Category Archives: Critique Groups

2017 In Review: On Big Wins, New Wounds, and Old Demons – A Guest Post by Shannon Fox

A guest post by Shannon Fox.

There’s nobody who pushes me harder than myself. I set the bar high when it comes to my professional development and I’m constantly challenging myself with new goals. Sometimes I fantasize about what life would be like if I was the sort of person who was content to come home from work, eat dinner, and sit on the couch watching TV for the rest of the night. And then I get itchy thinking about all that wasted time and potential and quickly shelve that idea.

So when life gets in the way and forces me to revise my goals, I have a hard time being kind to myself and not feeling like I failed. Even if I ultimately accomplish everything I set out to do, I have a hard time seeing it as a “win” because I didn’t achieve it on my original timeline. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s just how I’m wired.

As I’m looking back on 2017, I find myself facing a surprising amount of objective wins: I rewrote an entire novel this year and started on the next revision. I attended two writing conferences, had some face-to-face conversations with literary agents, and pitched for the first time. I kept up with creating content for my book review and writing blog, Isle of Books, which saw more traffic that ever this year. I had several blogs and articles published by different companies in the equine industry. I even won a contest with one of those blogs! I started a free marketing resource site, Minute Marketing, and have been creating content for that as well. And Goodreads tells me I’ve read 65 books so far this year.

Yet, it’s too easy for me to focus on what didn’t happen:

My primary book about Nikola Tesla is still not ready for the querying process. So I still don’t have an agent and I still haven’t sold a book. My other books continue to sit around, gather dust, and wait for me to get around to fixing them. If I ever will.

And the worst of all the things that didn’t happened this year? My writing is still not where I want to be. I know that writing isn’t really a thing you master. It’s something you work at for your entire life. But I feel like I’m making glacial progress, which was further reinforced by a few incidents that happened to me this summer.

Simply put, I suffered a blow to my confidence that took me several months to get over. Portions of my book were reviewed in a couple of different public settings and let’s just say that it didn’t go well. The criticism itself wasn’t particularly savage, but it was relentless and hammering and left my confidence completely shredded all the same. Worse than the pain of that lost confidence though is that I really thought I was stronger and tougher than that. That I didn’t let people get under my skin anymore and that I could take criticism with the best of them. I’ve done so much growing over the years and have had to pick myself up and dust myself off so often I thought I had exorcised that particular demon. I guess not.

When I look back on 2017, I see some big wins and a few failures too. But with 2018 looming on the horizon, I’m working on being as kind to myself as I am to other people. I’ve been trying to be consistent about doing daily positive affirmations, which I do think really, really help. Not only do they make me feel happier and more positive, I feel like some really incredible opportunities have been showing up because I’ve been putting what I want out there so much.

In case this would be helpful to anyone else, here are a few of my affirmations that are writing specific:

  • I am working on my craft and growing as a writer.
  • I am refining my personal writing style and voice to make my stories uniquely me.
  • I am focusing on telling the best story possible.
  • I am attracting only those people who will help and support me in my journey and repelling that which doesn’t serve me.
  • I am open to receiving opportunities that will carry me further towards my goals.

If any of you are also struggling with having confidence in your art, I encourage you to try doing some affirmations before you sit down to write or edit – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! I feel like my writing sessions are more productive and successful if I’ve done affirmations before starting.

2017 wasn’t the year to top all years like I’d hoped it would be, but I learned a lot and got more clarity on my career goals. I know 2018 has some really exciting opportunities in the pipeline for me and while I can’t share what they are yet, I am confident 2018 will be my best year ever! I know the journey certainly won’t be smooth, but calm seas never did make for a skillful sailor.

 

About Shannon Fox:

I have a B.A. in Literature-Writing from UC-San Diego. I write novels and short stories, particularly young adult, contemporary, historical, and science fiction. I maintain my own blog of book reviews and writing advice at IsleofBooks.com. I am a regular blogger for Equine Journal and Coastal Premier Properties. I have authored over 200 articles and blogs for online and print publication. I was also a research assistant to the authors for the published novels Teen 2.0 and Against Their Will. In addition to writing, my professional background is in marketing and advertising. I run a free marketing resource for entrepreneurs and small business owners at www.MinMarketing.com.

The Key to a Successful Crit Group – A 29 Year Example

There is a ‘special sauce’ when it come to making group dynamics work and having an effective writers group requires its own special brand of nurturing.

I’ve been a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) for several years and I value every moment spent with this group. Founded in 1988 (yes, as of this writing it has been together for 29 years!) IFWA has nurtured, trained, and supported many writers along their writing career paths.

What is IFWA’s secret to success?

There are several factors but my favorite four (besides the fact that the members are awesome people) are:

1) It is not a book club. It is a writing group for writers who want to improve their craft and hone their skills.
To that end, the monthly meeting begins with crits. In the previous month, two people volunteered a work to be critiqued at teh curernt meeting. The work is no more than 5,000 words and usually is either a first chapter or a short story although we have had epic poetry. Two people volunteer to provide a a critique. There are rules for how to critique. To learn more about the art of critiquing, you can read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on a series I wrote on critiques.

The critique porrtion of hte meeting begins with the author reading their story for ten minutes (a necessary skill we all need to practice). Each person critiquing the story gets five minutes to give the author feedback. An opportunity is given to the author to respond and only then is the group at large allowed to provide their feedback (for five minutes) to the author. These guidelines are strictly enforced.

The first time I experienced this process, it was nerve wracking. I read too quickly because I wanted to read the whole story in my allotted ten minutes. Mistake! So, I learned how to read calmly and more slowly. The second time it was much better. Some comments I agreed with and others I didn’t but I had to practice what I knew in my head – that there were things I needed to hear so I could learn them; that everyone has their own opinion and if you ask for it, you have to respect it, no matter what you do with it; and people are much kinder, much gentler than that stupid critic in my head!!!

That’s the thing, everyone in this group offers insight and wisdom, from a reader’s perspective and a writer/editor’s perspective on how the story can be improved. We do it from a genuine desire to see each other succeed. And we run the gamut of skill sets for our members include professional writers, editors, and beginners. No matter what stage any of us are at, we all have something to offer and something to learn – and we know it! This form of humbleness is the group’s core value and that’s why I think it’s been successful for so long.

2) The group isn’t exclusive.
We have every form of writing (screen, short story, novel, novella, graphic art, comic, etc.) and although we are a group for speculative fiction writers, we have lots of other genres and cross genres represented (fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, detective science fiction, noir, space opera, and fairy tale to name a few). Some members are published, some edit anthologies (and write too), some are not published. But we are all there with a view to encourage and support each other while encouraging growth in craft and business skills.

Then there are the splitters groups. Splitters groups are formed by members who have specific interests or needs. For example, I belong to a critique group which comments on novels and shorter works with a view to being submitted.

Our members are at all stages of development, including beginners, those trying to break into the market, and published and award winning authors. The group also counts many small publishers and well-known authors as friends.

3) A pay-it-forward attitude is practiced within the group and the larger writing community.
We help each other out with our projects. We share what we know. We organize writing events such as a writers’ weekend, workshops, manage a short story contest, produce an anthology exclusive to the group, attend and participate in national and international cons, and are a large part of organizing and volunteering in the local, annual con When Words Collide. We attend each other’s book launches, readings, and celebrate the victories of getting published and share the disappointment of a rejection. We are there for each other.

4) Skills sessions.
Every meeting has a skills session which can be on any aspect of writing from craft to business. Sometimes the learning comes in the form of a presentation, sometimes it’s a discussion, and sometimes it’s a little of both. But always we learn, always we share and after the meeting that sharing continues at a local pub.

IFWA has a lot to offer its membership because it’s members contribute in so many ways. The group’s enthusiasm is infectious and the friendships are long lasting. This writers group definitely has its own brand of ‘special sauce’.

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.