Joining the (Work) Party.
The assumption in my title is that you WANT to be part of a critique group, but just in case you're not sure, let me give you some reasons why every writer needs this.
Number one, you are not the best judge of your work. Nor is your mother. You may love the story you've written; you may feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment; your friends and family may have told you how wonderful it is; and you may even have a gut feel that it's going to be "big." In spite of all of that, you need skilled, objective reviewers who can hold your work to higher standard. If you want to get your manuscript past an agent's or editor's slush pile, it must be more than good.
Which is actually the number two reason to join a critique group - there is always room to improve. No matter how many years you've been writing, how many "how to" book you've read, or how many books you've had published, you don't know it all. The mixture of experiences, view points, and skills brought to the table by the members of your group will help you find the holes in your plot, the mistakes in your sequence of events, problems with your characters, a jump outside the point of view, and a million other technical errors. Well, count your lucky stars, because one sure way to improve your writing is to have other writers help you figure out what's working and what's not. When you look at all the red ink they scribble across your manuscript, be thankful for their insights, because that's what's going to take you to a whole new skill level.
And number three, last but not least, other writers can help you focus on issues that may be equally important to the artful cascade of words you've written on that piece of paper. Writing is more than just a compulsion or the fulfillment of a dream. It is also a business, so step away from the keyboard and learn. Being around other writers, networking, committing to some deadlines, talking about the changes in the market, sharing news about agents and editors - this is important stuff. Not everyone agrees with me on this point, I know. Some say that this business should be relegated to writers' groups, not critique groups. There are no rules here. Do what works best for you and your group, as long as the focus remains on the goal - writing more effectively so that your work will be published.
Mixing the Group.
So now that you're as convinced as I am that every writer needs to be part of a critique group, you need to think about some important steps. Whether you're building the group or joining an existing one, getting the right mix of people is crucial. If I could pick the perfect group for me, it would include five to six dedicated fiction writers who are either published or seriously pursuing getting published. Any more than that and you run the chance of not having enough time or trust to dig deep into anyone's work. Less than that and you miss out on a breadth of ideas and experiences. Ideally, the group should all be working on books that are not too dissimilar.
You read and write what you like, and it's important to also like the kind of work you are critiquing - if you're a romance writer, can you imagine slogging your way through a hard-core science fiction manuscript or a textbook, trying to accomplish a serious critique? If you typically read and write business books, it might be unrealistic to expect to be able to thoroughly analyze a thriller. It's simply not the best use of your skills or time, even though you might all learn something from the experience. I believe fiction writers and non-fiction writers are best kept separate for these purposes. Find what works for you, but it is my opinion that the group should be more homogeneous than disparate in the genres to be included. This provides the best opportunity to contribute and to grow, to take your skills to a new level.
Dedication is also a key word. The goal is to publish, and each member needs to be seriously working toward that goal and dedicated to helping fellow members get there too. Each member of the group has to be committed to writing and submitting his/her work in advance of the meeting. It needs to be fairly polished, so that you don't waste the group's time as they pick out obvious errors.
Skill level is another important consideration. If the group consists only of new writers, your growth may come harder and slower. You ought to seek out some published writers that can provide deeper insights, but the reality is that those more experienced writers may quickly become bored with a group of newbies. Make it worth their while by submitting interesting work and by being quick learners. Be diligent in your efforts to provide fresh insights to each individual's work.
Lastly, find a group of friendly writers who have thick skin and aren't afraid to check their egos at the door. The relationship you establish with the other writers must be built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect, or it will most definitely fail to meet your expectations. You must feel safe to expose your precious work to the group's spotlight, knowing that they will be polite but truthful. It's not about you, it's about the writing.
Work hard, play hard.
Critiquing is serious work and should be treated as such. Be on time and ready to work. Check your personal business at the door (with that ego I told you about). While some socializing as you settle into the meeting can help build stronger, more trusting relationships, save the coffee klatches or happy hours for after. Work first (always first) and catch up later on personal stuff.
Set the rules up front and stick to them. This will nip many problems in the bud and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings. At a minimum, the rules should specify:
- Where to meet, how often, and how long. If possible, choose some place neutral that doesn't require fees (like meeting rooms at a library or at someone's home). It can even be on-line.
- Moderator selection. This can be a rotating role (recommended), or a semi-permanent one, but the important thing is to have someone who is strong enough to keep the meeting on track and focused on the writing. The moderator must be politely strict.
- Hiring and firing. Have a plan (in writing) for how new members can be invited to visit/join the group as well as how to disinvite members who no longer fit.
- Submissions. Define the type of writing accepted (which genres? novels? Short stories? Other?), the number of pages allowed in a submission, and the deadlines for submissions in advance of each meeting. Or you could decide to bring submissions to the meetings to be read aloud and critiqued on-the-spot.
- Critiques. Define what is expected in the way of a critique. For example, the group could focus on the broader writing themes rather than line editing, limit each critique of the writing (not the person) to a five minute discussion, and ask authors to refrain from commenting on their writing while the critiques are being given.
Pay attention to the group dynamics. Overly-personal, obnoxious, vicious, or cruel critiques will only destroy the trust of the group, and people will stop coming. Critiquing requires a careful balance of tact and sensitivity with honesty and hard love. Not everyone can find that balance. Some might not even realize when their critiques are having more of a negative impact than they intended, and that's when the moderator should do some private coaching. Be polite, but frank. The moderator must be given the authority, respected by all, to curtail long-winded critiques or discussions and to halt unduly harsh or personal critiques. Other dynamics within the group can be equally harmful - one writer dominates the conversations, another writer is too fearful to open up, or another continually fails to follow through on commitments. The health of the group depends on having the strength to enforce the rules and even to ask members to withdraw when necessary. Treat it like you would a business.
I recommend that each person in the group do some research on critiquing and then bring that information to the meeting. Spend the first session discussing various critiquing techniques and highlighting the areas that should be carefully considered (plot, pacing, POV, characterization, conflict, settings, etc.). Create a checklist. Agree to minimize your own personal preferences in your critiques (who cares if you don't like books set in Spain, or if you prefer male heroes over female heroines?). Don't just look for fault in the writing, but also give praise when you believe it's warranted. Both pieces of information can be helpful to a writer's growth. Once everyone is on the same page, you're finally ready to begin.
Then after the work is done (here's where the Margaritas come in), socializing is definitely encouraged. Have some fun, spread your enthusiasm, commiserate, encourage, laugh. As I said before, the people in this group need to feel safe with each other. They are baring their souls, so to speak, when they share their raw creations, putting them up for review.