QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Riding the Wave of Critique Groups

Many aspiring authors worry whether their novel can withstand the scrutiny of readers. This is impossible to know without actually having someone read it. The best readers will give you honest, valuable feedback. One of the most effective ways to get this feedback is to join a critique group.

However, you can't just jump in without examining the critique group waters. There could be alligators in there. Or sharks. Or worse—bottom feeders.

You need to find a critique group that offers what you're looking for. Don't know what you're looking for? My advice: don't join a crit group until you do. Without careful consideration, you may get what you didn't bargain for or find yourself wishing for more than your group is giving you. Either problem can leave you with a sour taste in your mouth and the feeling that your time spent critting others’ writing is a waste. Believe me, I've been there.

So here are some water metaphors loosely related to writing to get you thinking about your desired outcome when participating in a crit group.

Life Preserver: You must know what you want from the critique group. You must decide what you want your critique group to do for you—and you must be willing to give as much (or more) than you get.

Rate the following items from 1-5 on how important they are to you.

• Honest Critiques
• Personal Relationship with Members
• Timely Feedback
• Kind, Tactful Critiques (you're already being abused from the critique, you don't need more because of the manner it is given)
• Quality of Critique (overall impression, character development, grammar and other nitty things)
• Length of Submissions—set number of pages/words per week/month
• Genre-Specific

Once you know what you want, seek others with similar goals. Just because you know what you want doesn't mean you'll immediately find people willing to row the same boat. Take the time to get to know people (either online or in person) before jumping aboard.

Snorkel Equipment: Online or In Person? I participate in both types of groups. There are advantages and disadvantages to each situation.

Live Critique Groups: Meeting face-to-face allows you to really get to know each other. You can develop a personal relationship. If that's important to you in a critique group, perhaps finding out if there is one in your area would be to your advantage. I enjoy my live group immensely. Those ladies always make me laugh—and their advice is priceless.

It's also much harder to be "mean" when you're looking the author in the eyes. Honesty is important, but critiques must be delivered with tact. If you're uncomfortable seeing the person as you tell them what you think could be better with their writing, a live critique group is not the way to go. On the same side of the ship, if you're uncomfortable getting the "bad" news that your writing isn't perfect in person, the live crit group isn't for you.

The disadvantage to a live group is the time frame. Crits have to be ready for the session. My group functions so that we send out our pages a week in advance and have them ready for the critique session on a specified night. What works for one group may not work for another. You have to decide what oars you're willing to row.

Online Critique Groups: I believe the Internet has made communication easier and faster, but also more brusque. You can say anything online. People can't detect your humor, your meaning, or the intonation in your voice. I've found my online critique group to be much more critical than my live group. I'm not 100% sure if this is because of the online setting, but I believe it to be.

You only get what people put out there. They may tell you they have three dogs when they don't have any. The personal side of the relationship takes much longer to build. If you don't mind this, an online group would probably work for you.

Critiques are delivered any time you can do them, day or night. This is the biggest benefit of an online critique group. Setting a schedule with your group is a must (and we'll be docking the Schedule Ship tomorrow), but you can do the crits when YOU have time.

The Great Barrier Reef: Be prepared to work. Reading another's writing with a critical eye can help you improve your own. But this does not come without a price—time. It takes time to read and offer a valuable critique. If you've ever done this, you know it's true. But, in a successful crit group, everyone reading your work is putting forth the same effort. Be thankful and gracious, even if you don't agree with their opinions.

Important side note: If your critique group isn't providing you with critiques you find valuable, it's not worth your time to stay. Time is your most precious commodity. Don't waste it.

Important side note #2: Be careful where you post your work. I don't recommend putting up copious amounts of your precious writing where the general public can see them. You can create private forums on RallyStorm.com or private groups through Yahoo or Critique Circle. Word to the wise--just be careful where you post.

Shark Repellant: Develop self-confidence and honesty.
These qualities may seem like they don't go in an article about critique groups, but in my experience, they totally do. You must have confidence in your writing—and your critiques. You must be honest in your critique of other's writing, as well as looking at your own writing with an unbiased eye.

Participating in a critique group can be valuable and rewarding. But remember that not everyone will agree with you, and that's okay. Also know that just because someone says something, doesn't mean you have to change it. Develop confidence in your critiques as well as your own writing.

Be prepared to be honest—in your critiques, in the communication to other members of the group, and while looking at your own writing. Sometimes it's hard to admit to yourself that your glowing words aren't so shiny. The best critique groups are those with members who are honest with themselves and others.

Taking the Dive: Ready to try it out? You probably are, but I've come up with a few more ocean metaphors related to critique groups that will be posted over the next few days. For some reason, I'm on a water kick right now. I hope you've got a wet suit or a life preserver or something. You're gonna need it!

Tomorrow's post: scheduling.


Stina said...

I have a great online group and we've all become friends. But that doesn't mean we don't give tough feedback, and we're not afraid to challenge one another to do better. It's small with only four of us, but it enabled us to crit all four books quickly. One member now has an agent.

While not perfect--we still don't have an agent or editor's eye--all of our ms have improved and we've learned a lot from each other.

I've also been on the otherside, with writers who struggle with the craft. They can give some feedback, but it tends not to be very useful.

Anonymous said...

I love my crit. group. It is really hard each week, and I still feel butterflies in my stomachwhen I know someone has read my work with acritical eye - but, if I can;t take it fromsomeone I've learned to trust...how will I ever survive being with an agent, editor and publisher.

Thanks for the pos - great as always

Fran Caldwell said...

I tried it at one site, but didn't fit in with the other work there. Just hated having to critique vampire and horror books - well, I couldn't do it. It just wasn't for me and I left.

I could sound mean here, but I just don't have time for all that raw reading, and that occasional neediness. My writing comes first, and there just isn't enough time to spread around for other writers.

I have one or two writer friends online. We support each other, know what we're all doing, but we leave the critique work for the professional editors.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Oh, great post!

I belong to an online critique group where you can participate publicly or in small groups. I have made so many good friends there. And I get honest, valuable feedback.

It is the best thing I have ever done for my writing, and I've shamelessly recruiting many other friends I've made online. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

As a moderator for the Critique Circle, I can say this is great advice for anyone wanting to get feeback for their work!

I think the part about being prepared to work is especialy important. Not only do you have to work hard to create the best product for your readers and then hone it after the feedback rolls in, you also have to give your deepest attention to other people's work. If you like honest & meaningful critiques, be prepared to give them in return. :-)

Great post! Oh and I love the shark photo!

TheWriterStuff said...

I've belonged to both online and in person groups and have found both to be valuable. It was feedback from my online group that helped get my first book sold. When it comes to critique groups what's most important to me is that the feedback be challenging and have substance. But one of the hardest things to do is knowing when to take advice and make changes and when not to. It's best to be true to yourself in the end.

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks Angela. You are sooo right. And TheWriterStuff, you too! That is the hardest part about belonging to a critique group. Know thyself. Thanks guys!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I could go on and on about all the great things you did with this, but of course I'm going to focus on the extended metaphor and the great pics -- loved it! :-D

Anonymous said...

I actually met a girl through Writers Digest forum-it is really great check it out if you get a minute. That's where I met the best writer buddy ever! Her and I see eye to eye on a lot of things and the feedback is great!

I agree for people to def. look for at least one person for some feedback, fresh eyes always help out for the ms. Great Post! In fact my writer friend suggested this site to me!