Yesterday I hosted the first meeting of my critique group at my house and had a blast. My wife and I enjoy entertaining, and had fun setting things up so that the folks in the group could have a good experience. I mean, how can you go wrong with a spread like this?
I’ve been doing this critique group thing for a few months now and finally feel a bit qualified to speak about it, especially since I’m seeing very material improvements to City of the Dead thanks to these folks who are so generous with their time and brainpower. I see now just how important a critique group can be for a writer and that writer’s career. That in mind, I thought I’d talk about the reasons that YOU (well, you the writer, maybe not the reader) might want to consider a critique group in addition to your beta readers.
5. Beta readers are fantastic, but they’re not always writers. This is more important than it might seem. I do have some beta readers who are writers, but it is far from the most important requirement; that would be having people from different walks of life/who read different genres. Getting the perspective of someone who reads mainstream literary fiction is more important during the beta reading phase than talking to someone who better understands the structural significance of some choices. This is where the critique group comes in. A critique group can not only tell you that a scene is not working but why that scene is not working, and suggest improvements.
4. Extra eyes. Just from a general standpoint, I think it’s important to have several sets of eyes look at your novel before you even begin to think pushing that thing out to the rest of the world. Too many cooks can certainly spoil a dish, but that’s where it becomes important to know what works and what doesn’t work. One of the most common newbie mistakes is to go into a critique group thinking that every suggestion holds equal weight and the story will be ruined if he or she doesn’t go with every suggested change. Far from the truth, and we underline this to new members. I know that I don’t incorporate every change that comes from my critique groups or beta readers; I have to weigh their suggestion against my vision of the story and what I think my readers might want from the story. Still, you never know when they’ll spot something that just never occurred to you.
3. Unique perspectives. Our group consists of two mystery writers, a thriller/literary writer, and a fantasy writer in addition to whatever it is that I write. In addition, one of us comes from a military background, one from a journalistic background, and so on. These perspectives are incredibly value. Just yesterday one of our members asked the retired journalist if her press conference rang true, and he got the opportunity to offer her some pointers (though she had done a very good job). You can get this sort of thing from beta readers, but it’s far more uncommon and not really the job of a beta reader.
2. Fellowship and community. Sometimes you just need a group of people who understand how damn difficult this pursuit can be, all while sharing wine and/or other alcohol. A good critique group serves as sound board and support group, cheering along with you at your successes and commiserating over loss.
1. Brainstorming. This is, hands-down, the most valuable part of the critique experience and something that I had absolutely not anticipated. More than once a member has suggested a change to something within a story and the group proceeded to offer suggestions that could make that change a little easier, or found their way around a hidden angle to the scene that could make it more compelling, such as drawing out a character’s hidden anxiety or neurosis. I’ve seen some real gems come out of this process, and City of the Dead has already benefited from such a session. If you join a critique group for no other reason, join it for this one. You have no idea how much it can help your craft.
Anyone else have tips to share on why you need a critique group? I’d like to eventually write something about how to find them, but that falls outside the scope of this post. I’d love to hear your suggestions, however.