27 November 2011

Critique Groups—the Messy Map to Finding Mine (Part 1)

“Literature is not a game for the cloistered elect. Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed.”
--John Steinbeck on accepting the Pulitzer for "Grapes of Wrath," 1940


Ahoy, mates!
            Aie, I’m back. My apologies for neglecting you. When I’m lost in the writing, I tend to disappear. But I’m thankful for being bailed out by my muse, Sparrow. I do, however, have a bone to pick with her about what she dished. (Revenge? Really, Sparrow? Did you have to tell them about that?)
            Cheeky muse.
            Alas, since her entry in my log, my bloody parrot, one of my deckhands, and even the damned cook want equal time. Blow me down! Not bloody likely!
            Sparrow, however, did such a fine job you can expect to hear from her again. To dish a little on her, here’s Sparrow writing the last log, banging away on my typewriter. Har-har!
            This week, I’m taking you inside the world of writing groups (or critique groups, if yer so inclined).
            Writin’ groups use different methods to critique each other’s work, but their function remains the same and is well explained in Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers: 
Helpful, supportive, intelligently stringent workshops and writers’ groups allow writers to make quantum leaps in their writing.
Workshops, sometimes painful, often criticized, and full of pitfalls, are still the best way we know for writers to improve.

            So before I introduce you to my blasted beautiful writing group in next week’s log, I must tell you about my first attempts at discovering a working, compatible group of people to trust with my writing, trust being the operative word here.
            I tell these tales with two goals in mind: 1) as cautionary tales for those about to embark on a quest for their group, and 2) as encouragement for those seeking like minds, good hearts, knowledge of the craft, and critical thinking skills. Writers must sail through some wicked seas to find their mates. But keep exploring because you won’t find what you need unless you take risks. Don’t, however, stick around if the group has problems as you’ll see in the following tales.
            I was first initiated into “work-shopping” fiction while attendin’ the UO in 1991. Aie, I’m tough, maties. Not much can turn me into gull food, but bein’ my first venture out, this came close. In my advanced fiction course, we shared our writing and responded in a round-table method. The writer wasn’t allowed to respond as he or she listened to each student’s response to the work, and that was before the instructor gave her feedback.
            Unfortunately, our workshop turned into more of a verbal fight club, and I tried to justify this method in my mind, remembering an art teacher who used to deliver scathing criticism because he believed it was better that the student found out right away if they had the guts and backbone to survive in the real art world.
             When my turn arrived, I was happy to hear a number of the female students respond well to the strong women in my story. The story had its problems, but these were pointed out as being problems with ordering of information and need for character development. I felt the suggestions were thoughtful and non judgmental.
            Then it reached a young man who had been whispering with two other male students. The young man said he didn’t like the story. When the instructor asked for specific reasons why, he said, “The men in her story are emotional doormats.” This drew laughter from his buddies and heated response from some of the women. I tried to keep my gob shut while the discussion deteriorated and the instructor called a halt to the mêlée.
            The point here is that in workshop you don’t personalize the work. You talk about what works and doesn’t work for you and why. If the male characters didn’t work for this young man, he should have offered feedback perhaps about the male characters not being well rounded enough or needing something to make them sympathetic. Readers don’t need to like a character, but they do need some understanding of why the character acts the way he does. If the young man had asked, “Is there a reason that the main female character is attracted to weaker men?” then I would have understood that my male character came across as weak instead of understanding and patient. Or maybe those stories weren’t going to ever be acceptable to twenty-something males. The author has to be the ultimate judge.
            After attending a year at the UO, I needed real world experience. Through a writer friend, I was referred as a possible member to a working writers group.
            Call me naïve. I didn’t ask enough questions about this group, and this group sank in my hopes like Davy Jones locker!
             In the first few minutes with this five-member writing group, I knew I was sorely out of place. We met at one of the member’s house, and within minutes I wanted to make a straight shot for the door. The head of the group sat down and without introducing me, started facilitating as she were heading a board meeting of a giant company. Everyone took out their pages. I’d brought a short story to read as instructed. Their method:  read to the group and the group responds. I gave no feedback after two members took their turn, feeling it best to listen and observe. I was picking up an uncomfortable energy, one that said the facilitator would have the last word. I also noticed that everyone’s stories were “nice.” There were also occasional mentions of god with a big G. When the third person was asked to read, I felt very tender toward her. Twenty-something, excited, yet tentative, the woman read her story and when finished, everyone gave their feedback. When I didn’t say anything, she asked what I thought. I told her how well drawn and sympathetic the characters were, how the dilemma of the main female character came across immediately, and said she had a good grasp of storytelling. That the story was rather “light” seemed to be her style, so I let that go. It was, naturally, my first response and my first meeting. Then I asked, “When your main character meets her fiancé in the airport, do you think that he should talk to her out in the open about safe sex or could this wait until they’re in a more private—”
            “I think she’s done an excellent job of introducing safe sex into the story,” the facilitator said.
            “I was just—”
            “Let’s move on.”
            And we did. To my story.
            By this time I knew I wouldn’t return to this group, but being raised to be polite and not hurt anyone’s feelings, I started reading my story.
            I was on my third page when the facilitator stopped me. “I think we’ve heard enough,” she said.
            Everyone looked aside or down while the facilitator shuffled her pages and said, “I think we have time for. …”
            I don’t remember the rest. I remember having no feedback. I remember feeling—shall I say unwelcome?
            I left thinking, Never again! I’m never joining another group.
            A few months later, I heard about a group that included a few people I knew. One of the women in the group had blown me away when at the University of Oregon I heard her read from her own work in an open forum. I thought If this woman is in this group, I’ll do anything to be part of it.
            This critique method worked better for me. We brought pages or chapters or short stories with us to the meeting, copies for everyone to take home to read for the next meeting. We could read at home, give thoughtful response and write on the pages. We were committed, serious writers who wanted to give as good as we got, and everything went along swimmingly until …
            … one of the members had a breakdown … in our workshop. For hours we stayed as she told us about her situation and cried. We made sure she was all right before going our separate ways. We called her later. The next time we met, she seemed fine until we asked her how she was doing, and she opened a side-table drawer, mimed throwing something into it, and said, “That’s where I’m keeping it.”
            It? U-oh.
            And instead of bringing writing to the group, she brought drawings. More therapy. We tried to address this (this group not having the skills vs. her being with a therapist), but she didn’t understand our problem. Instead of asking her to leave, which was problematic in so many ways, we disbanded, with hopes of reforming later, which never happened.
            To say I was gun shy after that is, well, an understatement. Sharing your work with others is a holy thing for writers. Time together is not for sharing your online dating craziness (I heard this from another group) or needing a social group of any kind. It’s commitment to the work. It takes energy void of ego. The work has often been compared to birthing babies, and once you’ve been there, you know why. What would you do if someone came up to your child and said, “Man, that kid is ugly!”
            I’ve heard almost every gruesome story there is about critique groups. While co-founder and co-coordinator of Mid-Valley Willamette Writers Speakers Series, members told me about their experiences. I could only nod and say, “Oh, yes, I understand. Completely.” One person couldn’t write for over a year after the leader did such a number on her work.
            I’m not telling you all this to scare you off. And readers, next time you’re reading a novel, look at the acknowledgment page, see who helped that author, and give thanks that they had the right people who helped them get published.
            As the authors in Deepening Fiction say, “No writer gets better without criticism.” Few can write a blockbuster without working with others to earn their chops. It's a myth that we work in isolation, bleed profusely all over our pretty white pages, possibly drink in excess, and then publish. Even Hemingway had a damned good editor and possibly would never have published without Maxwell Perkins. That’s not news.
            What’s news worthy for many is that good writers get that way because they're given good feedback, either in critique groups or via hiring an independent editor.
            Next week, I’ll take you inside my critique group and show you how we work. I’ll show you actual pages from my manuscript and what the members do that’s helpful, tell you our process, give you a few laughs, and let you sit in on one of our sessions so you can be part of it, at least as an observer. I'll tell you about other ways I share my work and why.
            And if you're looking for a group, here's a tip:  choose one where the members are better than you are, more educated, have been writing for some time. That’s the only way you’ll improve. If you want to be head honcho, that’s another story.
             What about you? Do you have stories about your critique group woes or just have some funny tale to tell? Do you have suggestions to others about what works and what doesn’t in a workshop? Share it here or send to my email above. We can all learn from each other.
            And readers? Have you always wondered about the writing process? Have a burning question to ask about any of this? Write to me. Let me know what it’s like to be a reader wondering how something escaped an editor’s eye. Have you found something in any of your recent reading that could have used a good critique group? Would love to hear from you.

            Until next time, thank you, mates, crewmembers, fans. Writers would be nothing without fellow writers and writers would be nothing without readers.
            Captain Val

Coming Up!
Inside a Writer's Critique Group-Part II
Interview with book reviewer Diane Prokop
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World


Beverly Diehl said... [Reply to comment]

I've found, sadly, I've had to start or revive most of the good groups I've had with my own two hands. Notwithstanding, I've still had some excellent writers come in and out - and even with newbies, contributions can be invaluable.

Have posted some tips here: Get Happy & Get Feedback which my sparkly unicorn crit partners have worked out over many moons of less than optimum experiences. I currently have a small, really good group of men & women I love to pieces.

lionmother said... [Reply to comment]

Val, I can relate to your critique group stories. I have been in both online and in person groups. For the most part my groups have been good, but one in particular was not good. It was for fantasy only and I was subbing my first and only fantasy MG novel. I had no idea of what to expect, since it was really my first group. So I put up with a lot of bad comments about my book with very few suggestions. I had to read everyone's fantasy stories and some were just bizarre. I couldn't keep up and eventually gave up.

My in person experience was near my home. I had met another writer online and he told me he had a group. He invited me to be part of it and I took the first chapter of my book to the group. I had to sit through an extensive critique of someone's picture book of animals being like people. Then I had to listen to other people's stories and finally it came to me. I read my story and then there was a pause. The group started critiquing and I realized this wasn't going to be nice. One guy in particular looked down his nose at me and told me that it wasn't up to the group's standards. Can you believe that? I'd like to shove my now published book in his supercilious face. Of course, I never came back to that group. I now belong to a great group also near my house, that is very much like a critique group should be. We all have copies of each other's stories and have plenty of time to comment on them before the group meets. If someone doesn't read the story we skip them. I like the comments and respect all of their writing.
I also belonged to an awesome group for my first novel and they were so helpful I gave the whole group credit in my Acknowledgements.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

That is such a great post! I cringed in recognition at some of the critiquing. The trouble is, it can be a real ego thing for the person dishing out the criticism.

What I've found inspiring about working with my editor at Honno Press is that there is no ego involved. She believes in me and my work and wants the book to be the best it can possibly be. It's her outside and detached eye that is the mediator between me and the reader and it's real teamwork. In fact, it has felt more like having a personal trainer, urging me on to achieve things I never thought possible.

That is what a fellow critiquer should be!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Fascinating journey through the joys and pitfalls of groups. I was wary for a long time and with some groups never got past the initial contact, the first group I tried to join, I was told there was a waiting list - first warning bell. Then they sent me a list of the rules and regulations. I decided not to add my name to the waiting list.

I sent my work to a few trusted friends and family members, most of which was ok, although not the feedback I really needed, encouraging but not anything I could work with or improve on. Then a family member passed my work to someone else who they felt with their phD in whatever (History I believe) was more qualified to comment - they crucified it and I was stunned - it was feedback that did so much damage and that was never asked for - the family member didn't understand my interpretation. I'm wary, but now have a rule of my own.

Finally I met someone who taught creative writing, wrote non-fiction and had 2 others, a poet and a short story writer looking for a 4th member, the vibe felt good - and it was - it worked, no rules, no regulations, a shared phobia of groups and we all laughed that we had effectively created one, we became a supportive, positive energy group that inspired and motivated each of us. I began to read my work aloud for the first time and have not looked back since.

Julia Whitmore said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Val,
Good timing. A friend and I are meeting TODAY for the first time to check up on each other, making sure we keep to our writing goals. Both of us had bad experiences with groups and are gun shy about joining another, but thought we might start one-on-one. Will be keeping your excellent advice in mind on as we traverse these slippery slopes.


Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Beverly Diehl Thanks so much for the link, Beverly, and the good info. I'm sure readers appreciated more info on this subject as I've had more responses--email, SheWrites--than any other blog I've posted. Must be a need? Yes, indeed. The stories make the proverbial hair curl.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@lionmother Wow, Barbara, "it wasn't up to the group's standards?" He should have had his knuckles rapped for that! Just the type of negative, judgmental remark that is not allowed. Presumptuous, speaking for the group.
Yes, we have our trial by fire with critique groups, but finding one has its own learning curve--and skin toughening. I'll be addressing some of the non-acceptable approaches to critiques in my next blog. Hopefully, we can all find our "kind" eventually, right? Glad you found yours. Huzzah!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@julietgreenwoodauthor Juliet, how fabulous you have such a great editor. I've heard of a few and only a few. Love the line that it's like having a personal trainer. Should be! Writers want honest and specific editing advice, not personal judgment with bad motive. Thanks for commenting. We are indeed not alone.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@clairemca Claire, what an encouraging story for others to read! Some people would have loved a group with rules and regulations for the structure and the safety, but you knew that didn't fit. Good for you! We all need to find the right people, chemistry included. And you're working with writers who have a variety of writing projects. Interesting! That doesn't always work. It is about the people and their background, needs, and enthusiasm. I, lol, stay away from phDs for feedback. Just my little quirk.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Julia Whitmore Julie, Hooray!! You found someone to work with. And, bloody good that you're staying "focused." Just received your link to your blog about my blog about Jan Eliot and the Chicago quote. Great post! Love all you're doing and how much you're doing to create this wonderful crazy writing life! Brava!!!