Monday, August 29, 2016

Should Critique Groups Die?

A popular post from August 2012

by Annette Lyon

I recently read something on a blog that I normally love to read, but this post had a laundry list of all the reasons critique groups suck and shouldn't exist. I must disagree.

(I know I've talked about critique groups recently in THIS POST, but this issue is too important.)

First, a caveat: 
All of this writer's arguments are valid, to a point. A lot of crit groups don't accomplish much. Sometimes members end up all writing like one another, developing the same stale voice. Or they don't grow. Or whatever else. Truth.

That said, as both a writer and as an editor, I believe that there is still a place for critique groups, if they're done right. I've read a lot of manuscripts and self-published books where the kernel of a great book was there, but in the end, the writer didn't hit the target (to totally mix metaphors). Many times I've thought, Man, if this person had a critique group to point out a few things, this would be SO MUCH BETTER.

For myself, I can say that joining my crit group was the single best thing I have done for my writing. Ever.

I'll go through his arguments, one at a time:

1) Critique groups take too much time.
In my early years, we met about twice a month and really did read entire books before we ever submitted them. It took me a year and a half to get through the first manuscript I brought. And meetings went long too.

However: After years of submitting and getting rejected, that first book I took through the critique process (not even close to the first one I wrote) was accepted within weeks of submission. My other books had taken months, sometimes close to a year, to be rejected. Those eighteen months of critiquing the same book had taught me a ton about the craft, and they won me a contract. My eighth novel and ninth book with my publisher will hit shelves any day.

Time well spent? Um, yeah.

That said, my group no longer goes through entire books like that. We're all publishing; we're all on deadline. Yet we still find value in meeting face to face. We're professionals who can get to business and focus on why we're there, giving solid feedback. (Although sometimes, to be totally honest, it's so nice to just talk shop and be around other writers who get it, even if little critiquing gets done.)

We meet weekly (roughly), and members typically bring parts they know they need feedback on, like beginning chapters or pivotal scenes. It's a chance to be sure we're on the right track.

At times, we need someone to read a whole manuscript quickly, which is a different experience from reading one scene at a time over the course of a year. In those cases, we email files, read them on the side, and then return feedback quickly.

A critique group doesn't have to take up too much time to get through your work.

2) Editing as a group is dangerous and slow.
Perhaps, if you've got a group that's not skilled. I'm tossing out the slow part first, because I covered that in the last point. The process doesn't have to be laboriously slow.

On the other point, I'm going to argue that it's moot, because critique groups don't edit (caveat: yes, I'll fix punctuation and grammar issues; it's in my blood. But I do more than that). Crit groups provide feedback. My group is well-read in a variety of genres, and we're skilled in what we do. Often when I get a weakness pointed out, I know they're right. No peer pressure. I know I'm free to take or leave their advice. (And I've left it more than once, as they've all done too.)

Sometimes they disagree, and we'll discuss an issue to figure out the whys. In the end, I may leave knowing that something is wrong with a scene, but maybe neither side diagnosed it entirely, or maybe I'll find a better way of fixing it than anyone suggested. But at least the problem was brought to my attention.

These people know what they're talking about. If they agree on a problem, chances are, it's really a problem. The fact that we're all as successful as we are is evidence of that. (See the next point.)

3) Critique groups can't handle most things we write today.
The blogger meant that because you can't cover more than a short section in one meeting that critique groups are best suited for poetry and short stories, neither of which are published much anymore.

Obviously, I disagree. Fact: over the past decade, my group has published several dozen books, and each of us has won and been nominated for numerous awards. Sort of debunks that myth. And two members are on the verge of writing full-time. I'd say we're pretty darn effective.

Enough said.

4) Because I say so.

How about I go with the same argument: Critique groups can totally work. Because I say so.

I do get the point he's trying to make. Critique groups can be total disasters. In the wrong hands, a group can strip you of your voice and creativity. They can lead you and your work in the wrong direction. They can be a total waste of time.

OR, a critique group could be the best thing that happened to your writing. It can push your writing skills forward on light speed.

He says that things like hiring an editor can replace a critique group, but I disagree. By the time I get a client's manuscript, I want it to be as polished as they can personally make it. If I end up playing the role of  "critique group," I end up spending a lot of my time, which spends a lot of the client's money. On something unnecessary. 

These are the times I want to say, "Get thee to a critique group! Then come back to me!" (Remember point #6 of THIS POST?)

Personally, I'm wary of publishing anything unless my group's seen it. They've saved me from myself more times than I can count. They stretch me. They keep me wanting to improve and grow. And when I'm losing my mind because of the craziness that is the writing industry (and the havoc it can wreak on our emotions!), they keep me sane.

One big thing going for them is that getting feedback from friends is easier than from a stranger, like a hired editor. I know my group members, and I trust them. I have confidence in them. I know they're giving me feedback purely to help, not to puff up their own egos or to put me down.

I imagine that we've been as successful as we have been because the group has adapted as skills, needs, and careers have changed. The group I attend now hardly resembles the group I first attended. So maybe that's the trick to having a successful group: adaptation.

I could be extraordinarily lucky. Maybe my group is an anomaly. It's quite possible. For other writers' sake, though, I hope not.

As far as I'm concerned, viva la crit groups!


Jordan McCollum said...

I think that critiques groups are great when done right.

I think the "slow" can be a valid criticism when it becomes difficult to see a novel as a unified whole. I would find it very difficult to remember a first chapter for a year and a half to be able to say, "Yes, this climax gives us the perfect, fitting resolution to the story question and character journey promised at the beginning."

This critique of critique groups actually led to a change in format for mine. Instead of trading chapters, we take turns being critiqued, so one of us will bring our whole book over the course of 2 months. I find it a lot easier to trace the characters, the story and the structural underpinnings when we're able to see the end from the beginning.

OTOH, we probably don't dig as deep into the language itself (well... apparently I can still eviscerate chapters on that level pretty well).

I think it's important to remember that critique groups and their format can be flexible, too. If your current group isn't helping you enough, try to figure out why and see what you need to do to change it.

Annette Lyon said...

Great point, Jordan!

I should have probably clarified that when we send each other entire mss, that's the chance to see the big picture--because as you said, that is almost impossible to do when you're reading a book a few pages at a time over months and months. Absolutely.

Susan said...

I wouldn't publish anything if my critique group or beta readers hadn't seen it first.

My situation is different. I'm part of an online critique group. And while I can't wait around to have the entire book read that way, I can pick and choose the chapters that I feel need the most help. And like you said, Annette, members of a critique group will read your entire manuscript quickly and get it back to you. Frankly, I was skeptical of critique groups. But now after two years in? I don't know what I'd do without them.

JoLyn Brown said...

I also don't know what I'd do without my critique group. I was sitting on a manuscript, unfinished, for nearly three years. Within the first six months of being in the group, I finished it and then cut it in half. A year later, I have something nearly ready to send to publishers. It wouldn't have happened with out them. A year may seem slow to someone else, but for me, it's a fraction of the time I was spending before.

I've grown so much. I can't believe how much easier my next story's first draft has been to write. The writing is better and my plotting is stronger. My confidence is higher.

My critique group and I do spend a lot of time talking about things unrelated to our manuscript, but usually at the end. I like it for the same reasons as you. It gives me a chance to talk to people who really get me. Plus, all that time talking with them has helped me trust them even more. I know where they are coming from and that they really care about me, not just my writing.

Zia Blue said...

i'm personally sort of between groups right now (the people i used to work with have been busy with other things) and i'm really missing it. having feedback helped me grow so much as a writer- and the accountability definitely helped too!

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