Do Writing Critique Groups Help?

Barbara Custer of Night to Dawn writes horror and science fiction.At the Writers’ Coffeehouse meeting last Sunday we had a discussion on critique groups and whether or not they help. Some people felt it best to stick with a group that has professional people such as published writers or editors. Without such member, said some, people may go to a critique group not really expecting to get published.

It was interesting that this topic came up. When I first started writing, the first piece of advice I got was “join a writer’s group.” At the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I found plenty of writer’s groups. Some of them specialized in romance; others in nonfiction. Others preferred a mix of genres and subjects. My main consideration, though, was location and dates.

I started out with a group in Plymouth Meeting, PA. I got some great critiques initially, but we wound up becoming more of a social group. We wound up talking about movies, families, everything but writing. The group split up because of this but we remained friends.

I later moved on to Montgomery County Community College Writers’ group. They hold their meetings every other Thursday. I stayed with that group for several years until my problems with night vision made driving difficult. The college is on Route 202 and Morris road, and both of those streets have poor lighting.

For the last year or so I’ve been going to Bucks County Writers’ group in Warminster. They’ve been holding meetings Monday nights and Thursday afternoons. Editor Rita Breedlove runs the group, and I’ve found her critiques invaluable. Humor goes a long way when you’re delivering critiques. I’ve listed the advantages and disadvantages that I’ve found below.

Advantages

  • You can get instant feedback on material you’ve written. This works especially well with a short story if you’re able to read the entire story in one sitting. A novel critique can work if you read installments to the same people each time. The other members can work as your beta readers.
  • Socialization. Let’s face it, writing is a lonely job. I can sit behind the desk so many hours, and then I got to get up and walk around for a little bit, with “little bit” being the operative phrase. After a few minutes, I’m back at my computer. The prospect of showing up at the next meeting empty-handed motivates me to keep writing.

Disadvantages

  • If you’re working on a novel, and can’t get to sequential meetings, you’ll need to spend time filling people in on what happened in your book since the last reading.
  • Your timetable – if you work a day job, then you can’t get to morning or afternoon meetings. During the winter, a bad snowstorm may prohibit attending the meetings. Sometimes you can work around this by agreeing to have an online critique during the winter. Bucks County has done some online critiques, and I’ve been able to schedule days off to get to a meeting.
  • Other members may disagree with each others’ critiques. When this happens, I go with the majority. If one person tells me I’m a balloon, I smile and go about my business. If two people tell me I’m a balloon, I take pause and listen. If three people tell me I’m a balloon, I grab a ribbon and start floating.

All up, my experiences with Bucks County and the other groups have been great. The critiques have enabled me to get my short stories published. For my novels, the critiques point me in the right direction. After I’ve worked extensively on the book, then I take it to a content editor.

So…do you belong to a critique group? How has it worked for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Autocrit Revisited: When Your Book Needs More

Some time ago I raved about the merits of Autocrit. I ran Steel Rose and other work through it and became ecstatic when the software ferreted out repetitions, cliches, and problems with sentence structure. I showed up at the PWC with Autocrit-edited work, and learned that Autocrit made a great proofing tool indeed. The extraneous adverbs became history, and so did problem sentences.

But workshop leaders told me the manuscript needed something more. The one-dimensional characters had to go. The villain was all-evil, with no saving graces. Even Dracula had his sympathetic moments. I took a figurative slap on the wrist because my villain turned from a medical professional into a monster who wants nothing but blood. Where’s the conflict?

There wasn’t any. Shame on me.

At the conference, the workshop leaders preached the merits of Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I got the workbook, started reading it, and got a strong awakening. For starters, my protag Alexis whined too much. Granted she has serious problems, but don’t we all? Not many people sympathize with a whiny character. So I’m whittling down the whining as I go through each chapter.

By the way, Alexis grew up in a strict religious family. During her treatments, she falls in love with and beds down an alien lover. Whaaaaat? This goes against her religious beliefs, not to mention her mother’s feelings. In my rewrite, Alexis will have to fight with her conscience before she agrees to love this fellow.

Maass encourages the writer to think of his protagonist’s defining quality. Then he prescribed the writer to write a paragraph in which their protagonist does the opposite. Okay, in Steel Rose, Alexis loves her mother and would never do or say anything to upset her. As the book reads now, Alexis doesn’t mention squat about her alien romance, knowing her mother would get angry. For my rewrite, Alexis will tell her mom, “Hey, it’s my life, and I’m the one who has to live with him.” Just thinking about this makes me respect Alexis more.

I just did the same exercise with a secondary character. After I rewrote the respective chapter, I saw a big difference in the way it read.

With the chapter on antagonists, I softened villain Laurel a bit, and gave her an extra dimension. Now I’ve got to do the same with another antagonist. I will need to work those exercises a lot more before doing the chapters with the villains.

After I’ve walked through (there’s no running here) each chapter through Writing the Breakout Novel, I will revisit Autocrit for help with proofing.

Has anyone else worked with the Breakout Novel workbook? How did it help you?


 

Editing Software, Anyone?

I’ve read good and bad about writing software over the years, and once considered such gadgets a handy way to flush your money down the sewer pipe. About a year ago writer Gregory Frost talked up Scrivener software, which enables you to edit writing and research at the same time. Scrivener works well, once you get through the learning curve, and comes with a reasonable price tag at about $40. I was all set to try it out, until I found out that only Mac computers accommodate it. Both of my computers have Windows. So I cursed in three languages, went back to my editing for Night to Dawn, and forgot about the whole thing.

My thoughts on software changed when arguments developed between me and blurred vision, particularly when I read long passages. I will reserve the matter of my vision for another blog, after I’ve seen the doctor, but I came to realize no writer can see his/her own mistakes. I’ve gone through work done by professional editors and found faulty passages. Do-it-yourself editing, even for editors, is like a physician performing surgery on a family member. Alas, a content editor can cost about $1000, and a proofreader about $400 for a novel. Not many of us have that kind of money lying around. I was grateful indeed that Ginger Johnson edited my Starship Invasions stories. Now I’m back to Steel Rose and my blurred vision. Then I stumbled on Autocrit software, recommended by Writer’s Digest.

I tried out sample passages and was pleased to see Autocrit weed out weak words. The free version will point out repetitive words and sentence variability. You have to pay to edit longer passages and to get the other types of editing. This I did, and was amazed at the repetitions it turned up and cliches too. The readability report offered limited value, since I write for adults, but it did turn up several run-on sentences. When I used words like “look,” “have,” and “was,” the substitution forced me to use more “show” to substitute for the “tell” verb. Ditto for the dialogue tags. I found myself cutting unnecessary words. The people managing Autocrit are fast to reply to technical questions.

You can flush out repetition with Word’s search-and-replace feature, but Autocrit color codes the errant words. Color codes work best for me.

There are several caveats. I don’t believe the sentence variability, pacing, and homonym sections offer much. It might for a first-time writer, but most experienced writers vary their sentence lengths instinctively. Autocrit won’t catch misspellings, and neither will Word’s spell check. Use your judgment for cliches and sentence readability; sometimes changing the passage can ruin it. Autocrit will not guarantee a sale, but it may improve the chance of your story finding a publisher. Caveats notwithstanding, I was glad I purchased the software.

Have you ever used Autocrit, Scrivener, or other writing software? Would you consider trying it? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Stefano features historical fiction with its own brand of horror.

 

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