Monday, February 22, 2010

The Art of Critique: Baby, Give It to Me Straight

In the fall of 1997, I got a flyer in the mail. Nothing fancy; just a single yellow sheet announcing that Portland novelist Karen Karbo was starting a weekly fiction writing workshop. If interested, please contact.

It was one of those lovely moments in life that happens when you've committed to a drastic course of action, subsequently decided you're insane, and then the exact thing you need to see it through falls smack into your lap.

See, two months earlier I'd quit my full-time job so that I could finish my first novel. I felt exactly as if I'd jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Okay, not in the
I'm going to splat to my death in less than a minute kind of way, but in the gut-gnawing, have-I-just-ruined-my-life insomniac kind of way. (Same terror--just slower.) I didn't know how to write a novel. All I had were eighty manuscript pages and a vague idea of what might happen on page eighty-one.

Then the flyer arrived. On the first evening, I was one of ten writers sitting around Karen's dining room table.
Over the next few years I did complete my novel, and get it published, due in no small part to what I learned there.

Karen's wasn't the first workshop or critique group I'd been in. But it's been by far the best, which is why, twelve years after that first class, I still take my place at her table.
If you're looking to join or start a critique group yourself, here are a few things that you might want to consider:

Critique is specific.
No wishy-washy "I really liked it" or "It didn't work for me" without reasons to back it up. Pinpointing why a piece works--or doesn't--can be surprisingly hard to do. And the higher the skill level of the writer, the harder it gets. A really good writer can hide fatal flaws under dazzling wordplay...which means it often takes a lot of thought and effort to put your finger on what exactly isn't working. But the payoff isn't just for the writer; the better your critique, the more you yourself are learning about the craft.

Critique isn't just pointing out the flaws.
It's also important to acknowledge what the writer is doing well. Writers need to recognize their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Plus, we all need to hear that our pages aren't pure crap.

Critique what's on the page. Don't impose your vision on someone else's work. In one early critique group (long before Karen's) a fellow "critter" told me that the premise of my book was all wrong and that instead, my two female characters should set aside their differences and form a friendship that would be a testament to female bonding in a society that doesn't value women's relationships. (Gee, projecting much?) Which not only missed the entire point of my book, it bore no relation to anything I'd already written.

I've also been in workshops in which the instructor's critique mostly centered around getting students to write in the same style as the instructor. A good workshop leader isn't interested in creating copycats. Instead, like Karen, she recognizes each student's individual style and works to help her students develop their own unique voices.

Work with people at your ability level or slightly higher. If you're far and away the best writer in the room, it's easy to start thinking you're God's gift to literature and that you know all there is to know about writing. You'd be wrong.

I'm not the best writer in my group; in twelve years, I never have been. These people are wicked talented, which means I'm always striving to up my game. In the same vein...

...Try to find people with similar goals and work ethic. This doesn't mean everyone in the group should be gunning to get published. But if it's important to you to keep learning and getting better at your craft, you'll save yourself frustration if you're not the only one.

Likewise, members need to pull their weight. That doesn't necessarily mean bringing in new chapters every week (although of course that's great.) Members of Karen's class have gone through long periods--months, even--with not a single page. But they still show up, week after week, and give honest, thoughtful, and insightful critique. Does that count? You bet it does. Good critique is damn hard work. In fact, the least welcome member of any crit group is the one who shows up only when she has pages. Critique is a two-way street: if you want to get, you have to give.

Keep the focus on the writing. In some groups, critiquing gradually takes a back seat to snacking and discussing each other's personal lives. When a critique group turns into social hour, its demise soon follows.

And finally, if you want to have a quality, longstanding writing workshop or critique group, there is one thing you must never, ever overlook:

Give yourselves a catchy name. Us? We're the Writers of Renown.

Damn skippy, as Karen would say.

Next time: Receiving critique (aka, You've Shredded My Precious Like Soggy Kleenex And I Think I Might Hate You Forever.) In the meantime, you writers out there: what's your dream critique group like?


Lisa Nowak said...

I participate in two critique groups and I can't speak highly enough of the support, feedback, and camaraderie the members offer.

You're right, giving a good critique is hard work. It's important to put in the effort.

ikw said...

thanks for the info and the really great insight.

Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa, I really believe that learning what to look for in someone else's work is one of the best ways to learn the writing craft. I know some writers who shudder at the idea of a critique group, but like you, I find the support of my writing mates invaluable.

Christine Fletcher said...

Hi, ikw, thanks for stopping by! :)

ikw said...

hi christine! (ikw is from my new blog - my old blog was barista brat)
do you know if either of your books will be downloadable for nooks?

i looked for tallulah falls, but they only have a hard copy, not an ebook.

Christine Fletcher said...

I found your new blog! Love the name, and your first post. (Anyone who's curious:

Thanks for asking about the books. Both are available on Kindle, but so far I don't think they're available on nook. It's up to my publisher, so I guess we'll see...

Laini Taylor said...

Sounds like a great group -- I've never been part of a consistent group, though I think it would be so helpful in so many ways! I'm glad you found yours when you did and finished your novel. Yay!

carolyn said...

Great post! I am a great admirer of constructive critique. I didn't know how hard it was until my group hit a few big bumps and had to pull together (more or less) after. Our conclusions: critique group members must feel "safe" sharing whatever they are working on and need help with, at whatever stage, raw or polished. We must contribute honest and constructive feedback; to back up "I love this" or "this doesn't work for me" comments with specifics, as hard as they might be to say or hear, all in a constructive, building spirit. It is surprisingly difficult to both use your own experience and set aside your petty fixations and pet peeves and fears at the same time, to try to see someone else's project from their point of view, to help THEM achieve THEIR goal, which might be very different from your own... But it is crucial.

Christine Fletcher said...

Laini, I've learned so much and gotten so much support from my group...I know I wouldn't have gotten this far without them.

Christine Fletcher said...

Carolyn, you are exactly right--it's way too easy to impose our own agendas, fear, even jealousies on someone else's work. MUCH harder to set all that aside and evaluate the work objectively. Kudos to your group for working its way through those big bumps, and realizing how important it is that the members feel safe. I was in one class, very early on, where a writer was attacked--not just the work, but the writer himself. He left almost in tears and never came back. Terrible.

Dan B said...

You're so right about being specific and about critiquing what is on the page. The primary thing we need to be interested in is "is this working or not?"