Friday, July 27, 2018

Embrace your writing group. How-to advice for critiquing.

In June I attended the week-long writing conference affectionately known as wiffer, a.k.a., WIFYR (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers). Throughout the week friendships developed, connections were made, and after it was over, attendees from the picture book writing class that I attended talked about forming a critique group in order to continue getting feedback. (Yes, I also doodled).

During this discussion a link to a blog article about the dangers of writing groups was shared among my fellow writers ( In the post 3 perceived dangers were addressed by Jane Friedman: 
1) not getting the truth  
2) getting advice from struggling writers 
3) failure.

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to work with different critique groups and different writers, including Jim Fergus, author of Ten Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd, who lured me into this whole writing game in the first place for a nonfiction project we never finished, and children's author Rick Walton whom we lost almost two years ago. While I always welcome good advice such as what was offered Friedman's article, I disagreed with some points that were shared. Because I felt the article would negatively affect our group as it was forming, I shared my perspective with them. Some of my colleagues suggested I share my perspective on my blog, so here we go. Feel free to share your own opinions after reading both posts. Or don't, and simply reflect on how you can be a better participant in your own group.

1) Telling the truth. According to the Dangers of Writing Groups blog post, this is rarely done because writers don't want to hurt the feelings of fellow colleagues. Thus, if a writer isn't receiving criticism and not hearing the truth, then writers groups simply continue to foster a bad manuscript as they critique it. Here, again, I disagree, not because it doesn't happen, but because receiving honest feedback is up to you as a writer. It's up to you to ask questions as feedback is offered in order for to learn the truth about the status of your manuscript. And Mrs. Friedman offers helpful questions to guide that process.

However, it's important to keep in mind that not everything offered in a writer's group is truth. Even if it sounds strong and direct and hurts to hear. Truth is personal and emotionally-based and everyone has their own experiences. In determining a manuscript's flaws, the writer needs to learn how to ask questions like, What is working? What is unlikeable? How is the character perceived? 

Questions provide guidance in  figuring out what is good and what is not so good. Again, it's your job as a writer to flesh that out as you get feedback from your readers. And if something hurts as you hear it, it is your job to push past those feelings, step back, and see where the kernel of truth in the criticism may lay.

Also, as far as truth goes, I don't ever expect to get it from family members because they all say my writing is wonderful, even when it's not, simply because they are wired to read it with those kind of eyes. (They seem to like my baking, so the admiration of the writing must be inexplicably linked.) So if your critique group is comprised of your mother and children, then find another group... although this kind of group probably works for Carol Lynch Williams, who has some daughters that are writers. But not all of us are blessed enough to birth our own writer's group. :)

2) Getting advice from struggling writers is not recommended, and on this I disagree. New writers may be unpublished, but provided they have a basic background in understanding the publishing industry and have attended workshops/conferences, then they can be an asset to a group because they are readers--particularly if they are readers of your genre and are now taking time to study it. Furthermore, readers who aren't writers ultimately respond to your work. Thus, it is up to you as a writer to learn the craft of writing and all the techniques that go into delivering your particular style. It is not up to the members of your writing group. And as Ms. Friedman's article states, it is up to you as a writer to address specific questions about your manuscript during the critiquing process that help address problems. Then, after hearing suggestions, it is up to you to decide how to make any modifications yourself. 

If you take a suggestion and it doesn't work, then it is also up to you to recognize that mistake after you step back and look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. It is also up to you to maintain your own voice as you incorporate suggestions from others. I don't really believe a writer can blame their critique group for poor revisions, if they find themselves with a manuscript they don't recognize or want to lay claim to. Writers are the captains of their own ship. (And since I'm sailor, I can say this is true - cliche and all).

As a writer who has been in different writing groups over the years, I believe the feedback I got from those that wanted to give it was useful and helped me achieve the successes I had. Whether I incorporated every suggestion wasn't important, because suggestions -- good and bad -- allowed me to see my work through another reader's eyes. 

Thus, while I wouldn't recommend welcoming every person into your group that walks off the street, I wouldn't steer clear of a writer simply because they are unpublished, particularly if they read your genre.

3. Failure to recognize failure with the big-picture of a story because critique groups only see one slice at a time. While this may be true, it doesn't mean the plot holes can't be fixed. Again, honing down the plot is a job that needs to be worked out by the writer in whatever way they see fit to do it. But this doesn't mean that a well-crafted scene can't be celebrated within a critique group meeting. Reading great writing is what keeps us all striving to create more.

All in all, if you find a critique group that works for you, you need to love and nurture it like a pet. Writing is a hard, frustrating, and lonesome process that is met mostly with failure until things start working, so be sure to let your fellow writers know what you love about them, their stories, and their characters all the time. 

Give good feedback right alongside with difficult feedback, otherwise, you'll just push them away.  After all, we are not working for PIXAR and getting a paycheck to help massage the hard days when we are told everything we have created sucks, unlike the employees in Creativity, Inc. I suspect there is a big difference in the emotional journey between a Pixar artist and writers who work on their own, so be sure to take care of yourself and your fellows, no matter where you are at.

Be patient. 

Be kind. 

Be persistent.

Be professional.

Eat Chocolate. And fill the page.

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