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Archive for critique

How authors can win with critique groups

It’s hard to know how much help a critique group can be until you see its authors in action. You’ll get more help from a group with a few authors who have published. If you’re lucky, it’s traditional publishing at any level (small press and un-agented counts) or even self-published (using editorial rounds from an editor like me.) If nobody in the group has even posted a blog entry, that’s a warning signal.

It’s not easy to find a relevant group of fellow writers, and so a good editor can do much of that work. You’ll pay for that analysis, but there’s an upside: you’re not committing to doing a lot of analysis to provide on another debut author’s work.

Everybody needs an outside set of eyes, regardless of skill.

I ran a monthly manuscript group with novelists and another with memoirists. For more than 11 years, I critiqued a lot of manuscript pages. Using Amherst Writers & Artists training, I’d started my critiquing with handwriting in the margins, plus a memo. Eventually, my annotations got so explicit that I had to shift to commenting in Word. Any good response to a disconnect in writing is best delivered right next to the problem.

Helpful critique takes note of three primary things:

• Plausibility, the measure of realism
• Detail, the measure of accuracy that evokes rich experience
• Motivation, the measure of why a character or person in story acts the way they act

Clarity

Then there’s the matter of clarity. You achieve clarity by making your writing compact. Frank Conroy, who ran the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for decades, wrote about clarity in his memoir Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On. It’s about the only place that Conroy wrote about the Workshop’s practices. About clarity, he says, “The reader expects the writer to have removed all excess language, to have distilled things to their essences — whether the style is simple or complex. If the writer has not done this work [of clarity], the reader is less enthusiastic about putting energy into reading the text, less sure of being on common ground.”

Conroy describes writing as a pyramid of skills. Meaning, sense, and clarity are the bedrock of the pyramid. Until a writer achieves these, then things like voice, tone, and mood are likely to fail. Metaphor is three levels higher than the bedrock. (We all love to use metaphor, don’t we? Have a look at my video to see how.)

Nonfiction presses us into fewer places to fail in a narrative, because we’re describing events that happened to people who exist in the known world. However, memoir steps closer to the aims of a nove than other nonfiction, because it needs to evoke more emotion. Memoir is what we nonfiction writers gravitate toward when we find a “story that must be told.” Sometimes it’s called narrative nonfiction — the name is a matter of how much realism resides in the writing. Tone is more important in memoir, for some authors.

If you focus on the tone of the writing, the attitude of it, you’ve got to do that by assuring readers about the bedrock of meaning, sense, and clarity. These three things might be in there, in your estimation. The context is always your head, though. Not theirs, at least not with the kind of reading that’s easy to get from a critique group. Your context may not yet be clear enough for your group.

Liking it isn’t enough

Without their express understanding of how stories succeed, you can just file criticisms from a group’s members the heading of opinions. They may not be connecting, and good writing turns the writer’s intention into the reader’s experience. A critique group member might say, “I’m just not feeling it,” and when they say that, every author gets less well served. The specifics comments on what doesn’t work for them really help. It’s always up to you to agree or disagree. That’s true whether it’s an editor or a group.

Sometimes we join groups to get our writing into the world in a limited way, so it seems more real and closer to publication. Affirmation is a fine thing, even if it’s only, “Well, I read your chapters.” However, learning what to try next requires specifics. Nonfiction skills may not prepare us for memoir as well as we’d believe. We get pretty good at making clarity as a regular result of pages sent to groups, though. Outside readers give us a checkup on that.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

7 shopping tips to buy into a writing group

Would you like to workshop your book? People call these writing groups, too. The idea is to get some other authors, all working on their books diligently, to gather in person to review and respond to the book you’re writing. Published authors swear by them. Other authors can vouch for the help which a good workshop brings to a book, too. What’s the smart way to get started in one? If you haven’t met this challenge yet, there are shopping tips that lead to a good investment. Because no matter what you spend, you’re always investing your time.

Is there a size limit? Every writer who appears at the table will bring pages for you to review. A group of eight, of course, means seven sets of pages you must read. So you’ll then shift gears six times, into somebody’s story, out and then on to the next. It’s a rare thing to be able to mark with comments on more than 3,000 words an hour. Do the math. Figure that a big group means hours and hours of reviewing. Groups work best at four writers.

Is there vetting, or an introduction? Everybody wants to be in a writing group with an author who’s got more advanced skills. Or the same level, at least. Someone’s got to be judge and jury on this, though. Personal groups form between writers who know one another already. The first writing group I joined had no vetting for skills. Or courtesy, either. The next came from a Writers’ League of Texas Advanced Fiction class. The late, great novelist Karen Stolz told us, after our eight weeks of classes, “Form up groups, you guys.” The Square Table writers were off and running for the next seven years. We ran with five writers at first, then four, then three.

How much will your group read? Can you submit 15 pages, or even 20? It can be a challenge to say something useful in response to only six pages of writing. You can critique a scene for the mechanics, or find a way to ask questions about what’s not on the page but intrigues you. A page count of 15-20 is 4,000-6,000 words. That’s a chapter, maybe two—one unit of the theme in a book.

Do you read before you meet? Very few authors can edit live, unless they’re only doing a line edit. It takes time to write comments, especially longhand. Legibility matters. A group with pre-submitted pages will give its members time to read closely and say what’s confusing, compelling, or dragging. A group which shares pages using email also gives members the means to look backward in a book to recall what a reader might have overlooked. Those prior chapters will be right at hand, on your laptop.

Is it easy to connect personally with a member? Unless you’re entering a group linked via email, it’s so much harder to strike up a relationship with another member who really shows a connection to your work. Not everybody will “grok” your creation (the Stranger in a Strange Land verb from Robert Heinlein that means “to understand something’s soul.”) Writers might be shy in person but gregarious online.

Email is essential. A group with an overwhelming need for privacy makes such connecting more work. Email is the means that professional writers use to share ideas and critique, query and trade editorial notes. A leader should make email available for every member.

How long do we meet, and where? Critique is careful work done best in a private space. A member’s home gets the job done, but only if there are no distractions there. Meeting at a bookstore worked pretty well at first for us Square Table Writers. We were only four members big so we got a table well away from store cafes (Steaming milk! Lots of music!) or Saturday’s shoppers (Mommy, I want that book!). Nobody had much more than two hours to meet, but each book got 30 minutes of airtime. We had time to talk about our books after the critiques, too.

What’s the comfort and leadership level? Critiquing is real work with genuine payoffs. This isn’t a workout at the gym. Does your host do snacks or a demi-brunch, give breaks to stretch, encourage people to get to know one another? Such things make a space and a group personal and unique. Somebody’s going to have to ask for the pages to distribute to a pre-reading group; otherwise someone forgets. A regular meeting schedule is important, too, so people can protect the time they will devote to making books better.

Yes, authors can bring their own water bottles or a venti Starbucks to a group. And whoever goes first can be determined by a lottery, tarot cards, or just whoever’s turned in pages first. Try to avoid setting your arrival time at the table as a way to choose who goes first. The Traffic Gods shouldn’t have a seat at your group.

There’s a lot to consider when finding a group to critique your book in progress. You do get back what you invest in, though. Efficient and effective groups make good use of time in meetings. That means you have more time available for writing and revising your book. Think of how much sooner that work will finish it. Finishing, after all, is at why we help one another in groups. Those outsider insights should save us time.