Thursday, July 15, 2010

Toxic Critique Groups

Today let's discuss toxic critique groups.

Namely, how I'm in one.

I've been in my in-person critique group for over a year, and I like it. I've learned tremendously, both about myself, about others, and about writing. I've learned the art of taking and giving critiques. The group is varied and writes diversely, which is both good and bad. And I love devoting an evening every other Wednesday entirely to writing.

However, it has recently shifted. There are three people (out of a regular 5, sometimes 6) that really don't care for my book. And by "really don't care for" I mean "hate with the passion of a thousand white hot suns." Spitting hate. It is a raging hate that has blurred the lines between critique and downright rudeness.

At first, I just took it as par for the not-everyone-likes-my-book course. After all, the people who did like the story in the group were my target audience, and they got the story and character. So it wasn't so difficult to discard the negative critiques. Now when I say "negative critique" I don't mean critiques that I disagree with. I mean, critiques that made it clear that the reader saw nothing of redeeming value in the story. The ones that made it clear under every circumstance that my story and characters were "shallow, unlikeable, unintelligent, annoying, repulsive." (Verbatim.)

But as time wore on and the same negative--by this time toxic--critiques came, it became harder to ignore them. I know what you're thinking right now, because I'd be thinking it, too. You're thinking, "So get out of the group." It's not that easy though, because I do get a lot of value out of the group critiques. Value that improves the story. And, I think participating in a critique group is super important. Giving back is important.

Last time I submitted, a week ago, was the worst yet. To be fair, I don't think it was meant maliciously. After all, it's not their fault that they hate everything about my story and they would rather gouge their eyeballs out with a spoon than read another word.

I'm undecided yet as to what to do. I questioned whether to do a post about this, but I think it's a really important topic, and some writers don't recover from such toxic feedback. Some writers quit writing as a result. I don't think the three read the blog, but this post isn't really about them. This post isn't to vent (well, a little), or to call out people for being big meanie-heads. It's actually about me, and my limits, and our limits as writers in what is ultimately unhelpful to hear.

In general, the critique for me is helpful if you say "I don't like this/think this is viable, but maybe if you did this or this or this, it might work." Or, "Your character reads as a selfish piranha to me. Here is a way you might fix that," or even "Your character seems to be a selfish piranha. Did you intend that? Here are examples where I got that impression." I was only getting, "Your character is a piranha and I EFFING HATE PIRANHAS."

You see the difference, yes?

Because here's the thing. When you don't give examples, and when you only frame a critiques as personal opinion, it turns toxic to the writer. All I hear is "Opinion opinion blah blah opinion." And when you argue it, it doesn't help. And then when you say things like, "Wow, I can't believe you're writing a character this awful. You must be trying to make her unlikeable," that doesn't help. Making it clear that perhaps the story sucks because the genre is shite doesn't help. Here's a tip: I didn't like your story, either, but I sure as hell never said that. I only provided suggestions where I thought things could improve--and it wasn't to press the delete key.

I'll be fine. I'll never stop writing, and as I think I have pretty good instincts, I'll follow them as to what makes characters work or not. But this isn't possible for everyone, and we're all sensitive. Ultimately, I'll need to decide whether it's healthy to remain in the group.

What would you do?

(P.S. Anne Allen has many posts on critique groups, including one on best and worst critique group experiences, and Bad Advice to Ignore from your Critique Group.)

(P.P.S. My online critique is AWESOME, and inherently understands that this kind of critique is not on. And I swear I'm not just saying that because they read this blog. I mean it.)


Tabitha Bird said...

Wow. That sounds like a hard group to be apart of. There have been one or two writers who have feedback advise to me that was really all their opinion and actually no reflection on how good or bad the writing is or isn't. I find those critique unhelpful to say the least. I actually don't really care if someone likes it, what I want to know is why it wasn't working and what you suggest I do about it. People who give opinion usually can't say why because it is just an opinion. I don't like some art works because... I don't. That isn't to say the art work isn't good. I don't like some songs... because. That isn't to say the song isn't good. However off key writing is off key writing and I want to know when my betas find that in my work. My online betas are fantastic.

All the best with knowing what to do in that situation. sounds tricky. Have you talked with them about it? Like you said, some writers quit writing over that kind of 'advise'.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I've been in groups where the writing wasn't my genre or wasn't my particular taste, but it didn't affect the way I read the work.

There is always room for improvement with any piece, and its unfortunate your readers haven't seen beyond their preferences to help you make your writing stronger.

Suzi McGowen said...

Can you ask:

a: For them to give examples of their complaints
b: For them not to critique it, since it's not their preferred genre

Does your group have a leader/moderator that you can talk to about the crit problems?

Can you guys take a night from criting and talk about what you all (as a group) want crits to look like?

Can you ask for people to focus their crits on specific things (voice, or flow, or did you make the point you wanted to make with that scene, etc.)

(In my crit group, I said upfront that if people didn't like the genre/story that they were free not to read/crit it.)

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Well, first and foremost, don't stop writing (I know you won't, but I'll say it anyway).

Critique groups should be mutually beneficial but you are not getting what you need from this group. The problem with the people in your group is that they are making their critiques of your work about them, rather than about your work. We all bring our preferences and biases to the table as readers and critiquers (if that's a word), but it is important to: 1) recognize them, and 2) put them aside if they are unhelpful. (If they can't do that, btw, it's hard for me to believe they are particularly good writers.)

So besides finding a new group, my only suggestion would be to see if the group might devote a week or two to understanding what is in a good critique, either through reading some of the posts you link to and discussing them, or doing mock critiques of published work, or something like that.

Call it a refresher.

Linda G. said...

Sheesh. Are you sure you're getting enough out of this group to make dealing with the negativity worth it? Seems to me a relentless diet of that kind of feedback would be counterproductive, to say the least.

Do you have to read & critique everyone in the group? Maybe you and The Effing Three can mutually agree you're not the best readers for each other's work?

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks guys. I haven't yet spoken to the moderator or to the writers giving the toxic critiques. Part of me says I should, part of me says it probably won't change their minds much, and I'll come off looking as a complainer.

Tabitha, you make a good analogy about art and songs.

Caroline, your point is important too and one that I love to say: it IS possible to see past personal taste when critiquing. I do it all the time.

Suzi -- Yes, I can ask all those, and should. They are not free to not read it, unfortunately. The group requires that we all read.

Lt. you are right as always. On ALL points.

Linda, It is counterproductive, but I'm lucky that I see that. I worry for people who can't see that. And it may be that I ultimately decide whether it's worth it to me to stay. And to speak up.

Amalia T. said...

I'd give them something else to crt. A different project and different book a break wit ha short story of something else-- and see how it goes. If they're still RARR then I'd maybe look elsewhere. Sometimes we outgrow our critique groups, and that's just a fact. The dynamics shift and things change and people move in different directions-- and if that's the case, maybe it is time for you to move in YOUR different direction too.

Also, if they only give opinions and nothing constructively helpful, then I'm not sure what you're getting out of it in general-- or is it only with the hate crits that you get nothing constructive from those particular people, but when the same people like it they offer examples? I'm still not sure that's entirely the most helpful situation...

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Wow, sounds like you've had to put up with a lot. :( That sucks that people are being so harsh and then not even offering suggestions as to how it could be improved.

I think if you have a great online group, then you don't need to put yourself through this torture. Or, if your connections with the other non-rude people are worth salvaging, then maybe say something to the leader.

My group can dish out a shredding crit, but they always frame it to where you can tell they are looking out for your best interest and are willing to bounce ideas with you to figure out how to fix it. Otherwise, it'd just be abuse, lol.

Good luck deciding what to do! And good for you for not crumbling under that kind of mean-spirited assault.

Marisa Birns said...

Maybe the three are harboring feelings of anger stemming from some bit of jealousy?

And even if someone doesn't understand or like a writer's style/story, it seems to me that a critique would not be so mean-spirited. Almost like being back in high school . . .

Kristina said...

I'd leave anyway. You know why? Because no one else is telling the Toxic Ones that what they're doing is NOT COOL. You mentioned a moderator, and that person should be moderating. It shouldn't have to be you, by the way, who calls it out publicly. You're not a complainer if you ask the moderator to moderate. That's the point of having one.


JEM said...

Ahhh, interesting issue. I wonder at that point if you can't say that you don't want to share your manuscript with them because their feedback isn't helpful? Without knowing the full situation, I would say it sounds like they don't know how to critique properly. Letting your personal feelings about a genre/personality type/etc. get in the way of a professional feedback session is not only unhelpful, but it makes you look unprofessional. At some point they should have been smart enough to step back and say, "sorry, I can't help you with this, my feelings about the genre are too strong." Have you addressed their feedback methods with them? Maybe if you were straightforward about how they'd crossed a line they might shape up. And if they don't, it's probably not a group you want to be in anymore. Just my two cents.

Walt said...

Negativity is infectious. If these three people are friends and talk on a semi regular basis, their critiques could be a collaboration of opinion instead of their gut feeling of your writing.

I can understand the frustration of reading work every week that doesn't interest you, but I think there is an obligation here. Every participant of the group should be there to help one another. If you aren't getting the same effort from these three people that everyone else is, the group becomes less valuable to all its members (which one of you will fall under the cross-hairs next?).

I think you should reassess the groups value and go from there. It is clear that these three individuals provide no value to the critique and only bring stress your way. Is the group still valuable less their input?

If you feel that the value of the group is still worth your time and effort, I would remove their obligation of critiquing your work.

Good luck

Tawna Fenske said...

How funny, my monkey-toed twin...looks like we both posted about CP relationships today!

I agree, this sounds toxic. I know people stress a lot about how to handle feedback they RECEIVE from a CP, but I think many people don't give enough thought to how to GIVE good feedback. I'm lucky to have two fabulous CPs who've been with me for 6+ years, but I've seen examples of CP feedback like the stuff you're describing and I wonder if no one ever sat them down and explained what works.

The way you described it above is ideal -- "this part rubbed me the wrong way, what if you did this and this?" But "I hate this" is seldom helpful (though I am more inclined to take that from my beta readers...that's where I see the difference, I suppose. CPs know a thing or two about writing and how to fix stuff, whereas betas are supposed to be reading as though it's an actual, published book).

Anyway, I feel your pain and I hope you're able to hold your head high and ignore hurtful comments. Let me know if you want me to beat anyone up.


Elizabeth Ryann said...

One of the WORST critique groups I was ever in was in college, and the class was run by a multi-published author who told us on the first day that he was only teaching that class because it fit in with his touring schedule, he didn't expect us to be great - he actually doesn't usually care for adolescent writing, and that he would be available to discuss our work immediately after class for 50 minutes in his office because he was required to be, but that he would otherwise be unavailable.

Unfortunately, this set the tone for the class. You were counted as attending so long as you handed in your "critique," and what your critique said didn't matter, just that your name was on it so that you could be counted. This lead to critiques like: "This story is f*cking stupid and not worth the paper it was printed on and I think you're an asshole for trying to waste my time with it." This also meant that after class the person whose turn it had been to present their story was often left near tears. It was AWFUL.

I never received a critique as bad as that one, I think the worst I received was from the teacher describing my protagonist's voice as "puerile" (she was 7). Luckily, I could just roll my eyes and pretty much ignore what was said, and it did not make me give up writing. But what it did do was make me extremely gun shy about joining a critique group. Sometimes those toxic groups get to you more than you even realize, and it is worth it to seriously reevaluate how much the negativity is effecting you. In this case, I thought I'd mostly brushed it off (and the vast majority of the negativity wasn't even aimed at me!), and I've recently realized that I've only just started sharing my work with other people again now, six years later.

So that was a lot of words to basically say: I feel you. Make sure you're taking care of yourself. Those toxic fumes can linger in surprising ways.

Anne R. Allen said...

Sierra, I'm so sorry you're going through this crap.

You probably know I'm going to say: RUN, do not walk; do not pass the moderator's 200 excuses-- and get the #%&! out of there. I've seen superb writers give up great books because of this kind of nonsense. My own mom (with a PhD in English, BTW) gave up on a novel because so many people in her group trashed it for not being bloody enough. It's the book that was just published by a great small press that specializes in cozies.

Negativity is poison. Would you stay in a group where they fed you arsenic every week?

What these people are doing isn't critiquing. They are venting their own issues and scapegoating you. This doesn't have to happen no matter how much a critiquer disapproves of the subject matter. I'm in a critique group where one writer is writing a wildly progressive satire and another is a member of the Tea Party. The Tea Partier has given a pass on critiquing a couple of times, but otherwise, she addresses the issues of pace, character, story arc, etc, just like a grown up. Because she is a grown up. Your tormenters aren't aren't.

Obviously there are people in the group whose opinion you value, so why not ask if they'd be willing to share critiques separately via email. Then call the library, local bookstores, etc, or your local chapter of RWA and ask if they've got a group you can join. If they don't, start one.

OK, I'll shut up now. (&Thanks for the shout out about my blog!)

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks for the continued comments, guys.

I'm trying very hard to excuse the critiques I excuse the people giving them, because above all, I'm afraid of thinking my writing is above negative critiques, or worse-- that they speak the truth and I am refusing to see it. But I don't think so.

Another member of the group has said that as a minimum, I should speak to the moderator and I agree...except I haven't done it. I don't think it will change anything. The moderator IS interested in keeping a harmonious group, but that just isn't it for me.

Thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully respond, everyone--all your comments and support is hugely appreciated. I still have some thinking to do on this one. Anne, your suggestion of the RWA is a good one and my local chapter actually meets near my house so I may look into that.

Donna Hole said...

When I first joined a writers group, I thought I could never offer constructive feedback on genre's I didn't read; especially ones I disliked. But it didn't take me long to realize that "genre" is just a type of story with some basic rules for what plot points, characterization and word count is REQUIRED to keep it in that genre.

Because I enjoy the writing community so much, I've read several "stories" that I just hated. I wouldn't buy that book if you paid me. But there is always something about the writers style, creativity, presentation, characters, that is likeable. So when I read a story, or a genre, that I don't like, I think about all the elements that make a good writer, and a viable novel.

Does the plot move along; are the characters consistent; is there conflict and growth; is there a consistent POV and view point character. No, you don't have to like a story to appreciate the writers ability to tell the story.

And that's the point of a critique group isn't it? To offer feedback on strengths and weak point? I believe in telling a writer when you're not interested in their story, and telling them why; but I'd never be cruel like your fellow members are. I wouldn't tolerate the attitude in a crit partner either. I'm a firm believer in the adage: if you can't find three positive things to say about a WIP or the author, then shut the hell up.

I'd expect the "group" to let these members know that they need to be constructive with their feedback; or sit in silence and offer no "opinion". Not every book is for every reader, and they need to understand that just because its not their prefered reading material, doesn't make the project - or the writer - unworthy of respect and consideration.

Just my opinion.


Tara McClendon said...

I have been where you are, and it is not an easy place to be. When this got to the point where I literally couldn't take it, I talked with the individuals who were offering me the help I needed, and we picked an alternate night to meet. Some people in the crit group decided to remain a part of both groups, but several others preferred just the smaller group. This left the pirranas in the other pond, so to speak. Best of luck.

Meghan Ward said...

Sierra, I'm really sorry to hear things aren't going well in the group. I'll be back this week, and if I can keep up with the workload, I'll stay and look forward to reading excerpts from your new novel. Hope to see you Wed.

KarenG said...

I followed your link from Writerland, I wanted to know what you had to say about this subject and I'm following your blog now. Turns out I follow you on twitter too & didn't even realize it!

This experience sounds extremely tough, I'm amazed that you are still there. These people seem just plain mean. What do they hope to accomplish by saying these things? To HELP you? Clearly not. This boggles my mind. Why would anyone make such comments about a fellow writer groupie? Sickos.

Julie Dao said...

They are not writers. That's not what a writer does. A writer understands how hard it is to pour your words out on paper and how much harder it is to show them to people. Ok, so they didn't like your story, but there are constructive ways to say so (as you pointed out in your post). You're way better off away from them!

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