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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, September 6, 2015

Beware Groupthink: 10 Red Flags to Watch For When Choosing a Critique Group

by Anne R. Allen

Joining a good critique group can be the easiest (and cheapest) way for new writers to learn the nuts and bolts of writing and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up slush piles or becoming part of the infamous "tsunami of self-published crap."

Whether online or in-person, critique groups can give new writers a chance to learn their craft and help working writers polish first drafts and save time for their long-suffering editors.

Critique groups can also provide emotional support as we go through the query and publishing process.

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:

10 Things that Can make a Critique Group go Sour

1) Dogmatic PC/Religious Policepersons.

Critiquers who think you should only write about people exactly like them—or that all writing must support a narrow political or religious world view—are useless in improving your work. And they can be toxic in a group.

I once attended a workshop where a critiquer shredded a writer's story "because none of your characters have taken Jesus Christ as their personal savior." I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

But what's even more troubling is the book-banning movement coming out of academia today. The Atlantic covered it recently in a piece called The Coddling of the American Mind.

Certain people now believe any writing that might "trigger" an emotional reaction in somebody who has experienced trauma should be banned.

Since pretty much all of us have experienced some kind of trauma, and, as Salman Rushdie said on Morning Edition yesterday, "we live in an era when absolutely everybody is upset about absolutely everything" this has allowed students to bully and terrorise their professors and turn universities into minefields of political correctitude.

Being offended has become a blood sport.

From Ovid to Sylvia Plath, any work of literature that depicts violence or racism or sexism—or any other yucky stuff that might upset the tender psyches of helicopter-parented young persons—cannot be allowed.

And they want books that disclose sexism or racism or other bad stuff existed in earlier eras to be issued a fatwa too: young people might be devastated to find out that history happened. (So yay! They get to repeat it!)

I assume these book-banners see the same racism, sexism, and violence that's on all our screens 24/7, but they are apparently only traumatized if that reality is reflected in art—especially the written word. Books are dangerous and must be censored.

As an Ivy League graduate and child of two college professors, I find this academic neo-fascism terrifying. Not only are we losing our literary canon and abusing our educators, but the movement is making college education irrelevant and creating a generation unable to grow up. (Or help an old lady carry a chair across a parking lot.)

Small minds create small books. If you see his kind of stifling of artistic expression in a group, or there's a member of the Permanently Offended Community onboard, run for the nearest exit and don't look back.

2) Misinformed and outdated "writing rules".

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, 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.

7) Praiseaholics.

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.

8) Co-Authors.

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.orgThe 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? 


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"

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the AmazonsiTunes, Kobo, Inktera, Scribd and at Barnes and Noble for NOOK. It's available in Paper (regular and large print) at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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 killerwho may be a ghostfrom 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 or Facebook 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.

Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest $4,000 in prizes. Entry fee $10 per poem. Submit poems in modern and traditional styles, up to 250 lines each. Deadline: September 30.

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.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

All those make for a nightmare of a group. I've never belonged to a critique group, in real life or online, although I do feel blessed to have a couple really amazing critique partners. Shame you never got a chance to talk with that writer who'd been bullied. (Or gone back to that one group with a picture of the tree you were sitting on!)
Thanks for mentioning the IWSG Anthology Contest!

September 6, 2015 at 10:12 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Excellent list. I've been particularly annoyed by #2, 6, 7, & 9, with #7 winning the Least Helpful Award. When someone's on the attack, there's always the possibility that there's a kernel of something at the bottom of the vitriol, but the chance that anything any of us has written is truly perfect & worthy of nothing but praise is zero. That said, in my experience, the regular deadlines & ongoing friendships produced by a critique group are worth the occasional weirdnesses.

September 6, 2015 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Great list and very important thoughts, Anne (this time I checked!)- I've seen younger writers in person at gatherings and they're not thick-skinned by any means. The idea someone would put their own own desires above what the writer needs- grounds for a head-slap (to put it mildly). Oops, sentence fragment.
I have next to zero experience with in-person groups, and was very drawn to the importance of #4. Silly me, I was thinking folks would just gather and share democratically like adults.

I know I'm not objective but it seems like the advantages of online critique are legion- select a group with a permission-bounded posting board, time pressure's off both sides, and seek the advice you need. Since I write epic fantasy in long novel form, my chief concern is "can you understand me, does this make sense" and lots of authors from various genres have been terrific at that. Plus we have a grammar nazi, what you said in spades about that.

I think having an in-person group would be primarily useful for nailing me closer to a schedule- have to have something or I'd die of embarrassment.

September 6, 2015 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--I wish I could have helped him, too. Today I could have taken a picture of that stump with my phone and sent it to them instantly. But I'm not sure it would have helped. People like that don't want to be confused by facts once their minds are made up. :-)

Best of luck with the IWSG anthology!

September 6, 2015 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--Great point. Groups provide regular deadlines and strong motivation to get those chapters done. And sometimes some much-needed praise as well as criticism. But praise-aholics mostly just waste our time.

September 6, 2015 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Excellent! Advice for writers to live by. A good group is gold. The rest? Not so much.

September 6, 2015 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Will--I do think younger writers have a harder time with criticism. Partly from lack of experience and partly because they may have been schooled during the "self-esteem" era when everybody got a gold star.

Democracy can devolve into anarchy pretty quickly without a recognised leader, alas.

Online groups have a lot of advantages. They're also numerous, so it's easy to move on if there's a disrupter or a bully onboard.

But in-person groups can provide human contact, which some writers really need if they're living and working alone.

September 6, 2015 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--I feel so lucky in my current group. But I've been in ones that went totally off the deep end. One group had an awful member they couldn't get rid of, so everybody quit and then formed another group.

September 6, 2015 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Ann Bennett said...

Good guidelines for a writer's group. I have wanted to start one. There is only one I have found locally. It has too broad a range of writers. More importantly, the membership is very errartic. I don't like putting a first draft out there for anyone to mull over.

September 6, 2015 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

One of the really important things for a critique group is to get a good balance of experience, AND people who are well read. In my first critique group, I was pretty close to the only one who read at all. But I've also seen groups with all beginners, which becomes problematic. I was leaving setting out entirely in my scenes, and my first critique group never noticed. It was the first thing second critique group pointed out.

September 6, 2015 at 11:30 AM  
Blogger Brant Forseng said...

Wow, a great summary of what to watch out for in a group! I'm pretty fortunate in that I belong to an in-person group that rarely -- if ever -- exhibits any of the flags listed in the article. On one of those very rare occasions when it does occur it's because someone has had a bad day. They invariably apologize.

In my experience there are two types of groups. I call them the 'tea and crumpets' and the 'crafters'.

The tea and crumpets groups are all about the social aspects of belonging to a group. Friendship, conversation, and bonding are of paramount importance. Critiques are mild and filled with praise. Usually submissions (or portions thereof) are read out to the group followed by general discussion. I find that these types of groups are filled with praiseaholics.

The crafters are far more serious. Critiques are written on submission copies that were distributed in the previous meeting. The focus is on getting better at the craft rather than the social aspects getting together. This is not to say there is no socializing, but it is secondary, not primary. Critiques can be brutally honest, but are tempered with suggestions for improvement, and the highlighting of things in the piece that do work. The focus is on the work, not on the author.

On a side note, we find that most prospective new members stick around for three sessions: First, they show up to see what the group is about. At the next meeting they submit a piece of work. They appear a third time to hear the group's critiques. Most never return -- mostly likely they're too busy plotting our deaths. :) Those that do stick around get better, and bring something to the group -- a different point of view, a slightly different emphasis in their critiques, etc.

My two cents. :)

September 6, 2015 at 11:37 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ann--Starting your own critique group is a good way to keep the membership under control. There are arguments on both sides for an eclectic group and a one-genre one. Or one that includes newbies with pros.

I think many romance writers would rather have other romance/women's fic writers critique them because so many others don't get the genre at all and will steer them wrong. And pros can be really hard on newbies, so they might not do well together. Sometimes it's best to advertise for "intermediate" or "advanced" writers depending you your own skill level.

A group with erratic membership can be a real waste of time if you're reading a novel. If there's no continuity of members, they can't help you with story arc, characterization, etc.

September 6, 2015 at 11:42 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--That an important point! I hadn't thought of that but you're so right. It's hard to believe there are writers who don't read, but there are a scary number. They can't help you write better and they're unlikely to write anything worth reading.

And yes. I mentioned this in my comment to Ann above, but a group that's all beginners is going to be the blind leading the blind. They need at least a few veterans to help out. Real beginners might be better off taking a class first.

September 6, 2015 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Brant--"Tea and Crumpets" groups can be really great for writers who have been working in a vacuum and need the company of other writers. It's more like a writers' support group than a critique group.

But I disagree that "craft" groups have to use hard copy. I've been in many hard-core craft groups and only a few used hard copy. Those tended to devolve into grammar discussion groups, which is why I prefer a group where the work is read aloud. Later you can ask for a read of hard copy for a final draft.

September 6, 2015 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger L. Diane Wolfe said...

I was part of a local group that consisted half of community college English teachers. They were very critical and all about literary and poetry. I lasted about 3 months before I became too discouraged and quit.

September 6, 2015 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Diane--That's so important! I should have mentioned that. We need to find out if the group is oriented toward commercial publication or "art for art's sake." Poets are not likely to be able to critique genre commercial fiction. They can slow the book's pace to a crawl and stop in the middle of a gun battle to admire the view.

If you're writing for publication you can really get discouraged in a group like that. That might be a great question to ask of any group: "how many members are writing for commercial publication?" If you are, and they're not, it's best to move on. You did the right thing!

September 6, 2015 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

Hey, Anne, looking forward to the Central Coast Writer's Conference as well. I'm going to be busy and will miss both of your workshops. Damn! However, I wanted to encourage all of your blog followers who live in or near San Luis Obispo to attend and not to miss either of your workshops. I know they'll be great and loaded with tons of important info. Okay, now for the topic. I have to tell you I had a discussion online with a female writer who writes in the gay romance genre about why, in general, all the stories seemed so much the same. It's a given in romance that you have to write to genre expectations and of course to reader and publisher expectations as well. I get that but I asked her why every one in most gay romance tales was living in such a vacuum, a happy little gay bubble with gay marriage at the end of the book and the rainbow. She told me most writers in the genre were tired of sad stories about AIDS, teen bullying, and LGBT homeless and equality issues. Hmm. I still can't wrap my head around that one. The reason she gave for writing those kinds of mindless tales was a good example of the lack of contemporary or historical context for much of gay romance. Okay, off my soapbox but I still don't see why writers in LGBT, especially in the romance genre can't work within the genre and make those important connections to these issues that are so important and still unresolved. Kim Davis in KY ring a bell? Oh, well...Great post as usual. See you in a few weeks at the conference. Paul

September 6, 2015 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

P.S. This is a response to group think which is often one of the reasons I avoid critique groups. P.

September 6, 2015 at 1:13 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

Classes are about as tricky. A lot of them are taught by writers without a lot of experience who think that, because they've published one book, they're an expert--when they're still only at the beginning stages of writing. The biggest issue with classes is that they tend teach a writer's process, rather than craft.

September 6, 2015 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger Maria D'Marco said...

Anne - thanks for the great post, as always, and for several guffaws to boot!

When I moved to a metro area with Meetup a couple-three years ago, I was excited at the multiple options for critique groups. I joined and left 3 different groups before getting burnt out.

The main problem seemed to be organization, just the basics of making rules and sticking to them. It always seemed that whoever was most stoked about their work at whichever meeting would invariably become the person who demanded rules be broken or bent for their work.

The main reason I finally gave up though was a lack of wholehearted participation. Each group asked that we read the material to be critiqued prior to the group meeting, and have our comments ready to expedite communication. Every - single - time! only 3 people (I was one) would have done this. It was so frustrating to have spent energy and thought on a critique, and then have the other 6-10 group members throw stuff out on the fly -- as they read it during the meeting! :P At the time I was working full time freelance and supporting a family member recovering from a double mastectomy - yet, I felt the need for objective critiques was important and worth doing it right. This is said after remembering how the unprepared group members would wax extreme about how busy they were.

gosh...am I nearly ranting? lol

Although I don't have a group now, I do have several authors who were clients and now love turning tables and giving me critiques.

In the meantime: groupthink be damned!

gonna go re-read this post again -- and, of course, send it along to others...

Again, thanks for your insights, intellect, and fun attitude.

September 6, 2015 at 2:18 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--I do hear you about some classes being pretty lame. Something at a local community college or extension of a University is always best.

September 6, 2015 at 2:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--Thanks much for the plug for the CCWC! I don't read much romance of any flavor, mostly because the stories *are* all so similar (but I love chick lit, where everything can go wrong and does.)

But I see what you're saying. There are definitely different kinds of genre writing. I think you and I both write genre books with "substance". Fast plots, but real issues. What that woman says people want is the whipped cream without the pie. A Redi-Whip diet. :-)

There's a place for that, but it's a shame if that's the only kind of love story that's available to LGBT teens. They can get very unrealistic expectations--and nothing that addresses the problems in their real lives.

September 6, 2015 at 2:38 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Maria--Thanks much for the compliments and sharing! You've hit on another reason I don't like the hard-copy critiques. There's *homework*--lots of it. Most people have a hard time with deadlines, so just getting a piece written is hard. Reading everybody else's and getting all the comments in writing takes a huge amount of time.

It seems to me if people are going to do that, they might as well do the whole thing online. If it's going to be in-person, read aloud, and comment spontaneously. If you've seen three groups fail that tried to do the hard-copy thing, I think that's more evidence that it doesn't work.

September 6, 2015 at 2:46 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

Well ... college isn't necessarily a sign of a good writing class. I had one in college. The instructor was only self-published (as in paid a vanity press) and allowed the students to go nasty on critiques.

September 6, 2015 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger M. A. McRae said...

Excellent article. I've not long ago left an online writers' group ecause of a couple of bullies and their sycophantic followers. I'd already learned not to share anything of mine; it was when they savaged a friend that I lost patience and left the group.

Many good points, brilliantly made. Well done.

September 6, 2015 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

M.A.--Sorry to hear you had to leave the group, but I would have, too. There's no point in arguing with bullies. That's what they crave. All you can do is leave them to stew in their own venom. I hope your friend left too and you were able to help put her back together again. Luckily there are so many groups these days, you can always find another one online.

September 6, 2015 at 3:29 PM  
Blogger Sally Ember, Ed.D. said...

Fabulousand helpful, Anne!

So sorry about your encounter in the parking lot!

September 6, 2015 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Failed writers are the nastiest critics. It's shocking he was hired. Sorry you had to go through that. (And pay for it!)

September 6, 2015 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sally--Thanks. Yeah, I'm still processing that encounter. The worst part was he was so smug about it. Like he really thought he was in the right and I was somehow conning him. As if being old was some kind of a scam. I think he'd read too much Ayn Rand. :-)

September 6, 2015 at 4:10 PM  
Blogger Tori Minard said...

I once had someone tell me she'd always wanted to be a writer. Then she added that she disliked reading. I refrained from laughing in her face, but I thought it was pretty funny.

September 6, 2015 at 4:49 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tori--That happens to me often. I'm always so amazed. How do they think they're going to write books if they don't even read them?

September 6, 2015 at 5:07 PM  
Blogger D.G. Hudson said...

I've never joined a critique group because I suffered the stings and arrows of groupthink critique in 1) an online course of a well-known company where several in the group tried to control the group; AND in a mentoring situation I was privileged to get I had to complain and be re-matched with another mentor after the first one did a one-two punch on my story and said we're done. This was a 6 week or more mentoring matchup, but the first mentor wanted to work on her own novel. The second mentor was excellent. It's like teaching, some can do it, and some cannot, regardless of how much they know.

September 6, 2015 at 5:46 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Anne, for three years, I have moderated a writers' circle at our city library, as part of my 'paying it forward' volunteer work. In that time, I have come to realize how critical it is to have a kind person at the helm. Almost every month, I have had to step in to prevent feelings from being hurt. It alarms me, and makes me caution my own college writing students to be wary of who they choose to share their work with.

September 6, 2015 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

D. G.--Those sound like awful experiences. I'm glad you found a good mentor on the second try.

September 6, 2015 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--You've said it very well. We need to be so careful. Very kind of you to moderate a group as a volunteer. I'm sure you're helping a lot of new writers find their footing. Learning to give helpful critiques takes work. We need empathy and knowledge in equal parts.

September 6, 2015 at 8:45 PM  
Blogger Lissa Johnston said...

Brant I don't think they're plotting your deaths LOL. They're probably doing the writer's version of dine-n-dash - just wanted to get a free editing session :)

September 7, 2015 at 6:03 AM  
Blogger Lissa Johnston said...

Anne I am still in shock about the parking lot incident. Was he drunk? Good grief. As for the actual topic at hand - I was just telling another writer friend how much I miss my old critique group. We formed as a subset of the Minnesota SCBWI chapter years ago. There was one experienced, published writer who kindly shepherded the rest of us newbies. It was a group made in Writer Heaven. Over time we all went our separate ways due to life's demands, but I miss their vibe and support and insightful encouragement something awful. I have been half-heartedly poking around for something local without much luck. Met with some folks via a NaNoWriMo subgroup a while back, but we were too all-over-the-map in genre and experience. Let's just say I didn't own the requisite Goth attire. I haven't tried the Meetup idea however - good tip.

September 7, 2015 at 6:11 AM  
Blogger Claude Forthomme said...

Great list - it actually applies beyond the writing life, to any group/team focused on achieving something together. And, btw, I bought your book, couldn't resist! And I'm very happy to read the first one in the series, I always think the first book is particularly fascinating...

September 7, 2015 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lissa--That Bozo didn't seem drunk. But he may have been suffering from testosterone poisoning. He was all bulked up like a weightlifter and had terrible acne and was completely bald. All signs of taking anabolic steroids.

I forgot to mention NaNo! Lots of groups form through NaNoWriMo. It can be a good resource. But you're right that if people are too diverse in experience and genre, they can't help each other much. I hope you find a group through Meetup. But it probably won't be like that first group, where you had a strong mentor and a genre-specific group. Groups like that can be golden.

September 7, 2015 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--A psychologist friend said that on FB: these things all apply to group therapy, too. Thanks for buying Ghostwriters! I hope you enjoy it!

September 7, 2015 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Great points. I am so lucky to have my two groups. They keep me focused. I am a real pantser and I get off track sometimes. They help me to see important things like when my protagonist isn't being herself. They know even when I don't. And, sometimes they hear things that just aren't there! The eye of the beholder; the ear of the listener. I hope anyone who is thinking about joining a group reads this post first.

September 7, 2015 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Sharon Marie Himsl said...

Hi....reading your comment to Maria really struck home. At first I wasn't sure I'd comment at all. In person critique groups had become too much work for me (I've been in at least four), when committing time to my own writing was difficult enough. The last group was such a burn out, reading four full novels over four months (with markup and comments), that I swore I could never commit to one again. And yes, like Maria's experience, there were some in the group who did little. Another problem is getting the right mix (I'm no longer a beginner). Read aloud groups might work in the early stages, but by the time I share something, I usually need a full critique. I like Alex's setup (first comment) with two critique partners. A writer friend and I have already considered doing so; one more would be just about right. Thanks for tackling such a tough topic.

September 8, 2015 at 12:23 AM  
Blogger Dr John Yeoman said...

'Some critiquers are so "helpful" they try to rewrite your story entirely—to sound exactly like one of theirs.' That's a big trap that even pro copy doctors fall into, Anne. I know. I've done it myself. We forget that every serious author has a unique Voice, and it isn't ours. One nice gentleman, a retired professor, took the trouble to rewrite the first chapter of my historical novel for me - after it was up at Amazon. I couldn't fault his 'corrections'. His modern syntax complied with the Chicago Manual of Style. Problem was, my 16thc narrator hadn't read that manual. He was using the authentic idioms and cadences of Elizabethan London. When I gently pointed that out to my friendly critic, he became quite woebegone...

September 8, 2015 at 8:10 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sharon--How you use a group depends a lot on your level of expertise. I still use a read-out-loud group even though I've been a published author for 25 years. But I also use beta readers and critique partners. They accomplish different things. Each pass makes a book or story better.

I do think if you're going to be doing nit-picky grammar stuff with hard copy, you need to be in the final stages of editing. Reading out loud works better for a first draft.

September 8, 2015 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine--"Hearing things that aren't there" can be a big problem. That is the problem with read-aloud groups. People tend to space out and miss something or mis-hear. That's when a little cross-talk is necessary, to explain: no, I wasn't talking about mercy killings. I was talking about young people in China and Japan. That is "Youth in Asia", not "euthanasia." :-) But sometimes they do catch something vital that you didn't explain or glossed over. That's when they're so essential.

September 8, 2015 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dr. John--I have to admit I've fallen into this trap too. It's so easy fall into a rhythm of editing and you start editing everything the same way.

That's very funny and also sad that the poor guy tried to "correct" your 16th century style by erasing all the historical flavor. BTW, I am reading one of your historical novels and I find you use just the right balance between modern and Renaissance English that makes everything understandable to to the contemporary reader, but keeps a strong sense of the time period. A great accomplishment.

September 8, 2015 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Tyrean Martinson said...

I've belonged to a few good critique groups and have visited a few awful critique groups, but didn't stay in them. I also had an experience ironically like yours - I had a group of people pull their chairs away from me and snub me at a writer's conference after I admitted that I was writing a Christian Fantasy novel in which faith mattered in the character development. I actually write a variety of speculative fiction but the book I was working on at the time was openly about faith, and I was asked to name my sub-genre of fantasy writing - paranormal, traditional, dystopian, etc. I wasn't trying to evangelize, and I truly don't expect others to share my worldview. However, I didn't expect to get shunned for it, either. Being open-minded means accepting that others have different perspectives and experiences.

September 8, 2015 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tyrean--Christian fantasy and speculative fiction have a long and distinguished history. I wonder if they would have shunned C.S. Lewis? One of my friends writes Christian YA fantasy and she's with HarperCollins and her books come out in hardcover--a career any of those bigots would kill for.

Small minds produce small books. Those people were ridiculously ignorant and couldn't have helped you in any case. I hope you found some more congenial people

September 8, 2015 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I've been in the same critique group for years--people have come and gone. Because I'm the most published I always let the group know that if they didn't tell me what was wrong I'd quit coming. I don't have to agree with every criticism, but sometimes it makes me aware that I do need to do something about whatever it was. I ignore the grammar Nazi especially when she critiques dialogue, but she picks up on lots of other things such as the overuse of a certain word. I consider the group my first editor. Over the years we've had people come who could not take an criticism at all and defended what they'd written, no critique group has time for that. Great post.

September 8, 2015 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Marilyn--It sounds as if you have a group like mine that has grown together over the years. I agree that people who want every single character to talk as if they have PhDs are not useful for dialogue at all, but sometimes they do find a nit to pick that really helps.

People who defend everything can cause chaos in a group, which is why I like the "no cross-talk" rule. Although it does have to be broken when a critiquer is totally off base or mis-heard something. Thanks!

September 8, 2015 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Dr John Yeoman said...

Thanks, Anne!

September 8, 2015 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

Your success story reads like a dream come true for me, Anne. I especially enjoyed reading how your publishers found you through your blog.
I too am an avid blogger and have made valuable connections thanks to my blog.
Thank you for creating your blog. It's on my blog roll and I've learned so much from your posts.

September 14, 2015 at 8:42 AM  
Blogger Kell Inkston said...

Another great article. I've seen many of these types of people in groups, and there is little that turns me off more. An honest, supportive, humble writing group is a blessing, and is definitely one of the best things any writer can ask for.

September 14, 2015 at 8:56 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Leanne--You've been one of my "blogfriends" for a long time. Thanks for keeping me on your blog roll!

September 14, 2015 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kell--It's true that a good writing group is a gift no writer should take for granted. A good group can give you the equivalent of a good college writing course as well as emotional support and friendship.

September 14, 2015 at 9:24 AM  

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