Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guilie Castillo on "Critic or Cheerleader?"


Do you belong to a writer's group? You do? Congratulations! It's essential to the process of growing as a writer, of honing your skills, of becoming an ace at the craft. By joining one, you've taken a major step in your career.

But here's a question: is your group a critique group? Or a chorus of cheerleaders?

We all need cheerleaders. Pom-poms and rah-rahs. Undying support from someone—anyone—that we can latch onto in those dark moments when the blank page seems the hardest thing to face; when your words, once sheer genius, have begun to look like so much crap. Ordinary crap, at that.  

We need cheerleaders to help us believe we can do this thing, that we have it in us, that our talent exists, that our writing is not ordinary.

If your goal is not only to get published, but to grow as a writer, to become the best writer you can be, you also need a helping hand in terms of craft. I know—you've read the books, you have an MFA from a prestigious program, you've been doing this for a long time. Hell, for all I know, you're Stephen King or JRR Tolkien. Whatever. If you're committed to this career, you want to be better. Write better.

Right?

Cheerleading is for the spirit. It's to keep you sane, focused, motivated. But it won't improve your writing. Unless it's balanced against objective critiques, it may even damage it.

What is the function of a good critique group? To improve your writing. How? By providing a bunch of objective opinions on it—what works, what doesn't. Suggestions on how to make a scene more alive, give a character depth, draw the reader into the narrative to the point where they cannot put the book down. A critique group is the foundry where your skill is tempered into cutting-edge precision. Like iron ore, you need to be smelted and continuously honed into the hardness of brilliance.

What a critique group is not: a cheerleader faction for your work. A support group? Certainly, when it comes to true improvement. Like AA, your critiquing partners shouldn't encourage you to hit the bourbon no matter how desperately you think you need it, but rather push you—hard—to stick on the right path, to rise above yourself. A good critique partner will tell you the hard truths you need to hear—and listen to—in order to take your writing to the next level.

A critique group is like your editor—but careful here: not your spellcheck. You wouldn't send a first draft to your editor, right? You'd check for misspelled words, for echoes, for repetitious scenes, for character and plot arcs. When it's as good as you can make it, and only then, you'd send it out.

And then your editor would come back with suggestions and remarks, and you'd start work on your final draft. 

Revise your expectations: a critique group should get your writing as good as you can get it in order to help you improve it. A rah-rah might feel great, but how much does it help, really?

When you join a critique group, you leave your ego at the door. You bring only your story. It's all about the story, about making it better, making it shine.


 Guilie is currently in the final revision process of her first novel, Restoring Experience, and working on another spawned during NaNoWriMo 2011. She blogs at http://guilie-castillo-oriard.blogspot.com, and her short stories have appeared in www.fiction365.com, http://www.ladyinkmagazine.com/home
, as well as a few blogs, including an honorable mention in Clarity of Night’s contest in July 2011 (http://clarityofnight.blogspot.com/2011/07/entry-97.html). 




14 comments:

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    1. Great piece, Guilie - and so true!

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    2. Glad you liked it, Carole :)

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  2. Judith, thanks for reading--glad you agree :)

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  3. Nice article, Guilie. In a perfect scenario, a tough critic cheers you on when you do well. A moment of bliss before the next flogging. :-)

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    1. Haha--love it, Edith. You're right--in a perfect world... But, seeing as this ain't perfect, if I have to choose, I'll keep the tough love :D

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  4. It's ALL about the story is so right. An honest, tough critic is the best possible cheerleader, getting you to take the story to the edge of your comfort zone, to find just the right phrasing, to make that plot point as sharp as a razor's edge so the reader sucks in a sharp breath at the exact moment of realization about the truth of what they had been reading. Rick--kicking adverbs and nouns later.

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    1. Rick--so right! A tough critic is a cheerleader for *the story*, and we, the author, are the team that needs to be "beat". Great point! Hope the adverb- and noun-kicking is going just dandy :)

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  5. I LOVE your writing, Guilie. You make the act of sipping a cup of coffee come alive. ;-) Just kidding.
    You're right about people who read chapter by chapter, only to tell you they can't find anything to pick at. 'Well done' from their point of view means: 'I can't be bothered helping you'.

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    1. Haha--yeah, working on injecting some life into all that coffee in my novel, Francene :D I just finished reading Don Maass's (is that too many S's?) "Writing the Breakout Novel", and at some point he asks, "How many tea breaks does your heroine take? Delete them." I thought, "if I do that, I'll have no novel left--maybe a short story"--haha!

      Thanks for pitching in, Francene. Yeah, sometimes the "well done" feels good, nothing wrong with that, but if the story is our main priority, that cyber pat on the back isn't doing much for it.

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  6. Great article. It's mature writers who care more about a solid honest critique than a cheerleader critique. SO to all the IWWers who made me and continue to make me a better writer.

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    1. I second that, Holly! Indeed, it takes maturity to take a tough critique like a... well, like an author instead of a writer, I guess. Thanks for reading, and I'm so glad you liked the article :)

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  7. Hi Debi and Guilie,
    I think critique groups helped me enormously over about twenty years. The one I was with the longest was partly social and quite tightly knit. Yes, there was a good deal of cheer leading mixed in with honest, informed criticism. Sometimes my best work (from the group's point of view) came after a lively discussion of my first reading when I'd go home with great new ideas for developing one part or another of the story.

    On the other hand, the wrong kind of group can be a problem. I was once an invited guest at a different writers' group, and listened to the group's informal leader tell one of the members, "I thought we told you not to do it that way." I never went back there.

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  8. Thanks for joining the conversation, Bob--glad you did! I agree--some of my best writing bouts have come after a particularly stimulating critique, one of those that goes in deep and really asks the author to explore motivations and possibilities. Like Edith said above, that first group you mention sounds pretty perfect--great cheerleading mixed in with honest critiques. I think we at IWW have it pretty good, and although everyone has a different approach and style, I for one have gotten mostly strong and helpful critiques.

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