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07 January 2009 @ 12:25 pm
On the writing and/or query path.  
I haven't posted about writing for awhile, nor querying. Well, the holidays being what they were, there was no writing to post about, and nor was there any query news to post about.

There still isn't, but I'm hopeful to hear something soon from at least one of the agents looking over material. (That would be the full manuscript - there is another agent still looking at a partial, ie, first three chapters for those uninitiated in publishing terms). Over the holidays, I've kept up reading Publisher's Marketplace, various industry blogs, message boards, etc, and I've noticed something. It's a phenomenon linked to another, i think, that is largely why I no longer participate in crit groups. It's bothered me enough, I've decided to post about it.

I know some of you out there have written, or are working on, your first or second novels. You haven't gotten to the query stage yet, and you might be looking for a crit group. There are some things you should know, both about your fellow writers, and the publishing industry as a whole. Please take this as merely my own experience talking - there are people out there far more knowledgeable than I in these matters, and not every writer's experience is the same. Still, you might find some of this helpful or interesting information.

Let's start first with critique groups, and why I no longer use them. Let me start by saying, there are some really good ones out there, both IRL and online. A lot of people find crit groups helpful. But the first danger to be aware of is the time involved. Most crit groups function on a crit-for-crit basis to some degree, meaning you are expected to give critiques to others in order to get critiques yourself.

The best critique group I have ever been a part of was a local RL one that boasted several pro writers and two pro editors - seriously, if you read SF/F and I told you their names, you'd recognize them. It was a GREAT group, and it taught me a some very important things about my writing, and I have absolutely no doubt it led to my first short story sale. I didn't quit because I was dissatisfied. I quit going because I realized one day that I wasn't finishing anything I was working on, because all my "writing time" was being used as reading and critique time. A lot of us as writers are stealing away time to write from things like house keeping and relaxation as it is, and adding something else very time consuming can be the death of that WIP. What good is critique if you aren't producing anything new?

That RL group wasn't the only crit group I've been a part of. I've also done some well known online critique groups. I think I learned some pretty effective techniques for critting my own work and others during all of this. But I also experienced one of those phenomenon I talk about above.

Writers face a lot of rejection. Even successful, published writers. And when they're not being rejected, they still get to experience the singular sting of negative reviews. I think partially as a result of this, we look for that positive hit to keep us going. When we get a good beta read response, a glowing review, even something as simple as an "I loved it!" from our friends and family, it helps drive us to write the next story.

This isn't a surprise - after all, isn't that one of the reasons fic writers write fic? To post it and get feedback? Sure, we might not mind the occasional constructive crit, but what every fic writer is really hoping for is that squeeful, OMGTHISISTHEGREATESTSTORYEVAH!!~! response. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

It's okay. It's very normal and human to want others to love and appreciate your hard work. Everyone does.

Well, people who write for publication are no different, really. We want to get our stuff published, and we want the people who read it to love it like whoa. And, you know, getting paid for it is pretty special, too. Not that I have much experience with that, yet, but that check for that short story sale - which sold in December - paid for our wedding cake. In June*. (This is important to note as an example of how slowly the publishing industry works. Pay attention to that for later.)

But back to the point - I promise, I do have one. I've noticed another way writers help give themselves that ego hit - critique. Other than time, the other main reason I've quit doing critique groups is because of this. There is always at least one writer who uses critique to prove how much they know about writing. It's not just that they point out every single mistake, from the smallest typo to the flawed worldbuilding. I mean, you kind of want all of your mistakes pointed out, right? Isn't that the point? (Well, sort of - more on this later.) It's that they delight in doing it, not to help you, but to feed their own ego with how brilliant they are. They may not even realize this is the case - they may honestly believe they are helping you. But trust me, tearing down someone else's writing is not helpful to anyone involved.

I speak about this from hard personal experience. Not just from the receiving side, oh, no. I've been guilty of this myself, once. I'll use my own mistake as an example to explain what I mean.

A few years ago, one of my online fandom friends asked me to beta read (critique) her novel. I agreed to gladly, and dove in with enthusiasm. I marked every awkward phrase, punctuation or grammatical error, made comments about story, plot, how to make characters stronger, etc, etc. And at the end, I wrote her a paragraph that went something like "I know I've marked a lot of things, but this has a lot of potential, and I really wouldn't go to all this effort except to help you achieve that." I don't remember if that's exactly what I said, but it was words to that effect. I was explaining myself. Deep down, I felt bad about that critique. while I was doing it, I managed to convince myself I was doing it for her, when in reality, I was marking everything I saw because somehow, that fed MY ego. I felt superior - the wise, more experienced writer dispensing how to do it right. She never responded back, and inside, I knew I'd stepped over some line I shouldn't have, though at the time, I didn't understand how or why. I'd critiqued, I'd pointed out the things that needed fixing. Isn't that what I was supposed to do? Well, sure, but a GOOD critique is more complicated than that, IMO.

See, some things can't be fixed by critique. Some things just need time, and experience. Instead of highlighting every single flaw with a huge spotlight, ask how in depth they want it - are they looking for you to catch every typo or punctuation error? Maybe this is a first draft, and what they really need to know are which ones do they repeat a LOT? One of my beta readers pointed out my own incorrect usage of breath/breathe - they didn't highlight every example. They let me known in comments that they noticed I mixed them up a lot, and I might want to take a look at that. I was very thankful, and fixed every one. It's something I still mess up if I'm not thinking about it. As far as story - don't critique someone else's style. Don't tell them how YOU would write it. Tell them if how THEY wrote it works for you. If it doesn't, tell them that, and why. You don't get to decide how to make it better, or even if it should be made better. It isn't your work.

To this day, I feel terrible about that critique. Partly, I did what I did because at the time, that's what I'd seen others do, and I hadn't yet learned to distinguish thorough, and yes, pompous, from good. And partly I did it because it made me feel like a Real Writer to be able to "help" someone so much - in other words, it fed my ego. But not for long, because somewhere inside me, I already knew I was doing something selfish, not something helpful.

So be careful accepting critiques, and critiquing others. Realize that writing and reading are extremely subjective. What is fantastic to one person is so much drivel to someone else, and vice versa. No one knows everything there is to know about writing, and no two writers write exactly the same way. Don't let someone else's disagreement with your style make you stifle your writing to the point of sabotage. But also make sure you pay attention to what they're saying. No one's writing is perfect, and your critiquer just might be pointing out something that will improve your craft by leaps and bounds.

Critique is a careful line to walk, and it can be as harmful as it can be helpful. I received a critique once that turned me off writing for almost two years, and before that I'd thought of myself as a confident writer, well able to accept good crit and ignore what didn't signify. I was very, very wrong.

Lately, I have discovered this advice giver with a superiority problem pops up in unexpected places.

For instance, if I ask in an online community if anyone else with a full manuscript out to a particular agent has heard back yet, it's not because I don't know what to do, having not yet heard back myself. It's because I know she's hard at work, I've already had enough status updates to know she hasn't forgotten about me, she's reading my work, and I just want to know if anyone else has heard yet so I can establish a timeline without nagging her. (Well, really, so I don't make myself crazy with the waiting.)

*The publishing world moves slooooooooooooooooowly. Seriously, you have no idea. My friend Paula was one of my beta readers for Nemesis. Actually, she's read all of the books I've written, or almost written, over the years. This is the first one she's been this excited about. Having no knowledge of how the publishing world works, she waited a couple of months, then sent me a message asking why hasn't someone jumped on this to publish it yet, she wants to be able to recommend it to all of her friends. I replied, explaining that first one needs to query agents, a process that can take months, especially if they request to actually read the book. Then, even if an agent is interested, there could be revisions before they'll take you on. And when they finally DO, then they have to query editors, and even after you get an editor, it can take a year or more to publish a book. Getting paid for the work works on a similarly slow scale. (Paula, who works in the business world, found all this rather appalling. I didn't tell her that sending directly to editors, instead of querying agents, can result in a wait time of as much as two years in the slush pile.)

Everyone is busy, and in addition to your manuscript, the agent in question probably has a dozen more, not to mention the partials and new queries crossing her desk every day, the clients she already has, and possibly a day job she has to keep showing up for if she wants to pay the bills. Answering the fourth e-mail you've sent her, to see when she might be getting back to you on your manuscript is only going to take up more of her time. Since most of us are pretty OCD about our manuscripts, that loooooooong wait is torturous. Keeping track of the agent or editor through fellow writers on message boards is one of the things we can do sort of clandestinely. Obsessively e-mailing, or worse, is only likely to convince the agent you are too annoying to work with, something you really, really don't want to do.

So, yes. I have sent status e-mails, she has responded. I am not sitting over here, biting my nails with what I should do since I haven't heard back. I don't need someone to tell me what to do, I especially don't need them to tell me that I should "either send a status e-mail, or just move on". I simply asked if anyone else had heard back yet. Meaning I'm really only looking for replies from those people who actually have work with this agent.

Anyway, perhaps the reply irritated me more than it should have, but assuming from that simple question that I am ignorant and need to be told in a pretty condescending way what I ought to be doing, did not help. It does not help. If you ever get the urge to be condescending in this manner, please, do yourself and your recipient a favor, and just don't. We're all learning here, and while it can be annoying to see the same questions pop up over and over in a forum, it's really better to just not respond at all if you feel the urge to be impolite, or worse, harsh and cutting.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
-peartreealley on January 7th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
I quit going because I realized one day that I wasn't finishing anything I was working on, because all my "writing time" was being used as reading and critique time.

"Connoisseurs of Difficulty": Dodge Thiskistha on January 7th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
The view from the outside (thank the gods)
I know we've talked about this before but I just wanted to add my two cents. I think the biggest problem with this type of person/behavior, is that the behavior is rewarded. In the little world of barely and wanna be published writers, it's a world with a vicious base.

If you aren't a total ass when you critique, you aren't serious, being too nice, and "not doing anyone any favors". The worse you put someone down (in honest genuine critique) the better a writer you are. And the more professional you are. Which I'd like to point out isn't professional behavior in the regular world. More accurately it's how much more "popular" or "cool" you are.

Also, there's the converse effect where the more you subject yourself to this kind of crap "the tougher" more "honest" you are. You can take it. It becomes this gauntlet that comes with it's own mega status. "I had my novel critiqued by 'bitchiest nastiest person around that's super popular now' and it was so good for the work, I can see how much better this is going to be now. You should go for it, if you're ready for some hard honest critique." Which of course is all a load of crap. I sometimes wonder how much of this is also fostered by the sneaky thought that more people you crush, the more "writers" you weed out, leaving more room for YOU and YOUR work.

Because of my husband I've been to a few writer's conferences and know a couple of editors. As a real life example while at these conferences there was an editor who was the Popular Party Editor. If the PPE editor liked you all was well, but if they didn't - you were in for hell. And all of the people who flocked around PPE, laughed and pointed out flaws too. You got the good booze, the best stories and "had the most fun" if you were with the PPE. And everyone around the PPE gave the PPE all the reinforcement they needed to keep the bad behavior rolling. It's well worth mentioning that the PPE's entire world was based on the PPE's personal world view, their likes, their dislikes and had little to do with anything else. Like grammar, storytelling, world building, current market trends, what market they were selling into or anything else concrete. Does this remind anyone else of the bitchy mean cheerleaders in High School and their Super Jock friends? And like them, once High School was over this PPE's party was too.

So, if you want it to change, then you have to help break the cycle. Good critique is out there - and don't take (or believe the crap) don't fall into it, and please, please don't do it yourselves. You can hurt yourself in the long run.

Edited at 2009-01-07 09:29 pm (UTC)
karenjunkerkarenjunker on January 7th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've found on some of the fora I'm on, there are always one or two experts - people with a couple of published books who think they know everything and don't hesitate to lay down the truth as they know it.

In my current crit group, I look for patterns in the feedback. I don't take everyone's advice all the time. However, this group meets only once a week and we read each other's work and comment on the spot, so I'm never sure if I'm helping anyone because I barely have time to think about what they've written.
L.A.: writingfrenchroast on January 7th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
That approach to critiquing is exactly what turned me off of poetry writing. I had to take a few writing classes for my lit degree, and so I did one poetry and a couple fiction writing classes. They were basically just weekly critiquing sessions. The fiction classes were fine; generally much more positive and more of the "this isn't what I'd do, but I can see how it's working for what you want to do" approach. But the poetry class...it was an endless stream of harsh, biting criticism. The professor was a good critiquer, but terrible at reigning in other's critiques; almost everyone just trashed everyone else. I know I wasn't innocent, either.

I didn't realize it until about a year ago, but I haven't written a single poem since I took that class back in 2004, and I used to write gobs and gobs of poetry. I'm still kind of scared of it; every time I think about writing a poem, I shy away because I know it's not going to be good enough.

I'm also going to blame my fear of over-critiquing for my not yet having written up my thoughts on Nemisis for you, which I read at least six months ago (then again, it's good and I don't have anything harsh to say about it, so I suppose really it's more laziness than fear).
purple_shoes on January 8th, 2009 03:18 am (UTC)
I had a similar experience in high school. I used to enjoy writing poetry, until I got a low grade on a poem for a reason that it was too "sing-songy." I like the structure of rhyming poetry, but my class didn't, and it became pretty obvious to me that my low grades had less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the fact that people didn't like that I used existing rhyme schemes and such. It became less about writing poetry and more about how to tell everyone else that they were writing poetry "wrong." It really turned me off from poetry and I haven't written any since.
purple_shoes on January 8th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)
Ohh yeah, that's part of the reason I am very wary about writing groups, especially online, because I dealt with them so much in high school and university. And I agree with you, and see a lot of that in myself... I am VERY careful to ask what kind of beta people want, exactly for the reasons you stated. It's a hard step to realize what a rush it is to have that kind of power over someone else's work, and essence, their self esteem, but it's an important lesson none the less.

I tend to only trust my work now with my good friends and people I know from my old critique groups. I actually had a friend in high school that I used to have beta my stuff all the time. She's a really brilliant writer, much better than I, but she knew it and often put me down more than helped my critiquing. There was even one point when I had a story published in the school journal, and she more or less accused me of plagiarizing her because she'd written a story a few years prior that dealt with similar subject matter. After a few years I realized her beta'ing my work had less to do with me being a writer and more about her knowing she was a better writer than I.

But on the other hand, I know I've done that to people, too, so I'm not big on beta'ing anymore unless it's a favour. Unfortunately, I think that school of thought is really perpetuated in writing classes, and a lot of it is about telling the other writers what they SHOULD be doing different as opposed to suggestions on how to hone their ideas. I know with my novel, I sort of feel like I am free-falling sometimes, not having people constantly second guessing my word choices and telling me what's wrong with my plot. But, I'm getting to the point that I'm kind of okay with that, and reading about other people's struggles with similar problems and how they handle it is, at this point, a way more productive lesson than having someone scour over my manuscript with a red pen.
(Anonymous) on January 9th, 2009 04:47 am (UTC)
Paula is NOT patiently waiting
After reading this post, I am hoping I have been a good beta reader and critique. Since you have given me a great deal of what you have written I will have to assume that you are extremely forgiving of me, a masochist, trying to improve my life skills in some way, or simply trying to keep me occupied. The good news is that I enjoy what you write so it all works for me!

As for Nemesis, this book is so extremely marketable right now it hurts me to wait. Being in business where supply and demand is what you live and die by, it kills me to know that the publishing industry is so out of touch with how they need to compete. Truly, this one fact alone speaks volumes as to why it is suffering. America and other emerging economic countries are more inclined to instant gratification more than ever. To compete you simply have to step up and have what the people want now. Tastes change fast and are extremely fickle.

If the publishing industry could figure out how to get onto the cutting edge of what is hot, they could make more money. The business model simply has to change in order to find the success they have experienced in years past. This is not rocket science. Find what is hot, move on it, and repeat. Trust me, I get that it costs a great deal to publish a book, but stop trying to talk an eternity to figure out which basket you are going to put all of your eggs in, put your eggs in several well chosen baskets. You don't put all of your 401K money into one stock do you? If so, ummmmmm you need a new financial planner.

Nemesis is simply a good bet for the current market.

The wait is so depressing. Who do I need to sleep with to get this book published anyway? I could make it a new years resolution to sleep with all of the right people to get the book published. What do you think?

Kiss Kiss!