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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, August 3, 2014

Why You Should Ignore Most of the Advice from your Critique Group…but They Can Help You Anyway

by Anne R. Allen

I generally advise new writers to join a critique group or participate in writing workshops. Getting feedback on your own writing and discovering what works—and what doesn't—in other writers' WIPs provides an education you can't get from simply reading craft books, blogs, or listening to lectures.

And I'm not the only fan of critique groups. Here's a post from Ian Martyn on Why You Should Join A Critique Group that was picked up by Joel Friedlander's Carnival of the Indies Round-up last week.

Joining a writing group is one of the easiest ways to learn your craft. And it's way cheaper than hiring an editor as soon as you write "the end" on that first draft. Editors are very expensive (for good reason, as Belinda Pollard tells us.)

The best use of an editor is to polish a book that's already been workshopped in a group or critiqued by several beta readers.

So how do you find a critique group and/or beta readers? Here's a fantastic post from author Jami Gold to help in your search. She'll be bringing us more information on the subject when she guest posts for us right here next week.

However, critique groups pose a unique set of problems. They're usually made up of other newbie writers. Who often give terrible advice.

So why am I telling you to join one?

Because writing in a vacuum is worse. Writing without feedback can waste tons of time. And critique groups are made up of other writers, so they understand the process. They know about s***y first drafts and the need to improve them.

You can effectively use groups to improve your writing skills and polish your book if you:

  • Learn to read between the lines.
  • Always consider the source.
  • Wear your psychic armor and ignore everything that's irrelevant. 

When there's a problem with your opener, the thriller writer will say you need more violence and the poet will say you need more description. The budding romance writer may suggest you show the heroine looking in the mirror describing her appearance, and the scifi author wants to land a spaceship on the roof.

They're very likely all wrong.

But now you know you need to rework the opener. Go read some articles on how to start a novel or how not to start a novel, rewrite and take it back to the group. If you've learned from what you've read, they probably won't feel the need for spaceships and mirrors anymore.

If there's a problem with clarity, you'll get suggestions to slow it down, speed it up, add a prologue and/or a flashback, or have the characters explain what's going on in dialogue.

Those are probably all bad ideas, too.

But now you know you've got confused readers. What you've learned is you need to spell things out more clearly.

In other words, critique groups draw your attention to places where you have problems. The members may not know how to fix those problems, but what they choose to talk about can help you focus on what needs work.

Groups that meet in person offer the benefit of actual human contact, but online groups are helpful too.

Either type works better if it has a strong moderator who enforces the rules and keeps the conversation focused on improving the work...not furthering the critiquers' personal agendas.

As bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde says, "nobody does anything without an agenda, conscious or not." She has a great piece on "The Care and Feeding of your Critiquers' Agendas" our book How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.  

Which is, ahem, only 99c this week on an Amazon countdown special. See details below.

BTW, Catherine's new novel Take me With You hit #3 on Amazon this week and it made #1 in about six categories. I'm in awe of this woman.

Good moderators keep the feedback from being one-sided: either all negative or all positive. The best critique is a sandwich: two bits of praise surrounding one piece of criticism.

For an excellent, comprehensive set of guidelines read Sharyl Heber's Critique Group Guidelines written for the SLO Nightwriters.

Unfortunately, even with good moderation, groups can lose sight of their purpose and end up fulfilling the needs of the most dominant members of the group rather than helping ALL members produce their best work.

So it's good to be aware of what type of group you're dealing with so you can get the most out of their feedback and ignore the stuff that's not relevant to your own writing goals.

Groups of any kind can fall into bad habits. I've been in dozens of writing groups over the years, and I've seen how one or two members can often change the nature of a group entirely. Here are a few common deviations from the solid critique group we're all looking for. Some can be repaired, but sometimes you just have to move on.

1) The Literary Salon

This kind of group is usually dominated by readers and writers of literary fiction. There will probably be a couple of poets and a memoirist or two. They may write brilliantly and have a vast knowledge of literature, but their critiques can be less than helpful. They often veer off topic to discuss a recent article in the New York Review of Books or the Paris Review.

They tend to be old school, so won't consider self-publishing. They may send out a few half-hearted queries comparing their work to Kerouac, Joyce, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but probably don't attempt to get published outside of small literary journals.

They can have very useful things to say about character and setting, and are probably fantastic at helping you weed out clichés. But on plot and structure, they can be pretty useless.

What to ignore: 

These people will tell you (with great authority) that you must describe each tree and rock your heroine passes while running from the Orc army into the Forest of Doom. They want every nuance of emotion recorded while your starfighter hero is battling the droid hordes from Betelgeuse. They abhor cliff-hangers and want "closure" for every scene. Ignore this stuff if you are writing to sell.

The fix: 

Ask that every writer state their genres and the kind of feedback they're looking for before they read. A logline can be very helpful too.

If you remind people you're asking for feedback on a political thriller, they may have more helpful suggestions than "add more description of the landscape" and if you know you're critiquing a metaphysical meditation on the oneness of the universe, you won't be as likely to say "where are the zombies?"

2) The Enforcers

These people never met a writing rule they didn't love. They want to enforce each one with a "zero tolerance" policy. At least one member is convinced the Harlequin submission guidelines were etched on stone tablets by the Almighty.

For them it's all about finding and shaming the rule-breakers, not improving their fellow writers' work.

They tell you the word "was" is taboo. (For more on this see my post on the "was" police) They insist on no prologues, EVER. They tell you a book can't (or must) be written in the first person or present tense. They have a search-and-destroy policy concerning adverbs. 

What to ignore: 

The dogma. Always ask yourself, "would this change strengthen or weaken my story?" and "who invented this rule?" Do their suggestions give you an "ah-ha" moment, or make you want to toss the baked brie in the critiquer's face? 

The fix:

Pay attention but keep your shaker of salt handy. Sometimes the "rules" can hold a key to a big improvement in your writing. I once went to a workshop where an enforcer hated the word "just". I went through my work when I got home and discovered my overuse of the word was almost comical. 90% of the time, I could just eliminate the word and my sentence was stronger.

On the other hand, these people can drive you nuts. Humor sometimes helps, and using some in your own critiques may help. But mostly you have to put up your personal deflector shields and let a lot of it bounce off.

3) Group Therapy

One of the most common pitfalls for writing groups is the tendency to slip into psychotherapy. This happens most often if there are several memoirists in the group who are working on their break-up, wartime, or health issues through writing.

The line between creating and confessing gets very thin. (And some people use their writing to dump their troubles on the group.)

Critiquers often feel they should give supportive, "attaboy" feedback, no matter what the quality of the writing.

There can also be an element of the "suffering contest," if two or more memoirists are using the group to detail the horrors that tragified their lives.    

When you're hoping to get a little help with the plotting of your chick lit novel or breezy romance, you can feel like you're crashing the pity party.

You're also going to get terrible advice from the tender-hearted members who have fits whenever your protagonist makes bad choices. They want you to stop every character from dancing with the judgemental aristocrat, fighting the fascists in Spain, or accepting the owl's invitation to wizard school (who would be dumb enough to do that?) Plotting is not their strong point.

What to ignore: 

Almost all of it. You joined the group to polish your writing, not practice medicine without a license. There's a reason shrinks get paid the big bucks to listen to this stuff.

The fix: 

Give professional, balanced critiques when it's your turn. Groups like this can be kind of toxic, so unless there are enough members who can rein in the psychotherapy drama you may have to move on. Especially if you write comedy or light fiction. (And remember laughter really is the best medicine.)

4) The Golden Girls

A group that consists mostly of an older demographic can sometimes be dominated by people with memory issues. (Hey, age happens to all of us, with any luck!) But this means critiques of longer works like memoir and novels can be difficult because people don't remember what they heard in the last installment.

What to ignore: 

They'll insist that you remind the reader of plot points and character relationships in every chapter. Don't do it! This can result in repetition that can turn your book into a repetitive mess. They also may want to go off on tangents about how this story reminds them of the time back in '65…

The fix: 

Try giving a short "in our last episode" recap before each reading. A logline helps too, as a reminder to people that this is a chapter in a mystery or a romance or a thriller and the action is moving toward a certain goal. If reminiscences start to take over, you may need a stronger moderator who will time the critiques.

5) The Punctuation Police

Some groups ask that members bring printed copies of their work to hand out to everybody in the group. This can be super-useful if you need help with proofreading, but meetings that use printed pages can often devolve into drawn-out arguments over use of the Oxford comma.

Groups that focus on grammar will do very little to help with your overall storytelling skills, but if you want to brush up on basic skills or need a proofreader, they're great.

What to ignore: 

This isn't so much a case of ignoring something as going elsewhere for useful feedback on character, setting, story arc, plotting etc. These people can be golden for proofreading, so the group can be very valuable.

The fix: 

Try not printing out the pages for several meetings. Just read aloud and give feedback on the characters and story instead of the punctuation.

6) The Coffee Klatch

This is the group that never quite gets around to more than a couple of critiques per meeting because so much of the time is spent catching up on personal news and enjoying elaborate refreshments.

Providing the refreshments can become a competitive sport. If the group meets in the evening there may be some lovely wine.

Groups like this can be a godsend to a writer who's been holed up in a writing cave for years and needs some human contact, but their feedback is usually skimpy. Groups like this can be made up mostly of hobbyist writers who only want to share a few written reminiscences or verses with the group, but aren't on a path to publication.

What to ignore: 

Don't get sucked by the illusion you're doing anything to improve your craft at these meetings. Treat it as a social event where you'll get much needed moral support. But if you're on a career track, don't let them hold you back.

The fix: 

If you find that giving an honest critique gets cold stares, look for people in the group who are hoping to be career writers and suggest you meet separately for a small no-nonsense workshop. Serve only water. (In my experience, alcohol—or other mind-altering substances—and critiques do not mix.)

7) The Reality Checkers

There are groups where the fact-checkers hold sway. These are super detail-oriented people who want a novel to be as close to real life as possible.

They want everything to be "realistic" down to knowing when and where your heroine goes to the bathroom when she's running from the mutant raccoons on Mars. Their most scathing criticism is that your scene is "like something out of a (insert your the latest blockbuster) movie."

They will be sure to point out that your Regency duke will have terrible B.O. after fighting off those ruffians, so the kiss the heroine has been anticipating for 30 pages would not be the glorious experience you describe.

They will never let you use the word "gun": you must give the make and caliber every time anybody gets off a shot during the battle between the sentient sea lions and the Norwegian mafia Lutefisk-smuggling ring.

What to ignore: 

Anything that gets you bogged down in detail or defies accepted genre conventions in order to be more "realistic." A novelist is not a news reporter. As James Patterson says, "I don't write realism. I write larger than life. It's what I do." What Patterson also does is sell more books than any other writer in the world.

The fix: 

If only one or two people in the group are hung up on tedious details, give them a nice smile and ignore them. If the whole group stresses mundane details at the expense of story, you probably need a new group.

8) The Poetry Slam

Whether or not the members are actual poets, some groups turn out to be less like critique groups and more like competitive poetry readings. These groups can be full of people who want to perform, but tune out when anybody else is reading.

Their critiques may careen from lavish praise to savage criticism, or they may order you to write an entirely new plot, which they will outline for you in detail. That's because they will say anything that allows them to hold the floor as long as possible.

These people can build you up one week and say devastating things the next—anything that comes into their heads—entirely without empathy. You are not real to them: you are just a bit of warm protoplasm that makes up their "audience."

What to ignore: 

Most of what the prima donnas say. They probably didn't listen to more than a few sentences of your piece anyway, so their comments are irrelevant.

The fix: 

If there are enough people in the group who do listen, and their feedback is useful, you might suggest timed critiques.

9) The Mutual Admiration Society

Like the Coffee Klatch, this group is all about schmoozing and bolstering flagging egos. To give them credit, these people are not focused on the ginger-pear Linzer torte and imported Gewürztraminer. They are actually interested in the work.

Unfortunately, everything brought for critique is always wonderful! marvelous!! and worthy of publication in The New Yorker and YOU MUST SEND IT OFF RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! They don't want you to change a thing.

What to ignore: 

The illusion your work can't be improved. Groups like this can send clueless newbies out into the mean streets of publishing where they'll be devastated by real-world feedback.

The fix: 

You might start by asking for specifics on your own work. If you are having trouble choosing whether to go on with the book in first person or switch to third, or add a prologue, or delete a character or whatever, ask each member to to state an opinion.

Or join a second group, maybe online. Don't leave this group—praise is hard to come by in this business, but look for some balance

10) The Vicious Circle

This group is dominated by a handful of Dorothy Parker-wannabes who are waiting for the right moment to slip a verbal dagger into your heart.

They may have published a few things—which they feel makes them "experts"—but it was probably some time ago.

Like in college. When they got some harsh feedback from the writer-in-residence, who may have used words like "puerile", "self-indulgent", and "derivative."

Since then, they've been honing their bitterness till it cuts like a samurai sword.

They have a way of sighing before they deliver their scathing critiques that shows how much pain your very existence is causing them.

It only takes one or two of these—plus their devoted (and fearful) minions—to turn a critique group into one of the darker circles of hell.

A workshop like this at a well-known writers' conference was the inspiration for my comic mystery, Ghostwriters in the Sky. I got to kill off the workshop leader who created this Vicious Circle. Very satisfying.

What to ignore. 

Every. Single. Word. People like this are operating from a place of envy and fear. Nothing they say can help you, because they're only half-listening to your piece. They're too busy rehearsing their bitter bon mots.

The fix: 

Run! Get out while you still have the will to live. 

Know your Goals

The main thing a writer should consider when joining a critique group is the group's goals. The level of skill of the participants isn't as important as knowing whether the members are working toward publication or if attending the group is an end in itself: either for therapy, company, or an audience.

As Jeannie Miernik said in a comment on Ruth's great post on editing last week, "love of rewriting and editing is what separates serious writers from people who just have an emotional need for an audience."

If you're on a career track and want to polish a WIP for publication, you'll get little help from a hobbyist writing group who enjoy "in class" writing exercises and book club-type general discussion.

There's nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. As I've written before, it's a great hobby. There's only a problem when career-track and hobby writers mix without being clear on their needs.

And the most important thing to remember when joining a critique group, as Sharyl Heber says in her critique group guidelines:

"Leave your egos at the door: You are not present to show how brilliant you are or how stupid others are. It is not about you. It is all about the work, and making it the best it can be, for ALL members. It is also about supporting ALL members to enhance their skills. You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others. No need to ‘defend’ your work. If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group."

So put on your armor, learn to consider the source, and jump in. These people may turn out to be your best friends and support as you fight the perils of today's publishing world.

And if you haven't seen it, check out David Congalton's wonderful film, Authors Anonymous, a gentle satire of a critique group where some members are on a career track and the others…not so much.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever been in any of these groups? How did you deal with it? Do you prefer online or in-person groups? Do you have any other "rogue critique group" types to add? Have I scared you off critique groups forever? 


It's here! The second edition of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE is finally available in paper at Amazon US, Amazon UK! It's on sale right now for $11.69 and £10.00

PLUS the ebook is now on an Amazon Countdown: only 99c on Amazon US (99P in the UK) for the next week. The price will return to $3.99 on August 10th. 

As some of you know, Catherine and I have had one disaster after another with this book. The worst blow came a month ago when our agent left her agency and the agency unpublished the Kindle book and stopped publication of the paper book with no warning. We have now published it ourselves. With a lot of help from Jason at Polgarus Studios and the blokes at EBookBargainsUK. (I love it that we can get help from Australia and England in a matter of minutes. There are lots of things to love about the E-Age.)

You'll see a lot of books out there about how to write, and a whole lot more that promise Kindle millions. But this book is different. It helps you establish a professional writing career in this time of rapid change—and answers the questions so many writers are asking:

  • Does an author still need an agent? Can new writers still get published by Big Five publishers?
  • What about digital-only imprints, mid-sized publishers, small presses—or should everybody self-publish? How can you tell if you've found a good self-publishing partner, or a scammy vanity press?
  • Do fiction writers need a platform? What's the difference between a hook, logline and a pitch? And how are they different from the dreaded synopsis? Does an author need to worry about all that if planning to self-publish?
  • Do you need to spend endless hours on social media? Should all authors blog? What are the secrets of a successful blog? How do you cope with rejection, depression, bad reviews and other downsides of the writing profession? 


GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

Want to Appear in Writer's Digest? Here's how. Have you ever tried to write a book in a month-as part of NaNoWriMo, with a writing group, or just on your own? What was your experience? WD wants to hear from you. Tell them about your write-a-thon! Send your story-along with your full name, city and state to writersdigest@fwmedia.com with "BIAM" in the subject line. Responses may appear in Writer's Digest publications and/or on WritersDigest.com.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Eve 2015, Deadline: August 15th

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I never had a critique group I met with when I first began writing. I think it would've scared me. At least most of those groups do. I've heard others talk about the horrors of the rule enforcers, grammar police, and the vicious people.
Fortunately I have test readers and critique partners who aren't afraid to tell me what's wrong and do it with the right amount of snarky humor. Because really, you can't get mad when you're laughing your ass off.
And of course the spaceship needs to land on the roof. Landing in the pool would just be silly!

August 3, 2014 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Judith said...

It's a refrain with me that while it's true that the writer should leave their ego at the door, so should would-be critiquers. One of the worst disservices writers can do to each other is not really reading the story that's been written and responding to that in a constructive (by which I do not mean uncritical) way.

I once heard advice along the lines of...when people criticize or point out a problem, there's probably some kind of issue and the writer should at least take a second look at it. However, when people give suggestions for how they would improve it, the writer should almost certainly ignore them.

Problem/stumbling over something - check it out.

Solution/Fix/What if? - ignore it.

I've found that to be fairly reliable advice. Even if people are not correctly identifying a problem, they are at least pointing in a potentially troublesome area. However, no one knows the story but the writer. Suggestions can derail.

August 3, 2014 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Ha! You've nailed any number of critiquing behaviors. My experience with critique groups has mostly been very positive, but even if my group was populated with the folks you've introduced in this post, I'd still keep going. One of the huge gifts of a critique group is an ongoing deadline. Those of us without agents or editors barking at us to finish the next ouvre can really benefit from having to crank out a chapter every (insert your schedule here). I really must be going, though, as I've been inspired by your post to get going on my next WIP, regarding a Norwegian mafia Lutefisk-smuggling ring. Thanks!

August 3, 2014 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 3, 2014 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Love this! Talk about the blind leading the blind! And that's coming from an editor who knows d*mn well that editors don't always agree, either. ;-)

We're talking books here—a hand-made product created one word, one sentence, at a time—and not mass market widgets stamped out by the zillions by robots on an assembly line.

August 3, 2014 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--Actually, a spaceship landing in the pool is the opening of one of my favorite 80s movies: Earth Girls are Easy. But yes, it is a very silly comedy.

Critique partners and beta readers can serve the same function as a group. Sometimes they're more helpful, especially if they "get" your style and voice. But until you find the right betas, a group can be very helpful. As long as you take everything with several grains of salt.

August 3, 2014 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Judith--My point exactly. Egotistical critiquers offer very little help to their fellow writers. That's why I like Sharyl Heber's guidelines. As she says, "You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others." People who want to rewrite your work in their own style are not going to help your writing one bit.

August 3, 2014 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--LOL. I definitely think the Norwegian Mafia Lutefiskers have a story that needs to be told!

And you make a great point I probably should have mentioned. Even if a group is a mostly-useless coffee klatch or a poetry slam, the simple fact of a deadline is fantastically valuable to the pre-published writer.

August 3, 2014 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--Critique groups can be pretty comical, especially when beginners utter their opinions as if they were irrefutable truth. I do find the less people know, the more they're likely to think they know everything.

Mostly what a group can do is tell you when something is unclear or boring or confusing to readers. (And the punctuation police can be superb proofreaders.) But those things alone can be very valuable, especially when you're a beginner.

August 3, 2014 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

In terms of critiques, you also can't think of them as "bandage fixes." I've seen a lot of writers approach critiques as "Tell me what's wrong so I can fix it." Fixing problems in the story is seldom as simple as added a comma. If someone tells you your characterization is flat, how do approach that? That's where you might get a little more interactive with the critique group (if the group permits it). We've been doing some experiments with ours, including a roundtable discussion rather than critique to critiques, and the writer was able to get involved. In this case, I'd had a really thorny problem that kept me from even understanding the story, and during the discussion, one of the other writers popped up and said she'd had the same problem -- which we'd have never have gotten with a standard critique.

August 3, 2014 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Sharyl Heber said...

Thanks for the lovely acknowledgement Anne! I agree completely, writing in a vacuum can be very risky. I'm so grateful to my critique group members over the years.

August 3, 2014 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--Your group's approach is really intriguing! I like the idea of brainstorming--like a team of screenwriters, rather than simply a bunch of people telling the author what's right or wrong. Great idea!

August 3, 2014 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sharyl--And thank YOU. I did a simple Google search for "critique group guidelines" and I was so jazzed to see the first entry that came up was written by a personal friend and neighbor! You did a superb job of overseeing all the critique groups for the SLO Nightwriters. I'll bet it was a huge job. Each group develops its own personality.

August 3, 2014 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Just brilliant, Anne, and yes I used that word deliberately. The worst part of your articles (but still fabulous) is that you so causally throw off ideas for plots that would all be GOOD. My heart goes the color of money to see how imaginative you always are. I want to stop and read a treatment of each of them. I mean, Norwegian Mafia, who even knew?
I've been very fortunate to fall in with an online critique group- the worst thing about any "real life" meetings would be the schedule. Never! But they're always there within a couple days after I post, and I can read theirs at 5:30 AM. I have no idea how I'd have gotten any feedback at all if it weren't virtual.
And what a group! Luck, more than design, but there's one of each of us in it, activity levels fading up and down over the years but always the kind of solid, insightful support I've needed at the time. The grammar Nazi, the introspective artist, the incredibly fecund all-genre cranker, the one guy writing an epic fantasy just like me: between them I get a wondrous perspective. Can't say enough thank you's to the Extreme Writers board!

August 3, 2014 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger Emma Adams said...

Some great tips here! I studied creative writing at university, and I had mixed experiences with critique seminars. Often, they'd be a group of writers who wrote completely different things (mostly poetry and short stories), and this made it a bit difficult to get meaningful feedback on extracts from a novel! I'm happy that I've since found some great critique partners online who write and read in similar genres to me. I prefer this to a group scenario, but I know some writers who use both!

August 3, 2014 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--Thanks! And you are absolutely welcome to my plot ideas. I love the idea of a Norwegian mafia. I've used it as a punchline for several jokes. But it wouldn't have been funny 1000 years ago, when there really was a Norwegian mafia. They were called Vikings. And some people say the actual mafia was started under the rule of the Normans (Vikings) in Sicily, based on Viking feudal hierarchies. Might make a great time-travel fantasy novel :-)

Thanks much for sharing your great experience with an online critique group. I know other writers who have found wonderful groups through CritiqueCircle.com and RWA. The big plus with online groups is you can find people who write in your genre a lot more easily. "Extreme Writers" sounds like a great group! How did you find them?

August 3, 2014 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Gay Degani said...

Terrific post for people in writing groups and people joining writing groups. Too often new no self-confidence clueless writers end up not writing at all because of things offered in writing groups. Or they end up giving the wrong kind of critique. I remember my first group. It was for screenwriters and I was one of the annoying ones with solutions. I was so excited about actually being around people who were writing, so stimulated, that I always had a "fix." It didn't take long for one of the members to take me aside and explain to me "a better way to contribute." My saving grace was I was the only novice and the others in the group understood that and helped me to figure out how to critique in a way that allowed the writer to draw his or her own conclusions about the work. And the big pay-off for me--in addition to being more helpful to others--was that I finally learned that my story is my story and while other people might not like some of the elements, it didn't mean the work was terrible. It meant I needed to look at areas of concern and DRAW MY OWN CONCLUSIONS with an open mind. What I had received was permission to believe in myself.

August 3, 2014 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Emma--Some of my worst experiences with groups were with college-level creative writing courses. They can be a combination of Literary Salon and Vicious Circle. (Nobody's more pretentious than a college kid who doesn't know how much he doesn't know.)

It sounds as if you've found some of those precious beta readers who really "get" your stuff. They offer the best feedback of all. The e-age has opened a whole lot of doors for writers. One is our ability to connect with lots of other writers in our genre. It helps so much.

August 3, 2014 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Phyllis Humphrey said...

Anne: Great advice as always. Over the years I've been in many critique groups and enjoyed - benefitted from - most. Especially the ten years I spent in your mom's group. But then I moved here and had to start my own writers club (seven years now and doing well) and from that, a small critique group, which was good until two writers quit for personal reasons. To replace one of them, a member suggested a friend who'd sold stories to literary magazines. I don't read or write
'literary' but we tolerated one another until the newcomer started dominating every conversation, insisted she knew more than anyone else and became both arrogant and argumentative. Even though I started the group, I had to bow out. Every session left me with a pain in the gut. Who needs that? One of the members agrees with me, so we may start our own group soon. Or I'll try online.

August 3, 2014 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Gay--It sounds as if the people in your group were helpful in teaching you how to critique. But I can imagine that screenwriters might have trouble critiquing a novel adequately.

But the most important thing--as you say--is learning what NOT to pay attention to. Otherwise you've got a book written by committee, instead of your own artistic creation.

August 3, 2014 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Phyllis--I think that group was so successful because my mom was a savvy moderator. She understood that different genres require different kinds of feedback and everybody got equal time. (Did you see I've put up a page for my mom's books on the blog?)

It sounds as if you had one of those Vicious Circle types infiltrate your group. One toxic person can destroy one that's been working great for years. I was in a group where an "Enforcer" tried to take over. Luckily she got so angry people weren't following her orders that she quit.

August 3, 2014 at 12:50 PM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

I've been a member of a critique group since 2006 and it has been a huge benefit for me. However, I'd like to add a fourth point to your list of you can use a group effectively if you guideline.
4. Don't share your manuscript until you and your story are ready. If you share it too early you run the risk of someone taking over the storytelling.

August 3, 2014 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

I get nothing useful done by myself. They found me! The head saw me offering advice on the Query Tracker website (back when I still dreamed about books on paper, the real fantasy). And she liked the way I gave tips, invited me in to help the other fantasy guy with his opus (let me assure you, BIG piece of work there!). So once again, better to be lucky than good. But it goes to show, everything an indie writes is indie writing- comments, replies, blogs, all helps.

August 3, 2014 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Leanne--That is a great piece of advice. I'm lucky enough to be in a group where people do bring first drafts, and mostly other members don't try to take over, but I have seen it happen, so thanks for the reminder. It's important, especially for newbies.

If you do bring a first draft, it's always good to say "this is a first draft, so I just want general feedback about the premise and characters and how the story gets going." When people get nit-picky about a rough draft they don't help much and it can waste a lot of time.

August 3, 2014 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--I loved the people on the Query Tracker website! One of the only things I miss from the old query-go-round days.

You're so right that ANY networking you do is going to help your career. I know people who found agents and publishers just by commenting on other blogs, or by connecting on a site that wasn't even about writing. Congrats on connecting with a good critique group!

August 3, 2014 at 2:41 PM  
Blogger Piper McDermot said...

Great post - I certainly recognised a few of the group types :) I've found an online writers' critique community invaluable in teaching me much that I didn't consciously know about writing, and I've learned to sit back and read between the lines of any given crit. Often, even though I may not agree 100% with what the person is saying, it will set me thinking about my MS in a new way - and fresh thinking is good for my writing!

From that community I've been lucky enough to glean a couple of beta-reads, and those are beyond valuable. The most useful skill the group has given me, though, is how to think critically about my own work, how to try and perceive it as an ordinary reader might. It's never possible to be completely detached, but it has helped.

It's taken time, but I have also learned to trust my gut. Writing by committee isn't a good idea. Brainstorming, though - that's brilliant.

August 3, 2014 at 3:20 PM  
OpenID deborahjayauthor.com said...

Wow, I think I've been incredibly lucky. I joined a writer's group twenty five years ago, and I'm still with them! Several other original members are still there after all this time, and we are all published in one form or another (short stories, journalism, fiction and non fiction). We specifically look at first draft work, so we can catch any plot strands gong astray before they get too far - incredibly helpful for not wasting time.
We only critique 2 pieces per meeting. and if one of the 'victims' has a plot issue they are struggling with, following the wrap up of crit reports, we hold brainstorming sessions on those specific points.
I wouldn't be without the group, even after all these years, as they save me so much wasted time.
I do recognise some of your groups above - I've given talks to some of them about being published, but I had the distinct impression they weren't planning on changing their ways :(

August 3, 2014 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Piper--Obviously I had a bit of fun with the group types. I've never been in an online group, but I can see the advantages. (For one thing you don't start turning into a coffee klatch.)

Having a good beta reader is fantastic. They can be as useful as an editor, if they know their stuff. Next week Jami Gold is going to be talking all about beta readers.

There is definitely a line between writing by committee and brainstorming that you don't want to cross.

What I hope people will take away from this post is the knowledge that a group may not have the answers, but they help you ask yourself the right questions.

August 3, 2014 at 3:35 PM  
Blogger D.G. Hudson said...

I've had a bad experience with a high-profile online writing group where critiques were hit or miss and demeaning. The instructor said she could do nothing about it. I also told the hosts of the online course, who said the same thing. With one individual from another course and a few others who help out at times. A few trusted individuals helps and I prefer that. I attended one presentation at a library by a local writer and was appalled at the attempts by another local writer who became the equivalent of a heckler at a stage show. Who needs that?

Best advice was from my loyal crit partner in Florida, and from author D. Gabaldon, when I booked a crit appointment with her at a writer's conference. I was mentored by another Canadian author for a few months last year when I tried writing something outside my usual genre. That was an enjoyable experience with the second person I was matched with. The first mentor only wanted to critique my work ONCE and said 'we're done' after attacking much of the writing, the same writing that the second mentor liked. How confusing. I knew which to ignore.
An excellent post, Anne, and as usual, you hit all the high points!

August 3, 2014 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Deborah--Congrats on having a group that has stayed together a quarter of a century! I think a certain level of trust has to be built up for reading first drafts, and a long-term group like yours will have that.

I've spoken to those groups too. I recently was asked to speak to a group about publishing in the e-age, but questions were abruptly cut off so members could sit in silence and do a little high-school type "in class" writing assignment.

I thought I'd been invited to speak to writers seeking publication--so everything I said must have gone wayyyy over their heads. I won't make that mistake again. We need to ask about the writing level of the group--always.

August 3, 2014 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

D. G.--Unfortunately I've seen a fair amount of this stuff. Moderators who refuse to take charge can create an atmosphere that invites abuse. Phyllis Humphrey mentioned above her great critique group moderated by my mom. It was amazing. My mom was a retired English professor and tolerated NO nonsense. When somebody got weird, she always cut them off (politely, of course) She insisted on a trial period, so people who critiqued badly didn't get to join permanently.

But you bring up a very good point. When you put all your eggs in one basket with a beta reader (or an editor) your work can be seriously derailed if the person doesn't get what you're trying to do. That's one way that groups can be better, because at least you get a variety of opinions.

August 3, 2014 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Belinda Pollard said...

Another fantastic post, Anne, and I so enjoy your humour. I have thus far avoided critique groups like the plague, for many of the reasons you state above, preferring to stick to beta readers.

One of the reasons is that I KNOW myself... I yield too easily to the opinions of others, when it comes to my fiction, and get myself in a muddle. With non-fiction, I'm more relaxed and comfortable with my own opinion (although I do listen to the suggestions of others, because you never know what you might glean from them).

Another reason is all the things you've stated above. But I do like the way you've outlined how to make the most of even poor feedback.

I actually found this post while googling "Anne R Allen adverb" to see what you'd had to say on that topic, for a post I'm writing this week, as I was confident you'd take a sane view of the much-maligned little modifier. So I'll be quoting you, and I find it strangely surreal that the post I'll be quoting is one that quotes me... reminds me of that sixties song: "Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel..." (Thanks, by the way. ;-) )

August 3, 2014 at 5:10 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Belinda--Oh, no! Now I have "Windmills of my Mind" earworm going through my head :-) It is a little surreal though, since you came her to quote me.

It's a small world.

(Now I got you back with a MUCH worse earworm.) :-)

Some characters use lots of adverbs. Some don't. We write in lots of voices. Making everything sound like Elmore Leonard would be so boring. (Although I'm a great admirer of his lean prose.).

But trying to write Regency romance in the voice of Elmore Leonard would be silly. Ditto chick lit. (Although it might be fun to try.)

August 3, 2014 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger Belinda Pollard said...

OH NO! Not DISNEY! That was uncalled for. hahaha I'm struggling to get the windmills back in my head...

As for adverbs, I think you can definitely have too much of a good thing, but they can be splendid when used wisely. I also have subversive views on the occasional use of prologues, but don't tell anyone.

August 3, 2014 at 6:09 PM  
Blogger aym said...

I love this post - it does a hilarious job of describing the various group pitfalls. I've been pretty lucky so far with critique groups, although your larger point is comforting, because while I appreciate the feedback I get, I don't always agree with the solutions suggested. Good to know I don't have to.

Also I really have to watch "Authors Anonymous."

August 3, 2014 at 6:19 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I've been incredibly lucky with my critique partners and beta readers. We're not in any kind of "group", but they each have their own strengths and "get" my writing. I don't think I could be in a "group" -- too many cooks spoil the soup. I need one on one critique to be able to process each element -- grammar, spelling, punctuation -- and luckily each one of my critters has those strengths.

Another great post Anne!

August 3, 2014 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger florence cronin said...

Anne, I think I've been subject to many of those "types." I tried three local groups and two on-line groups. The good fortune for me is that I have three on-line friends who are published and enjoy my genre. My main BETA is also a line editor and a good friend. She never lets our friendship keep her from being brutally honest.

Until I landed in this lovely situation, I struggled with agendas and egos. I think like anything else in life, we have to dig through a sh%% load to get down to the good stuff :)

August 3, 2014 at 7:02 PM  
Blogger Sarah Brentyn said...

Brilliant. So true that readers will want to add their own particular type of flair (sultry, silly, stupid) but, if they’re all arguing that it belongs on the first page, ditch the first page. Or give it a serious rewrite.

All the groups (issues/fixes) are great. I’m sorry but The Golden Girls is hilarious. I’m cringing over The Punctuation Police and The Enforcers. I need to read your post on “the was police”. Thanks for the inclusion of The Mutual Admiration Society. That is just awful. I'm getting a bit fed up with it. Love the support and think it is wonderful to be supportive of other writers, but honesty is so super helpful. :-) Thanks for all the links, too!

(To my fellow writers: Definitely take this opportunity to grab How to be a Writer in the E-Age. It’s fantastic.)

August 3, 2014 at 7:56 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

aym--"Authors Anonymous" is so charming (it's a mockumentary like "Best in Show") because Dave has been there. He knows what it's like to be every member of a critique group. I think our writing is always a journey. We constantly get better, and feedback from our peers can help--even if we don't follow one word of their advice.

August 3, 2014 at 8:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anne-There's always the "too many cooks" problem vs. "one person can derail your book" problem. Either approach has its pitfalls and its rewards.

If you have critters who are good grammar police, you have hit the jackpot. Most of us have to pay people to do that for us. :-)

August 3, 2014 at 8:19 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

florence--I think as newbies we all have to fight these battles. It's so hard to find somebody who really gets what you do, and isn't just trying to mold you in his/her own image. Congrats on landing in such a good situation. That's the "holy grail" we're all looking for. Some writers find it in an agent; some in an in-house editor; others in a paid editor--and the really lucky find fellow authors who can trade honest critiques. Congrats.

August 3, 2014 at 8:23 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sarah--Thanks so much for the shout-out for our book! I agree that the "Mutual Admiration Society" can be lethal. I've met many newbie writers who need a ton of work who have been in a group for years that keeps telling them everything is perfect. They are the ones who are the most devastated when they meet the real world. All that praise is NOT a kindness. If your mechanic told you your tires were fine, and then you went into a terrible skid on bald tires, that wasn't kind. Sometimes things are not fine, and it's okay to say so.

August 3, 2014 at 8:28 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Belinda--I think readers don't mind prologues as much as agents/Big 5 publishers do. Especially fantasy readers. They're used to them and find them comfortable.

August 3, 2014 at 8:33 PM  
Blogger Steven Rose Jr. said...

Some great insight into the critique group! I'm in the process of finding one right now that fits my genre (fiction, speculative to be precise). Since there aren't any live groups in my home area I have to look to online and have been doing that. Here's also a good article from WritersDigest.com for finding a critique group that's right for the writer along with links to critique groups/directories. Thanks for the great advice!

August 3, 2014 at 10:34 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Anne, what fun this was to read! And spot on, of course, as always, I don't expect less from you! Just wanted to let you know...Have a happy summer, with no vicious circles (unless you are about to kill off the leader, ha ha!)

August 4, 2014 at 2:57 AM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

No critique group here. With my semi-tactless way of speaking (honed by years of working in state guv'ment), I would last about as long as a Republican at a MoveOne.org meeting. I do have a beta readers that I use from time to time, so I'm good to go.

Father Nature's Corner

August 4, 2014 at 3:27 AM  
Blogger Jeannie Miernik said...

This is so funny! Yep, I've experienced a few of these groups. Fortunately, I have a group now that's amazing--exactly four 30-something women writing novels. We have two romances, one YA fantasy, and one literary fantasy. None of us are professional editors (or authors), so the advice we give each other--while not as hilariously bad as in the examples you gave--must be taken with a sprinkle of salt. But we know this.

And the biggest benefit we reap from our group (besides the social fun) is... DEADLINES! We all rush to get a chapter or page finished before the monthly meeting, so we're always keeping each other on track--just like workout buddies training for a half marathon. We've all become more productive writers because of our group.

August 4, 2014 at 4:09 AM  
Blogger sue mcginty said...

Catherine Ryan Hyde said it best: "I don't care if everyone in the room is telling you to change something, if you feel it's right for your story, leave it alone."

Also agree with Charlie Perryess that a critique group is like a piano lesson in that there's a deadline that must be met.

August 4, 2014 at 8:23 AM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Great advice, Anne. I used to be in a crit group but usually left the meeting feeling discouraged. Not a good fit for an optimist like me. Now I use beta readers before hiring a pro. It seems to be a good fit for now.

August 4, 2014 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Steven--Best of luck in finding the right online group. I think having a group in your own genre can save a lot of time. You don't have to spend so much time explaining the conventions of the genre. Thanks for the tip that WD has critique group directories.

August 4, 2014 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--Thanks! I think I'm better at spotting Vicious Circles than I used to be. But it was fun killing off that leader. :-) Group dynamics are always fascinating to watch. Luckily I can do most of my watching from the outside these days.

August 4, 2014 at 9:14 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G.B. I do think a few good beta readers are the most efficient way to get feedback. But a group can add the social dimension, which some of us can really use. Members of my critique group have become some of my closest friends. But if you don't work well in groups, that's definitely not the best path for you.

August 4, 2014 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jeannie--You're so right. C.S. Perryess mentioned that too. One thing a group can do is provide that deadline. It makes us more productive and trains us to write for deadlines when we hit the professional level.

August 4, 2014 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sue--Catherine has such great advice about how to deal with feedback of all kinds. (And our book made the top 5000 books on Amazon this morning! Very nice for a niche book!)

And those deadlines are so valuable, as Jeannie says above.

August 4, 2014 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Julie--A critique group that leaves you feeling discouraged week after week is not doing its job. Sorry you had to go through that. Good to hear you've found the right beta readers.

August 4, 2014 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger Molly Greene said...

Waaaa ha ha! I don't mind telling on myself and I hope this makes you laugh - I just wrote a scene where my protag looks in the mirror and describes herself. All my idea, nobody suggested it. Thought I was clever. Back to the drawing board ;-) THANKS, Anne!

August 4, 2014 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Molly--There's a reason we have cliches--a lot of people think of them. LOL. I started my first novel with the mirror scene too! It used to be that half the romance novels started that way until editors got bored with it. Here's the big secret: we don't really need to know that much about what the protag looks like. Just give a few sketchy details and let the reader's imagination do the rest.

August 4, 2014 at 12:42 PM  
Blogger Molly Greene said...

Well, good news there - i did just use sketchy details. I'll take the mirror out of the scene and find a different way. Thanks so much Anne, as always!

August 4, 2014 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Natalie M said...

Timely advice as always! (I swear, it's like you know just what I need to consider at every stage. I love it; thank you!)

I've recently shared my completed MS with several beta readers for feedback. I assumed in handing copies to my mom, mother-in-law, and best friend that the type of feedback I'd likely receive would be in the vein of the Admiration Society. At first, it seemed like I was right; they said they loved it and to send it off right away. I knew, however, that it needed some tweaks, but getting actual feedback out of them--even through specific questions--was tough.

I also shared it with some members of a writer's group I'd worked with at a workshop a year earlier. One, in particular, ended up telling me several scenes "didn't work" (not much more than that) and then suggested absolutely outlandish "fixes" for them that, if I followed her advice, would change not only the plot but the genre of my book. Rather than being discouraged, the things she suggested helped me see why I'd made some of those writing choices in the first place. With her, it was a matter of "take what you like and leave the rest." In addition, when I discussed some of her ideas with my other readers, they ended up finding their own voice and responding with REAL feedback to things I brought up. I was happy to get more than just praise.

You're right to suggest we read between the lines: it was obvious from the varied feedback I received that my book could use a stronger opening. (I heard that it was a little slow to get started but picked up after a few pages; someone suggested I move around sections in the first chapter to lead with more action; someone said they wanted more introduction to a supporting character in the first chapter.) Even when I'd written it, it felt lackluster to me and that suspicion was confirmed with the various feedback, even though nobody said, "Fix the weak opening!" So I'm in the process of re-writing chapter one so it's more dynamic and draws the reader in from the onset (your post two weeks ago was also timely!)

Though I felt going into the process that some of the feedback I received would be "throwaway," I ended up getting SOMETHING out of everything people told me. Even if that something was confidence in what I'd already written.

August 4, 2014 at 1:57 PM  
Blogger Natalie M said...

Sorry-- that was a super long comment!

August 4, 2014 at 1:57 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Natalie--Thanks for the great comment. Long comments are more content. We love them!

Your first beta reader was not untypical. That's the old "agenda" thing. They prefer a different genre and want to fix your book by rewriting it like their fave reads. I had an agent do that. She'd only accept my mystery if I rewrote it as a romance. It might have sold better, but it would have been a different book. And I wanted to brand myself as a mystery writer. I couldn't see a career for myself as a romance writer.

Remember the it's always best to write the first chapter last! Good luck with it. It's the toughest part of the book. Sometimes I spend more time on the first chapter than I do on the whole rest of the book.

Sounds like you got the feedback you needed and tossed back the rest. The best policy.

August 4, 2014 at 3:11 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Here's a comment from Ian Martyn, who wrote the critique group piece I quoted in the i intro:

"I agree with your caveats around advice and critiques. I had editorial input from a published writer for my first two books. First time was very useful. The second less so as it seemed to be more about 'he wouldn't have told the story that way'. So take advice and then think about it, before making changes, trying to be objective. But at the end of the day remember it is your story to be told your way. I think the more I write the more comfortable I am with that."

August 4, 2014 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ian--That's good advice to remember: It's YOUR story. When somebody says "I wouldn't write it that way", it's not helpful. Elmore Leonard, Nora Roberts, and JK Rowling probably wouldn't have written it that way either. But you're not them, so it's not relevant.

August 4, 2014 at 3:14 PM  
Blogger ryan field said...

I have a lot of pubbed books out and I've honestly never used a critique groups or even a partner. I've always depended on the editors and copy editors I work with. But I found the list of common deviations fascinating because I have worked with editors who sometimes fall into every category. That's when you learn the art of negotiation :) Also, for some reason, the type of person who will want everything repeated throughout a book, or even the type who wants too much reality, detail, or facts, is also the type who will review a book poorly and make those statements as if they know everything about writing...which is also why it's so important to vet reviews as a reader.

August 5, 2014 at 10:55 AM  
OpenID deborahjayauthor.com said...

The last time I agreed to talk to a group, I had to sit through the whole of their normal meeting first, biting my tongue so many times it was quite sore by the time I got to speak. And then, when members showed real interest or asked sensible questions, their moderator hastily reined them in and put them back in their places.
Beware the strong-minded group leader who wants only to keep things ticking along on his level, under his control.
At least I got paid for my time.

August 5, 2014 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Deborah--Oh, you're so right about the petty tyrants! I should have mentioned them. Maybe they deserve their own post. They are no-talent or fearful (and sometimes scammy) little despots who are desperate to keep everybody down at their own level. They can be the most dangerous type of all. They can stifle the careers of dozens of writers at the same time. Toxic people.

August 5, 2014 at 3:23 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ryan--You make an important point. All these toxic types write REVIEWS! Which is why placing too much emphasis on reader reviews is bad for writers and readers alike.

In fact I just got a review on one of my mysteries today that said it had no plot and it was about a bunch of men sitting around swearing. It's got a dead body on page four and a whole lot of subplots and it's a romantic comedy with nothing stronger than 7 "hells" and 10 "damns". I think somebody must have left the review on my page of another book entirely.

So readers need to use that shaker of salt, too!

And I agree editors come in all these flavors, too. When you're hiring one, it's sooo important to make sure they "get" your voice and your genre or you can be facing a major battle (and an expensive one!)

Thanks for the insightful comment!

August 5, 2014 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Anne-- yours is a remarkably convincing analysis of writing groups. It is clearly the product of long, I would say selfless exposure to your subject. I am sure that for all their flaws, writing groups help a lot of scribblers. But some (I am certain I'm not alone) are just not constitutionally able to belong to them. The reason? Tedium. Listening to a succession of people, some with talent, others devoid of it reading their own work is an ordeal. I belonged to just one group. How you would classify it I'm not sure, probably as a hybrid of two or more of those you categorize. It was run by a husband and wife who didn't write, but enjoyed opening their spacious home to writers. They provided an ideal environment, and graciously supplied things to eat and drink. The group itself was made up of published and unpublished writers--but none of it mattered. The time spent every month listening to others, then trying to come up with something to say that might be useful, then reading my own work and having to sit still for what was mostly confused and not useful commentary--it made me increasingly impatient. I think I finally decided the tedium factor was having a growing, negative influence on my comments on others' writing, and that's when I stopped going.
You are right: professional editors are expensive. But for this writer, they are worth their weight in gold, not to mention blood-pressure meds.

August 5, 2014 at 7:13 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--What lovely people your friends were to open up their home to writers when they didn't write themselves.

I agree that some people are not constitutionally build to deal with groups. For them, beta readers or--if you can afford them, professional edits--will work better.

I'm lucky enough to be in a group of fascinating writers, and I'm always eager to hear the next installment of each WIP. But I have certainly been in groups where there were the works being read didn't exactly hold my interest. Still, I found it helpful to analyze why exactly the pieces didn't work. I often find I learn more from what doesn't work than what does.

But we all have different temperaments and patience levels. Critique groups do take a lot of time. I find myself feeling impatient from time to time when I have a looming deadline and critiques seem to be taking too long or drift into irrelevant territory..

As we mature as writers, we often find that one beta or editor is all we need to polish a new book for the marketplace.

Next week's post will be all about beta readers and how to find them.

August 5, 2014 at 7:38 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Wonderful advice, Anne. I've only done a few face to face groups. One worked and the other didn't. The one that didn't work fits nicely into the Poetry Slam type you mentioned. Members were supposed to read everyone's pages in advance of the group meeting but rarely did. They only concentrated on their own stuff. Then when others read their work, looking for helpful feedback, they tuned out and waited until it was their time to shine. I've had much better success over the years with online critique groups that often provided 15 or 20 crits per story submission. I treated the crits like one would a smorgasbord: Picked what helped and tossed the rest. I've bookmarked quite a few links in this post. Thanks again.

August 6, 2014 at 9:02 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul-- I think when people are supposed to read in advance of a group meeting that happens a lot. Nobody has much time for "homework" except working on their own WIP.

I talked about the need for a strong moderator, but I didn't mention the problems of a too-strong (controlling) moderator, who asks for too much "homework" and other things that are off-putting.

But it's GREAT to hear how well you've done with online groups. I hear some very good things about them I think it's a lot easier to drop an online group that doesn't work than it is an IRL one.

August 7, 2014 at 7:15 PM  
Blogger Dr John Yeoman said...

That's wonderful advice, Anne. It takes me back to the first writing group I joined, aeons ago. Everyone was a killer critic. They would have told Shakespeare to drop his Unreliable Narrator, Hamlet, (a bit post-modern, my dear) and cast him as a vampire instead. One intrinsic flaw of writing groups is they're not critique groups. They can deconstruct but not construct. For that, you need a great moderator. But where, in downtown Peoria, do you find a group like that?

August 10, 2014 at 8:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dr, John--LOL the vampire Hamlet. Yup. I know that kind of group. Yes, great moderators are hard to come by, but they don't have to be bestselling authors. Something of the natural teacher has to be there, though. But that's the reason I wrote the post. Even though not every critique group is run by Lawrence Block, you can get some useful stuff out of it if you read between the lines.

August 10, 2014 at 9:25 AM  
Blogger Robert Scott-Norton said...

Great article. I've recently joined a local group and see several different types there. Your advice on knowing why you're there is spot on. In my case, it's more a company thing than anything, but also a chance to help other writers who might need more in the way of critiques.

August 10, 2014 at 11:07 AM  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

I loved this post, as always.

I'm very fortunate in my own critique group. We've been together for several years, with some personnel changes as people have moved away or undergone other life shifts. When we first began meeting, only one of us had been published. Now we have all had work published, and our work continues to improve.

Granted, two or three of us qualify as "senior citizens," a term I dislike, and a couple of us are somewhat grammar-obsessed. Still, we rub along quite well.

Our group wouldn't work for everyone. We discuss and debate and sometimes argue about various points in the work under consideration. We started out by following the rule that the writer whose work is being critiqued doesn't answer back. That lasted about ten minutes in our first meeting. I suppose as long as we keep producing better and better work, we're doing something right.

August 10, 2014 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Robert--The "company" factor isn't a small thing. Networking with other writers is so important, and having in-real-life people for support and friendship can make a huge difference in a writer's life. And if your main motivation is to help other writers, that's great. The energy you put out will come back to you.

August 10, 2014 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Mary Ann--It's wonderful when a group can stay together for many years as some of the members transition from amateur to professional. I'm lucky to have a group like that, too.

A grammar-police person is always a good addition to a group. There's only a problem when everybody talks grammar and neglects the rest.

Cross-talk can work in some groups and not in others. It depends on the strength of the moderator (and the egos involved.)

August 10, 2014 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger Dean K Miller said...

Anne: Timely and wonderful as I begin a new CG in a couple of weeks. It's been two years since my exit from my first CG experience. Tentatively excited and also a bit nervy as well. Wish I had this "list" a couple of years ago!

August 10, 2014 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dean--Best of luck with your new group! If you go in with your eyes open, and keep these points in mind, it can help you get the most out of a group, even if it isn't ideal.

August 10, 2014 at 1:48 PM  
OpenID c2london said...

I very much appreciate your advice to "always consider the source." I'm loathe to enter contests and pay for a critique--I feel the same applies to online groups--because I don't know anything about the person doing the critiquing/giving me a score. Is this a "Golden Girl" who writes about her cats or a 12 year old boy writing space opera? I think it makes a difference. With a flesh and blood group, I can learn what they know and judge the advice they give me. I suppose that would happen with an online group, too, but seeing and interacting with the people in person speeds up the process. Thanks for the in depth look at different types of groups. And I'm one of the people who suggest cutting "just," along with the sitting, turning, walking, etc etc.But not all of it of course.

August 10, 2014 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

c2london--It's true that we know a lot less about the source we're considering when we're dealing with people online. Reviews are the same way. If we could see the reviewer is actually 12, or is wearing a tinfoil hat, we wouldn't give the reviews as much weight. That's why I like an IRL group. But it does take more time. And it's harder to get out of the real-life ones, sometimes. They both offer good things and have their own drawbacks.

Yes. "Just" is usually not needed. Nor are stage directions.

August 10, 2014 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Claudia Meyler said...

Haha, I can definitely relate to those character types, even if I've never belonged to a critique group! Pretty much everyone who has read my writing fits into one category or another!

August 11, 2014 at 12:38 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claudia--As Ryan pointed out in his comment, all these types also write reviews, alas. That's why we need to learn to let most of this roll right off our backs. Everybody's got an agenda.

August 11, 2014 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger Samantha Saboviec said...

It's probably good to know which way you lean when critiquing, too. I'm an Enforcer. I just can't help myself sometimes, although I try to keep it under control. But woe be unto any narrative distance found within the pages: I will search and destroy every single one.

March 16, 2015 at 2:18 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Samantha--A certain amount of enforcement can be very helpful, but you do want to make sure you don't try to make every writer sound exactly like you.

March 16, 2015 at 2:33 PM  

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