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Friday, March 4, 2016

When the Critique Group Doesn't Fit--And When To Leave

I've been in several writing groups. I do believe every member of every group I've been in was well-intentioned. Still, a writing groups can be so frustrating. 

Or, they can explode. 

Here's what I have learned that I need in a writing group: 
#1 Each member should already understand the pillars of writing, which I would think of (at the moment) as:

Story or plot--in other words, causality.
Character development or psychology.
How to take your ideas and present them as people. In scenes! 
Overall structure--which of course, relates to plot.
Scene structure--ditto.
The writer's distinctive voice. 
Okay, okay, Grammer, but I'm far more willing to bear with problems with grammar as long the other stuff is there. 

Hey, maybe I've forgotten one-if so, go ahead and point it out. I'm sleepy. 

This point is, you can't write what you haven't mastered and you certainly can't critique it. Line edits don't mean much on a section you should chop from the book.

If you haven't mastered one skill, it affects all the others. A character who is unbelievable or one-note will screw with your dialogue. Clumsy dialogue makes for an unbelievable character. Sloppy character makes plot unbelievable. Unconnected plot makes characters seem either witless or lacking drive. If each scene doesn't have internal tension, a reader will skip it or stop reading. If the overall tension isn't there, the reader will skip to the end and quit reading then. 

All these skills can be acquired, if you're willing to do the work. 
If you're not, and you're in my group, I'm going to get irritated. 
It's tough when someone lacks, say, an ear for dialogue, but won't hang in a coffee shop with a notebook eavesdropping so they can hear how people really talk.  I remember a case like this. The group leader took me aside and said, "You have to stop giving note x to member y. (a fairly rudimentary note about dialogue.) She's not capable of understanding or implementing that note. It just feels like harping." 

I didn't believe her. Why give up on a fellow group member? The very idea felt patronizing. 

And even if it was true, it clearly pointed to a mis-match of group members. Which leads to constant chaffing. Those with less ability or knowledge can think that those with more are showboating. Those with more can struggle not to patronize those with less. And everybody gets impatient. 

In these circumstances, take my word for it. It's okay to quit. Even if you think this group is the best you can do, it's not. You can do better, if you find people more within your skill range. Up or down. 

#2. Sometimes, the problem is a psychological block. And here's where the other set of skills comes in, those lovely social, grownup skills, like: 

Being willing to do the work necessary to grow as a writer. 
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses well enough to not take criticism's personally. 
Not giving personal criticism. 
Having the ability to speak up when a problem arises--what I call the "ouch, you stepped on my toe. Back off," rule of assertiveness. Speak up, calmly, the moment it happens, and problems are quickly and easily taken care of without festering. Otherwise, later on, kaboom!
Having the ability to non-defensively listen to others when they are discussing a problem with you 
And to admit when you're wrong without feeling that this makes you a failure. 
And sometimes, a writer's block is bigger than not writing. There is no shame in having a problem, or in getting psychological help. 

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has had a group that struggled with those lacking these latter skills. The other group member who leaps in to contradict your notes or shakes their head in disapproval every time you open your mouth. The person who is using writing for therapy (and don't we all use writing for therapy to some degree). It can be dang hard to hear constructive criticism about a character's idiocy if that character is you, right now, messing up your life.  And yet. . .you are there for a critique, right? 

People who don't know how to critique beyond, "I hate this and I wouldn't read any more." Or "This upsets me. I'm leaving." 

The group might explode because someone didn't speak up about a repeated irritant; or  took a correction personally; someone refused to own up to a problem; or a member who said, "my emotional issues that are delicate so you can't ever tell me if I've done something wrong." 

Or of course, it could be drinking and drugs. 

I'm a big believer in talking things through. And listening. I'm not going to dissolve in tears any time we wind up in conflict. I'm a big believer in being kind and giving people a second chance. 

But--and this is a huge but--I hearby give you permission, if you encounter any of these psychological issues, to quit. Just quit. Be kind, but quit. There are times when I have wisely done so and times when I have hung in there long after I should have left. It's okay. You will find/create/stumble onto another group, and chances are dang good that it will be a better match for you. 

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