Writing Excuses 9.37: Training a Critique Group
Key Points: Be polite. When you respond to feedback, all you say is thank you. Train the writing group by modeling the behavior. Understand that we are critiquing words on paper, not the beautiful story in your head. Start by agreeing to rules. Respect the piece — hard, but not harsh. Don’t fix it! Feedback, not rewriting. Symptoms — reactions — are good. Diagnosis is maybe. But prescription, leave that to the expert. Prescription can lead the author to fix the wrong thing. Beware of misleading discovery writers, especially with prescription and “What if you did this?” Have discovery writers submit finished work to avoid this. Watch for personality clashes. Trial periods and professional attitude can help avoid this. Agreeing on syntax can smooth out group interactions.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, training a critique group.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And none of them are that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I’m obviously not in your critique group.
[Brandon] And we have Kathleen Dalton Woodbury with us. She is the forum moderator for Hatrack River’s writers’ workshop. That’s Orson Scott Card’s website. They run a fantastic writers’ workshop there and you have moderated that. You’re going to help us talk about writers’ workshops.
[Brandon] Hello, and thank you. So, training a critique group. Do you train these groups on Hatrack River?
[Kathleen] Well, I have a place where they can go and read how we do it. I let them know that… One of the first things is that you have to be polite.
[Mary] I’m going to absolutely back you up on that, because one of the things… Particularly if it’s an online group and you’re only getting text, it’s very easy to… Particularly for new writers, you are raw, you’re vulnerable, you put something up and it’s very easy to feel like someone is shooting you down personally. So being polite… That was one of the things… I started in that community, and that was one of the things that I noted about it, was that it was… The critiques were very spot on, but they were polite.
[Kathleen] Another thing that we tell them is something that I heard was used at Clarion and I understand it was also used at Milford before that… Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm started these writing workshops. One of the first rules was when you respond to the feedback, the only thing you can say is thank you. Now you can ask for clarification. But if you try to explain what you’re doing or to answer questions that have come up without putting that in the story, you’re wasting your effort, so…
[Howard] Oh, no no no no. You’re reading that wrong.
[Dan] This is a rule…
[Howard] That thing I just did, you don’t do.
[Dan] This is a rule Brandon and I have always used in our writing groups, and it’s very common through all writing groups, because your story has to be able to stand on its own two feet. You won’t be standing over the shoulder of every reader saying, “Okay, you’re interpreting this wrong, let me tell you what it really means.” The story has to be able to do that without your after-the-fact input.
[Mary] Yeah. Writing things down does not mean that your readers can automatically read your mind.
[Brandon] Okay. You’re in a critique group right now, where Kathleen, you’re watching a critique group, and you’re kind of organizing this, where everyone’s defending themselves. How can you get this across to your writing group? Let’s say that our listeners are in a writing group. I’ve been in writing groups where I’m like, “All right, here’s our rule.” And then they ignore it. Everyone feels like they have to defend their work, because it’s very natural. They’re like, “Oh, I need to.” How do you train the writing group? How do you explain this to them?
[Kathleen] Well, one thing I say is basically you can’t stand there and explain it to somebody. If it’s not in the text, then you have to figure out what they need and you put it in. But the other thing is… I try to avoid saying, “Shut up.”
[Kathleen] But I received some feedback one time in a workshop, in a critique group, and I responded, “Thank you.” The person who had given the feedback went, “… Ah?” Expecting a defense. So… Sometimes the only way you can train somebody is by modeling the behavior. Just say, “That’s enough.”
[Brandon] I’ve been bad at this before. I can remember one distinct experience where it was a writing group and I… The person was defending themselves and I said, “Remember, don’t defend yourself. Don’t talk.” They started crying. Yes. They never came back to the writing group.
[Howard] You have hurt my feelings.
[Kathleen] The other thing that I have done is… Algis Budrys one time said… He explained something George Scithers had been saying for years. George Scithers edited Asimov’s Science Fiction. George said, “We’re not critiquing your children. We’re not rejecting your children. We’re just rejecting words on paper.” Well, Algis Budrys explained that what that means is you’ve got this beautiful story in your head that you have to convey to the reader. All you can do is use these ugly black marks on paper. So you have to understand that the purpose of a workshop is to help make those black marks do a better job of conveying the beautiful story in your head. It’s just a vehicle.
[Dan] Concentrating and teaching a writing group what the purpose of the writing group is, is huge. So you’re absolutely right. Make sure everyone knows, we are not here to defend our work. We are not here necessarily even to talk with each other about our work. I am here so you can tell me your reaction to my work, and then I can take that home and decide what to do with it.
[Mary] Yeah. I describe it as there being three levels… Three layers of critique. One of the things that I think with a writing group, one of the aspects of training it is that when you start the group, that you all sit down and hash out what your rules are so that everybody knows that they are on the same page. And also agree with each other, that’s when you’re learning, that you’ll call each other.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that one or thing that went wrong with this experience that I was talking about earlier was that we had all been in a group before, and a new person came. We all had expectations that we did not properly convey, even with a quick “This is what we do” at the beginning. Which was nowhere near what… The preparation this person needed to jump first into an established critique group that had been going for years.
[Kathleen] You’re writers. You should be better at conveying…
[Brandon] Yes, we totally should. The reason we write things down is because then we don’t have to say them. We sounds stupid when we say them, but we can make them perfect on the page.
[Dan] That early writing group ruined two other authors.
[Howard] That’s why we decided to do a podcast…
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. We did the same thing…
[Howard] For six years, because we sound so much better when we get to write things in advance.
[Brandon] No, we did the same thing to your brother.
[Dan] Yeah. We treated… When my brother joined the podcast… Not the podcast. Thank you, Howard. The writing group that Brandon and I had in college. We just destroyed his first book, and him, emotionally. But he managed to get published before I did, so…
[Brandon] We were overly harsh. I think that’s another thing that writing groups need to learn, not just politeness, but respect for the piece. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t be hard on the piece. There’s a difference between hardness and harshness.
[Dan] More specifically, what we did with my brother is not so much that we were harsh, but that we were trying to fix it for him.
[Brandon] We critiqued his voice rather than his story.
[Kathleen] Okay. That’s another thing that I say on Hatrack is you’re not… You’re here to give feedback, you’re not here to rewrite things for other people.
[Mary] Yeah. I describe it as you have that perfect thing, and that going to your readers, that it’s like clinical drug trials, and that you’re trying to provoke a specific set of reactions. So you want symptoms, and then there’s diagnosis, and then there’s the prescriptions. Symptoms are “This is how this story made me feel.” These are the reactions. These are the wise reader reactions that we used at Hatrack, which is “I was confused,” “I didn’t believe it,”…
[Kathleen] And “I didn’t care.”
[Mary] And “I didn’t care.” And then, “That’s cool,” so you didn’t accidentally fix it.
[Howard] I get all three of those all the time.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah.
[Kathleen] Well, see, that comes from Orson Scott Card. That’s his faith, hope, and clarity. You have to answer these three questions for the reader, and when you’re giving feedback, let the reader know when they’re not answering these questions. So, the first question is, “Oh, yeah?” Which is faith. Second question is, “What? So, what?” Which is hope. The third one is, “Huh?” Which is clarity. If you can’t answer those questions for the reader, and you can go down… If you do a feedback, you can put “So what?” And “Huh?” And “Oh, yeah?” All the way through and let them know that’s your reaction. Then they can go back and go, “Now what do I need to do to fix this?” Instead of someone else saying, “You could fix this if you did this and this and this.”
[Mary] Yeah. This gets back to basically what you’re doing is you’re just giving symptoms. The diagnosis is, “This is the reaction I had and this is what I think caused it.” That’s where you get into things where you sometimes misdiagnose things because you don’t actually know what affect the author is going for with the story. The prescription is, “This is how you fix it.” I think that critique group should not do prescriptions. Like, I only get prescriptions occasionally from my editor.
[Brandon] I think you’re there. We’ve started… Like over the years, what we’ve always done in our writing group, Dan and I is we say… We call ourselves out on it, but we can’t help from saying it occasionally. But the other thing is, we’ve been working together for years… Decades. So when we… I know when Dan says, “This is prescriptive,” I know the direction Dan’s coming from. I don’t recommend it, particularly early in a writing group, but sometimes when Dan gives me prescriptive changes, he just hits the nail right on the head. I value that from him.
[Howard] I was just listening to the episode where we critiqued Six of the Dusk. See, can’t say the name.
[Howard] Sixth of the Dusk. One of my very first comments was a, “Okay, I’m confused. Process question, it sounds, Brandon, like you’re letting Dan and Mary fix the story for you?” Your response was, “Ah. That’s because unlike most of the people in my writing group, I trust Dan and Mary to write my story better.”
[Howard] That was… It was very eye-opening for me, because in my writing group, I adhere to this thing that Mary has said, which is, “Don’t fix it. Let the author fix it. Tell them when you feel like it’s broken, but let them make the fix.”
[Mary] Pretty much the only time I g… Sorry.
[Dan] I was going to say, one more problem that can arise from being prescriptive is that the author will end up fixing the wrong thing. This is a problem I didn’t really understand until I started doing press checks, back when I had a real job, and would have to go to a printer and would say something like, “This picture needs more orange in it.” The printer would go, “Okay,” and add more orange. Then suddenly it would be too orange. Our job is not to tell the printer how to do his job. Our job is to say, “Look at this. The colors are off.” Then the expert is the one who looks at it and goes, “Oh, it actually needs blue,” or whatever. Then he can fix it better than we possibly can.
[Brandon] We need to stop for our book of the week. Kathleen, you were going to tell us about The Night Circus.
[Kathleen] I don’t usually listen to books, because I like to hold them and read them. But this was a book that got me safely from Nashville to Salt Lake City, driving alone. It was the April that they had 100 tornadoes in Kansas. So this was a wonderful book. Jim Dale is the narrator, and he likes to give different voices to all the characters. You really, really hear that. So this… Night Circus was a very interesting book, besides that. Just this story…
[Howard] Who’s the author?
[Kathleen] The author is Erin Morgenstern. The story is about these people who get together for a project. The project is a night circus. What most of them don’t know… It’s a circus that comes and performs only at night, and it disappears after it’s been there for a couple of nights. People would begin to be groupies and follow them, and try to be at the next place where they were going to show up. But what’s really going on is that there’s a contest between these two magicians, more or less… Power workers who are… One is the student of the other and he decided he didn’t believe… He didn’t like the way he was trained, so he’s going to train a different way. So they each pick someone to train, and then those two have a fight to the death. With magic… Doing magic. So they were creating things, magic things, for this circus. And they fell in love. It was a very wonderful, interesting book.
[Howard] Okay. So, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, narrated by Jim Dale, who is famous for narrating the Harry Potter books. Pick it up at audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, and as Kathleen Dalton Woodbury will testify, this book on audio will cast a magic bubble over your car and allow you to survive tornadoes.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. That makes me want to make that the writing prompt. Okay. So…
[Howard] I’ve got this week’s writing prompt. I’ll just do that.
[Brandon] So, problems with writing groups. I want to just spend the rest of this time talking about things you’ve noticed have gone wrong in a writing group, and ways that you hopefully can fix it. So that our listeners don’t have to fall into those issues. I’m thinking specifically, we had one person join our writing group who had been in a writing group that had not been very good for her. She had had this problem with prescriptive, where each chapter of her book was wildly different in tone, topic, and plot. It would veer right and left. All these years we’d been talking about not being prescriptive, and this was the proof. I said, “What’s going on?” She said, “Oh, this person said I needed this. This person said I needed a romance, so in like chapter 3, suddenly, there’s a romance. This person said I really ought to try this, and it sounded like a really fascinating idea.” Now this author was a discovery writer, and people in the writing group would say, “Ooo, what if you did this,” and the writer said, “Ooo, that’s cool.” This is kind of a different problem than the fixing your book for you. It’s the “What if you did this, what if you did this,” to the point that this book became schizophrenic. It was just… It was a different thing in every chapter. So this is one of those problems. If you are a discovery writer, one of the things I’ve found is it’s much better for a discovery writer to submit a comp… Book that they are not currently working on to the writing group, because you can have these problems.
[Mary] The other thing… Since we’re listing problems. The other problem I will see sometimes is that you’ll have an actual personality clash.
[Brandon] Right. Yes. I’ve noticed those too.
[Mary] It’s difficult when you got someone in, that is not a good fit. So one of the ways that the successful groups that I’ve been in have handled that is that when they’re inviting someone new in, that they have a trial period. They say the first time you come in, we’re going to invite you in and you’re going to critique… You’re going to just watch us critique. The second time you come in, you will critique with us. The third time, you’ll bring your own story. Because the things you want to… The first time is so that they can see the group dynamics. The second time is so that you can see how they critique. The third time is so you can see how they take a critique. If it doesn’t work, then you say, “I’m so sorry, that didn’t work out.”
[Brandon] Have you had to either eject yourself or someone else from a writing group before?
[Mary] I have ejected myself from a writing group. And I… It was… Twice, actually. One time they were very much “you need to write this story this way” and they wanted me to be writing different books. I bowed out of that one. I just said… I think that one I said, “I feel like we have different visions for how this is going to go.” The second one… This is the other thing with a writing group is figuring out how frequently you can meet. This group met once a week, and I just couldn’t keep up the pace. I was in another group that met secretly under an assumed name. I’m not even kidding. They had… They used to be a group that had this group name, and they had somebody that they couldn’t figure out how to get rid of. So they disbanded the group and reformed it under a new name and met in secret.
[Brandon] Yeah. These sorts of things happen. I think ways to potentially avoid this…
[Howard] So that’s where they went!
[Howard] I’m sorry, that was the low hanging fruit. That just needed to be fixed.
[Brandon] Is to, number one, get in your head and express it to your… To the writing group members, that you’re going to make this a professional association for the writing group. Sometimes… Understanding… Eric James Stone said this to me once. He said, “I’ve found that writing groups dissolve, reform, fall apart, people leave, all the time. Writing groups seem to have a certain life in one form before they have to morph into something else, and that’s okay.” I think when I realized that, it became okay. It became okay if one of my friends didn’t want to be in the writing group anymore. It became okay if things just stopped working and a writing group had to dissolve or reform or restructure or things. If everyone comes to it with that kind of professional mindset, it helps.
[Howard] In terms of jumpstarting people on solving writing group problems, agreeing on syntax. The syntax that you were talking about, the “Huh?” And the “Oh, yeah?” You’re not allowed to write that in my critique group until you’ve told me what those things mean. One of the things that we write in my critique group, after a particular paragraph, we can tell what it’s supposed to be doing and it’s not doing it very well, is “suck less.”
[Howard] Okay. What it is, is one writer saying to another, I really… I know you can sell this harder than you’re selling it and you just didn’t. It’s kind of funny, I would never put that on somebody’s manuscript even after I have explained the syntax until they’ve been through a few sessions.
[Brandon] We need to start wrapping up, but I do want to ask Kathleen, how can people find their way to the workshop that you moderate? Is it open to anyone?
[Brandon] Okay. How do they do it?
[Kathleen] Probably the easiest way is to go to hatrack.com, and at the top, there are a bunch of little buttons for about Scott, and news, and different things. There’s one that says Writers’ Workshop. If you click on that, you’ll see a page that talks about… A little bit about what we do. There on that page, there is a link to go and look at the workshop and read what people are posting and what they’re discussing and the different group areas. You can read anything that’s not in the private section, which Scott keeps for his Literary Boot Camp people. But you can read anything that we’ve got up there. You can do searches. You can take a look, and see if this looks like something you want to participate in. There is also a link to register. Then it tells you what the rules are. Read the rules. Then, if you register, I will get a notification, and I will go and if all you’ve told me is your name and your email address, I may ask you to tell me why you’re interested. Because there are people out there that join things and spam things. Because it’s called search engine optimization.
[Howard] SEO. Yeah.
[Kathleen] I’m not interested. So if you can tell me something about yourself… There are places you can tell me your interests and stuff, I’m more likely to say, “Okay, you’re in.” That’s all it takes.
[Howard] Rather than, “Oh, yeah?”
[Brandon] All right. So our writing prompt… Are we really doing the bubble stuff?
[Howard] Sure. That’s fine. There is a magic system in which the audio that you put in the deck of your car will give your car magical powers.
[Dan] And different genres will protect you from different natural disasters.
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Dan] I guess it’s tornado season. Time to put in the romances.
[Kathleen] Different kinds of monsters. Like vampires, zombies.
[Brandon] You listen to the 60s music, you fly?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.