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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

To Praise or Critique? Is That the Question?

Do the writers who read this blog workshop your novels?

An interesting question. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One, there are so many critique groups out there for critiquing stories. No doubt about that. I've been involved with one on-line group since 2006. And I've worked in a smaller, more personal one for some years as well.

And I have to say, both have been a big help. The first one I joined shortly after getting my feet wet was a big help in many ways. I had no clue what I was doing, and I learned a lot. And the novel I've had published I can say is a better novel for having gone through the critique group I'm a part of. I had some blind spots that were uncovered concerning the plot, and it became much richer of a story as a result.

So, upon reading the blog postings from Dean Wesley Smith titled: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Workshops, I had to take a second look on this topic. He certainly makes one think through these things, and I'm sure that makes him very happy.

His post does answer one question I had. That is, do professional authors who have made it use these groups? I sort of doubted it, because the time it takes for me to get a novel critiqued in one of these group, posting one to two chapters a week, it can take half a year or more, if the critiquers keep the pace up steadily. Since a lot of authors earning a living at writing fiction crank our more than one or two books a year, I had serious doubts that many, if any, used the sort of on-line or even in-person critique groups that I was using. It simply wouldn't be efficient time usage for them.

And I've also been aware of the problems inherent in critique groups, many of which Dean touches on in that article. For instance, some of my critiquers I know who they are and their qualifications. But especially in one group, by and large, I have no idea of their real names. I don't know what they've published, if ever they have. I have no clue whether they really know what they are talking about or not. They are individuals hidden behind a screen name who may be able to sound like they know what they are talking about, but have never published a story in twenty years of trying for all I know. They may be Orsen Scott Card as well, trying to remain hidden to avoid being treated differently. The point is, I have no clue, and so I have no clue whether their advice will kill off my novel's unique voice, or resurrect it from the ashes of my own incompetence.

But aside from all that, if I'm to learn and grow as a writer, at some point that process becomes a hindrance more than a help. In the end, it's your novel. Once you've learned whatever there is to learn from someone, and that I do agree with Dean should be the goal of these groups, it no longer makes sense to spend half a year or more gathering input. If you're going to make money, you write it, edit it, have someone beta read it, edit it, and send it out. Then repeat the process.

The other reason is I'm starting an on-line writer's group. Strange, I know. It sort of took on a life of its own as NaNo ended and several of us who spent all month on-line together wanted to keep the group together and perhaps help each other to edit their novels now that we had a rough draft to work with. So I'm forced to revisit this topic so I will know how to approach it myself.

There appear to be two options if we go to critiquing each other's novels. One, what I've been doing which is to post a chapter every so often. Once a week or two chapters a week, get critiques, etc. Then edit again at the end of the process. Or two, to go through and edit it as quickly as I can, send the whole manuscript to a couple of beta readers I trust, do final edits when I get them back and then ship the manuscript off.

For those new to the editing process, the first makes more sense. One, it gives them bite-sized chunks they can deal with and digest. Two, it provides them a deadline of sorts which helps get them moving on their novel when otherwise it'd sit gathering dust, virtual or otherwise, tucked away in a folder somewhere. But for the more experienced writer who has a few stories and novels under their belt, the later may make more sense. It will speed up the process, and the crit group instead provides the beta readers instead of a chapter-by-chapter critiquing process.

The one area I'm not so sure I totally agree with Dean on is to only say good things about the other person's work. I know personally I want to know what is wrong with it. That said, I have discovered that what works in my novel is also very important to know, and so I agree with that. I've had to work at mentioning and stating that myself when I critique.

However, here's the gray area I'm dealing with. There are times when I, and I've seen others do this, tell a person what they find wrong about their novel or story. And what they've found wrong is naturally a personal opinion. It's usually something that the individual critiquing the story thought didn't sound right, wasn't natural, too trite, the character(s) wouldn't behave like that (one of my favorites!), and on and on. But what it really boils down to is a personal opinion on whether some facet of the story is believable. And whether something is believable all depends on the history and culture of the person reading it.

Which is why so many stories with giant plot holes make it into books, TV, and the movies. Some of them with plot holes big enough you could fly a 747 through them. And yet, despite all that, the public loves them! They buy them and they become best sellers, they spend tons of money to go watch the movie full of plot holes. How can this happen? Because there are people who care, and there are people who don't care about those things. Some people simply want to be entertained, no matter the implausibility of the story. The people who usually get their ire up about it are other writers. Especially one's trying to make it as a writer. Not always, but I bet the 80-20 rule holds here as well. 80% of the writers will be bothered by plot holes, uninspired or wooden dialog, while 20% of them aren't. Conversely, 80% of the general population couldn't care less about those things, they just want to see a great story, and 20% of the general population will complain about it. Guess which 80% is bigger and will get the aspiring writer more sales?

So, guess what? You have a great story, even with plot holes or mediocre writing/acting, it can still make lots of money and do well.

What? You think I'm saying if it sells well that's all that matters? No, not hardly. But if it sells well, that means one primary thing: your book is in the hands of thousands compared to hundreds. It means people think enough of your story to plunk down cash they've worked hard for because they know it is worth that money. Strangers you may never meet rave about your book with coworkers and friends. Sales is how the general public votes on whether they liked your book. It is the vote that matters more than any of the awards, because without that, it don't get shared much, it doesn't reach very many people with its story and/or message.

And before I hear someone say its all about marketing, that simply isn't true. No amount of marketing will make a book people don't like into a bestseller, and the only way a book really becomes a best seller is if people like the story and talk about it to their friends. Marketing only provides the push that gets the snowball rolling down the hill. But then its up to the snowball to gather more snow to become big. If it doesn't, it simply loses steam and comes to a halt less than a quarter of the way down the hill. You still have to have a story that people enjoy. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to be fun!

And Dean's point is a critique group won't help you make it anymore fun, engaging, or your unique voice than it is when you finish the last page of the rough draft. It may help close up some plot holes. It might tell you that the story isn't fun and engaging, and if the people have a clue about good story telling, they might even be able to point you in the right directions as to why.

So if I'm hearing Dean right, and I hope I am, the point of a good workshop is for writers to help each other learn to write better, learn new tricks by looking mostly at what each other have done right more so than what they've done wrong. But I still think we can learn from what we've done wrong. I think the point there is we be very careful about making changes on what people have thought we have done wrong unless we ourselves are in complete agreement. But to focus on what works, that should be the idea if we want to learn what works. Yes?

What's your experience with critique groups?

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