What Makes a Critique Group Work?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Yesterday I attended the first meeting of my new critique group, the first group I’ve been in since 2004. I’ve never had much luck with such groups, probably because I was so new to writing that I didn’t know what to even want from a group. I had even started one and had to drop out, but this time should be different.

There are four of us. Very experienced authors. We have a mix of genres, which could make things interesting. I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in. I’m the only crime fiction and YA writer, but after our meeting and the fun we had brainstorming plots, it became apparent very quickly that genres won’t matter. Storytellers know how to kick start a plot.



Texas Hill Country Bluebonnets

We met in the beautiful hill country of Texas, outside Boerne. Gorgeous drive up to a member’s beautiful home. The scenic drive is enough to start the creative juices flowing. Our hostess had lunch prepared, something easy and way too yummy. She knew the other two authors and had gotten us together after I whined about not finding what I needed in a few of my local (larger) writers’ groups.

We chatted via email on what we’d like to get from our group. At first I wasn’t sure my goals would match up. Initially we had planned on meeting once a month to talk about the business of writing and maybe brainstorm on plot or scene issues, but after the meeting yesterday, we are getting together once a week and it will be much more on craft and pushing each other to be the best we can be.

Yes, we talked promotion and I learned some new things there and we shared contact info for promo things that worked for each of us. We chatted about plotting methods and storyboarding, but when we got to brainstorming a plot, that’s where my mind was blown.

One of our members had purchased three covers from a designer, images that spoke to her. None of us realized what her intentions were until we got into it, but she bought the covers BEFORE even knowing what any of the books would be about. Basically our session turned into a major Flash Fiction exercise of brainstorming what a new series would be about using the cover designs for books that didn’t exist. HA! When you get the right people together, the ideas flow and we had a blast doing it. We set the stage for a world she’d be building from those three covers that would be bigger than three books, something she could grow into. I’d never done that before and I can’t say I would recommend it as a method of plotting, but with the right people, you never know where things will go.

So we set up our basic crit group intentions as follows:

1.) We will endeavor to get together weekly and bring new material from our current projects. The author will read (& hand out copies of the material), but advance copies will be made available to the other members prior to our meeting for “track changes” feedback. This will allow us to focus on the reading.

2.) None of us are very interested in line edits (unless something is glaring), but we want to get feedback on character, plot, scene choice, motivations, etc. (Craft issues)

3.) We will help each other through plot glitches and even do a “getaway retreat” for serious plotting sessions on future books.

4.) We chatted about limiting our reads to a number of pages and/or a time limit per member, but none of us liked the rigidity. So as we get into this, we will be considerate of not overstepping each other’s time and bring what we need to read to keep us on any publisher’s deadline. We will stay until everyone gets what they need.

5.) We’ll rotate the meetings between member’s houses, as long as the commute isn’t too much on any one person. (Two authors are located more conveniently for all of us.)

6.) We are at four members and like that headcount. Whatever we say in the group will be confidential.

So that is a summary of my new crit group. I’m sure we will define things as we go, to suit the needs of the group, but I’d love to hear from you, TKZers.

For discussion purposes, my questions to all of you (who have way more experience than I do with critique groups) are:

1.) What works in your groups? What do you look for in a crit group?

2.) What doesn’t work?

3.) What do you wish you could add to your groups?

http://jordandane.com/YA/crystal-fire.php

Jordan Dane’s Crystal Fire (The Hunted Series with HarlequinTeen) now available for pre-order. Release November 26, 2013.

“The Hunted – Strong characters and a wild and intense story.”
4.5 Stars – Romantic Times Magazine

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22 thoughts on “What Makes a Critique Group Work?

  1. I’ve never been in a critique group, Jordan. I’ve heard stories…. But I think the craft level of the group, and the small size, works to your advantage. I’ll be interested to hear how things work out. Good luck.

  2. Hey Jordan,
    Just met with my group last night. I’ve been with them for a couple months now and they have been inspiring, fun and extremely helpful. I joined an established group (also experienced writers, 3 of 4 published already). So they are already worked out guidelines etc. (which are crucial to success of any group, imo…otherwise you waste time and energy).

    We meet every two weeks at same coffee shop, same time. Consistency is helpful. We exchange our pages via Track Changes before this (limit 10 pgs but its flexible) and we each critique all the others’ work. We take turns but also allow for interruption and discussion if someone is onto a good point.

    I’m going through a period of “under-writing” these days with my WIP and my group has guided me back to a richer more detailed narrative. And boy, have they helped with plot ideas.

    The best thing about this group is they all know how to take criticism. (and give it). They don’t bruise easily, they want feedback not just praise. (although we certainly give it when due!) They understand they must give as good as they get.

    I’m lucky to have found my peeps. Even if it means I have to drink Starbucks. Ugh.

  3. Jordan, having recently settled in to my new home in NW FL, I decided to join a local critique group. We meed every Thursday evening and read aloud a max of 1500 words followed by around-the-table discussion. I haven’t been in a critique group in years, and it reminded me of how much value there is in spending time with other writers. Fresh eyes and ideas are always helpful, and I’m already getting useful feedback on my WIP.

    • That is great, Joe. Moving to a new location is tough when you leave contacts behind. When I relocated to TX from OK, I sure did miss my OKC writers group and still do.

      Sounds like you found some good folks. Happy for you, buddy.

  4. I seem to get value out of a critique group no matter what the experience level of its members. I don’t look to the group to tell me how to fix something–I just want to know where they think something is dragging, or unconvincing, or poorly paced. Even though my groups haven’t always included experienced writers, there are always some good readers who provide useful feedback. Even when they can’t explain why something doesn’t work, they are good at pointing out the newts and toads in my pages!

    • I can see your point, Kathryn. Getting feedback from people as readers can be quite useful, but I have never been in a small crit group with folks so experienced. It short cuts so much and we can avoid speed bumps. We’ll see how it goes, but I am hopeful.

  5. I have been in the same critique group for years. There are six of us, all published authors. Although we each belong to Florida Romance Writers, several of us are also mystery writers or add scifi elements to our stories. One gal writes YA.

    We meet every other Wednesday and rotate houses, sometimes taking a break and meeting at a restaurant. Chatting over snacks and sharing industry news is always fun but then we get down to business. We read for 15 to 20 minutes each person’s work silently, writing our comment on a separate sheet of paper. Then we discuss our comments aloud. We’ve grown close and help each other out during rough times and are there to celebrate happy events as well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my critique partners.

    • I was hoping you’d chime in, Nancy. I know you’ve been involved with a successful group for years.

      Our group will pass out a file in advance and have every do track chgs beforehand (if we can), so they can simply listen as the author reads and be prepared to talk about each scene or whatever the author needs. I’m sure we will modify our process as we go. Thanks for your comment.

    • I prefer to read printed copy as I spend enough time in front of the computer. We write down the page numbers where we see the need for corrections, along with our comments, and the member takes these papers home.

    • We wanted our members to have the option of seeing the material in advance to focus better, so our read-through won’t be a cold read. We thought that would give time for everyone to make tge discussion more fruiful, but I hear you the desk time. Definitely something to consider from member to member.

    • Definitely, Terri. I need that too. I have a couple of half-finished projects that I want to plow through and hope to do that with these folks. I’m sure they all write faster than I do, but it’s quality we’re after too.

  6. Excellent info here, both in the post and in the comments following it! I’m sharing this on Facebook and also with my clients and local writers’ group, which has several critique groups attached to it. Great tips!

    • Thanks, Jodie. No matter what the experience level, a good group of creative people can support a writer’s efforts on several levels. I’m excited to get out of the house (my office), have a beautiful drive, and meet up with fun people. Win-win.

  7. Oh, how wonderful you have this outlet, and the others who have posted, too. Love your set-up and your perimeters. How shrewd of you, kudos. As a RWA member, I’ve heard nightmare accounts of chapter meetings that have turned nasty (during critiques) and I myself have been on the receiving end of snippy, even cruel comments. I love tough, unvarnished feedback, but a mean-spirited barb – who needs that? Over the years, I’ve had to analyze my own behavior and perceptions, too. Making sure that I’m not overreacting or potentially being insensitive. But then others share their bad experiences, so I know I’m not entirely a Debbie Downer.

    I had a terrific one-on-one with a new critique partner recently – she’s a deep thinker who advised that I don’t write romance – more of a romantic elements type of thing. “Most all stories have a love story embedded in them,” she said. “And you write a hybrid. Stop feeling bad because you’re not conforming to what you think a romance novel is.”

    For me, good storytelling is a fundamental, no matter what the genre. I can appreciate Laura Hillenbrand as well as Dennis Lehane, Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Francine Rivers. I love all of their books – and hoo-boy, let’s not forget Gillian Flynn.

    My new writer friend Leon quipped recently that most all writers are egomaniacs, and that some of us “manage it better.” (LOL)

    Maybe that’s the key to approaching a critique group. Making sure you stay humble and respectful, and analyze the storytelling techniques, not the delivery or genre.

    Thanks for posting this. I’m keeping it on file.

    • Well said, Cheryl. I’m a long time RWA member too. Although RWA has solid resources for aspiring authors, every chapter can be different. It still comes down to good chemistry with a group or partner. I find crit partners who do more than line edit, they are worth their weight in gold. Hang on to yours.

  8. Congratulations and best wishes, Jordan! I’ve run a group for almost 7 years now. My co-founder and I started with the premise that we were in it to help each other get better and a commitment to critique the writing but never criticize the writer. And it’s worked. We’ve seen new writers get better at an amazing pace, which is tremendously rewarding in its own right.

    We’ve been as small as four members but are now in a growth spurt up to over a dozen! Not everyone submits every time, which makes this manageable. We send out our work electronically before each meeting but most don’t use Word’s commenting feature, for a variety of reasons. Doesn’t matter: there’s still plenty of focused (usually) and lively conversation. We meet every two weeks, alternating between two area libraries. And afterwards we go out to dinner!

    One of the greatest things about the group is that we started out as mostly a group of strangers who all write and are now friends ready to welcome new writers into the circle.

    • Oh I am so happy for you, Ross. I love the notion of developing deeper relationships with the people who share the passion of writing. The author community is very generous as a rule, from my experience. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  9. JD – Your group sounds pretty cool. I’ve not been in a group, but think about it. I always feel like I can’t commit to the prep time, etc. I like “hanging out” group. Your mentioning the book covers and the ideas they engendered is something I appreciate. I am often triggered by imagery. I’m always looking out for characters and ideas to stumbled into view.

    Usually I am “working” alone. Just joined a group (don’t want to call it a class) working on building WordPress websites. That’s been an “interesting” experience. Like I said, imagery gets my mind rolling.

    • There’s a local group that gets together once a month just to socialize over dinner. It’s open to other writers, but the dinners rotate through the members for desserts, while everyone contributes to the potluck. Camaraderie is fun snd networking can be a good thing too.

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