5-STAR Fantasy / Sci-Fi

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Value of a Critique Group

Enjoy today's Guest-Post from Indie Author Susan Paulson Clark about the value of a critique group and for what to watch out for when joining or reading to a critique group.

The Value of a Critique Group

Critique Group
I thought my novel was almost perfect, so I looked forward to reading it to a critique group I’d recently discovered—the DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth) Writer’s Workshop. Its goal is to promote the art and craft of writing. I imagined the members would be stunned that a new attendee wrote so well. After all, I did have fifteen years of freelance experience writing for health and technology companies, and I had published numerous magazine and newspaper articles. My non-fiction writing background surely set me apart from an average would-be novelist.

Therefore, the day I walked into the workshop and we split into groups to read, I expected listeners to point out minor problems in my work, but mostly shower me with praise. That was not the case. Several people suggested that the chapter I read needed major work. Some said it nicely, some not so sweetly. I wanted so badly to defend my writing, but, according to the group’s rules, readers are forbidden to speak during critiques.

Most of the feedback had to do with a lack of conflict; there should be more “at stake” for my protagonist. I also discovered that my scenes needed more drama. Though I was writing a rather “quiet” novel compared to most—no stabbings, space travel, or bodice ripping—I still needed to ramp up the tension between characters and show more emotion.
Eventually, I resigned to make the changes because, after all, I did want to put forth the best work possible. However, I was ticked off because I thought I was nearly done and now I had to face hours of rewriting and editing.

You probably want to hear that I learned so much from the group that I never had to return. No, in fact I will never stop going to a critique group. And I’m not alone. There are many published writers who keep coming back. Why? They understand the value of free market research! Large corporations pay good money to get people’s opinions.

Sometimes the best critiques are not spoken. You simply observe yawning, doodling, smiling, or laughing to see if others are connecting with your work. In my opinion, the absolutely worst reaction is no comment at all. If people take the time and effort to make suggestions, at least they listened enough to make intelligible input.

I got better at handling criticism and my writing improved. After awhile, I started to hear things like “this is much better than your other stuff.” Even though I get the occasional “really good,” mostly I do get criticism, sometimes about major problems and at other times, just nit-picky corrections.

Critique groups aren’t perfect, though. There are always some people who won’t “get” your work. Thriller writers might not appreciate or understand why I write women’s fiction. On the other hand, I find it hard to pay attention and listen well to sci-fi or fantasy. It’s hard to give a good critique when you’re not listening.

Another warning: When new listeners come in during a lull in your story (lulls are necessary because every story needs balance or the emotion and action may lack punch) they might think your writing is boring. Thus, their advice may be slightly off. However, most of the time when someone points out an issue, there is at least a grain of truth to it.

A few final tips about critique groups:

1 Learning the basics and the nuances of writing fiction might take a long time.

2 When you hear other writers’ mistake, you will learn different problems to avoid in your own writing.

3 Regular attendance will improve your listening skills.

4 Most people are considerate—if they are not, do not take it personally.

Joining a critique group is the best thing that’s happened to my writing. Keep coming back and your writing will continue to improve!

- Susan Paulson Clark -

About the Author

Susan Paulson Clark on Indie Author News
Susan Paulson Clark has been a freelance writer for fifteen years. She's an avid reader who enjoys women's fiction, mysteries, and non-fiction titles.

Susan enjoys painting (acrylics) and spending time with her husband. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with degrees in English and Education and is a member of the DFW Writers' Workshop.

She considers raising her daughters as her greatest accomplishment.

Susan Paulson Clark has just released her humor and character-driven novel with elements of drama and comedy: The Relationship Shoppe. [see Link below]

Please, leave some comments or questions for the Author at the end of this post!

Links to the Author

Connect with Susan Paulson Clark on Twitter: @susanpclark


Beth said...

Too true!
Great article. I joined an offline group once, but it was too hard to maintain the schedule. That's when I found my awesome online crit group. There are 14 of us. On average, I get about 3-5 crits from the group per submission. And that's enough, ya know? :D For me, anyway.
Great article.

Shannon Donnelly said...

A good critique group can be a huge help -- but a bad one can ruin a writer. I had a friend whose writing voice was almost obliterated by well-meaning critiques who stepped all over her prose -- there's a difference between a good suggestion and telling someone how you would write that story.

So I think you have to be careful about the advice you get and you have to learn how to screen out suggestions that would take your story in a direction that it's not meant to go.

Unknown said...

Helpful post! Thanks for following me on Twitter.

You mentioned that you attended the group at the point where you thought you were almost done. So when would you recommend that an aspiring author join a critique group?

Unknown said...

I could relate to a lot you've posted here - particularly the part where you write ... "I find it hard to pay attention and listen well to sci-fi or fantasy." That's me. Why is there so much of it? I'm usually ready to tip over a bookcase after the third vampire!

What I question, is if you are writing a book, how a critique group that changes with every meeting, can really follow one's presentation (reading for that meeting) at all. Personally, I've decided that beta readers offer more. Critique groups are great for short stories or getting feedback on synopses, query letters, etc. but much beyond the first chapter or two, I don't see their value for longer works.

Thanks for a good guest post.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and interesting comments!

As writers we need support and often need others eyes to help us with our writing. But having experienced and seen others experience a lot that has been said here, I do agree with comment above by Shannon Donnelly

Often even when comments about our writing by other writers are well meaning, and sometimes we do have to be aware when they aren't, no one knows our stories the way we do. Yes, we might not be expressing or have forgotten to put all the information in our head onto to pages, and this is where other's eyes are helpful to give us another perspective. But comments often have to be written down and put in a folder to decide if they really have merit to the story we are trying to tell. No one knows our stories like we do and it might very well be they aren't seeing the whole story the way we are.
And even then, we all have different views, and preferences of what we prefer and like to read, so that might be a factor in the comments as well.

It can be difficult to not rush to change things, but when you get down to it, all of it is just personal opinion. Until a publisher is paying for it, yours is as valid as everyone else's. ;) And depending on your personal goals, even then.

Thanks for the post - and the great comments!

Marji Laine said...

Agree 100%. I love my crit groups. The folks are passionate about good writing, but cognizant of the feelings of the writers. I've never had a problem with constructive criticism, but I take it much better after so much practice. And I've gotten everything from "start over" to a standing ovation. And I absolutely love it when my writing makes them laugh!

A.M. Matte said...

I completely echo your experience: when I first joined my critique groups (one in English, one in French), I also anticipated praise for my flawless prose. I'm glad I was wrong, as the constructive criticism received served to strengthen my writing.
An observation: perhaps a genre-specific group would serve better than a generalist one? Would a sci-fi writer get more out of sharing with sci-fi peers, rather than with a group that may not appreciate the genre?
What do others think?
Bonne écriture,

Sandra Nachlinger said...

What great comments! I'm lucky to be in two separate critique groups whose members have a wide range of experience--both in writing and in real life. I've found that if something I've written "bothers" more than one person or takes them out of the story, then I definitely need to take a look at it and consider making changes. But in the end, the decision is always mine.

Iola said...

Great inside perspective on how a good critique group works. Thanks!

Laura McHale Holland said...

I like the way you revealed what you expected initially, that you didn't withdraw even though the group didn't react to your work the way you'd expected, and how you've made good use of the group. You are an excellent example for us all.

Thomas Weaver said...

I've participated in ctitique groups that were genre-specific, and in ones that were literally anything-goes (papers for school, self-help, poetry, all kinds of fiction - no focus whatsoever). In my own experience, if you're writing genre fiction - whatever genre it is - you'll get better feedback from people who have some familiarity with that genre. Also, there are some people who will hate ANYTHING from certain genres and will find fault where none exists if they don't like the genre you've written in.

Weaver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weaver said...

It's hard to get feedback on a book when you never know from one meeting to the next who's going to show up. I think group members, even if they do attend regularly, forget what they're heard already of a story (it would work better if everyone took home a copy to read for themselves - IF they could be counted on to read it at all), or they miss a meeting and get are lost the next time they show up. Beta readers are great, but I've not had the best luck finding good ones. I have one person who reads my fiction now and gives excellent critique (he doesn't let me get away with 'good enough,' for which I am grateful), but I would like to have more than one opinion.

A. H. Pellett: Maybe the problem is with the writers who think that all sci-fi/fantasy must be about vampires. I happen to love the genre, myself, but I'd also be tempted to 'tip over a bookcase' if all I ever saw were vampire stories.

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