Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“The End” Is Just the Beginning, Part III of Four: Two writers talk about editing, critique, and craft

Sharon Wildwind & Elizabeth Zelvin

What has been your experience with critique groups and critique partners?

Sharon: I could write a book on this. Horrible. Really bad. Great. Life-altering wonderful.

The horrible ones are the people who rewrite my story instead of telling me their reactions to it, or the ones who expect pages and pages of critique from everyone in the critique group, but never get around to doing a critique themselves. “I didn’t have time to read anyone’s work, so I made cookies instead.” The really bad are the ones with fixed rules and a condescending attitude. “Really now, dear, anyone past the fourth grade knows that you must use a comma to set off an introductory participle or infinitive phrase unless it immediately preceded, and forms part of, the verb.” Or they focus on some small detail, like the difference between American and Canadian spelling, but never make a single comment about the story itself.

The great ones—where the majority of people I’ve dealt with fall—know that critique is just one step in the process and that, as they say in the car commercials, your mileage might differ. They give a no-holes-barred view of how the material affected them as a reader, and why it affected them that way. They make suggestions and ask questions rather than giving fixed rules. “Between you and me, Chapter 2 could be better. Laurel playing with her hair is driving me to distraction. I wanted to slap her hand and tell her to pay attention to what Jonas was saying. In fact, what would happen if Jonas did slap her hand?”

The life-altering wonderful critique partnership—we need so many more of these—is like that ying-yang symbol. Each partner is ahead of the game in some areas and needs help in the areas where her partner is ahead of the game. Each partner treats the other with respect and humor. I read a wonderful line in a parenting book, “I love you just the way you are, and I love you too much to let you stay that way.”

Liz: I had one successful critique group experience back in the 1970s, when I first wrote poetry. It was a leaderless group of fine poets who were very good at constructive criticism. None of us had a book at that time, but I eventually published two books of poetry with a good small press, and one of the group is now a major poet whose name has become a household word.

I wanted very much to find a mystery critique group, but the online group I joined included an elderly lady who found my subject matter (recovery from alcoholism) “sordid,” so I didn’t last long there. I will add that one of my cherished critique partners and mystery-writer friends is someone I met in that group. As I have come to know many, many fellow mystery writers through networking in MWA and Sisters in Crime, online, and at conferences, I have found a few writers like Sharon whose opinion I respect enormously and who are kind enough to take the time to read and comment on in-progress versions of my novels.

Coming on Thursday July 16: Part IV, on the published writer’s craft


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I completely identify with your experiences with crit groups.

Unfortunately, I've never experienced the 'wonderful,' ones though. Usually the ones I've participated in haven't worked out.

Thanks for the post!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

I've had mixed experience with critique groups, but overall it was helpful. One group consisted of a hodgepodge of unpublished writers with widely varying abilities, but we all took each other seriously and provided constructive criticism (I hope). I'm still in touch with one of them, who's one of my first readers.

The other group (if three is a group) was less encouraging. I was summarily dismissed after a couple of months--"it's just not working out." I think the leader did not accept criticism well. (Guess what: I've published more books than she has now.)

But I think the virtue of working with a group is that you get a broad spectrum of responses to your work--which is a good proxy for the reading public. The trick is finding people who will be honest with you without shredding your ego.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I wish for you one of the "wonderful" groups.

Shelia, yes, 3 is a group and isn't that a terrific feeling to have published more books than the other person? I hold little feelings like that close to my heart.

Vicki Lane said...

My only experience with a critique group was very early on when I was just starting and was blessed with two very thoughtful readers. They kept me from killing off Miss Birdie in my first book -- thank goodness, as she's become a real favorite with many, including my editor.

Now I teach a class that is basically a critique group and when it's over (10 meetings) there are usually spinoff groups that continue on their own. That's how I found my original critique partners - in a class. This works well, allowing you over the course of the class to decide if you all can work together