I didn’t know about writers’ critique groups until four years after I started writing, by which time I had written a novel and accumulated a growing file of rejection letters from agents and publishers. I was also deeply into my second novel, a sequel to the first. As I began to suspect that the road to publication was not going to be a smooth and easy one, I decided I needed a support group.
After one or two false starts, I connected with a writers’ group that looked promising. It met once a month and seemed to have a healthy and diverse membership. In addition to the monthly meetings, most of which featured a speaker, a benefit of membership was access to critique groups — for poetry, creative nonfiction and a newly-formed fiction group, which met twice monthly in members’ homes. I joined with enthusiasm and arrived at my first meeting with the first 25 pages of the novel I was working on.
After that first meeting in the fall of 2004, the group grew from six members to more than 20, split to form three or four new groups and changed its venue from members’ homes to a room above a pub to a coffee shop. When I finally parted company from it a couple of months ago, there was only one other member besides myself who had been there since 2004.
Now I belong to a newly-formed short story group (not sure why, since I’m not partial to writing short fiction) and a novelists’ group that started up after the schism of the original fiction group. One thing I realized over the years was that novels and longer short stories are not as well served by open critique groups as are stories of 3,000 words or less, that can be thoroughly discussed in the course of a single meeting. That original group had a shifting membership right from the start. People would be there for two or three meetings and never be seen again. Others would be there some days but not others. Someone who joined the group only to be faced with Chapter 7 of a novel was not likely to be as enthused (or as effective) in critiquing it as someone who had read the preceding six chapters.
Eventually, several of us with novels in the works decided to form our own closed group. It meets once a month, but the pieces that each member submits are far longer than those permitted in the original group — between 10,000 and 25,000 words, rather than 3,000-5,000. This is why we have restricted our membership to four or five; it would simply be impossible to read and critique too many lengthy pieces. In the two years since its formation, the group has read and critiqued five novels in entirety (two of them mine) and is at present working on three others.
As well as a stable and committed membership, a critique group needs a few other characteristics to be effective. The first is a critiquing style that matches all its members’ expectations. People who want brutally frank opinions aren’t going to be happy in a group that shies away from the negative and calls every offering “wonderful.” Conversely, a writer with a fragile ego had better avoid groups with a taste for the literary jugular. The same goes for genre — hard-boiled thrillers aren’t likely to get helpful critiques from a group of romance writers (although you never know).
Critiquing aside, a group of this sort has another function — as a support group for its members. Let’s face it — most of us who come to writing as an avocation later in life aren’t likely to make it to the bestseller lists. Many of us will never be published or will end up being our own publishers. The other writers with whom we form connections, whom we see at meeting after meeting as the years go by, whose works we read and come to know almost as well as our own — these folks may very well be the nucleus of our readership, or even our entire readership. The great thing is that it’s a readership that reads closely with attention to plot, character and style, and tells the author what it thinks — a literary circle and “friends of the work.”