Wednesday, April 14, 2010

For the Love of Crit Groups

I'm thinking about Molly's post on Monday and wanted to explain what she quoted me as saying... But first a word about critique groups. I know some writers hate them, and I think there are bad situations. Situations where critique partners are biased or want to rewrite books the way they would have written them, or when writers are too timid to stand up for themselves and end up trying to please everyone and by listening to all the advice, end up with either a hodge-podged mess, or a something so tamed down and homogeneous it's boring.

But crit groups can also be fabulous. And I think all writers are smart to get feedback on their writing. I've been talking about this with writer friend Chevy Stevens a lot lately, and she'll be doing a guest blog very soon on the topic. (Next week, if I can get my act together.) Basically, she had a lovely article written about her in the Globe & Mail and then was attacked by a few crazy bloggers, (whom I won't link to, because they're crazy and don't deserve any more attention), who seemed to think her book had been written by committee, because she talked about her editorial process in the Globe article and they seemed to think that getting editorial input or critiques or even input from your agent meant the author wasn't doing their job. But more on that topic of craziness when Chevy comes over for a drink and some writerly talk...

But that's all lead in to what I meant to post about today. I wanted to set the record straight about my blurting out that I love everything I write until people tell me it's crap. I'm not that arrogant. Honest. :)

I think anyone who's read my posts on this blog over the years knows I'm a bundle of insecurities 90% of the time, but when I find my confidence about something -- well, I can be really confident about it -- at least until someone rips that confidence away from me. (Not that hard.)

The exact context in which I said, "I think everything I write is great until someone tells me it isn't," is kind of personal to what's going on with my career right now, and I don't want to get into it publicly, but in general, what I really meant was that I'm never shooting for mediocre or "good enough".

Once I finish a book, or proposal and send it out to my agent, I never think it's mediocre. I never think, "Oh, I'll be so happy if this is just published. " I never think, "Oh, I'll be happy, even if I get a tiny advance for this one." I never think, "I'll be happy if it's in print, no matter how it's published." I never think, "Oh, I'll be so happy if this sells a thousand copies." No! I always think, "I've done my part and done it well. Now, if the stars line up the right way, this book could be huge."

I know this might be delusional, and having those kinds of expectations means I get slapped down pretty hard when things don't work out how I'd hoped, and I know every publishing deal must be evaluated on its own merit.... and the more stuff I put out there, the harder it is to believe it's all awesome... but I still haven't given up. Not on any of my manuscripts except the very first one. (Which wasn't the kind of book I should be writing, but I learned a lot writing it.)

But this faith that what I'm writing is good, is the reason I haven't tried to self-publish or to submit to the digital-first or other really small publishers with my projects that haven't sold. I still think they mostly rock, but just haven't landed on the right desk on the right day, yet. Or if I now see (based on the rejections and with the benefit of hindsight) that there are issues with them, I think I know how to fix them to make them rock.

So, ya... I still get horribly nervous (and sometimes defensive) when I get critiques from my CP's, with whom I've been working for over seven years now, so you'd think I'd be over that. I'm not. I'm still genuinely self-deprecating and think my stuff sucks until someone is kind enough to tell me it doesn't suck. I still hear the bad crits louder than the good ones and beat myself up a lot...

But once I'm through the hell that writing and revising a book can be... I'm typically pretty damned confident about it. At least I try to be. At least until the first rejections come in.

10 comments:

Molly O'Keefe said...

Hey Maureen - I didn't think your comment was arrogant (probably because I always feel the same way about my work) I feel like it's part of the same delusion that most writers share. THe perspective problem cuts a bunch of different ways.

I agree with you about confidence and holding onto the belief that should the stars align your books - all of our books - could be huge. I love writing, don't get me wrong, and I'd do it no matter what, but having a carrot like that keeps me going.

I can't wait to hear Chevy Stevens story about the bloggers. Insane.

Maureen McGowan said...

I knew you got what I was saying, Molly. Just wondered if everyone out in blog land would. :)

Eileen said...

I'm with Molly. I totally got what you mean.

It's still an interesting topic to ponder, though. I only recently joined a critique group. I'm not religious about attending, but they're being patient with me. Still, I was surprised at how beneficial it's been and in some unexpected ways.

Molly O'Keefe said...

eileen I would be interested to hear what some of your unexpected benefits were?

Eileen said...

Here are a few of the unexpected benefits . . .

We're supposed to post every two weeks. There's a $10 penalty if you don't. I didn't think I needed that nudge to work as I have deadlines that panic me plenty. I've actually made myself work on things sooner, though, so I'll have something to post. (Interestingly, I'm LESS likely to post if I'm producing a lot of pages.)

I am not a fan of brainstorming. I like the idea of it, but in practice I don't always find it helpful. My vision is my vision. If I want the plot to go in a certain direction, well, that's the way it's going to go. However, the group has tripped on things as I'm trying to work out plot details that would have probably led me down a garden path of illogical steps. They've saved me a lot of time having to fix things.

The camaraderie aspect was also something I didn't think I needed. I have lots of friends. Having people who really understand what it's like in the trenches and being able to have them nearby has been more important to me than I thought it would be.

Sinead M said...

Not arrogant at all. As writers, we are deeply insecure about our work, so any confidence we have should be fed cupcakes and lemonade.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen - I agree. I feel exactly the same way. Every non-HQ proposal I've sent out to agents and publishers I'm convinved is an NYT seller. I wouldn't take the risk if I didn't think it was worthy. It isn't until they tell me otherwise that I see the error of my ways.

And on CGs in general. I've always avoided it. But having Karen just give me a final read and thoughts was an amazing breakthrough for me.

It helps. But it's all about trust.

As for brainstorming - I'm with Eileen on this. I'm just too territorial about the story to have someone say... oh you should have them do this then... Probably not going to happen.

But that's different then someone saying... this part of the plot doesn't really work. You need to rework. Then it's up to me to fix or cling stubbornly to my great masterpiece.


Great post Maureen. And again sorry for my double post!

Maureen McGowan said...

Eileen, as Molly and Sinead will tell you, I'm not a big fan of brainstorming, either -- until I run into a big problem. And boy, did talking through a few big problems in my last book ever save me.

I, too, am very territorial about my ideas and have trouble hearing input while I'm still working it all out. I think Sinead's the same way. I'm slightly in awe of how Molly can bring some ideas to the group and through talking with us, end up with something better than what she first had, but still her own. She's very good at thinking things through on the spot. Me, not so much. My wheels start to spin so fast I blow a gasket, or burn out, or every new idea throws a wrench in that grinds the wheels to a halt. (I'll think of the right analogy, eventually...)

I also think it depends on who is giving me brainstorming help. And it is so much about trust.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think it's also about where you're at in your head in terms of NEEDING it. There have been times when I've asked for brainstorming without NEEDING it and I hated everyone in the room. It's also about where I am in the book - it only really works if I have a pretty empty slate.

But I do love the process of pulling together everyone's various ideas and reworking it into something for me. It's like crazy quilting or something.

Simone said...

If you don't have the delusion, how the hell do you finish the book?

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