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Writer's groups: my take

I belong to a face-to-face critique group, known affectionately as the Writer's Group From Hell (WGFH). Truth to tell, it is not hellish at all. The membership right now hovers around 9 or 10 people, with some folks attending more regularly than others. One person is not a writer, but she reads extensively in the field, and hey, who are we to turn down a good critiquer. We meet more or less monthly and while some folks submit work only rarely, others are very active.

In the past, I also belonged to the Del Rey Digital Workshop, which later morphed into the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. In fact, I won the very first Editor's Choice Award for science fiction chapters; the first fantasy Editor's Choice went to a guy named Jim Butcher. Wonder what ever happened to him? -)

The question of whether to join a writer's group gets asked a lot. Every writer has an opinion, but the consensus is that a bad group is worse than no group. What constitutes a bad group? In my opinion, it would be one that wastes your time. The trick is figuring out which ones are doing that. If you spend a lot of time reading and critiquing other folks and no one is giving you useful feedback, then that's a waste of time. Useful feedback has several characteristics. It has to be honest, and it has to be specific. "You have no talent," is not useful feedback. "This story didn't work for me because the protagonist was too smart and too perfect and never changed or grew," is useful information.

So, at it's simplest, a good group has to provide useful feedback. At the same time, that feedback can't be at the expensive of what makes your story your story. Some honest, constructive feedback is really just a subconscious attempt to make a story over into the critiquers own story. In a good group, you listen, you say thank you, but you have no obligation to take anyone's advice. When you get a critique, listen with your mind. Does the suggestion or comment ring a bell in your head that says, "Hey, this person is right!" Or is it simply a matter of it's not their kind of story and they're trying to make it something else?

Further, any critique given in a snarky tone is suspect from the get-go. If a writer can't suppress his or her inner snark in offering advice, then quite possibly he or she doesn't care whether your story succeeds or fails.

I have stuck with WGFH partly because they offer flexibility. They will let writers submit whole novels, or works in progress, whichever the novelist prefers. There are very few rules, so we don't get bogged down in procedure, and finally, it's a fun group.

My husband calls them my support group, and I'm not saying he's wrong.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 27th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
Good points all. Another plus, I think, is the sub-conscious prod a critique group gives us to keep working ;)

Thanks for sharing :)
Sep. 27th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
That's a valid point. There are groups that enforce rules on how often you have to submit work, but I don't find that kind of rigidity helpful, especially because I mostly write novels and I would rather be nibbled to death by ducks than have a book critiqued in chunks.
Sep. 27th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
I have a huge writerly support group--unfortunately, it's all by way of online friends I can count on for crits, yet no face-to-face, talk shop sort of writer time. But you're right, a bad group is worse than no group. I was in a bad group; the kind that was headed up by a few biddies who trashed everything put up to them but would tolerate nothing but praise of their genius when they put something up. I went in totally oblivious, doing my thing--which was to actually CRITIQUE work--and got my ovaries handed to me.
Yeah, that didn't last long.
Sep. 27th, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
sounds like your group really was from hell! Thank god for the Internet.
Sep. 28th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC)
I don't have so much a critique group as an inner circle of beta readers (indeed, I even call them the Inner Circle). They read and critique all my work and I can always count on them to provide intelligent, useful, and thoughtful criticism. When they have something to read, I do my best to return the favor (but honestly, I write really ridiculous amounts of material so things always seem pretty heavily-weighted towards me). They're all online and so far, it's working very well for me (and I hope, for them).

Sep. 28th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)
Our group has some of the same dynamics; the more prolific writers reply on the less prolific for critiques. We don't impose any quota system, but when the less prolific do produce a story, they jump to the front of the line. It's good you have an established set of readers, though. I can't imagine writing in a vacuum, even though I did it the first couple of years after I got serious about writing.
Oct. 2nd, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
little recognized benefit of critique groups
One of the things I love about critique groups, but rarely hear anyone mention, is that by giving critiques, and listening to other people give critiques, you can gain editing skills. Since good writing requires good editing, and since there are precious few places to learn how to edit, this is an important feature that ought to be touted more.

Memory Writers Network
Oct. 2nd, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)
Re: little recognized benefit of critique groups
That's true! It's much easier to see mistakes in someone else's work. And if you can take it to the next level and look at your own work as objectively, you can improve your writing tremendously.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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