Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups
Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups also have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at resonating with readers, thus being successful.
The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.
Traditional Critique Groups
Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.
When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for commercial publication.
In a good traditional critique group we learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” We learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and why modifiers aren’t always extra-nifty. We will hopefully learn self-discipline in that we need to attend regularly and contribute. We can also forge friendships and a support network.
So where’s the problem?
Traditional critique groups lack perspective.
Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see structural flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.
Traditional critique groups can tell us nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.
***A beta reader is a regular person who likes to read our genre and will tell us about the story from a reader’s perspective.
Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.
Traditional groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.
As we just mentioned, those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Fifi end up in Costco wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”
Well, duh, of course they’re lost.
They’ve missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Our job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections our critique groups can follow.
Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-by-Committee.
Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a Book-by-Committee, also known as Franken-novel.
One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Hooked by Les Edgerton, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell are a great start. In fact, ANYTHING written by Edgerton or James Scott Bell, just buy it and read it. You can thank me later 😉 .
That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.
They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.
The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers who have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query or publication.
Scrap it, part it, shop it or ship it but MOVE ON.
Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”
There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for four, five, even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.
Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.
We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many successfully published authors has the group produced?
How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond that group for additional critique.
We must make sure our work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for this brutal career. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer us publicly on-line in a blistering review.
You will know them by their fruits…
If your goal is to write great novels, make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I spent way too many years in a critique group that produced all kinds of articles and NF, but no one had published a successful novel. Then I wondered why the critique was…eh.
When I left that group for the DFW Writers Workshop, my world tilted on its axis because DFWWW is AWESOME and is known for producing professionals in all genres. In fact, I wouldn’t be here without them. I also STRONGLY recommend joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and find an RWA chapter nearby even if you don’t write romance.
RWA is by FAR the most professional group of authors any of us can connect with. They are at the leading edge of the industry and these folks will totally send in the flying monkeys if you don’t get back to writing.
By the way, if you want to get more out of your critique group, I have a class this Saturday (details below) that can make sure your larger structure is sound. This class can do what your critique group can’t and it will help you spend your time more wisely.
So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Does your critique group seem to only run you in circles? Have you fallen for the perfectionism thing? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.
I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form 😀 .
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.