Posted By Stephen England on February 2, 2012
“At the start of every poorly written indie novel, there’s a dedication to the critique group that ‘improved’ it.”
I made that claim on Twitter a few weeks ago and was somewhat amused by the horror with which it was met. Apparently, the independent publishing movement, while still wet behind the ears, is still old enough to have some sacred cows. And critique groups seem to be one of them.
I am sure that there are some writers out there who have truly found their craft improved by comparing and contrasting themselves with their peers, but, judging from those that I have known—critique groups are little more than a colossal waste of time.
To adapt an old saying: writers write. Those who want to talk about what they plan to write. . .join a critique group.
It’s sad, but true. Your average critique group is not populated with successful writers. They’re all much too busy out publicizing their books and writing the next one. They regrettably don’t have the time to engage in hand-holding with people who haven’t yet learned proper pacing or even sound grammar.
So, what do you have in the average critique group? You have the people who love to talk about writing, the people who have been working on the next “Great American Novel” ever since the late ‘60s, those that fancy themselves the next Hemingway, etc. If we’re talking about a critique group in your local area, the odds of any of them actually being in your genre go through the floor—and you have an even greater chance of them being the sort of “literary” snobs that faint dead away at even the notion of low-brow “genre fiction”. Having a Regency Romance author critique your spy thriller is not going to end well. . .
On-line critique groups offer a better chance of tailoring the advice to your specific needs, but, as always, consider the source. Is Vince Flynn in your critique group? No, I didn’t think so. You’re still taking “advice” from people who are in the same boat with you, people whose proficiency levels are likely similar to your own—or even lower.
But, says an author, I like my critique group because it keeps me accountable when I don’t want to write! I know that if I don’t have X number of words written by the meeting, I’m going to feel embarrassed. That’s a good thing!
No, it isn’t. Like all arbitrary goals(a page a day, etc.), this emphasizes quantity over quality and is ultimately self-defeating. Besides, if you’re not self-motivated enough to keep yourself on track, independent publishing is not for you. Trust me on this.
But, I hear another say, I get a lot of differing opinions on my book and I can keep rewriting until I find a consensus. When a bunch of them agree that it’s right, I know I’ve arrived!
Wrong again. Nothing creative, nothing truly original ever came out of a consensus.
I read a blog post by the Indie Book Collective within the last week praising critique groups and calling them the “ideal learning environment”. Sad as it is to say, the books by Carolyn McCray and some of her followers are classic examples of what I stated in my first sentence. Stilted characters, leaden dialogue, and feeble plotting only convince me that if they learned anything from their critique group, I would hate to have seen the original manuscript! Ideal learning environment, I don’t think. . .
But how then, you ask, do I improve my work? The answer is as difficult to accomplish as it is devilishly simple. It’s what I said in my interview with Suspense Magazine: “if you’re going to self-publish, you have to be self-motivated and self-critical.” Turn on your inner editor. Become a perfectionist.
How do you do this without a critique group to keep you on the “straight and narrow”?
Read what you want to write. Read it incessantly, read it religiously until you know all the rules of your genre and how to break them effectively. Until you know what sells and what doesn’t. Until, as NYT bestselling author Brad Thor said, “You’ve spent so much time immersed in that genre that you’re entitled to consider yourself a sub-expert”.
Then go thou and do likewise. . .
Regards, the Rogue Writer