February 6, 2011

WRITING ADVICE: Mike Duran #4 – “What Do You Really Need From a Critique Group?” Not HOPE FOR THE FLOWERS…

I have long taken my personal stand against being in critique groups.

They have never worked for me – except once, briefly. The people in that group, which I joined thirty years ago, left twenty-nine years ago and from whom I learned all kinds of important things, are in order: a secretary who writes book reviews for a bookstore catalogue; gone and doesn’t write any more; and has become an excellent teacher but doesn’t appear to write anything but essays and has little positive to say about being a professional writer.

Critique groups, at least as I understood them long ago, are supposed to teach you things you didn’t know and help you move forward with your writing.

Mike Duran quotes Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: “I believe the [writing] teacher’s work is largely negative, that it is largely a matter of saying, ‘This doesn’t work because …’ or ‘This does work because …’ The because is very important. The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous.”

Three years ago, I found myself not going anywhere with my writing and I joined my first online critique group – which I found to be brimming with rank amateurs shepherded by two or three professionals. I switched groups after wading through yet another MS that was so indescribably bad that I wasn’t even sure where to start my critique. The second group was better – for a while. Then the original members all got multi-book contracts (mostly without any help from the group) and had no time to critique anything from anyone else. The people who frequent the site now are less experienced than me and consequently don't meet my needs as frequently as before.

I am in the process of dropping out of that group, but it is hard to let go.

Mike Duran adds: “Several years ago, the authors at Charis Connection were asked if they belonged to a writing group. Of the ten that responded, only a couple spoke favorably of critique groups. At the time, I was indignant. ‘Of course critique groups are a good thing!’ I protested. Now I’m not so sure.” Mike Duran began his original article by saying: “Not long ago, I was contacted by an unpublished author who was looking for a critique partner…I was flattered. Really. Nevertheless, I emailed this response: …My apologies, but I’ll have to pass on the offer.”

We come now to the crux of my observation: the people who can teach the most no longer have time (or take the time) to help those of us a few (or many) ladder rungs below them. There are exceptions to the rule – Orson Scott Card works hard to teach others as do guests of ODYSSEY and WRITERS OF THE FUTURE and CLARION SF&F WORKSHOP. But none of them does it for free and all of them are too expensive for a family man like me. I have professional publications. I do. I also have things I OBVIOUSLY need to learn that will take me to the next – and possibly final level.

But if I can’t afford the BIG bucks and if the people on the next level like Mike Duran can’t help me up, is it all, like…HOPE FOR THE FLOWERS (Trina Paulus, 1972) ?

image: http://walkinginpublic.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/hope3.jpg?w=500&h=322


Anonymous said...

I found this post on IceRocket. As a SF writer currently preparing to head to church this morning, I will have to poke my head back in again.

On the topic of critique groups, I found them invaluable as a beginner, less so now. Mostly I needed strangers reading my stuff in the beginning since friends and family always loved it and editors sent form rejects, neither of which helped. I agree, it's the blind leading the blind, but I suspect blind people working together can have more success finding their way than a blind person alone...if they use the right strategies. If everyone feels your characters are unlikeable, they probably are. If everyone feels like the ending sucks, there's probably a problem (but not necessarily the ending). Though the most important things I got from my critique groups (all online, never face-to-face) came from reading other people's stories.

I'm now a member of the Codex writer's group (http://codexwriters.com) but don't use their critiquing services. I find my benefits through other courses. I did attend the Writers of the Future course, which is free to winners...but you have to win to go; it was fun and good for connections and taught good stuff, but mostly it reaffirmed things I already knew.

So basically, critique groups can work as long as you are suspicious of the comments; suspicious but not stubborn. But I suspect the benefits have an expiration date.

GuyStewart said...

Scott -- Good comments. Oddly enough, if you look on the membership rolls, I'm a member of CODEX, too. I joined several years ago when there were only about 20 of us all-together. Since then John Brown, JF Lewis, Nancy Fulda, Alethea Kontis and others have scooted off into the wild blue yonder of Authorhood. Personal time commitment and other things like less time to spend critiquing other people's work and more time producing work. Thanks for visiting! Hope you found something you liked and will join me again some time! (PS -- I visited your site, too and will be watching your posts!