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.