How do you find the very best critique group for you?
Rebecca posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
A couple months ago I celebrated my first official year as a “pre-published” writer who spent all her time learning the craft by writing and studying in isolation. Live and learn, I say, and then don’t do it again. The good news is I have recently changed all that by attending my first writing conference and by observing three writing critique groups. The conference was definitely something I will repeat time and time again. The writing groups were all exceptional and now I must pick one (or all) of these writing groups. My questions are: What advice to you have on finding the best writing critique groups? And, depending on how often it meets, would it be wise to join a couple?
Randy sez: It all depends on where you are on the road to publication. If you haven’t already read my article on this site, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” you should probably read it right now to get yourself oriented.
If you’re a Freshman, then you need a critique group to help you figure out where you’re strong and where you’re weak. The horrifically scary thing here is that you’re probably weak in most things. That’s the nature of the beast. You don’t start out in med school being a great brain surgeon. You don’t start out in flying school being a great fighter pilot. You don’t start playing chess as a grandmaster. Writers who can’t deal with that never make it past the Freshman stage.
If you’re a Freshman, I’d recommend finding one critique group that is reasonably nurturing. You really don’t need a group that’s going to destroy your ego every month. However you also need a group that’s going to hold you accountable to writing on a schedule. You will never escape your Freshmanhood unless you get to the point where you’re writing several times per week.
If you’re a Sophomore, then you have figured out a lot of things. By now, you know if you’re plot-oriented, character-oriented, theme-oriented, or setting-oriented. You also have some sort of clue of how you work best: You know if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer or a Snowflaker or something else.
If you’re a Sophomore, your biggest need is probably a constant reminder that you still have a long way to go and you really aren’t J.K. Rowling just yet. A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing. Sophomores need to bear this in mind. You need a group that can help you strengthen your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. You also need at least one published author who can give you a bit of guidance in your career development and your marketing.
If you’re a Junior, you desperately need a mentor who is going to help you polish your goods to greatness. These are hard to find. The kind of mentor you need doesn’t necessarily hang out in critique groups much. It’s possible you won’t be able to find a critique group that can fill this need and you may need a critique buddy who is at your level and really gets your writing or you may need someone you can pay to do a freelance edit.
If you’re a Junior, you may very well be the best writer in your critique group, and that means your group is not helping you all that much. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your group. It just means that most of what you learn in the group will be in those “Aha!” moments when you’re critiquing someone else and you suddenly have an insight that’s good for you. Do remember at this stage that even the lowliest writer in your group may well be a great reader who has a key insight on what’s missing in your writing. They most likely won’t have a key insight on how to fix it, unfortunately.
If you’re a Senior, much the same goes for you. Seniors these days generally have an agent, and your agent is going to play the same role that your critique group played when you were a Freshman.
Now Rebecca’s question was partly on how to find a critique group. I can’t answer that easily. There are a lot of places to look for critique groups, but you find them wherever you find them. If you belong to an online organization, it may have a bunch of online groups.
The organization I belong to, ACFW, just recently had a whole class on how to do critiques, and now it’s forming online critique groups. (My daughter Carolyn took the class and is now doing critiques. She’s not a fiction writer; she wants to be an editor someday.)
If you have a community college that has writing classes, you’ll probably find a bulletin board somewhere near the creative writing department that lists critique groups.
I found my first critique group after going to a writing conference that was put on by a regional writing guild in San Diego. The guild had a number of critique groups and I joined one. This group lasted for several years and took me from green Freshman to frustrated Junior. It couldn’t take me beyond that, because nobody in the group was published.
When I finally realized that, I started going to large national writing conferences. At one of those, I met John Olson, who has been my writing buddy ever since. At another, I met Meredith Efken, who has been my freelance editor ever since. At other conferences, I’ve met other key people in my life: Tracy Higley, Jeff Gerke, Jim Rubart, Tosca Lee, Mary DeMuth, and many others. I also met editors and agents who’ve been my guides along the way: Steve Laube, Chip MacGregor, Lee Hough, Wendy Lawton, and many others.
So the moral here is that a critique group will get you rolling, but eventually you’ll need more than that. You will meet many friends at writing conferences, but you only keep them by maintaining contact (usually by e-mail).
One last comment: One good critique group is better than two weak ones. You really want people who know you and understand what you’re writing. You get that by continuity. You should pick a group that meets as often as you need, but no oftener. For a freshman, once a month is probably fine. If you’re really intense, you may be able to meet every two weeks or even weekly, but that’s a tough pace. You have to have time to write.
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