books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bad Critique Groups—8 Things That Can Push a Group Over to the Dark Side. Plus a Halloween Contest!

Good critique groups are the easiest (and cheapest) way for new writers to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up agents’ and publishers’ desks (or becoming part of Konrath’s tsunami of crap.)

UPDATE: If you're looking for a good online critique group or beta reader, Lynnette Labelle has formed a critique matchmaking service on her blog. She's got a great questionnaire that I think will weed out any of the following problems. Here's the link to Lynnette's Blog.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
Group feedback can help skilled writers as well. A lot of us like to process our work through a group before we send it out into the unforgiving marketplace. (Nobody’s snarkier than the one-star Amazon reviewer.) 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 fifteen 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.”

Here are eight things that can make a critique group go sour:

1)     No rules. Without following standard protocol—like no cross-talk and no arguing—meetings can turn into free-for-all shout-fests.

2)     No moderator. Somebody needs to be in control and make sure rules are being followed and emotional arguments don’t derail the procedings.

3)     Misinformation. People who are full of false or outdated ideas of what constitutes good writing can ruin yours. For my tips on bad advice to ignore, click here

4)     The Grammar Taliban. You’re not going to be helped much by critiquers who harp about sentence fragments and how you should never use a preposition to end a sentence with. If you listen to them, your work will end up sounding like a high school term paper.

5)     Power Trippers. I’ve been to critique groups where one member went into a rage when it became obvious the writer being critiqued wasn’t going to make the changes the power tripper thought were required. These people need therapy, not a writing group.

6)     Praiseaholics. To them, any string of words typed onto a piece of paper is genius. Nothing is ever wrong and nothing can be improved. They might even get angry when you come in with a second draft, because the rough draft was “perfect.”

7)     Co-Authors. There’s often somebody sooooo helpful that she tries to re-write your story entirely—to sound exactly like one of hers.

8)     Dogmatic PC/Religious Policepersons. Critiquers who think you should only write stuff about people exactly like you, or them—or stuff that supports one political or religious world view—create tension that’s hard to overcome. Small minds create small books.

I’ve seen a number of wonderful writers pummelled by misguided critique groups. I first met author Catherine Ryan Hyde in her pre-Pay it Forward days when she read at a local critique group. Her story was brilliant. Scenes from it are still vivid in my mind. But the critiquers hated it—mostly because they didn’t think a woman who has never been in combat should be “allowed” to write about a male character fighting a war.

I was only a guest, so I wasn’t allowed to speak, but on the way out, I stopped her and said I thought they were full of crap. She shrugged and said she’d learned to cherry-pick the good stuff and ignore the rest.

But later that year I attended a prestigious writers’ conference where I saw an equally talented, but not as confident young man bullied by a bunch of know-it-all Bozos in a workshop. What was worse, they were egged on by the workshop leader—who seemed more interested in wielding power than in improving anybody’s prose.

I tried to speak to the abused writer afterward—to say how much I disagreed with what had been said—but he dismissed me with a few angry words and took off running. I realized he was close to tears.

That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by the bullying critiquers, he killed himself. Of course the story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to simply the appearance of suicide. Then I added a few more murders (I had to kill off that workshop leader!) plus some romantic sizzle, a couple of ghosts, a cross-dressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.

The result was a comic mystery called Ghostwriters in the Sky, set at a Z-list writers’ conference in the wine-and-cattle country north of Santa Barbara, CA. It was originally going to be published by my UK publisher as a sequel to The Best Revenge. I thought it had a great shot at finding an audience, because at the time I was a columnist for a popular writers' magazine, and this was a story I thought most writers would relate to.

But my publisher went belly-up and I slowly discovered that nobody in New York would go near a story about the publishing industry. 

“We live with this stuff every day,” wrote one agent. “We don’t find it entertaining in a novel.”

After a few hundred rejections, I put the book in the file of “not a snowball’s chance in Hades” and wrote a couple more books. But I was sad to lose the story. It’s got the most fun humor and most intricate plotting of any of my work. And Marva, the dominatrix, is one of my all-time favorite characters.

So I sure was pleased when Mark Williams asked to read Ghostwriters last August. He liked it and had some great suggestions of ways to make the convoluted plot less confusing. His suggestions were great, so I jumped into some major revisions.  

And now, ta-da: here it is. The world debut of the ebook of  GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY It's available at the US Amazon.com for $2.99 and the UK Amazon.co.uk for what I assume is the equivalent, which they won't let us Yanks see.

And as a Halloween gift: I’d like to give away a couple of e-books to any of you with e-readers or a reading app on your phone, PC or whatever. (And I can get a Nook version direct from the publisher, since Smashwords can be so slooooow.)

Just leave your name in the comments between now and 9:00 PM on Halloween, Pacific Time. I’ll give everybody a number and use a random number generator to choose two winners, which I will announce on November 1, along with some other exciting news.

I’d also love for you to share any experiences you’ve had with nasty critiquers. Have you ever felt bullied by a critique group? Or has somebody said something so nasty about your writing that you considered giving up? (It’s OK to comment even if you don’t want an e-book. I don’t have a Kindle yet, either.)

You can also read an interview with me today on Morgen Bailey's wonderful blog. Plus I’ve finally set up a Facebook authorpage. If you go over, you can see the covers of some upcoming books (and if you wanted to “like” the page, that would be awesome.)

And for you readers who, like me, haven’t yet been Kindlized: FOOD OF LOVE is now available in paper! You can buy it for $9.95 from Popcorn Press or Amazon.com (eligible for super saver shipping.) 

Coming up in the blog: Next week, on November 6, book reviewer DANIELLE SMITH of Chick Lit Reviews and News  is going to tell us how to query a book blogger, what her pet peeves are, and how to find reviewers in your genre.

Then on November 13, legendary mystery author and writing guru LAWRENCE BLOCK will be guest posting about his personal adventures with self-publishing. Usually you’d have to go to a writers’ conference or an MFA program to hear from a superstar like Mr. Block, so I’m totally jazzed he’s going to be visiting.

And in December, we’ll have a visit from one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Romance author RONI LOREN, who has an erotic romance coming out in January from Berkeley Heat. She’s going to counteract some of that doom and gloom and tell us some of the good aspects of being  published by a Big Six publisher.

39 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm the first one to comment. I know we don't always follow our own rules in our critique groups, but we really have built trust over time. We are supportive and constructive. I think we all understand that, as the author, we have the final say on other's "suggestions."

    Now, let's see what you have to say.

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  2. This was great, thank you. I have just joined an online group as a new children's writer in a non Anglophone nation. I guess it is just trial and error, but the only corrections I received for my first PB manuscript were when I had used British expressions instead of American. I know, however, that the story ARC needs work. I will try for one or two more manuscripts, but call it quits, if there isn't more depth to the critique. This wasn't a nasty critique, just a bit too neutral!

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  3. I'm glad none of my critique partners are like those people. I guess I got really lucky. Or blessed!
    And glad you never gave up on that one story. You just don't know what will happen in the future, right?

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  4. I had a lucky escape from a group that I think would have probably ticked all 8 boxes. I'd joined online, had a lovely welcome but no events planned, received an automated 'suggest something please' so I did and was kicked out the group (before attending an in-person meeting) for 'taking over' (I was just trying to take part). But as I run two and belong to two others (and have a silly-busy blog, of which Anne kindly took part today as she mentioned :)) all of which tick none of the don't boxes I count myself very fortunate indeed. :)

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  5. Oh My God! Those experiences are horrible. I know some writer's groups are a bit meh, but I didn't think they were bad.

    I was invited to one a few years ago and turned the offer down. It feels very uncomfortable.

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  6. Oy! Highly illuminating nevertheless. I've never been part of a critique group but I have been extensively reviewed back when magazines & newspapers actually had book review pages or sections. I concluded that, basically, a book review is a public Rorhshach test--for the reviewer, not the writer. I used to wonder sometimes if they all actually read the same book!

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  7. Judythe--It always feels weird to be the first commenter, doesn't it? We're lucky to belong to an organization that sets up critique groups with a very sensible set of rules.

    Joanna--What's up with these provincial Yanks "correcting" Brit spelling? I hear about this in Amazon reviews all the time. Fellow Americans, get a clue! It's their language. They had it first.

    One thing critique groups can't do well is help with story arc, because we look at things chapter by chapter. You need a beta reader for that.

    Alex--You're so right about not seeing the future. By next Halloween, we may have interactive Kindles and soundtracks for our novels.

    Morgen--Sounds as if you were well out of that group. Groups that don't want leadership can be tyrannized by their own inertia. And thanks again for hosting me on your wonderful blog. (And it does look as if it would keep you silly-busy)

    Kamille--A few bad experiences shouldn't scare you off. Most critique groups are fantastic.

    Ruth--Brilliant! "A review is a public Rorhshach test." It's always more about the reviewer than it is about the book. I totally agree.

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  8. Florence Fois said--

    (but was blocked by the %#&* Blogger demons)

    My first experience was a small local writers group. I spent two years listening to much of what you listed above. Went to another group, the requirement was to print with line numbers ... example of a critique. "Florence, page two, line 43. Oh, by the way, don't do sequential numbers. Number each page from one to..." She grinned, "Yes, line 43, that should be "the" and not "a" and you need a comma after the word seven..." That was the first and last time for them.

    Third group had a leader who used a stop watch. When the time was up, you stopped. Each person HAD to make a comment, or say why not.

    In the first group I met some good friends. I don't go anymore because the nature of the group, aside from every single point you made, is to allow anyone at all who walks though the door to read, and read snippets they wrote about their wonderful life, and read pages and pages of a five hundred page novel that never ended. The bottom line was I never got realistic or honest feedback.

    TWO years I struggled until I found an honest CP. Was that a bad thing? In the end, no. I started a blog and met great people like you, I joined on-line groups and read everything I could about the craft of writing, rewriting and learning to trust my inner voice.

    I've met two great beta readers. Like the work, finding the right fit with groups or CPs takes time. Take the time and the care you would with your stories with the people you trust to read and critique them.Thanks again, Anne:)

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  9. Dearest Miss Allen,
    I, too have found a phenomenally helpful critique group (you may know a few of them). I'd like to add that I agree with Catherine, especially when it comes to specific strengths &/or blindspots one's critiquers might have. I still greatly miss Marty Rochlin, whose every comment about relationships or internal life, I bought 100%. Also, as a YA writer in a mixed critique group, I have to filter adult-writing critiquers' responses through my understanding of YA writing.

    Oh, & tbanks bigtime for the line "..you should never use a preposition to end a sentence with."

    You're cracking me up,
    Charlie

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  10. I don't belong to one in real life, but have three crit partners I rely on extensively. We abuse each other constantly, but it's a lot of fun. I think the main thing one must have is mutual respect for not only the writer, but the genre they write in. I don't write YA but have critiqued several YA ms, as well as fantasy, and thriller. Being respectful is the key.

    @ Joanna -- And how funny is it, that as an American writer, writing British Regency romance, readers think my "accent" is charming. Go figure.

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  11. I've been struggling to break into a regular critique group. I thought I found one and then at the last meeting, one of the writers sort of freaked at the critique. Then, everyone was like "Whoa... I don't want to deal with that every time." Sigh.

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  12. I much prefer online review groups to the personal.

    For the writer, reading your work out to a group, especially a new group, can be a daunting task at best.

    A writer with good voice control and acting skills can bring to life even a dull script, while a fantastic piece of prose can be rendered unintelligible by poor delivery.

    I much prefer critique groups where paper is submitted one week and discussed informally the next, and this is where the online review groups have their strength. The reader / listener can review in their own time, choose their response carefully and hopefully be more constructive for it.

    But just as with real-life review groups there will always be bullies and control freaks, sycophants and the well-meaning but clueless.

    The online groups can also bring rewards in connecting with valued fellow writers.

    I met my co-author on an online review group, and have met many, many writers who have since gone on to great success, as MWi readers will know.

    I wish I had time to re-visit the peer review groups more often. Some of the finest writers of the future are flexing their writing muscles on these sites.

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  13. I was in a group in NM for about a year and it was fabulous. Until people started to complain about my horror - too icky and squishy they said (they knew I did horror when I formed the group). It was a great mix of genres, though thinking back now, that might have led to "the problem." I'm in the upper plains of ND now, and though I do belong to a small group, we don't get to meet very often (travel time, bad weather, flood). I really miss the interaction.

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  14. My first critique group experience was a mixed bag. It took me a while to learn whose feedback was valuable and whose to take with a handful of salt. Unfortunately, a clash of egos destroyed the group.

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  15. Florence--I have no idea why Blogger has it in for you. It's getting silly now. But at least your post landed in my email inbox. It sounds as if you've collected a full set of bad critique groups. I didn't mention the ones where people read drivel--like their journals or something unpublishable that's been going on for years. We need to find a group with our own level of expertise.

    Mr. Perryess--I miss Marty more than I can say. We were so lucky to have a real shrink in the group to tell us what worked and what didn't.

    Anne--You mention your crit partners often on your blog. They sound perfect.

    Stacy--It does take some shopping around. Nothing worse than the person who can't take criticism. That should be #9!

    Mark--Hooray! The Blogger elves finally allowed you to post here. Instead they blocked Florence. Do you two know each other? I think you're right that online critiquing probably eliminates a number of these problems.

    Karen--Finding a group that "gets" your genre is so important.

    Linda--It's those ego-clashes that can wreck a group every time. Sorry that happened.

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  16. Great post as always Ms. Allen.

    I haven't found a critique group yet. I did have a critique group a while back when I took a creative writing class (which was a great group) but I have yet to find another group like that.

    However, I do have a few close people (and a friend/actual editor) that I give my third drafts for critiquing. The problem sometimes with saying "critiquing" rather than "reading", is a lot of times people interpret it as meaning just point out all the flaws without give a complete overview.

    Not that I require the positives in with the negatives. But sometimes the positives help give me a sense of what's working and what direction I should be heading at. Plus, with critique after critique, I sometimes lose the passion that I originally had and feel like I should wipe the novel off the face of the Earth.

    With that being said though, I appreciate their critiques. Though I don't have many people critiquing, the few I do have improve my work a lot.

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  17. Wonderful post, Anne!
    My nasty critique experience was with a group where the leader, a writing teacher, was a combination of numbers 3, 5 and 8. His effect on me was so toxic I stopped writing for a while.
    I've since found individuals who are great for critiques, but a whole group without crazies or ego trippers is not easy to find.
    BTW- your new book sounds great!

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  18. Unfortunately, you're spot on with your descriptions of critique "ruiners." Finding the perfect mix for a group take a lot of work and energy.

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  19. I belong to a great critique group. We break that "no cross-talk rule" right and left, though. What we never do is shout, argue, or get angry. We discuss, we talk, we bat ideas around, and we laugh. A lot.

    We pass around the moderator's job, too. We're a very egalitarian lot, I guess. It wouldn't work for everyone. It hasn't worked for everyone. People have come and gone, often because they didn't like our dynamic.

    But we've produced some amazing work, and members of this group have sold numerous short stories. We're happy with our rambunctious, rule-breaking, raucous rabble.

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  20. When I first started trying to write seriously, I looked around for any type of writers group locally, but there was nothing. I think I'm glad :-)

    I'm about to have my first critique soon, I'm excited but nervous.

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  21. This is why I've not been able to give up on my women's fiction trilogy, even though my group thinks my fantasy/sci fi writing is where I should focus all my time. Every once in a while I dust the first book off and spend a few hours/day reading and editing. You never know when a story you love might find a publishing home :) Of course, it is my first novel(s) and you know what THEY say about the first novel only good for practice . .

    I have a Kindle; and I love free books :)

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  22. Hi Anne - great post! We are always told we need a critique group, but sometimes the wrong group could be detrimental to our work. I found a local group, and while some feedback was very constructive, often times many of us were left scratching our heads after certain members gave feedback. Eventually, a few of us formed an offshoot of the group on a different night. We were able to 'cherry-pick' our way to a super critique group.

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  23. That's a great list, you nailed it!

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  24. I don't have a kindle, etc. but I did order a couple of copies of your newly released paperback (Food of Love) and will send one to a friend in Florida to read, and then we'll both go write a review for Amazon! Yee-haw! I'll be a book reviewer. Heh-heh.

    You're certainly right that critiquing is an art form in its own right and very, very tough to do right. But if you're lucky enough to have great beta readers and/or a good group, you're lucky indeed.

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  25. Luckily for me I've never had anyone so nasty critique my work. But I don't show my pre-published work to strangers - my critique partners are people I choose myself whose opinions I trust. And even if they don't like something, I know that they'll tell me without making me wish I could fall off the face of the earth.

    As for the contest, I'd love to be included! :)

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  26. Andrew—That’s one of the guidelines our group has—you need to give equal positive and negative feedback, otherwise people can’t hear what’s being said—they just feel attacked.

    Alicia—Sounds as if you had one of the really bad ones. I can understand wanting to stick with single critiquers instead of a group after that.

    Deb—You’re so right. It’s the mix that matters. One grammar policeperson isn’t so bad if you get balance with a more creative type, but if you get two police types, you’ve got a bad situation.

    Mary Ann—I’ve been in freewheeling groups like that, when we got discussions going and everybody talked back and forth. It was a lot of fun. It was a small enough group that time wasn’t at a huge premium, and not everybody brought something each time, so it worked.

    Sarah—That first critique is hard, so be prepared. We never know where our weaknesses lie—and we all have them, but it can be hard to hear. I hope your critiquer will give the good with the bad.

    Donna—I’ve seen that happen to other writers. They start to write YA and join a YA group, but their book morphs into adult fiction and they sometimes have to drop out. Kind of tough.

    Terra—I know of that happening in several groups. If there are one or two toxic types in the group, the rest slowly drop out—then form their own, friendlier group. A little painful, but it works.

    Rick—Thanks!

    Chura—Thank you so much! A friend who buys your book is a friend indeed. And yes, critiquing is a craft that takes a long time to learn to do well.

    Ranae—Good critique partners are golden. If you’ve got them, and you trust them, you know the work you put out there is the best it can be.

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  27. I have the kindle app on my netbook and am hoping to receive an actual Kindle for Christmas... I also wore my Halloween costume all day (who cares if I'm over 30), so do I get two numbers? *grin* lol just kidding.

    Thank you for the advice on the critique groups. I'm wondering how you go about finding them. I was meeting up about once a month with some fellow writers I met through NaNo, but we lost touch early in the summer (though I did see one of them at the kick off party). Sadly our focus was being in the company of writers to write, which wasn't bad, but I'm getting to a point where I wouldn't mind a real critique group...

    Providing I can convince myself I have time to critique. I feel like I"m juggling a whole heck of a lot right now.

    :} Cathryn Leigh

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  28. Great post! I was the anxious writer...dying for feedback. I followed the rules, attended my second meeting before I could participate, then waited for pearls of wisdom. The first comment was great-positive, helpful, worthy! Then a few mamby-pamby comments--they meant well. Then the barracuda dug in. She was actually ANGRY while expressing her comments. When someone asked me a direct question, she screamed, "YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK! YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK!" The last guy wanted to rewrite for me. Apparently I didn't have enough "road signs" and "highway traffic" for him to have the impression that my protagonist was ACTUALLY in an RV while driving down the road. Never went back...

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  29. Cathryn--A good place to find in-person critique groups is look for notices at the library or a local bookstore. Critique Circle.com is supposed to be great for online groups. I sure hear you about juggling too many things right now. An online group can be better for the tightly scheduled.

    Didi--Oh, you had a classic policeperson there. And I do hate that, when somebody asks a direct question and then doesn't let you answer. And you had a "co-author" too. I never heard of a road-sign critique. Ruth is right, critiques usually tell you much more about the critiquer than your own work.

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  30. Mine isn't really a horror story, but there was a time when I was way too quick to take any and all advice. I have since learned that I am the master of my story, and while some other folks have really good points, others do not. Sometimes it is best to nod politely and ignore.

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  31. Dawn--Thanks for adding that. I think it's true of a lot of us when we're starting out with critiques. We listen to everybody, and start losing control of our own stories. Some people--even very good writers--can be unhelpful to OUR story if they don't get it, or they don't understand where we want to take it.

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  32. The contest is now closed at 26 entries, but please keep leaving comments!

    I'll announce two winners tomorrow. I've given each commenter a number and I'll put them into a random number generator to choose the winners.

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  33. The most important thing I want in a critique group is brutality! Anything else I can get from family and friends.

    William Doonan

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  34. William--Remember that brutal doesn't always mean helpful. A romance lover might say your book sux because there's no kissing scene on page three. But that's not going to be very helpful if you're writing a thriller. Any Homer Simpson can say nasty things about a Picasso painting. It takes education and thought to know what's good.

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  35. Early in our writing experiences, I talked my husband into joining a writing group. He was the only man in teh grouop and the welve women loved him, loved his writing, but made him rewrite everything. He being the naive writer he was at the time, took all of their suggestions and gamely redid everything. Atthe end of the summer, one of the women said, "Gee, isn't this back to what you first brought us?" And it was. It took him some time before he got over his writing- group-o-phobia.
    Lesley
    PS. The group hated everything I wrote.

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  36. Lesley--What a bad group experience. Sounds like you had all 8 types in there. Your husband's story is a cautionary one we should all heed. It's happened to me, too--not with critiquers--but agents and editors. #1 says: get rid of X and y & add z. #2 says: get rid of z. #3 says: add x and y. Right back where I started--after lots of agonizing work. I think some people mess with your stuff just for the power trip.

    Maybe it's better they hated your work--you didn't have to "fix" it and unfix it later.

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  37. Is it just me or does the writing blogsphere kind of walk a bit of a fine line between 'supportive' and 'praisaholic'?

    I've experienced a number of those situations - good writing groups are hard to find.

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  38. dadwho--You've got a point. I do see a lot of over-praising on some of the critique forums. But if the writer being critiqued is a beginner, there's a logic behind this. I'll give a beginner a lot more praise than a seasoned professional. That's because they can't be compared with the same criteria. If you compared a newbie with a pro, you'd heap so much negativity on the newbie that he wouldn't hear any of it. Human minds can only take in so much negativity. If it isn't balanced with praise, it feels like an attack, and mental walls go up. So it's wise to "temper the wind to the shorn lamb."

    On the other hand, if everybody is getting equal praise, the critiques aren't worth much.

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  39. I'm a little late to comment. Good post with very constructive advice. Because I live overseas I'm in an online critique group. It was very interesting in the beginning as we worked out the dynamics of the group and got a feel for the strengths and weaknesses each of us bring to the table. One of my cps had experiences such as you talked about in a "live" critique group. This was at her local library and not people who wrote in romance. They basically ripped into everything she did, really damaging her self esteem when she is a very talented writer. A good critique group is a treasure and a bad one is destructive.

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