Category Archives: Critique Groups

The Key to a Successful Crit Group – A 29 Year Example

There is a ‘special sauce’ when it come to making group dynamics work and having an effective writers group requires its own special brand of nurturing.

I’ve been a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) for several years and I value every moment spent with this group. Founded in 1988 (yes, as of this writing it has been together for 29 years!) IFWA has nurtured, trained, and supported many writers along their writing career paths.

What is IFWA’s secret to success?

There are several factors but my favorite four (besides the fact that the members are awesome people) are:

1) It is not a book club. It is a writing group for writers who want to improve their craft and hone their skills.
To that end, the monthly meeting begins with crits. In the previous month, two people volunteered a work to be critiqued at teh curernt meeting. The work is no more than 5,000 words and usually is either a first chapter or a short story although we have had epic poetry. Two people volunteer to provide a a critique. There are rules for how to critique. To learn more about the art of critiquing, you can read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on a series I wrote on critiques.

The critique porrtion of hte meeting begins with the author reading their story for ten minutes (a necessary skill we all need to practice). Each person critiquing the story gets five minutes to give the author feedback. An opportunity is given to the author to respond and only then is the group at large allowed to provide their feedback (for five minutes) to the author. These guidelines are strictly enforced.

The first time I experienced this process, it was nerve wracking. I read too quickly because I wanted to read the whole story in my allotted ten minutes. Mistake! So, I learned how to read calmly and more slowly. The second time it was much better. Some comments I agreed with and others I didn’t but I had to practice what I knew in my head – that there were things I needed to hear so I could learn them; that everyone has their own opinion and if you ask for it, you have to respect it, no matter what you do with it; and people are much kinder, much gentler than that stupid critic in my head!!!

That’s the thing, everyone in this group offers insight and wisdom, from a reader’s perspective and a writer/editor’s perspective on how the story can be improved. We do it from a genuine desire to see each other succeed. And we run the gamut of skill sets for our members include professional writers, editors, and beginners. No matter what stage any of us are at, we all have something to offer and something to learn – and we know it! This form of humbleness is the group’s core value and that’s why I think it’s been successful for so long.

2) The group isn’t exclusive.
We have every form of writing (screen, short story, novel, novella, graphic art, comic, etc.) and although we are a group for speculative fiction writers, we have lots of other genres and cross genres represented (fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, detective science fiction, noir, space opera, and fairy tale to name a few). Some members are published, some edit anthologies (and write too), some are not published. But we are all there with a view to encourage and support each other while encouraging growth in craft and business skills.

Then there are the splitters groups. Splitters groups are formed by members who have specific interests or needs. For example, I belong to a critique group which comments on novels and shorter works with a view to being submitted.

Our members are at all stages of development, including beginners, those trying to break into the market, and published and award winning authors. The group also counts many small publishers and well-known authors as friends.

3) A pay-it-forward attitude is practiced within the group and the larger writing community.
We help each other out with our projects. We share what we know. We organize writing events such as a writers’ weekend, workshops, manage a short story contest, produce an anthology exclusive to the group, attend and participate in national and international cons, and are a large part of organizing and volunteering in the local, annual con When Words Collide. We attend each other’s book launches, readings, and celebrate the victories of getting published and share the disappointment of a rejection. We are there for each other.

4) Skills sessions.
Every meeting has a skills session which can be on any aspect of writing from craft to business. Sometimes the learning comes in the form of a presentation, sometimes it’s a discussion, and sometimes it’s a little of both. But always we learn, always we share and after the meeting that sharing continues at a local pub.

IFWA has a lot to offer its membership because it’s members contribute in so many ways. The group’s enthusiasm is infectious and the friendships are long lasting. This writers group definitely has its own brand of ‘special sauce’.

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.