Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critique Group or Surviving a Beat Down

Been off the grid for a month, but now I'm back in the blogging game.

First, let me say that I love my critique group. It amazes me how such a diverse collection of people can come together to accomplish the same goal. The friendships I have formed in here are one that will haunt me for many years to come. Come on, it's funny and you know it.

If you aren't currently in a critique group, I highly suggest finding one. I've been with my critters (critique partners) for nearly four years now. My writing has grown and matured in ways that I never conceived. It excites me and makes me want to write even more tales. My review of other's works has improved so much, I wonder sometimes who hijacked my pen and wrote all those interesting comments on the pages. Mostly importantly, I have learned to accept constructive criticism like a pro. A necessary tool in this subjective business. Good thing too, because I am a very sensitive person. But that's a post for another day.
Whenever my books are published, you can be sure that my critters will get a shout out on the acknowledgement page.

There are times, however, when I wonder if I'm in the midst of an exercise in mob mentality.
I'm talking about those meetings that seem to be more "beat down" than "hey, you have a comma splice here." It happens and the best thing one can do to survive in tune everyone out or fight the whole group. None of which I advise. Things can become very frustrating, very quickly, but better your friends tell you something doesn't work than an agent or editor (if you get that far).

Because of my highly sensitive nature, I have enlisted a process to receiving and processing criticism. If grief has its five stages, why shouldn't critique?
Note: This is my own personal process, and not reflective of the writing community as a whole.

Stage 1: Sit and Take it
This is where I sit and listen. I mark my pages with comments, random thoughts that apply to the storyline, or find mistakes I should've caught before submitting. As the person's assessment continues, I quickly move into the next stage.

Stage 2: WTF?
There are times when a comment comes out of deep left field and I'm left wondering where the hell it came from. Most often they arrive because the reader misread what I wrote. Other times, something I've written, triggers a strange reaction which illicits a strange remark. I tend to shake my head, holding back laughter or a snarky comeback. But sometimes, one of these odd ball notations sends me hurtling toward Stage 3.

Stage 3: You Wanna Fight?
This is where I get combative in a verbal sense. I feel like I have to explain my writing, to justify word choice, or character motivations, or a line of prose I'm particularly attached to. I try not to argue or sound as annoyed as I feel, but sometimes it's VERY hard. I have to monitor myself so I don't sound like a brat. After awhile I shut up and seethe. I'm surprised no one has seen steam coming out of my ears.

Stage 4: Not Worthy
I hit this stage hard usually on the drive home or after I've reviewed everyone's comments. A depressive thread runs through this stage, which does nothing to help my feelings of being a hack writer. I brood. I get grumpy. I want to pull the covers over my head, never to read ever again. It sounds melodramatic, but I can't make this stuff up.
Back when I was a naive little fledging, I auditioned for my group, believing I was a writing genius (or at least could survive on raw talent alone). After receiving my evaluation, I went home and cried. What did I really know about writing? How could people say such mean things? Why did I ever think I could do this?
I had my little fit and then I got pissed.

Stage 5: Bring It
For the record, don't make me mad. I have learned to channel my emotions into some pretty spectacular writing. But I have a tendency toward passive aggressiveness, so things may not be so nice for your or our relationship. For a little bit, anyway.
After that first critique, I have felt this incredible drive to prove my writing worth. It's a bit of an underdog mentality, where if you say I can't do, I'll do everything in my ability to prove you wrong. Even now, when I get hammered for something like weak motivation, I return to the scene of the crime and hit the chapter with such a makeover, it hardly recognizable. In an "OMG you rock," kind of way.
Stage 5 lasts as long as it takes to vindicate myself. After that, I emerge from the emotional haze a much stronger and driven writer. Definitely with a lot more attitude.

Despite the negative things I have spoken about, critique groups are an invaluable resource, as everyone brings something different to the table. You might have a grammar goddess, a captain of continuity, or an action scene aficionado. One can learn much from all these talents and the people who use them. Critters are there to keep you honest, to cheer you on, and most of all, help you tap into the energy of the kick-ass author inside you.

Food for thought. After a meeting a couple weeks ago, a few of the critters and I stood outside the library, talking and loitering. We were to have a visitor observe the next meeting.
Critter 1: "We should tell him (guest) that we laugh too much."
Critter 2: "Laughing is a good thing. Especially when you're getting hammered in there." (not by alcohol, btw)
Me: "Otherwise, it's going to be a crime scene."

May your critique partners raise you up today.