My Pal The Meerkat (wouldn’t that make a swell title?) made a very useful post a couple of week ago on writerly support: that is, beta readers vs. writing groups vs. going it alone. Which made me think about writers’ groups in general, and how to go about using them.
I attended Clarion back when it was still in East Lansing, MI. It was wonderful for me, not just because I learned a huge amount from my teachers and colleagues, but because it gave me a chance to hang out with people who were concerned about the same things I was, from character arc down to the order of words in a sentence.
But most of us may not get the time/money to live for a week or two weeks or six weeks in a hothouse of writerly advice and gossip. For ongoing critiquing, we will more likely use local groups with scheduled meetings. Sometimes there are members of the group who have experience with critique groups; sometimes not. For those without experience, here are some important guidelines.
- Assume the playing field is level. Just do. You don’t want to speak up to some of your colleagues or down to others. It can make for hard feelings.
- Everyone’s story/book/epic poem is her baby. People may deny it, but I’d venture to say that, no matter how eager we are for feedback and critique, none of us wants to see our stories lying bloodied in the streets. Be kind but firm. Critique groups are not the place to show off how smart you are by being snarky.
- When possible, even when a story makes you want to be snarky, think in terms of how to improve it, not how bad it is. If necessary, go home and write a snarky review in your Sekrit Diary (and leave instructions with your executor to have the thing burned after your death).
- Remember that you’re not writing the story, the author is. Which is to say, except maybe on a grammatical level, don’t say: this is how to fix it. It may be the author will see the problem and come up with a way to address it that you’d never have imagined. This is a good thing.
- If a story pushes your buttons, say so upfront. “I have some issues with the torture of penguins that aren’t related to the writing,” is a lot better than being upset and taking it out on the story or the author.
- Similarly, if you are pretty sure you’re not the target audience for a work, say so. For example, I read almost no epic fantasy; it’s not a genre that grabs me. This can make me a useful reader, as long as both the writer and I are clear on the point.
- When it’s your turn to be critiqued, try not to flinch. It’s natural to want to defend your child (there’s that metaphor again), but if you leap in to explain, you won’t hear the very thing you want: explication of where the problems lie.
- Listen. As a critiquer and as the critiqued. Especially when you’re being critiqued, don’t let a comment start you constructing a response rather than listening to more comments–you’re only shorting yourself by doing so.
- When discussing the work of your fellow workshoppers publicly, never say anything slighting. Seriously. If you love something, spread the word. If you hate it, stand mute; what would be the upside of bad-mouthing the work of a writer you’re going to see every other Tuesday night?
- Make a good faith effort to engage with the work rather than the writer. I’ve been in groups with people who I would personally have liked to hit with a shovel. Don’t think about them: think about the story that’s on the page. There are plenty of writers with loathesome personal habits and bad clothes, but we don’t know those things if we encounter their words on a page. Divorce the work from table manners or how she treated her last boyfriend, and look at that.
Which all comes down, I guess, to: treat your colleagues as you wish to be treated, and then add 10% more kindness. Treat the work as you wish your own work to be treated, and add 10% more thought.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf. She has just finished The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and is now working on the new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner. Her early Regency romances are coming soon to Book View Cafe.