What to Look for When Considering a Critique Group
by Tim Sunderland
I can scarcely concentrate long enough to vacuum the front room, let alone create a literary work that may take more than a year. After more than three years, though, I now have a finished draft—120,000 words, 448 pages—and it’s readable and possibly even good.
I never would have made it without the help of a literary critique group.
We meet weekly for two hours in a local church: a small group of people taking turns reading novels and short stories, trying to be heard over the Boy Scouts down the hall. Afterwards we would sit bravely while the rest of the group made comments, from punctuation to lapses in logic to a shake of the head followed by, “I’m not sure that would happen in real life.”
Our members range from unpublished writers with promise to a retired educator with more than 300 published poems and a dozen short stories in print. Because of this group, I’m a better writer.
Here is a list of my observations about what makes a good critique group, and how you can make the best of them:
Frequency—The group should meet weekly. Especially for writers working on novels and lengthier works, you should meet often enough that members recall the story line.
Strong Management—The group needs a leader. This person doesn’t need to be a published writer, few of us are. But they need to be a leader. They make sure people get a chance to read, that one person does not dominate, and that the criticism is constructive. There is a difference between a leader and a Nazi. Stay away from the latter.
The Leader Needs to Make Some Tough Decisions—Sometimes a member crosses a line—inappropriate material or harsh criticism. The leader has to control these things. Our leader has even had to suggest that some people leave the group.
The Group Should be Nurturing—Some writers have good ideas and themes, but they haven’t found their voice (I reread some of my early chapters and I shudder—what drabble!). A good critique group will nurture. They instinctively know not to rip you apart and destroy your fragile ego, even though the writing is a little raw. They will carry you along and wait for you to get better.
Recognize the Weaknesses of this Format—Few members have perfect attendance. One of your chapters may be relying heavily on action in an earlier chapter. If some of the members were absent for that reading, there will be a disconnect. One of the final chapters in my novel draws heavily from a chapter near the beginning. I emailed everyone the earlier chapter so they could fully appreciate the relevance. Critique groups are good for the immediate stuff, but as a judge of the work in its entirety, few of the members will hear your complete book, and if they do, it will be over a longer period of time.
Listen to the Group—In a scene midway through my novel a homeless man—a second-tier character—loses his shopping cart. The event furthered the action in the book and helped develop another character. Afterwards a member confided to me that she was concerned about the character losing his cart. I thought about it and realized he needed to get a new one. In fact, it figures strongly in the resolution of the plot. Had she not made that comment, I’m not sure that ending would have occurred to me.
You Don’t Have to Take Every Piece of Advice—There are some absolutes. Typos, misspellings, grammar and punctuation (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy) are hard and fast rules. But if someone makes a comment on the story line or your style, it’s your choice to heed it.
Realize You’re Not the Only One—I determined I need to re-order some of the scenes in my novel. It’s agonizing, because I loved the way it was the first time. Members of my critique group told me that it’s a common problem. I’m not alone. I can battle my way through it.
You Have Comrades—It’s lonely being a writer, but once a week we get together, share our stories and victories and disappointments. We keep each other going.
I can write much more about critique groups, but these are the highlights. If you are looking for a group, shop around. Don’t settle for the first one. Also, make sure you reserve a page in your book for acknowledgements, and spell everyone’s name correctly.
Tim Sunderland recently finished his first novel, ‘Rules for Giving’. He is working on two other concepts. Visit his blog at www.WhatIfYouCouldNotFail.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
My thanks to Tim for sharing his experiences on the blog today.