Monday, 10 November 2008

To Peer Review or Not

When you've finished your story, how do you know if it's any good? Received wisdom suggests joining a writers' group to get impartial feedback from your peers. I've belonged to a couple of online ones and they can be very helpful up to a point.

But the problem is the whole business is so subjective. What I love could be dead boring to someone else, and vice versa. I once tried to review a sci-fi novel and couldn't make head nor tail of it, but then I don't usually read much sci-fi so is the fault mine, or theirs?

And these groups are peopled by a wide array of levels of expertise. From relative beginners to, if you're lucky, industry pros and published authors. Not all the advice on offer is worth the trouble. And who do you believe?

There are definitely some unreliable types to beware of. The embittered wannabe has been writing his whole life and never published a thing. He sees himself as the angry young man, although he's now well into middle age, and the publishing world as a greedy heartless machine intent on destroying his soul so he would rather starve than compromise with these monsters. The pseudo-intellectual who writes "literary fiction" that is so dense and pretentious nobody but him can make any sense of it. The perfectionist who never gets past chapter three before going back to rework the start. Criticism from these types can do more harm than good.

And because of this diversity flame wars can break out on these sites over crits. Some people cannot take criticism and react as if personally attacked. It can get bitter and nasty. Writing is such a personal thing, it's hard to take personality out of the equation altogether. (I'm more a sulker, really. Too much of a wimp to start an argument.)

There is often a trend towards conformity in these groups. Strong characters set the standard and everyone else falls into line. Before you know it your writing is being influenced by this trend and you're losing your individuality.

So, I would say join online peer review groups and take from them what you can, but beware of taking any critiques too seriously. Ultimately writing is a solitary activity.


Lori said...

This is a great post, Sandra. I have been trying to find a critique group or at least partner for a long time. It's been very difficult.

What I struggle with the most is the fact that in online groups everybody seems write either fantasy or at the most romance (which would be closer to my genre). I would say that I write women's fiction, but it looks like nobody else in the whole wide web does that along with me.

I have started to believe though, that a well chosen critique partner could help a lot. It is also important to know what you want from your own writing and not give in to all the friendly suggestions, because not everything applies to everyone, right?

I try to console myself thinking that Dostoievski didn't have a critique group. I hope.

Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks Lori. You're right, not everything applies to everyone. Some approach critiques holding a rule book in one hand. Not good. Have you tried Absolute Write? It is a very big site, I'm sure there'd be plenty of people writing your genre there.

Lori said...

I've tried to find a critique partner on Absolute Write and I have found somebody who is interested. Just one person. I know the forum has a place for posting your work to everybody's critique, but I would rather stay away from that. Too big and impersonal for me. Not to mention too scary.

Jane Smith said...

There are a few editorial services that are worth considering, if you can afford them: I know that Sharon Maas (Aruna at Absolute Write) used one which she recommends, and Sally Zigmond (whose blog you can link to from mine) has had some good results from another. Sally can sometimes be persuaded to give advice: she's a brilliant editor, and her rates are good.

Then, if your book could be considered at all romantic there's the UK Romantic Novellists' Association which runs the New Writers Scheme each year, which involves quite a detailed write-up by an established, successful writer or editor, which carries a good amount of cachet.

Hope that's a help.