation on the manuscript and verbalize only when one of the rules of
    grammar needs clarification.
    · Circle or underline repetitive words.
    · Mark sentences and paragraphs that are confusing or slow the flow of writing.
    · Be succinct. After a brief discussion, allow the writer to accept or reject suggestions. It is always
    the writer’s call.
    · Never be condescending to those who are educating themselves regarding writing and
    marketing, as it is an on-going process for everyone.

    I added my favorite quote: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

    My article, “Critique Groups—to Join or Not to Join,” on my website, http://www.libbygrandy.com goes into the subject in more detail, but basically this is what has worked for us.

  28. #54 by kimterry on February 6, 2012 - 2:17 pm

    Loved this post, Kristen! Yep, I’ve suffered through traditional critique groups’ “critique” and believe concept critique is so much better!

  29. #55 by Stephanie on February 6, 2012 - 2:18 pm

    I’ve always thought about joining a critique group, but as your post illustrates, there are a lot of troublesome qualities to them. Thanks for the great post that pinpoints their pros and cons.

  30. #56 by Debra Kristi on February 6, 2012 - 2:25 pm

    Libby, I love this quote! It is so true – in or out of a critique group.

  31. #57 by Debra Kristi on February 6, 2012 - 2:28 pm

    Great post Kristen! I haven’t had a lot of experience with critique groups, but the last one I went to, although they loved my piece we only shared six pages. From that they felt I should change how I ended the last page. But without continuing on how could they know for sure? They don’t know where the story is going at this point, only where they were. So they really didn’t have a firm ground to make such a judgment. If they had only read the first paragraph on the next page their opinion maybe have been completely different. I felt it was too limited.

  32. #58 by Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos on February 6, 2012 - 2:29 pm

    I’m lucky enough to be in Kristen’s WWBC group. I have never been in a group before, but I know they never would have worked for me, for a couple reasons. First is that if I had to let the group read a chapter or 10 pages every week, it would take me 6-8 months to get through the book, then I’d still have to edit it.
    In this group, we can bring in just plot ideas and character ideas and get them figured out before we start writing. Kristen operates on the theory that we all have a unique voice, that we just need to have a good solid plot and characters to make a story.
    It’s been quite the learning experience for me.

    • #59 by Gloria Richard Author on February 7, 2012 - 8:22 am

      Whoop! See below for my comment, Jillian. I goofed and tagged my reply to Julia’s comment.

  33. #60 by Julia Tomiak on February 6, 2012 - 3:18 pm

    Thank you Kristen for these insights! Writing has so many levels- microscopic and macroscopic- and we can’t neglect any of them. I will try your suggestions, or some form of them (I’m thinking detailed outline) with my critique partners!

    • #61 by Gloria Richard Author on February 7, 2012 - 8:20 am

      I’m lucky enough to live in the DFW area, too, Jillian. I only made one WWBC meeting so far, but I’m hooked.

      I have participated in a number of crit groups and none worked for me. I love the concept behind WWBC. Hearing the raw truth? No pain, no gain. (BIG time cliche alert!)

      To HECK with the house sale/showings. I will be there on Saturday. Hope to see you then.

  34. #62 by annstanleywriting on February 6, 2012 - 3:19 pm

    This so seems worth a try. I think my writing group would let me do this with my next work (or, if I have the patience, with the current one). Great ideas, and I gather from the comments that you have tested them with your group.

  35. #63 by themadgayman on February 6, 2012 - 4:19 pm

    This is the first post I’ve read by you and I am so happy I found it. I have my first beta reader. Yay! I wouldn’t have asked if it weren’t for reading this blog. I am excited, I am scared, I am many things right now. I just want to write; it’s a need, not a want. Sure, I wish I could be rich thanks to writing but I’d be okay with working another job while writing on the side as long as I did it. Thanks so much for your advice. I look forward to reading more!

  36. #64 by corajramos on February 6, 2012 - 4:22 pm

    Such great advice Kristen. I concur on the importance of understanding the limits of a critique group. The right people, giving the right advice is worth its weight in gold. Hard to find, so understanding a critique group’s limitations is very important. Great tips today. I have to go back and read some of your earlier lessons you highlighted. Thanks.

  37. #65 by Marcie on February 6, 2012 - 5:30 pm

    I tried this once with my group. They line edited the synopsis.

    Now I just state my questions up front, before they read the piece, making it clear that I’m not interested in their thoughts on my word choices, but instead on their thoughts of the effectiveness of the scene.

  38. #66 by Peter DeHaan on February 6, 2012 - 5:33 pm

    Kristen, the limitations that you mentioned kept me from joining a critique for a long time. However, I recently acquiesced and I think I will benefit — as long as I keep in mind what they can and can’t do to help me. Thank you for providing some needed clarity.

  39. #67 by amberdover on February 6, 2012 - 6:05 pm

    Reblogged this on amberdover and commented:

    Kristen Lamb has some of the best writing tips. I hope you enjoy this reblog for Hear the Writer Roar! Tuesday :) God bless and remember The High King Lives!
    ~Amber Dover

  40. #68 by Patrice Fitzgerald on February 6, 2012 - 6:23 pm

    Kristen: Excellent points. I’ve been in a number of critique groups, and the best help I ever got was when I mushed through the synopsis of my current novel, a political thriller, with two trad. published authors and ironed out all the holes in the plot BEFORE writing 95,000 words. It is particularly critical with a book that depends more on fast pacing and suspense and is less about touchy-feely stuff (though I managed to get that in, too).

    I think that advance work is the reason it’s getting consistent 5-star reviews. Just today I started writing my next full-length book, and while it’s tempting to jump right in, I’m trying to get the kind of content critique you discuss here so that I can save myself thousands of words of extra work and remedial rewriting!

  41. #69 by Traci Douglass on February 6, 2012 - 6:35 pm

    Great information Kristen! I am anxiously and actively searching for both a critique group and a beta reader. Your post gives me some good tools to make sure that I pick the right ones. Thanks! :)

  42. #70 by Linda Adams on February 6, 2012 - 9:20 pm

    One of the problems I’ve had was with people citing chapter and verse of the “rules” — and unfortunately, the rule they were citing was not really one. I write in omniscient viewpoint. First time I submitted a few chapters in omni, I mentioned it was omni because I didn’t want the writers telling me I was head hopping because they were thinking I was writing in third. First person tells me if I need to explain it’s in omni, then I shouldn’t be writing in omni. Can I bang my head against the wall? Other writers raise the finger of doom and tell me no one writes in omni any more, so if I do it, I won’t get published. One guy even says, “I’m sure you know your story, but here’s how you’d write it in third.” And yet, not one person actually commented on the story itself. Only on the fact I’d used omni and that they hated omni. I had 10 people waving the rules flag at me, all insisting that omni was evil. I ended up setting aside the story for 6 weeks so I could view it with a clear head.

  43. #71 by Jess Witkins on February 6, 2012 - 10:14 pm

    This post reminds me of my college creative writing class. We sat in a circle and shared what we thought about everyone’s short stories and poems and most of the comments were “I liked it.” Having always wanted to be a writer I have respect for everyone’s work, but like Renee said above, not giving honest feedback is a disservice. I think about my literary publication class and we were BRUTAL to the submitted works that came in. It’s harder to do when you’re facing the individual or sharing your work with them, but the feedback is more meaningful and that’s the beauty of a good writing partner/critique group. I know I appreciated everyone’s help with my first project in WWBC. I haven’t figured out the way to work my second idea. I think I need to toss it to the group and see what suggestions minds more knowledgable about memoirs think.

  44. #72 by Jennifer Fischetto on February 6, 2012 - 10:29 pm

    OMG, this is EXACTLY what I’ve been dealing with lately. And the reason I’m considering leaving the group. It’s a fab group of YA writers, which I really like because I don’t want to work with writers who don’t breathe YA, but I’m finding it to not be overly beneficial. It has it’s advantages (there are a couple of members that dig into the content), but for the most part, I’m getting mostly punctuation help. Not what I need.
    I’m hesitant to quit because I know how hard it is to find critters. I want to work with others that aren’t too green, that are able to help me, and most experienced writers already have CPs. But, I’m hoping that I’ll eventually find some great writers to share with. :)
    Thanks for this post, Kristen. It’s allowed me to see a lot.

  45. #73 by charlfk on February 7, 2012 - 12:53 am

    Hi Kirsten, I’m so glad you finished this blog. Thought you had either forgotten or this was it. Is WWBC, Book Country’s website or is it a different one? I subscribe to BC, and yes, I have been very frustrated by some comments because I am a people pleaser to some extent. I’m trying really hard to ignore some of the more asinine comments, like the ones you mentioned. Thanks for another great blog.

    • #74 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 7, 2012 - 9:19 am

      WWBC is the name of my critique group. Alpha team meets in Fort Worth and Bravo Team meets in a private forum and has a limit on the number of participants. There isn’t a site. But, it seems some of the followers are launching a concept critique group like WWBC so you might want to hook up with them.

  46. #75 by charlfk on February 7, 2012 - 12:57 am

    Okay, WWBC is obviously not the address of your critiquing website, so what is it?

  47. #78 by Reetta Raitanen (@ReettaRaitanen) on February 7, 2012 - 4:35 am

    What a great summary of why traditional critique groups might not work. Beta readers work much better because they see the big picture and usually know the genre you write. But before writing that book in the first place, it would be beneficial to go through the premise, plot and individual scenes with other writers who know their craft.

    The WANA critique group sounds the perfect place to work on the structure level.

  48. #79 by envisionschoolpublishing on February 7, 2012 - 5:28 am

    This is only my second time hearing the word, beta reader. I’ll look further into this, I believe it will be a great help to me. I am not so sure about the critique group.

  49. #80 by Julie on February 7, 2012 - 10:25 am

    Very interesting take on critique groups. I’ve never had this problem because I write picture books, but I am going to venture into longer works. I love the idea of critiquing the concept or the plot first. If nothing else, at least your CPs would know what you are TRYING to achieve as they read the shorter pieces.

  50. #81 by Tameri Etherton on February 7, 2012 - 12:52 pm

    Critique groups *shivers*. I wish I could say I had positive experiences with them, but in one group, the leader only wanted us to tell her fabulous she was and not get real criticism on her piece. Then when it came to our pieces, she would tear them apart. It was frustrating having someone tell me how my story should be written. I only lasted six months in that one. Then in another group, where I paid to be there, one gentleman was offended that I had magic in my fantasy novel. He approached me after our meeting one night and almost physically assaulted me. It was terrifying. The leader of the group refunded my money and gave me some good advice on my book (for free). A concept group would be interesting, for sure. Right now I’ve got my finished MS with two betas and so far, I’m loving their honest feedback. They caught things that my first reader and I missed. Thanks for the fab post, it gives me hope for critique groups in the future.

  51. #82 by Nancy J Nicholson on February 7, 2012 - 3:31 pm

    Kristen, I love your ideas of a concept critique. When the crew of Fawkes was land based, I had one of those traditional critique groups and I felt we spent too much time on the prose and sometimes not enough time on the concept. I’d love to find a group like this, even if it’s virtually in cyber space as we sail the Caribbean waters.

  52. #83 by granbee on February 7, 2012 - 4:34 pm

    Kristen, right now I am working with two different individuals online who have sent me their first drafts that are still dripping with blood from the “professional” critiques these folks paid good money for! Both stories have much good in them and are worth second and third draft work. But the authors were so traumatized by knee-jerk, half-baked reactions to their work that they had all but given up on themselves, not just as writers, but as human beings period! This type of “professional” bloodletting is just not contructive. If you look at some of the of the websites I follow where I write comments and the feedback I get at my own website (http://granbee.wordpress.com), I believe you will see that I practice what I preach. Constructive feedback that is honest does not have to be cruel and belittling. I totally agree that we should not depend on critique groups but should polish our own work, continuing to believe in its worth and refine the rough places, sharpening the focus all the while.

  53. #84 by Heather Marsten on February 7, 2012 - 5:19 pm

    You are right, some critique groups aren’t helpful. Others are very good. Thanks for this post.

  54. #85 by James Burke on February 7, 2012 - 6:54 pm

    Wise advice. I work with three different critique groups and they all have some of the issues you ;point out. They all, on conglomerate are great.

  55. #86 by jayrodpg on February 8, 2012 - 3:46 am

    I really like the idea that you share here. It makes a lot of sense. It might even work for the people who are in my writing group who aren’t doing any real work right now. Hopefully it will help them to get off their butts and get some of their ideas before us instead of only two people in the group being willing to do anything. Thanks for the advice.
    I’m trying Alpha reading with the group at the moment so they can help clear up basic issues with characters and such as I’m writing, is there any way to do an Alpha reading group better? I love this idea with the synopsis and all, but I’m hoping to still use my group for other purposes as well. You’re awesome and I’m really enjoying reading from your blog. Thanks so much!

  56. #87 by Sharon Spencer Schlesinger on February 8, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    How would we critique in such a large group. So many people seem interested, but it would seem there would have to be a way to divide the group up by genre or some other criteria or it might fall apart pretty quickly.

    • #88 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 8, 2012 - 2:05 pm

      Divide into teams. It’s how we do it at WWBC Bravo. It is hard work, but will save a TON of time.

      • #89 by Sharon Spencer Schlesinger on February 8, 2012 - 2:31 pm

        OK. You had me at the shiny thing. I write women’s fiction. In the process of editing my latest chapter by chapter in a small group of eight women led by a long time editor and literary agent. Group morphs a bit from month to month, but I’ve found it wonderfully helpful, except ….. I hunger for help on the big picture — structure/motivation/pacing issues. I’m willing to work hard to help others in return. Tell me what to do or how to help.

        Sharon

        • #90 by charlfk on February 8, 2012 - 11:38 pm

          I’m happy to help you, Sharon. If you join Book Country I’ll read what you submit. BC can be very encouraging, but as Kirsten says, take comments with a pinch of salt. I don’t know how else to connect with you to help. I write historical romance and fantasy for YA. I also write modern romance. I usually focus on the male POV, it’s more fun.

          • #91 by Sharon Spencer Schlesinger on February 9, 2012 - 1:17 am

            Thank you charlfk. I’ve signed up on Book Country. I’ll check out what to do next and be in touch.
            Sharon

    • #93 by charlfk on February 8, 2012 - 2:09 pm

      Pardon the pun, but have a look at Book Country’s web site, they have the genres waxed.

  57. #94 by charlfk on February 8, 2012 - 2:11 pm

    I;m tired, what I meant to say was, take a leaf out of Book Country’s website they have it waxed LOL

  58. #95 by Heather Marsten on February 9, 2012 - 12:34 pm

    One other possibility is an established online critique group like Critique Circle – I critique there and have received wonderful, helpful feedback. It is free to join – you earn the right to post a story by critiquing other’s posts. The people you critique grade your critique so you learn how to be more effective. I’ve had people catch major things and make suggestions that are very helpful. It is a one of Writer’s Digest’s top 100 websites for writers. You can also pay for a membership and gain extra privileges. I’ve made friends online and follow some great stories. Well worth checking this site out.

    • #96 by charlfk on February 9, 2012 - 11:36 pm

      What is the web address of this critique group, Heather? Aren’t you on Book Country, too? One has to be careful, the world is a big place and people often have the same names :-)
      Charl

      • #97 by Heather Marsten on February 10, 2012 - 9:05 am

        It’s http://www.critiquecircle.com – and it has helped me a lot. I’m not on book country. In critique circle, I’m wondering0 – and my book is Tell Me What He Did.

        I haven’t done much with it in the past two months on CC, but am busy re-writing using the helpful crits I received from people on CC.

        Have a blessed day.
        Heath

  59. #98 by Patrick Thunstrom on February 11, 2012 - 1:22 am

    I love this idea of critique groups, especially since it already segues with my writing process. I’ve never been able to build a stable group that gets it, though.

  60. #99 by Larissa on February 18, 2012 - 3:33 pm

    Wow. I really loved this post. I may have to try the concept critique with my crit group. :)

  61. #100 by sandra tilley on February 28, 2012 - 2:05 pm

    I’m so glad a friend sent me to this blog. I actually went back and read tons of other links! My butt is numb but my head is energized. Thanks for sharing!

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