Friday, December 9, 2011

The Trouble with Group Think

DISCLAIMER: What I'm about to say is based on the perspective of someone who's always wanted to be a professional (paid) writer. It may sound harsh if you don't have such aspirations. You've been warned...

I've belonged to several critique groups over the years, with varying results. I've been on the receiving end of incredibly positive feedback that needed to be taken with a grain of salt, and blistering brutal criticism that was spot on. Mostly, I've received middle of the road feedback that really didn't help me at all.

Wow, Lamar, that sounds pretty...bad.

Yep, it does. That's a good thing, though. Critique groups take time and commitment, so for a group to benefit all of its members, certain goals, processes, and philosophies should be consistent so everyone gets what they need. When that doesn't happen, it may be time to excise yourself from one of those bad situations, because as long as you're there, you can't find the critique partners that are right for you.

Here are some signs that your critique group is in a bad place:

No One is Writing 

I've seen groups that meet month after month, year after year, and the only consistent thing happening is everyone is too busy to write. The day job's been hectic, the kids have been demanding, oh, and writer's block. Everyone got a chance to read the new Stephen King, though, and LOVED it.

This is a book club, not a writing group. Time to move on.

Everyone's Work Flows and Should be Published 

"I really like the flow", in my opinion, is the most popular piece of critique group tripe on the planet. It's meaningless, yet, it gets tossed out like it's wisdom from the Jedi handbook. Oddly, it's usually followed by, "You should publish that."

While both statements may be true, being that they most likely come from someone who's not an editor, and may have never sold any work, they don't hold a lot of weight. And, if this is is the type of feedback that comes out of the group most often (as opposed to some actual analysis of the plot, or character, or discussion on confusing elements that may need to be reworked) you need to move on. Your friends and family can pat you on the back much more frequently than the group can. Constant praise will not help you grow as a writer.

The Never-Ending (Short?) Story

No one in the group ever finishes work. In my opinion, this is worse than not writing at all. If you're not writing, the reality is the task probably doesn't interest you that much, and you simply like the social aspect of discussing writing in a group setting. There's nothing wrong with that if that's what everyone's into. But, when you get a bunch of people together who write half-stories, give each other feedback, then rework that half-story until it's time to give feedback and rework the half-story again...insanity. What is the goal here? To write the same story over and over again for eternity is something like one of those circles that Dante wrote about. Thanks, but no thanks.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Obviously, there's no way to know the heart of any given group without trying them out first. You might suss out some clues by asking a few simple questions to either the group leader, or to the members during a roundtable discussion:

  • What sort of goals do you all have for your writing?
  • Do you critique completed work only, or do you critique works-in-progress?
  • What are critique sessions like? Is each meeting dedicated to a critiquing a single piece of work?
  • Is there a minimum of how many critiques a member must participate in?

Those are just a few to get you started. You can always ask more questions that are tailored to your specific need.

For the record, I've had some good experiences with critique groups, and there's a local Sisters-in-Crime chapter that I'm very fond of. However, for serious critiques, I rely on a few personal Beta-Readers whom I can trust to give feedback that helps me accomplish my goals (paid professional, remember). Here's the best part: I met most of  those readers through some of my worst critique groups.

Like I said in the beginning, bad can lead to good...you just have to know how to read the signs.

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Lamar "L. R." Giles writes for adults and teens. Penning everything from epic fantasy to noir thrillers, he's never met a genre he didn't like. His debut YA mystery WHISPERTOWN is about a teen in witness protection who investigates his best friend's murder and stumbles on a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own father. It will be published in Summer, 2013 by HarperCollins. He resides in Virginia with his wife and is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Find out more on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent analysis of the pitfalls of certain kinds of groups!

    For one of my critique groups several years ago, we helped each other with works-in-progress. We wrote at least 30 pages a month come hell or high water, which was great for deadlines and finishing manuscripts.

    Now, like you, I rely on a handful of trusted Betas culled from various sources.

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  2. I´ve never been part of a critique group yet but it´s an interesting viewpoint.

    I might refer to it again once it´s time to get my first draft ripped apart (i.e to make it much better than it is at the moment :-))

    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Thanks, y'all. I'm glad this was helpful/informative. I believe it's sooo important for everyone in a group to be on the same page, whether writing's a hobby or a profession.

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  4. I've worked in a writing workshop, but it had a different vibe than a crit group, I think. I prefer a few betas, and that's it.

    Those questions are great for when you're starting up a group.

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  5. I have been on both ends of this. Unfortunately in one experience I had to say I was not the right type of personality. I have some amazing writer friends and appreciate them all the more after that experience.

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