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So, I knew my Chapter 1 would be tedious last night, but i was still surprised that everyone asked that it be, instead of a Chris McCandless-style solo exodus to the wilderness (which is how the thing starts), a fast paced action thriller.

Put another way, the things that were requested in the next re-write were to introduce more dialogue (there is some, but the guy is alone), put him in the city instead of in the wilderness (?), and similar.

Put yet another way, it felt like the group was succumbing to group think, where each person's writing should hew more closely to every other person's writing.

To be clear: the feedback is invaluable and I will use it.

But: Question: Do writing groups become tunnel-visioned ... and come with their own set of biases? Along the lines of "Group think"?

My instincts are yes, that this is human nature, and I am curious if you would agree or not. Again, the feedback from the critique group was valuable and I am OK with bias (especially because it is a different one than my own.) I'm just curious if that might happen in these critique groups.

I mentioned my chapter 1 here yesterday.

  • is your writing group by chance in Hollywood? Did they ask for explosions too? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 5 '17 at 13:47
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    LOL I almost added an edit in which I said that they wanted the 'ka-boom' at the end of the chapter to be what it opens with. I decided not to add the edit because it sounded unbelievable. I appreciate your comment tremendously, and I am north of LA. – DPT Oct 5 '17 at 13:48
  • yeah, it sounds like you have a group afflicted with Blockbuster Syndrome. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 5 '17 at 14:13
  • Mmmm. I think you are right. I hate this idea of the thing needing to grab within the first sentence. Imagine most classics needing to do that. We live in twitter land now, sad! – DPT Oct 5 '17 at 18:25
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Do writing groups become tunnel-visioned ... and come with their own set of biases?

I believe they do, just as part of human nature. There are many studies on this regarding the outcome of focus groups, and in psychology: How 9 actors can convince, by consensus, a single test subject that his eyes are lying to him. It actually has been shown to have serious consequences in wrongful jury convictions. (By recollections of the jury that found an innocent person guilty).

You are facing the same kind of focus group. A friend of mine in advertising does filmed focus groups for radio and TV commercials, and he says there is always somebody in the group that people will start to look toward to see if they are going to speak. Sometimes a person with good or interesting observations, but usually a bit of a bully that is just expressing a strong opinion with certainty, interrupting people, making jokes about their observations, whatever.

That's human nature. Any community of people that interact a lot is going to come to a "norm" they adhere to and then lean toward it. About what is "good writing", what is a "good twist", what is "good dialogue".

You can see it now, amateur critics on line reviewing and trashing Stephen King or Dan Brown or JK Rowling for their terrible passages or scenes. Well I'd wager King and Brown and Rowling disagree, and obviously the public has decided to give them a few billion dollars for their efforts.

A camel is a horse designed by a committee. Not only that, but they are pleased with how much they've improved upon the horse.

If you want to write horses instead of camels, study horses: Best selling authors.

+1 to Mark for using such a group to become a better writing critic. I would add another step: While you do that, apply your critiquing skills to existing best selling authors, you can buy their work for 25 cents in the used bookstore. Then realize they've made millions, so if the rules you are learning about how to critique are making them look bad: It is almost certainly your rules that need to be refined or toned down, not the bestselling author. Because clearly it isn't keeping King or Brown or Rowling from producing killer entertainment, and clearly people don't care if they end some sentences with prepositions, or use vulgar American comma rules instead of the British rules, or whatever.

Stick to advice from the people you aspire to emulate. I know you cannot ask them questions directly, but if you take notes on their work as you read it, you can try to find where they have answered it by example.

  • Thank you. Some of your comments about bullies are particularly relevant. – DPT Oct 5 '17 at 19:20
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    You know, I think there is a whole other question to be asked about whether critique groups value the right things. (Hint: If anyone asks it, I am going to argue that they don't.) – user16226 Oct 5 '17 at 20:08
  • Would you argue that since they don't usually read the whole story, the focus of a generic critique group is wrong? :-) – DPT Oct 10 '17 at 14:43
  • @DPT In my limited experience with critique, yes. Take a page from any good book and without any context, they focus on mechanics and getting the context missing from that one page, which they have to just imagine. You need plot holes, you need someone to point out errors in your formulation of a character's personality. For example the impact of Jane saying "god damn you, Bill" on this page is lost if its the only curse word she utters in the entire book. They'll want you to escalate it, when it is already at maximum strength for Jane. Thus, I'd say a critique group might be some help --- – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 14:55
  • --- for a de novo scene: The opening page of a book, a first meeting with a character or place. I want to describe a medieval tavern from the point of view of a medieval traveler, obviously without using the word "medieval", or comparing to anything she hasn't seen, and I don't want it to sound like an Old West saloon. Set up your reading that way, and they can give you feedback. Things that require zero or very little previous context or writing, they can judge as well as other readers for clarity, economy of writing, awkwardness, if they hate your metaphors or love your poetic phrases. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 15:09
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This is absolutely a problem with critique groups. On of the fundamental facts for 90% of critique groups is that your critique partners are not your natural readership. Most of the critiques I give start with "This is not the kind of thing I read, but..."

We would all like to think that if a piece is really good then everyone will like it regardless of genre. But if that were so, everyone in your critique group would be reading Dickens and Conrad and Dostoevsky, and unless you are really lucky in your critique partners, they probably aren't. So, in critique groups, you are going to be reading a lot of stuff you would not normally read, and your stuff is going to be read by a lot of people who would not normally read it.

What this means is that 99.99% of the things your critique partners suggest that you do to fix your manuscript are going to be bad ideas. If an editor who specializes in your genre and whose career prospers or fails based how well the titles the acquire sell, then you should probably listen to their suggestions. If it is anybody else, you should completely ignore them unless their suggestion comes to you like a bolt of inspiration out of the clear blue sky.

But if you are not to take the advice of your critique partners, what is the point of belonging to a critique group? The point is not to fix the manuscript you submitted. It is not even to discover its individual flaws, though that may happen. The point of belonging to a critique group is to sharpen your own critical faculties so that you become a better self-critic.

It is by becoming a better self critic that you acquire the skills needed to bring your work to a publishable standard. It is how learn to tell when you are being lazy or vague or self indulgent in your writing.

This is why I always say that there is more value in giving critiques than in receiving them. As an ordinary reader, you either skip ahead or put the book down through the boring passages. As a critique reader, you are forced to read the and to try to figure out why they bore you so you can explain it to someone else. This is how you learn to read like a writer. And to write like a writer, you first have to learn to read like a writer.

Critique groups are not about fixing your MS. They are not even about finding flaws in your MS. They are about learning to read like a writer.

This is why I make it a rule for myself never to give suggestions to critique partners. I tell them what worked for me and what didn't and try to explain why, and leave it at that.

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    Yes, on the other hand they probably read more diversely (and critically) than my readership would, and so I go back and forth on the value of this disparate group of writers. You are correct that giving critiques seems more valuable in some ways, or at least an independent value. I'll be going to a differently structure group this weekend, which focuses more heavily on my genre. – DPT Oct 5 '17 at 16:20
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    Yes, the advantage of a diverse group is that it brings more perspectives to help you to read like a writer. – user16226 Oct 5 '17 at 16:27

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