Writing is a solitary occupation. At the same time, no one climbs this mountain without help. Often that help comes in the form of critique groups.
I’ve belonged to face2face groups and online groups, sometimes at the same time. You get something a little different from both, but whether you choose one or the other (or have the luxury of both), you need a critique group. You know I’m right . (Can I get an Amen?)
Don’t get me wrong. Having your spouse or a family member or even a friend reading what you’ve written isn’t a bad thing. My first reader is one of my oldest friends (Hi Ella!) and she’s the only person who gets to read the raw version of what I’ve written. She’s my cheerleader. She keeps me pumped. (That’s a big job sometimes.) And she’s unbelievably willing to read my evolving story over and over and over again. Believe me when I say I am blessed to have her. She’ll even kick ideas around with me when I’ve written myself into a corner.
But she's not a writer.
You get something different when you share with other writers. You know that’s true. That’s why I see so many folks looking for critique groups online. Some of you found what you were looking for. Others, I'm sure, have been members of groups but didn’t find what you needed. Maybe you don’t really know what was missing but you still knew it wasn’t working for you.
So let’s look at what the criteria of a good fit is.
First, it’s important that the writers you’re sharing with understand what you’re writing.
Let me repeat that.
It’s important that your critique buddies understand what you’re writing.
While good writing is good writing no matter what the topic, science fiction has different conventions than mysteries which has different conventions than memoirs which has different conventions than romance and so on and so forth. Even within the genre, there are different conventions. One of the conventions of Chick Lit, for example, is that it’s written in first person POV, so if Chick Lit is what you write, it’s not just counterproductive if you have a critique buddy who hates first person narration so much that they regularly harp on it, it will undermine your confidence.
Second, it’s important that your critique buddy “gets” your vision.
I don’t care how great I think another writer is, if they don’t “get” my story (or if they just really dislike my vision), they’re not a good partner for me and they won’t be for you.
“Getting” the story isn’t quite the same thing as actively liking the story, but that's important, too. If you and your buddy don’t like each others’ stories or if your writing styles annoy each other, you won't be writing buddies for long. Not only will you be back to looking for a new buddy, but the quality of the feedback you get (and give) won’t be as good as it is when you like the stories you’re reading.
Now I’ve read mixed opinions of partnering with different skill levels and I can see arguments on both sides.
If all of your partners are roughly the same level as you, you all learn together. The downside is that it can take a long time to learn your craft this way because someone in your group has to reinvent the wheel for every advance made. The upside is they’ll all share that learning with you (if they’re truly committed to the group dynamic), so you’re still learning faster than you would on your own.
Is it advantageous to have a partner who is more advanced than you are? Of course, it is. But consider this. Where’s the advantage to them of having a partner they have to teach? What do you have to offer them? Looked at that way, you may think you don’t have anything to offer a more advance partner, but that’s not true. You just have to work harder and play to your strengths. (We’ll go into this deeper in a moment.)
Whatever the composition of your writers’ group, what we’re all looking for are writing buddies who will make the journey with us. Every time you have to initiate a new buddy, you lose ground. I know this well. For reasons y’all aren’t interested in hearing, I started writing romance after I’d reached an intermediate skill level. The group who taught me my skills are people I would have loved to have kept in my personal circle, but as I already pointed out, when you changed genres, your old buddies don’t fit any longer.
It’s been a different and difficult road since then. I’ve found and lost many a potential partner. One I particularly regret was a true wordsmith. (I, on the other hand, am a storyteller, and yes, there’s a significant difference.) I believe we could have learned a lot from each other, but she drifted away and, I think, quit writing.
Right now I have a writing buddy I’m very attached to. We found each other in Critique Circle, where she admitted to being a newbie writer. Her writing reflected this, but what’s made her stand out from other newbies I’ve spent time with is how fast she learns, which I think is a side-effect of how determined she is.
So what does she have to offer me?
First, I think she’ll go the distance. That’s important. She’s made the statement that she can’t afford to lose me as a critique buddy. While that’s always nice to hear, more importantly, it tells me she’s serious about turning into a real writer. She’s certainly got the determination and thick skin you need to make it in this business.
Second, she’s a plotter. And I mean a plotter with a capital P. She knows exactly where her story is going and what the major turning points will be before she writes the first word. I do okay at plotting, but at heart, I’m a pantser. For me, plot grows out of character, which means I sometimes get hung up on a plot point and my thinking gets in a rut. I have no problem imagining her being able to offer me solutions that will light up my world.
Another advantage to having writing buddies is that if they find a publisher before you do, you’ll have a connection that could pay off in a big way. Even better, when you “make it,” you’ll have someone who knows how rutted the road you traveled was and who will celebrate with you (even if they’re across the country.) There’s an old saying: There’s no friends like old friends. There’s a lot of truth in that. And just coz you’ve made it doesn’t mean they’re no longer valuable. There’s always that next book that’s going to need honest feedback from someone who loves your style.
There’s more to say about this subject, but this post is already long enough. (I think next week I may talk about what kind of critique groups are out there.) In the meantime, do you have a writing buddy or critique group? How do they contribute to your writing journey?