Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Criticizing Critique Groups

I’ve recently read two interviews/articles with authors who were negative or detrimental about writers or critique groups. Neither would have fazed me, but having read both at one sitting, well, it irked.

I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group for more than five years now. There is a core group and a larger transitional crowd who join for a period of time. It is a working group – if you are looking for a social meeting, this is not for you.

Usually, 8-10 individuals will read, receiving 15 minutes to share about 1,200 words (if fiction), or a few poems, article etc. Before they read, they can ask for feedback on a specific aspect and we also write comments on the manuscript copies that they distribute. When they finish reading they shut up and listen unless asked a question (this is the hardest part!). We try to be constructive but honest and there are occasionally bruised egos.

For the past 6 months, I have been reading my YA epic fantasy: Wycaan Master / At the Walls of Galbrieth (I still can’t decide between the two). No one in the group (until a woman recently joined us) were fans of fantasy and, given that they had helped me with two social-justice themed novels, were not happy with my change of direction.

As I near the end of the manuscript, I feel a great appreciation for the group. Certainly, it has not been easy and there are times that I would love to be sharing with people who understand the genre, but there is something incredibly refreshing in their comments, as readers who can look down from 10,000 feet, with perspective.

I recently mentioned that I have changed the teacher figure. He was very much a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom and Gandalf and my group found him formal and predictable. The agent who is coaching me also commented on this and urged me to turn the character on his head.

He transformed and became a funny and unpredictable woman. She aged, but still had the strength and energy necessary; it just didn’t always come easy. I feel this has had a fundamental impact on my novel, particularly where there is often a middle sag, and added a richer layer, while also distinguishing the book from comparables in the genre.

This, and much more, came from people who, while not experts, care about their craft and also about mine. They are not a replacement for the professional editor, but s/he will receive a cleaner manuscript and I will have a richer story.

I often hear from people who speak derogatory about writer’s groups. Usually, they have had a bad experience or two, and so their attitude is understandable. But a good writer’s group is about mutual support, not fluffing or shattering someone’s ego, but it is above all a group communicating in a very honest and artistic way.

And we do it all face-to-face, with no screen in between. A last bastion of a dying culture?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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7 thoughts on “Criticizing Critique Groups

  1. Like you, Alon, I believe that every writer needs to find a support group¬¬¬¬––even if it is but one person.

    Crit groups operate under a variety of formats.

    A recurrent theme to my year on the road, now commencing its 17th month, has been to seek out and visit writers clubs and critique groups. It is energizing for me.
    The character of the clubs and personality of the crit groups is oceanic in breadth.

    The writers vary from excellent to hobbyist to hopeless. The crit groups are universally supportive, often with great suggestions.

    I’ve never heard a bad word about crit groups, although I’ve heard stories of people issuing comments so discouraging, they submitters quit writing. I believe harsh comments reflect the disenchantment of a failed writer rather than the promise of the work they skewered.

    The worst group I sat in on did offer something useful to the few writers of talent. Good groups are valuable to their addicted members.

  2. Agree with you. However, it is amazing how many groups do seem to implode when egos clash. It is interesting how many of those who don’t stay in a group continue writing.

    I recently met a top author who does not want to mix with others in the writing world. While I respect her desire to be left alone, the writing community is poorer for her absence.

    Have a great weekend, my friend,
    Alon

  3. Okay, first I want to correct this statement: “No one in the group were fans of fantasy and were not happy with my change of direction.” – I am a fan of all of your work, and while yes, am not a fan of the genre, have found myself quite interested in your work thus far on this novel, and think it’s great when an artist shakes things up and tries something new. Despite not known a dwarf from an elf, I quickly found myself drawn to the characters, including the he/she wise instructor!

    That being said, I also applaud your devotion to your fellow writers. It’s hard to believe I’ve now been a part of your critique group for 2.5 years, and while my ego has been knocked around a bit, I’ve also learned. A lot. Not only has my own writing become (hopefully) stronger, I learn from everyone else as well as their work, which makes me more helpful to others. People compliment me a lot on my editing skills, and I don’t know why, but attribute much of it to listening to others.

    I’m actually a participant in several critique groups of various skill levels and goals, and the other misconception about them is that they’re only worth showing up to when you have something to share. I tell people all the time that there is as much value in supporting others as in editing your own works.

    I am thankful to have come to know many of the writers that I have, and feel as much pride in their work and successes as I do my own. That you, Alon, have supported me and my work that is much different than most everyone else in the Berkeley group, means the world to me. You’ve shown an interest in each of us, and encouraged each of us even though you may not be a fan of our “genres.”

    Your dedication as an artist is contagious, and apparent. I am anxiously awaiting your next book, and quite happy to brag to others not only about how great it is, but that I had the privelege of helping to shape it.

    • oh, and I love the new look of the site, and the easier navigation! Great job!

    • Wow. Thank you. I am really moved by your feedback. I do love our group and the people who have been a part of it over the years. I think we all, you included, have improved our level of craft, and this is due to the honesty and editorial commitment we have to each other.

      Even though, I sometimes don’t agree with feedback that I receive, or have been upset occasionally (I loved Jane ’till the end even if others thought she became a b**ch), I do look forward to getting home and making the corrections that have been suggested.

      I have no doubt that my novels are better for the feedback I’ve received. For this I am extremely appreciative to our critique group and glad that I am not a solitary writer.

      Have a great weekend.
      Alon

  4. Thank you, Kymberlie. I’ve been hoping for some feedback on the new look. Appreciate the comment.
    Alon

    • Kymberlie ingalls on said:

      That’s the other thing I teach in my class and groups – editing is helpful but at the end of the days it’s still your story, your voice and it should be what you wanted to express. It’s important to learn objectivity, as much as it pains us, but also to stand behind and up for our work. 🙂

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