I personally belong to a fantastic in-person 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 veteran writers with a long history together. Critiquing is a craft, like every other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After nearly 20 years together, these folks are pros.
But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. They can succumb to "Groupthink
," a phenomenon where the the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in irrational or dysfunctional behavior.
Groupthink 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 drive out the most faithful muse.
Somebody will say something with an air of authority and everybody will chime in and agree...even if they would never say such a thing themselves and the comment is misguided or wrong.
Unfortunately less assertive personalities seem compelled to agree with mean people more often than kind ones. Probably an atavistic instinct left over from the days when following the biggest, meanest alpha meant survival.
Mean people can show up anywhere. Not everybody needs the anonymity of the Internet to behave like a troll or a bully.
I was reminded of that last weekend when I was leaving a concert carrying a heavy folding chair when my gouty knee started to give way. I hung onto a nearby car to break my fall and called to a 30-something man in the parking lot to ask if he'd mind helping me carry the chair to my car—less than 100 yards in the direction where he was headed. He flatly refused, shamed me for being old, told me to go to the gym, and pointed out I had two hands.
He was a horrible person and proud of it.
A critique group with a member like that can morph into a nasty gang of bullies via Groupthink, even if the rest of the group are otherwise non-sociopathic. So watch out for the warning flags:
For my tips on bad advice to ignore, check out my post on "Why You Should Ignore Advice from Your Critique Group".
And I'll be teaching about "How to Write for the 21st Century Reader" at the Central Coast Writer's Conference
on September 18-20.
Rules for writing have changed with new technology. Outdated and pointless dogma can keep your writing stuck in the last century...and buried in the slush pile or Amazon's worst-sellers.
3) Unenforced Rules (or None)
Any writing group, whether in person or online, needs an agreed-upon set of rules of etiquette and procedure.
- Page or word-count limits
- Genres that are accepted (explicit sex and violence: yes or no?)
- An agreed-upon way to respond to a critique (silence? thanks? general discussion?)
- How are personal remarks dealt with?
- How are new members recruited and vetted?
- When does the group close to additional members?
- How can a disruptive member be removed?
In-person group rules should also address:
- How long a critiquer should speak.
- If the piece should be presented on paper or read aloud.
- Cross-talk, direct questions of the author and general behavior.
- Attendance, late arrivals and serial no-shows.
Without following standard protocol—like no cross-talk and no arguing—in-person meetings can turn into shout-fests that leave everybody feeling battered.
They also waste valuable time.
4) No moderator (or a bad one.)
Somebody needs to be in control and make sure egos are kept in check, conversation stays on topic, and emotional arguments don't derail the proceedings.
Without a strong moderator, one or two dominating people can bully the rest, or the meeting can turn into a free-for-all gabfest where nothing much gets done.
This can happen online as well as in person. We've all seen online bullies make a mess of forums and social media groups. And one troll can hijack a conversation thread and make everybody defensive and angry.
That kind of activity can be even more destructive when our "baby" manuscripts are at stake.
A good moderator should be able to warn, then remove, a habitual bully, disrupter, or babbler.
5) The grammar militia
If you belong to a group with a resident grammar maven, you've lucked out. They can help a whole lot with getting your ms. in shape and save you money in editing fees.
But be wary of a group where everybody is focused on grammar rather than big-picture stuff like story arc and characterization. Often groups that use a written text instead of reading aloud will focus on punctuation and tiny grammar issues and not look at the overall picture.
Critiquing the written text is great, but be careful the group isn't missing the forest in favor of focusing on a couple of tiny trees.
Also, you're not going to be helped much by critiquers who are always complaining about sentence fragments in fiction (even Shakespeare used them!) And do ignore people who say you should never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
If you pay attention to this stuff, all your work will end up sounding like a high school term paper.
6) Power-trippers and divas
I've been in critique groups where one member would go into a rage when it became obvious the writer being critiqued wasn't going to make the changes the diva thought were required.
People with serious control issues or a compulsion to be the center of attention at all times need therapy, not a writing group.
If you see evidence of unwell behavior at your first meeting, you can be sure it will only get worse. Move on.
To a certain type of people-pleaser, 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."
These people are not going to help your writing. If you get into a whole group of praiseaholics, it can feel great, but you're going to be in for a nasty reality check when you send your work into the real marketplace.
Yes, we all love praise, and basking in a little admiration can be good for the soul. But effusive, unbalanced praise is only going to waste your time and set you up for future disappointment.
Some critiquers are so "helpful" they try to rewrite your story entirely—to sound exactly like one of theirs.
Even if this person is a successful professional author, you don't want to be a copy of anybody. You want to be YOU.
Smile sweetly and ignore everything that doesn't resonate with you.
9) Know-it-Alls (Who Don't)
They know everything about everything and they're never wrong.
Except they mostly are.
These are the people who live to prove the Dunning-Kruger effect
, which states that the least-informed people are generally the most confident in their opinions.
The Dunning-Krugers always need to "correct" other people's work with their remarkably clueless opinions.
They'll tell an ex-nun she knows nothing about the Catholic Church and a former truck driver that he's totally ignorant about truck stop food.
They will say with absolute certainty that Africa is full of tigers, fast food hamburgers are made of rat meat, and "everybody knows" you have to pay an agent up front to get a "real read".
(BTW, NEVER do this! Only bogus agents
charge reading fees...people who could never sell your book. I hear these scammers are making a comeback, so beware. Also, "submission services" and "submission coaching" are scams too. Real agents can spot them in a nanosecond and the queries are auto-rejected.)
I once had a critiquer spend ten minutes telling me I could not have a character sit on the stump of a eucalyptus tree in a local park, because the park had no eucalyptus trees. The Groupthinking members all agreed in shaming me for "not doing any research." On the way home, I drove through the park and sat on a eucalyptus stump, getting out my anger by throwing eucalyptus pods into the ocean. I didn't go back to that group.
10) The Empathy-Challenged
We were all newbies once. Critiquers need to learn to "temper the wind to the shorn lamb". If a writer is a newbie, critiques shouldn't hit them with everything that's less than professional about their work all at once.
A good critique uses the sandwich technique. Put your criticism between two items of praise.
Praising a fledgling writer's strong points can help guide them to better writing as much as pointing out their faults.
People can't hear 100% negativity. They will feel they're under attack and simply shut down.
How to Find a Critique Group
A great way to find a local in-person writing group these days is through Meetup.com
. You can also find groups through your library or bookstore or sometimes through a local chapter of a genre writing organization like RWA
or Sisters in Crime
. You can also look in your newspaper or entertainment weekly for meeting announcements.
Online groups can be great too. CritiqueCircle
comes highly recommended. Other recommended sites are YouWriteOn
, and Critters.org
. The Writers Forum
also has moderated groups (there is a membership fee.) For more info check out Jami Gold's blog
But don't join too many. Some new authors make the mistake of getting critiques for one piece in many groups. This can result in what Sheila Kelly at Paperback Writer calls "Death by Critique.
" If you keep rewriting a chapter or story to please too many people, you'll end up with something nobody likes, especially you.
Critiques: Good and Bad
A good critique has only one purpose—to help writers improve their work. It's about the work
, not the author or the critiquer.
Bad critiques are generally negative, personal, unhelpful and—more often than not—they're about the critiquer, not the work.
I first met superstar author Catherine Ryan Hyde in her pre-Pay it Forward days when she got some terrible critiques at a local writing group.
Her story was brilliant. Scenes from it are still vivid in my mind. But the critiques were 90% negative—they all agreed with the man who said a woman who has never been in combat shouldn't be "allowed" to write about a male character fighting a war.
He was waving flags #1, #2, #9 and #10.
He was also making the critique be about him. He was writing a military memoir and craved the attention Catherine was getting.
I was only a guest, so I wasn't invited to speak, but on the way out, I stopped Catherine and said I thought the critiques were silly. She shrugged and said she'd learned to listen to a few smart critiquers and ignore the Groupthink.
But not every new writer has such tough skin.
I once attended a prestigious writers' conference where I saw a talented young man bullied in a late-night workshop. What was worse, the bullies were egged on by the workshop leader—who seemed more interested in wielding power than in improving anybody's prose. He was obviously an empathy-challenged power-tripper who needed the whole workshop to be about him.
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. He could only see me as a member of the gang who had bullied him.
That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by the bullying that he killed himself.
Of course my story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to a murder with 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 crossdressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.
The result was my comic mystery Ghostwriters in the Sky, the first book in my Camilla Randall Mystery series. (And you can read it right now for 99c.)
I think all writers who have been in critique groups or workshops can relate to my scene of the out-of-control writers goaded into bullying by a narcissistic workshop leader.
As helpful as critique groups can be, they can be truly toxic when they go bad. So watch out for those red flags!
What about you, Scriveners? How do you feel about the "emotional trigger" people who believe in strict censorship of the arts? Do you belong to a critique group? Have you ever been in a bad one? Do you have any horror stories to share? Any other warning signs you'd like to add to my "red flag" list?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The first book in the Camilla comedic mystery series is 99c!
Ghostwriters in the Sky is a spoof of writers conferences, full of funny situations most writers will identify with.
"Janet Evanovich for English Majors"
A wild comic romp set at writers’ conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with a crossdressing dominatrix to stop the killer—who may be a ghost—from striking again.
Meanwhile, a hot LA cop named Maverick Jesus Zukowski just may steal her heart.
The Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Contest. $10 fee
Unpublished fiction. 1500 words or less. Simultaneous submissions ARE welcome. All entries will be considered for publication in Fiction Southeast.
(a prestigious journal that has published people like Joyce Carol Oates) Winner gets $200 and publication. Deadline: Dec. 1st
Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award winter 2015
. Cash prizes totaling $3200.Ten further Highly Commended entrants will have their stories acknowledged at the site and gain a free entry in the next round. Entry fee $24 INCLUDES A PROFESSIONAL CRITIQUE
. Any genre of prose fiction may be submitted up to 3000 words, except plays and poetry. Entries are welcomed worldwide. Multiple entries are permitted. Deadline: November 30th.
The IWSG Short Story Anthology Contest 2015. NO FEE!
The top ten stories will be published in an anthology. (Authors will receive royalties on sales.) Eligibility: Any member of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group is encouraged to enter – blogging
member (no fee to join the IWSG). The story must be previously unpublished. Entry is free. Word count: 5000-6000. Theme: Alternate History/Parallel Universe. Deadline: November 1st
The Central Coast Writers Conference.
One of the best little Writers Conferences around! You can attend Anne's workshops on How to Write 21st Century Prose
and How to Deal with Reviews
and even have her critique your work. September 19-20.
Real Simple's eighth annual Life Lessons Essay Contest
FREE to enter, First prize: $3,000 for an essay of up to 1500 words on: "What Single Decision Changed Your Life?" Would your world now be completely different if, at some point in the past, you hadn't made a seemingly random choice? Deadline Sept 21.
BARTLEBY SNOPES CONTEST $10 FOR UNLIMITED ENTRIES
. Compose a short story entirely of dialogue. Must be under 2,000 words. Your entry cannot use any narration (this includes tag lines such as he said, she said, etc.). These are the only rules. 5 finalists will also appear in Issue 15 of the magazine. Last year they awarded $2,380 in prize money. Deadline: September 15.