Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Writing Critique Group

Sorry I didn’t get to finish this series of posts last week, as planned. Life got in the way, as it sometimes does.

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I belong to one online and two in-person writing groups currently. I’ve belonged to others of both types in the past. Some of my experiences with writing groups have been better than others, but I’ve learned a lot from both the more positive and less positive experiences. I will say that both of my current in-person writing groups feel like family, and hanging out with them is the best.

1. Chemistry matters.

Critiquing can be a stressful experience for both the person giving and the person receiving the critique. No matter how much I try to tell myself it’s not personal, it absolutely is. I pour my heart into what I write (as most writers do) and any critique, no matter how well-intentioned, can sting a bit. Critique stings a lot less (and actually can feel good) coming from someone I genuinely like and respect. When everyone in a group respects one another, I can tell, and it makes a huge difference to how the group functions.

2. I always have more to learn.

When I first started the process of being critiqued, I’m not sure what I thought about it. But knowing me, I probably assumed I wouldn’t need someone else to critique me forever, that at some point, I’d “get it.”

I understand now that my learning will constantly evolve, and once I master one skill, it’s time to learn another. At this point, I want my writing to constantly improve, no matter how “good” I get.

Like most beginning writers, I used to have a love affair with adverbs. I don’t anymore, but I do tend to repeat words. I get a favorite word in a chapter, and that word is repeated 8,375 times. I don’t even notice, no matter how hard I look for it. But my critique group does.

3. Talking to other writers is like taking a mini-vacation.

In all of my groups, we stay and talk after we’re done tearing each other’s work to shreds. (Just kidding. We don’t do that… usually.) The conversations we have are generally the type of things that might make non-writers a little nervous. I speak loudly, and not everyone appreciates flippant comments on murder, the apocalypse, or how we can disagree and still respect one another. Luckily, my group does, and they laugh even louder when they realize we’re scaring people.

4. Good criticism energizes me.

Most of the time, I walk away from my writers’ groups eager to make the changes my fellow writers have suggested. There have been many times when I know something isn’t right about my story, but I can’t pinpoint what. When good critique is offered, I suddenly know exactly what needs to be done (or at least, where to start) and I want to get to it immediately. I wish I could bottle that feeling.

5. Other writers’ successes feel fantastic.

There’s lots of advice out there about how to deal with jealousy when the writers nearest to you are becoming more successful than you. I’m so competitive that I worried this would be a problem for me. But when two members of my group found agents, I waited for the jealousy, and it didn’t happen. All I felt was, “Of course someone recognized how amazing their stories are! I can’t wait to buy them!” Do I want to get an agent and start that path to publication? Obviously. But I want us all to be successful, and it doesn’t matter which of us is first. We’re all going to get there.

6. Everyone works at their own pace.

I can whip out a really good first draft fast, but then I have to spend a long time tinkering with it. I struggle with the editing process because my first draft is so close to being right that I don’t know what to change. (This is not a humble-brag. It really is frustrating and I haven’t learned how to edit my work the way I need to.) As a result, I probably spend more time editing and rewriting than anyone I know. It sometimes frustrates me because I feel like I should be able to get this faster than I do. But if I’m being honest, it can sometimes take me a while to learn a new skill. But once I get it, I get it. I’m frustrated with my “always a bridesmaid” status, in that most of the rejections I get say that I made it to the final round, or that they loved it, “but…” However, I’ve started telling myself that this is just part of my process, and the fact that I’m getting closer to success means that I’m on the right track. There was a time I didn’t even get to be a bridesmaid.

7. Most of us are socially awkward introverts.

We like books! People are… ugh. We’re not unfriendly (well, sometimes we are), it’s just that, as socially awkward introverts, we don’t always want to meet new group members, no matter how great they may turn out to be. It’s hard to be friendly and hard to welcome new group members. After all, we’re going to be putting our hearts on the table, handing out knives, and saying, “Go on, slash at it.” I remember being new to groups and feeling, while not unwelcome, not entirely welcome either. I also remember being wary of new group members, eyeing them suspiciously. I try to be better about it because what I’ve figured out is that no matter how “normal” they pretend to be, they’re just as weird in the same ways as me.

8. You really do have to be willing to put your heart on the table.

This is so hard for me. Most of my group members love my supporting cast of characters but call my narrators “secretive,” “gray,” or “blank.” (Most of them don’t come out and say this, but that’s what their comments boil down to.) It took me a long time to figure out that while my narrators aren’t me, they carry bits of me, and my normal habit of being secretive spills over onto them more strongly than any other trait of mine. People want to know characters; it’s what makes them sympathetic, even when they’re making bad decisions.

I have to keep reminding myself of two things. First off, no one is going to know what bits and pieces of my heart I used to mold and shape my characters unless I tell them. Secondly, even if they did, people love vulnerability. Presenting an impenetrable facade is intimidating. I know this, and I’m still working on it.

 

9. Not everyone wants you to succeed.

There are people join writer’s groups for their ego and they will tear you down if they get the chance. Sometimes those people are harder to recognize than others. But if you more often feel bad about their criticism than energized or good, it may be time to part ways. Writing is hard enough without the discouragers.

10. Some writers have no desire to improve.

Some people will never change, no matter how many times you offer the same feedback. There’s a difference between “I thought about what you said and I disagree” and “I’m not really interested in changing.” Those people can be difficult to deal with because anyone who’s growing and changing will feel dragged down by people who are stuck. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve found that works long-term with people who don’t want to improve is to leave them alone in their unchanging ways.

I found my current writers’ groups through Meetup.com, but I also use Scribophile for an online critique group. (Feel free to find me on Scribophile as Doree Weller.)

What have you learned from your writers’ groups? Is there anything I’ve covered in this series that you’re interested in learning more about?

Related posts:

8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

9 Things To Remember When Receiving Writing Feedback

4 Myths About Critiquing

9 Things To Remember When Receiving​ Writing Feedback

IMG_1714You have a story (or novel), and you’re ready for others to take a look at it. But taking feedback is a learned skill, like any other.

In the past, I didn’t take criticism… any criticism!… well. I was one of those people who’d say I was fine while fighting back tears and gnashing my teeth. I was supposed to be perfect, you see, which meant that every word that came from my pen was also perfect. Any criticism, no matter how well-intended, was an attack on me.

You can roll your eyes at young me. I frequently do.

When I first started thinking about publication, it was only after I’d gotten a number of form rejections that I figured out I needed to get critiqued first. When I found my first online critique group, it was a humbling experience. In this online critique group, we were supposed to give feedback about the feedback, and luckily for me, I read some of that feedback and realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could be the person ranting about how no one understood me and basically spend all my time rebutting criticism.

Most of those people were not great writers.

I didn’t want to be that person.

So, I started taking time out to really think about the criticism before I responded to it. After a few times where people gave me critiques that basically amounted to, “It was great!” I decided that those critiques were even wore than the critical kind. So I developed a policy of thanking people for any criticism, no matter if it was actually helpful or not.

Here’s what helps me deal with feedback.

Step away from the criticism.

I sometimes need a little time to think about the criticism before I can do it justice. In the moment, it can be hard to be objective. After a little while, it gets easier to assess what to keep and what to discard.

Remember, they’re just opinions.

When I first started getting critiqued, one person would say, “More setting!” so I’d add more. then the next person would say, “Less setting!” so I’d take it out. The point is that you shouldn’t make changes based on every single critique someone offers. In many cases, it’s a matter of taste. If I had to critique anything by JRR Tolkien or Stephen King, I’d cut wide swaths with a red pen. Evaluate the critiques to see what resonates and what doesn’t, then edit based on that.

Don’t argue about what your intention was.

I’ve seen this happen in groups more than once. Someone offers a critique, and then the author defends the reason that passage was written or why it was written that way. The problem is that, if your work is published, you don’t get an opportunity to explain. If someone didn’t get it, then maybe you didn’t succeed in doing what you intended.

Not everyone will like your work.

There are people out there who don’t like Harry Potter. Stephen King threw Carrie in the trash can (back in the days of paper manuscripts) and his wife picked it back out. If someone doesn’t like your work, it’s possible that it’s just not to their taste.

Always say “thank you.”

Critiquing isn’t easy, so when someone makes an effort to help improve your work, thank them, even when you don’t feel like it. Maybe especially when you don’t feel like it.

Identify the strengths of people within your group.

I weight criticism based on what I know about the people in my group. If one person loves romance, then I weight their criticism more heavily in scenes with smooches. If another person is great at actions scenes, they’re the person I listen to when fists start flying.

Look for patterns.

I’ve lost count of the times people have told me to take the preachy message out of my story. I didn’t listen the first couple (dozen) times, but eventually, it got through. If one person says that they don’t like your main character (and you meant for him or her to be likable), maybe it’s the person reading. If most people who read your manuscript don’t like your main character, then it’s probably an issue.

It’s YOUR story.

You wrote the story for a reason. An idea sank its teeth into you, or certain characters wouldn’t stop talking until you put them on paper.  People are going to offer lots of different opinions on your story, but don’t lose sight of your original visioin, what made you excited in the first place.

Be quiet and listen.

This is probably one of the most important points in this post. You can’t learn if you’re talking or formulating a defense. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to listen to criticism, no matter how well-meaning, but it’s an essential skill to learn in all parts of life. You can learn something from everyone. Sometimes it’s not what they intended for you to learn, but that doesn’t make the lesson less valuable.

What would you add to this list?

Related posts: 8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

 

 

8 Things to Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

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Over the next two weeks, I’m going to cover topics about giving and taking feedback about writing. While I’m going to talk specifically about writing, I think some of my tips could come in handy for other creative pursuits as well.

The topics I’m going to cover are:

How To Give Writing Feedback

How To Take Writing Feedback

Myths About Critiquing

Things I’ve Learned From My Critique Group

So… lets jump in, shall we?

Giving and getting feedback on writing (or any creative pursuit, I imagine) is an intimidating endeavor. We writers pour our hearts into our stories and getting critiqued feels a little like sitting in one of those dunking booths. For this reason, it can be difficult to know how to give (or take) feedback.

1. Know your relationship with the person you’re critiquing.

I’ve been in online writing groups and small groups where the same people meet every week. I know larger writing groups with changing attendees also exist. I’ll give different feedback to a stranger than to a friend, and I’ll give even different feedback to a sensitive friend vs. someone who’s fine with blunt criticism. In one of my writing groups, a friend critiques me in such a harsh manner that we’ve had to assure new members that he won’t critique them like that. While it may bother other people, we’ve negotiated a particular way of critiquing one another.

2. Be open to feedback about your critiquing.

This means both verbal feedback and non-verbal cues. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone with the best of intentions, I notice them start to get uncomfortable. They shift around or they start to look hurt. At that point, I’ll edit my review on the fly, trying to soften criticisms and pointing out more positives. In one group, I was told that I was “too mean,” and I appreciated the feedback. After further discussion, we identified things I could do better when giving critiques.

3. Use the sandwich technique.

People tend to best remember first and last comments, so it’s important to start and end with a positive. People can hear criticism better when it comes packaged in a way where they don’t feel attacked. Plus, if you’re using the sandwich technique, it makes you focus on the positives as well as the negatives.

4. Remember that your goal is to be helpful.

This is such an important one. Your goal is not to make the work perfect. It’s not to make it something you’d want to read (especially if the story is romance and you only read science fiction). Your goal is to help the writer reach their goals, not yours.

5. Find something to criticize.

This is seriously so important. The worst critiques I’ve ever gotten are not the ones that made me cry (and there have been one or two of those). The worst critiques are the ones that get a lukewarm, “It was good.” I’ve actually had one critique in my entire life where the person had nothing to say, but it was still an effective critique because they were so moved by the piece that they couldn’t talk about it. Other than that single instance, I’ve never had a “praise only” critique be useful. If you can’t find anything to criticize (and don’t just pick on something for the sake of being contrary), then react. “This part makes me think you’re foreshadowing something.” “I didn’t expect this character to do this!” “This made me gasp.” And so on. Sometimes it can be helpful for a writer to know how you’re reacting so that they can tell if it was what they intended or not.

6. Keep it impersonal.

Especially if you don’t really know the person. This is one area where passive voice works well. Instead of “You didn’t capture my interest right away,” try “My interest wasn’t caught right away.” It can soften hard to hear information.

7. Make sure to mention when you’re critiquing outside of your interest area.

It’s fine to critique something outside of your preferred genre, but be aware that different genres have different norms. I belong to a critique group with a bunch of guys who read mostly science fiction and/or literary fiction. So, when I bring in horror stories, they’re sometimes a bit out of their realm. I still get great feedback most of the time, but the one frustrating comment I often get is “This isn’t horror” because it has more real world than speculative elements. Obviously, the person saying that isn’t familiar with The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson (to name two examples). If something doesn’t work for you, absolutely note it, but it’s best to also say something like, “I don’t know what the convention is in Nordic Noir because I mostly read Bildungsroman stories, but when Sven said…”

8. Remember to say if you liked a story, even if you’ve said it before.

This is so important. I told the tale of a writer who left my group because she got a difficult critique (I imagine). I still think about it, even though it happened a year ago. I can’t remember if, the last night she was with us, I told her how much I loved her story. I had a ton of critique for it, but that’s not because I thought it was bad; it just needed a lot of work. I truly believe she had something special, and I know I’d said it before, but I can’t remember if I said it in that last group or not. In my mind, when you love a story, you can’t tell the author that too many times.

Do you have anything you’d add to this list?

First Kisses

I’m writing a special Thursday post because Miss Snark’s First Victim is featuring 15 first kisses from unpublished manuscripts to be critiqued. You can find them here. I’m #12 with an excerpt from my young adult novel, Not Dead Enough.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer at least some romance in books I read. To me, love is part of what makes life so grand, and it’s wonderful to read about people falling in love, even against the backdrop of things going horribly wrong. (Romance + horror = happy me)

The 15 excerpts are a maximum of 250 words, so they’re all quick reads. Stop by and read one or two and leave a comment. At least 15 unpublished authors would love the encouragement and/or constructive criticism!

How To Read Childhood Favorites the “Right” Way

IMG_9546I love rereading books that I used to love. Nostalgia books, I suppose you could call them.

It used to never be a problem for me, but as I’ve gotten more serious about writing, and as I’m critiquing other writer’s works on a weekly basis, it’s gotten more difficult not to read things with a critical eye.

Two years ago, I made the mistake of gifting my all time favorite book to my critique partner. As I reread it after I gifted it, I started seeing areas I knew he would criticize. And he did criticize those areas, and many more I hadn’t anticipated.

Suddenly, I didn’t love the book as much as I used to. It wasn’t the perfect example of a novel that I’d thought it was. I was disappointed, and for a long time, didn’t want to read any of my old favorites, worried that I wouldn’t love them as much as I used to.

Recently, I got the urge to reread The Forbidden Game trilogy, by LJ Smith. Without overthinking it, I started the first one.

I ended up reading it in two minds. My critical reader found all the flaws. (And there are flaws.) But my nostalgic reader found all the reasons I’d always loved it. And my nostalgic reader was louder.

It’s easy to find the flaws in something, to pick it apart, to criticize. That’s why anyone can do it.

And as a writer, it’s important that I can be constructively critical to my work and to the work of other writers who want to improve. Sometimes, as a reader, it’s important to do too. It’s good practice, and helps judge what works and what doesn’t.

But there are sometimes when I don’t want to pick things apart or find ways to improve something. Sometimes I just want to enjoy it, recapture that uncomplicated pleasure that came with reading it in the past.

The meaning of a particular book and how it resonates with the reader can change over time. There have been books I’ve connected with more or less over time, depending on where I was in my life.

But I don’t ever want to get to the point where I look at a beloved book, and only see the flaws. That serves no purpose. And I certainly don’t want to avoid rereading a favorite book out of fear.

All books have magic, and magic is a personal thing. But the key is that we, as readers, have to be complicit in creating that magic. It doesn’t exist without a reader who’s willing to be immersed in the book.

A book that resonates with me, at any point in my life, doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s an unrealistic standard. If it made me feel something deeply at any point, then it was “perfect” for me at that moment.

So, from now on, when I’m rereading a book, I’m going to keep in mind that it’s okay for it to have flaws, and those flaws don’t diminish its value one bit.

After all, at one point, I didn’t even see the flaws. They were always there, but I was so immersed in magic that I missed them. And I’m not going to let anyone take that away from me… not even myself.

Being Perfect, Accepting Criticism, and Generally Getting Over Myself

IMG_2703I was in elementary school when I got my first C on a test. It was probably math, because back then I thought I hated math. I got home from school, and sobbed because a C was clearly the end of the world. And my mom sat me down and explained that I didn’t have to be perfect.

I can’t count the number of times she told me that, but it never quite sank in.

I used to be a poor sport, throwing a quiet temper tantrum if I lost a game. Oh, I thought I was holding in my temper quite well, but everyone else knew I was being a big baby. (This was in my 20s.) Still, I’m generally good at everything, so people kept playing with me because I didn’t lose all that often.

Any criticism, even the mild kind, could make me fume for weeks. Because if someone criticized me, clearly they hated me and everything about me, right? The flip side of that is that if I said or did something I perceived as “wrong,” I could obsess over it for weeks as well.

One day, I was getting ready to go play games with my friends, and I thought back to the last time we played. I remembered eating and drinking, making silly jokes and laughing a lot. I remembered who was there and what we played. But no matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t remember who won.

And that was eye-opening for me.

I didn’t get over myself overnight, but that realization started the slow process. Whenever I started to take something too seriously or get upset about it, I’d just ask myself, “Will I even remember this in a month?” If the answer was no, I made myself move on.

Then I started participating in online critiques of my writing, and the old feelings resurfaced. I made myself put the critiques aside for a day or two before responding. And I found that as long as I didn’t respond right away, I could get over my hurt and see that much of the critique was helpful. Not all of it, of course. Sometimes criticism is just a difference of opinion, and I didn’t have to go with it. But if I assumed that everyone who criticized me was coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help me, it made the criticism easier to take.

I know that not everyone wants to help, and that criticism can be malicious. But it’s not my job to sort out other people’s emotions. I just assume everyone has my best interests at heart, and move on. Other people’s negativity doesn’t have to affect me, unless I let it.

It wasn’t until I was in grad school to be a counselor that I realized how much progress I’d made. We all had to tape ourselves doing “counseling sessions” with other students, and then get feedback from our professor in front of the whole class. I really respected this professor, and desperately wanted her praise. But when she saw my video, she picked out all the areas where I could improve.

I felt myself turning red, and those old feelings of having to be perfect wanted to come to the surface. But I told myself to pay attention to what she was saying, really listen, and think about it later when I had time to decide how to feel, and if it was helpful.

When she was done ripping my counseling session to shreds (that’s how it felt, though it probably wasn’t reality because she is a genuinely good human being), one of the other students said, “Wow, that was really amazing. How could you just sit there and take all that criticism? I’d be in tears.”

I took a deep breath and said, “Well, this is where we’re supposed to mess up, right? I’ll learn more from my mistakes than my successes. This way, when I get into the real world, I won’t hurt anyone, and I’ll do it right.” And that tight ball of tension inside me dissolved, because I realized that I meant it.

Criticism is still hard to handle sometimes. And of course, I love praise for a job well done. But regularly attending a writer’s group and having consistent critiques has been a wonderful asset to working on this aspect of myself.  That criticism doesn’t hurt, most of the time. Sure, once in awhile, if I’m having a bad day and feeling emotional, those old feelings try to struggle to the surface.

But I mostly tell them to shut up.

If I’m really having a bad day, I know who I can text to rescue me from negative thoughts. And I also try to write compliments and positive feedback into my journal, so if I’m struggling with negative thoughts, I read over the things people said to me that made me feel good.

And I remind myself not to take it all so seriously. It’s just life, right?

How do you handle criticism?

The Reality of Unreality

I believe that inspiration for writing can be found anywhere and everywhere… I just have to keep my eyes and ears open.  If I’m not paying attention, I might miss things.

I like to read and write because I love to immerse myself in a story.  I can be anyone, go anywhere, do anything.  The constraints of real life can float away, almost as if they don’t exist at all.  In books and novels, we get to skip the boring parts. Unless it’s integral to the plot line, we never have to cook meals, go to the bathroom, have a bad hair day, stock up on shampoo, or gain any weight.

People can fall in love and get married within 200 pages, and it seems just fine.  The FBI or CIA can take over your computer and blow up your house, and you don’t have to worry about filing insurance claims.  You can get shot and say, “It’s only a scratch.”

That’s why I laugh when people tell me that a story was “unrealistic.”  It’s all unrealistic!  It’s not a webcam of someone’s life, it’s a story.  I believe that as readers and watchers, we get the best experience when we suspend disbelief.  I’ll believe anything, as long as it makes sense in the context of the story.  If the story’s poorly put together, then it strains the limits of even my imagination. But a well-told story about something fantastic can be… well… fantastic.  (Okay, bad pun.  Sorry.)

All this may be one of the best arguments to have others read and critique.  Maybe the story makes perfect sense to the writer, but that’s because you’ve connected the dots in your head.  Writing at its best will connect (or imply a connect) those dots for readers.  We all mess up sometimes though and miss those vital connections.

Just keep writing, keep reading, stay open minded, and it will all come together.