So what about critique groups?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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.



24 thoughts on “So what about critique groups?

  1. billie hinton

    You know I love Weymouth already! I think, as you say, that critique groups can be incredible or they can be awful. One just has to find/create the incredible ones. Which in my experience was somewhat accidental for the few I have had that lasted for years and years. Which they need to do, at least for me, b/c I have also found that bringing in a new member often disrupts the initial magic, and the dynamic changes – not through any fault of the new member, but it's tough to let go of what worked so well to let something new form in those kinds of scenarios.

    I'm trying right now to form a new cohesive small group (4-5) who have a goal of staying together for a long time – meeting as regularly as we all can, and hopefully doing at least once a year retreat together. So far haven't found this special mix of writers, but am hoping when I do this is the last one I need to create… 🙂

    The previously fantastic group of 4 had to break up when one member stopped writing to pursue fine art and another moved out of the area. Since then I've worked mostly with one other person doing regular reading out loud and critiquing – and then remote "let's trade mss" critiquers who have also been wonderful but it just isn't the same as face to face, regularly.

    Right now I'm on a sort of "retreat" with my two teenagers in the mtns, in a cabin on a rushing creek, with fall color and cold temps and it's working better than I could have predicted in terms of me getting pages written. Daughter is working on her first real research paper and son is doing tree/woodworking id and both of them are also doing photography – so the creative energy is high!

  2. Louise Ure

    I began writing in a group of eight wanna-be novelists, headed by the sublime Judy Greber (AKA Gillian Roberts). I would not have started my first novel without Judy. And I would not have finished it without the group.

  3. Jennifer Brooks

    I would be lost in a sinking hole if it weren't for my critique group (which by the grace of God includes Murderati's own spectacular J.T. Ellison). They've brought me incredibly far with my writing – in addition to offering themselves up as sounding boards, critics and editors, they have also been my constant encouragers, pushing me to get out on those limbs I'm terrified of.

    Writing may be a "solitary" venture, but perhaps "solidarity" is a better term – we are a community of individuals who band together and help each other to succeed.

    And the group retreat thing is a wonderful idea (J.T. and I have done our own little "writers' day" but I'm thinking a trip to the mountains for all of us would be some kind of Utopia).

  4. Sarah W

    My first and last experience with a face-to-face critique group was . . . not good. And I stayed for far too long.

    There were frequent arguments — and not a few shouting matches — over everything from commas usage to the One True Way to Get Published, which took precedence over the many ways to tell a good story. A few members refused to offer opinions about genre pieces because they "didn't read that sort of thing and didn't care to start." And definitions of constructive criticism differed — I won't go into detail, but there *are* ways to offer honest criticism so the writer might wince a time or two, but doesn't feel as though she's been eviscerated and left as a smorgasboard for Poe's raven to chant over.

    I finally quit . . . But it's taken a long time to shake off the effects.

    Everyone else's groups sound like dreams . . .

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Your farm sounds like a retreat in itself, Billie. I agree that that 4-5 people would be the sweet spot, but if one drops out, it drastically changes the dynamic. But much easier to do intensive work, faster, that's for sure.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    LU, I feel the same about my first critique group. I suppose I would have gotten The Harrowing finished one way or another, sheer stubbornness, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near the book it is without the group.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JJ, Sid is just the best, as a person, writer and teacher. I had a perfectly good, spooky first chapter and he was just relentless, bugging me that I needed to start with the ghost, the ghost, something I didn't want to do. He kept saying – "It's hovering, this thing is hovering," and I'd keep saying, "Hovering? What l does that even mean?"

    And then one day I was just, I don't know, walking aimlessly around my house and the perfect image just came to me and I sat down and wrote a page and never changed one word. He was right – and that chapter has been published in writing books as an example of a perfect prologue.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, gosh, Sarah, I'm so sorry. That was a NIGHTMARE critique group, and unfortunately there are plenty of them out there. I'm glad you kept writing anyway, it takes a lot of character. And thanks for sharing the story with details – I swear to you that will help someone else realize they're in an abusive situation, too.

  9. Beth Groundwater

    I love my critique group! Our #1 goal is to help each other improve our writing and to get that writing published, so there's no room for egos in the room. I know I wouldn't be published today without them.

  10. Lisa Alber

    Oh, wow, this is such a timely post that a friend emailed me about it! I'd just asked her if her critique group was open because I'm in need of a new one…I've been meeting with the same folks for over a decade. I'm just now realizing that they might not be a good fit for me anymore. My gut tells me that I've stayed too long, that the critiques haven't improved my writing, and that, in fact, I've gotten screwed up over the years. I'm caught up in thoughts like these: How much further would I be with craft and my career if…? Of course, this makes me sad and frustrated at the same time…

    My problem is finding a brand, spanking new group. It seems scary somehow. At this point I need to get with the yous, Alex, and the J.T.s for the world, i.e. more experienced writers. (Don't have to be published to your level, of course. :-))

    I live in Portland, OR. Anyone have ideas about how I could find or start a new group?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Great post! I did one about critique groups a while ago because I was looking for one locally, and I've now been lucky enough to find the Warehouse Writers, who meet at the Warehouse Café at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal twice a month. We usually get eight or nine people come to every meeting, although there are more on the mailing list.

    Pieces for consideration are emailed out in advance, and then critiqued at the meeting. Occasionally someone who can't make it in person will send their comments back via email. The format is that somebody ELSE reads out part of the piece on the night, so the author gets feedback on how the piece reads/sounds. If you read it out yourself you tend to put the pauses in where you know they should go, rather than where they're actually written on the page.

    We're an eclectic collection of writers of both prose and poetry and the feedback I've had on my short stories and bits of novels so far has been incredibly useful.

    Before we moved I used to be in another excellent but very small group – four of us on a good night, huddled round the fan heater in the local library. The library didn't stay open late – they just gave us the keys and told us to lock up when we were done. I read out bits of my first Charlie Fox novel to the Lune Valley Writers' Group and they're proudly mentioned in the acknowledgements to KILLER INSTINCT.

    By the way, Jennifer – I LOVE your comment: "Writing may be a "solitary" venture, but perhaps "solidarity" is a better term."

    I'm going to steal that shamelessly!

  12. Shizuka

    I've been part of the same critique group — on and off — for almost seven years. Or is it eight?
    The core group is amazing — fun, helpful, and honest. SInce we started, three people have published for the first time.

    We've had people who were selfish (didn't show up very much when they weren't up), not good critiquers (grammar's important, but I don't think a comma should require a 10-minute discussion), and one person who critiqued based on what she liked — i.e. I don't like books that take place in college, I love books about Asia. Fortunately, the people who aren't great seem to fall out of the group.

    We have a teacher/leader and I think that's why it's been so successful.
    She keeps it focused and fair.

  13. Mike Dennis

    Great post on critique groups. I am a BIG believer in them. Last year, when I lived in Las Vegas, I paraded my upcoming novel before the Henderson Writers Group, chapter by chapter, and their astute critiques made it a much better book. Often times, the worst writer will come up with the most insightful critique. It never failed to amaze me.

    Back around Christmas, I moved back to Key West and I met up with another writer. We started the Casa Marina Group, which is a dedicated band of six writers, some published, some not, but all are serious about wanting to become better writers. We meet weekly in my home and I look forward to it every week. Jonathan Woods (BAD JUJU) just joined us, becoming our sixth member, and we're cutting it off there. It's very comfortable at this number, each person having enough time to read and be critiqued by each member.

    I think every writer, given the right group, can become better by belonging to a critique group.

  14. Yasmine Jameson

    Hi. I write under a different name as well as my psuedonym. AND iI belong to a critique group that I started. It is an online group and I am discouraged. I have had some luck with it but most of the luck I have comes with people who are willking to read it if I send it to them and also if I participate in groups inside of a chat room.

    But my experience with critique groups is silmilar to most. You get out of it what you put in it and it also allows you to see what others think of your reading. Hopefully though people will not be very unhappy with you nor your words in critique. But I am hoping for a more happier experience. In the future. all above baord.

  15. David Corbett

    I think you put it perfectly, Alex. Some are great, some are awful, and in each group there will be some members whose comments are golden, and others who you politely, respectfully disregard. But that alone is a crucial step in becoming a writer — learning whose opinion to trust, and why.

  16. KDJames

    Sorry to chime in late — been writing all day. And not to disagree with you, Alex, but maybe to offer a different perspective (and play devil's advocate)…

    I think I'm a bad candidate for a critique group. First of all, I have no tact. And that's pretty essential for critiques unless you know the other writer really well and they're used to that kind of thing. Second, I'm selfish and have almost no spare time. Yes, I've happily critiqued the work of other writer friends and was delighted they asked me to do it. But on a regular basis? I just don't have time. Third, I don't want feedback until I'm done. Maybe this is a symptom of being relatively new to novel writing, but I cringe at the thought of someone messing with me before I'm done. Afterward? Oh hell yes. Bring it on. I love feedback at that stage. But not before.

    Also, I'd never in a million years be able to critique something someone read out loud to me. My brain doesn't work that way. I have to see the words on the page. [This goes back to a discussion we had here — I think it was here? — about types of learners. I'm a visual learner. Stuff I hear goes in one ear and out the other without so much as pausing in between.]

    I think it's important to find what works for you. So give different things a try. But don't be afraid to stop if it's not working.

    You know, I checked out Weymouth after you mentioned it once before (it's gorgeous) and thought how nice it would be to go there to write once I'm published (yeah, that's a requirement). Until I read THE UNSEEN. Because you did a really really good job of making that place a character. And now it scares the hell out of me.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    I learned early to apply the rule of thirds to all criticism and comment on a writer's work:

    One third of it you take account of, absolutely.

    One third of it you consider, politely.

    And one third of it you disregard, instantly.

    Of course, working out which third is which is the tricky part … 🙂

  18. Jennifer Brooks

    Zoe, I would be honored for you to steal anything I say. ; )

    Alex, our group has changed in its dynamic over the recent years, but we currently have 5 writers, all from the Nashville area. We all write in different genres, which I think adds depth to the critiques. We meet twice a month at a wonderful little used/antique bookstore, bring about 10 pages of our works-in-progress and read them out loud. We usually know in advance how many are going to be there and bring enough copies for everyone, so we read along and make notes, then discuss. It's a bonus that we can take the mark-ups home to peruse and ponder. J.T. and I are always saying how beneficial our process is, and we're very lucky to be involved with a group of women who aren't afraid to push each other to be better writers. And I don't think amongst the 5 of us who are here now that there's ever been a shouting match. Good discussions, yes. But cat fights, no.

    I agree that it's not the same for all writers – some play well with others and some don't. You have to decide what works best for you and then run wildly with it.

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