Friday, June 27, 2014

Group Hug

By Art Taylor

About three weeks into my first semester in the MFA program at Mason, several of us first-year fiction students formed our own critique group—meeting once a month to review earlier drafts or later revisions of the same manuscripts we were submitting to the larger workshops in the program itself.

There's a little bit of redundancy there. The four of us were all part of the same workshop on campus, so why get together another time in that smaller group to talk an extra time about those same—or at least similar—manuscripts? Part of it was that we'd identified one another as peers who "got" what the others were trying to do, and while others in that larger group (18 people) weren't always giving us the feedback we wanted or needed, the constructive criticism—more focused, more extensive— from that smaller group promised opportunities to really improve our craft in a more strategic way.

That's not to say we sought out each other because we simply liked each other's work and wanted positive feedback; empty and endless praise was never the goal, and we could often be very pointed, if not even harsh with one another. And it wasn't that each of us shared the same approach or aesthetic; instead, we enjoyed the vastly different perspectives and approaches and suggestions—each of us opening up one another's eyes not just to problems with a manuscript but to possibilities. But when I say that we "got" what the others were doing, I mean that each of us was committed to helping a story become the best that it could be according to what the individual author was trying to do, and not according to how another writer would do it themselves.

When people ask what an MFA is good for, I always say that you'll get two things out of it (and neither of them is a publishing contract): 1) a sense of your own writing process, and 2) a set of readers whose judgement you trust. A good writing group serves both purposes.

That group eventually moved in different directions and schedules fractured: marriages, births, transfers out of the area... and importantly (more on this further in the bullet-points) a move toward writing novels, which didn't seem to workshop as easily in the early stages. Today, I only regularly keep up with one of those writers, but even now, eight years later, nothing that I write—a story, a review—gets submitted to the larger world without having passed his approval and feedback. Nothing.

I now belong to two writing groups: one that meets monthly here in Northern Virginia (hi, Alan!) and a second that's looser and further-flung, each of us exchanging manuscripts online instead of in person. (I've also just joined another online short story group, through the Sisters in Crime's Guppies, but since I've been out of town, I haven't entirely gotten traction on it yet.) Often the same bits of manuscript get run past each of these groups, but I always wait until I've finished something to my own standards before submitting it to them, so that I have my own sense of what's working and not and where I want to go. After that, the feedback I get is frequently invaluable—even when completely contradictory at times from one reader to the next... in fact, perhaps most often when contradictory from one reader to the next. It's not just a second set of eyes that's key, but several sets of them, readers bringing a diverse set of responses your way—as diverse as that larger group of readers you're ultimately aiming for down the line.

I guess I've already touched on the things here that I'd suggest in response to this week's question: "Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?" But I want to boil them down into some more direct suggestions for folks considering this:
  • Find readers who respect and encourage what you're trying to do—not those who want to rewrite your work the way they'd do it. Different aesthetics and approaches are great, preferred even, but someone trying to assert control of your manuscript or to demean your own approach.... well, that's not constructive criticism, that's just flat-out destructive.
  • Bring a full manuscript to critique if a short story (as with me)—or at least be far enough into the manuscript that you know where you're trying to go (if a novel). Too early a draft or too early in the process, before you have your own sense of direction, and the feedback might simply confuse you about where you want to go—and mess up where you end up. And do recognize that critiquing only selected parts of a novel offers its own complications; reading a single chapter will obviously not give you a sense of the full narrative arc ("I'm not sure where this is going. Can you front load it a little more?") or the broader complexity of a character ("I wish I knew more about this person. Why don't you add...?") or even a sense of how small details ("Well, I'd just cut that") will take on larger meaning in the long run ("Oops! OK, keep it").
  • Be open to feedback, and then listen to yourself. I mentioned contradictory advice, which ends up frustrating some writers, but I find it often the most productive. Instead of saying "This reader thought this and this one thought that and now what do I do?" I find myself saying, "Here's what this reader took from this, here's what that reader saw, and what was I trying to do? And given those responses, how do I clarify my own intentions on the page?"
  • And finally, don't take the feedback personally, as easy as that is to do. The focus should always be on the page, getting that to be its best, and not on the person who wrote that page.
And it's perhaps telling that before hitting "Publish" on this, I had one of my other first readers give it a look—and then I revised accordingly.


RJ Harlick said...

Very good and apt advice, Art - Did I get the name right? :) I also agree with having more than one set of eyes review the manuscript, because let's face it not everyone evaluates the same way. I tend to adopt the approach, that if two or more critiquers raise the same issue, than it likely needs addressing, but if only one then it may not need to be changed.

Alan Orloff said...

"Find readers who respect and encourage what you're trying to do—not those who want to rewrite your work the way they'd do it." - this is so, so important. Great post, Art!

Paul D. Marks said...

All good advice, Art. Or should I say Alan :) Especially like the bit about not letting others change your voice. I find a lot of people, whether from critique group members to editors, sometimes want to do that.

Meredith Cole said...

Great advice, Art! (I am, BTW, very jealous of your amazing critique group up there which makes me ALMOST want to live in Northern VA again...) The worst thing a writer can do after a critique is slavishly change everything. Thinking about whether you communicated your intention to your audience is much more important--and often what they point out as the problem is actually not what needs changing.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind feedback! Coming at the end of the week, I often fear I have nothing new to say, so it's good to hear nice comments.

Susan C Shea said...

Jammed packed with the most important information. I hope a lot of new writers read this. Great summary after a week full of good advice. Like Meredith, I'm a little envious of you for having some readers in place. My old group broke up when a couple of us got published and had external deadlines to meet, and I'm looking for a couple of readers like you and Robin describe. Not always easy to find some that meet the criteria you iterated. Good post!