Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Website Review: Critters Workshop

By J. G. Williams
2006,
J. G. Williams


www.critters.org

We've all experienced the rush of excitement upon finishing a piece, a euphoria so all-encompassing that it blinds the author to mundane errors and inconsistencies that would smack her upside the head if she were reading anyone's writing but her own. Or perhaps you've gone over your work with a box of fine-toothed combs, revising and rewriting so many times you don't care if it works or not, as long as it's done. Most of us have sent out writing that wasn't ready, whether because we couldn't wait to share it with the world or because we were itching to move on to the next project. And almost always, such work meets with the same result: rejection.

The answer seems clear: put your story away for a day, a week, a month--for long enough to be able to come back to it with fresh eyes. But what if you're still not sure?

Objective feedback is one of the most powerful tools for increasing your chances of selling that short story or novel. Writers instinctively gravitate toward one another to get opinions on their work or foist their masterpieces onto family and friends. Unfortunately, loved ones often don't know what kind of feedback is needed and writing groups run the risk of losing objectivity as members become emotionally involved with one other, and with each other's work.

That's where Critters Workshop can help. Critters (http://www.critters.org) is an online critiquing community for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. With an estimated five thousand members around the world, Critters is large enough to provide an almost inexhaustible pool of new readers for members' stories. It's also governed strictly enough to increase the chances that the feedback an author receives is both useful and tactfully phrased.

"What if I don't know how to critique?" you might ask. No problem. Dr. Andrew Burt, former vice-president of the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and "Critter Captain," has compiled a wealth of information on what kind of feedback writers need and how to phrase responses so that negative information is transmitted helpfully, rather than hurtfully.

I won't lie. It's a scary proposition to stand your baby up in front of thousands of strangers and ask, "What do you think?" But if you want to sell your work, it's likely going to be strangers, and not your mom, to whom you address your submissions. And if your story doesn't cut the mustard, wouldn't you rather find out through specific, gently phrased suggestions than from a boilerplate rejection? The payoff can be well worth the discomfort of facing the imperfections of your work: a fact to which the extensive list of member accomplishments can attest.

How is it possible to maintain a quality experience for such an enormous group of people? That's a good question, and yet at the time of this writing, Critters has been helping writers for nearly a decade. In my opinion, the community's owes its success to the dedication of its members, as well as to very few, but strictly enforced, rules of engagement.

First, in order to receive feedback, members must provide feedback. Those who fall below the minimum 75% participation rate will have their submissions held until they have brought their rate back up to snuff. In addition, harsh words are not allowed. This is not to say that reviewers can't point out things they think need improvement. Rather, suggestions must be phrased constructively. Members who are unsure whether they have expressed their opinions tactfully can run their review through an online "diplomacy checker" before sending it, and anyone who feels they've received an insulting review has recourse to alert the moderator. Feedback must be given within one week of the distribution of the manuscript and only critiques of 200 words or more will receive full credit.

Automated functions make it easy for members to upload critiques and manuscripts, keep an eye on their participation rates, see how many critiques each manuscript has received, and more. Thirty or so manuscripts go up for review each week, and members have the option of viewing them online or receiving them by email.

The site's utilitarian design won't win any beauty contests, but it's easy to navigate, free of irritating scripts and animations, and accessible to darn near any browser. What's more, the site contains links to an impressive amount of information about writing, critiquing, markets, response times, workshops, and more.

How do I join?

Go to http://www.critters.org. Click on the link marked "join." After filling out a very short web form (name and email address), you'll receive a password that will enable you to access member manuscripts and the site's administrative functions.

How much does it cost?

Unlike commercial workshops, Critters is free.

What are my responsibilities as a member?

  1. Read and critique. To keep an active membership, you must maintain an average of 75% participation, that is, an average of one critique per week for 75% of the weeks you have been a member. Only critiques of 200 words or more receive full credit.
  2. Submit your work. Stories typically take about a month to percolate to the top of the queue, and they receive an average of 10-20 critiques each. You may also submit finished novels and even screenplays for review, though the process is slightly different.

Won't someone steal my story?

Although it's always possible for a story to be stolen, whether online or off, there are several factors that make this unlikely. First, manuscripts are password protected and available only to members (which also protects against your piece being considered "published" online). Second, by requesting assistance for your story, you're admitting that it's not ready for publication. If someone is looking for writing to steal, they probably won't choose a piece that's needs work. If you're still worried, members also have the option of issuing a "request for dedicated readers" (RFDR) rather than posting their stories. In this way, the author has control over who sees his or her work.

What kind of writing can I submit and how often?

Critters is specifically for works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. You may submit stories, novellas, novels, and screenplays -- even novel synopses and query letters. Novels are either sent through the queue in chunks or handled through an RFDR. Only one manuscript at a time per author will be placed in the queue, but you can have ones waiting for your top manuscript to clear.

If you're serious about improving and publishing your writing, Critters Workshop is a site not to be missed.

Find out more at the Critters website: http://www.critters.org

Critters has also been profiled by Salon magazine: http://www.salon.com/tech/log/1999/09/07/open_fiction/index.html

 

J.G. Williams, webmaster@vegigirl.com