Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Critique Circle - So far, not bad

There was a time, in the golden long-ago of publishing, when a fresh new author who showed sufficient talent might be nurtured along by a good editor who, in those halcyon days, actually edited.

Times have changed.

Editors fret about it, but there's no denying that actual editing is only a small part of what editors do any more. Much of what they do is manuscript acquisition, and the expectation is that those manuscripts will come in clean, shining, and ready to publish.

So who helps the author edit the manuscript? An agent?


To make a living sufficient to support even a modest apartment in New York, agents have to hustle constantly, reading queries, reading pages, hoping to find something that's marketable. It's a tough job. Editing? Not what they're paid for.

So who gets to edit your priceless prose?

You do, author.

Increasingly, the advice on writer's boards is: "Find a critique group." Fellow authors may or may not be expert critiquers, but several sets of fresh eyes may be just what's needed to spot the typos, the long passages of exposition, the boring backstory, the howlers, and other writing mishaps that you can't find because you're way, way too close to the words. There are many, many critique groups on the web.

One that I decided to try out and report on is Critique Circle.

It works like this: You sign up for free. You can't read any works at all until you sign up. Once registered, you get two free credits. You need at least three credits to submit your own work. You earn credits by critiquing other people's work. Since you're new, you can have a newbie helper look at your critique before sending it. When you have enough credits to spend, you submit a piece of writing (short story, chapter, etc, preferably under 4000 words) to the Newbie Queue. Your work goes up with the next critique round, which happens one a week. People read your work, critique it, and you get to read the critiques as you receive them. You rate the critique and send a nice thank you note.

You can submit up to three pieces, one at a time, to the Newbie Queue, or after your first newbie critique you can submit to the regular queues. The advantage to the Newbie Queue is that your work goes up at the next critique round. In the regular queues, only a set number of pieces go up at any one time, so if you don't get your work in quickly, you may have to wait another week or two for your next critique. But if you have a piece up for critique already, it will cost you double the points to have a piece waiting for the next queue. Not a problem if you are an active critiquer, but if your time is precious and you can't spare time for a lot of critiques, you may not be able to race through your novel at a chapter a week.

What makes or breaks a critique group is the quality of the critiques. For newcomers, there are examples of good and bad critiques -- if newbies read them. Newbie helpers will assist with early critiques -- if newbies make use of their services. Those are big "ifs."

So far I've had two pieces critiqued: a picture book and the first chapter of a fantasy novel. They've gathered eleven critques. Two were too short to rate, but were helpful short comments. One was terrific -- quiet long and detailed. Five were very good. Two were pretty good. And one was, "Would you please discuss the world I created instead of the cliche D&D pseudo-medieval-vaguely-Celtic world you keep trying to force it into?" The critiques confirmed what I thought might be a problem with the novel chapter (too much backstory) and also picked up some problems I wasn't able to spot (of the "Okay, what is it the main character doing here?" variety). The not-so-hot hotshot who gave the poor critique said "I don't get this, this is stupid, this doesn't belong in fantasy" to the unique features of the fantasy world I'd created, and brushed off everything else as "cliche."

Can't win 'em all. At least it's free.

There are some writing tools that I haven't explored too much yet, though the manuscript submission tracker might be useful. There's also a discussion board that I haven't delved into too much (I waste too much time at discussion boards already), communal writes to a given writing prompt, and a bookstore where Critique Circle authors can list their published books. The titles link to Amazon and the links contain an associate code, so this appears to be not only a showcase for authors but one way that Critique Circle generates income to support the site.

The other way they generate income is to offer a subscription membership. For $34 per year, there are raft of extra features and services for premium members, including setting up private queues so your fans can critique a continuous series of chapters of your latest hot novel, or fans of a particular narrow genre can trade stories with others who appreciate what they are writing.

Is it worth it? So far I'm going to say yes, it is. I have a tendency to fall in love with my own words, so hearing others say, "You know, you could have said this in half so many words" is helpful. One of my goals with my novel is to trim it by about 1/4 to 1/3, since it's already too long and I haven't even finished the ending yet. "In love with my own words" doesn't even begin to cover it. Having other readers is a tremendous help in spotting what needs to be said and what doesn't.

Whether it would be useful for you depends on how good you are at self-editing.


Anonymous said...

I joined CC about a month ago and found it to be very useful.

The main bOOyAA for me though is the technical sophistication of the web site. The folks who run CC have spent a *ton* of time and effort making it user-friendly, inviting, and dangerously attractive to anyone who's trying to get something useful done.

Anonymous said...

I joined Critique Circle last year and found it to be quite helpful. I expected to get critiques back like "Wow, this is great, keep it up," or "I can't wait to read more," which really aren't critiques at all, but more of useless praise that you would expect from your mother; instead, surprisingly, the critiques I received were very helpful. The other writers/readers provide constructive feedback that you can use, without being mean about it. I submitted two stories last year but haven't had the chance this year as I've been working a good bit on my novel, trying to wrap up the third revision of it.

Anonymous said...

I joined CC several years ago and have seen a huge improvement in my writing since. I know that without CC, I would not have sucessfully sold several children's pieces to US magazines, nor found an top tier agent for a series I am seeking publication for.

The private areas that come with paid membership are well worth the money--in addition to being able to bring in a select group of users into private queues and forums to form closer bonds with, there are ways to track my submissions, manuscript progress and use enhanced character templates/plotting aids/worldbuilding tools. I can't say enough about this site. :-)

Anonymous said...

This group is okay if you can handle the domination of all christians and republicans who are on the site. To me, an online writing critique should NOT be used to spread biased propaganda from any side.

عفراء said...

Hi Karen,
I thought I recognized your name when I came across this blog -- lo and behold, I logged onto CC and found a critique I'd written for you on your demon tamer novel. I could never forget your name because that was a really great idea, and I seriously hope you continued developing it. I haven't been on CC in a looooong while (kinda got burned out) and I see you haven't either, but maybe that just means you have found another place to vet your story. I wish you the best,

Daisy Bird said...

Great blog! Keep it up! I agree with you.

Puffy said...

I was apprehensive about joining the site when I saw it one or two years back. I'm trying this year because I would like to bring healthy feedback to another site other than I have found good friends on FP who write brilliantly, but the rest of it does not appeal to me and hasn't since I started. I guess the main problem is that FP is more about review-garnering than actual constructive criticism. I found that a lot of my constructive criticism was just going to waste.

I'll take your word for it, and hopefully bump into you on there so I could take a look at your work.