I know some of you reading this blog are aspiring writers who’ve been laboring overÂ your novels for months, maybe years.Â How doÂ you knowÂ if your story’s any good?Â Who’s going to give you an honest opinion? Certainly notÂ your mother, and certainly not your spouse (if he knows what’s good for him.)Â Where do you go when agents keep turning you down, when editors send back form letters that say “thanks, but no thanks”?
You find a critique group.
Back when I was a beginning writer, I belonged to just such a group.Â In fact I belonged to the same group for seven long years — that’s how valuable it was to me, and how much I trusted those people.Â Every critique group is different, but here’s how we structured ours.Â It worked so well that I can’t help feeling this is the way EVERY critique group should be.
We limited our group to only four people.Â And we had a contract with each other: we met EVERY SINGLE WEEK for two hours.Â And every single week, we each promised to bring four brand new pages of a manuscript.Â (That’s only 1000 words, folks; everyone should be able to write 1000 words a week.)Â There’d be snacks, of course, and sometimes alcohol was involved.Â Â But mostlyÂ we were there to share our work.
And to be honest with each other.
We each got a half hour of attention.Â First, you’d read aloud your four new pages.Â That would take about ten minutes, tops.Â The next twenty minutes,Â the other three people wouldÂ react to what you’d read.Â We had a rule: you start by saying what you liked about theÂ piece.Â Then you followed up withÂ your quibbles.Â It could be as minor as aÂ badly chosen adverb.Â Or it could be something major –you hate the heroine, maybe.Â Or you think the mystery is lame.Â Â We tried not to be cruel, but we felt we had to be honest.Â
I loved this critique group.Â And I loved watching the stories unfold.Â Over seven years,Â we got to know each others’ books in progress.Â Â We followed the characters as if they wereÂ real people, andÂ it was real lives we were hearing about.Â Â My very first romance novels debuted in the safety of my critique group, and because of what my partners said, those stories were reshaped and made better.
Yes, critique groups can also be disasters.Â So I have a few rules for those of you who are thinking of forming one.Â First, make sure that your partners are working in the same general field that you are.Â If you’re writing novels, try to stick with other novelists.Â If you’re writing commerical fiction, you might not want to hang out with someone who’s writing experimental literary fiction that uses no commas.Â You just won’t understand each other.Â Or respect each other.Â
Second, make sure that you don’t invite anyone who has a mean streak.Â It’s okay to be a critical reader;Â you just don’t want someone who gets off on making others feel small.Â You also don’t want a complete wuss who’s afraid to say anything negative.Â That’s not going to help anyone.Â So you may have to put members through a trial period first, just to make sure everyone gets along.Â In our group, we sometimes had people drop out when they moved away.Â We’d audition replacement members, just to see how they fit in.Â Once we felt comfortable with them, they stayed.Â And stayed.
Did I mention the fact I was with this group for seven years?Â Only when I moved to a different state did I finally have to leave my friends.
What does a critique group do for you?Â First, it FORCES you to write every week.Â Maybe you don’t feel like it, but if you know your group is going to be staring at you on Wednesday, waiting for your new material, by golly, you’ll sit down and write something.Â Second, it makes you listen with a critical ear to the work of other writers, and this in itself is educational.Â Finally, in the process of discussing each other’s work, you gain insight into what makes good writing.Â
And where your own work can be improved.
Now that I’m published, I don’t have time to be in a critique group.Â But I think back to those days when I was still an aspiring writer, and I miss those people.Â They helped me become the writer I am today.