Writing is the best job in the world. . .most of the time. I enjoy writing in my pajamas with the cat on my lap (or keyboard, depending on her mood). Solitary soul that I am, there are times when I wish another writer was in the next room. Someone I could ask "Could you take a look at this? What do you think?"
Enter the critique group. I have been allergic to the word "critique" after a bad experience with a college acting class. Every monologue, improv, or scene was subject to the opinion of the rest of the class. This would turn into a free-for-all, where the "critiquing" was mostly negative, and often downright personal and mean. No way would I ever subject my writing to that kind of abuse.
On the other hand, I desperately need meaningful feedback. I learned pretty quickly that editors don't make suggestions in a rejection letter. (Now you are lucky to get any sort acknowledgment from an editor.) When I first started submitting, I racked up quite a collection of form rejections. Every now and then some kind soul would scribble at the end of those letters,"like your style, try again." Those meager words of encouragement would keep me going for weeks. Still, these cryptic messages didn't give me any idea what I was doing right or wrong.
Years later I learned about critique groups. By then I had learned that editors did not offer suggestions to a newbie out of the slush pile. I also learned that a good critique group is not the literary equivalent to being burned at the stake. A critique group is a small group of writers of the same genre (both of my current groups consist entirely of children's writers.), who meet on a regular basis to read and offer feedback on each others work. Unlike that awful acting class, the criticism is specific and non-judgmental. "I love this" or "I don't like this kind of story" are not comments you hear in a good critique group.
I am lucky to be a member of two terrific groups; one that meets monthly, and the other, quarterly. Why two groups? For me, the monthly group nurses me through a novel, from chapter to chapter, revision after revision, asking questions, pointing out inconsistencies and cheering me on. The quarterly group is able to read and comment on larger amounts of work...say, entire novel...and can concentrate on "big picture" issues of characterization. plot structure and pacing. I couldn't survive without both of them.
Like my awful acting class, there are not-so-efficient critique groups. A good critique group requires a considerable investment of time and commitment. In my monthly group of six writers, I spend an average of 12 to 15 hours a month reading and commenting on their writing. Additionally, both of my groups meet an hour or so away. Given Atlanta traffic, and the time I've already invested in the work of others, it would be disappointing if the others in the group weren't offering me the same sort of commitment.
It is an understood rule that a writer should not try to "defend' his work during a critique. I feel everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have learned to not run home and immediately change everything everyone mentioned as a "problem." Unless I have a major brainstorm in the middle of a session, I won't even re-read the critiques for a week or so. By that time I can view the comments more objectively.
Another understood rule is that you should not criticize something unless you can also offer a specific suggestion for change. Knowing that a character is "not believable" is not very valuable to a writer unless he is also given an idea of why the character is unbelievable and solid ideas of how to fix this.
I have been in critique groups where the people have all been perfectly lovely and polite, and they all just loved everything everyone had written. This is not a critique group; this is a support group. It's always nice to hear when good stuff about your work, and we do support each other, cheerleading and backslapping is not the primary purpose. We are there to help each other to become better writers. Or in the immortal words of my husband, "No one ever learned anything by being told how great they are." Not exactly how I would have said it, but he's write. Writing is an evolving process. You never come to a point where you can say "I've learned it all."
You're critique won't let you. They'll be there suggesting, arguing and advocating, right up until the day you bring your newly published book to group.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman