In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today I’m joining the ranks for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thank you to IWSG for the opportunity to share and learn from your writerly experiences. We post the first Wednesday of the month, but I’m posting early due to family commitments. Check them out here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

A topic much on my mind lately is getting good-quality feedback on my writing. I’ve just finished another (hopefully final) polish of my second novel, and am starting another round of agent queries. It took bloody forever to work this manuscript through my critique group, since we’re only allowed to submit twenty pages per meeting. It’s a fair rule—we’d never get through a meeting otherwise.

I’ve been participating in the same critique group for over a year now, and their bi-monthly meetings are a highlight of my writing practice. It’s energizing to chat face-to-face with other writers. From them, I’ve received lots of valuable advice on refining my cozy mystery and women’s fiction novels. No one in my group writes in these genres, but that doesn’t disqualify them from critiquing my work; in fact, the best writing advice I’ve received so far has come from writers of historical fiction and sci-fi. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

I’ve also exchanged a few online critiques with members of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, and will continue to pursue that avenue. These readers understand the expectations of our shared genre, and a bonus is that some of these critiques come from published writers.

Here’s where the insecure bit comes in: I give more credence to advice from fiction writers whose work has been published, especially those who’ve been traditionally published.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there’s lots of very fine indie-published fiction out there—but the indie fiction I’ve sampled so far has mostly been clunky, unpolished, not enjoyable for a reader like me who expects that level of polish found in most traditionally-published fiction. And that level of polish is what I’m trying to achieve—not just good proofreading, but well-rounded, relatable characters wrapped up in a believable, non-rambling plot.

Back to my face-to-face critique group. Sure, it’s valuable to get feedback from all sorts of writers, and to see the evolution of their works in progress. We all have a great deal in common, and sharing the process of chiseling away the dross from a draft to reveal the gem inside—that’s a great learning opportunity for me.

But the limitations of this critique group are becoming hard to ignore. A few of our best writers have peeled off, dissatisfied with nature of the critiques. They tell me there’s too much nit-picking over mechanics and too little focus on plot, characters, pacing—the meat of the story.  They have a point.

Our group contains some die-hard writing-rule-evangelists. (One actually carries the Chicago Manual of Style to every meeting.) Oh, how these writers cling to their formulas, their cherished edicts about what one must and must not do in order to create a work of fiction. Here’s where I admit to being a retired high school English teacher. I have great respect for grammar, punctuation—all the tools we use to achieve clear communication. But oh, dear reader, there is much eye-rolling when these group members start spouting their rules for this and that aspect of writing fiction. And have these particular group members published anything? Not as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, of course, but still…

Ugly thoughts, I know. And unfair—after all, I haven’t published anything yet either. When I finally do get my work published, whether traditionally or independently, it’ll have more to do with voice and storytelling than whether I’ve followed a certain formula or eliminated all my adverbs and exclamation points. A good storyteller can bend lots of rules and still delight her readers.

I don’t want to leave the security of my little critique group, but suspect it’s time to move beyond its secure borders. It’s time to look for more in-depth feedback than I can get twenty pages at a time. Wish me luck.

14 thoughts on “In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

  1. Stephanie Faris, Children's Author

    I was in a critique group once where one of the members just didn’t like my work. She actually said, “This isn’t as shallow as your work usually is.” I consulted other writer friends and they said, “Get out of that group as soon as possible…that’s a toxic environment.” It was impacting my ability to write (especially since my niche was romantic comedy and hers was dark romantic suspense!). I never told the group why–just made excuses and left.

    Stephanie
    http://stephie5741.blogspot.com

    Reply
  2. Kelsie Engen

    Finding the right critique partners can be so challenging. I’ve found better luck with online forums such as Scribophile for quality critiques on a chapter-by-chapter basis. You can even find beta readers there if you specifically ask for them and offer to trade. (If you are looking for beta readers, I’m also working on a contemporary/women’s fiction novel and at the beta reader stage.) Regardless, I wish you luck in finding a good crit partner and getting the kind of feedback you long for!

    Reply
  3. Samantha Bryant (@mirymom1)

    Your critique group sounds like it follows a set up a lot like mine. Our group also allows for “whole book critiques” periodically when a member has something ready for that. You might see if your group would do that as well. Another thing we do is allow the authors to put an author’s agenda in, with specific questions they would like the group to address during critique. That can help keep the conversation focused on what matters.

    I agree that it’s tricky, getting the right feedback. I’m diversifying. I’m keeping my local in-person bi-weekly group, but I also do some online stuff and beta exchanges with other writers. I’m finding that, as I’ve grown more secure in my work, I’ve needed less reassurance along the way and so I don’t show the work until it’s further along now.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Samantha,
      I tried to leave a comment on your blog, but got caught up in a loop of links that plunked me right back in my WordPress account. Baffling. Yes, I’m moving into an approach like yours, with the bi-monthly face-to-face meetings and online critiques. I agree about waiting for critique until the WIP is polished; I dislike being asked to critique a sloppy, drippy, gooey draft full of errors and incomplete sentences. The English teacher in me just can’t get to the story if I have to hack through all that underbrush.

      Reply
  4. cluculzwriter

    I’ve been with more writing groups than I can count. I can relate. But I’m the type of person who can’t let go and consequently. will stay with an unproductive group for a year longer than I should. Listen to your instincts. And welcome to IWSG. I’m #43.

    Reply
  5. Reprobate Typewriter

    Welcome aboard! I’m pretty new to this, myself, but Hi! I’ve been doing most of the critique/writers’ group/social end of writing online, since I left a bigger city to come to… uhm… the peaceful countryside. Always a little jealous of anyone who can get together with real-life writers (who write!) on a regular basis, but yes, I do think that for a more in-depth critique (or for anything that involves structure more than style,) a good critique partner beats a group.
    But don’t give up the group! Sometimes just being with people who “get it” can help.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      I hope you’re able to find some face-to-face critique partners out there in your not-so-small town.

      Reply
  6. Shannon Lawrence

    Critique groups are tricky, because you often either started as friends or became friends. And sometimes you outgrow the group. I’m in two groups with writers at varying levels of publication. One of them recently decided they needed to focus on having people at a higher level, who were writing to be published, and who would be considered advanced. A few members were removed. It was quite a shakeup, but it did also improve the feedback I was getting.

    I think critique groups need to grow and change with their members, or members need to find a new group if they “outgrow” the old group. BUT I have also noticed that I get good in-depth character and plot analysis from the least experienced writers in the group. The more experienced writers tend to focus more on the publishing dynamics and rules. It was an interesting epiphany. I miss the critiques that focused more on the characters and story line, as those seem to me to be the things it’s easier for me to miss. Those were from a previous critique group, though, that I would have stayed in had they been taking it seriously enough to actually come to the meetings, always do the critiques, and turn something in. They weren’t, so I left. Their feedback was important, but they didn’t always give it. And there’s another critique group issue.

    Reply
  7. Alex J. Cavanaugh (@AlexJCavanaugh)

    It happens. We grow and change, which means we sometimes grow beyond other people. Like your critique group. I’d want more of a focus on the story than the details. (Although after four books, I still need help with that.)
    I have three critique partners, two with traditional publishers like me and one self-published. And believe it or not, the self-published one is the best with overall story and plot. He’s the one I go to with my outlines before I even begin writing.
    Welcome to the IWSG! You’re in the right spot.

    Reply

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