Long-time Shaggin the Muse readers may know that I’ve been searching for a critique group for close to two years now – almost from the moment that I got back onto the writing gig. My main driving concern in seeking such a group is that, while I love my beta readers and editor, feedback from working writers is so important to adding extra layers to your story. Experienced writers (and readers) can find angles that you hadn’t considered and see weaknesses that you may not perceive due to your own closeness to the project. This is a very good thing, provided that you can handle the critiques, and if you can’t, well, why be a writer at all?
Unfortunately, critique groups seem to be incredibly rare and unstable – those that I have located seemed to last for only a short period before they fell apart for one reason or another, and I never got my foot through the door. I had actually been considering just starting my own group when I joined the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) and learned that they had a feature for sharing and finding critique groups.
Well, hell, why not, I thought. I’m already involving myself more in the Maryland writing community, so why not dig deeper into the ways that I can help other writers and solicit their help as well? I perused their listings, figuring that I would be willing to do some travel if it meant getting into a group. From there I stumbled across a listing that seemed pretty interesting and right up my alley: folks who were also working on more long-form fiction and wanted to help each other shape up their novels. Natural fit, I thought.
I contacted the group, and after some back-and-forth I joined on a trial basis. This might sound a little iffy, but this approach makes a whole lot of sense to me. Just think about it objectively – you need to know that prospective members have the right blend of personality and skill, that they’re amenable to suggestions, and that they make substantive suggestions. It also makes sense from a lone writer’s perspective; what if you feel that the group doesn’t understand your work and/or the personalities just aren’t right for you? This way, you don’t feel completely committed to the group until you’re comfortable that this is the right fit for you.
My biggest problem had to be joining at the tail end of a “cycle”. This meant that we finalized things last Tuesday and the meeting occurred on Sunday (yesterday). I definitely wanted to participate, so I made the time to go, but I knew getting the time to critique would be a challenge. You see, I got my chapters to review in the middle of the week, and while I was able to read about a chapter into each, other priorities, mostly work-related, ate up my free time, and I just ran out of time to review before Sunday.
Bummer. This meant that I went into my first meeting with some suggestions, but nowhere near the level of advice that I would have liked to offer. What are you going to do, though? I did the best I can, and am going to make it up to them this week by finishing my review process. Next time should go a lot better, I think.
Anyway, about the meeting itself – fairly straightforward. Group members rotate as the hosts; this time we were in Burtonsville, Maryland, which I had never visited. This in mind, I arrived a little early to mitigate any effects of getting lost (I only made one wrong turn, go me). A little awkward, but I think it’s better to be early than late. Wine and some light snacks were on hand – I’ll likely bring a little something myself next time – and the accommodations were comfortable. We even had a special guest in the hosting member’s dog, who was a real sweetheart during the whole process.
But I’m not really here to talk about those details. I’m here to tell you about the meat of the event and why critiquing is so important. The group’s format is to first have everyone share their overall impression of the member’s pages, hitting the high points and low points, what they liked and what they thought might need some work, etc. We do that in a circle, with everyone taking their turn. The floor is then opened to discuss suggestions and issues on a page-by-page basis, with the group brainstorming on ideas that could work as a solution to some issues.
I’m really only going to give one example and keep it pretty vague because I think it’s important to keep the ideas and works shared there internal to the group; you need to know that you’re working in a safe environment. We had an interesting moment where I thought a certain interaction between two characters felt authentic, while everyone else in the group felt the situation was a bit of a stretch, that a guy wouldn’t really say that to another male friend. At first I wondered if I had missed something but I realized that I have a friend who really will say those kinds of things and has said them before. In fact, we’ve had conversations very similar to the one contained in the story.
Given that the majority of the group felt that way, then I think the right call is to change the dialogue, as my experience is clearly in the minority and not at all common for two guys. That’s what I’m trying to say though – this just illustrates the importance of joining a group like this, as you can get a sanity check for whether your own experiences match up with a majority of experiences from others. You can do what you want with that knowledge; hell, I might use it as a cue to illustrate just how different the characters are from the norm, but the point is that you now have that knowledge.
That, I think, is the essence of why I recommend a critique group, and why it’s been drilled into the heads of writers over the years: you need extra perspective. It’s just that important. Beta readers, critique groups, editors – they all offer you more eyes and minds touching on your story. If you’re committed to quality and telling the best possible story that you can, then it’s just a no-brainer.
I had a great time, and will continue to attend so long as they let me. I like the other folks in the group and enjoy their writing. I’ve submitted for next month, and will have them reading the first few chapters of City of the Dead. I’ll offer an update on that around the middle of next month. Until then, I really urge you to consider a critique group and look into local writers resources if at all possible. It’s completely worth it.