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In the last couple of months I’ve been asked by several people how to go about finding a critique group. I’ve talked a bit about this before and you can read my previous post on it by clicking this link. But here I want to discuss an angle of the subject that I didn’t cover in that post. Specifically, I’d like to talk about what I perceive as the limitations of (largely anonymous) online criticism.
There are scads of websites dedicated to the pursuit of writing and most of them offer some sort of peer critique. When I first began my revisions of The Fiddler’s Gun, I dabbled in a few online critique groups and systems and they weren’t completely without benefit. The process usually consisted of posting a chapter or an excerpt and then sitting back to let anonymous people tear into it. While it certainly did open my eyes to a few issues, the greater lesson I learned from it was that criticism by strangers is only useful to a point; it has a glass ceiling. The ceiling exists at the point that your prose is more or less grammatically correct, properly formatted, devoid of easy cliches, and doing a passable job of showing rather than telling.
This ceiling marks the place where an acceptable proficiency in the objective nuts-and-bolts craft of writing has been achieved and the quality of one’s work as a whole begins to hinge on the more subjective art of storytelling. Any anonymous internet person can point out why your subject and verb don’t agree but in order for someone’s artistic opinion of your use of pace, symbolism, voice, rhythm, or structure to mean much, you’ve got to understand where they are coming from. That’s not always easy to do via the internet.
Here’s an example: a few weeks ago, I was having an email discussion with a fellow author that I’d come into contact with on a message board and we were debating the various artistic merits of a book. This person was disagreeing with me in ways that I simply could not understand and it was becoming clear that there would be no convincing her of my way of seeing things. Then she let it slip that she worked primarily in the genre of ‘paranormal erotica’. Do you hear an awkward silence? That’s the sound of me trying to wrap my brain around werewolf porn.
Do you see the problem? I have a difficult time accepting a critical examination of writing from someone who honestly believes that there is lasting artistic value in writing erotic fantasies about werewolves and vampires making out under the light of the full moon. I wouldn’t go to a pornographer for film-making advice and I’m not going to do it for writing advice either.
That’s an extreme example but I trust that you see my point. The werewolf lady and I just don’t have any common ground upon which to base our criticisms. For a critique to be meaningful I have to know and respect the sensibilities of the critic delivering it. That is a large part of the reason I believe the Rabbit Room is such a valuable place. It’s a community where readers and listeners are able to develop an accurate sense of the artistic nuances of those who offer recommendations on the site. If you’ve paid attention to my writing, or to Jason Gray’s, or Matt Connor’s and know your own sensibilities line up with one or all of ours, then you immediately have a greater sense of trust, both in what we recommend and what we criticize. Often that trust will extend to what we create as well.
That’s not the only reason I’m wary of anonymous writer’s groups, though. The writers within the group need to share some parity of skill and development amongst each other. Critical partners need to be equally yoked. In online critiques I found that quite often whenever I had the chance to read the work of others it turned out that many had a very poor grasp of even such basic elements of craft as grammar and punctuation. How am I to view a critique of my own work from a writer who writes a sentence like:
“I stared longingly, into the deeply, dark black pool’s of his coal black eyes filling with they’re passionate seas of dark water’s even as he wistfully blinked into my own innocently baby blue’s, taking smoothly, my hand.”
Once again, the problem is that as a writer I don’t have anything in common with someone who writes a sentence like that so it’s very difficult to know how to accept his/her criticism. There’s very little the writer of that sentence can say to me that I’m going to take seriously (whether good or bad) and there’s very little I can offer in return that isn’t going to sound really, really mean, condescending, patronizing, or overly critical. Basically, the extent of the criticism I could offer would be “spend a few years reading the classics, then come back and try again.” See what I mean? That sounds terribly condescending. But it really is the best thing that writer can do to improve. If I’m going to treat others as I want to be treated I need to tell them the truth, not offer empty pacifications. Unfortunately, that kind of critique won’t make you any friends in your online critique group.
So what’s a writer to do? I think it’s important not only to find people whose opinions you trust but to find people whose own writing proficiency is comparable to your own, if not better. I think any artist needs to be challenged in order to grow and having a peer group you respect and who will call you to task is a great way to find that challenge. I’m confident there are great online writers’ groups out there and that they’re helping many writers grow and better their craft, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into and who you’re getting into it with.
Knowing your critique partners and having a working relationship with them is invaluable. I get a lot of critical input from my brother, for instance. Quite often my first reaction is that he’s dead wrong and, quite possibly, out of his mind. But because I’ve learned to respect his instincts and because I admire his own writing, I usually abide by his criticisms even when I disagree. When I revisit the issue weeks or months later, I nearly always find that he was right. I was simply too close to the work to see it at the time.
As I look over this post (critically), it’s obvious that there’s a danger of falling into a trap of thinking that we, as artists, are better than those who offer us their criticism, or that we may begin to pick and choose which opinions we accept based solely on which we agree with. In my own writing, I try to be constantly mindful that I don’t slip into that trap. I know I’ve got a lot of room for improvement and those who know me well know that I’m my own worst critic. If I ever come to the point that I realize I’ve got this whole writing thing figured out, then I’ve probably failed as a writer.
So my answer to the initial question of where to find criticism is this: Find it chiefly among people you trust and respect. The act of creation is an intimate endeavor. When we open the door to let someone into a process so precious, we do well to take caution in whom we admit.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.