Writing is a very solitary profession. And not all of us are J.D. Salinger types. Some of us love the company of other people. Some of us need the validation of our peers. And despite what we might want to believe, some of us do not spew perfection onto the page in the first draft. Some of us need the advice, guidance and constructive criticism of other writers in order to turn that shitty first draft into published gold.
That's where critique groups come in.
Joining a good critique group is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a writer. I am very fortunate to belong to two groups that have helped me immensely as a writer. One of my groups is solely online, with its five members spread across the country. My other group is a face-to-face group that meets every other week. Both fulfill my needs in different ways.
And that's the most important thing to find in a critique group. They must fulfill your needs as a writer. You may find a group with great people, but if you're not getting what you need as a writer, it might not be the right group for you. Here are some things I think are helpful to keep in mind when looking for a critique group:
- Everyone is in a similar place with their writing. That doesn't mean that everyone is published or pre-published, or agented, or has even finished a book. It just means that everyone has the same level of seriousness about their writing. If you're just starting out, a group full of multi-published writers probably isn't going to work for you. Likewise, if you're on the publication track, a group filled with people who "maybe want to write a book" is not going to help you. For instance, in my local group, I'm the only writer who has a publishing contract, but everyone else in the group is uber-serious about their writing and so talented that I have an enormous amount of respect for each of them.
- Genre understanding. This doesn't mean that everyone needs to be writing the same genre. In fact, I actually think it's better when there's a mix of genres in a group. That way, you get a broader understanding of outside of your own genre. But everyone in the group should understand each other's genres. Someone who only reads and writes non-fiction might not be the best person to critique your paranormal YA.
- Consistency is key. My online group is pretty free-form, but my local group meets every other week like clockwork (barring any major schedule conflicts). What I love about that is that every two weeks, I know I will have an afternoon filled with writing, talk about writing and brainstorming. We don't make it mandatory to submit something at every meeting, but even if I'm not receiving a critique, my writer-self, my wild mind, is being stimulated and challenged.
- You get out of it what you give in. The more you contribute, the more you will get out of your critique group. And I don't just mean submitting your own writing. You can learn so much from critiquing others' writing, and from listening to other critiques. Often a critique will turn into a full-blown brainstorming session, and these are invaluable.
- Learn to give good critique. This is crucial. Critiquing is a skill. It requires a fine balance of positive and constructive. Notice I did not say negative. There should never be anything negative in a critique. Writing is subjective. Even if you hated something, chances are someone else in the group loved it. Phrases like, "I felt this didn't work" or "the tension lagged here" are more constructive than "that part really sucked" and "your hero is lame." Writers tend to have fragile egos. Our writing is part of us and to lay it out there for others to see is really hard, even when it's only five or six other people who we really like and whose opinions we value. Always start and end your critique on a positive note.
- Learn to take criticism. Being objective about your own writing is one of the hardest things I had to learn. And even now there are times when I get a critique and I want to hide under the covers for days. To prevent that, there are a couple of important things to know. First, be sure you are really ready for others to see your work. Sometimes a story is still too new and it's better to keep it to yourself for a while. There is nothing wrong with that. When I first changed WINTER FALLS from a 16th-century setting to a contemporary, I didn't show it to anyone for months. It was like there was a fragile glass ball holding the story in, and to hear anyone else's voice would shatter that glass. I needed to hear only my own voice until I really felt confident about it.
When you are ready to show your work, receive each critique gracefully. Don't be combative. Even if you disagree completely with someone's notes, thank them for the critique all the same. It takes time and effort to do a critique and when someone just blows you off, it feels like you wasted your time making all those notes. That's frustrating. And it also isn't going to help you the next time they critique your work, either.
If you do disagree about something, discuss it. Get everyone else's opinion in the group. Sometimes you'll change your mind about a note and realize it will work better, after all. Which leads me to...
Take a day or two to mull the notes before you disregard them or change your whole story to suit them. There have been several occasions where I've gotten a note, said "absolutely not" right away, and then a day later realized it would make the story a hundred times better. Remember that your critique partners are more objective about your writing than you are; sometimes they can see things more clearly than you can.
Lastly, remember that in the end, this is YOUR story. You can change, or not change, anything you want. If you really disagree with a critique there is no law saying you have to implement all those notes. Pick and choose what's helpful for you, and disregard the rest.