January 30th, 2007 | The Writing Craft | 14 Comments
This email came from Jess: "You once said we should get all our words down on paper, in order to create a crappy draft. I know you’re talking about writing a nonfiction book here, but I’ve heard the same thing about fiction. My question: Where do our critique partners come in? I sure don’t want to pass along a crappy first chapter or two to them…so I write and rewrite, trying to make it perfect before moving on. Any advice on how to make a critique group faster and more productive?"
Sure. First, let me explain to everybody what a critique group is: A collection of fellow writers who come together to improve each other’s writing. (And, yeah, occasionally they come together to smack down the arrogant, or to make themselves feel better by criticizing someone else…but the GOAL of the group is to help everyone improve.) Sometimes you’ll just have one or two people who are your crit partners; other times you might be part of a group that gathers on a weekly or monthly basis. You pass your work around ahead of time, the others make notes, then they come and share them with you.
Second, let me take issue with a couple things you said. I’m talking both fiction AND nonfiction. In my experience, nearly every writer benefits from having crit partners. And I think you may be stressing too much on showing people your bad work. Everybody has some bad work now and then. The point of the group is to IMPROVE. So get it out there — let your partners see your work. It will help them as much as it helps you, since they’ll be able to see how you handle certain writing problems.
Years ago, in another life, I made my living doing dopey magic tricks and telling jokes. (Really.) I played some nice places (the Comedy & Magic Club of Hermosa Beach was one), and I played some awful places (insert the name of any smoky bar where the customers are more interested in Budweisers, Camels, and the opposite sex). One thing I noticed about the venues: Even if the place was a dive, I learned lessons. Being in front of a living, breathing audience forces you to change your act. You have to work really hard to get people to laugh. All the rehearsal in the world wasn’t going to cause me to perfect my act — for that, I had to go be bad in front of people.
There’s a lesson there for writers… A lot of potential writers are simply too sensitive. As a writer, you need a place to bad, so that you can learn to be good. So if your ego is too fragile to allow someone else to read your work, it’s time to learn this lesson. Allow yourself to be bad. Give somebody else (preferably not your mom, your spouse, or your best friend) the permission to be honest with you about your writing.
Yes, this takes courage. And it means you’re going to have to find a couple people you trust. If you get into a large crit group, chances are you’re going to have one person you don’t like, who always hammers you for something. Learn to live with it. Paste a smile on your face, say "thanks very much," and move on to somebody whose opinion you actually care about. BUT somewhere, in the midst of all that fake niceness, be willing to at least hear what that individual has to say about your writing. A fresh set of eyes is exactly why you joined the group, so at least listen to the criticisms others have, even if you think they’re all wrong and you’re above this sort of thing.
Scottish people have a saying: Learn to unpack a rebuke. In other words, don’t reject a criticism out of hand. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. But give it a little time. Take it and play with it. Be willing to at least examine the criticism and see if, just maybe, there’s an ounce of truth in it.
I recently had somebody challenge me on this blog — they basically snarled at me, "You’re playing it too safe! Where’s the edgy Chip I’ve seen on other sites? You’ve pulled it all in, hoping this ‘nice’ Chip will be more appealing!" My first response? I slapped her. (No, not really. There I go again, playing it safe.) My first reaction was to defend myself. "No, that’s not true." Then I offered a bunch of reasons why I was Mr. Edgy. Except…she was right. I’ve felt the same thing — that I was toning it all down. I don’t know why, but I felt it, and when I read back over my replies, I could see it. So I unpacked the rebuke. And now…um…I don’t know. I’m not going to become Mr. Snotty, but I probably need to cut loose a bit more. I don’t want people checking my site at bedtime in order to help them nod off.
Of course, sometimes you’ll get a rebuke that’s wrong. Somebody will tell you "that idea will never sell" or "you shouldn’t do that novel in first person," and your only response is to smile, say thanks, and ignore the moron. That’s okay. At least you got another perspective. But you gain an immense amount of wisdom when you allow other people you respect to look at your words.
Okay, so third (and yes, this is really "third" — look way up there and you’ll see there was a "first" and a "second"), I want to suggest that handing around a bad first draft is EXACTLY the point of a crit group. Let them see what you’re doing and offer some direction for your writing. You may not agree with all of it, but the point is that you’re getting another set of eyes to review your work. I’ve seen thousands of pages of paper wasted on under-written book proposals. Sometimes these were good ideas, they just needed more work. But I rarely seen an over-written book proposal — one the author simply over-designed, over-thought, and over-wrote. So my sense is that you probably need to spend more time on your project.
Having a critique group can help you move forward. Besides, having writing friends gives you somebody to share your success and failure with. When those rejections come in, they’ll pat you on the back and tell you that, yes, you’re a fine writer, you just need to stick with it. Maybe they’ll go buy you a Guinness. (Another reason to like critique groups!)
Fourth, you asked how to make them faster and more productive. As for "faster," send the writings out one week and talk about them the next week. (That said, I don’t know that making a group faster is the goal. But I know how frustrating it is to get into a group where one person dominates all the needs.) In terms of making things more productive, I encourage groups to WRITE their comments. It’s too easy to weasel out of a tough criticism when we’re all sitting around the living room, drinking tea and commenting on Daphne’s stupid prairie romance. ("Um…I don’t know…but since this is set in the 1830′s, maybe you shouldn’t have your heroine eaten by intergallactic space aliens.") Instead, ask people to write their criticisms onto the page, then you can talk through them, and hand them to the author, before giving her (a) a kleenex to wipe her eyes, and (b) the number of a good suicide prevention counselor.
Fifth and last, don’t think about trying to make it perfect. Seeking perfection in writing is what freezes people up and keeps them from writing (or from participating in an honest crit group). Look for progress, not perfection. You ain’t going to make it perfect. So try to make it "better than last week."
Hope that helps.