Saturday, March 23, 2013

The art of war... I mean, critique groups

Hello readers, remember me? I have a blog... I used to post regularly, make fun of myself, and talk about strange things like raisins, brown M&M's, and pizza popsicles.

No, I haven't moved again, joined a cult which professes the evilness of the internet, or sewn my eyelids together,* thus making it impossible to use a computer.

I've just been emotionally bankrupt (which means no energy/creativity for writing) and hiding from the world.

BUT, as part of this most recent move, I tried out a new local writing group on Thursday.

And, since then, I've been thinking a lot about writing groups, CP's, beta-readers, etc.

See... I love talking about writing, analyzing writing, deconstructing writing... and all those other good things about having a community of writing buddies to talk to.

But some things really suck.

Connecting with good writing buddies (IRL) is hard.

When I was freshly new at exchanging work with other writers**, I was freaking terrified. I figured everyone knew better than I did, everyone else had more experience, more knowledge, and more natural talent. Who was I to say anything bad about something they wrote?

I figured the best thing to do was shut up and listen.

Then, after a while, I grew a little more confident. I started thinking, "hey, even though I mostly suck, some of what I'm writing seems to be okay!" ...and then I started noticing things that maybe could be improved in other writer's work. And actually voicing those thoughts.

Scary, yeah.

...and the reactions were really interesting.

Some people completely ignored my comments, talked down to me/dismissed me***, or got mad. Very few people actually said thank you, or recognized (in any small way) how much time and effort I had put into reading their work.

And sometimes that made me angry.

But, I'm not gonna lie, I wasn't the best partner either. I was a master of, "what I was trying to do..." and "what I really meant was..." (translation: I obviously suck at getting to/making my point).

Totally newbie errors, right?

I swear I've improved!

Now, I love(d?) my local writing group in Victoria. They really helped me grow/develop as a writer. I wouldn't be where I am today without their great comments, both ruthless and comical, and they also introduced me to many genres I don't normally read, and generally expanded my view of the whole reading/writing world.

BUT, I've also tried out some other writing groups, as well as exchanged work with many, many people online.

I've made some amazing buddies, been awed by other people's great writing, and had some wonderful conversations/connections, though that's pretty much only been with online exchanges.

So far, the in-person-writing-groups have been single-visits because I would not consider them 'a good fit'.


1) writers who seem to get off on tearing apart everyone else's stories, then actually yell (no exaggeration) when you point out errors in their own

2) writers who don't read in the genre they write in, so while they tell you they're writing MG, it actually comes off as adult fiction, 'cause there are very few 12 year olds who commonly use the word 'serendipitous' when describing a situation.

3) writers who tell their story (essentially) in point form

4) writers so busy being literary that they forget to actually tell a story

5) writers who are so concerned with being grammatical perfect, that they want to edit out every scrap of voice within your story, and theirs is about as interesting as reading the content label of a cereal box.

6) writers who say they're serious, but it's painfully obvious they haven't even done the most basic of research****

7) writers who say nothing other than, "that's really good", and who only want to hear the same thing about their own work.

Now, not all of those are things worth leaving a group for, since some are just newbie errors, which everyone is guilty of at some point, but a few of them are worth stepping back and saying, "no, this is not a good fit."

In the last few days of thinking about this, the conclusion I've come to is:

Writing groups work best when you're all at a similar level.

I don't mean writing level (but that helps), I mean level-of-seriousness. If half the members are simply writing as a hobby and don't really care about editing/improving/perfecting their work... then it's a waste of time for those who are serious. If some writers aren't even going to do a basic edit of their work, so when they hand it over you're tripping over obvious grammar mistakes (like half a sentence missing), then it's going to be frustrating for those who work hard to give the cleanest version possible for critique. If some members only want to hear, "this is awesome!" and who only say the same thing in return, then it's a waste of time for those who genuinely want to find mistakes and improve. Similarly, if some writers only care about tearing down the work of other members, it's not only a waste of time for everyone involved, it's destructive.

Almost everything else in a group is workable.

You work in different genres? No problem, it's all about crafting an interesting, comprehensive story!

You're of different ages/genders/religions/cultures? Awesome! Different perspectives!

You live on different sides of the globe? That's what the internet/email is for!

Like I've said before, I've really enjoyed most of the people I've swapped with online. It's unfortunate that finding compatible people in real life is so much harder... but I guess there's a way smaller pool of people to pull from when you're limited by geography.

I was replying to an email today from a writer buddy who lives on the east coast, and she said something that also made me think about CP', and this bit doesn't matter if it's IRL or online.

She said she sometimes feels useless when she doesn't have very many comments to make.

She's not the only one I've heard voice this perspective, it's just this example is the freshest in my brain.

Now, let me tell you, she just critiqued the newly re-tailored first chapter of 'The Rules of Riding Shotgun', despite her insanely busy schedule/life.

She made six comments in the chapter, which is about 2,100 words long, then a summary paragraph at the end.

Three of those comments corrected word usages, not in a, "you're stupid!" kind of way, but in a fully/easily comprehensive, useful manner*****, and each time, she didn't say, "fix this, you are doing it wrong". Instead, she offered the solution she thought would work best, then said (essentially), "you decide if that's right for you/your story/your character".

Two comments were straight-up compliments.

The last (well, actually the first) was a free-form-thought on how she processed the "Rules", which now are at the very beginning of the story. Which was exceedingly helpful, and also made me giddy with joy since by the end of the "thought", she nailed what I was trying to do with the format.

So, out of those 6 comments, 3 were helpful, and 3 made me feel good about what I had written, but they weren't in a "this is awesome!" patronizing sort of way.

The summary paragraph was equally split into thoughtful/helpful comments, and praise of things that I had done right. She also commented on personal preferences (thing she didn't like), but it was obvious she had gone back and re-read at least once to confirm her position.

Now, compliments generally make me suspicious.

I don't like them, because I don't trust them. I either think:

a) I'm being lied to
b) the reader didn't actually bother taking this seriously/reading critically.

But, there is a happy medium between 'problem-writer-#1' and 'problem-writer-#7'.

Compliments that show the reader is being genuine, has actually read the work properly, and isn't saying it just to be nice.

And that's exactly the kind of writing buddy she is.

Yes, having CP's/beta-readers point out errors is a wonderful thing, because how else do you make your writing stronger?

But hearing what you do well is, I think, the only way to truly gain confidence as a writer and develop your own style/voice.

And I think it's under-appeciated as well. I know I err on the side of not stressing the parts I liked in other writer's work. It's something I'm actively trying to improve upon, but I am wired-up to look for mistakes... heck, I've been neurotically seeking out errors in my own writing since I was 7 so others wouldn't suspect there was something 'wrong' with me.

Do you think her comments are useless?

I sure as hell don't!

SO, I really don't think the number of comments matters. As long as the other person took your writing seriously and put some thought into what they do/do not comment on, then it's all valuable :)

More doesn't always mean better.

How about everyone else? What are the best & worst writer-buddy exchanges that you've experienced? Do you have a list of criteria (mental, or written) that you adhere to when starting a relationship with a new/potential CP? What are the qualities you admire most in a CP/beta-reader?

...and sorry, I really should have split this post up into at least 2 separate ones... I didn't mean for it to get so freaking long :p

* Ewww, right? Yah, well, I'm pretty tired right now.
** mostly online at first, but later with a local writing group
*** my favourite was when someone told me I wasn't the target audience for her work because it was "for people who like to think", so it didn't matter if I "didn't understand her writing". FYI, we don't exchange work anymore.
****hello, word-count anyone? Should picture books meant for a 5-year-old be 1000+ words?
***** and seriously, teaching grammar to a dyslexic person is like trying to teach a hippo to dance. This girl has mad skillz... and yes, I'm aware I am the hippo in that example.


  1. Ah! Yeah, having everyone being on the same page -- in terms of what they want with the writing -- is definitely a key factor. Probably more important is wanting to grow as a writer. It's an interesting balance between 'I want to improve' and 'omg! Everyone else did something amazing, I suck, my story sucks and I won't write it/anything again!'.

    Reading what other people did well, didn't do well, how their first draft(s) look compared to yours and the like definitely helps anyone improve. I know I got better as Sua went along in some respects: the person who submitted Boy & Fox was stupid enough to do while writing it, but it was a better story than the Roadside one (which should never have been submitted without serious, serious edits). And this gets long, so will probably to a blog post on the idea later...

    1. LOVED your post, here's the link, I hope others visit it because you are spot on :)

      I still love 'Boy & Fox', no matter what version :) That story had a magic to it, despite the first-drafty-ness.

      Yes, I think that internal battle is similar for everyone, like you said in your post, about sometimes not wanting to write, sometimes not being able to, and it creating a strain... but, it's not just a strain on the person not writing, it's a strain on the other group members if that person doesn't just come out and honestly say what's going on and what they want.

      First drafts are always sucky, no matter who's writing them ;)

  2. If you can’t take constructiive criticism don’t ask for me - in regard to others per your example. I’ve taken and given critiques from some high powered writers (yes this does mean you also) When I critique a story I do the grammar, ideas for changes and point out what I like.

    1. Exactly, everyone focuses on different things. I'm always super thankful when someone points out a grammar mistake I KEEP making!

      And it's always helpful to hear what someone liked/didn't like about your story. Even if you don't agree with them.


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