Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wait a Minute...

Some of you astute readers may have noticed that critique groups are not a part of my Massive Revision Plan. No, they're not. Technically Robyn's a critique group, but since there's two of us, we're more flexible and quicker than other groups. And the writer pros are a group, but not in the formal one-chapter-a-week kind of set-up. But I do have two groups that do weekly submissions, and they're not on the list as part of my revision plan. Why not?

The Problem with Critique Groups
  1. They have a schedule. Which means, you're stuck with a certain number of pages a certain amount of time. One of my group does a chapter a week, the other does a chapter every other week or so. By that time line, I'd be lucky to finish the novel with the second group before Christmas.
  2. They read small selections spaced out over longer amounts of time. A chapter every other week leads to the inevitable question in the notes ...did you introduce this character before? ...was there foreshadow for this in an earlier chapter? You lose the thread of things when it takes you till Christmas to read a draft, and you can only read ten pages every 14 days.
  3. They tend to focus on the minutia. In part because critique groups by their nature struggle with big picture ideas in a WIP, they also tend to comment on smaller, nit-picky details that are sometime irrelevant to the overall work.
The biggest consequence of these three things? It makes it easy for the author to lose her voice. When you become quagmired in the small details and suite your writing to a constrained schedule and ignore larger concepts like pacing, you end up listing events rather than telling a story.

Why Critique Groups are Essential
None of that was to say that Critique Groups aren't worthwhile. They are. They are. But for different reasons.
  1. Critique Groups teach you how to critique yourself. How many times have you heard the pithy statements "show, don't tell," or "POV problems"? But did you ever really understand them in your own writing until you caught it in someone else's? As a teacher, I see this all the time. I understand so much more about T'ang Dyntasy Chinese poetry now, when I teach it to my students, than five years ago when I read about it in college. When you try to help your critique group member with a problem scene, you'll realize more how to fix that kind of problem in your own writing.
  2. Critique Groups notice patterns. If you fall into a typical set-up with your chapters, for example, and always start with dialog and end with a cliff-hanger, the critique group tends to notice that much more than a reader reading the whole work. If you have repetative words or sentence structure, group members are better at spotting that sort of problem. In fact, if you stick with a group long enough, you'll start thinking of them when you write. To this day, I take out semi-colons because I know a member of my group will tell me I overuse them (but they're so much fun!).
  3. They tend to focus on the minutia. One of the downfalls of groups is also a strength. We all need help with grammar. We all need someone to point out that that one sentence on page 34 has really crappy diction. We all need to have someone show us how those three lines of dialog over in that scene are really stiff. This may not be what makes or breaks a story--it's not identifying a major plot hole or correcting a flaw in character development--but still, it's the difference between good writing and great writing.

So in the end, where do Critique Groups fit into my Massive Revision Plan?

All over. I've already started my WIP with both of my scheduled crit groups. As they read and comment, I'm storing their comments, but not using them to revise until I'm near the end. From there, I'm going to compare my final draft with their notes through the text. They're going to be my final check list. Did I fix the problems they pointed out? If they had questions in a chapter, where those questions answered (at least in another chapter)? Did I fix the minutia they pointed out?

Sure, neither group may be finished with the entire WIP by the time I've got a polished draft to send out. But that's fine. They'll both be at least to page 50 by then (standard for partial requests). And by continuing to send the WIP to them after I submit to agents will keep me focused and in line--both on further revisions and on agent submissions.

When I try to use critique groups as my only source of revision, I find that I don't push myself hard enough, and that the critiques don't always fulfill my need for revision. But when I utilize the strengths of the critique groups alongside my other revision plans, I hope to have the best possible method of revision I can get.
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