Saturday, March 13, 2010

Isn't this what critique groups are for?

I love Mary Kole. (Perhaps not as much as I love Ursula Le Guin, but I love her nonetheless.) Mary is an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and writes the popular blog. She is also a writer (which is why I think people love her so), and her Revision-O-Rama series in late December/early January is a must-read.

Mary ran a contest recently for novel beginnings and featured the most successful on her blog, as well as adding comments on why these beginnings worked for her. After the contest ended, someone suggested she think of demonstrating beginnings which didn't work. Somewhat reluctantly, I think, Mary agreed to do so.

She was immediately swamped with entries and her comments page shows that people think this is a great idea. Personally, I don't. My first thought was: why would someone want to have an agent look at their beginning that "needs a little help?" Isn't that what critique groups are for?

As I ponder these questions, I can only surmise that people are desperate for their work to be seen by an "expert" eye. I'm sure Mary's comments will be as kind and enlightening as they always are, but once these entries are on the internet, who knows what will happen. Will they be mocked in other on-line forums? Pilloried by internet hooligans?

My second pondering is: perhaps these guys don't have critique groups? I am a member of two (and I hope to post about their awesome-wonderfulness at a later date). But I live in an urban area. Perhaps there's someone in a hamlet in the Nevada desert who doesn't know a single other writer for miles around and has only the internet for company. (I'm trying hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt here.)

For most people, however, a critique group is not too difficult to form. Anyone who is writing seriously should be a member of their local writers' orgs. In my case that's SCBWI-Oregon and Willamette Writers Willamette Writers, for example, has a monthly newsletter and monthly meetings where networking opportunities abound. That's how I found my first critique group. Yes, you do have to put yourself out there, but the rewards are great.

Will the critique group give you honest feedback? In my experience, yes. The best groups are tender yet tough; that is, they honor the work you're doing but know that part of this process is pointing out (respectfully, of course) what doesn't work on the page. Then you revise and revise and revise again till it works. (Critique groups also have infinite patience.)

Mary Kole talks about all this in her last Revision-O-Rama post.

In my opinion, if you want her as your agent (and who wouldn't?!) then you would send her only your very best stuff at the query stage. You wouldn't want her eyes on any of your early, problematic pages, even if she is one of the best and kindest writing teachers around. Leave the "unworkable" stuff on your critique group's cutting room table.

What do others think?

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