Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Critique Groups: Open/Closed

Got an email the other day from a writer who's aiming to set up something similar to the GSFWC in their own town and wanted to pick my brains. He'd noticed it was an open workshop, run along Milford lines, but some of the people he's got interested in setting up a critique group are, it seems, a bit worried at the prospect of being swamped in dross--shoddy copyism and outright fanfic. So, he wanted to ask how we at the GSFWC handle new members. I wrote him back, basically as follows. Thought it was worth posting for the interest of others who might have similar questions. So...

Dear X,

You might want to drop Neil Williamson a line too, as he's sort of fallen into the role of official organiser--first contact for new members, intermediary with the venue and whatnot--but I'm happy to blather a bit about the workings meself.

So, the GSFWC is kind of an anarchist collective. Yeah, it's run along the Milford lines: the story is posted on a Yahoo Group in advance for everyone to download and read; on the night, we go round the circle one by one, each member giving their critique; the critiquee has to stay schtum unless asked a direct question; at the end, they get to rebut; then we go to the pub, where they get a pint to make up for the ordeal, and we all blether away.

And yep, it's an open door policy. Nobody really being in charge (no secretary or treasurer or bollocks like that) is aimed at no internal politicking, and that rules out controls on entry. If we had to debate who got in, who didn't, that's where I think there's a risk of it all going pear-shaped, becoming about the irrelevant social status stuff you get with any such group, rather than the writing above all else. All we really have is Neil Williamson acting as pointman, and a few long-standing members like myself who'll make an effort to ensure that at least one of us is along if another can't make it, in the event of a new member. Someone to explain how it operates and such.

Neil tends to be the first line of contact, as most new members find us via the website and drop him an email. The advice is usually to come along and sit in on a session, see how it works. We meet in a room in a church--pubs being too noisy, we've found--which costs £2 a head, but for new members there's a "first time is free" policy. New members should see from the session itself that it's no-nonsense... chatty beforehand, but then sleeves up and down to business. We're not wholly inflexible about the conch-style "X is speaking, so everyone else STFU" structure, but if it gets a bit feisty, you want someone ready to tactfully remind people that they've had their turn (or will have it shortly.) "We can discuss that after in the pub," is a useful tactic.

In practice, we've evolved a sort of principle that once a speaker has finished, if you've already spoken but something that person said sparks a realisation, a polite "Oh, I meant to say that too," or "Can I just add something quick?" is not verboten. But it has to be pithy as fuck. Us senior members try and lead by example more than anything. (Though I'm probably one of the most fail-y when it comes to "Oh, I just thought of something else!")

We generally stress that there's no pressure to submit something immediately; indeed, we encourage new members not to be too keen, to come back for a few sessions and get a good sense of what they're in for. If someone immediately wants to submit a work, that's maybe even a warning sign, I'd say, that they're looking for validation rather than feedback. Like, if it was the latter they'd want to gauge the quality of feedback they'll get. Or they'd be more reticent about whether their work was of a standard. Not sure why, but it just seems like the ones who sit in on a session and immediately want to put something in... they tend to be the ones least likely to fit in.

To be honest, we've had our share of hobbyists and cranks like that over the years, but they tend not to stick around. I don't think we've ever had anyone want to submit actual fanfic, but if that were to happen, it would be outwith the remit: the aim of the GSFWC is explicitly to try and push stories up to a professionally publishable standard, and fanfic is automatically not professionally publishable by dint of copyright issues. It's worth being upfront about that aim then. As I say though, I can't think of any time we've had to veto a story on those grounds.

Otherwise, if new members are looking for the empty back-slapping of a mutual masturbation society, they're in for a rude awakening. The ones who bring in hobbyist drivel or therapeutic wank, they're not really aspiring to create sellable work. They're not aspiring to create work readable by anyone other than themself. They don't really want the Circle to help improve their work in that respect. They just want to show their handful of poop and be told what a clever boy they are. The simple way to deal with them: just critique the work as you would any other.

You may need to talk around the fact that clearly the writer is a fucking mentalist, but a Mary Sue is a Mary Sue and bad fiction for that reason. A personal symbology that's utterly inaccessible to another reader cause it's based on the can of worms inside the writer's head... that will make a story a failure, plain and simple. You can be tactful if you want, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, be blunt with stuff that's embarrassingly revelatory of a writer's nutjobbery, and say, "Sorry, this reads as therapeutic writing. It reads like it's processing personal stuff as an end in itself, not to engage with an audience via narrative." A useful tack: "I don't see what market there is for this." Again, it pays to be clear about the aim of professional publication.

Ultimately, if someone brings in some crazy ass godawful derivative BDSM Mary Sue which is unwittingly putting their personal dysfunction on display, if you just tell them exactly how bad it is and why... you're giving them the opposite of the validation they want. So they don't stick around. The hobbyists and cranks are actively averse to honest no-nonsense critique, and the worst are relying on the social inhibitions of others, on people's natural reticence to say something that might be hurtful.

For that reason: don't pussyfoot around it. If a work is so bad that you're automatically a bit loathe to be completely honest in case you hurt the writer's feelings, that's exactly when you want to be merciless. No suger-coating or they'll use that as a get-out clause. Hell, if they want validation, that's all they'll hear. So you don't give them it. You're not there to coddle their ego, accommodate their insecurity. If you give em no quarter, they'll quickly get the message and fuck off.

Actually, I'd say as long as you have one member ready to play the Bad Man, that can be all it takes. "Hi, I'm Al, and I'm afraid I'll be the Bad Man this evening." Others will cleave to a notion of constructive critique, and actually I think it's best for that to be the default. You might even go easy on a first-timer to see from their rebuttal whether they're a lost cause. But if you really don't think they have anything to contribute, someone just has to man up and give them the no-holds-barred critique they so don't want to hear. Never personal. Never empty dismissals like "shit." But if a writer is the type of writer you don't want, the plain truth about their writing will drive them away.

To be brutally ruthless about it, in fact, a few hobbyists and cranks coming in now and then can actually be useful. A bunch of roughly competent writers won't see the flaws in their own writing; that's why they're only roughly competent and that's why you want a workshop in the first place. But they may not be able to nail down the same flaws in each other's writing either, because at a roughly competent level the wrongness may be too subtle. With hobbyists and cranks, those flaws are so blatant you can't miss them. So you learn from them what the missteps are, and once you're attuned to them, you start to see them in other writers at your own level, and then you start to see them in your own work. The true benefit of a critique group, I've often argued, is not the feedback you get but the feedback you give. Truth is, the stories you fix on the basis of feedback may be improved, but the stories you write once you've sharpened your own critical skills will be a quantum leap better.

So if someone wants to bring their dreck to your workshop looking for validation, I say let em. Chew them up and spit them out. Slice those stories apart in an autopsy, without an iota of compunction, and learn the anatomy of fiction as you do so. Let it be an object lesson to each other as to what to expect. Be ready to take it as you dish it out. Think of it this way: if you're loathe to be totally honest with the dreck, are you sure you're not going to be pulling punches with each other? If you can cut the crap, ditch the "supportive" cock-fluffing with someone so oblivious of their incompetence that you feel like you're kicking a puppy... well, then it's a piece of piss to do that with your mate. It's a piece of piss for your mate to do that with you. Which is what you should want.

An important point: some of those who bring dreck will not be just looking for validation. They will be real writers who just don't know it yet. They'll be cranks who're still looking at it as a hobby, but who have a spark in them, a seed of something more. They'll be bugfuck mentalists whose work is utterly impenetrable, who don't really expect it to be published, but who somehow still think it's awesome, can't see why it's shite. Where those looking for validation will just slink away after a blunt critique, never to be seen again, these ones will be galvanised into rethinking their entire approach: who am I writing for? what am I writing for? how do I show these fuckers the awesomeness of what I'm trying to do? Put them through the same crucible of brutally honest critique and they might well be transformed.

Everybody is shite when they start. I'd say my own early stuff when I started at the GSFWC was epically abysmal, failing on far more levels than any number of new members we've seen over the years. First story I ever submitted Bill King described as "bad Doctor Who fanfic." It wasn't intended as such (I hated Who) but he was spot-on to nail it to the wall like that. And if Bill hadn't put that bullet in the forehead of my precious hobbyist ego, I daresay I'd have never got my shit together.

Ultimately, I can appreciate where closed critique groups are coming from, and each to their own, but for my money, an open door policy is a good thing. The occassional hobbyist crank is a feature, not a bug. If nothing else, to be an icehearted motherfucker about it, they're good practice, grist for the mill, and once in a while you actually end up with a better writer than you might get if you were admitting only those already roughly competent. Competence is about conforming to standards, after all, some of which are conventional, some of which could do with being challenged. With a closed door policy, you could be imposing conformity, mediocrity. Fuck that shit.

So yeah, that's my tuppence worth. If you do have problems getting your group off the ground, or if you just want to pop through for a look-see, by all means come on through. I'm sure no one would mind you sitting in on a session, and you'd be welcome to join us in the pub, chat with other members. I am, as you can probably tell, one of the more opinionated members on this stuff, with more of a "fuck em if they can't take it" attitude. It's probably worth sounding out others to get their alternative perspectives.


Hal Duncan



Blogger Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Loonies at writing groups is a subject that probably deserves a whole book. I remember one chap, I think, who wanted to write a Star Trek: Voyager novel. That was all he was interested in, but had no apparent awareness that tie-in fiction is generally a closed shop. I remember this being explained to him and it was like seeing a pair of massive doors swing shut: he just didn't want to know. That was the only time we saw him. Or there was the retired chap who kept writing stories where different UK cities got devastated by nuclear bombs. His writing was indeed epically bad, but he kept coming back, and back. I think someone came up with a theory that each time some place got nuked in one of his stories, it was somewhere his father, with whom he had enjoyed a clearly contentious relationship, had once lived.

Fact is, writer's groups attract loonies. But they possibly wouldn't be so much fun without them, even the slightly more unsettling ones.

9:45 am  
Anonymous Dave Goodman said...

Thanks for posting this Hal. I'm happy to be identified as the instigator - it definitely deserves a wider audience than my inbox!

I agree wholeheartedly that there are definite risks to the completely open approach, as amply illustrated by Gary's examples. But I think the risks of serial nuclear daddy issues and/or endless Voyager tie-ins are worth the reward - the chance to sharpen critical skills and gain useful feedback from a varied group of people.

12:57 pm  
Blogger Ethics and Transparency In Politics said...

Very good post - and fairly accurate description judging my my own occasional forays with GSFWC.

For my own part, I really learned that writing is a real craft, involves real effort. I was lucky enough not to get overly savaged with either of the short stories I submitted, but I definitely did learn from participating.

OK, so the main thing I learned was that actually I didn't *really* want to be a writer after all, but hey, still a lesson I'm glad to have learned. Now I don't have to combat lingering regrets and 'if onlys'. I know about the drive, graft and effort required to be a successful writer, and I'm glad that the GSFWC helped me realise that it wasn't for me :-)

1:19 pm  

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