Dream Team: Finding the Right Critique Group for You

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TeamWork

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how isolated the writing life can be (and believe me, I can sympathize as an editor!). So today, I’m reaching into the Archive for an article that addresses this issue. Yes, writing is a solitary task, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. Before you ever sign with an agent or publisher, or hire freelance professionals to help you indie publish, a good critique group or writing partner can be an indispensable key to your success.

Here, some advice on how to choose writing partners who will help you bring out the very best in your work:

 

What to Look for in A Critique Group  [Updated article from the Word Cafe Archive]

One of the top pieces of advice agents and editors give to writers of all experience levels is this: join a critique group. There are many advantages to this, among them: help with finding holes in your plot (and other things that don’t work), a support system to cheer you through writer’s block, and a community of like-minded people who take writing seriously.

So what should you look for in a critique group? Here are some important things to consider:

    • Experience with your genre. This doesn’t mean everyone in the group has to be working on exactly the same type of project—there are pros and cons to that. But think of it this way: if you’re writing a middle grade boy book and all of your other critique  partners write adult fiction, you might not get the feedback you need. That is, unless the other member are avid readers of MG fiction (perhaps they have children in that age range), and they know the market and what it takes to hook a young reader versus an adult.
    • Success among the members. By this, I don’t mean you should turn a group down if its members are not NYT bestsellers. After all, if you’re a new writer, that would be pretty darn intimidating! What you should look for are writers with a successful track record of some kind. Ideally, at least one is published with a traditional house, and another another is achieving success with her self-published titles. Another member has just sold a short story to an online literary journal, and a fourth has just finished his first novel and is shopping it to agents and editors. You’ll learn a lot from this variety of experience levels, and no matter where you are in your writing career, there will be someone who has been there or is going through the same steps now.
    • Reliable group members. We all have busy lives and occasionally have to cancel a commitment. But if several members of your group consistently flake out, you may end up giving a lot more than you get in return, and that’s not fair. Before you join a group, ask about their average attendance and whether there is a system to encourage accountability. A critique group can be one of your greatest assets as a writer—but only if it’s a team you can count on. And don’t forget, they’ll expect the same from you!
    • Healthy balance of encouragement and criticism. When you join a critique group, look for people you can trust to give you honest, objective feedback—after all, if you wanted nothing but praise, you’d ask your mom. The goal for each member should be to make that feedback constructive and useful; a good way to do this is to start by highlighting things you liked or that worked for you, and following them in a respectful manner with your concerns, being specific about what didn’t work and why.

Now, the question is, where can you find a fantastic group like this? A good place to start is with your local writers organization. They should be able to provide you with a list of groups open to new members, or point you to resources for finding one. You can also ask your writer friends or writers you meet at conferences—networking is a great way to find a group. And while I’m generally an advocate for face-to-face interaction, online groups work well for a lot of people, too. Try www.critiquecircle.com, www.thenextbigwriter.com, or www.writers.net . Also, check out this helpful page from Colorado State University—it has more great tips and questions to ask yourself before joining a group, or to help you start your own.

A last piece of advice: go with your gut. If you join a critique group and you feel torn down rather than supported after each meeting, or you wonder if anyone actually read your pages, it’s probably time to let go and find a group of people who are as interested in your success as you are.

AgentSpeak: “Your Main Character? We Just Didn’t Hit It Off”

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This week I’m excited to continue the “AgentSpeak” series here on Word Café. Today’s topic is another comment frequently seen on polite rejection letters from agents:

“I’m sorry not to have better news. You have a lot of talent, but I just couldn’t see myself spending an entire novel with your main character.”

Reading this from your dream agent, you experience a roller coaster ride of emotions. Exhilaration (she thinks I have talent!). Indignation (how dare she insult my character like that!). Despair (she hates my book!) And finally, confusion (what does it mean, couldn’t spend an entire novel…?). Let’s see if I can shed some light here.

SadSuperheroWhat the agent could mean is that she just didn’t connect on a personal level with your main character and story—a situation I described in my previous AgentSpeak article. But more likely, she means you have created an unlikable character. Yikes. Now what?

As with many other elements of fiction, the likability of your characters is subjective; what appeals to one reader may put off another. But, just like real-life people, some characters manage to win over an almost universal audience. (Think Katniss Everdeen, Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones.) How do they do it? By being witty, funny, charming, and good (but not too good)—the same qualities that draw us to people in the real world. By displaying an ingenious balance of strengths and flaws, with the strengths ultimately winning out. By being unique, while showing us traits we recognize in ourselves.

Now, the converse: what characteristics do readers—including agents—most often shy away from? Here are some of the top turn-offs:

  • Characters who are cynical, angsty, jaded, or just plain mean
  • Characters who are flat or generic
  • Characters who feel like vehicles for a message or agenda, rather than real-life people
  • Characters who show no growth or change from beginning to end of story (unless that’s the point—a tough one to pull off)

Once you’ve identified some possible reasons for the agent’s dissing your protagonist, you’re faced with a tough choice: change him, or stand your ground. Only you as the author can decide which of those actions is right for your book. There’s always a change the agent’s opinion was a fluke. What if you still believe strongly in your character? What if changing him would compromise the heart of your story? Then your best bet is to go knocking on other agents’ doors. And before you do anything drastic, get a second opinion (and a third, fourth…tenth). Did another agent make a similar observation? Is your critique group having trouble with your character(s) as well? If so, there’s a good chance the public at large will feel the same, and that spells doom for your book sales. In that case, you probably don’t need to scrap your protagonist, but it might be time for a little nip and tuck.

AgentSpeak: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

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Question_smDear Readers,

I’ve been brainstorming ways to make amends for such a long absence. Here’s hoping I’ve found a good one! Today I’d like to address a type of question I often get from my clients and other aspiring writers: “What does an agent mean when s/he says…” It will be part of a series of posts where I decode common lines from agents’ rejection letters or pitch sessions.

Here’s the first one, from a response to a query letter:

“Thank you so much for querying XYZ Agency. I see a lot of talent on the page, but I just didn’t connect with the voice [or story] as much as I’d hoped. Best of luck to you.”

It’s disappointing, of course—not at all what you’d hoped for. But what are you to make of a compliment in a rejection letter? Is this just a polite way of firing off mass rejections?

Possibly, but I doubt it. Agents use form letters, or no response at all, to signal a “no thank you” when they’re either in a hurry or they know right off the bat that a manuscript isn’t going to work for them. This one is different—it has a personal touch. Agents don’t have time to do that for every submission. So from my experience, what this response means is that (a) the agent actually read all or some of your pages (sadly, that’s not a given); and (b) she sees potential—either for this book or for your writing ability in general.

Unless they’re just starting out, most agents only take on half a dozen or so new clients per year (or fewer), out of hundreds or even thousands of submissions. They can’t afford not to be extremely picky, and that means that it comes down to either very clear marketability, or personal taste. That’s right, my friends: agenting is a subjective, not objective, business. Which makes sense, if you think about it: agents help creative people develop their art, and art is always about the visceral, the gut reaction. The heart as well as the mind. You wouldn’t want your book in the hands of someone who simply admires your handling of mechanics or a checklist of story elements. You want someone who gets it. Who sees your writing talent while connecting deeply with your characters and everything that happens to them. Someone who will talk to you about those characters as if she has known them for years. Someone who will fight tooth and nail to get you the success you deserve.

What the agent from this rejection letter is saying is that he simply can’t be that person for you. Perhaps your story is just not his cup of tea (he likes a grittier narrative style, he can’t stand characters who play tennis, etc.). Maybe he thinks your novel is too late for an already saturated market. Or maybe he thinks you’re this close, but not quite there yet in terms of polish.

There’s no way for us to know for sure. But honestly, that’s not the point. What the agent is saying between the lines is that you should hang in there. You caught his attention, and that alone puts you ahead of the crowd. So keep moving forward—by querying your next set of potential agents, or by making your next novel even stronger.

You’ve got the spark. Now build the fire.