Friday, June 27, 2014

Dear Convention Abby

Dear Convention Abby;

Boy, does that title sound like something other than what you mean. I have a confession to make: I am all out of conference and convention stories. Horror or otherwise. What I do have in a similar vein revolves around the biggest mistakes I've ever made with a critique group. Possibly groups.

  1. Getting defensive - sure, sure, I knew intellectually that no one signed up to critique my stuff just for the joy of burning my work to the ground. Anyone reading was honestly trying to help make a story better. But I got all huffy and defensive and kept explaining that they didn't understand. I was right. My crit partners didn't understand. Because I hadn't put what was in my head on the paper they held in their hands. Convention Abby replies: Dear Defensive, Dear Convention Abby hears the one about convention nuns all the time. It's not funny anymore. If ever it was. However, kudos to you for identifying one of your core issues - realizing that your only chance to explain anything to anyone is in putting the words on the paper (virtual or otherwise) in their hot little hands. There's another one: Closing your mouth on the urge to defend. Communication styles differ and you won't mesh with everyone all the time, but your critique group's feedback should be constructive, not destructive, and you should respect your group enough to listen to their opinions - not take them blindly - allow room for critiquers to voice opinions without defensive interruption. If you can't respect your group, find another one.
  2. Not asking questions - Greatest question ever: 'Any suggestions for how to fix it?' asked when someone identifies a problem in my work that blindsides me. I'm not asking anyone to do the work for me. I'm looking for more information about the problem from as many angles as I can get. I'm also looking for mental prompts that nudge my brain from deer-in-the-headlights to problem-solving. Dear Convention Abby disagrees with Not Asking Questions. The single greatest question ever is "Red, White, or Rose?"
  3. Staying with a group too long - A good critique group is hard to find, and it often seems that the only way to find a good one is to go through a couple of bad ones. Not that the people are bad. Or that their intentions aren't good. Bad for me turned out to be a perfect storm of things: too many of us all being at the same writing level while one member was far enough ahead in skill level that the rest of us had nothing to offer her. In return, her critiques were too far over our heads. We kept at it anyway. Until the resentment got to be too much and the group imploded. The next 'bad' group is a good group you've outgrown. Everyone absorbs information at their own pace. If you learn quickly, chances are 50/50 that you'll outgrow at least one of your initial critique groups. Not a problem if there's no resentment involved either on your part or on the part of those still struggling. Dear Convention Abby would like to point out to Staying With a Group Too Long: There is another aspect you must face and that is being left behind by those who have outstripped your skill. It will happen. Never is that a comment on you or your writing. It is 100% about the needs of the writer leaving you in his or her dust. Brush yourself off, keep writing and repeat after me: "It's not personal." Unless, of course, you made sure it WAS personal...not a course that Dear Convention Abby recommends. Also, never stay with a  group whose members are not working. Everyone has off days that stretch into weeks or months. But if the writing dry spells go on too long, you do not belong to a critique group. You belong to a social club.
  4. Failing to be gentle and constructive when offering feedback on someone else's work. Want to feel 2" tall? Be a bit harsh and see one of your critique partners cry in response. O_o Dear Convention Abby feels your pain. Constructive means identifying the good as well as the bad in a story. A good rule of thumb when you identify an issue in a story and always offer up a potential solution as a good faith gesture that you aren't saying the story or writing sucks. "You could fix this by . . . " This forces you to learn to solve problems as you identify them. But beware assuming that your suggested fix is the right fix. Offer up your suggestions and let go. It's not your story.
Thanks, Dear Convention Abby! Glass of wine? These are by no means all of the mistakes that can be (or have been) made with critique groups. They merely top the list. Do you have critique group mistakes you're willing to admit to? I'll bring the wine.

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