Thursday, July 24, 2008

Critique Groups Two

Critique groups, are they helpful or harmful?

That is the question and here is the answer—yes and no, or should that be no and yes? Anyway, it’s always helpful to have your raw manuscript read by someone other than your mother, brother, sister or spouse. So in that respect, critique groups are good no matter who sits on them. But when it comes to something beyond catching grammar mistakes and punctuation errors, unless there are writers in your critique group who are knowledgeable publishing professionals and who write what you write, critique groups might not be that helpful. Let me explain because I can hear the grumbling already.

Let’s take a worst case scenario first. Suppose you write non-fiction and everyone in your group writes romance, for instance. Let’s make this even more difficult by saying that they all write category romance—you know, those ones that measure 50,000 words and have a shelf life of about a month. Now I am not knocking category romances as they have a huge audience and many very professional authors make a darn good living writing them (and Sharene represents them and is glaring at me right now). What I’m going for here is contrast and hopefully I’ve succeeded.

As a writer on one of the boards said recently (and I’m paraphrasing here), “As a fiction writer, I’m having a horrible time writing a query letter. As far as I’m concerned, writing them is completely left brain and I’m a right brained individual.” This is the problem a non-fiction writer of say a how-to book is going to have in a room filled with category romance writers. One type of writing is right brain—very creative—and the other, although it also takes some right brain activity, much is left brain-power because what you’re writing about is tangible and less imaginary.

But let’s look at this a different way: your critique group is made up of all beginning writers who write romance and you write mainstream. Are you going to find much help in this mix? Probably not because they are, although both fiction, two different types of writing.

So the writer who is entertaining joining a critique group should first find out what the other members of the group write and, secondly, where they are in their writing life. My advice, if you are beyond the beginning stages, would be to find yourself a good beta reader or two. What and who is a beta reader and how does a writer find one? Beta readers are people who love to read and who are not writers. The easiest way to find them is to go to your local library and ask if a reader’s group meets there. Usually librarians are aware of these things. If you cannot find a readers group locally, try to locate one online.

But why not let your fellow writers read your book and offer criticism? Yes, that will work, but remember you’re past the checking for mistakes stage and just want to know how your book reads and the problem with many writers is that they want you to change your book to suite the way they write, whether they are conscious of it or not. Usually the first thing that goes when writers critique a book is the original author’s voice—something every writer should try to maintain at all cost as this makes each book original. A beta reader, on the other hand doesn’t understand or offer suggestions on how to fix things, they just read and tell the writer whether it’s a good read or a bad one. Some betas might also point out problem areas, but not how to fix them. For example, if your beta reader is confused by a scene where the setting changes, you’ll need to consider why the reader was confused and decide whether to revise.

So, a couple of important characteristics in a critique group, if you choose to go with one, is finding the right mix, including writers who write what you write and who are at about the same level. There is much, much more to consider. This just scrapes the surface.


Scott Jensen said...

What I use beta readers for is to answer the following questions. What's working and what isn't? How the characters developing? Do you like the characers? Do the characters "breathe"? Breathe as seeming to be like real people. Are they interesting or boring? What do you expect to happen next? Is there anything that didn't make sense? Anything that destroyed the suspension of disbelief? How engaging is the story?

In the past, I have found my beta readers by asking my professional colleagues if they like the genre the book is in. If they say they do, I ask if they'd be a beta reader for me. I have ones that are into mysteries, others that are into science fiction, and still others that are into thrillers. I find these better as beta readers than family and friends.

Another way I have considered to get a good beta reader is from newsgroups. For example, rec.arts.mysteries. In addition to the benefit of being able to discuss your genre with them and after you are accepted as a regular, you can solicite and select a good beta reader from them. These people love the genre, are very well read in it, and know all the cliches. In fact, you can find out just how original your idea is by asking such a group. They will likely give you a list of books that have done the same idea and you can then read them to see how other authors have done that idea. By the way, I'm not sure there's a newsgroup for thrillers, but rec.arts.mystery has a lot of thriller/suspence readers so it is a good place to mine for a beta reader for that genre as well.

However, the biggest problem with beta readers is slow response rate. Your beta reader needs to commit to reading what you send quickly to get you quick feedback. This way you can make changes and progress forward. So when you hunt for one, you need one that is a fast reader and isn't too busy. If they use phrases like, "I will try to squeeze reading your stuff in my busy schedule", look for another beta reader.

Ghost Girl said...

The Beta reader...You hit that nail smack on the head. And as Scott has suggested, their most important role is asking questions and/or deciding whether their own questions were sufficiently answered by the manuscript. I have a beta reader I trust immensely. She cuts right to the heart of the story and if something does work for her, she tells me. For her, it's all about the story. Fortunately, she is a quick reader, so I don't have to worry about the slow response rate.

I tried a critique group once, and it just didn't work for me. It wasn't a good personality or genre mix.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the posts on Critique groups - I was one of the folks who had questions about online groups and whether those counted as published material. You're answers have been very helpful.

These are also some great ideas on finding beta readers.

Scott Jensen said...

I had once been part of a writers' group. This was when I was writing a science fiction novel and the group was all science fiction writers. While everyone was in the same genre, not everyone was at the same level or had the same drive. We had two published authors, a couple wannabe authors (myself being one), and then an odd sort of people. The group formed out of a science fiction writing class (joined after it had formed and didn't take the same class as the rest) and met weekly. But some of the members wrote very little and mainly just like critiquing other members' work. Usually in a highly critical detailed way. It was as if they were on a ego trip and were more wannabe editors than wannabe writers. Still other members were HORRIBLE writers. One writer I couldn't even finish a single page of what he wrote. He called it experimental. I called it just mental.

I eventually left the group as I needed quicker responses from readers. Some days I would pump out a complete chapter and then it was the decision, "Do I wait to hear back from the group or press forward?" The group really didn't like getting more than a chapter from each member. For a bit, I just kept plugging away and giving the group a chapter a week while advancing on with the story. Eventually, I found my first beta reader (a grad student getting her doctorate in genetics) who kept up with me excellently. She would buzz through a new chapter and give me feedback the same day I gave the chapter to her.

Now I suppose if I was less prolific of a writer, the weekly meetings would have been more than enough. In fact, it seemed some members of the group took a couple months to just complete a single chapter. It probably all boils down to what works best for you. Writers' groups didn't for me but they might for someone else.

Patrick McNamara said...

Writers groups are great for the novice but since they consist mostly of novices they do little for the more advanced writer. Novices make all sorts of mistakes they're not aware of and a writing group can help point those out. But it is hard to find critiquers who aren't just focused upon grammar and spelling.

I've belonged to since it started but I've found little help from the feedback I've gotten lately to bother much with it.