);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: being published

After six years in critique her novel was “perfect.”

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 11.15.49 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 8.48.53 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 9.48.40 AM

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.

Image via Hyperbole and a Half
Image via Hyperbole and a Half

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.

Can get you in trouble...
Can get you in trouble…

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 1.15.18 PM

I heard somewhere that, statistically speaking, 10% of people will simply not like us, no matter what we do or how much we try. Whenever we decide to do something remarkable or even just different, this is when we’re most likely to encounter push-back.

Also, if we enjoy any measure of success or achievement, expect to be knifed. This is reality. We cannot control others, only ourselves and how we respond and what we choose to internalize. As writers, we’ll experience this with friends, family and even strangers.

Ah, strangers…

If I met someone and told them I was an HR manager, most people likely wouldn’t reply, “No I meant, what is your real job?”

I wouldn’t have to give a resume of all my accomplishments and proof I made money as an HR manager or even a roster of how many people I had in my charge. Yet, no one seems to find this type of behavior rude to do to creative professionals.

Sometimes it’s more than a little hard not to take it personally. But roll with it. Will save wrinkles 😉 .

Yet, I will say this kind of disrespect can derail us when we’re new, so we must learn to IGNORE IT. Maybe others won’t tell you this, but I will. I believe in you. You’re not Schrodinger’s Writer. You exist.

Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin
Original image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of Casey Konstantin

Write words? You are a writer NOT an “aspiring writer.” Aspiring is for pansies. It takes guts to do this job. Feel free to be a pre-published writer, but leave aspiring to the amateurs where it belongs.

Doctors begin as pre-med and lawyers start out as pre-law. They aren’t aspiring doctors and aspiring lawyers so I recommend deleting that word from your lexicon. Ignore these toxic “opinions.”

Also? Blog any amount of time and someone will call you an idiot. I guarantee it. They will have all kinds of Monday Morning Quarterback opinions, but they often hide behind cutesy monikers and avatars and don’t have the stones to have their OWN blog.

Why? Because being critical is way easier than doing.

There are all kinds of theories as to why humans act or react the way they do, but truth is? I don’t really care. Bluntness is my superpower. I don’t care and most times? You shouldn’t either.

I feel there are some things we’ve been taught in the past twenty or thirty years that’s just plain bunk. If we believe these “truths”? Just save up for therapy.

Every Opinion is Valid

Meme from Facebook

Nope. Sorry. Not all opinions are valid. Yes, people have a right to an opinion, but they also have a right to be wrong. Learning to separate out junk and ignore it is going to help you (and me) maintain peace when criticism comes our way. Discernment is critical.

My mom and I often talk about how stories we gravitated to as children are very telling about our character weaknesses/struggles.

My favorite was Old Man Wicket’s Donkey. The poor old man sets out with his grandson, a donkey and a load of grain. Everyone they encounter on the road has an opinion and Wicket tries to accommodate.

You terrible man. How can you let the boy walk when there is a donkey he could ride?

You dreadful, selfish man. How can you load that poor donkey with all that grain and a boy? The boy can walk!

And on and on and by the end of the story, they are all in the river, the grain lost, and the donkey drowns. By trying to please everyone, Wicket lost everything. He (and the poor donkey) paid the consequences for the decision, not every stranger with an opinion. For them? Opinions are free.

Sometimes, we just have to draw a line and if people don’t like our decision? They can get over it.

Understand sometimes others might not have enough information, the wrong information, sun spots frying their critical thinking. Who knows? Who cares? They might even have kind or noble intentions. But we’re the ones left with a dead donkey for listening to too many voices.

Every Opinion has Authority

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 2.16.16 PM

Again? Nope. Some people are not only wrong, but they don’t have a say. I know we live in this touchy-feely world where we’re all friends and peers but that’s a ticket to Crazyville. One of the reasons I quit running a free on-line novel workshop is I spent too much time defending my lessons and critiques against newbies.

I had people who begged and pleaded and got on waiting lists to be in my class…just to argue with me non-freaking-stop in front of others. They’d been in the writing world all of a minute when I’d spent ten years in the field. It was exhausting for me and demoralizing for others in the class.

Looking back? I shouldn’t have indulged this behavior.

I never mind questions. I LOVE teaching the whys behind my methods and new people often think of things I don’t. I learn from everyone. I believe most professionals are open and even excited to share more details.

But that’s wholly different than some neophyte being disrespectful, challenging a professional’s competency in front of others, and refusing to listen and take instructions because we’re all pals. I’ve experienced this poor behavior on the blog, in the workplace, writing groups, family, and even martial arts.

Nothing like a white belt standing there and correcting an upper belt. Le sigh. Most of my injuries in martial arts came from White Belt Know-It-Alls who believed they could correct/ignore me in Jiu-Jitsu (because they once took Tae Kwon Do for a month).

Um, no. And I was the one with the torn rotator cuff, not the noob who didn’t want to listen to how to do a throw properly.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 1.32.48 PM

I learned eventually to stop this early with a boundary. If someone is reckless in the dojo and won’t listen? I won’t work/spar with them.

As a current two-stripe white belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I know my place. If I have a question or don’t understand something, I respect Coach’s instruction and don’t argue because, “I watched a YouTube video that said…”

No.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 2.37.53 PM

Thing is, some people just don’t get a vote and they shouldn’t get one. There are places even MY opinions are better kept to myself.

One of my greatest vexations in the business/writing world has been dealing with people who go to just anyone for an opinion. This erodes confidence and creates confusion.

If I write romance, it is unwise to get a middle-aged male who likes techno-thrillers to beta read. He isn’t my market. If he doesn’t like it? Fine. But don’t go rewrite the book because one person made a constipated face. This person’s opinion shouldn’t have the same authority as a respected beta reader who’s a middle-aged female and huge fan of love stories.

I had family members who felt the need to give an opinion about me leaving sales and becoming a writer. People who hadn’t talked to me five times since childhood. Really? Just…really O_o .

Okay, when we’re finished talking about my career path, we’re going to have a little chat about your relationship record and child-rearing.

Or not.

Know WHO You Are

My favorite quote is, “Tigers do not lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” People have opinions. A lot feel the need to share them. Go team! But we don’t have to listen and take these opinions to heart. We can consider the source.

Sometimes criticism or critique is valid, but it can also be manipulation and gas-lighting with a bow. A big red flag is when others don’t address a specific behavior, they’re content to condemn you (or me) as a person. When I was in my 20s and even 30s I used to play these Reindeer Games.

No mas.

Well, people don’t like you because you talk too much.

So I’d be quiet.

Well, people don’t like you because you don’t talk enough. They think you’re a snob.

Oh-kay.

Well, you really just need to watch your topics of conversation. You’re offending people.

Apparently not enough for them to come to me in person. Which people? Which topics?

Well, I don’t want to say. Just be careful what you talk about.

I’m gonna go back to the “not talking” thing.

People don’t like you.

Why? What am I doing? What can I change?

Well, just try harder so others will like you. 

Okay.

People don’t like you because you just try too hard.

I give up.

The mark of a secure person is we don’t need to be surrounded by yes-men and drones. But just because we are open to opinions, doesn’t mean they all should get equal weight.

When it comes to doing this writing thing, we cannot listen to everyone. When we do, we end up with a Book-by-Committee, Blog-by-Committee, Career-by-Committee, etc. And, last time I checked, committees are generally known for just mucking things up.

Sometimes life calls for a benevolent dictatorship 😉 .

Yes, you likely will fail. If we aren’t failing, we aren’t doing anything interesting. I fail. I fail a lot because I try a lot of new things others are too chicken to attempt. Own it. Be proud of it. Show me someone who’s never failed and I’ll show you someone who never did anything remarkable.

Rhino skin is earned by trials and we won’t last long in the world without it.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Paul Hudson
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Paul Hudson

Guard your dreams and your heart. Be fierce. Set boundaries. Let go of the toxic stuff to make room for the good stuff, the stuff with merit.

What are your thoughts? Have you encountered this nonsense in the writing world or even maybe the workplace? Do you have family, friends or even strangers who’ve crossed a line? Do you find it hard to ignore wrong or bad opinions? Have you dealt with opinions that corroded your confidence and made you second-guess?

Do you have a litmus test for what opinions and ideas are worth time and mental energy? Have you felt torn apart by conflicting advice? Maybe even dealt with the “no one likes you” maneuver?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, 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).

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