Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Critique Groups

I have been part of a fantastic critique group for several years. I cannot sing its praises high enough. We are an eclectic group, and we write all kinds of stuff - from dark science fiction to fluffy cozies, from middle grade to murder mysteries, from young adult to women's literature, with even the occasional picture book thrown in.

Although our membership has been somewhat elastic over the past several years, we have quite a solid base right now of around six to seven people, and usually we have five or six actively participating in each meeting.

I have been involved in other critique groups in which members read their work aloud. Afterwards, we all go around the circle and make comments. Sometimes the writer would hand copies around for everyone to read and make notes on, and sometimes not. This format works well for, say, picture books, which are meant to be read aloud, but for longer work, this doesn't really suit me. For one thing, I'm not so good composing my thoughts out loud, off the cuff. I like to take my time and think about what I want to say. And secondly, my mind is used to reading words, and processing them in that way, not hearing them.

My present critique group works in a different way, which I have found so helpful to my writing. Each week, if we have a manuscript we've been working on, we submit a chapter or two, with copies for everyone. These we take home, read at our leisure, make notes on, and write a short critique for the submitter, to be discussed at the next meeting. When our brain cells are all firing, and we are all actively submitting, this can be a lot of homework!! And indeed, we have inadvertently chased some people away from joining our group, because it is, indeed, for serious writers. But with written critiques to look back on, I can pick up a manuscript I am working on at a later date, and still have all the notes from my fellow critiquers to help me in my next round of edits.

Our group met for several years without a name. Our writing genres were all over the board. How could we come together and pick a name? But at one productive brainstorming session, we realized that we were all working hard because we had one common goal: To Be Authors. Hence, a name popped up- the TBA group. And this name, and goal, has served us well in describing our group to potential members. If a writer has a completed manuscript, and has been actively seeking publication (or indeed has been published) then they might be a good fit.

What do I get from my critique group? Oh, lots and lots and lots . . .

For starters, it's a time when I don't feel crazy. When I can associate with people as nutty as me, who will stop anywhere, anytime, in the middle of the night or day, to somehow find a pen and jot down those perfect, important, beautiful WORDS that just floated across our brains.

Second - knowing that I have to write critiques keeps me writing. Sometimes, the critiques I write for other members are the Only Intelligent Thing I've written all week. So yeah, that's a good thing.

Third - I love our long-winded, over-the-top, brilliant and sometimes even loud discussions about imaginary characters and events we have invented on paper. We get so carried away we are often afraid a librarian might open the door to our meeting room and shush us. Our characters spring to life off our pages, and we are thoroughly engaged in their struggles .

Fourth - we learn so much from reading each other's writing. All writers, brilliant or not, make grammar mistakes, write horrid sentences, often don't say what they really mean the first time around. Watching (and reading) other people struggle with these things allows us to pick out those same mistakes in our own work. It also allows us to feel validated and not alone (as in, hey, I'm not the only one who writes crappy first drafts, hee hee.)

Fifth - it is so helpful to have a variety of people discuss your work. Some of us point out little nit-picking details that need to be changed. Others point out transitions, or chapter endings, or character descriptions that could be better. And some of us can see the bigger picture - like, what was it you were really trying to say in this piece?

Sixth - the other nice thing about having several different people read your work is you realize how subjective this business is. For every scene or description or dialogue passage one of us does or doesn't like, we often have someone else pipe up and say "oh, I loved that part!!" This is such an important lesson to learn, and gives us heart and hope to keep writing in our own voice. Of course, if your entire critique group agrees that something needs to be changed, than perhaps you'd better give it a harder look :-)

Last - but certainly not least (I could think of many more reasons I love my critique group, but this post would be too long) is TRUST. It is not often you can sit down with a group of people you only see twice a month, and trust them with something so personal and precious as a FIRST DRAFT!! Here (you think to yourself, as you hand them the first couple of chapters), here are hours and hours of time spent in front of that blasted computer screen, time trying to compose my thoughts, time pouring words out into the universe, hoping they will mean what I say and say what I mean, hoping these words will somehow, somewhere touch someone, make them laugh, or cry, make them think, or possibly UNDERSTAND. Here, you say, is my precious FIRST DRAFT. Treat it like you would a newborn anywhere, gently and honestly and with great compassion. And you know what? As I let go of those pages and pass them around the table, I TRUST my critique group to do just that.

I wish all of you luck in finding a critique group that meets your needs.

I don't know what I would do without mine.


Vonna said...

Just got home from one of my critique groups. (I have two.) For all the reasons you mentioned, a good critique group is worth their collective weight in gold. Love them!

Danette said...

Wow, you put into words beautifully how well the group works together. I second your views. I feel blessed to be a part of it. (And yes, I know - 'it' should not be at the end of the sentence... sheesh.)

Linda Benson said...

Danette - Not a problem. In rereading my post, I noticed I used the word "indeed" twice in the same sentence. OMG!!! ;-)

Vonna - I read the critique group notes on your site, and yes, it is helpful to have partners that will read a larger chunk (or even all) of your manuscript at once. Those kind of critique partners are hard to find, and fantastic to know!

Joanna said...

I tell writers allllll the time--a good critique group is invaluable!

Katrina Stonoff said...

Ditto what Danette said. You've expressed beautifully the wonder that is TBA.

As per your comment about us getting loud -- remember when my friend interrupted us last time to give me a book? She'd been in the library returning something when she heard me laughing and said to herself, "Oh, Katrina's here! I can give her that book I've been carrying around for her."

Yes. She was in the library proper and recognized my guffaw.

Lonnie Harms said...

Oh what a blessing for one another. Constructive support is so obviously key to your group. I must say, with loneness and lonliness a part of my own life, I found envy in this LOUD group of women or people helping people with a commonality of sharing WORDS in all their many forms.
My hats off to you all.
Keep on tappin' away on that key board...and sharing.
Bye bye.

Lonnie Harms