Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ask the Editor: Do I Need a Critique Group?

Maggie A. sent me the following:
Hi Gina. Great blog! I've learned a lot here and printed out copies of stuff I can use later. I'm a newbie author, still working on my first novel, a historical romance that takes place in the time of Charlemagne. Some people have recommended I find a critique group to share my chapters with, but I recently heard a New York Times best-selling author say critique groups stagnate a writer's creativity by sticking to "the rules" too much. Do you agree with that statement? As an author, do you belong to a critique group? If yes, what are the benefits? If I wanted to look for a critique group, where would I start and what should I look for? What should I avoid?

Hi Maggie! Thanks for reading and for the great question. Currently, I have two critique partners and belong to one small critique group where I rely on the opinions and guidance of three very talented writers. I've actually run the gamut on critique groups over the years. Some have been extremely helpful, some have been nightmares.

Certainly, I believe you should have at least one critique partner--preferably someone who is at about the same level as you, writing-wise, but with different strengths. For example, if you're really good at plotting but your mechanics (grammar, punctuation) need major work, find a writer with excellent mechanical skills who has difficulty carrying an idea through to fruition. You'll both benefit from your relationship. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. This is why a lot of writers join critique groups: the bigger the pool of writers, the easier it is to find someone with strengths that mirror your weaknesses. But that ease comes with a few costs.

For one thing, the more opinions you receive, the more you'll lose your voice by trying to please all those critiquers. Be strong enough to believe in yourself and what you're writing but not so rigid that you dismiss constructive advice. It will take a while for you to know when to go with your gut and when to heed someone else. So don't rush to make changes to your story every time someone disagrees with you. Let it simmer, mull it over, try different versions, but always keep the original intact somewhere.

A more important concern: the bigger the pool, the more varied the personalities. Large critique groups (more than seven members) often fall apart due to in-fighting. Writers are passionate people. We have to be passionate to put our emotions on the page. In large groups, however, this passion can spill over into ugly confrontations or worse, back-stabbing. Drama creates drama creates drama, etc. until there are vicious lines drawn that often affect the entire circle with devastating results. Many critique group members wind up leaving (or get thrown out) after a heated disagreement with group members or the group owner. So be careful who you trust.

This isn't meant to scare you off critique groups. Finding people you can rely on, whose opinion you value, is often a lot of hit-and-miss. Honestly, it depends upon the personality of the writer. You need nerves of steel, a strong backbone, and thick skin. But the rewards can be worth the war--if you find the right circle of writers to strengthen your skills and help launch you into the publishing world.

Good luck to you!

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