Using Critiques: Part 3: Where to get critiques, and how to develop lasting professional relationships through them.

— Originally published 4/26/2010 @ LiveJournal

I had this done on Friday, but things were too hectic for me to be able to edit it until today. But here it is!

Part 1 is here, part 2 is here.

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So far we’ve talked about how to use critiques, but the big question those just starting out might have is “But how do I get critiques?” There are many ways, some of them more expensive (and in some cases less effective) than others, but there’s probably one out there that will work for you. So let’s go through this.

Writing classes: probably your first exposure to critiquing will come from a college writing course. The first time I remember doing any actual critiquing was in my Intro to Creative Writing class in college; high school offers creative writing courses but they tend to focus on just the writing element, as they should because it can be a challenge just learning to finish what you start let alone feeling comfortable sharing it with 30 people. From a strictly personal point of view, I don’t consider writing classes a good place to get critiques, for a variety of reasons. First, you can get just as good (and in most cases better) feedback in other places without having to pay a fee to participate. And second, unless you’re taking a genre-specific class, chances are high that more than half of your classmates aren’t going to be in your genre’s audience let alone your story’s. Also the level of each person’s commitment to writing as a career is like a Geiger counter going off during an earthquake. In college courses, most people are there to get a credit and probably don’t think of writing as anymore more than a pleasant hobby or interest on the way to getting their degree. There will be people who take writing seriously, but there will always be people who don’t care. For these reasons I wouldn’t consider writing classes a good source for critiques, even though critiquing is generally part of the curriculum. About the only person there you’re guaranteed to get a thoughtful and serious critique from is your professor. And some of the critiques you get will be of absolutely no use to you.

Your non-writer friends: chances are that if your friends who like to read know that you’re a writer, they’ll probably ask if they can read some of your stuff, and some might even offer feedback. And they can actually be good sources of reader-critique. They might not be able to offer you specific feedback about why something isn’t working but they’ll tell you if something isn’t so you know that at least there is a problem. I had a friend in high school who wasn’t a writer but she’d mark up my manuscripts like no one’s business. It was good for where I was at my development, but I think reader-critiques can only offer you so much.

So you must seek out other writers: serious writers, not hobbyists. But where do you find those? Critique groups, of course.

The Online Workshop: a good place to start is the online workshop. There are quite a few out there, some of them you must pay to participate, but a good number of them are free, like Critters. They work on a reciprocation system where you pay your way by giving critiques before you can receive, to make sure that drop-offs-and-runs don’t happen. The first online workshop I ever belonged to was the Zoetrope Virtual Studios, some twelve years ago, and I met a number of good writers there. I also made my very first sale because of that workshop (they had an bimonthly online magazine that would publish stories from the workshop, as a supplement to their print magazine, and one of my horror stories was selected for one of the issues. And they paid me good money for it too, what would have constituted professional rates at the time). One of the problems with the workshop though was it had a decidedly literary bent, and so I got a lot of critiques from folks who weren’t in my audience. I did create friendships with fellow SF/F/H writers who would read and critique everything I posted (and I’d read and critique everything they did), but the community of spec fic writers was small in comparison to everyone else. In order to get a better cross section of useful critiques, one really must join a specialized genre workshop. For that reason, I jumped ship to join the then Del Rey Workshop (now OWW), which was just starting out. I left that one to take a different kind of workshop, which I’ll get into a little later, but eventually ended up at Liberty Hall Writers, which, while not expressly a speculative fiction workshop, 95% of the people there seem to work almost exclusively with SF/F/H. Of all the workshops I’ve done, this one has by far been the most successful for me and I would heartily recommend it to anyone because the community is serious and with few exceptions self-policing. Finding serious writers who take helping you as seriously as helping themselves can make all the difference in the world. A word of caution about online workshops: make sure that any workshop you join has password protection to ensure the preservation of your first publication rights. If they don’t offer this, go on to the next place, for what’s the point if getting critiques will make you lose the ability to sell your final work to a good paying magazine? Also, if you feel at all uncomfortable about offering up digital copies of your work to strangers out of fear of theft, chances are that online workshops aren’t for you and you’d be more comfortable with an in-person workshop. So let’s move on to those.

In-person critique groups: I’ve never been a big fan of these because I get nervous speaking in front of groups, but some people like the immediate interaction of an in-person group. These groups work by meeting at a scheduled time and place with a set number of stories they’re expected to have read and written up a critique for so they can discuss it as a group or in round-robin fashion. Their format usually takes the same approach as the college courses. I don’t know much about how to find them though, since I’ve never actively pursued trying to find one. One would assume that if you know several writers who live in your area who share similar writing interests that you could try to set one up, or join a pre-existing one if there are openings. In-person groups try to stay pretty small, so it can be difficult to get an invite to a pre-existing one, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Online writers groups: these bear quite a bit of resemblance to in-person groups except that all interaction is done via email or a discussion forum. Like with in-person groups, the number of participants is low, and admittance is decided on by the group as a whole, but here people can be from anywhere so you can select the best writers you know to join you in this venture. A good way to start a group is to ask two or three people you know from your online workshops who you think are a good match for your work and give you consistently useful critique, and ask them to invite a friend or two. Be sure to cap the group at a small number though, probably no more than ten members, but five at minimum. That will keep you from getting either too little or too many views on your submitted work. Everybody in the group though should be close in skill, otherwise your more skillful members might feel they aren’t getting as much out of the group as others and might leave. Be honest with yourself about your own skill level, so if you’re a beginner, it would be best to get in with a group of other beginners mixed with some intermediates, so you can all develop together. A good way to make sure that you’re all compatible is to have an interview process, with a sample story and a sample crit of a story submitted by someone else in the group. And if you’re turned down because they didn’t feel you were a good fit, don’t feel bad or angry. You want to find people that you are a good fit with, for reasons I’ll get into later.

Clarion, Odyssey, and Viable Paradise: these are in-person workshops that run for a number of weeks once a year and admittance is by invitation only and it costs money. There’s an application process where you have to submit samples of your work and if you’re selected to attend you go to the workshop and undergo a bootcamp on writing as a professional career. Various professional writers and editors teach the workshop and students are expected to do lots and lots of writing and critiquing. And such workshops can either make or break you as a writer. I went to Clarion West in Seattle, Washington in 2002. The Clarion style is six weeks with six different instructors, seventeen students in all with 3-4 people submitting stories each day for critique during the week. Students are expected to read and critique those 3-4 stories before the next day and turn in at least one story for critique per week themselves. The students all live together in a dormitory (or house now.), and you either make really good friends or you end up hating each other. The same can be said of the writing aspect: it can reaffirm your desire to be a professional writer or it can completely kill it. After CW, I didn’t want to critique ever again, hence the reason I took a couple years off from workshops (except those I had to do to finish my college degree). These kinds of workshops are costly, both monetarily and emotionally, so before pursuing them it’s a very good idea to have a few years experience taking criticism (as well as giving criticism, which our final installment will be about). These workshops aren’t for everyone, and there are plenty of professional writers out there that made it big without having attended any of them. Despite all the romanticism that surrounds these workshops, they aren’t a secret handshake that will ensure you success. (Those who’ve attended the other workshops, please feel free to leave feedback about your experience with them in the comments, for I’m sure they’d be useful to folks who might be considering attending them.)

So, the other part of this post is about using critique groups to develop lasting professional relationships. A lot of authors started out the same way you did and they didn’t just arrive at the top overnight. They used workshops and critiqued and learned and made friendships with their fellow writers, and they moved up together and supported each other along the way. This is the true gift of a good critique group. To reap the full benefits of this, you must be able to put aside your own ego and frustrations and continue to be supportive of your fellow group members even when success eludes you. Never think of those who succeed before you as tickets to help you out, or, god forbid, think they are undeserving of their success–a success you had a part in helping them achieve. It’s a delicate balance, for you are part of a critique group in hopes that it will help you achieve success, but you also don’t want to miss the opportunities for true friendships that can last your entire career and beyond because you’re so focused on what the group can do for you. It’s give and take, and not everyone will achieve the same success as others in the group. Those who expect favors will end up disappointed, but those who don’t expect anything will be surprised by what their friends are willing to do for them. If you find a good critique group, hold onto it with all your might. If you find the group you’re in stresses you out more than it makes you feel accomplished, then you need to find a new group. After all, writing can be intensely personal and despite your best efforts to remain impartial, if you feel that one particular member is constantly attacking your work, or even yourself, there can be no friendship, just resentment. Your crit group should be filled with people you’d look forward to hanging out with at conventions.

Next time: Part 4: “You’ve taken it, so now it’s your turn to dish it out.”

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