Want feedback? Find a critique group

I know some of you reading this blog are aspiring writers who’ve been laboring over your novels for months, maybe years.  How do you know if your story’s any good?  Who’s going to give you an honest opinion? Certainly not your mother, and certainly not your spouse (if he knows what’s good for him.)  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.  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.  Every critique group is different, but here’s how we structured ours.  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.  And we had a contract with each other: we met EVERY SINGLE WEEK for two hours.  And every single week, we each promised to bring four brand new pages of a manuscript.  (That’s only 1000 words, folks; everyone should be able to write 1000 words a week.)  There’d be snacks, of course, and sometimes alcohol was involved.  But mostly we were there to share our work.

And to be honest with each other.

We each got a half hour of attention.  First, you’d read aloud your four new pages.  That would take about ten minutes, tops.  The next twenty minutes, the other three people would react to what you’d read.  We had a rule: you start by saying what you liked about the piece.  Then you followed up with your quibbles.  It could be as minor as a badly chosen adverb.  Or it could be something major –you hate the heroine, maybe.  Or you think the mystery is lame.  We tried not to be cruel, but we felt we had to be honest. 

I loved this critique group.  And I loved watching the stories unfold.  Over seven years, we got to know each others’ books in progress.  We followed the characters as if they were real people, and it was real lives we were hearing about.  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.  So I have a few rules for those of you who are thinking of forming one.  First, make sure that your partners are working in the same general field that you are.  If you’re writing novels, try to stick with other novelists.  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.  You just won’t understand each other.  Or respect each other. 

Second, make sure that you don’t invite anyone who has a mean streak.  It’s okay to be a critical reader; you just don’t want someone who gets off on making others feel small.  You also don’t want a complete wuss who’s afraid to say anything negative.  That’s not going to help anyone.  So you may have to put members through a trial period first, just to make sure everyone gets along.  In our group, we sometimes had people drop out when they moved away.  We’d audition replacement members, just to see how they fit in.  Once we felt comfortable with them, they stayed.  And stayed.

Did I mention the fact I was with this group for seven years?  Only when I moved to a different state did I finally have to leave my friends.

What does a critique group do for you?  First, it FORCES you to write every week.  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.  Second, it makes you listen with a critical ear to the work of other writers, and this in itself is educational.  Finally, in the process of discussing each other’s work, you gain insight into what makes good writing. 

And where your own work can be improved.

Now that I’m published, I don’t have time to be in a critique group.  But I think back to those days when I was still an aspiring writer, and I miss those people.  They helped me become the writer I am today.

11 replies
  1. struggler
    struggler says:

    Thanks Tess – I will do as you suggest! It might prove difficult finding the right people to bond with, but then I haven’t tried yet so maybe it’s easier than I think. I’ve turned so ‘glass half empty’ over the past couple of years, mainly as a result of reading countless blogs and forums that have gradually made me realise that the writing (and more to the point, PUBLISHING) business is a whole lot tougher than I thought at first. The concept of my story gets better as I hone it and re-shape it yet at the same time I keep hearing tales of doom and gloom from so many other wannabe writers – and in some cases established writers I have heard of – that it has brought me to question my ability to bring my finished work to the masses. But thanks yet again for your precious tips.

  2. ZanyMom
    ZanyMom says:

    Not as easy to find. Local group was mostly retirees writing poetry and short stories; no novelists. Online groups I’ve found have been mostly beginning writers. Hard to improve when all of the comments you get are ‘Good job!’ I’ve even enrolled in some advanced workshops on line, only to find that the majority of the participants are not advanced. And some of the workshops I’ve attended in person have been geared more towards MFA students and literary types. I write commercial fiction (suspense).

    My writing is almost there, I think, but I’d like the opinions of some good writers! Where does one find them? Clueless in New England…

  3. Cece
    Cece says:

    I’ve done mostly online crit groups with mixed results. You’ve also got to learn to filter, and realize that just because someone’s nice doens’t mean they get your work.

    Zany you might google Romance Critters–depending on what genre(s) you’re writing in. I was with them for a while, until I just didn’t have time anymore.

  4. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    You know, I’ve always wondered. How can you check the form, pacing, and rhythm of a story, when only reading four pages?

    I sat in on one once, and they were giving each other ideas. I don’t think I could take someone else’s idea, even if it was a brainstorming/helping thing. It would just feel weird. What if they gave me the only idea I had already thought of? Then what would I be able to write? Knowing me, I’d have to change it!

    Gosh, I sound so negative! Really, people have wonderful experiences with them. And I agree. Whatever you can do to get people to read your work, do it. It really helps!

  5. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you, Tess, for posting this. I had always wondered if you had been part of a critique group back in the day. And thank you for the pointers on how to form a group. You make it sound less like alchemy and more like home chemistry, if that makes any sense.

    ZanyMom, I’m thinking that a flyer on a library bulletin board might flush out some serious local writers, especially with that weekly page requirement. That weekly quota is a good way to sort The Somedays from The DoItNows.

  6. Tess
    Tess says:

    Thanks for all the comments. Here’s what I think: internet critique groups are an iffy proposition. You just don’t know whom you’re dealing with online. I’d much prefer someone who’s serious enough to actually SHOW UP personally at a weekly meeting, who makes the commitment to both contribute material as well as offer feedback. And there’s no substitute for the back-and-forth of a live conversation between group members. The internet just can’t match that.

    For those who aren’t sure how to connect, here are some suggestions. If you’re a mystery writer, join your local Sisters in Crime chapter. If you’re a romance writer, join your local Romance Writers of America chapter. There you’ll meet people who are serious about their writing, serious enough to actually join a writers’ organization. If neither is an option, I think the suggestion of posting a notice on your local library is a great idea. People who visit libraries are people who read — just the sort of person you want.

  7. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Hi, Tess,

    Great post, I couldn’t agree more. My writers’ group is incredibily supportive, yet strong enough to weather criticism.

    We’ve been together a year and a half, and the effort is starting to pay off: one of us has a book coming out next September and it’s our hope the rest will soon follow her lead.

    We’ve started a blog for those interested in learning more about running a productive writers’ group and invite everyone to stop by.

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Tess. You deserve every last one of your awards and accolades.

    Amy
    http://www.writersgroupblog.blogspot.com

  8. Cece
    Cece says:

    *waves to Spy* I could no more plot without my CP’s brains than the man in the moon. They’re my godsend–but everyone works differently 😀 I think I’ve been with two of them almost as long as I was married LOL

    Unfortunately with two half-grown kids to raise (alone) an in person group just wouldn’t work for me 🙁

  9. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Tess,

    I’d like to agree with you on some points and then offer some alternative thoughts regarding structures of critique groups.

    First off the I wanted to second the idea of joining writers clubs. It is an important source of networking, support, information and camaraderie.

    Writing is by definition an isolating experience so it is important to seek out those who share and understand our particular obsession with the written word. Our friends and families are nice, but they cannot understand our need to scribble thoughts down before they leave us, or how you can turn a phrase over and over in your head for hours until it sounds “just right.”

    Only other writers know and understand that process.

    I belong to the California Writers Club (www.calwriters.org) which is different from the genre writing clubs that you mentioned. The CWC is open to writers of all genres, which I really enjoy. I rub elbows with poets, memoir writers, mystery writers, sci fi writers as well as screenwriters and technical writers. We cross pollinate and learn from one another. There are some techniques of writing that have influenced other genres and we can always learn more about marketing ideas from one another.

    I don’t know how many other states have writing clubs for all genres of writers, but for people looking for writers clubs I would suggest identifying their local literary community resources. Find something as local and convenient as you can, and it will increase your likelihood of incorporating it into your life.

    Now, onto the benefits of critique groups. I heard Gail Tsukiyama speak at a writers conference a few years ago about her belonging to the same critique group she had been a member of before she became a published author. At the time she spoke, it had been a twelve year relationship. She said that group kept her honest because they knew her writing better than anyone and wouldn’t allow her to rest on her laurels. “Come on Gail, you can do better than that!”

    So even though she’s an established author, she still depends on her critique group to help and support her career.

    Now I’ll speak about my own experiences. I had heard of writers in my club talking about their critique groups, but it always seemed like you needed to have a special handshake or something to get in. I wound up realizing that what I needed was to create my own and so after meeting and “clicking” with two writers in my club I approached them and asked if they’d like to form a critique group with me.

    Both of them had met each other and hit it off as well, and our critique group of three members was formed. Our schedules could not accommodate a weekly session. Instead we met monthly and for about three hours, including a lunch.

    We send each other our work to review a week ahead of time via email and allowing us to read and think about what we read before we meet as well as doing some wordsmithing.

    I chose not to set a page limit for submission, and it does vary in the length. Sometimes it is a chapter or two, a short story, an article or sometimes it can be a bolus of work. It depends upon what each person needs that month.

    I like the idea of reading the material ahead of time. Sometimes I would read the work and then think about it and only a day or so later would I realize that there was a continuity problem. I couldn’t get that from hearing aloud, nor with a small sampling.

    It also helps me think about ways to approach my criticism and make sure that I try to put it forth in as encouraging and helpful a manner as possible.

    I found that we really need three people together because the dynamic is just not the same when there are only two are present. Any criticism that someone raises can be blunted by another saying, “I didn’t think that.” And when both agree or found trouble with the same phrase or sentence, it reinforces that the writer needs to look at that flagged passage carefully.

    One of the people I asked to join me was someone who made me laugh. He is almost more of a generalist writer than I am, and he has gleaned a lot of wisdom over the years. One of his writing instructors years ago gave his class an assignment to buy a novel in a genre that you don’t normally read. The thought was that fans of a genre will allow their writers to take short cuts and will fill in the blanks. Basically they will forgive authors laziness whereas those unfamiliar with the genre will be confused if the author didn’t fill everything in necessary.

    So my buddy Rob Loughran did not feel any need to quibble about what genre any of us were going to write. He was going to read our submissions with a “tabula rasa” mind and think of it as something he might pick up at a B&B while looking for something to read. He’d let us know if we kept his interest.

    I think it is far more important to find people that you are compatible with and that you have respect for. That does not mean that you follow all of their suggestions, but you should consider them.

    Making sure that you do not have someone who sours the atmosphere with negativity or alternately blows sunshine up everyone’s backside is very important. Find those with critical eyes, but people who genuinely care about you as a person and are willing work with you to succeed as a writer.

    But it really does boil down to finding out what works for you and those in your group. It is far better to make a commitment to meet regularly whether it be weekly, biweekly or monthly with people who you respect, who support and nudge you to put your butt in the chair and write.

    Linda

  10. tammycravit
    tammycravit says:

    The hardest thing about critique groups — online or offline — in my opinion is finding people who are actually there to work with and learn from one another, as opposed to those who are just there for what I call “ego food”. I belonged for close to a year to an off-line writer’s group that had about a dozen people in it. Ten of them were serious writers, published and otherwise. One wanted everyone to worship the ground she walked on because she had a poem published in one of those horrid anthologies that print any drivel they get so they can sell over-priced books. And one was the type of writer who felt it okay to write nothing for two months until “the muse struck”, and who wanted everyone to praise her profound insights.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with being an amateur writer, mind you. I have the utmost respect for people who say, “this is what I do, and this is what I’m willing to commit to it.” The trouble came from the fact that those last two people turned the group into the battleground for an ego fight that ultimately destroyed the group.

    I’ve now found an online group with other writers who work hard, who show up and do the work, and who are more interested in constructively helping one another than in ego battles. Ah, much better.

    Tammy

  11. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Love it! It reminds me of some of the creative writing classes I had in college (just had a few poetry and short fiction classes back then, though). I really, *really* didn’t get the poets much because they were Sylvia Plath-like, you know, real downers. Not the kind of people I’d choose for a critique group, but I was stuck with them. Then again, the folks in my two short fiction classes weren’t always people I’d take my stuff to, either. There was just too much fakeness going on, which is why I switched to History. Hehehe!

    But I do know some wannabe writers who aren’t artificial. Might have to give them a call someday.

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