This is a question I get all the time, and since Nanowrimo is upon us, it seems a good topic to tackle.
I think critique groups can be the best thing for writers since the Internet. Except when (much like the Internet) they’re the worst.
The problem is, for newer writers, you’re casting around trying to get some tenuous grasp on this writing thing to begin with. And a bad critique group can sink you just as fast as a good one can elevate you.
As regular readers have probably gathered, I tend to have my own opinions about just about everything, and if someone else is wrong, they’re just wrong. I’ve been writing for so long that I HAVE to go with my gut. I’ve had so, so many years to develop that inner bullshit detector that is so crucial for separating the good criticism from the moronic criticism (which sometimes criticism just is). On the other hand, sometimes a moronic critic will tell you EXACTLY what you need to hear, so you can’t ever shut out the moronic comments completely.
The sad fact is, being able to critique a critique group is one of those essential skills that a writer needs to develop. And that just takes practice.
I was in a killer critique group when I wrote my first novel, THE HARROWING. I was a seasoned screenwriter, but had never written a word of prose fiction before that. I didn’t join the group until I had a very rough first draft of the book, and then week by week, that group showed me what novel writing was really about. The format of that group was perfect: the group was limited to 12 people (meaning probably 9 showed up each session); we met every week; it was led by one person, a screenwriter, novelist and USC professor, the awesome Sid Stebel; and the format was very simple: anyone who wanted to be critiqued that week would read aloud, up to 9 pages or so; then first the group leader would critique, and then anyone in the rest of the group would critique: good comments first, then more critical comments. It was a group of screenwriters, poets, journalists, teachers, actors, and novelists, and it was divine. I think the reading aloud format is SO key because just as in live theater, you see, hear and FEEL what your audience is experiencing about your work. Even if you have some off-key criticism, the live response of an audience just doesn’t lie.
My second critique group, which got me through my second novel, THE PRICE, was a very small group of friends that I’ve known forever, some of the smartest and most talented people I know (and I have to say that is saying a whole hell of a lot). We met and exchanged notes on line, which doesn’t seem as if it would work but – maybe because we know each other so well, it worked like a charm.
My current critique group works in a completely different way. I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses or divas!) that I met when I was living in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.
We don’t have time or proximity to meet in person every week or every month, so two or three times a year we go on retreat for a week in some fabulous place, the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place, and it’s all writing, all the time. There is something incredible about being on retreat with a group of trusted, seasoned writer friends for a whole dedicated week. We’ve got this thing down to a science by now. We have a group session in the morning: all of us set our intentions for the day, and brainstorm on any sticky story problems we’re facing. We separate to work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts! Competition keeps those pages flowing… )
One of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.
Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become – what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.
It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.
Weymouth has even worked its way into one of my books. When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately – the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you. And as it happened, our gang was able to stay in the house again for a week as I was writing the book.
And if you’re at this point thinking this is something totally, impossibly out of reach… well, think again. Have you ever just Googled things like “writers in residence in —— (your state)”? So how do you know there’s not a 9000 square foot mansion available to you absolutely free in your state? If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s “Ask, and the Universe provides.”
But it’s also a wonderful thing that authors exchange their work between themselves all the time. What could be better than having authors you admire giving your work a read, and being able to read your author friends’ work in earlier stages? (I’m at the moment eagerly awaiting Zoe’s newest Charlie Fox, months before it will be released. I mean, how much would that privilege go at auction at Bouchercon?) I just love it, and with the crazy schedules we all have it’s often a more viable option than a critique group.
Maybe it’s the Berkeley in me (I like group – everything – what can I say?) but for me there’s nothing like a literal, f2f critique group, preferably as often as possible. But – we are blessed that we have all the other options as well.
So let’s talk about it today. What are your experiences with critique groups, good and bad? What do you think is the optimum format for getting those essential notes for a new book?
And if you have nothing to say about that, just tell us something scary for Halloween.
I’m traveling for most of the day (that Halloween thing, you know, I write the spooky stuff…) but will check in when I can.