You Can Go Home Again Crawling back to the ol' critique group
By Anne R. Allen
Critique groups. CGs. I trashed them last January, in IN. Debut issue. Not this time.
True, one or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord Of The Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.
And in the end, you canít be sure the advice is worth heeding. As American journalist Jim Bishop said, ďA good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.Ē
On the other hand, a group can help beginners learn the nuts and bolts stuff that will keep them from gumming up agentsí and publishersí desks with those embarrassing first drafts. And even pretty skilled writers benefit from a little feedback before they send that story off to a literary journal or contest.
Best of all, a supportive group of fellow writers can supply empathetic shoulders to cry on through the inevitable periods of rejection and disappointment.
But what about professional writers? Okay, itís hard to imagine Stephen King submitting his next blockbuster to the judgment of Bangor, Maineís Tolkien wannabes and retired potato farmers grinding out their memoirs. But I was shocked to hear that somebody with the literary stature of Amy Tan still depends on her writing group for feedback and support.
I just crawled back to mine, three years and two published novels after I flew it, so the Amy Tan thing cheered and challenged me. Yes, begging to have my place back felt like defeat. Iíve spent some heady years traveling half way around the world for book tours, getting some nice reviews, and being sought after as an editor and speaker. Iíve been able to say things like ďmy publisherĒ and ďmy editor.Ē
In fact, it was at my editorís insistence I first left the group. Soon after I signed my first publishing contract he said, ďNobody edits your work but me. Donít let a bunch of amateurs dull the edginess of your stuff.Ē I basked in it. I was a professional. A published author. I wore the title like a badge.
I didnít need no stinking critique groups.
But now Iím back. My publishers and I have parted ways. They are in the UK, Iím in California. The wimpy Bush dollar and increased fuel/shipping prices have made marketing a nightmare for anybody trying to sell a UK product to U.S. customers, and I canít afford annual trips to the UK to promote sales.
Some days I feel as if Iím stuck in the classic nightmare made famous by Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married: the one where youíre mysteriously transported back to high school and canít remember a damn thing about algebra.
But as I started rewriting my current novel for the U.S. market, I realized I was working in a vacuum. I didnít know if I was saying what I thought I was saying. Or if the humor was falling flat as the champagne left over from my last book launch.
So I phoned up my old group. Not exactly high school algebra class. No factoring, certainly, of rational numbers. And itís comfy at the CG. We have a few newbies, and they all comment thoughtfully. No ego trips, and everybodyís producing pretty good work.
But I had to question my motives when I read the interview with Lou Harry in last monthís issue of IN. He said, ďIf you are part of a writing group and you know in your heart that you are the best writer in the group, then find another group. The goal should be to improve, not to be validated.Ē
Am I back in the group for validation?
Maybe I am. But after the meeting last night, I could answer Harryís other question with a confident ďno.Ē Iím not the best in the group. Even if theyíre not yet publishing as much as I am, each member has an area of expertise (one writes sizzling love scenes, another does gut-busting political humor, and another creates deep and dirty short fiction, etc... )
Iím not saying Harry didnít give great advice. (The opposite is also true: if the other people in the group are pros and youíre just starting, run. You could be overwhelmed with advice more advanced than you can grasp at this point.)
My British editor wasnít wrong either. A group of amateurs of varying skills can easily homogenize your work and dull your edge. And if you take all their criticisms to heart and act on them, your final draft could wind up sounding like itís written by committee.
The trick is, listen to your gut first and feedback second.
Thatís what Iím trying to do, anyway, hoping that running my new novel by my old homies will give it the final polish it needs before I release it into the unforgiving marketplace.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK on Sept. 1, 2005. Her first novel, Food Of Love is now available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk. Her latest non-fiction piece, Letting My Bitch-Light Shine, appeared in the September issue of the litzine Chick Flicks.firstname.lastname@example.org