Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Critique groups...what makes a good one?

I've been thinking about critique groups recently. I know that while Stephen King doesn't think they are necessary, not everyone is a Stephen King. I'm at a point in my manuscript where I could really use some advice, especially from people who are familiar with middle grade, young adult and the differences therein. I think the challenge is to find someone or a group who is a safe group, but also a helpful group. By safe, I mean these people know how to give constructive criticism without any mean spirit, no sense of "I'm going to tear this person down just for the hell of it." Many people like to offer off-handed remarks about what they think should be changed in a story...I think suggestions of that kind need to be very thoughtfully considered before casually tossed out there. "I think you need to kill of that character," for example or "I think the whole setting is just wrong." These do not help when not offered with thoughtful reasons. I think there needs to be trust built up, that this person really is rooting for you and your book. There is also the very important quality of being able to help...there are many people who enjoy good books but don't necessarily know how to help you pinpoint what isn't working with yours.

I've never joined a writer's group before, but I applied to an on-line critique group through SCBWI and I got the email today saying I was accepted! You had to submit the first three pages of your manuscript to be accepted--invitation only, because they wanted intermediate writers-- and I keep feeling like surely there must be some mistake that I made it! I went and read the introductions of the others and they all seem far more impressive than me. However...a book I'm reading right now by Martha Beck keeps talking about the importance of relevent risk in any life endeavor. If I want to improve as a writer-- and I do-- then the best way to that path right now, I think, is to open my work to the opinions of other writers who write for the same audience I do. This is a huge step for me, but it is exciting! It could turn out to be hurtful or scary or who knows what...but it's a risk I'm going to take!


  1. No pain, no gain. Well, maybe gain without pain is good, too.

  2. here ya go... cuz I'm cool like dat (well me and digable planets) :)

    by Author Unknown

    To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
    To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
    To reach for another is to risk involvement.
    To expose your ideas, your dreams,
    before a crowd is to risk their loss.
    To love is to risk not being loved in return.
    To live is to risk dying.
    To believe is to risk despair.
    To try is to risk failure.
    But risks must be taken, because the
    greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
    The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
    have nothing, are nothing.
    They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
    but they cannot learn, feel, change,
    grow, love, live.
    Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
    they have forfeited their freedom.
    Only a person who risks is free.

  3. I love it, Nikki! I need to figure out how to tell if someone has commented-- I just now saw these!!

  4. Amy - We have been on the same wavelength, lately! I wrote 2500 words yesterday. Anyway, my view on critique groups is that I thought they were a necessary evil until I read Stephen King's book (thank you!!). And he isn't against them - he does have a circle of friends and colleagues who review his books. He just acknowledges that there are a lot of useless (and even dangerous, in my opinion) critique groups working. If you ask for critique you're going to get it. And if you ask for critique from other writers you're asking people who are basically egocentric and who have concerns about how their own works are going to be received. I have participated in a few and plan to go to the SAWG critique group next month - so I don't poo poo them, entirely. But often people say the same old things, either positive or negative, no matter which work it is that they are critiquing. King gave some lovely examples of these random little tidbits and I had to laugh because I have both received and given them, myself - and they are basically usless gibberish. If you want people to correct mistakes for you - that isn't critiquing it is proofing and it is necessary and my good friend is my proofer. And if you want critique - you have to keep in mind that it is YOUR story. If someone tells you that they don't like a character portrayed in a certain manner and maybe it would be better if you did such and such...then they have made it their story. And that is not the story you are telling. What you really want to know is: Did you like it? Did it hold your attention? What did you think of the ending? And basically AGAIN, Did you like it? Because if people like it, an agent is going to like it, and then people are going to buy it. You also want to ask people to point out places they do not understand, things that do not make sense, even if they are not professional writers and cannot explain exactly what it is about a certain place that seems out of whack - it is a red flag for you to pay attention in that area. Of course, if what is wrong is that someone dies..well, tough. Again. Your story.
    And if someone doesn't like it...that is ok..but why? And if someone else DOES like it - then it kind of cancels out the other because not everyone is going to like your book. You need some people to like your book :). King said something about if everyone hates it, then you have a problem and there is something wrong with your story. But if some people like it and others don''re good. Anyway, I think what you want to keep in mind, when being critiqued, is that you don't want to change anything to please someone because that could be an endless cycle. You want to know if certain areas don't work, if they don't make sense - so you can correct it, and you want to know if people enjoyed reading it. And I would love to read your story!! I don't write for that age but god knows i read a lot of it! BTW - I changed the ending of my house story. Or rather, it changed itself :).


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