Feedback, please!

Whoah! Yesterday, I went to the first-ever gathering of my new writing group. Yes, a writing group, that meet in person. With physical bodies and everything. It’s a brand-new experience for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have the Inkpunks willing to read my stuff via the power of email, but it’s been about twelve years since I’ve gotten face-to-face criticism. Somehow it feels different.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot about writing groups. There are those who swear by them. Those who swear at them. Those who have found them useless. Those whose love for their writing group takes them to new heights of rhapsody.

Today, I’m collecting your stories about your writing groups. What advice do you have for new writing groups? What funny stories or positive experiences would you like to share? And hell, what about your horror stories? I want to hear it all, people.

Hopefully, when I get done reading, I’ll still be just as excited about my new writing posse as I was last night!

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  • Mark Andrew Edwards

    It’s all about the people.  I was in several critique groups before the Wordslingers got up and running.  The success or failure of the group, for me, wasn’t about whether they were good people or not (though that helped).

    What mattered was:
    1. Do they read and write in the same genres you write in?
    2. Will they tell you if something doesn’t work?
    3. Can they give useful feedback that helps you find solutions to problems?
    4. Will they tell you what does work?
    5. Do they treat you with respect?
    6. Do they want you to succeed and will they help you succeed?
    7. Are you all around the same skill level?
    8. Are they committed to writing to the same extent you are? (similar goals helps a lot) 

    The energy from face to face meetings is very good. I’ve done the online thing as well and there’s a lot of communication that gets missed in email.  
    I could go on at length, especially since the Inkpunks were inspirational to me and to a lot of my fellow Wordslingers, but I’ll leave it there.  Have fun with your new group. They’re going to LOVE you. 🙂

  • I’m in a group. It’s small — six people, sometimes seven. A week in advance, we send out up to 2500 words, and each person gets 10-15 minutes of feedback. We’re strictly limited on time because we’re at the local library, and we only have the room from 6:30 to 8:00. We’re all respectful even as we criticize each other. We meet every other Tuesday.

    I’m in the group because I need constant feedback — people telling me they want to know what happens next. Otherwise, when I get bored with a story, I just stop telling it. Right now they’re reading my new novel, and next Tuesday they’ll get Chapter Six. Problem is, I’ve only written up to halfway through Chapter Eight, so I’d better get on that, bettern’t I?

    Also — I’m the youngest person in the group by far (the next oldest is in his early 40s, and the oldest is probably in her 60s).

    I contrast this to the first group I was in, which allows five pages (about 1250 words) per session, there’s no set “everybody gives feedback” rule, and you have to read it out loud in person. Also, that one’s at someone’s house, so it goes until everyone’s done. And, because the group is so large (sometimes 15 people or more show up), you spend a lot of money printing out copies of your story. Finally, there’s no real policing of length — people use fonts, margins, and outright lies to get more than five pages on a regular basis.

    Contrast that to the other group, where the rules are followed pretty strictly by the woman in charge of it. None of her rules are unreasonable, and I think they really help make the group better.

    And that’s what I think writing groups need: rules about how much you can bring, how much time each person gets, and how many people can show up. Once you open it to the world, it gets a little unwieldy.

  • I’ve written about it here:  http://madelineashby.com/?p=920

    Basically, we follow the Milford model. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without it. (I might be a different one, of course, but I might not be in the same position.) I think every writer should give it a shot if they’re able to. If it’s not for them, then at least they’ve eliminated it as a possibility. But if you’re willing to sit in the hot seat and keep your trap shut for an hour while people tell you everything that’s right and wrong with a story, and then come up with a coherent strategy for fixing what’s broken, you can probably handle all the other painful things that come with writing. Moreover, you’ll be able to handle lots of other things, too, because you’ll have had that experience of separating your work from your self. I sailed through two Master’s defenses in part because I had had my writing workshopped so regularly. At each point that one of my examiners wanted to throw me off my guard or get a rise out of me, I just waited for them to be finished and reacted calmly. The same is true of documents I’ve worked on as a consultant or staffer. I’ve already had my most personal works torn apart and rebuilt, so “softening the language” for a client is much easier than it might otherwise be.

  • Hi Wendy,

    A couple of years ago, I decided that the next step on my journey to becoming a published author, was to find a good critique group.  I saw that there were a lot of them online and they used websites and forums for submissions and critiques, which really wasn’t what I was looking for.

    In addition to wanting feedback from other authors, I also wanted some interaction – and yes, I mean face to face! 🙂  So, I wanted something different.  Searching through sites like MeetUp.com, I found a lot of different groups with different ways of doing things, but it wasn’t until I groused about the search process on Twitter, that Ii found what I was looking for – all thanks to a new follower.

    He introduced me to the Colorado Springs Fiction Writer’s Group.  Colorado Springs is a city about an hours drive south of the Denver suburb where I live.  Most people probably wouldn’t make that drive, but I have found it to be a really rewarding experience.

    CSFWG has groups that meet Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and they cap each groups membership at around 15 people, so you aren’t overwhelmed.  Founded in 1996, the group was formed by folks who were in various other groups and writing classes, who themselves were looking for something better, so they built it.

    The rules are simple and effective.  You have to visit the group you want to join for three months, participating in on the critiques and discussion, to show that you are committed to the group.  Once your three months are up, you are free to join and submit your own fiction for critique.  Submissions can be up to a maximum 50 pages, printed, 12 point type, double spaced.  It’s up to you to bring enough copies for all the members of the group plus visitors.

    Anything you submit at one meeting, will be critiqued at the next.  You have to participate.  If you don’t, they will speak to you.  Continue and you could be asked to leave or get your act together.

    For me, the power of this group is in the diversity.  We have general fiction writers, horror writers, folks who write science fiction, fantasy and even poetry.  There are several published authors, a couple of editors working with small (and large) presses, people who have served in the military (Colorado Springs is an Air Force town), or as police, horse trainers, Medieval Combat Society members, Pagans, Christians, Wiccans, herbologists – you name it, someone in the group has some experience with it.

    I recently submitted several chapters from a novel and received a detailed schooling about how conceal to carry permits work in the state of Colorado (because I had it all wrong)!  Another person, talking about a knight fighting in armor, was taken to school about just how mobile a knight would be, what they could and couldn’t do, by someone who used to dress up in plate armor and smack other people around – for fun!

    So far, my experiences have been very positive, but part of that is the group, the other part is my attitude.  I am grateful to anyone who takes the time to read my stuff and offer me constructive criticism that will make the story better, or me better as a writer.  I know that I have areas where I can improve, and these people help me with that.  Which is why I thank every person at the end of their critique – I look them in the eye, smile, and thank them.  Doing so helps them, too – it means they know it’s okay, I’m not taking anything they say personally.

    I also try not to argue or defend anything during a critique.  I let the person inform me, take my notes, answer any questions if prompted, but – and this is really, really hard – I don’t add anything.  I say this is hard because as authors, we have these fragile egos, and we want everyone to get all the little nuances we worked onto the page, and when someone doesn’t or they question something, we can feel crushed.  You can’t do that, not with any group or any critique.  You can’t take it personally because it’s not personal.  You have a reader sitting before you saying they didn’t get something – use that knowledge to make it better.

    Sometimes I think I got lucky finding this group.  🙂

    ~P
    @atfmb:twitter 

  • BJ Muntain

    I’ve tried a few online groups — there were no face-to-face groups in my city that worked with science fiction. The first group I tried was Critters.org, which is a good group, but I got tired of people with a few stories published talking down at everyone else. I was invited to join another group, based on a website, and they were great. Unfortunately, they got too large, and things sort of fell apart.

    A couple people I knew from that group and I kept meeting, though. One fellow went his own way, and we started bringing in other people. Now, there are five of us regulars, with a sixth person on hiatus at the moment. It’s a good online group. We meet weekly via chat (MSN). Each week, one person will post, and the rest will critique. We’re fairly flexible, though our genres are 99% science fiction and fantasy.

    Basically, our ‘recipe’ is:
    – a smallish group of serious writers, who are more advanced than beginners
    – one meeting per week, on chat
    – respect for the writer and the group
    – flexibility to allow for life to interfere
    – and enough knowledge and experience that we can trust each other to know what we’re talking about

    And it helps that some of us meet every year at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. In fact, that’s where 4 of us met in the first place. A great conference, for any writer! http://www.siwc.ca

  • Jill Webb

    Our group meets on-line weekly — we have to be on-line since two provinces and four states are represented! We take turns (loosely) sending out one chapter (or so) in advance of each week’s meeting. At the meeting, the others take turns critiquing and commenting on the chapter. We often send notes via email also.

    I agree with the others above – the members of the group are most important. Two of our members have been in crit groups together for years. Two of us were invited to join after meeting one of the founders at a writers’ conference. Another was added at the next year’s conference. Our group has writers who mostly write novels, and mostly in the same few genres. We have grammar experts, plotting experts, and a science expert.

    Because we’re a little loose with scheduling, if only one person has something ready, they get several weeks in a row. Often, we can plan three or four weeks ahead for who posts.

    Good luck with your new group!

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  • Hi Wendy,

    I can polish prose on my own til it shines, but it’s the insights that the crit group brings to each story that I find really valuable. Sure you can exchange crits by email, but I think both the face-to-face and group aspect allow the discussions to go deeper, and to spin off into new and interesting places. I also find multiple perspectives on the story to be key–revise by consenus, yeah!

    Crit groups are also efficient. You get all the feedback in one session, instead of waiting for the emails to trickle back. I’m usually very jazzed to revise after my crit group meets.

    Also, I’m more honest in person, because I can use nonverbal methods of communication to soften a tough critique. I tend to fret about sounding mean or abrupt over email, and I sometimes overcompensate and pull back too much. (Is this just me?)

    On the downside, it’s a bit of pressure. If I’m having a bad week at work and/or life *and* my story gets savaged at crit … well, that’s not a good feeling. But I strongly feel that the positive outweighs the negative, at least for me. It’s all about making stories more awesome.

    Hope that helps, have fun with your new group!