Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Who's Critiquing the Critiquers?

I've been tossed out of three critique groups. I even had one author throw a handful of pens at me.

Am I the critic from hell? Maybe. What I've found in these groups is 1) they want praise instead of pointers; 2) they are using the group as a therapy session; 3) they have no serious intention of publishing. I also found critique groups were an incredible waste of my time.

I also scratch my head at the notion that a group of unpublished writers are listening to the advice of other unpublished writers. A great example of the blind leading the blind. Going in with a few books under my belt didn't work in my favor as I was written off as a fluke. The one-in-a-million instead of an example that publishing is possible for anyone.

I've come to realize that many people love the idea of being a writer more than actually writing. There seems to be a perception of the writing life that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. That's probably Hemingway's fault. I also love people who blithely say "Oh, I should write a book! I've had an interesting life." People, it's not as easy as it looks.

What nobody wants to hear is that writing is more than throwing down words on paper. There's actually craft to the process. Also punctuation, grammar, POV, voice, story arc and even rules. When new writers realize how much there is to learn, the process loses some of its glamour. Now it's just WORK. At that point they seem to go in one of three directions: denial, depression or determination.

The first allows the writer to tell the group they're wrong. Why? Because this person received "A's" in English. Plus, their mother and all their friends just love their writing. An agent will see what a unique voice they have and wil clean up the manuscript and publish the book to great acclaim.

The second gives the writer permission to give up the dream of writing. Criticism just proves the writer was never born with talent so why try? Better to lick the wounds and grieve for a career that never was.

The third writer suits up and says, "Okay, show me what I have to learn." This writer takes on the job of writing but in the process discovers much more than they ever learned in school. They learn introspection and dissection, they understand that ego has no place. It can be brutal and infinitely rewarding.

There are only two people allowed to read and critique my work: me and my publisher. If it pleases both of us, it's ready for human consumption. Writing is not a demographic process and no writer should wait for others to decide when the manuscript meets their standards. Only one name is going to be on the book, only one person will get credit or blame.              


Dean K Miller said...

Sunny: Critique groups really are hit-or-miss. Your observations are spot on in many cases.

I stumbled onto a group of three accomplished writers (published, too) and their session last week. The discussion was quite interesting, sometimes raw, always honest and never threatened any of them (I kept taking notes...LOL!)

It was amazing to witness. And I've been on the other end and seen a group implode due to lack of respect and maybe desire to improve.

CQ's are not the cure all to become published (as some believe) and at certain stages they can be a great asset. Time and place, each of us reacts differently.

Melodie Campbell said...

Sunny, most astute, your comment about people using a critique group as a therapy session. I find that some people try to use the writing classes I teach as such. They aren't really interested in becoming writers. They instead want someone to listen to them, like a therapist would.
Yes, writing is damn hard work. Some days, it doesn't seem like work, and those are the days we live for.

M Pax said...

It took a long time to get a group that 'worked' together.

Still, my group usually only sees the first couple of chapters.

The rest is up to my editor [who does a great job at this] and me.

I realized the most important element is the audience. What do they want? That's the outside voice that influences me most... after my editor.

Elaine Faber said...

It's unfortunate that you've never found a critique group that could inspire you, help you see the little fixes that make your work better and still give you the writing help you need to improve your manuscript. Critique groups can be helpful or worthless. However, I can't remember ever reading a book that mentioned their critique group without giving them their thanks for making their work better. My group is a great support system and through them I found my greatest teacher and mentor. Probably everyone has a different experience, but for me, I'll give a critique group the credit it deserves. If there is no benefit to you, find another group.

Amy M. Reade said...

Hi, Sunny,
I have found a critique group that works well for me, and I count myself among the lucky ones. The members of my group are helpful because they are removed from the story and can react to it the way any other reader would. They can see the big-picture things that I can lose track of while I'm writing. I'm sorry you've not had good experiences, but you've obviously had great success without a critique group. Looking forward to your next post!

Dac said...

Some critique groups are really helpful. Some aren't. Avoid them. I've received some good criticism, and, of course, just ignore most of it.

Lou Allin said...

Totally agree, Sunny. A book of mine was recently turned down. It was suggested that I show it to my "critique" group. Of course I don't have one. I hired an editor who did my last book. Did I expect her to say anything good? Of course not. If it were good, it would have been taken. Most of the problems lay with describing the thoughts of a young woman, which I am NOT. Even if she did say, "cheesy" over and over, she gave me a thorough going over and was worth every cent. When you get a massage, you don't want the masseuse to tickle yours toes. You want "deep tissue" work.

Cindy Sample said...

My critique group just celebrated its 10th anniversary. At the time none of us were published but all were fairly accomplished except for the newbie - me. We are all mystery writers and although our styles differ we've learned how to critique each other without trying to change the tone or style of each other's writing. I wouldn't think of publishing anything without their input. Their suggestions may vary from one another but it's my job to listen and make my own decisions.

G. B. Miller said...

Reading this post makes me to never want to join a group.

Instead, I'll deal with random strangers with no axe to grind and writer friends also with no axe to grind for advice, tips and suggestions (which I've both used and discarded over the years).

Father Nature's Corner

Stephen L. Brayton said...

I've been a part of many critique groups. Some good, some not so good. I attend two groups now. One irregularly only so I can hear me read my selection aloud. I don't expect quality critique from this group. Most of the time it's "Oh, it's so good." No it's not. I know it needs work, but I have a chance to catch my mistakes. There is one member who became upset when I pointed out the errors in the way she was writing. She hasn't read since whenever I attend. Others haven't written or read in months.
The other group is very good with everybody writing and most reading every week. We dig into the craft of writing, narrative,POV, the ups and down rhythm of chapters. We're even doing a collaborative project. This group has helped me focus on being a better writer.