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

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

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

Group feedback can help skilled writers as well. A lot of us like to process our work through a group before we send it out into the unforgiving marketplace. (Nobody’s snarkier than the one-star Amazon reviewer.) I’ve read that even Amy Tan still runs her work by her critique group for feedback and suggestions.

I personally belong to a fantastic group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re all veteran critiquers with long history together. Critiquing is a craft, just like any other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After fifteen years together, these folks are pros.

But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. Group-think can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord of the Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.

And you can’t be sure the advice is worth heeding. As journalist Jim Bishop said, “A good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”

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

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

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

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 People who are full of false or outdated ideas of what constitutes good writing can ruin yours.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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