Friday, July 24, 2009


I've been missing critiquing recently, so when Stacia Kane mentioned a couple of sites online the other day -- one a service to help find crit partners and the other an actual workshop -- I checked them out and ended up joining Critique Circle.

It's only been about a day and a half since I joined, but so far it's working out well.

The one thing I really liked when I was checking it out was the way it's organized. You submit a story or a novel chapter to a queue to be critiqued, and a set of stories and chapters becomes available in each queue to be critiqued for a week as currently up for review. (There are also archives where you can choose to critique an older story, or just read to catch up if there's an interesting Chapter 5 up in the current queue.) You look through what's up, pick one and write a critique.

There's no obligation to critique certain stories, or certain people's stories (although as I look around, there does seem to be some social expectation to give a critique to someone who's critiqued you, but it's not a requirement); you can do however many of whichever stories grab you. I've always had a hard time in workshops where you're grouped with four or five people and everyone in the group critiques everyone else's stories. Inevitably there are stories I'm just not into, and I'm not enthusiastic enough about the some aspect to really enjoy putting three or four or eight hours into dissecting it and making notes on all the parts. Or someone in the group is just not a great writer, but gets offended at criticism, etc. I like being able to choose what I critique. That's how the RomEx workshop back on GEnie worked, and it was excellent; it's sort of been my gold standard for workshops ever since, and Critique Circle seems to be hitting it.

I've done one critique so far for CC (although it hasn't been released yet -- newbies' first critiques have to be reviewed by a staffer, which makes sense) and it came out at a little over 7K words, for a story (actually half a story) a little over 3K words. That's always been fairly standard for me, unless I'm critiquing one of those rare writers whose manuscript is just that clean, which has only happened once or twice. I did an inline critique, where you leave comments under specific paragraphs so it's very clear to the writer exactly what bit you're talking about; there are also blocks before and after the story for leaving more general comments. I started the critique in the afternoon, left off when my husband came home (leaving the critique screen up on my computer), then finished the next day. The system logged me off at some point while I was AFK, and when I sat down again and started working, I got a message that the auto-save (which kicks in like every minute) had failed and that I needed to log in. It did not blank the screen, take me to a log-in window, or lose the typing I'd done in the previous minute; I was able to open a new window, log in there, then go back to the critique window and keep working. This is a brilliant system and every site where you have to be logged in to do any kind of work (even if it's just typing a forum post) should work this way.

CC works on a credit system, where you need a certain number of earned credits (although they start you out with two when you join) to post a story or chapter, and you earn credits by critiquing. Depending on the length of the story you critique and the length of your critique, you can earn between .5 and 1.5 credits for a critique. It takes three credits to post, and more to post another if you already have one in the queue, so the system requires people to critique more than they post. As it works out, looking at the older queues, stories seem to get an average of about half a dozen critiques each, which is pretty awesome. I've seen a few that only got two or three (which would still be pretty good for most workshops, not counting the you-WILL-critique-everyone groups; I've been in some that only promised one, and sometimes only delivered one) and quite a few have gotten ten or more.

I have to say, though, that most of the critiques are incredibly short. I've browsed through some of the archives and for the most part the comments are specific and useful, but still, the average critique length seems to be about four or five hundred words, which.... Well, yeah. Still, if you get six or eight of them, that adds up to quite a lot of feedback.

One thing I'm not crazy about is that the site uses a wierd, square-bracket-based markup system I've only seen on one other forum. I've gotten used to it for forum posts, but in order to take full advantage of the site features (like getting in-line comments on your story) you need to use this system for your posted stories too. :/ I posted the first chapter of my urban fantasy novel to the workshop yesterday and went through changing the italic text to use [i]italic[/i] markup. There were only a few instances so it wasn't unbearably annoying, but not for the first time I'm wondering who came up with this system and why they decided they just had to invent something different when HTML is around and most people online know at least the simplest basics, like italics. [sigh] And for a serious writing workshop, editors don't want the HTML either, much less some odd forum system, so even if they didn't make you learn something new, you'd still have to go in and change all your mark-ups to post. I'm hoping there's actually a technical reason why we can't paste text with inherent italics in, because it's definitely inconvenient to have to convert everything for posting. Ideally, the workshop should accept the format that editors want to see too, so manuscripts files can go straight back and forth.

There are some neat side features on the site too, though, like a tracking system for your submissions (to markets, not the workshop), a name generator, a reminder system that lets you set up alerts for whatever you want, and a manuscript progress tool, among others. I haven't tried any of them yet, but it's cool that the site has a lot of little extras like that; it'll be fun to poke around and see what's here and how things work.

At this point I'm generally happy with the site. Everyone I've interacted with has been very friendly and helpful. This feels like a good place and I'm looking forward to being here for a long while.



Charles Gramlich said...

I likehave a critique group read my stuff but I kind of like to get to know the folks so I can judge how much weight to give to their input. I'll be following along with your coments on this to see how things are going. I might try something like it sometime.

writtenwyrdd said...

I was part of a wonderful critique group and we operated on a system of rotation where we subbed once a cycle and critiqued everyone else's as they went up. This was one crit a week, and as most of these twelve were published authors, it was generally good input.

I checked out Critique Circle some while ago and it sounded like a good arrangement, but way too time intensive for me. (The time is why I had to give up the very valuable crit group to which I belonged.) so for the same reason I don't want to belong to Critique Circle.

I'm not prolific enough a writer and the critiques took far more time than I had to spend on writing. Thus a negative effect on my writing. and, like you mention, the critiques often are really long.

Angie said...

Charles -- I've never worried about who someone is when evaluating a critique. If what they say makes sense, if they point to specific examples (which the inline critique format at CC makes very easy) and their reasoning is logical, then I don't care if they sent me an anonymous letter. OTOH, if what they say is disorganized and confusing, or vague, or contradictory, or non-constructive, or if I can see their POV but I just disagree or don't think that person is a member of my target audience (usually when I was using tropes and patterns particular to a certain genre or subgenre, and the reader isn't someone familiar with that so of course they're lost in places), then I don't care if they have a Nobel for Literature, I'm going to thank them and then ignore their comments.

I guess what it comes down to is that the buck stops with me. I separate what's said from the person saying it, and don't feel obligated to accept whatever suggestions come my way, nor particularly annoyed if I get comments I disagree with. Everyone has a point of view and it's up to me to decide which ones apply to my work. I can take the stuff I find useful and leave the rest without stressing over it.

And in fact, suggestions which are completely wrong can be very useful. :) If someone says, "This flashback right here was confusing and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. I think you should have a line or so at the beginning where the POV character is explicitly remembering this incident, maybe with some internal dialogue, then transition more smoothly to the flashback," for example, but the chunk of text they're pointing at isn't a flashback, the specific suggestion is useless but I'm glad to know that this passage was confusing someone that badly. [wry smile]

Of course, if I don't think it's at all confusing and am very ?? that this person did, I'll probably wait to see if anyone else commenting was confused in the same place. I'll balance my own judgement against multiple opinions; I win a 1-1 tie, but if several people all trip on the same step, then that's something I need to work on it, even if it looked perfectly good to me.

A lot of people prefer critiquing with a small group of friends, though, and CC accommodates that. You can set up a private queue (although IIRC you have to be a premium member for that; it's not available to a free account) and invite specific people to have access to it. So if you're working on a novel and you don't want to post it to the public queues, you can post chapters to your private queue, and only people you've invited (and who've accepted) can read and comment.

You can also set up a group-private queue, where all members can post as well as critique, which is essentially a private little critique group. There's really a lot of flexibility here.


Angie said...

WW -- I can definitely see how it could turn into a major time-sink, and if I end up dropping out, or just going on hiatus periodically, that'll probably be why. [nod] Especially with the way I critique, it takes a lot of time. I suppose I could slip into the mode most of the other members have of just critiquing in small chunks a few hundred words long, but I think that's a pretty remote possibility; I'm way too obsessive about this sort of thing, I think.

I find that when I'm critiquing, I'm in it more for the doing than the getting. I've learned most of what I know about writing -- mechanics and structure, techniques, what usually does and doesn't work and how the "do this" stuff can lead you wrong in some circumstances and when the "don't do this" stuff can actually be your best option if you know what you're doing and are in control of your text -- about 95% of what I know about all of that I learned while critiquing. Not usually because other people talked about it in regard to my own stories, but because I saw something in someone else's story I knew was wrong. I didn't want to make a fool of myself, so I looked it up to make sure. Or I knew what to do and how to fix it if it were my own story, but I didn't know the specific nomenclature to use to explain it to someone else. Or I was looking up one of the above and stumbled over something else.

Just the other day, while working on a critique for CC, I learned what a comma splice is. :) I knew the construction was wrong and knew how to fix it, and I'd heard of a "comma splice" before but had never gotten around to looking it up to see what it was. It's cool to be able to put that together.

Anyway, it depends what you're after and how much time you have to give. CC appeals to me because there aren't any hard and fast rules about how often you have to do anything. If you want to post stories for others to critique, you need to build up credits by critiquing others, but if you're too busy to workshop for a while, no one will come after you or cancel your account if you neither post nor critique for a month or three. That kind of flexibility really appeals to me.

Now it's just a matter of controlling myself so I don't spend all my writing time doing critiques. [laugh/flail]