The first time I ever attended a critique group, I nearly made myself sick on the 20 – 25 minute drive and almost turned back once or twice. I was nervous. Would they like my work? Was it complete crap? Since I was only 17 or 18, and everyone in the group was at least twice my age, would they like and accept me?
After my work was reviewed, and it was scathing at best, I cried most of the way home. I gave serious thought to not going back. They obviously didn’t recognize that I had a masterpiece on my hands!
A few days of reflection, battling through my sudden feelings of inadequacy, and a good, hard look at the suggestions made, I decided I would go back. They would help me become a better writer.
This was nearly ten years ago. As a writer, I’ve matured. My plots have become (I hope) more intricate than what I showed those ladies all that time ago. My characters, more well rounded and three dimensional. My writing better. Though still unpublished, I honestly believe the critique groups I’ve belonged to over the last ten years have improved my writing dramatically.
While there’s a multitude of styles to critique groups, the two I’ve had experience with have operated night and day differently. The one I currently attend (when my husband and daughter will let me!), you get instant critiques. Bring a chapter or two, pass it around during the course of the hour or two we’re together, get it back at the end of the night with notes from your crit partners that you can look through at your leisure. While I like the instant part of this, there’s one thing I miss from my first crit group, and that’s discussion.
The first crit group I went to as a teen operated differently. You’d bring enough copies of your work for everyone, they’d take it home, then at the next meeting, there’d be a discussion of your work. What I found interesting was how one person may not have seen something someone else did, but once it’s pointed out, they would jump on the bandwagon or vehemently disagree. I often wished I had a recorder for these sessions, they were that valuable to me.
In addition to the groups, I’ve found I have several partners that I love to get critiques from. My local friends Julia, Juliet, and Dave (all from my local crit group) all give me something different. With Julia, she’s great with helping me spot holes in my stories, character’s that aren’t acting the way they should, and also urging me to get out of my comfort zone. She and I write stories that are night and day apart, although they’re still mysteries. Juliet is actually, of all three, the one I dread giving my work to the most. While she’s very good, she’s a former creative writing professor at the local junior college, and is, for that reason, the one that helps me tighten my writing the most. Dave always has a unique perspective and, being the lone sci-fi/fantasy writer in our group, as well as the only male, helps me see things from another side, options on where I could go with a story. I value all of their feedback.
I also have a few online friends that have also helped me improve my craft. Katie, Holly, Michele, as well as others from the online website ChristianWriters all have contributed in various ways. Katie, a published novelist (see Katie’s site), is my go-to gal when I need a real tightening. She spots a lot of my flaws better than Juliet does, and I find I rely heavily on her feedback during editing. Holly and Michele are probably my favorite cheerleaders. While they’ll point out my errors with the gusto of a butcher cutting a prized-beef, I probably get more encouragement from them that I can finish my book and I can get it published, although all my crit friends are good at this, too.
So, now you’re thinking you need to get into a crit group. What do you look for? While I personally would try to look for a group that focuses on your area of writing (for me, mysteries) it’s not necessary. Sometimes depending on where you live, it’s impossible. What you do want to look for are folks that will dig into your writing, tell you what they like and what they don’t, but also explain why. While it may take some time to discover who your jewels are, the process of finding them is quite enlightening. You can find some groups via word-of-mouth (Ask around! You may be surprised who you know), writer/reader groups like Sisters in Crime or American Christian Fiction Writers, the library, or your local junior college.
Don’t discount your online options, either. While there are groups that charge for critiques, I prefer sites that don’t and that give peer critiques. Writer’s Digest will have some of these sites listed in their annual ‘101 Websites for Writers’ (I believe this year’s article was in June), but Google whatever you’re interested in–romance writers, mystery, Christian, etc. As noted above, I prefer ChristianWriters, but there’s a multitude of other good ones out there.
Whatever you do, go into it with an open mind. Don’t get defensive about a critique, or take one too personally. While the reader may be critical of your work, they’re not being critical of you, though I know that it’s sometimes difficult for us writers to not take our critiques as personal attacks. Do try to enjoy the experience. Hopefully, you’ll find some folks that will become good friends and colleagues.
Until next time,
For more information on critiques and critique groups, I highly recommend the following blog posts:
Write at Home: Top 10 Ways to Get the Most Out of a Critique Group
Word Sharpeners: How to Use Critiques to Improve Your Novel
Wordplay: Questions for Critique Partners