Critique groups and you

by Pari

You’ve shown your manuscript to your mother; she adored it. You’ve sent it to your brother; he says it’s brilliant. All your friends are poised to buy hundreds of copies once the book is published.

Only problem is, no one else cares. Agents aren’t calling or answering queries. Editors run shrieking into the bathroom when they see you at conferences.

The truth? I’m sorry to tell you, pal, but you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking your writing is God’s gift . . . when it isn’t.

Go ahead, take a minute to lick the wounds to your ego. I’ll wait for you; I’ve been there myself . . .

After you’ve gone through the various stages of grief incluing denial, anger, bargaining, self doubt and general pissiness, you’ll be ready to get back to work.

And at that point, you’ll have some choices to make. Should you edit and revise on your own? Do you want to talk with your agent (if you’ve got one) and ask for help? Would it be a good idea to hire a freelance editor or bookdoctor? Or do you want to start/create a critique group?

I’ve done all four. Each one has its merits. However, I like critique groups because when they gel, they’re incredibly helpful and supportive.

When they don’t, they’re hell. Here are some of the pitfalls I’ve seen first hand:
*  Ego and personality clashes
*  Members ganging up on others
*  Smarmy, half reads — sugary critiques that aren’t worth anyone’s time
*  Stealing ideas

Whew. I’m glad that’s over with.

Now for the good stuff:
If you’re fortunante enough to land in the right critique group, the experience is tremendously affirming and instructive. It’ll stretch you as a writer and a reader.

What makes a good critique group? Here’s my take:
1. Rules
This isn’t a social hour, it’s a work session. The group I belong to follows the basic guidelines set up by Clarion. You can read two good articles on this here (how to workshop) and here (insights into how to react when being critiqued).
2. Trust
Participants need to feel that everyone in the group has the same goal when they’re reading and critiquing: to help each other write and tell the best stories possible. That’s it.
Do I need to mention NO STEALING? I sure hope not.
3.  Commitment
Participants have to be willing to read the good and the bad, and to treat each submission — and each member — with utter respect. No showing up without having read the submissions, no comments without considered rationale.
4.  Confidentiality
Only gab or complain about participants in the group IN the group — and rarely do that, if ever. Keep mum about other people’s works-in-progress.
5.  Similar levels of writing experience
It’s uncomfortable and inappropriate to have writers with vastly different levels of experience in the same group. If you do, some participants become "experts" while others are peons. How can you possibly nourish the useful kind of democracy that promotes honest communication in that case? I don’t think it can happen.

The group I belong to in Albuquerque has five members and that’s all we want. Every one of us has been published by a traditional press and has years of writing experience under our belts. The other participants are: Pati Nagle, D. Lynn Smith, Sally Gwylan and Gerald Weinberg. We meet every two weeks and read approx. 50 pages of each other’s WIPs. We all have very different perspectives and personalities and write in different genres. We’re not best friends, but have vast amounts of respect for each other. And we’ve become a wonderful little community, a support group of writers who yearn to improve and grow in our craft.

Writers: What works for you? Have you ever participated in a critique group? What happened? (Horror stories are as welcome as happy ones.)

Non-writers: Have you ever been part of anything similar to a critique group in your professional life? Tell us about it. 

23 thoughts on “Critique groups and you

  1. Karen Kennedy

    Nice post on the positives of critique groups!

    I have been in a critique group for many years, and they’ve been wonderfully helpful and supportive. (While I’m not yet published, I have an agent and would not have gotten this far without the group.)

    I sang their praises at my blog recently here: http://tinyurl.com/5fr4h2

    Part of their support, for me, has just been the need for human interaction. Writing can be lonely work.

    Reply
  2. billie

    I’ve wonderful experiences with writing groups. I think it’s key, as you mention, that the group members share similar goals as well as levels of skill.

    I’ve never been able to manage the kind of group where pages are exchanged – the groups i’ve loved the most and gotten the most out of were weekly groups, where we read out loud from our mss to the group and got the immediate feedback. In those groups, we did exchange full mss on paper when members were ready, and that was also a valuable thing.

    Right now I’m not in a group. I’ve been meeting some with my writing partner, who is the one remaining member of an older writing group that met for 3 years. She and I enjoy spurring one another on, and we love reading what the other writes.

    It’s been time to assemble a group for awhile now, but I keep getting distracted by other things… thanks for reminding me how much a good one brings to the writing life.

    Reply
  3. pari

    Karen,I want to read your blog after I catch up from Bouchercon today.

    Congrats on that agent.

    You’re right about the interaction. When a group works it becomes more than a place to learn; it’s a place to share the joys and heartbreak of this challenging career.

    Reply
  4. pari

    Billie,Great to see your virtual self this morning.

    I think it’s interesting that I can’t imagine reading my work aloud for critique in the group situation while it brings such satisfaction for you.

    That’s the thing . . . these groups can be whatever people want them to be.

    At Bouchercon, I hung out quite a bit with people from England and they thought I was mad to be in a critique group.

    “Why, if you’re an experienced writer would you need this?”

    I guess it’s not a question of need, it’s a question of the desire to improve and critique groups are a superb tool to progress.

    Reply
  5. Jake Nantz

    I tried being in a virtual (online) critique group but it didn’t work for several reasons:

    1) I barely have enough time to work on my own stuff after I’m done with grading and planning for school, so reading and critiquing (line editing much of the time) others’ work was a real time sucker. It got to the point where writing wasn’t enjoyable at all. In fact I dreaded it because I had no time for anything.

    2) None of us had ever been published, and I started to get conflicting opinions about my work from people who, as far as I could tell, were just guessing.

    I feel like that’s a big danger…if you aren’t in a crit group, you are missing a huge tool by which you can improve. At the same time, if you’re in a crit group with nothing but novice writers who don’t really know more about the business than you, you may be getting advice that makes you worse rather than better.

    Or at least that’s my fear. I could be completely wrong.

    Reply
  6. pari

    Jake,I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong.

    Here are a couple of considerations:1. I wouldn’t ever hand in a piece of work during its first draft. If you decide to critique again, take work that you’re now editing. You’ll then know if comments are appropriate to your plans or not.

    2. I’ve been in a critique group with all novices and it was all right (not as good as this one, but useful nonetheless) because the writers followed rules and didn’t let it get personal (or to personal tastes).

    3. You can always ask to read other participants’ work before making the decision to join a group — if you think it’s not what your level is, you don’t have to participate at all.

    And, last, critique groups DON’T work for everyone. I was talking with author Toni Kelhner at BCon and she described some as “toxic.”

    That can really be true.

    Reply
  7. pari

    Hey all,I went to the link on Karen Kennedy’s comments and she brings in other good points; one that I liked particularly was that the group can be a place to celebrate successes and weather defeats.

    Very, very true.

    Reply
  8. j.t. ellison

    I have a fantastic critique group. There are 8 of us and we call ourselves the BMWs – the Bodacious Music City Wordsmiths. These women are fantastic, insightful, call me on my mistakes and overwrites, and generally make me a better writer. I would never have been print ready without them. I was traveling so much while I was writing the new book that I didn’t get to attend as much this year, and my writing, and ultimately the book, suffered. So I’m a BIG believer.

    My feeling about critique groups is this: criticism is welcome, criticizing is off-limits. If anyone in the group is belittling, they have to go.

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    When I was writing THE HARROWING I lucked into in an incredible, long-running (started by Ray Bradbury!) critique group, run by screenwriter and USC film prof Sid Stebel. I certainly would never be a published author today (or at least, not so quickly) if not for their constant help and advice.

    I was in a critique group of very longtime Berkeley friends when I was writing THE PRICE – we exchanged notes mostly online and it worked like a charm.

    And now I’ve fallen in with another incredible group of fabulous authors in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Diane Chamberlain, Mary Kay Andrews, Sarah Shaber, Brynn Bonner and I get together to talk writing and politics, with the added loveliness of going two or three times a year on retreat, to the beach or to Weymouth Writers Retreat, which I made the basis for my haunted house in THE UNSEEN.

    I need a critique group for my own sanity. I think Pari’s points make a great checklis of do’s and don’ts. And I completely agree with JT – anyone who’s out to undermine anyone else in the group, even subconciously, has to cut it out or get out.

    (So missed those of you who didn’t make it to Bouchercon!! I blogged about it today – http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/ and am looking for other wrapups to prolong the experience, so please let me know if you have a link…)

    Reply
  10. pari

    J.T.I love that distinction between criticism and criticizing. It’s absolutely spot on.

    BTW: Our group is called Plotbusters. One thing we do occassionally is have a plot busting session where we help a member work through the ins and outs of an entire book or trilogy — whatever.

    Reply
  11. Wilfred Bereswill

    Pari,

    Great blog. My first crtitque group was the first you described. We had five members, only two in similar genres and three of them only wanted feedback. They didn’t feel a need to read the stuff and give feedback.

    I gave it 4 meetings and it became two of us trading comments and then that dissolved.

    I’d love to find another group because I know they can work. I received some of my best critque through a freelance editor. She was extremely reasonable, but she gave invaluable feedback. She got me staarted and I took it from there.

    Still, a great critique group would be worth its weight.

    OH, it was awesome meeting most of the Murderati group this past weekend. Great group of authors. And then there’s Brett.

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Wonderful blog, Pari. Without my original critique group, I would never have been published. Unfortunately, we fell apart soon after my first book was purchased. The good news is that we keep in touch informally, and that we’re all still writing.

    Reply
  13. pari

    Will,

    I’ve been in the kind you describe except I didn’t have the sense to quit so quickly.

    Long ago, I did have a critique “group” with just one other writer and it worked for about a year. I really respected his opinions and vice versa, but when our lives became too busy, we stopped making time for the meetings and it faded out.

    It was such a pleasure to meet you and your wife (Carol? sp?) on Saturday and to be with the other ‘Rati however briefly

    . . . yeah, and then there’s Brett.

    Reply
  14. Allison Brennan

    I had two fabulous critique groups–one where we met once a month in person at a coffeehouse, and one where we met online. The in-person group was more social, though we did some critiquing; the online group was very serious. They critiqued my first book, THE PREY, before I sold it and really helped me find my strengths and minimize (or strengthen) my weaknesses. One thing that was crucial for me was helping to find my natural voice.

    But after THE HUNT, which I had to completely rewrite for my editor, I realized that I didn’t have the time to give my crit groups and my own work enough time. I reluctantly left my group after consulting with my editor and agent and we agreed that my editor would essentially be my crit partner. This is one reason I always have a round of revisions. The first version is really my cleaned first draft; my editor acts as a crit partner and identifies my strengths and weaknesses and then I revise and the book goes to line editing. It works for us.

    Finding the right crit group can be hard. It took me about a year to fall into the right mix of people. Of my in-person crit group which started in 2003 (4 of us), 3 of us have sold; of my online crit group (also started in 2003 — 8 people) 6 of us have sold. None of us were published before we got together.

    Reply
  15. pari

    Allison,Those sale numbers are incredibly impressive.

    I think they speak loudly about the potential benefits of a group — if you can find or make the right one for your personal style and needs.

    Reply
  16. Mark Troy

    I’ve been in several groups both online and face to face. There is a certain time commitment that’s critical and if you can’t give the time to honestly critique, then you shouldn’t be there.

    I think the groups work best if all members are about at the same level and if all members respect each other as writers. One group I was in fell apart after some members lost respect for each other. One member delivered his comments in a sarcastic tone and another member made it clear she wasn’t interested in any real critique, only compliments.

    I’m currently in a group that has been together for eight years and we have a lot of respect for each others abilities. Each of us has stories and novels that have been critiqued by the group and gone on to be published, so we’ve come to value each other’s comments highly.

    Reply
  17. pari

    Mark,Thanks for your post and examples. I’m glad you’re in the group you’re in. It sounds wonderful.

    Your comment about the two members who helped destroy one of the groups really resonates. We had a member who just seemed to expect praise all the time — and most writers, no matter how good, can improve — and she ended up dropping out because she didn’t like that we found areas that might benefit from additional editing.

    We’re nice about the suggestions and always have praise . . . but, again, this is business not an ego hour.

    Reply
  18. Catherine

    I can see a few links between the mix of critique groups mentioned here, and some of the group work I’ve done at University. Groups formed at Uni have since worked together professionally. I think any type of group seems rife with the potential to clash. However with clear outlines of what each hope to achieve, work can benefit from a diversity of viewpoints… if mutual respect is the minimum requirement.

    For the most part I’ve always had the opportunity to decide who I wanted to work with at University. In my first year I innocently sought group members based on whether people were after a passing grade, or a high grade. After writing 4500 words of a 5000 word essay I learnt to define that process a tad.

    The questions that really helped to form an effective group were, what sort of work are you prepared to put in to get a high grade…then how often are you prepared to meet? Do you need last minute stress to help you function at a high level, or can you also develop work steadily?

    We actually found if we could adapt to both of these we really soared….a sort of mutant version of a writer’s pantser/plotter….perhaps.

    We also used to switch work in development back and forth online through email and IM. We then worked out who was happy to record an agenda we all agreed on at our face to face meetings, with a follow up email. This provided a different level of commitment. We also had an understanding that up to two missed meetings was acceptable in a 12 weeks span, but we needed to know as soon as possible if this would occur. We had a lot of momentum to maintain.

    From this we had a core group that moved together through various courses and attained seriously good grades. We even negotiated the 3rd year Luddite foisted on us by a frustrated lecturer (in a business degree) who had never used the campus computers, and saw email as totally beyond him. I think we all learnt different tolerance skills, and also how to tease the positive from negative, and turn it into something innovative.

    Over time we found that in the initial stages of a group accepting different people, we had to be careful to not resist new ways, even if the new ways were old ways. We’d try to look at it and respect a different approach. The Luddite was a challenge though.

    I miss the level of work we were able to produce, as in a University sphere we had more personal freedom to play and polish ideas.

    Reply
  19. pari

    Catherine,Thank you so much for sharing the non-writing perspective about group work. It sounds like the experience was seriously enriching for you — in spite of the Luddite — and that feeling of innovation, of thinking beyond the norm is glorious, isn’t it?

    Reply
  20. Catherine

    Pari, often I have to push through the bland and find some reason why I should care…I mean really care. When I can do that, then it’s like a series of switches on weirs engage, a flood of interconnected things open up (not just on the page or in research, but real life connections occur) and something beyond the norm springs out…and yes it is truly glorious.Wee bit addictive too.

    Reply

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