By Thonie Hevron
Back in 2007, I joined Redwood Writers, a local branch (pardon the pun) of California Writers Club. At my first meeting, author Christi Phillips appeared to read from her new book, The Rossetti Letter. After her reading, she took questions. Someone asked her, if she had it to do over again, what she would change about the writing process. Her answer was quick and obviously well-considered. “Join a critique group.”
In those days, I was a fledgling author. I scribbled mostly with no sense of purpose. I’d written two novels, one of which I’d brought to an “open” critique group. It was a horrible experience. Poets and literary writers listened to my work—a suspense police procedural—and panned it. With little tact, they dismembered my chapter, eviscerated my characters, and dismissed my plot.
Well, I’m Norwegian and I don’t know any better, so I kept writing. The thing is every one of their comments was on target. When I calmed down enough to be objective about the novel, I realized they were right: my structure was haphazard, my characters were one dimensional with hidden agendas and the plot, well, let’s just say, the plot was a story I needed to tell, then package up and shove it on the top shelf of my closet. Which is what I did.
While the result (a critique) was why I attended, the experience lacked the positive solutions that I so desperately needed.
In the intervening years, I joined Redwood Writer, heard Phillips talk, and decided to give crit groups another try. A senior member of the writers club matched writers by genre. About 2008, I attended the inaugural meeting of the “Thrillerz” group. Of the five attendees, three are still active, committed members. We meet every two weeks with ten pages (hardcopy or later emailed pages) of our work. We exchange the pages to be read and critiqued by the next group night. Our ground rules are simple: make a commitment to be there (as reasonable as possible), present your pages, and respect others work.
I’m a firm believer in critique groups, but they have to be the right one for you. The wrong readers can present even bigger problems than dangling participles.
- Members who are defensive in this setting will not learn, nor will they be able to contribute to the betterment of the group.
- The same goes for writers who have agendas or are competitive.
- Overworking the work in progress (WIP) can be an excuse for writers who are afraid to move forward.
- By their nature, crit groups have trouble seeing overall work structure, pacing, turning points, and story and character arcs. (Here is an argument for closed groups)
- Not all opinions are equal. My schoolteacher friend has more clout when it comes to punctuation. We’ve had members in the past who I consider less credible than others yet I always take something away from their corrections. I have to remind myself that everyone has value.
With all these drawbacks, why would one want to join a group of people who tear your work apart? Simple, to improve your writing. Here are some of the reasons I keep coming back to my group, year after year and have two books published to show for it:
- The need to clean up prose for punctuation, grammar, and context.
- It forces me to make a commitment to other people that I will write and turn in 10 pages every two weeks.
- Other readers can spot weaknesses like passive voice phrasing, excessive adverbs, and poor sentence structure
- We share info on contests, publishers, our experience and much more. Most of our time is critiquing but when someone has something to share, it is welcomed. Three out of five of our current members have published.
A few more thoughts on choosing a critique group:
- Decide whether you need an open or closed structure. Open means drop-ins are welcome (think poetry, short story and flash fiction); closed have only committed members (much better for novel-length works).
- Does your work need to be exclusive to genre? My group has a tough time with different genres like romance (even with a mystery sub-plot) but we did fine with an author who wrote speculative fiction that was suspenseful. Go figure.
Deciding whether to do an online or in person group may be dictated by geography and/or time. Both have value; you can decide which will suit you better.
To find “in person” critique groups, I suggest you join a local writing club, attend a writing class or network with other writers. Online resources include ladieswhocritique.com, writersdigest.com, Critique Circle and Scribophile. Just be sure your site is reputable and doesn’t charge. Some of these are open critique circles who trade reviews/critiques with other writers. Be willing to check into the rules before you sign up.
I hope your experience is as productive as mine is. Thank you Billie, Susan, Andy, Fred, Julie, Ron, and Robin!