Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Critique Groups

I went to a local round-table critique group last night. I didn't bring pages with me because, well honestly, I was so very nervous I didn't think I'd be able to read them. It was quite a mixed bag of writers who attended: several poets, a man working on a civil war historical, a couple short story writers, a man working on his memoir, one writing a historical set in ancient Rome, some literary fiction writers, and a couple people who said they weren't real sure what they were working on, they just wanted to throw it out to the group to see if it was any good. Some of the writing was better than others, but everyone was kind to the author while still sharing at least a little honest and helpful critisim.

To be truthful, there was a piece or two I didn't care for much, not because the writing was bad, but because the subject matter bored me to tears. So, when my turn to comment came around the table, I focused my critique solely on grammar and complimented some part of the story that was technically good. And that, is exactly my fear for my own writing. With only a handful of fiction writers present, and none of them fantasy writers, will my work bore them to tears? (or worse, sound incompetently immature because it's fantasy and *everyone* knows that's kid stuff...Yes I've heard people say that--I worked in a bookstore long enough to know there are people who look down on genre fiction.)

I spend a lot of time with romance writers these days through RWA, but urban fantasy and paranormal/fantasy romance have a bit of a blurry line at times, so I don't feel completely out of place. Last night I felt more than a bit on the outside. Granted, the fact I was new and nervous didn't help. Nor did the fact I am always filled with self-doubt when it comes to my writing. I plan to attend the next group meeting in two weeks, but before I commit the money and time, I guess I need to determain if I'll benefit from joining.

What do you think of mixed genre critique groups? Is it important that critiquers have knowledge and enjoy reading your genre? If you were in this situation, would you join the group but continue looking for a critique partner? I've been told judging contests and sifting through other writers mistakes can improve your own writing, so do you think a writer could derive the same benefit from a round-table group?

Do you belong to a critique group? Have a critique partner? Please tell me about your experiences.


Terry Spear said...

Hi Kalayna-Nicole!
I write medieval historical, and paranormal urban fantasy both for young adults and adults and I've been with a critique group for a number of years and have individual critique partners. I've found that not everyone can critique everything--yet generally, everyone can find something that works or doesn't work for them. Some of my crit partners were strictly contempory romance writers, but then fell in love with my vampires. Two now write vampire stories. But I think it's important to be with critique partners that "get" your work. I do all of mine online. I find it works best to find folks that are more interested in my genre than folks who are local who don't. I've been in groups that were strictly SciFi/Fantasy, that really frowned on romance, or a historical group that was great for authenticity, but again frowned on romance. I don't need that. :) Sometimes it takes a while to find critique partners you can really work well with, that can help you stay on track without tearing you down. I know some don't bother with critique partners, but I truly find them invaluable.

joviangeldeb said...

Hi Kalayna-Nicole.
I saw your post on ff&p. My name is Debbie Macklin-Panger but you may not recognize me. I mainly lurk on their main group site and participate in the ffp critique group only and post there. Which brings me to the subject. I've been a member of their critique on-line group since last year and I find it invaluable. I have learned so much on perfecting my writing that I never would have picked up on my own. Ever. I've improved dramatically.
I agree with what Terry Spears said. I think it's important for your partners to have the same interests as you do. And you'll also find that getting more than one critique is very helpful because no two people have the same strengths and weaknesses. Others pick up grammar/punctuation and others-plotline, pacing, character development...etc. it also helps you to decipher through people's personal tastes.
I personally like to get 3-4 critiques for each chapter i upload.
I don't have much experience with groups outside of our genre, though. I've only dabbled on a few groups on myspace that cater to all types of writers. (you are right...they look down upon romance fiction writers.) I lurked and saw them tear others work up with a holier-than-thou attitude, so I kinda shy away from that.
I'd suggest giving it another round and attend the group you went to so you can get a better idea if it will work or not.
Take care,

Kalayna-Nicole Price said...

Hi Terry!
You made several great points, and hit on one of my greatest fears (critique partners who just don't 'get' the genre and frown on the story because of it.) I'll be honest, I've never really worked with a critique partner, but I think getting a fresh set of eyes would be helpful--especially with novels revised more than a few times. It sounds like you tried several people/groups before you found a good fit. I hadn't given much thought to online critique partners--that may well be the best way to find like-minded people. Thanks for sharing your experience and advice!

Hi Debbie!
I'm a (relatively new) lurking member myself, and you know, I didn't even know FF&P had a critique group.
You're right about going another round with this group, I should bring some work next time and see how it goes. If nothing else, I'm sure to get grammar help, right?
Thanks for stopping by, I'll have to look into FF&Ps critique group--I could probably use dramatic improvement! Thanks again.

Rebecca York said...

I've been in a mixed genre critique group for--um--thirty years. Previously I was in a mixed-genre group that was run as a seminar at my local community college.

I met with that group for two years and got everything I could get from the teacher. When it disbanded for the summer, I asked the people in the group that I thought were the best critquers if they wanted to meet with me on our own.

You could try asking the fiction writers or the fantasy writers if they want to meet with you in a separate group.

I wouldn't necessarily restrict myself to fantasy writers, though. When I first started with the group, I was writing newspaper articles. I've changed my genre a number of times since I started. I began with a kids' SF novel. Then I wrote romances. Then I figured out I was better at romantic suspense. And I gradually began adding SF and fantasy elements to my work.

Sorry, but when people nit pick grammar, I figure they don't have anything better to say. I mean, they don't have anything intelligent to say about the characters or the plot. Or if it's non-fiction, they can't comment on the structure or the other major elements that either make the piece work or don't.

Here's one more observation. When we first started our group. we decided to have it all women. Guys change the dynamics of a group--and usually not for the better. They often try to dominate. And they're more likely to make their critiques about how smart they are rather than trying to help the writer.

In our group, the goal has always been to make the work as good as it can be--to make it publishable or make it better than it was--not to tear down the writer.


Kalayna-Nicole Price said...

Hi Rebecca,
You're right about nit-picking grammar... At the same time (as I am new at this) I wonder how much a group that meets only twice a month and hears 3-5 pages of 12 different works can comment on plot and character. Can people really remember enough details during the amount of time it would take to finish critiquing a novel that way? That's another thing I've been worrying about.

I never considered the different dynamics gender would bring to a group. Interesting point.

Thanks for sharing!

Linda said...

Hi Kalayna-Nicole-

Though Rebecca made good points about mixed genre being workable, I've always felt that people who know the market can make the best critiquers. And face it, the genre fiction market is far different than poetry. Grammar and punctuation... anyone can line edit for that, but the best partners and groups will help you work on pacing, plot points, character development, etc. No one got rejected because they had a few misspelled words. I believe it's the crafting of the story that is the most important part to focus on.

Now, all my experience has been with online groups. I found 3-5 partners who have the same basic goals (chap a week, chap a month, etc) and working at about the same level are best. Someone who is too advanced with someone who is a beginner can make for a different relationship, more of a mentoring. Yet, people have different strengths, so a good group will usually have a nice mix of abilities.

Cynthia Falcon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cynthia Falcon said...

Hello Kalayna-Nicole. Interesting topic. I had a similar experience with a mixed critique group. One gentleman was writing a screenplay, the other read query letters for his nonfiction articles, and a few wrote "literary". Then my turn came to read my scene from my time travel set in Regency England. One of the gentlemen kept saying "Cheap" and "Romance" in the same sentence on more than one occasion. It took a great deal of energy for me not to reach across the table to slap him silly. I ended up going back the next week with a futuristic that they just ate up. They loved it. Then one of the guys came with a story with romantic elements. I can't help but think maybe I opened their eyes somewhat.

I no longer attend that group but do keep in contact with a few members of the group. I didn't quit because I didn't llike the group. My works schedule changed, preventing me from attending. I did manage to find a group of romance authors that meet on friday mornings. Even though I love my 5 angry middle aged men (what i first started calling the literary group), I'm getting much more from the romance group.

Thanks for letting me ramble!

Kalayna-Nicole Price said...

Hi Linda!
I agree, fresh eyes looking at the crafting the story is what I want out of a group. How did you go about finding your online groups?
Thanks for sharing your experience.

Hi Cynthia!
You're a stronger woman than me. If I'd been with your 5 angry men who were grumbling "cheap" about my story, I'd have never gone back. Good for you that you did, and that you opened their eyes a bit.
Thanks for sharing!

Misty said...

My first critique group was small. There were two retired gentlemen who wrote westerns and sci-fi/adventure, one woman about my age who wrote mysteries, and a young man who wrote poetry and young-adult thrillers. The two older fellows listened to my fantasy pages and said, "What drugs were you on when you wrote that?"

Yikes! What a reaction! I didn't let it bother me. I kept going back to the group, kept reading. And I learned a great deal from each of the members, despite the differences in our genres. The western writer reminded me to use all five senses; the thriller writer taught me to keep the tension level high...things that are important no matter what you write. In a well-functioning group, everyone can get what they need to make the writing better, regardless of genre.

Give the group a chance to hear your work, and see how you feel then. Good luck!