Writer’s Group   Leave a comment

Effective criticism is useful criticism, and it is exceedingly difficult to find.  People close to you, particularly non-writers, are more interested in being inoffensive than they are in helping a struggling writer master his craft.  What you are asking for, in most cases, in not a recreational read but a combination typo-check, reality and accuracy review, plot analysis, and character psychoanalyis all rolled into one.  To make it worse, we as writers know what it is we are trying to convey, but what we really want is to know how our words are interpreted by others – people who do not have the ‘big-picture’ of our work stuffed in their heads.  And that, Dear Reader, your mother will probably not provide.

“Oh, isn’t it sweet,” she said.  “A group of people sitting around a table, fawning on each other’s work.”  She paused and giggled.  With a delicious British accent she added, “Do you serve tea and crumpets at your meetings?”  A most unfortunate sterotype, and also a most inaccurate one.  Some writer’s group meetings more closely resemble fistfights than tea parties; I have never seen tea served although retiring to the nearest bar to lick one’s wounds may be a good idea.

How do you find this, absent paying for it?

I joined my writer’s group about four years ago.  Finding the right group is not easy, particularly as they are not on every street corner.  When I became involved with the group, we lived in northern New Jersey, where the population was rather dense.  Even there, there were not many choices. Then when we moved to Maine, where the population is quite thin, there were no choices.  I tried to start one, but only a very few were interested and they soon drifted off.  Fortunately, my old group was amenable to the idea of me providing my work and my critiques of their work by e-mail, and I attend meetings in person when I can (which is rarely).

There are a few aspects that, in my ever humble opinion, make up a successful writer’s group.  It is the members, of course, who make it work.  Or keep it from working.

Intellectual Honesty.  If when critiquing another’s work, you find it leaves you cold, you MUST say so.  Be prepared to say why you feel that way, and have suggestions as to how it could be improved.  If it is a genre-work, and you don’t appreciate that genre, be up front about that.  But even in that case, you can still appreciate the flow of the words, the expressive power, the well-crafted phrase, while still pointing out the mixed metaphor and the character flaws.

Nit-Picking  When composing a new work, we all have typos.  Syntax errors, incomplete edits, misspellings and incorrect punctuation – they will be present even in the drafts of the most experienced writer.  Mark them up, but don’t dwell on them.  If the piece is presented as publication-ready then ferreting out speed-bumps is critical, but if it is the dreaded second draft the nits are not the aspect the writer is most interested in.

The Old Give-And-Take   The first time I was on  the receiving end of a critique, it was like I’d found myself on the bus without my pants.  Or my underpants.  I was naked, and the whole world was leering at my insufficiency.  At least, that was how it felt.  Over time, I learned that effective criticism means killing sacred cows, and that was just the way it was.  Perhaps the sacred cows added nothing, and it was the author who deserved being ground into hamburger.  If you think a fellow writer is tough on your work, imagine what the New York Times would do to it.  So get over it.

Time Investment.  It takes a lot of time to write a novel.  In my case, maybe eighteen months.  I labor over every word, sleep with all my characters (my wife knows when I’m doing that), cry when they die and celebrate their victories, and actually go visit places where action is set.  So, by the way, do the other members of the group.  Their time is no less precious than your own – and perhaps it is more so.  Do not submit work for their review unless you are willing to take the time to do an honest review of their work.  The bad news is that you may end up spending more time working with the works of others than with your own.  The good news is that that is how we learn.  This investment will pay a good return.

Everybody Has An Interest   In one of my earlier works, a group member had a lot of  fun with the fact that I had dug a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.  Bear in mind, the last time that happened was nearly a hundred years ago.  But I did it.  I placed an important opening scene on a Manhattan rail platform, with two characters boarding a train for Port Jervis, NY.  Unfortunately for me, there is no such train.  Turned out, the guy that spotted that was a rail-nut who knew such things, but the point was,  it would have taken me five minutes to research that detail.  So, the action shifted a bit in the next draft.  Since then, everytime there is a train in the scene, I make sure it’s a real train.  I can still see my buddy Rich with his gotcha grin.

Group Compatability.  If we were all the same, it would be a deadly boring world.  Seek out diversity – but only to a point.  My group includes people who write in the urban fantasy genre, short story writers, those with an outlook similar to mine and those with a very different way of seeing things.  This is all for the good.  Having said that, however, if you find that the group is comprised of Christian writers with a fundamentalist slant coupled with a Jesus fixation, and you want to do detective stories with a strong erotic undercurrent, it may not be a good fit.  An individual who finds your work offensive may not provide the most useful criticism.  On the other hand, if they – and you – can look beyond that barrier, it may be very good criticism.  There’s only one way to find out.

So, Gentle Reader, do you have any writer’s group stories to share?

Posted October 18, 2012 by JD Rule

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