No! I’m not talking about what my critique partners just had for dinner.
I’m not talking about their anatomy, either.
Most writers have at least one, if not more than one, critique partner. I’m the type that prefers multiple critique partners. I think multiple critique partners are going to keep you honest – and keep each other honest. You hear different viewpoints (that you then can choose to ignore or grab nuggets from to improve the plot, or character, or whatever the suggestion was for.)
Writing is more often than not a very solitary venture. I dare guess that most writers tend to secret themselves away from other distractions in their lives and write in a room or office closed off to the rest of the world. If this is you, raise your hand. (Oh, sorry, I couldn’t actually see those hands go up, but I felt a breeze in the air that told me you did it!) Having a critique partner helps take away the feeling of isolation that can come with being a writer.
I have been in more than one critique group over the years. Each one was configured differently. (If you’re not interested in the different configurations of the groups I was in and my explanation of the pros and cons, you can scroll down to the part: What I look for in critique partners and where to find critique partners. I even put them in a different font and color to distinguish them. BUT, I think you’ll learn something from my critique group history, too.)
This blog is also very “link-heavy”, so I hope you’ll read the blog in its entirety before going back to click on the links.
THE DAWNING OF MY CRITIQUE GROUPS
(I was going for a catchy heading, here.)
The first group I was ever in (almost 30 years ago!) started out with about 20 members. Looking back, I now realize that wasn’t a critique group. That was a bunch of writers getting together and sharing their work. It wasn’t even the same kind of work. Some wrote poems, some were working on books, some were working on memories. There wasn’t time to really critique each person’s work, and it was hard to be focused on what I needed to do to get better with so many different kinds of writing being presented. The positive was that it connected me with some other people who were writing what I was writing. So, that led to…
My next, and longest running, critique group, was pretty effective for helping me grow as a writer. There were five regulars, but often there were six or seven of us. All women. That was okay, though, because we were all focused on some aspect of romance writing. We were also all in the same RWA chapter. (RWA = Romance Writers of America, the largest organized group of writers worldwide.) I have to thank Zita Christian, a past president of the Connecticut chapter and a dear friend for convincing us to join. We needed that professional push. (Zita is also a top-notch brain stormer whose insight helped me put the “icing on the cake” in my book Over the Edge. Thanks, Zita. Take a bow!)
In meetings, we discussed our stories, but we also talked about the craft of writing, about the publishing world and expectations. What I learned from being in this group was that I needed to be in a “focused” group of people who understood my genre. We usually met once a month. That was not the most productive frequency, but it’s what fit our busy lives at the time. Unfortunately, life (and sadly, the death of our original organizer), started interrupting our opportunities to meet regularly. Most of us were only writing sporadically, or not at all, and we eventually drifted apart as a critique group. (But, we’ve remained good friends who are there for each other to support in any way we can.) Leslie Nielsen, Crystal Smith, Christine Church, and Sandra Hassan, this is where you raise your hands.
I need critique groups. I found two colleagues who taught in the same school system as I did, and added in the mother of one of my former students who was also writing, and we formed my next critique group. So, there were four of us: one man and three women. We kept it to this size because we wanted to make sure we had enough time to get through everyone’s writing within two or so hours. The positive about this group is that we all worked with pre-teens and teens, so we understood the audience for our writing. Unfortunately we had just found our groove as a group when I moved to NY. I’m happy to say that every one of us has found some sort of success with our writing since “our break-up”. haha! We’ve all been published in some form, and we’re still cheerleaders for each other and always will be. Dave Polochanin, Suzanne Cordatos and Michelle Vigue: it’s your turn to raise your hand.
When I returned to my home state of New York, I was invited to be a part of another critique group with an eclectic mix of writing styles, genres, genders and ages. The youngest member was a young man in his thirties (go ahead, Jamie Henshaw, if you’re reading this, raise your hand), several middle-aged women, and the oldest was Jamie’s father in-law who I guess was probably in his seventies. This was a good “starting point” for me when I came back because I got to meet other writers and TALK writing. I love talking about writing. I met with this group for about a year, but our meetings also fell by the wayside. I also attended a few meetings of another writing group that was more into sharing than critiquing. It was a very nice group of people, but they met on a weekday during the day. Anyway, I started working full time again, so that was the end of that.
But out of that first NY group came one of my current critique partners. Lorraine Landerand I wanted to get a small group together that was focused on the same genre and with the goal of publishing sooner rather than “whenever”. We searched and searched for at least one other person to form a group. Then a writing friend from way out in Washington State (Mary B., that was your cue to raise your hand) suggested I contact a writer she knew in our area. Lorraine and I met Dorothy Callahan (although we call her Dot) at Olive Garden to see if it seemed like we might be a good match, and, voilà! We’ve been working together for almost three years. I also have another writer friend, Lisa Tapp, with whom I work long-distance. Mary Buckham, writer and teacher extraordinaire, also connected me with Lisa. Each of these women brings a different knowledge, skill and interest to our discussions about writing.
Lorraine Lander and Dorothy Callahan have pushed me to complete my books. They give me the proverbial “slap upside the head” if something in the plot doesn’t work or make sense. They brainstorm with me when I hit a brick wall with the plot and I need to get over that wall. I’m very fortunate that I was able to connect with these two ladies.
So, after all of that, what’s the take-away for other writers? Well, I can tell you what my criteria is for critique partners, and maybe that will help you when you’re trying to put a group together.
WHAT I LOOK FOR IN CRITIQUE PARTNERS
1. I have to “like” them as people in order to work with them. This is important because I’m going to be putting my “baby” in their hands at every critique meeting, and that requires trust on my part. What do I need to “trust”? I need to trust that they have my best interests at heart when they’re dealing with my “baby”, because there are times when my baby is just plain bad. I need to know they won’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” but will give me suggestions on how to clean it up.
2. Connecting to that trust is trusting that they will be honest. If what I’ve written is weak, I have to trust that they won’t tell me it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. I need them to be honest with me and tell me that they’re just not buying the scenario. Or, there’s no logic in this plot point or scene Or, your character is too one-dimensional. You get the idea…if they aren’t honest, how will my writing improve?
3. I need critique partners who aren’t sensitive and can accept the negative parts of a critique. Maybe they won’t agree with it, but I need to know they’re going to consider that they might be blind to the issue because they’re too close to the story. (After all, who wants to admit that they’re “baby” isn’t wonderful?) If every one of my suggestions, concerns, comments, falls on deaf ears with the partners, then why should I bother giving feedback? They would feel the same way, I’m sure.
4. They have to be committed to writing, too. There have been a handful of meetings when I have gone without new material, and boy, it’s made me feel like a slacker! They push me to have something for each meeting. (They aren’t bullies, don’t worry. The pressure is totally internal coming from me.)
5. They have to be actively learning about writing, as well. When we’re all hitting the NY Times best-seller list consistently, then we might have a little leeway with each other in the learning department. But a writer only gets better by studying the craft.
6. My critique partners need to be as invested in my story as I am in theirs.The only way brainstorming can be effective is if we each feel some kind of ownership/loyalty to what the others have written. It’s not just courtesy, it’s what makes the brainstorming worthwhile. If they don’t care about my characters or the story, they’re not going to be able to help me work through those “bumps” in the plot.
7. They have to turn over a percentage of their earnings to me.
(Okay, maybe not, but for just a second it sounded like a great idea. haha!)