Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Critique - thumbs up or thumbs down


by Maggie Toussaint
In the beginning, I thought I knew how to write a book. But it wasn't until I joined a critique group (and began to swim with the big fish) that I learned how much more there was to book writing. I learned a lot from my first group, good stuff and bad.

First the good stuff: when a word/phrase/scene brought comment from more than one person in the group, it needed additional work. When I felt the need to explain a passage at our critique meetings, I hadn't done a good enough job in the book and it needed more work.

The bad stuff wasn't so bad. For me, the worst part was getting conflicting input. I had a tendency to want to please everyone and I spent a year rewriting a book to everyone's satisfaction. When I finished it, I hated it and there was no coherent voice.

Which brought home another lesson. I learned it was important for me to complete a book before I brought it to critique. Then I was certain of where the story was going and who the characters were.

I lost a year doing that group-pleasing book, but I gained back my focus. Critique is a good way to sharpen your work, a good way to check for repetitions, for craft essentials, and story.

Since that first group, I've had several online critique partners, and I believe we all learned from each other. Critique isn't for everyone, but it sure helped me. I give it a thumbs up!

Maggie Toussaint
a fresh new voice in Southern fiction

13 comments:

Kathleen MacIver said...

I think you're right. There's a delicate balance to find, as you learn what information to glean from critiques. I have yet to find a good critique partner or group that I have access to on a regular basis, but I'm looking for one. (It's so hard to find other writers whose writing you like, and who like your writing enough to want to work together, AND whose skill level is complimentary to your own!)

Anyway, in today's world where books must be highly polished to stand out from the rest, I think critique groups are more and more important.

However, I also think you must be very careful to use them as a learning tool to increase your writing skill. It would be too easy to use them as a crutch to make your book better...but then you're stuck if an editor wants your story and two more, and your critique group can't help you on those two more! Eeek!

Good post!

Diana Castilleja said...

I'm a supporter of critique groups or even test readers. No you can't please everyone, but stay true to the story and you won't let yourself down.

I've been in a few crit groups and each has given me information to move onward. They've also taught me to have faith in my own writing.

liana laverentz said...

I brainstorm with others, but once I start writing, I go with my own judgment. I'll then ask someone to read it for typos and glaring errors, but not for critique. I had someone read Jake's Return before I submitted it, and she torpedoed it. I was so disheartened I didn't look at it again for a year. Then I read it again, decided she was wrong, and submitted it to TWRP without changes. It won the Golden Leaf award. That taught me to trust my own instincts.

Celia Yeary said...

MAGGIE--I say thumbs up--with reservations. In my little writing group, I've learned several valuable tidbits on specific pages or scenes. In other words, I take a few pages--usually the opening--and ask for their opinion/reaction. It's been an eye-opener as well as confirming. Ordinarily, I go with my own instinct (not knowledge, because I'm not very advanced in writing) and submit. Good question--Celia

Kim Watters said...

Thumbs up to critique groups--as long as they are productive and actually help you on your road to publication. Make sure you all gel together and have the same style of critique. We're brutal, but we've all been around for a while. Keep in mind a bad CG can hinder you.The three ladies in my current critique group are awesome and I wouldn't be published without them. Same goes for my second group, too. I also use my sister and friend as a reader before the manuscript goes off to the editor to get a fresh perspective.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Thank you Kathleen, Diana, Liana, Celia, and Kim for your insightful comments. I find it interesting that critique has a certain place in all of your worlds. And it is even more interesting that you've each learned to set bounds on what critiques you ask for.

I'm expanding this critique discussion over at The Book Spa today if anyone is interested: http://yahoo.com.groups/group/TheBookSpa

Sandra Parshall said...

Trying to please critiquers who have differing views can kill a story and destroy your confidence in it. Been there, done that, recommend strongly against it. And remember that when you find an agent, then an editor, they'll want changes too, and they may not agree with one another. I remember one writer saying that her agent made her cut 25,000 words because the book was too long. Then her editor made her add 25,000 words because the story felt thin. In the end, the only opinion that counts is your editor's.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Very good points, Sandra. I make a habit of keeping different versions of my story (electronically) for just that reason. If I decide to cut significant length, that definitely gets saved in a "just in case" file.

I think it is important to write well and to believe in your writing. Depending on your personality and skill level, critique can add to your work or it can tank it.

Critique is an individual decision.

I think of critique like learning to swim. For years I was reluctant to put my face under water. I was the last kid in my age class to learn how to swim because of that. But once I gained confidence that I could do it, I took to underwater swimming like a fish, and to this day still prefer to swim underwater. Critiquing is like that for me. I sift through the input from my CPs and use what I like, discard the rest. It takes a confident person to do that.

Rebecca J. Clark said...

I've had good critique groups and bad. The best ones are when you like (or at least respect) the works of your CPs, feel like you're getting constructive feedback, and feel like you're helping them improve as writers as well. It's all about the give and take.

Now I have two online CPs and that works great for me.

Becky

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Becky,
I've switched to online critique partners as well, not because I don't like meeting with writers in person, but because I live in a rural area. Its so easy to critique over the internet. The only thing I wonder about with that is tone. It is very hard to convey tone or body language through a critique.

Susan Macatee said...

I belong to a great online critique group that is currenlty disbanded because no one has anything ready for critique right now. But as long as your partners get your voice and don't try to change your story, I think it's a great way to catch things you don't see in your manuscript.

I also agree that you should wait until you've completed your first draft and gone over it at least once yourself, before submitting it for critique.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Susan,

It is so nice to hear that other writers share my philosophy about waiting until the first and maybe second draft are complete before seeking critique. Otherwise, I think you are relying on someone else to clean up your messes.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Maggi - super post and feedback! I agree with all which you say and the other posters.

I'm a member of a small group (5 of us) with men as well as women - the male POV can be very handy. If 2 or more say the same thing, I know I need to look at it again.

The other thing of course is that I trust them. If a writer ever falls into the clutches of a negative group, or one that is not in sympathy with that writer's voice, it can be a devastating experience.

 

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