The Pilgrimage Analogy

I have talked in the past about the perils of critique groups, and dipped my toe into the topic again yesterday. Let’s talk a little bit more about critiquing and why it worries me.

And then we’ll have an analogy, just for fun.

I don’t have an aversion to critiquing, per se. We all have things we still need to learn, and another pair of eyes can offer a much more objective perspective of our work than we might have ourselves. To submit a completed manuscript for a critique or review is a sound practice – in this model, the author has taken the ms as far as she can on her own and needs input to improve it and/or make it marketable. In small, even regular, doses, critiquing can be extremely helpful. It is particularly helpful if done by someone who takes the time to consider the positive and negative aspects of the work and presents his or her conclusions in an analytical and unemotional fashion.

But there are danger zones and they are not always obvious. We will leave the possibility of unpleasant and derogatory comments presented as constructive criticism – anyone can recognize when they are being slammed for no good reason (or out of jealous) and run from a destructive critique group.

The more subtle danger zones often manifest in the pattern of constant critiquing. Critique groups and partners often exchange chapters and scenes after first draft, given each other feedback almost constantly. Often this is positive feedback, which is why it can become addictive. Why is this a problem? It sounds like fun, and maybe it is.

First, unpublished authors are still finding and developing their distinctive voices. A voice is elusive and hard to grasp securely – at the same time, an author’s voice is that author’s most precious asset. Authors are marketed by voice, yet a strong voice frightens many unpublished writers. They may fear that it is “wrong” or that it needs to be softened. It is hard to have the audacity to believe in a strong voice.

Add to that the fact that most unpublished authors end up in critique groups with other unpublished authors, and what ends up happening is that the strong voices tend to become softened and homogenized. The one author with a strong voice in a critique group may lose that voice in the process of critiquing.

I see this when I judge contests for unpublished authors or critique their work. I can sort the pile into those who have critique partners or groups and those who work alone. The rounding of voice which is so common is dramatic, and if I can see it, you know that editors and agents can see it, too.

If we look more deeply at the fact that unpublished authors generally have unpublished authors as critique partners, we can glimpse other possible issues. Those critiquing authors may be avid readers, but they may or may not be used to thinking structurally or analytically about a work of fiction. A mistaken analysis of the work in process by a CP could easily lead the author in question to revise a book in precisely the wrong way, that is, in a way that does not fix the core issue.

You do see this on the industry side as well. Generally, it is harder to diagnose a global issue in a book – because the problem is pervasive (and possibly structural), it’s hard for anyone to put their finger on exactly what is wrong, much less to discern how to fix it. And fixing it will be hard – the book will probably have to be written all over again. Invariably, people put their finger on a superficial cause that is easily fixed – so a book with an unsympathetic hero may be diagnosed as not having enough sexual tension. The reader knows she isn’t interested in the hero in this example, but is identifying the wrong reason for that response. The author can add all the sexual tension and innuendo she wants, but if the hero is unsympathetic to the reader, he will remain that way no matter how much the heroine wants him, and the book may remain unmarketable as a result.

This can also happen on the industry side – an editor might put her finger on sexual tension as the problem instead of the hero being unsympathetic – but I think there’s a critical difference between the two examples. I suspect the author who submits that work to her editor and receives that comment will be more likely to act upon it. Why?

That’s because another thing that falls out of critiquing is often a large investment of time in one particular manuscript, one which may still have root issues. The author may be very reluctant to address any suggestion made by an industry professional or other author when the book is finally finished and submitted beyond the critique group, because she has already spent so much time polishing the surface of the ms. The hero might still be unsympathetic, but the prose is crisp and clean, and the pacing is tight. This author will not be interested in either doing a large rewrite or putting the ms aside as fundamentally flawed. This hinders the development of marketable skills and marketable work.

The author who, in contrast, has taken the work as far as she can and then submitted it may be more open to feedback.

I see this also when I critique for authors already in critique groups. If there is a dialogue between us, any comment I make will be immediately rebuffed by a writer with a critique partner — with the rationale that the CP liked it just as it is. The subtext being that I am wrong, the tone being that I am rude to suggest that the ms needs work. It happens every time. Authors in established critique groups always have explanations as to why they are right – instead of listening to the feedback they’ve solicited. I think this is less about resistance to feedback or even to change than a natural desire to protect the time investment (and maybe to defend one’s friends.) It doesn’t make the book more marketable, though, does it?

A lot of the people I have met over the years who actively participate in critique groups have never sold a book. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. These are people with interesting ideas, and many of them are talented writers. They often know a great deal about the industry, too, and know a lot of people. They may not ever finish a ms (maybe because they pull the stopper out of the bottle, as we discussed yesterday) or if they do complete a ms, they tend not to sell it. I suspect that this is because of the issues I’ve already mentioned here. The book, in having its surface worked over and polished so diligently, has lost its sparkle.

The final thing that I’ve observed over the years with critique groups is that they don’t tend to last. Invariably, one person in the group sells her work, then maybe another does – but some do not sell their work in a similar time frame. The group may limp along, part published and part unpublished, but it seldom survives. The tensions are too great. It is quite natural that those who are unpublished will come to resent the expectation of the published one(s) for ongoing critiquing. A published author is being paid to deliver a publishable book. Critique partners are not getting paid to help. Because of this critique groups seem to work best when everyone is unpublished – it’s the only time that the field is completely level. Even when every member is published, there may divisions and varying levels of success or luck that create more divisions.

Here’s my analogy for today – authors are each on our own journey. (This is true of all people pursuing a creative life – writers, artists, musicians, etc.) We’re all walking somewhere, and maybe we get to our intended destination or maybe we end up someplace else. Maybe we’re following our muse. Maybe we don’t even have a firm plan! We all walk alone each day, pursuing our pilgrimage of choice, but we may sit and chat at night if we end up at the same inn as some other travellers we know. We may talk about the road, the weather, our respective destinations, or share some anecdotes of our adventures. We may have a good laugh together. But the next morning, we will each shoulder our packs, wave, and carry on alone.

With every step, the road branches in a dozen different ways, and we make different choices. Even if we resolve to walk with someone else for a while, the shared journey won’t last. We’ll find different paths appealing, or one will slow down to take the view or ease up on a blister. It’s okay – one day, we’ll end up in the same inn again and share stories of what we each found on our respective road.

I believe that an author needs to develop an innate sense of what works in her books and what doesn’t. That means thinking and analyzing alone. I believe that an author needs to constantly be learning about her craft and refining her skills, listening and then deciding what changes to implement. All books can be made better and we can all learn more. This is like knowing how far you can walk in one day, or how much weight you can carry, or when you need to stop for something to eat and a cup of tea.

I suspect that having a critique group makes being a writer seem like less of a lonely journey, but in a real sense, that’s a construct that can’t last. I think it is better to be self-reliant sooner. Ask for critiques, but do it when you have been over the book and over it again, when you’ve taken it as far as you can on your own and you’re receptive to input. Remember it’s your journey, and how you make it is up to you. Learn to choose.

Because no one will ever have the same career path as you. No one will write the same books that you do, or tell the same stories that you do, or tell them in the same way that you do. That’s okay – it’s part of the adventure, and presumably, that adventure is part of the reason you want to be a writer in the first place.

Okay, tomorrow we’ll lighten up!

3 thoughts on “The Pilgrimage Analogy

  1. Thank you, thank you! This is such a great article. It echoes my thoughts lately. I’ve always felt on some level this very way. Even though I’m an almost newbie writer, I am reluctant to put my writing out to those who are just learning. I do have one cp, but we always polish our own work ourselves before exchanging it with each other. Yet we are there for each other. If we have questions– mainly about grammar/structure, we can ask each other for help. It’s a trust you must build over time. I believe what you say is so true. I’ve also seen it too. I have a friend who actually begged me to crit her MS, but she was just writing it. I didn’t think she was ready, but she kept on until I gave in. I told her my ideas and she rejected them– mostly about structure and shallow character development. So there you go. She’s in a big crit group and I know how they work — just about the way you explained it in you post.

    Thank you again for this insightful article. (I read this one before reading your first one on this subject, so I may have even more comments!)

    BTW I found your blog through Margaret Moore. Great lady, great writer.


  2. Thanks Kaye for your comments.

    There’s so much pressure on writers in writing groups to join critique groups, and maybe the system does work for some writers. I do think though that the other perspective deserves some air time, just so people acknowledge that there is another way. If your gut urges you to avoid these kinds of structures, I think you should trust it.

    Yes, MM is a very nice lady. We made a roadtrip to RT in Nashville together, once upon a time. That was another kind of pilgrimage!


  3. Thanks for the input. If you don’t mind, I’ve linked your blog to mine. Maybe your wise words will help those who frequent my blog. MM is linked there too. I usually get quite a few newbie and newly pubbed writers visiting. Kaye


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