Oh the Dread Critique Group

Whether or not to join a critique group is a big decision. Writing can be a lonely venture, especially for an extrovert like me. I was so tired of only hearing the drone of my own voice in my head, I became desperate to hear what other writers had to say about my work. So in 2001, I swallowed my fear of criticism and helped to create a five member critique group. At our first meeting I felt like I was about to toss my beloved manuscript into the proverbial lion’s den to be chewed to bits. That proved not to be true, largely because we adopted ground rules that we adhered to diligently. Rule 1:  Reviewers will point out a positive characteristic of any manuscript first. Rule 2: any criticism will be accompanied by a suggestion for improvement. Rule 3: Writers will be quiet and listen to critics until they are finished with their critiques.

Thus armed, we began to review each other’s manuscripts. In the process, our strengths as writers surfaced, but also our weaknesses. We were complemented on the things that worked, like good plot lines in a mystery or compelling descriptions of an imaginary world in a fantasy. But we also learned our weaknesses, like dialogue that didn’t sound authentic, or where the story bogged down. Early on, after reviewing my manuscript, a member asked, “Where is this all going?” When I couldn’t come up with an answer, I realized I needed to rethink the direction of my novel and none too soon.

Knowing that we were going to meet every week, became a driving force that got me to sit down at my computer every day and type. During the 5 years we met, production included one mystery novel, one fantasy novel, a contemporary woman’s novel, a series of religious newsletters, a prize winning poem, and the first draft of Bear Woman Rising. Perhaps the most valuable offshoots from that first group are the friendships that have endured.

In 2004, a fellow writer, Kal Rosenberg, whose work I respected, invited me to join the Gainesville Poets and Writers Tuesday night critique group. This well-established group averaged about 12 attendees each week. We took turns bringing our manuscripts for review and accommodated on average three or four pieces per session. The critiques I received were invaluable but one in particular made me up the ante for my main character, Jesse Bookman. Someone pointed out that a one-night-stand didn’t seem an adequate reason for her to abruptly leave the research camp she loved. But if a pregnancy resulted from that incident, then . . . So Gainesville Poets and Writers, you are responsible for Jesse’s unwed mother status.

Critique pods have become one of the most popular features of the Writers Alliance of Gainesville (WAG). Each pod addresses a specific genre; sci-fi, poetry, children’s lit, novel, short story, and memoir. I created the first novel pod. Story lines in my pod covered everything from ‘big foot’, cyber bullying, to Catholic women’s issues. We met every other Saturday which again encouraged me to have a chapter ready for the group. Sadly, when our novels were finished, so was the pod. But over the course of the year that we met, I came to appreciate how different our subjects and writing styles were. While I listened carefully to their suggestions and concerns, the final say rested with me. As a group, we came to understand that these were our stories, told in our voices.   

My Critique Group Rules of Thumb

  • A critique group can provide a much needed, fresh set of eyes.
  •  If several members of a critique group have the same problem with a piece, time to rethink it.
  • Consider the source. Good writers often become good critics.
  • Remain true to your vision. As an author, you make the last call.

When I was about 8 years into Bear Woman Rising’s 10-year gestation, Kal asked to review my first few chapters. He invited me over to his house to discuss his findings. I held my breath as he handed them back to me and said, “I think you might have something here.”

“Really? Me?” I felt like dancing all the way home.

Kal’s words kept me going through the remaining revisions of my novel (ten in all). Those seven words became the mantra that convinced me to cut 70,000 words from a cumbersome manuscript and to rewrite key scenes until I got them right. His encouragement carried me over the finish line and all because I took a risk and joined a critique group.

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