Archive for category Critique Groups
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.
After six years in critique, her novel was “perfect.”
Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at being traditionally published.
The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.
Traditional Critique Groups
Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.
When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.
In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” You will learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and will even learn why adverbs aren’t always extra-nifty. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.
So where’s the problem?
Traditional critique groups lack perspective.
Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.
Traditional critique groups can tell you nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.
Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.
Traditional groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.
As we just mentioned, those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”
Well, duh, of course they are lost.
They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.
Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-by-Committee.
Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a Book-by-Committee, also known as Franken-novel.
One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Read every craft book you can find. In fact, here is a list of my favorites. That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.
They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.
The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers that have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query. Scrap it, part it, or shop it but MOVE ON.
Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”
There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for 4,5 even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.
Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.
We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review.
How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.
Make sure your work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for being published. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer a writer publicly on-line in a blistering review.
You will know them by their fruits…
Make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words or likely that trend would continue.
Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.
Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you. Next week I am going to give you guys a new approach to a traditional group. Skilled beta readers are hard to find and skilled editors can be expensive. But, apply the technique I will teach you and you will know for sure if your novel has the right stuff.
Critique groups are WONDERFUL. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. But, we are wise to be aware of the trouble spots so that we can get the most out of this fantastic resource.
So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas? I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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 January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
IMPORTANT–I will announce last week’s winner on Wednesday. Need to catch up on a few things since I no longer have an assistant :C. So stay tuned!
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!