Writer Critique Groups – Yes? No? Maybe?
I recall an interview with C.J. Box that appeared in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) newsletter some time ago. Box is the author of the Joe Pickett series, and the 2007 winner of the Writer of the Year award from the RMFW…not to mention a whole slew of other awards and acknowledgments. He is a practiced, successful writer with the accolades to prove it. The part of the interview, however, that I recall most vividly was when he was asked if he participated in a writer critique group. His answer was instructive. He said, yes, he had participated in a group, but the experience was “painful.” And, I can only paraphrase here, but he then went on to say that his critique partners just didn’t get it; just didn’t understand where he was going with his writing. He also went on to say that writer critique groups are great for some, and, yes, painful for others.
I’ve participated in both face-to-face and on-line critique groups sponsored by the RMFW.
My first reading before a face-to-face critique group, huddled in an alcove formed by three bookshelves within a book store north of Denver, is memorable not so much because I had never done such a thing, but, rather, because first principles of critique were then revealed.
1. Writer critique groups generally include folks who write in a specific genre; usually genres that are commercially marketable. Yes, an abundance of vampires and Harry Potter clones, murder mysteries and fantasy, whimsical cosies. But, alas, literary seemed, in my experience, to be something devalued as less than worthy of consideration because, yes, literary–or so the group seemed to think–was just not marketable. Suffice it to say, I tend toward literary.
2. Writer critique groups–or, at least, the RMFW groups I participated in–emphasized the likelihood of publication over content–specifically with regard to literary content. But, then, that is one of the essential purposes for the existence of the RMFW–to see, to assist their members in getting published.
3. When you sit down at a face-to-face critique group, six, seven or more folks have arrived at the table with, understandably, their own prejudices, their own perceptions of what “good” writing consists of, and, most importantly, their own methodology for constructing their storytelling. Some believe there are hard and fast rules that must be adhered to in order to be a successful writer. (I recall a comment from a member of the face-to-face group, that back story could not come before, at least, the first three or four pages of the ms. Any deviation from that “rule” was just unacceptable, unthinkable.)
4. There is an art, a particular talent some possess, and that some never seem to grasp, when providing critique. I will admit, I was never able to provide much valuable input after hearing/reading a particular presentation. I think my problem–if it is a problem??–was centered around my inability to find anyone’s writing as, oh, shoddy, or not conforming to the “rules,” or not “marketable.” I tended to value all of the writing as simply the output of the writer’s passion. I rarely could find fault with anyone’s writing. Others in the group, however, did have that talent to, mostly graciously, sometimes harshly, find fault with presentations. And, usually, that finding of fault had more to do with their–the critiquer’s–perception of what “good” writing is, rather than being able to see beyond their viewpoint, and look at the writing as the product of that writer’s voice, style and, again, passion.
With few exceptions, all those with whom I shared critique, were gracious, kind; good people focused on the same thing: the urge, upon urge to write and to see the product of their passion published.
I recall my first reading before the face-to-face group was a dark little short story, about a dark bulbous man–an accountant in Chicago–who, on a very dark and dreary rainy day, announced to his fellow accountants that, “…perhaps we can hope for rainbows.” That was the point of the story, “Dimley’s Hope.” So, ol’ Dimley takes his lunch hour in a dark recess framed by buildings, lit by a single street lamp, sits down on a tattered chair and shares his load of French bread with hundreds of pigeons. Then, when the bread is gone, Dimly watches the birds rise and, well, here’s an excerpt:
The pulsing sea erupted, wings flapped a lazy frenzy as the gamins rose. Dimley watched the ascension. From the rain-layered wings, a fine mist bathed the brick framed sky. As the shameless beggars vanished beyond the lips of the roofs, the baptismal leavings of their flight danced within the lambent glow of the single street light.
Very near to smiling, Dimley grunted and said, “Ah, rainbows.”
The most memorable comment from one of the members of the group was, “Well, why didn’t you just have some lady walk by with a rainbow printed skirt. That would make more sense.”
Ugh! It was at that moment I concluded what C.J. Box had concluded: They don’t get it. Or, at least, the person who made the comment didn’t get it. There would be more incidences, after additional readings, when I would reach the same conclusion.
Another important point about critique, both face-to-face and on-line, was that I found myself spending the majority of my writing time writing for critique; not for myself, not for my own pleasure, my vision, my passion. This, of course, is a fault that I ascribe to myself. I suppose I wanted the group to be happy, receptive to my creations.
Long story short, I left both critique groups and decided to pursue a path of my own making, leaving the troubling, sometimes absurd interaction with the group behind as another lesson learned in my struggle to grow as a writer.
Since leaving critique, I’ve had some little successes. Those successes are included on this blog. And, there are successes–contracts signed–that I won’t mention until I see the proverbial proof in the pudding…publication.
So, as C.J. Box concluded, writer critique groups are fine for some, painful for others. You, dear writer, are capable of your own conclusions. Only you know where you want to take your writing. And, if critique helps, hallelujah! If it doesn’t, then seek your own way. It can’t hurt. Might even help.
Finally, I recommend critique for all aspiring writers. If it doesn’t work out, if it’s not helpful, then leave. But, enter critique forewarned, at least to the extent of the few observations I’ve provided above.