Six impossible things

Critique vs. Collaboration

One of the questions I’ve been fielding for years, usually from knowledgeable non-writers, has to do with the similarity between being in a critique group and doing a collaboration. Sometimes it’s buried in the assumptions behind the question (“In what ways do your critique group members influence your work?”) and sometimes it’s right there out in front (“How is collaboration like working with a writer’s group?”), but there’s always this feeling that there’s some kind of similarity between collaborating with a writer and being in a crit group with that writer.

Well, I’ve been in several critique groups, and I’ve worked on a number of collaborations, some of which were written with writers I was in a crit group with and some of which weren’t (and only one of which has seen publication for various reasons, the most common of which is that most of the others never got finished, but that’s another story). And I’m here to tell you that being in a writing group is nothing like collaborating with another writer. Not in any way, not at all.

In a writing group, you’re essentially getting extremely articulate, well-informed, critical reader-reactions. You can take them into account, or not, as you see fit, because it’s your book. You always have the last word, and you don’t have to explain why if you don’t want to.

In a collaboration, it’s not just your book. Somebody else’s name is going to be on the cover, too, and they have a stake in it. If they make a totally ridiculous and inappropriate suggestion, you have to take it seriously and talk them out of it; you can’t just ignore it.  

A writing group has neither ability, nor power, nor right, to rewrite your words. A collaborator does, to some extent. A writing group can object loudly and long to whatever you want to do, but at the end of the day, you can just say “Too bad, I’m doing it my way,” and there’s nothing they can do about it. A collaborator can, if they feel strongly enough, pull the plug on the entire project.

A writing group is: you make a cake, and you bring it in, and give everyone a piece of it, and they tell you that it needs more vanilla or nuts or something. You can decide for yourself whether Jack is really on to something with his suggestion, or whether he just always wants more nuts in everything, even cocktail sauce, so you can safely ignore that comment.

A collaboration is two cooks making the same cake. If it’s a good collaboration, one of you sifts the flour and baking powder together while the other one creams the butter and sugar, and you get done twice as fast; if it’s not so good, you get in each other’s way because you’re both trying to do the same thing at the same time, or you end up with a cake that has no sugar because you each thought the other one put it in. It’s a whole different thing from critiquing.

The one place I do see some overlap between collaborating and crit groups is this: in order for either to work, the author has to have a certain level of both trust and detachment.

Crit group members have to trust each other’s critical judgment and motivations, or at best it won’t be useful (because the writers will rightly ignore any advice they don’t trust). At worst, the group is likely to rip itself apart being competitive. Collaborators have to have an even deeper level of trust in each other’s judgment and abilities, because they need to be able to thrash things out without worrying that the other is going to pull the plug on the project if they disagree about a plot twist or the necessity for a particular incident or character.

A writer in a crit group has to be detached enough to realize that one isn’t required to rewrite one’s book according to the guidance of a committee, while also being detached enough from the work to realize that maybe it does need to have Chapter 6 deleted and some tweaking done to the characterization. Similarly, collaborators have to be detached enough from the work that they don’t see every change the other collaborator makes as a threat or an insult.

Collaboration, however, requires more flexibility than a crit group. If all six members of your crit group agree that the cake needs nuts, you can nod politely and ignore them without a second thought. If your collaborator insists on adding nuts, you have to either think about it seriously or have a cast-iron reason for not adding them (like “I have a nut allergy that will put me in the hospital with anaphylactic shock if I have them anywhere in my kitchen.”)

  1. I am so glad that Sorcery and Cecelia made it into print. It is one of my favorite comfort reads.

    It would be interesting to know the different roles that people fill in getting a book to print, editor, agent, beta reader etc. Do agents actually read the books or do they just sell the idea to an editory?

  2. I wonder if perhaps we need a 3rd term? It seems to me that there’s a spectrum of critique groups. There’s the sort where you bring a relatively finished product, and people offer you comments and reactions to it.

    Then there’s another sort where you bring a piece of that raw first draft and talk it over with your friends, while you decide it it’s going anywhere, and where it might be going if the answer is yes. Maybe you even end up brainstorming plot developments. It’s not true collaboration because you do have that option of saying “No.” and walking away from their ideas, but it can have a lot more influence on the end result than many people expect when they hear the term critique group.

  3. My comment is in response to Kathryn – With your first grouping, I’d call that person a Beta reader (someone who reads your mostly polished work and offers their comments and reactions). Usually this step is after the author has taken their rough work to a critique group.

    I know that with my own writing, I have a few people in my critique group who I trust to read a really unpolished draft and help me with major flaws. Then I hold a few people in reserve to read it after I’ve gone through several edits – that way it is fresh to their eyes and they can give me simpler comments, rather than complete revisions.

  4. there’s always this feeling that there’s some kind of similarity between collaborating with a writer and being in a crit group with that writer.

    People think this?

    People are weird.

    Granted, I’ve been dragging my poor alpha-reader/housemate through my query & synopsis so much that I’ve taken to saying “we” instead of “I”, but it’s still nothing like a collaboration. It’s still all on my head; at no point do I get to say “Here, you do this bit.” (Gosh, that sounds nice; wish I could.)

    @Tiana: Trying to nail down a specific definition of beta-reader is like trying to herd cats after a dinner of catnip; too many people use it in too many different ways for it to be a reliable term by itself. The important thing is to make sure that you and the people you’re working with, whatever you call ’em, have the same expectations.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,