Friday, September 5, 2014

How Not to Burn Your Critique Group to the Ground

How to Take Criticism, or How I Learned to Stop Plotting the Deaths of My Critique Group Members and Love Their Feedback Instead

Image by Mr Clementi, via Flickr

I’ve been a member of a critique group for almost a year. In that time, they’ve helped me slog through the second draft of one manuscript, helped me plot my next story, and advised me on the first draft of a new manuscript.

They often give me specific feedback that I don’t like. They tell me my characters’ motivations are muddy, my sentence structure is clunky, and I don’t show enough of my protagonist’s reactions to events.

When I used to hear these criticisms, it’s not that I necessarily wanted to murder them, I simply daydreamed about interesting accidents that may or may not befall them. Just daydreaming… I’m not a monster, after all.

But all that murderousness abated when I learned how to leave my ego at home.

My words are my teeny tiny textual babies. They are sacred to me. When I pour my blood, sweat, and ink onto the page, it’s virtually impossible for me to remain objective about my prose. That’s exactly why I need critique group members and beta readers: people with sufficient emotional distance to detect the rough patches I miss due to my close proximity to my work.

They don’t always give helpful feedback. Some of their notes come from a place of stylistic opinion, not from experience, and I tend to disregard those. Like Neil Gaiman said, “when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

But if more than one member of my writing group marks the same passage of text in my submission as problematic, I have to pay attention. And even then, maybe I need to let their critiques sit for a few days so I can get a fresh perspective on how to correct it.

I used to have a screenplay writing partner. We would squabble over how to approach a particular scene. When we hit an impasse, each unable to convince the other to change, we were forced to sit in awkward silence and come up with a new, third way to approach the scene. Usually, the end result was a better idea than whatever we had each initially fought so hard to implement.

My writing group challenges me to see things in a new light, and make changes to the bits that don’t work. And when I do find that new road, my desire to bludgeon them all to death subsides… a little.

Have you joined a critique group, and how do you defeat the irresistible urge to murder them?

Jim Heskett is a writer of short fiction, long fiction, and the snarkiest blog posts in three states. You can currently find him slaving away at a laptop in an undisclosed location in Broomfield, Colorado. More details about current and future projects at JimHeskett.com

15 comments :

  1. I've targeted a couple of members of my critique group for death. In writing a book about a serial killer, I need lots of bodies. So I tortured and killed them on the page. Seriously, a critique is both your best friend and worst enemy. I agree with you, Jim, that having a sentence or character castigated by people you trust is more than difficult. But, as you say, if you check your egos at the door, you can get more out of the group than you expected when you joined. Excellent post.

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    1. Thanks Betsy! The trick is not to get caught :)

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  2. While not currently belonging to a critique group, I see the potential value of again joining one. And while turning the back on ego to face the value (or lack thereof) of suggested changes might make a better finished product, I recoil at any hint that my "baby" is less than perfect. (How'd that ego sneak back in here?) The keynote speaker at a writing seminar I attended several years ago stated emphatically that our stories are NOT our babies. This is not necessarily so. Our creativity gave birth to our words; this qualifies as "baby" in my book (no pun intended). Since I've migrated (at least temporarily) from family dramas to soft thrillers, murder can enter the picture here. Lots of ways to end the critical lives of picky beta readers or critique group members lurk within a fertile imagination and can find a fitting home on the written page. Biggest perk: I don't go to jail for this literary crime. :-)

    On the other hand, your suggesting of allowing a criticism a few days to incubate in your mind makes great sense. Distance can indeed promote at least a degree of objectivity, as well as needed "fixes." Love this post, Jim. Thanks for sharing it, Elle.

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    1. Thanks Linda! Beta readers and critique goups helped propell my writing to a new level

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  3. I've often mentioned here that writing in the corporate world thickened my skin ... after you've heard a client say, "What's that smell? Oh, it coming from this script" you learn not to get too attached to your stuff ... you just shut up and change it.
    Speaking of unwarranted critiques ... my spam collector started sweeping up missives from BRP ... which is why I've been absent lo these many days. Well, I straightened that out ... I hope.

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    1. Nothing prepares you for rejection like rejection, eh?

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  4. Thanks for visiting us, Jim!

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  5. I find both group time and alone-time valuable in different phases. I worked with critique groups for support in the initial stages of my novel. Then I needed to fly solo for a bit and learn self-reliance. Next I'll show it to beta readers to get a bird's eye view. I treat feedback like a 12-step group: take what I like and leave the rest. Not that I exactly "like" it, but just as you say: if several people have the same reaction and it resonates with me, I have to pay attention. I love the Neil Gaiman quote. Thanks for the reminder that others may help point us in a direction, but only we can walk it.

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    1. just like Stephen King said, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

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  6. I try not to react initially and let the critics sink in. Then when I'm not feeling attacked, that's a silly reaction, I can better judge good from bad criticisms. Great post.

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    1. Thanks Susan! We have a rule in my critique group that the author must remain silent until after all the critiques have been said around the table. Helps with those knee-jerk defensive reactions

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  7. There is a lot of lively debate in my crit group. There will be passage half of us love and half of us loathe, but when we all notice the same thing, it gets changed. I could not do it without them. They pick up on so much I miss. Plus we have different personality types and I think it is important to have a mix of feelers versus thinkers.

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  8. Thanks for the great post, Jim, and welcome to BRP. I do hope you will be a guest again. I have belonged to several critique groups through the years and they have been of tremendous help. It is crucial that we leave our egos at home, and remember it's the work, not us that is getting shredded. LOL

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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