My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Mailbox: Critique Groups

How do I pick a critique group?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I also can do multiples. Oh yes.]    

Shelia asks (my spellchecker wants to correct this to Sheila, but I checked the e-mail twice):
I’ve been reading your writing advice on the blog and thought I would ask a question, maybe two. It seems like, much against my will, I am going to be forced into a live critique group. Luckily for me I live in a major metropolitan area and will have two or three to choose from. I will also be allowed to visit twice before being required to join.
So my question is: How can you tell a good critique group from a bad one?
Can you describe a bad group?  A good group?
What criteria would you use?

My reply:
Maybe two? Maybe three? Maybe four?  (I'm using the winking voice not the flying spittle voice, trust me.) Anyway, Shelia it's cool; they're kind of all the same question in four different forms.
I should probably do an article about this, actually--in fact one of my next series of articles I'm planning after You Don't Really Have to Write is going to be on how to take criticism, and I think there will be a whole section of that series dedicated to writing groups. (I'll call it "Writing Groups: Useful for Flamethrower Aiming Practice or Too Sedentary to Be of Help?") However, I'll give you a sneak peak here since this is a really, really good question.
Writing groups can be an amazing opportunity to improve one's writing. Or they can be a cesspool of soul-sucking horror. The problem is for every group of the former, you have to dig through the dross of about ten billion groups of the latter.

In general I would recommend online groups because you can match up by genre interests, relative level of skill and commitment, and even style. (I've almost seen a writing group come to blows, and have seen one come to tears because of the differences between a "linguistic flourish" type versus a "simple and direct"type.*) The fact that you have to join a live group complicates this process.
*For the record, both types have merit, both have fans, both get published in today's markets, and both have wildly popular exemplars. 
First, I want to tell you about a friend of mine--a published author who left the SFSU writing program before she finished even the undergraduate degree. She left in a haze of anger (and went on to have her Y.A. novel published by [IIRC] Avon Flare). She used to share a story with me that I've found to be more and more useful as time goes on about people who collect crabs.

No, not those crabs. I'm talking about the crustaceans that you eat with butter. 
She said that these crab catchers just throw the live crabs into a bin, and even when the bin starts getting so full that some of the crabs could possibly reach up, grab hold of the lip of the bin, and crawl out, the crab catchers don't worry about it. They fill it until it's just a few centimeters from the top.
Because the crabs will never get out. If they start to reach up and pull themselves out, the other crabs will pull them back down into the bin. Basically it's impossible for one crab to get free. Until the bin is so totally full that a crab could just stroll away, none of them will be able to get out because the others will pull them back in. 
Until of course they have genetically engineered crabs that kill Samuel Jackson in mid-speech. Those motherfuckers could drive the boat back to the mainland. And then it's good-bye humanity. So we have to make our stand here and now against those assdouchefucking crabs!  ~cocks his shotgun~

But...uh...my friend was just talking about the regular kind. Regular crabs pull their fellow escaping crabs back down into the bin.
"This is what these fucking workshop classes are like!" she said. "Even the fucking teachers aren't about making us better writers. They just want to convince us our writing is not 'worthy of fiction'" (the last said with the most outrageous Edward Stratton II voice she could muster). "They're not lifting up writers. They're pulling them down."
"Something something something...EARN it."
I have no idea whether the crab story is even true, but she was right about the idea. The degree taught me more about writing in two years than I'd learned in the twenty prior, and some instructors helped me take my craft to the next level, but workshops seemed designed mostly to tear us down and erode what little self-confidence we had. Arming a bunch of students with just enough knowledge to identify what sucks in someone else's work without telling them how to identify what was working and then unleashing them on each other turned out to be a shitty idea. It was like the fucking Hunger Games of self-esteem.  I think it was maybe one or two semesters before I was taking as many process courses as I could and avoiding workshop classes that weren't mandatory. 
Still, even though I kind of agreed with her, I wasn't about to go to college for six and a half years and not wrap up my degree in some show of solidarity. I stuck it out, but since then I've paid close attention to the "crab theory" and discovered that it's an increasingly useful rubric for deciding who to avoid.

It's not just useful when deciding which writers to hang around. It's also pretty useful in my life.
Anyone can be a "crab." You've probably already encountered several. Friends, family, people who are just "looking out for you" with their advice. ("Oh honey, I just want you to be realistic about this!" You know what's fucking realistic? My power and heating bill. You don't need to tell me I can't eat dreams for lunch, I am WELL aware, thank you very much.)

These people are really pulling you down. And while anyone can be a crab, bad writing groups are worst. They're like bitter, disillusioned crabs who secretly hate the escaping crab for having the gumption to try to escape. Not only do you have the problem that they probably don't know how to give good feedback or care about giving rather than getting (which is actually backwards from what is most useful to a writer), but they may literally see you as their competition and attempt subtle, machiavellian tricks to sabotage you. 
Sings: "And we would all go down together..."
(You damn kids and your not-getting Billy Joel jokes.)
Bad writing groups don't have a consistent look. They don't have a single flavor. They can be overly intellectual or overly social. They can seem incredibly literary or mainstream. They can involve lots of reading or almost none. They can be really down to earth or amazingly head-in-the-clouds. They can prepare stuffed tomatoes with feta cheese or stick out a bowl of Ruffles and some Rotel dip made from Velveeta. 
By the way if you decide to ditch the place with the stuffed tomatoes, do the casual grab of six or seven of them on your way out. The trick is to grab them almost like they're your "payment" for putting up with the few minutes you were there. Then stroll out like you own the place. You won't regret it.
Here's what happens when you're in a bad literary group: they hold you down instead of lifting you up. They pull you down into their cesspool of crap--whether it's gossip or negativity or over-intellectualization. And I know that phrase is a little vague and could have a lot of expressions (and to some degree you just have to trust your instincts) but I can give you a few red flags:
  • A group where most members express a desire to be professionals, yet they have flakey attendance. (I don't think that word means what they think it means.)
  • A group that seems more suited to complaining about the failings of the publishing industry than doing any actual writing/reading/discussing. ("Oh my god, they rejected my novelization of Robot Unicorn Attacks! I guess they just don't want to make all the money ever.")
  • A group where most of the writers never seem to actually finish anything. (Watch close for people who say "I decided to start something different....")
  • If the writers argue with feedback. (Bad, bad sign.)
  • Socially toxic environments. (If they backbite about the writing of whomever isn't there or spend time gossiping then that's a gossip group, not a writing group.)
  • Gigantic reading commitments that are clearly very, very rough drafts. (This is an insidious problem among starting writers, and one of the hardest lessons both in terms of difficulty and in terms of the hurt feelings when it finally sinks in. Writing prolifically as fast as you can is a very rough draft, but most new writers have a hard time seeing the flaws in their very early drafts. It's like a NaNoWriMo draft. They need to learn to do the first stages of revision themselves--unless all they want is very rough feedback. Writing involves refining that initial product. Art is about quality over quantity. You shouldn't be bringing anything earlier than a second or third draft to a workshop. It's like asking for genuine feedback on a musical number when you've only played it once and never practiced.  Peer review fits into the writing process in a very specific place and it's not after the initial splat.)
  • If they are super-duper esoteric about talking about writing. ("Ah, this reminds me of the Dada movement in it's deconstruction of minimalism as an absolute response to surrealism, obviously.") Listen to actual working artists for a while--they don't sound like that. These people just want to flaunt their erudite bling. 
  • If they just want line edits. (These people think their content is perfect, and there's nothing you can say to them to convince them otherwise--they are the worst sorts to give feedback to or get it from.)
  • Serious interpersonal--um...how to put this delicately--fucking. (If one writer is trolling the group or everyone's switching partners like a square dance, you might end up getting your rocks off, but there's going to be some serious epic ass, not-worth-it drama in five...four...three....)
  • They tell you exactly how to fix your draft. (Such people don't want to help you be a better writer, they want to help you be them.)
  • And here's the super biggie: if they express super, uber florid desires to be writers, but they don't seem to actually produce much between sessions, then they just want to get together and dream about being writers. 
Day three. I have only broken two other members of my future competition. Five to go.
And I know that Marsha is going to be a tough nut to crack.
Creative Commons photo by James Mitchell

There are other things that can be warning signs, but most of those you'll probably not figure out within two sessions. If they seem to disdain revision, they probably aren't ready to be professional writers. If they endlessly tool the same thing over and over, there's probably some fear of failure (or possibly success) going on. Mostly though you're going to have to see how you feel. Are these people pulling you down?
As for what makes a good critique group or what I would look for, the most important is a group that lifts you up. Beyond that, it can get pretty touchy feely. A good critique group is a lot like a good psychologist. You may have a perfectly good one, but if you aren't clicking, you're not going to do good work. Anything from stylistic differences to personality clashes can ruin a good workshop and it isn't really anyone's fault. 
Here are some good things that you want to look for:
  • This group has some members doing the same genre that you are or at least is sympathetic to it. (The last thing you want is to be a sci/fi writer dealing with a gaggle of stuck up "literary" snobs who think your work is shit simply because it's set on a spaceship.)
  • However they are not universally of one brand, genre, or style of writing and all self-congratulatory about how superior that writing is. (Circle jerks are only fun at the YMCA. In writing they can be dangerous.)
  • They own their criticism. (This can happen with "I feel/I thought/My reading..." statements instead of "This is/You did this..." statements. Honestly there's a whole skill set to giving good criticism, and I don't expect everyone to know it, but I look for people who can be gentle, compassionate, and acknowledge that aesthetics are about personal taste. Giving an opinion like it's an actual opinion instead of fact is very important.)
  • These people are roughly at the same level as you are. (Not that you can't learn anything from someone with a lot less experience or get anything from a writing group that is way above your head, but they're probably not the most bang for your buck. [And you want lots of bang for those bucks. BANGING IS THE BEST!] You will not get much out of a group if you are way out of your depth or playing mentor to a group of much less experience.)
  • You have roughly the same writing accolades. (This one is a trickier version of above. If one person has been published and the rest haven't, you're going to end up with a power dynamic in your group--especially if it's not just "one short story in an obscure zine" or something. I have seen inferior writers use the fact of their publication to browbeat really creative and daring choices out of unpublished writers who were--in my opinion--quite a bit better as writers. The guy even said "Well, what would I know, right?" with dripping sarcasm when I argued with him. Unless you want your group to be led, be about about the same place career-wise. It's just the way the dynamic will end up unfolding.)
  • A group that will help you find a better way to say something in the way that you want to say it rather than replacing your voice with their own.
  • Everyone there knows the difference between critique and proofreading. (If all the group is going to do is talk about grammar, you won't become a better writer; you'll become a better copy editor.)
  • There's no sexual tension. (This one can be hard, and most groups of adults have some sexual tension, but I tend to steer clear of groups where there is an abundance--which is especially hard since I'm a raging chick magnet. Awwww yeeeeeaaaaaaah. This isn't just because of the drama that comes when everyone starts getting their freak on, but because attraction can lead to insincere feedback--people being too deferent to those they want to ingratiate and vengefully hard on their detractors. When the well is poisoned by dishonest feedback because someone want to sleep with someone else, it changes the group dynamics.)
  • Unless there's a woman there who's really hot. But not like ludicrously hot. Kind of like "Plausibly-into-me-but-I'm-not-slumming-it" hot. Then I totes go for that group.

The good news, Shelia, is that most critique groups will reveal their true character within two sessions. The kinds of problems that will sneak up on you after that are probably not the sorts you could have much avoided anyway.


  1. In two sessions, huh? Good. That's about as many sessions as I will be allowed to attend before I have to start paying. Currently I do belong to an online group but it's not doing for me what I thought it would. I have one on-line beta reader or critique buddy who has been absolutely marvelous. I owe her a couple of margaritas. . . maybe three. Yes, even though I have returned the favor and provided feedback on her material.

    The only “live” group I ever attended was twenty-five or more years ago and it wouldn’t be fair to call it a critique group. Well, they did critique my work but I was not allowed to critique theirs. Because I was a ‘beginner’ it was not thought my input would be of any value. No, I did not stick around.

    So I will hie myself off in the next few weeks to three groups in my area I know about. I will take notes. I will join the RWA and pay my money there. Perhaps they can point me in the direction of some on-line groups. No, I don’t call myself a romance writer but it’s the closest designation I can find. Now, there’s another question for you, Chris. How does one decide?

    BTW, that is the way my mother decided to spell my name. The nurse who filled out my birth certificate didn't know how to spell it either. She put down two i's: Sheilia. Mom dropped the first i and I've been correcting people for the past sixty years. :D

    1. Well, I mentioned two sessions because you did in your question. In all likelihood most issues you could probably notice in one session, but two gives you some time to "check your work."

      I've only ever been part of one online group and it was sort of a "invite only" group of the most serious students in a particular class. We stopped the next fall since we all had class schedules again.

      As for the question of what to call yourself, I'm not sure. If romance is close, then that's probably the genre you should make sure people are either writing or comfy with, but if you come at it from a unique angle, that's a good thing!