Friday, September 05, 2008

Critique groups and me

No video today, just Charles rambling.

In her most recent post, Debby wrote about the joys of belonging to a critique group. “I love my group,” she writes, “because each person is kind, fair, candid, and humble,” and says that since they all come prepared, “we’re ready to jump right in with constructive comments.” She also notes that drink coffee, eat pastries and chocolate and do a lot of laughing.” It’s strange, but these are all the reasons why I don’t join a critique group. I’m glad that it works for Debby—if the end result is evidenced by her books, then by all means she should keep it up ‘cuz it’s worth it—but for me I think I’d rather join a certain political party that happens to be holding its convention in St. Paul this week than join a critique group. Okay, maybe not that extreme, but close.

First, a clarification. I’m not talking about folks that get together to talk books over drinks. I do a lot of that and in those settings I’m a poster boy for kind, fair, candid and humble conversation. I’m referring to groups specially gathering to read, review and critique each other’s work. With that type of group there is a clear goal and an expectation that each member will work to that goal, namely critiquing works in progress. And I’m also not talking about the way I am on a daily basis—I’ll leave that for others to comment on. I’m only talking about providing requested feedback to works in progress. Clear? Great, onto why I’d never join—or be asked to join—such a group.

Kind, fair, candid and humble. Great attributes in a friend or a boss or a president, but in a critique? Most people who know me would say that I am exceptionally kind, but when it comes to writing (or reading what others have written), I have no time for kindness. I am a brutal critic of my own work, consistently zeroing in on missteps and wrong turns. I know what I do well and can’t spare the time to gloat because, trust me, there’s far too much that needs fixing. And when it comes to spending time reading someone else’s work—something I really don’t have the time for—I am perhaps even more brutal. Kindness, in this context only, slows me down and serves no purpose. This would not make me a popular critique group member.

Fair. Well, it depends on how you are using this term. If you mean fair as in I don’t make stuff up just for the chance to rip apart someone’s writing, then yes, I am fair. If you mean fair as in I point out just as much good stuff as I do “problem areas”, then no. Again, time is an issue and what’s the point—the way I see it, if I didn’t tell you there was a problem, I loved it.

Candid. Oh yeah, definitely. But since I know that my candid comments would be neither kind nor fair (as defined above), I don’t share them often. People say, “I want you to be 100% candid”, but what they mean is that they want you to be candid about the things you liked, or if not, at least mix in some good stuff with the problems. To do anything else wouldn’t be, well, kind. And as I said, I have no time for being kind.

Humble. Is it oxymoronic for me to say that I’m humble? I think I am, perhaps to a fault, but if I’m overly humble while I’m offering advice then wouldn’t the advice seem halfhearted and unsure? (“In my opinion—and it may be just me, so feel free to ignore it—I sort of think that sometimes, maybe you’re writing can be just a tad tiny bit, well fill in the blank.”) I think I’d rather have a strong, assertive, even arrogant writer I respect rip me a new one for the fifty things wrong with my manuscript than listen to a self-effacing milquetoast shower me with praise. There may be something useful in the former, but there’s nothing useful—as far as the writing process goes—in the later.

Constructive comments. When someone asks me for constructive feedback, I first explain to them that I don’t sugarcoat my comments. If they want it sugarcoated, I’ll do it, but I don’t know how constructive it’ll be. In my experience, people only consider sugarcoated comments constructive. My comments are a lot like the drinks I make at the bar—straight and strong. Definitely an acquired taste and not for the weak willed.

But the #1 reason why I’d never join a critique group? “We also drink coffee and eat pastries. And chocolate. We laugh a lot, too—mostly at ourselves.” You think I procrastinate now? I could do this kind of socializing every night of the week—I’d never get any work done. Plus, I have no will power when it comes to pastries—I’d have to hit the gym twice a day instead of my leisurely twice a week. Debby is made of tougher stuff than me if she does this every week and still writes such good books.
Critique groups obviously work, but I don’t think they’d work for me.

[Note: Rose read this over before I posted it and said, “None of this is true.” She says I’m not at all like the way I described myself and that I’m all of those things I said I’m not. She says I’d be a great person to have in a critique group and that she thinks I really should join one because I would get as much out of it as I would give—and that people would be glad I joined. And she wanted to know if I thought she’d be stupid enough to fall in love with a guy that was as big a jerk as I claimed I was, and did I really think that little of her judgement. But she does agree on the pastry stuff.]


Vicki Delany said...

As it happens, I'm going to NY tonight, and having dinner with Rose and Charles. Looking forward to come of that lively conversation.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Charles, I have a hunch you'd have a good time at our crit group, despite your trepidation. The only sugarcoating we have is in those pastries (and eating is up to the individual, right?). If you're ever in Hawaii, you'd be welcome. Plus, we only meet once a month. Burp.

J. S. Chancellor said...

Thank you. What for? For saying what so many of us think, but hesitate to say for fear of being labeled a heretic. Crit groups don't work for me either. I have a couple beta readers, but I'm tough enough on my manuscripts and don't have time to fool with weeding through and deciding what's 'useful' advice and what isn't. As authors, we know when something isn't working in our own stories. I'm happy for those who gain from being part of these groups---I'm just not one of them. Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It's appreciated.

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