June 14th, 2012

crossed heart

how to write a book in six months — finding a writing critique group.

Originally published at Cassie Alexander. You can comment here or there.

So I was thinking the other day about how lucky I am to know the people I know and how friends have meant so much to me and how Nightshifted wouldn’t have gotten out into the world without the help of a heck of a lot of friends along the way. How did I make a lot of those friends to begin with? Writing critique groups. Add to that, the fact that it’s been awhile since I’ve written a how-to post, and here goes ;).

Why make writing friends?

Because no one else is going to understand you. Your husband, your friends, your kids, they’ll all sort of get it. But they’ll never deep-bone-know why you keep writing late at night, what it feels like to put your soul on a page, how hard it is to get your stories out the door, how much it burns when rejections come in. The people you know in real life who love you are great support and counterbalance for the hyperfocused (and occasionally somewhat myopic ;)) peer group you’ll eventually find of writers, on and offline, but they can’t really overlap, at least not at first.

And your real life friends won’t be able to tell you how to fix your story. They may read it, but very few people who aren’t writers are able to think critically about writing, they either like things or they don’t, and can’t always express why. Their comments will hurt more, because they’ll carry more baggage — it’s not just another writer, it’s your boyfriend or mom. They’ll be blindly encouraging because they’re afraid of hurting you. The list goes on and on.

What kind of friends should I find?

(I’m gonna use friends to mean crit group and vice versa pretty interchangeably here. Switch as appropriate.)

Ones that share the same goals as you. What are your goals as a writer? If you’re aiming for publication, they should be too.  How often do you want to meet? How prolific are you? What level of writing/submitting are you at, and where are they? Do they have realistic goals? Do they realize where they’re at? (It’s OK to want to be Stephen King, as long as you realize you’re not actually Stephen King.)

It isn’t that you can’t find friends-critters outside of your goal-umbrella, but the ones inside of it are going to be the best able to understand you and to help you with good advice about your work and possibly career.

How do I find a group — or any writing friends?

When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to find a peer group that fits right. You’ll go through some Goldilocks iterations until you find the one that’s perfect for you, even if that’s just one or two people you email back and forth with online — but at the beginning, don’t be too picky. You never know where you’ll find someone whose writing interests are sympatico.

Look online to see if there are any writing groups in your area. Is there a local convention that also runs a writing workshop? If so, attend it, and hang out with the other people in your group. Wiscon does this lovely thing where they have a writing workshop coffee meeting after their writing workshop, which is a good way to meet not only the people in your segment of the workshop, but other people like yourself.

Are you interested in writing romance? Many RWA chapters are killer — I really wish I’d found RWA earlier in my career (or even thought of it as a viable option, lamely biased fantasy writer that I thought I was). You can bet those ladies get together outside and work on their stuff.

Can you attend a bigger workshop? I went to Viable Paradise way the hell back in the day when I was just starting out — and got to meet some people that I’m still friends with today, over ten years later. Clarion West was (while more $ and a bigger time commitment) amaaaaazing, and again, built in support crew, people who’ve read your stuff before and who want to see you succeed.

Also back in the day, there were newsgroups to participate on to find like minded writers, and way back, Sff.net (I am old. Sheesh.) But there are other places online now, like the Online Writing Workshop which I’ve heard good things about, and critters.org, and if you write fanfic, there’s tons of places that exist for that.

Just join or do everything you can. Not everything’s going to work for you, and some will be flat out disappointments — hoho, that time I crashed a literary writers group locally because of a flyer they’d had on a coffeeshop wall, yeah (though I’m right, for the record, Frankenstein is genre AND literary) — but there’s a chance you’ll find someone else there who meshes with you and gets where you’re going, and you’ll do the same for them.

Give as good as you get — and then some.

What can you do to be a good writing friend? Give timely critiques. Think hard about the story. A lot of people have a system that they use, where they start off saying what they believe the story to be about at the beginning of their crit — I like that, because sometimes you realize what you wrote is not what other people are reading. (When that happens, most often, the problem is you.)

If it helps, dissect the story and think about each part of it. How was the plot? Too fast, not thick enough, too slow, just right? Was the character in the story the best person for that plot? What could they do to make that character resonate even more? How was the worldbuilding? Does it match with everything else? I like to think that all the pieces of a story are working towards the same goal — so if a piece is out of place, I definitely want to know.

What was jarring? What worked?

Don’t go into digressions unless they actually help. Do catch errors. (Alec Austin once counted the bullets I shot in a story. I think it was nine, in a revolver. *Facepalm.* I do that now in every story I write with a gun, and for everyone else too.) Don’t be entirely negative — sometimes stories just don’t work for every reader. Find some things you can praise about the piece, and give the person you’re critting something to work on. (I’ve been in groups before where someone is the designated negative driver. That person is lame. I know it feels good to harsh on stuff, but after a certain point, that story was just not for you. Say that, and stop crushing the author.)

Don’t make the story all about you. You can give them suggestions to change the piece, but realize that they’re just that — suggestions. You’re not the god of their story, they are.

Change it up.

I think all good crit groups should run like BBC programs — they should have finite expiration dates. Or they should have so much churn with new members coming and old ones leaving that it’s alllllmost like a new group periodically anyhow.

A lot of crit groups have the one person who is continually revising and sending in the same piece. Or the person who’d rather talk than crit, or the super-negative-about-their-career-Eeyore person, or the person who isn’t writing anymore but who still tags along to be social. Those things are all fine, within reason. But really, what’s happened is that those people’s goals have changed on you. If you’re still aiming to get your work out there — that group may no longer be the right group for you.

I fell into a group once with someone whose entire novel was on endless repeat. It didn’t do anyone any good, least of all the author, who was hopelessly out of touch with the current market. With each revision I had this stomach-pit-sinking-feeling of waaasssttinnnng my time.

Don’t be so desperate for writing friends that you find yourself wasting your time. Plenty of people are nice — you can get nice anywhere. But chances are you only have limited writing-related-free-time, that you can eek away from your homelife and job. So don’t be shy about finding people who respect that and who are also interested in the same things you are — writing, submitting, publication — who want to encourage you in your career. And people whose writing you are, in turn, thrilled to see because you can’t wait to help make them better, because they’re learning, just like you.

It sucks to be the person to walk away from a group — or to try to start a new one. But sometimes it happens. If you have to do it, be strong. (And dramafree. Don’t rage quit a writing group. Which should go without saying, and yet ;P ;))

There’s this old saw that you should be the weakest person in your crit group, which is right up to a point. But eventually it isn’t that you should be the one that everyone helps get better, so much as that everyone whose in the group should have a different set of tools with which to help one another build better stories. If you’re lucky, you’ll be the plot person, and someone else will be the characterization person, etc, and between everyone’s committed interest, you’ll have a super-brain to tap into once a week, twice a month, whatever works for all of you.

Why bother?

Are you Neal Stephenson? Or Stephen King? Or Insert-Name-Here? You can always get better. And it’s really hard to get better on your own. It isn’t that you can’t learn on your own — you can, you can read other people’s stuff critically, and you can self-teach from an endless amount of writing books — it’s that we’re frequently least able to see what’s wrong with our own work. And the beauty of being in a group is that everyone’s exposed to a body of your work, over time. They can see how you’ve grown, and also how you need help making your characters dialogue sound better, and how you always biff the last line.

Not to mention that the people in your crit group will wind up being your peers are you progress. There’s no better barometer of your own success than the successes of your friends. If you’re working with people who are on a level where they are getting attention from agents and editors and sometimes selling, if you keep earnestly trying, eventually you’ll be on that level to. It’s just a matter of time. A rising tide really does raise all boats.

And now it’s bedtime. G’night! ;)