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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Do You Belong to a Writers' Critique Group?

I’ve been talking a lot about criticism lately—both of the solicited and unsolicited variety—and I may have given the impression I’m against critique groups.

I am anything but. Good critique groups are the easiest (and cheapest) way for newbies to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up agents’ and publishers’ desks. Skilled writers, too, can benefit from group feedback before they send that story or novel off into the unforgiving marketplace. I’ve read that even Amy Tan still runs her work by her critique group for feedback and suggestions.

I personally belong to a fantastic group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re all veteran critiquers with long history together. Critiquing is a craft, just like any other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After fourteen years together, these folks are pros.

But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. Group-think can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord Of The Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.

And you can’t be sure the advice is worth heeding. As journalist Jim Bishop said, “A good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.” For my tips on bad advice to ignore, click here.

If a group seems overly negative, or gushes with unhelpful praise, don’t waste your time. Ditto if they don’t read or “get” your genre—or are way above or below your own level of expertise. And if anybody in the group appears to be power tripping, and/or enforcing arbitrary rules for their own sake—run. Very fast.

But your work will benefit if you find the right critiquers, whether online or in person. Best of all, a supportive group of fellow writers can supply empathetic shoulders to cry on through the inevitable periods of rejection and disappointment on the uphill climb to publication. (They're also a comfort if you get catapulted back down.)

I left my critique group for a time when I joined the ranks of “professional writers”—at my editor’s insistence. Soon after I signed my first publishing contract he said, “Nobody edits your work but me. Don’t let a bunch of amateurs dull the edginess of your stuff.” I was a professional author with an advance to prove it. I didn’t need no stinking critique groups.

But a few years later my publishers went belly-up, as so many independent presses do, and I begged to be accepted back into my group.

I admit I couldn’t face going back right away. I’d spent three heady years traveling half way around the world for book tours, getting some nice reviews, and being sought after as an editor and speaker. When I thought of going back, it felt like the classic nightmare captured in the film Peggy Sue Got Married: the one where you’re mysteriously transported back to high school and can’t remember a damn thing about algebra.

But I soon realized that working in a vacuum was a major mistake. Without my editor, I didn’t know if I was saying what I thought I was saying, or if the humor was falling as flat as the champagne left over from my last book launch.

My British editor wasn’t wrong. A group of amateurs of varying skills can easily homogenize your work and dull your edge. And if you take all their criticisms to heart and act on them, your final draft will wind up sounding as if it’s written by committee.

The trick is to listen to your gut first and feedback second, always. And if a comment feels hurtful rather than useful, smile sweetly, say “duly noted” and don’t give the criticism another thought.

What about you? Are most of you in critique groups? If not, how do you get the feedback you need?

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Blogger LM Preston said...

I've tried critique groups and it was a great experience. Unfortunately, I burn them out because I write so much faster than most that they get frustrated when I'm constantly throwing a new ms at them before they've finished writing theirs. Also, some authors are way over sensitive and not open to feedback. I personally love it and pick through what works. I find that it's best for me to do more beta switches and I now just have one or two of my writer friends that I chew over difficult spots with. I'm glad I did the critique group thing, but it doesn't always work in everyone's favor.

May 30, 2010 at 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,

I especally like this advice on critique groups. I love our group too. It's funny how when you have a great group you think all critique groups are the same. I'm in three and for the most part they're all good. From time to time I think I see power plays and it good to talk about it.
Thanks for putting it in black and white.
I'm also still loving your blog.

May 30, 2010 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger Vatche said...

Hi Anne, I'm a new follower, and I'm already enjoying your blog. I'm just starting off in the writing game (I'm only eighteen and I have a lot ahead of me) and I'm sure your blog will help me out.

I also have a question: how did you find YOUR critique group?

Anyway, love your blog. Write on!

May 30, 2010 at 10:59 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

I found my critique group about 18 months ago. We've been through several new members; most just seem to wander off because writing is a committment they're not ready for yet, but we've had a few that just didn't fit.

What I like best about my group is its eclectic in writing styles and genres. Two of us write in literary/womens fiction, but our voice is so vastly different sometimes it feels as if we're writing in separaate genres. But it is fun; interesting to see how other writers handle similar situations.

And there is always something to learn from another writer. For instance; I don't write YA, so the others that do help my younger characters stay - in character - though the genre's are vastly different.

I think crit groups are a benefit, especially to new writers - I know I wouldn't be this far along without one - but you are right about choosing the right fit. Nothing else can hurt or help your WIP like feedback.


May 30, 2010 at 11:39 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Being timid,I've had but one beta reader.
However, her comments were 80% dead on.

May 31, 2010 at 4:02 AM  
Blogger irishoma said...

In the critique group I belong to we have a similar term to "duly noted" when the writer most likely isn't going to use the advice given. The phrase we use is, "I'll take that under advisement." Although not everyone smiles sweetly.

May 31, 2010 at 6:33 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Vatche, Welcome! I'm lucky to live in a town where we have a wonderful writers organization that sponsors dozens of critique groups. I think in most towns you can find groups through libraries and bookstores. Or some start through a University or Adult School class (students continue together after the course is over.) And many organizations for sci-fi, mystery, childrens's or romance writers offer both in-person and online groups. Or check out forums like Nathan Bransford's, the Writers Chronicle, or AgentQuery for info on beta readers and online critique groups.

Any more suggestions for Vatche out there?

May 31, 2010 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Rrrandy Wurst said...

I've been in critique groups of various kinds and levels for at least twenty years. While I am open to insights and often find I need to consider changing something, a major benefit for me is as a mini-deadline. In short, a group keeps me writing.

May 31, 2010 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

Vatche can do a Google search for "writing group" plus the name of his town -- that's how I found mine. I also saw a few listed on Craigslist.

I'm in an online critique group and an inperson one. The online one is great, but it's very small and we're very picky about who we let in. The in person one is also great but some of the more negative aspects about groups have come out in that one. Unfortunately, in my in person group, there is a gent who hates my novel so much that I want to give him a free pass on reading it (except that would be him winning).

My in person group was my first experience with critique groups and I have learned a LOT. Mostly I learned how to take criticism and how to discern things for myself, and that you really do need a critique group to get you started.

June 1, 2010 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

I find it interesting that some of you find an eclectic group works and some don't.

I do think it's best to move on quickly if there's somebody in the group with a real blind spot for your genre. Like Sierra, I've run into a few writers who are offended by the emotionalism of women's fiction, and think literature is like a blood bank, where the value goes up with the pints of gore.

My mom shelved her recently published cozy for over a decade because she was convinced by a group of thriller writers that it was "unpublishable" because the violence wasn't depicted on the page.

To be fair, I must confess that people who write super-gory stuff aren't going to get the best critique from me, either. I find it hard to hear the words when my stomach's turning.

Mr. Wurst, you mentioned a real plus I forgot to talk about: deadlines.

Now I've got to go write a chapter for tomorrow's meeting!

June 1, 2010 at 6:56 PM  
Blogger Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

This is a great post! Like all your posts. :)

I've never belonged to a "real" critique group, especially one where we meet in person. Nobody writes what I write around here, and I don't have a car and getting away from my three year old on a regular basis is not possible right now. Oh well! I get my feedback from a few great writers that I trust. I guess we're kind of a group, but it's not organized or anything. It has worked so far, but I'd like a critique group someday.

June 1, 2010 at 8:13 PM  
Blogger mary said...

I know I've commented about my critique group on here before, but I'll go ahead and chime in :-).

My group (worddivas.com) consists of four writers who vary in age and genre. We each bring our strengths (already-published authors, editor, counselor...) and our weaknesses (already-published authors, editor, counselor :-)) to the table. Somehow this works for us (and the times it doesn't we can always get therapy from the counselor ;-P). Initially, we intentionally kept our group to four people in order to learn each others' styles and personalities, and to build trust. Now the limited size enables us to work faster and cleaner. Using a private wordpress site, we connect during the week to post and critique, and then meet in person once a month to share lunch and successes. Twice a year we have a weekend writing retreat which usually involves much laughter, wine, critiquing, and...well, writing. In recent months we've branched out to working as a team writing articles for our local newspapers and such. I realize critique groups can be a double-edged dagger, and they may not work for everyone, but for me...this one is working.

Fabulous post as always, Anne. And I totally agree with your comment of working in a group not too high above or below your area of expertise. Oh, and the deadline! Good addition, Wurst.

June 2, 2010 at 5:40 PM  
Blogger Kay said...

Anna, great info! I'm not in a critique group, per se, but working with a beta reader who is awesome. Similar writing style to mine (so she understands why I do certain things), honest (she doesn't sugarcoat it, but she isn't rude either), and she really believes in my story as I do hers.

Great post! And thanks for stopping by my blog and checking out Casey McCormick's post. Feel free to spread the word, as I too think Casey's answers were absolutely fabulous and insightful! Great info for writers!


June 2, 2010 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Andrea -The Blogging Literary Mama said...

I only belong to one critique group becasue I live in NoWheresVille. It's held at the local library every two weeks. So far I've only been to one due to work/spousal conflicts. I've signed up to read some of my stuff next month. There is one person (a 17yr old no less!) that has incredible talent but there is one guy...he definitely nitpicks and isn't really a helpful sort.

But it's unfortunately my only option at the moment. What's your opinion on sharing things via a blog? Should there be worries about people stealing or getting it published in the future? (I can never get a straight answer on that.)

June 3, 2010 at 11:27 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Andrea, I'm not a big fan of sharing a WIP on a personal blog, but I know people do. I don't think piracy is a big problem but here are two things I would worry about: 1) for newbies, it could be cringe-making for your older and wiser self and 2) for short stories and creative nonfic stuff, you've given away first rights and reduced the chance of placing it elsewhere.

June 3, 2010 at 1:54 PM  
Anonymous bookfraud said...

If a group seems overly negative, or gushes with unhelpful praise, don’t waste your time. Ditto if they don’t read or “get” your genre—or are way above or below your own level of expertise. And if anybody in the group appears to be power tripping, and/or enforcing arbitrary rules for their own sake—run. Very fast.

that was worth the price of admission alone. but i would not limit my criticism of critics (?) to amateurs alone. i would say this is doubly true for those of us (yanks) who got an m.f.a. in creative writing among professionals--grad students and professors have their own agendas that have nothing to do with actually trying to help you.

June 3, 2010 at 8:19 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Bookfraud, I LOVED your post on "The Rules". Everybody, follow the link in Bookfraud's post above. Brilliant! And a must-read for anybody considering an M.F.A.

The part about your wife's friend missing a party with the Rolling Stones because she followed "THE RULES" is a parable for the ages.

June 4, 2010 at 9:57 AM  
Blogger Jan Markley said...

I'm a big believer in critique groups and have been in one for years (I've also outgrown other groups). As members we learned and grew together and now every member is published. But I agree that groups are not without their pitfalls and have to be managed. I published an article about managing a critique group and posted it on my blog if anyone wants to take a look.

June 4, 2010 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jan, your post on cross-cultural critique groups is fascinating. I don't think most groups provide such a range of diversity, but it had to be an amazing learning experience.

Read Jan's article at http://janmarkley.blogspot.com/2009/08/writers-critiquing-groups-ive-loved.html

June 5, 2010 at 10:09 AM  
Anonymous bookfraud said...

anne, much thanks for the shout out! do appreciate it.

June 7, 2010 at 11:35 AM  

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