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I've touched on this before, but I believe it's worth revisiting.

Critique groups are invaluable to a writer. In fact, I don't know anyone who's achieved professional caliber writing without support from either a dedicated critique group or an editor who's chosen to take the author under his or her wing. But critique groups can also be intimidating, even depressing, for new writers.

Over time, writers and their critique groups learn to understand each other. Experienced authors have an almost instinctive ability to separate useful critique data out from the noise. I'm not talking to those folks. But if you're new at writing -- and especially if you feel overwhelmed by piles of Thou Shalt Nots emanating from your critique group -- it might be helpful to know that critique groups are unreliable narrators.

What do I mean by that?

In fiction, an unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator whose own account of events cannot be believed. He's a narrator who lies to the reader. Who conceals information. Or he's the guy who's mistaken in his interpretation of the situation. In any case, no matter how likable an unreliable narrator might be, readers quickly learn that he's not to be trusted.

Critiquers aren't liars, of course, and I doubt they conceal information on purpose. But they do have a tendency to say: "It needs more action" when they actually mean "I'm bored." Dropping a couple of corpses into a scene might be a remedy for boredom. Then again, it might not. Similarly, critiquers often say, "Stop infodumping" when they actually mean: "You're giving me information I don't care about. Either cut it, or make me care."

Let me be perfectly clear: Critiquers are your friends. I'm not trying to claim that critiques aren't helpful or that the act of critiquing and being critiqued is not a noble one. But I do think it's helpful to realize that you shouldn't take everything said in a critique group at face value. In the end, all any of us know about a story is whether we liked it, or we didn't. Everything else is just extrapolation.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 8th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
I completely agree. I think when joining a critique group one of the most important things a writer can do is read the critiques on OTHER writer's work--get to know the style of those critiquing!

There are always going to be some who immediately say 'infodumping' when there are more than two lines of description. There will be those who quote rules rather than think about what they are reading and critique. Sometimes a person doing a critique has pet peeves (like maybe they don't like fantasy detective fiction). It pays to have an idea of those things before you submit your own work. That way, you can sort some of the suggestions into appropriate buckets.

I am not in any way saying that a particular critique will always be right or wrong either. Merely saying it pays to have an idea of style and preferences.
Feb. 8th, 2011 06:13 pm (UTC)
There's an easier way to describe this:

The critique group always knows when there is a problem with the story. The critique group never knows how to fix it.

Oh, and the critique group also sometimes finds problems where there aren't any.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:32 am (UTC)
Nicely put.

(Trust a cartoonist to squish my post to the size of a thought bubble...)
Feb. 11th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, in the same way that economists predicted
nine of the last five recessions.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:56 am (UTC)
one of the most important things a writer can do is read the critiques on OTHER writer's work--get to know the style of those critiquing!

100% agreed. Also, much of the benefit of critique groups comes, not from being critiqued, but from critiquing the work of others and noticing how weak characters, plot, or description look from the other side of the fence.
Feb. 9th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. I learned more from critiquing than being critiqued. Not to say that being critiqued wasn't valuable, but after you participate in both, and read lots of critiques, you really do learn from other people's mistakes!!!
Feb. 8th, 2011 07:36 pm (UTC)
Much as I agree, and much as I've found critique groups immensely valuable, I think a fair number of new/inexperienced writers get put off forever by a bad (as in 'not very good') one.
Feb. 9th, 2011 09:07 am (UTC)
I suspect you're right, and it's a dreadful shame. Every critique group has its own style and flavor, and I'd advise new writers to try at least two or three groups if their first experience doesn't work out.
Feb. 9th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)

So... is there an Individual or Group, here on LJ or other place, that you(all) recommend? I just wrote my first Flash Fiction, for a contest and I'm curious. :o)

Feb. 9th, 2011 09:22 am (UTC)
If you're a flash writer, you might like Liberty Hall. I know several writers who are members and have heard good things about it.

Other online critique groups with good reputations:

Critters -- Online crit group with a long history and good track record. Good for writers who are just starting out.

Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror -- They charge a $50 membership fee, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it ensures that everyone in the group is serious about their writing. On the other hand... tcha. Money's money.

Codex -- To join, you must have either made at least one professional-level sale or completed a major, by-audition-only speculative fiction writing workshop such as Clarion, Odyssey, Literary Boot Camp, Clarion West, etc. I find the critiques at Codex to be top-notch, and the online community is fantastic.

The Baen's Universe Slush Conference. This is a combination critique group and submission system. Stories posted are automatically considered for the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette, and authors have the opportunity to workshop the story through several rounds of editorial feedback. The process is described in more detail here.
Feb. 11th, 2011 02:35 pm (UTC)
You've stirred me up...
on the subject of Workshops. I was going to leave a comment, but it grew out of proportions. Have posted a reply here: http://frostokovich.livejournal.com/ Thanks for provoking thought.

Feb. 11th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
Re: You've stirred me up...
Ooh, nice post.

I agree, workshopping a story too many times to the same audience is as dangerous as casting it into editorial waters without any feedback at all. There's a balance point somewhere. (And it's probably at a different location for each author.)
Feb. 11th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
Here via jongibbs. You state this so well! Feedback, like the novel or short story itself, may not be expressed as clearly as it could be. Sometimes you have to listen to the remarks around the main remark to understand what it is that rubbed the reader the wrong way.
Feb. 11th, 2011 04:51 pm (UTC)
Welcome! I'm glad you liked the post. :)
Feb. 12th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
I've been in a variety of critique groups. It can be fun to watch the people in your group argue about your book. I wrote a romance in which I introduced the hero and heroine in chapter one from her POV, and everyone liked both. They were both the quiet types, so didn't talk directly to each other very much, because she was shy. Then in the second chapter, it's revealed that he was quiet because he's also insecure, and suddenly the critique group split right now the middle by gender, the women losing interest in him and the men saying, yup, that's how guys feel all right. Since the book was never published, maybe I should have listened to the women.

As a member of critique groups, when I find a part of a book I don't like, I've trained myself not to say, "This sucks," but rather "Such and such has this emotional effect upon me. Is that what you are going for?" Or if a character really turns me off, I tell them to move up any legitmate reason for the character to be that way. It's been a slow process, but I've learned my job is to help the writer fullfill his or her vision, not to impose mine, and in unhealthy critique groups the latter happens a lot.
Feb. 12th, 2011 12:18 pm (UTC)
As always, you write a thought-provoking post that sheds light on the good and bad aspects of writing issues and stimulates discussions that go beyond your blog. I ended up discussing it with frostokovich, probably because I'm about to 'commit workshop' with a new story next week and that seems to have shaken loose his thoughts on workshopping. Feedback will tell me something is wrong, if a lot of the group sees something. But it won't necessarily tell me what it is. I have to figure that part out.

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )




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