So, You Want to Start a Critique Group

Don’t.  The end.

I kid.

(Sort of.)

Let me begin to explain.  This will take more than one post.

How it all began

Early last year, while close to completing the second draft of my historical fiction WIP, I decided the time had finally come to start assembling a critique group.

This was something I’d wanted to do—to be a part of—for almost as long as I’ve been writing with a view of someday being published (almost 10 years).

Whenever I fantasized about my life as a published author, always this vision included a group of author peers who gave me feedback on my drafts and ideas, and for whom I did the same.

More than a single critique partner, or even a series of individual CPs, I wanted to create a group where we all worked together and supported each other in achieving our writing goals.

However, it took all the way until 2017 for me to actually finish something to make the services of a critique group necessary.

From there, rather than join an existing group (as I did years ago when I had the idea to form a social meetup group for writers), given all the critique group horror stories you regularly hear about online, I decided the best way to avoid all that drama would be to create and manage a critique group of my own.

Which is exactly what I did, using these steps which you too can follow:

1) Know exactly what you’re looking for (i.e. visioning)

The first thing I did in establishing my critique group was a visioning exercise: I imagined that the group already existed and described to myself what I saw.

One key feature was that the group contained locally-based writers, so that we could have regular in-person meetings.

There are critique groups that function solely online, with far-flung people who have never met and mightn’t even recognize each other if they did.

There’s nothing at all wrong with groups like that so long as they function effectively for all parties involved.

But that’s not what I wanted for myself.  Rather I wanted to cultivate a sense of sociality within the group—for us to become face-to-face friends and form a long-term partnership in which we progress together along our respective writer’s journeys.

Something else I wanted was writers who had completed a minimum of two drafts of their novel.  Because I had NO desire to read someone’s shitty first draft.

In terms of group numbers, I decided to try for 4-6 members max.

2) Ask for what you want (i.e. advertising)

Having conjured the ideal group members in my mind, it was time to find them in the flesh.

To attract only the most serious and committed people, I did what I do best—i.e. writing.

I composed the most epic group description in the history of critique groups, which I posted on Meetup.com, a local Facebook group, in local coffee shops, and also spread around through word of mouth.

Even I admit that this shit was intense.  It was basically a job description, laying out in explicit detail both the structure and function of the group as I envisioned it, plus the nine criteria I expected prospective members to meet.

But that’s not all.  I also made prospective members complete a (lengthy) application form.  Not only because their actually taking the time to do it would be indicative of the strength of their desire to join the group.

Not only because the clarity of their answers would be somewhat indicative of the clarity of their mindset around critique and revision.

But also because I have a background in evaluation.  Which meant I wasn’t going to just trust people’s claims that they fit my criteria.  I was going to test them on it.  Such as when I asked “How many drafts of your novel have you completed?  0, 1, 2, 3, more than 3”, and some people actually chose 1.

I appreciated the honesty.  But NO shitty first drafts!

3) Insist upon what you want (i.e. screening)

If any prospective members thought the application form was too much for them, there were still two more phases of the selection process to go.

Next, each person had to have an interview with me. (I told you it was like a job posting.)

“Interview” is perhaps too formal a word.  I didn’t have prepared questions or take any interview notes.  But I did want to meet each person to see if I felt comfortable around them.

From there, the last bit of the process was for us to critique the first chapter of each other’s book, to determine if the nature of feedback provided was what we were looking for.

~

Everyone that I considered for the group went through the complete process I just described, which in practice wasn’t nearly as straightforward and smooth as I’ve written it.

Rather, I spent six long months contending with protracted delays between email replies, interviews that had to be scheduled weeks into the future, interviews that were cancelled at the last-minute, people who no-showed for their interview, people who withdrew their candidacy right just as they were to be offered admission, people who withdrew their candidacy while criticizing my vision for the group, and one member I had to actively disinvite from the group due to a misrepresentation of commitment, I seriously considered abandoning the entire undertaking.

But in this way, my own screening process became as much a test of my commitment to my as-yet-nonexistent critique group as that of the writers I meant to populate it with.

With this realization, it became a matter of only when, not if, my group would come into existence.  Which it finally did in November of 2017, and has been going strong ever since.

Continue to Part 2

Do you belong to a critique group or have any sort of writing peers that you work with on your projects?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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8 thoughts on “So, You Want to Start a Critique Group

  1. Fascinating. Can’t wait for the rest. Mostly because I’ll never do it, so I have to rely on yours.

    I found out very early, when I joined a group of four women moderated by my first (and only) writing teacher (I took a local community college course in ‘Writing the Mystery’ – 8 evening sessions) that the expectation was that each person would critique the other three’s WIP with Mary Elizabeth as our guide and mentor.

    I don’t think I lasted many sessions before realizing that I’m so self-centered that having to keep in mind three other beginners’ fledgling novels was an impossibility (I was already deep into CFS, so I wasn’t too surprised). You read something and are expected to give a reasoned critique of it. And the other novels were not in the mystery genre I was writing at the time (like the class). I felt like an impostor, since the other three seemed to be able to handle the process.

    I’m glad I tried it, or I would always have wondered if I had missed something essential. Maybe I would have published sooner. Maybe I should have been vetted (as you described) into a more suitable group. Maybe – a thousand things. Instead, more to my style, I persisted with books on writing when I discovered I had a hole in my writing skills.

    I missed out the camaraderie and the support – by me not being able to hold up my end of the deal. Another thing to blame illness for.

    Looking forward to more – and admiring your willingness and ability to question other writers before allowing them into your group.

    Like

    • It was really important to me to start my own group from scratch and build and manage it in a way that suits my needs (as well as those of the other members) rather than try to make myself fit into a preexisting group. This is why I was so strict about who I’d allow to join. I wanted people who would be as equally invested in the “group” part of the endeavour as the “critique” part, since, for a variety of reasons, not everyone can function in a formal group setting.

      I’m definitely enjoying the camaraderie and support, not the mention receiving the feedback on my work, and it’s unfortunate you missed out on that during your critique group experience. As to whether you would have published sooner had you been able to stick with your group, of course there’s no real way to know, but it’s possible you might have been no better off in that regard.

      One thing I’ve learned is that you have to be confident in your work before subjecting it to group critique. You have to believe in it and your writing abilities enough to now bow to any wrong-seeming suggestions the group offers. Often new writers don’t yet possess this confidence and thus allow themselves and their work to be damaged beyond repair by the tyranny of committee.

      On an unrelated note, you aren’t the first writer I know who got their start in a mystery writing course. Another writer I know even did a mystery course on cassette tape.

      Like

      • I am just surprised that other people let you interview them to be in your group. Makes sense – and would eliminate some people right off the bat – but I don’t tell other people what to do, and I wouldn’t find that would attract me to a group.

        Like

      • I always think of an interview, even one for a job, as a two-way experience. You are interviewing me to assess my fit to your needs, and I’m doing the same thing with you.

        There are times in the past that I’ve interviewed for jobs and decided immediately afterward that I had no interest in continuing with the consideration process, regardless of the outcome. This may be a privileged attitude that not everyone can afford. Still, I don’t like seeing people give up their power unnecessarily, and people generally have more power within interview situations than they realize (I know this from having been both an interviewee and interviewer within a business setting).

        There was no telling anyone what to do in my selection process for my group because I’m not that way either. I just asked interested people if they’d be willing to meet in person to see how we clicked. Since we would be spending a lot of time together and digging into each other’s work, a good rapport and compatible goals were essential, both from my perspective and from theirs since they didn’t know any more about me than I did about them.

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  2. Urrgh, I would run a mile. Furthermore I’d be the last person you’d want or need Janna. I simply don’t take my writing seriously enough. My shitty first drafts are all out there on Amazon right now 🙂 It just goes to show how differently every writer approaches their work, and thank goodness for that diversity.

    Like

    • Indeed, this is the precise reason I went through such a process to populate my group. I totally respect that different writers have different writing goals, but within my group, I wanted everyone’s goals to be compatible. I couldn’t envision us being able to work together effectively if they were not.

      Liked by 1 person

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