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Critters online workshop

February 18, 2009

A long time ago (six years?), I went looking for a way to improve my writing. I looked around online (where else does one look these days?) and discovered the existence of workshops. This was where I discovered Clarion and its ilk, but I wasn’t ready for that and couldn’t begin to afford it. Fortunately I also I discovered Critters.org.

Critters is the world’s largest critique group (to my knowledge). It’s definitely the most open. Anyone can join and all stories can be critiqued as long as you critique a minimum average number of other people’s manuscripts — about three a month. I must confess, the first time I had a story critiqued by the group, it was politely demolished. Gradually the comments grew more positive, and now I find most of them say more good than bad.

Oh there’s always a few that carry an air of hostility, as if nothing written by anyone but them will ever be worth publishing. And there are others that just don’t prefer a specific story. But by and large, Critters leads me to believe my writing has come a long way. But what good are atta-boy comments to me?

Critters does a great job of letting me know if a story is confusing or if the pace is too slow (athough some people want every story to be a Jason Statham movie), or catching spelling and/or grammar mistakes. The members spot POV problems well, devour opportunities to say “show-don’t-tell”, and never miss a chance to question dialogue mechanics. These can be helpful because authors frequently are blind to these issues in their own work. I still run almost every story through the queue at Critters for this kind of advice plus the infrequent gem of insight someone drops in my lap.

What Critters can’t tell me is whether a story is ready to sell. Many Critters members have sold stories, but do they know what made their work saleable and what makes their other stories rejection magnets? I sure don’t. I like to think it’s a difference in taste, but I doubt it. I am confident that I am making significant errors that are fixable but invisible, often even invisible to the rejecting editor. Critters is yet to help me with those problems.

It’s not that I haven’t received comments that could push me in the right direction. I probably have. But which ones? I like to think (naively) that comments I offer to other writers are in the top quartile of significance (everyone knows they are the smartest, right?), but how is a writer to know how brilliant my comments are? Or are they rubbish? If ten people tell me that a speech pattern is hard to understand, I will probably change it. If three tell me it’s hard to understand, three rave about how perfect it is, another points out the misspellings the dialect created (without mentioning dialect at all), and two don’t even mention it, what is a boy to do?

This blog entry is not designed to disrespect Critters. Far from it, I advocate Critters to any writer, beginners to pros. What I want to do is make some suggestions on how to use it as a writer. Some day, I will assemble my thoughts on how to approach Critters as a critiquer (arguably a more valuable angle).

  1. Investigate the accuracy of line edits. Do you really need a semicolon there, or will your original comma be sufficient? What is the specific definition of the word they recommended? These people may be English professors or burger flippers and it’s important to remember that fiction has room for the styles of either. Characters end sentences with prepositions and should. Even narrators should. “Correct” may not be the best way to write. After all, “Woe is I,” is the grammatically correct sentence. But the burger-flipper may not be the guy to listen to, either. Sentence structures should be varied while still being clear. Some people want every sentence to follow the same build, as if they will be expected to diagram them and want to know where each part lies. Look it up before you change it.
  2. Never take a critter’s word as law. One person may say something that makes you slap your head and say “why didn’t I see that?” Don’t change anything yet. Consider everyone’s comments first. A problem in the story’s middle may not be caused by the writing in the middle. In my experience, Critters tend to notice different problems surrounding the same part of a story. They all suggest different fixes. Often those suggestions will fix one problem but not the others. Look for the fix that will take care of everything. Maybe that means merging two characters into one (seldom suggested to me despite the usefulness of the exercise) or merging two scenes or sometimes as simple as changing a few words. This is a vague comment but is the key to gleaning useful information from a cluster of critiques.
  3. How is the critiquer’s writing? A few typos aren’t a big deal, but if it’s tough to decipher what a critique is saying, do you want to take its advice on how to clarify your story?
  4. Sometimes the places that they “don’t know how to fix it” are the places that need the most attention. Think about it, an editor can request a rewrite with a shorter chase scene or with the flashback cut or a thousand words shorter. They can’t say “fix the part on page seven that seems not right for some reason”. I guess they could say that, but they won’t. Rewrites aren’t sales, but they are wanna-buys. If they like it but can’t put a finger on why they can’t buy it as-is, they’ll end up passing. So trust people who scratch their heads in places (in accordance with number two), they may be the most valuable comments you get.
  5. If someone is tactless, they probably don’t know what they are talking about. Critter’s policy is to use diplomatic language, expressing every thought as the critiquer’s opinion rather than hard fact. Some things will come across a little harsh (no one wants to read ten thousand IMOs), but you know when someone thinks they are God’s authority on publishing. If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be messing up the Critter’s policy. Still, you should read their comments. Almost every critique has value, if only to reinforce the comments of others.
  6. Don’t take it too seriously. Most of these people are far more focused on their own writing than they are on yours. Why should they like your story? You brought it to them to look for the flaws, they have nothing else invested in it. Editors at least want to like your story when they read it. Hey, I don’t like most of the stories I read on Critters. I only like about half of the ones I read in magazines. My opinion is worthless to you; my complaints and advice (combined with everyone else’s) can help you improve your story tremendously.

If you use it wisely, Critters can make your stories (and your writing in general) much better. It did mine. But it takes a lot more to make them good.

-Oso

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 10:26 am

    Nice post. This is my problem. I’m rewriting chapter one of my second novel for nearly the twentieth time. I make changes, always post because I’m half-blind for my own gramatical and typographical editing mistakes and get twenty more suggestion. The tough part is how to decide when something is ready. I enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks.

    Larry

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