Monday, November 1, 2010

Getting the Most out of your Critique Group

Getting the Most out of your Critique Group
By Vicki Delany

Oct. 2010

Whenever I'm asked by aspiring or beginning writers for some advice on getting published, I always say the most important thing is to be sure that you have someone else read and critique your work before you consider it finished. Not only do you want to make sure your manuscript is as free of spelling and grammar and punctuation errors as possible (and this is very important) you need another set of eyes to spot potential problems.

It's simply not possible to edit your own work. By the time you've revised it for the tenth time, you're no longer seeing what's on the page, but what you THINK is on the page. The author is a poor judge of use of motivation - YOU the author know why your character is acting in such a way, but have you explained it to the reader? Same for backstory. YOU know the backstory, but have you sufficiently explained what led up to these events, or alternately have you so flooded the book with unnecessary detail it's slowing down the plot?

One of the best and most reliable ways to get good, productive, useful criticism on your work is to join a critique group.

Be careful when setting up or joining a critique group. You don't want anyone who's nasty or mean or jealous of better writers. All criticism should be offered with the intent of making the work BETTER not running it and the author down.

I'd advise against joining an online critique group. If you don't know them personally, how can you trust their advice? Bad critiquing is potentially very dangerous.

Here are some general guidelines for what works as I see it:

The group members should be on the same level more or less. If you're a serious writer with the intent of seriously producing a book (or short stories) and sending it out for publication, then you want to be joined with others of like mind.

Each member of your group should have some understanding of the basic concepts of creative writing (unless you are all rank amateurs starting out together, and then you might need an instructor). Your time's important: you don't want to have to explain how to use tense properly or what it means to show not tell.

Do not join a group with writers whose work you don't respect. If you think that so-and-so can't write a word worth a darn do you want her giving you advice on your writing?

Don't defend your work to the group. It's all right to explain "that will come later", but if you have to defend the story, it isn't standing up on its own. You won't be able to discuss what you really meant with your readers. I know of groups in which it's a rule that the person being critiqued isn't allowed to speak.

Don't waste everyone's time on work that you haven't done to the best of your ability. If you're experimenting, trying to find out if something works, that's fine. Perhaps explain right up that you're not sure about this and looking for input.

Your job is not to rewrite anyone else's work. First of all it's patronizing, but do you really want parts of your book to have been written by someone else? Make suggestions, yes. Suggest a change of words, or rephrasing. But rewriting? No.

A critique group is about give and take. You need to be committed to your group to the best of your time and ability. Are you yourself able to give constructive criticism? Do you know why something works in a book or doesn't? Can you explain your thoughts?

Every member of your group must be prepared to critique every other member's work. If you end up with someone who sends chapters to every meeting, but doesn't seem to have the time to read anyone else's, ask her or him to leave. (Having said that, of course, cut them a bit of slack once in a while.)

If you write faster than your group can read, select what you think needs work. Don't let your ego take over and find yourself giving what you think is the best of your work to your group. They are there to criticise, not to praise.

When you're looking for a group, or thinking of forming one, think about what suits your style best. There are many, many different types of groups, the only rule is: join one!

With a nod and thanks to the members of my critique group: Dorothy McIntosh, Jane Burfield, Madeleine Harris-Callway, Donna Carrick, Cheryl Freedman.

Vicki's newest book, NEGATIVE IMAGE, was published by Poisoned Pen Press in November 2010. If you'd like to read the first two chapters, please go to: Most of Vicki's books are available in Kindle and other electronic formats as well as hardcover and trade paperback, large print and audio. Vicki blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave