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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Writer's Life: The Critique Group*

On the weekend my "critique group" met. It was loud, excited and fuelled by champagne but oh, so terribly important! Goals were re-established, current works in progress assessed, a new member welcomed, we brainstormed and a story opening was critiqued. They are my tribe and an absolutely integral part of who I am as a writer.

Writing is by nature a solitary past time but the trope of the writer in the freezing garret scratching away to the light of single guttering candle has been supplanted in the digital age by computers and internet. We are no longer alone, there is a whole writing community out there with whom to connect. Online workshops, elists, forums, blogs… but one thing remains constant: around the country, at any given time there is a little group of writers sitting around a table with printed paper clutched in one hand and a pen in the other. (There are also online critique groups but I have no experience of those so I will just talk about the “actual” critique group as opposed to the “virtual” critique group).

Most writers are introverts, so it takes a great deal of motivation (and courage) to join a critique group. Not only are you putting your writing on the line but also yourself and it’s that very vulnerability that either makes or breaks your experience with a critique group.

I started off as the lone wolf, driven partly by a need to keep this part of my life “secret”. It was only when I moved to Singapore with my husband’s work and found myself utterly stranded without direction or identity. Like a drowning woman I reached out and joined the ANZA Writers Group. In that group I found a core of wonderful women of different ages and different interests. As writers we were all different which meant we had to find some common ground on which to share our passion for writing. We found it in short story writing. Every month our convener would set us ‘homework’ of some kind which would more often than not translate into a short story. (Ironically my current release SECRETS IN TIME began as ANZA Writers Group homework). Because we were so different, critique was gentle but encouraging. That experience ended in the publication of two volumes of short stories by a local publisher (these days we would probably just have self published them and put it out as an ebook – how the world has changed). For a recent article about this group and what became of us all click HERE.

The ANZA Writers Group in 2002 at the Launch of NOT ALL PINK GINS

On return to Australia, I went back to lone wolfdom but having had the taste of what a good crit group could be, I went in search of another and found it. Through Romance Writers of Australia, a group had just been formed in my area. A bad experience with a potential new member had made the group a little wary but they invited me in and I now count them amongst my dearest friends.
What makes or breaks a critique group?

The members. It does matter that you find a group of people with whom you have something in common. There would be little point in me joining a group of science fiction writers. We would have very little common ground. Although the group in Singapore were quite disparate in their writing interests, we still found common ground in our writing. Universally we were women writing for women. My current critique group are romance writers but within that broad genre our interests are quite different but there is enough room to tolerate difference - although I will say in all honesty I don’t know whether we would operate so comfortably if a member who wrote erotica joined us. That’s not where any of us are or want to be. It is terribly important that the members of the group mesh together. So much of what makes a good group is trust.

How critique is delivered. Each member of the group needs to be clear about how they want to receive critique. We tend to use our face to face meetings for brainstorming, setting of goals and writerly business. We can circulate writing for critique by email but occasionally we have specific face to face critiquing sessions. It is here that the main danger of critique groups lie, I have heard stories of young writers whose spirit has been broken by harsh critiquing. I try to couch critique in the form of “suggestions only” and I would advise any writer to take from the critique the bits that are useful to you. There is a danger in absorbing everything – after all it is only someone’s opinion and I have seen young writers whose voice has been lost in a welter of over critiquing. Have faith in your own writing.

A good critique group has a range of experience within its members from experienced writers through to newbies. A good group will nurture and encourage new writers and even “experienced writers” need the support and encouragement of other people. Since I joined my little group, one of our members has had “the call” (Sasha Cottman's LETTER FROM A RAKE - out now!). We watched that story go from brainstorming to publication. It is OUR book! And my own, SECRETS IN TIME, was read and critiqued by the group members. I am no longer a lone wolf…I have my little pack to run with.

Alison's "tribe" at work on a writing retreat

How do you find a critique group? That is a surprisingly hard question to answer!

  • If you are a member of Romance Writers of Australia you can contact the Group Liaison who can either help you start your own group or find a group in your area.
  • Your local community centre may have details of local writing groups but expect to find a wide range of writing interests within such a group. The larger the group the more structured you will find it.

Looking for suggestions: What makes a critique group work or where/how do you find a suitable group?

(*based on an earlier post appearing on Long and Short Reviews May 13, 2013)