I was surprised to find that I’d never written a post about critique groups – perhaps they’ve become such an accepted feature of my writing life that I don’t think about them anymore. But even though they are everyday, it doesn’t mean that they can’t throw up the most delicious surprises. Just last weekend, my crit group members came up with a whole batch of new ideas that I’m gleefully stealing to improve my work-in-progress. Of course, when I say stealing, these comments are always freely offered – it just feels a little like cheating to have all that writing expertise at my fingertips.
Critique is a concept that I came to rather late in my writing apprenticeship – five years in, to be precise. It’s almost unthinkable to me, now, that I toiled so long in isolation before I took my first steps into the writing community. But it’s a big thing to offer your work for criticism the first time – make no mistake. Our earliest writing is often the most personal, and it takes a certain level of confidence to open your innermost feelings to group criticism.
The sensitivity that makes a good writer also makes criticism a fraught experience, and there are definitely moments when I’ve stepped over the line in my enthusiasm to make a point. I think I subconsciously view group discussion as a bit of a competition and I sometimes find myself desperate to make a point before someone else thinks of it. Yes, I am one of those people who is always “waiting to talk” rather than “listening attentively,” and I do spend a lot of my time in crit groups metaphorically sitting on my hands. Becoming more accomplished as a writer has helped me with this, because I now have (hopefully) deeper insights on plot, structure and character to offer rather than proofreading gripes.
I’ve been in a monthly SCBWI crit group for almost two years now, and I’ve recently set up another in Oxford to run in parallel. So far, this is working out ok – I have about eight pieces of max. 2000 words to critique each month, less if I submit a piece as well. But there is a real pleasure in maintaining a close group of other writers to share work, successes and failures.
Online critique works for a lot of people, but I have to say it was a bit of a failed experiment for me. Firstly, I found the workload difficult to handle – pieces would be posted on the author’s schedule, not mine. In theory, crit pieces would have an average distribution across the month, but in practice people seemed to all post together. I would be instantly seized by my zeal to read and comment quickly, because I knew that otherwise I would have to read through ten other people’s comments before I wrote mine. And they might all have my ideas first! You can see the problem.
I also grew out of weekly groups where writers bring material to read out and others comment on it. I joined and enjoyed one of these to start with, but found that the criticism stayed at a frustratingly surface level. So much of the experience depended on the quality of the author’s reading and their level of engagement with the text. Some brilliant writers were so poor in their delivery that I found it easy to lose interest well before their ten minutes were up. And, unfortunately, the evil competitive streak didn’t help! These groups are a great way to get practice in reading aloud, but I wouldn’t recommend them in terms of feedback. Of course, this may all be sour grapes, because I tried to join a weekly writers' group last year and was told that I was “too good” to become a member. It’s not often you hear that…
Having an agent has definitely changed the way that I approach critique, especially as I move past the first draft. It’s also another strike against the idea of sharing my work freely online, even to a closed group – once you know that your work has commercial potential, holding on to first publication rights becomes a lot more important. In general, once my agent has seen something and commented on it, I won’t take it to a critique group. This is both to avoid upsetting my agent (very important!) and to stop myself being swamped by opinions that will slow down the process. A large part of maturing as a writer is that you know when something doesn’t work, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason. So submitting to a critique group becomes less of a vehicle for showing off and more about improving the weak parts of your book.
So there you have it – critique groups made me the writer I am today. You may take that as a recommendation, or a warning!
If you’re a children’s or YA writer, you can find out more about SCBWI British Isles' network of critique groups here