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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, June 6, 2010

What’s Your Best or Worst Critique Experience?

I lost a follower over last week’s post. I’m surprised; it seemed one of my blander ones. But I guess you can’t express any kind of opinion without offending somebody somewhere. Opinions are always subjective. That was pretty much my point—it’s why a critique group can be the best or worst thing that ever happened to your writing.

Most people who say they love their critique group(s) seem to have done some shopping around. That’s hard to do when the group is a class or a workshop you’ve paid for, so free groups may actually be the most useful: they’re more fluid and easier to ditch.

Most of the comments I got last week were pro-group, and a number of commenters included links to other great posts on giving/getting feedback and group mentality. Children’s book author Jan Markely has a fascinating article on what she learned from a multi-ethnic writers group, and MFA survivor Bookfraud has a wonderful piece on good boundaries for in-family critiquing. (And some must-read advice for writers considering an MFA.)

The always-helpful Hope C. Clark also posted a great, simple set of rules for critique groups on her Funds For Writers Website this week.

People also pointed out that, aside from feedback, groups provide handy deadlines to keep you on a writing schedule plus a group of friends who can share your joy when you get that nibble from an agent, and provide crying-shoulders when the rejections come. And whether or not the feedback is useful, just reading your piece aloud can help you polish your work.

Successful groups—whether single- or multi-genre, limited or multi-culti/skill level/generational—seem to have one thing in common. They keep to a prescribed set of rules and have a designated moderator.

I’m talking rules of behavior, not writing. Rigid writing rules can strait-jacket creativity, but requirements like no arguing, no personal attacks, and no all-negative comments keep bullies under control and remind people to use good manners. And manners boil down to the most important rule of all—the Golden one. If something would feel hurtful/unhelpful to you, don’t say it/do it/post it to others. Amazing how many people have trouble grasping that concept, isn’t it?

Writers Digest has a useful interview with critique group guru Becky Levine, author of the Writers and Critique Group Survival Guide. She has some inspiring writing group success stories. Her book looks very thorough, if a bit pricey for a paperback. It might be worth the investment as a joint purchase for a group.

So what have been your experiences with groups? Have you ever abandoned what later turned out to be a good project because of a bad critique? Stopped writing altogether? Considered suicide/homicide after a toxic comment?

Or has your group provided you with a free MFA, a throng of life-long friends and/or catapulted you to successful publication heights you never dreamed of?

I’d love to hear your stories. Go ahead and vent. But I hope you won’t unfollow. It feels like getting a nasty critique.



Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I've yet to find a group I've really enjoyed. My worst experience came from an online critique group, one of the sort where you're more rewarded for frequency of response rather than quality.

June 6, 2010 at 12:50 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

In one of my novels my protagonist takes part in anti Korean War and McCarthyism protests. Obviously, the 1950’s, right? An older gentleman in the group—very politically conservative—proceeded to lecture me about hippies; hippies thought they were being so original, but they really all dressed and acted alike and thought alike and what good did all the protesting do…blah, blah. Couldn’t I see that? When someone pointed out to him that there weren’t hippies in the 1950’s he just shrugged and kept on lecturing.

Okay, it wasn’t a BAD critique just a stupid one.

June 6, 2010 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul Fahey wrote via email:

"I’m not much for critique groups but I’m not much for any kind of group...[but] I’ve had great luck with online groups, mainly a flash fiction workshop that lasted over two years, and online writing classes that have been terrific for my styles, writing and learning. I’m mainly a visual learner and find that I can work well in online situations. Maybe it’s the face to face thing that is scary."

June 6, 2010 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

I'm really enjoying my group. Although a critique isn't always easy to hear, after I've mulled it over for a couple of days, I always see that the group is right! My work is MUCH stronger because of them. Thanks for all the great links.

June 6, 2010 at 7:26 PM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

Thank goodness it's Sunday -- a new post from Anne!

Anne, not sure why you lost a follower over the post on critique groups, maybe it was due to something else, or a google mishap?

I really needed a year of growth in a critique group to learn that people want different things from stories, and that there is no right answer. The novel I workshopped with my group for a year taught me a lot, but also changed the novel and not necessarily for the better. Now I am workshopping another novel with them-- the novel I care about, the novel I'm exciting about, and this time I am picking up very clearly on what I need to hear. That means also discarding what doesn't work. The process is much faster and smoother this time around. I mentioned last week that the worst thing I've gotten is repeated critiques from a guy who can't stand my main character and offers up no critique other than "she is annoying and shallow and awful."

I encourage every writer who is still getting a handle on being comfortable with novels to participate in a group. You learn so much about yourself in the process, and you also begin to develop an internal list of what to watch for in your writing.

June 6, 2010 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger Vatche said...

Hey, Anne, I hate it when someone becomes an un-follower. I just got one today without even noticing who it was, so it must've been someone not so important on my blog really.

As for critiques, I'm only eighteen and I've already been barraged with maelstroms of critiques from classmates, who think I'm somehow egotistical for writing a blog...which I don't really understand because a lot of people have blogs. Does that make them egotistical?

I've suffered a lot for my craft and I'm not going to give up because of a person's negative comment out of left field. Though it feels like a punch in the gut, I move forward without looking back at that person. I responded to the person's comment with an intelligent remark of my own and I've yet to see the person return. Also, when someone critiques me like such said person, I usually have a follower or two who defend me, which is always a nice feeling.

Cool post and write on!

June 7, 2010 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger Andrea -The Blogging Literary Mama said...

I have my second crit group tonight. I'm not reading anything of mine till July (we sign up two per meeting) but it is interesting to hear others talk. Some are not very helpful and are more negative than positive. Honest feedback is good but I think it is taking with more authority if a positive, no matter how small, comes first. I gave 30 pages to someone once who was a latin teacher (she offered to read for me) and she said she had a hard time because she'd filled all the pages with red. I still haven't dug back into that manuscript, even though I didn't agree with a lot of what she said (that work being aimed at adults versus the teen group she based her crit on).

I would rather find an online group, for which I did visit the forums at Nathan Bransford's site (no luck so far). The people in my in-person group are more casual writers, for fun. I had made a few suggestions based on my past interactions with agents and my own experiences thus far. None of them seemed to even know what I was talking about which was somewhat disheartening. I'll continue to go to the group but I really wish I could find a more serious for-publication group here in NoWheresVille.

June 7, 2010 at 6:37 AM  
Blogger KLM said...

Hey, I lost a follower too in the last few days -- maybe it was the same person! :)

Worst critique experience? Someone who contacted me through my blog, unsolicited, offered to read. I said, sure, we can trade our first 20 pp. I gave her nice comments, she RIPPED MY FIRST 20 PP APART. Like, seriously. I have never gotten worse comments in my entire writing life.

That'll teach me, eh?

June 7, 2010 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments everybody. There is certainly a wide range of experiences here.

Loren, I hope you find a good group at some point, if only to counter the bad experience you had with the online group.

Christine, ignorance + arrogance = bad critiquing, doesn't it? Certain people join groups just because they want an audience for their pet rants. Sounds you ran into one of those.

Julie & Sierra, it sounds like you've found good supportive groups. That's nice to hear.

Vatche and KLM--you've both lost followers, too? Maybe it's the same person following/unfollowing a bunch of writing blogs?

And KLM, I'm so sorry you went through that. I've had a couple of similar experiences. Some "fan" says, "I'm dying to read your new stuff! Do you have anything new I can read??" Then they give you 100% negative (generally clueless) feedback. They tend to be frustrated writers themselves, but usually you don't find that out until after they've tromped on your soul.

Andrea, good luck with your new group. I know there are good online groups. I think I remember something called Critique Circle. And I think Absolute Write has groups through their forums. Anybody have any suggestions for her?

June 7, 2010 at 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I belong to a CP group that has just formed this year. It comprises of two members who were previously cp partners and then me, the newbie. I've had to get into the swing of two very different styles of writing but it has been great fun.

It has been a great learning experience for me too and I cherish their support and comments on my ms.

The only thing I find really annoying about critiques in general is when someone makes a comment about something but doesn't explain their comment.

eg.Your hero seems shallow here.

Okay, in what way? Is it something he does, doesn't do, says, doesn't say?

So, my advice to CPs everywhere is be honest, yet diplomatic, and explain your comments whenever possible. (This would be good for contest judges too)It's not good enough just to comment. Your friend doesn't have time to try and read between the lines or try and figure out what you really mean.

Great blog.
Cas from Australia

June 7, 2010 at 6:03 PM  
Blogger Alison Stevens said...

I'm fairly new to critique groups, but I find mine really helpful. Fortunately, my critique partners all use the "positive, not-so-positive, positive" approach to presenting their comments.

There may be disagreement about how a story should be presented, but overall, when the comments from more than one person are in agreement (and I can force myself to take a step back), I realize that the section in question needs fixing. More often than not, those sections are things that niggled in the back of my mind; I knew they weren't right, but I didn't bother fixing them before taking it to the critique group.

Thanks for the great links, Anne!

June 8, 2010 at 5:42 AM  
Blogger Dorothy Ann Segovia said...

Thanks for the links - the post from Bookfraud was hilarious.

I've had bad experiences in one on one situations only when I failed to request what I was looking for...

A positive example is that I requested a friend who was schooled in community theatre and a teacher - to read my musical. She offered great suggestions - but I had called her to see if she was interested. Basically I needed a read-through to see if the musical made sense....

Turns out it did. Her comments were valuable. She gave positive feedback much more than the niggly technical errors. I sent her $ for coffee and dessert - she said it was such an honor to read the script that she didn't need a treat! So, I guess when I treat my work professionally - others will too.

June 10, 2010 at 10:33 AM  
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June 21, 2010 at 2:52 AM  

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