Critique Groups - Powerful Tools for Writers by Kristin Oakley
I joined my very first critique group, Chicks of the Trade, in January of 2008. Six women writing everything from romance to sci-fi to horror to mainstream contemporary fiction (me). We gathered at an Italian restaurant in Rockford, Illinois with our first chapters in hand. I’d never met these women before and I’d never written a word of a novel, yet alone a whole chapter, so it was pretty scary. But the chicks gave incredible feedback and support and without them I’d never have finished my book.
Critique groups are terrific for setting deadlines and making sure you get the writing done. They’re also great at pointing out what’s working and what’s not. Writers have to realize that their writing isn’t perfect even though they may think it is. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Every time I submitted a chapter I was sure it was perfect, that the chicks wouldn’t find anything wrong with it, but of course they did.
A good critique group, like the chicks, can help with all aspects of writing including:
► Characterization, setting, story arc, and structure
► Comprehension – writers often assume we’ve gotten everything down on the page and are surprised to learn we when haven’t.
► Consistency – critique group members will point out when you’ve changed the color of your protagonist’s eyes or the make and model of her car.
► Getting the facts straight, particularly when you’re writing about something you’re not familiar with. The characters in my second book, God on Mayhem Street, spend a lot of time on a farm. As a city girl, my knowledge of farming is very limited, so I was thrilled when one of the chicks mentioned she owned a small farm and was more than happy to share her expertise.
► Brainstorming ideas when you’re not sure how to proceed – this is the fun part.
► Grammar issues and pointing out overuse of words that we love and can’t help repeating.
► Sharing resources such as articles, websites, and blogs on craft; upcoming conferences and workshops; submission opportunities; and marketing strategies.
► Encouragement – writing a book is hard work, it’s been compared it to running a marathon, so being in a supportive group can help you make it to the finish line.
Often writers don’t want to join critique groups because they feel they’ll be wasting their precious writing time reading and critiquing other people’s projects. Yes, critiquing is time-consuming, but doing so teaches you to become more critical of your own work which is a valuable skill to have.
Critiquing also invests you in the writing of others. You’ll feel a powerful sense of pride when a manuscript you’ve help bring to life gets published.
Okay, so now you’re hooked, right? But where do you find a critique group and how do you know if it’s the right one for you? Let’s start with the where:
► Writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime and Romance Writers of America have local chapters that offer critique groups. Additionally, the Wisconsin Writers Association has a listing of Wisconsin writing clubs, guilds, and groups, and Writer’s Relief lists many national organizations.
► Libraries and book stores often post critique groups who are looking for members.
► Don’t forget about online opportunities. For instance, the Storm Writing School offers highly-acclaimed online critique groups for a fee. And there are online writing communities like Scribophile. But before posting your work online, determine whether posting it is the same as publishing it. If it is, keep in mind you might be limiting your submission opportunities – most contests and publications won’t accept pre-published work.
If you can’t find a group – start your own! Look for potential members at writers’ workshops, conferences, and organizations. UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies just had their Write-by-the-Lake Writers Retreat but offers Weekend With Your Novel in November and the Writers’ Institute next April. These are terrific opportunities not only to get your work critiqued but to meet writers who might be interested in forming a group.
Keep in mind that distance isn’t a problem. You can email pages and meet online through Skype or Zoom.
So how do you select a critique group that’s right for you? By following these guidelines:
► Similar writing forms – members don’t have to write in the same genre, but they do have to be working on similar writing forms – poetry, short stories, or full-length books. Keep in mind, if members are writing in a genre you’re not familiar with, be sure to research the parameters of that genre before critiquing.
► Level – select a group whose members are at your level of writing or slightly above. For instance, if you’re writing your first book, join a beginning novelists group rather than a group whose members are all multi-published.
► Logistics – when, where, how often do they meet and does their schedule fit yours?
► Commitment – members should be committed not only to submitting their writing but to critiquing as well.
► Continuity of members – join a group where the members come regularly rather than periodically, particularly if you’re working on a novel. Additionally, the group should have policies which establish when to invite new members and how to deal with unruly ones.
► Flexibility – if a certain method of critiquing or a submission schedule isn’t working, the group should be open to trying something new. Also, a critique group should evolve as the members evolve. In the early years, the chicks would submit 10 pages at a time. Now that several of us have published at least one novel, we get together just to write and then we submit larger blocks of our work (100 pages or a full manuscript) for feedback.
► Recommended reading: Judy Reeves’ book Writing Alone, Writing Together – A Guide for Writers and Writing Groups for more information
The true test of whether a critique group is the right one for you:
If you feel discouraged and want to give up after a meeting – run from that group! Instead, find a critique group that leaves you feeling energized and eager to write after every meeting.
P.S. For a humorous look at a dysfunctional, very un-chicklike critique group, watch the movie “Authors Anonymous” by writer Dave Congalton.
Kristin Oakley is a Chicago Writers Association board member, the managing editor of The Write City Magazine and The Write City Review, the past president and a co-founder of In Print Professional Writers’ Organization, and a UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies adjunct writing instructor. Kristin’s debut novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois, won the 2014 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for non-traditionally published fiction, was a finalist in the Independent Author Network 2015 Book of the Year, and a runner-up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition. Its sequel, God on Mayhem Street, was released in 2016. She is currently working on a young adult dystopian trilogy. kristinoakley.net
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