Sunday, March 14, 2010

Critique Groups

I was recently interviewed by The Black Raven's Erotic Cafe. Janis' questions really got me thinking about some writerly things, especially critique groups.

Based on the circulation of writer's magazines, like Writer's Digest, there are hundreds of thousands of fiction writers in the United States. A majority of these writers are probably going to a critique group.

I used to be one of those writers. I've been a member of several different critique groups during my writing life. I couldn't have survived without them. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, and critique meetings are like a "welcome home" party after getting out of prison. These get-togethers allow writers a place for gossip and support. I wouldn't be surprised if NaNoWriMo (a national project to write a novel in a month) is a sensation mainly because of the social experience. When critique groups click because there's a grounding in mutual respect, it's tremendously satisfying.

Critique groups are, of course, supposed to provide writing advice, too. Not everyone can stomach that part, though. One of my author friends couldn't. Mild suggestions about her pages were an assault on her soul. After one too many panic attacks, she stopped coming to critique. She said her work was too literary for us. Instead of using our free (and low-brow) advice, she paid a vanity publisher $600 to edit her work. Then she paid the same publisher to have this manuscript published (by purchasing advance copies). I bought and read her book. I'm in the acknowledgments. I'm flattered. And also mystified, since she ignored all of my suggestions.

There are specialty critique groups, some which even claim to be literary. I recently saw this invitation tacked to the bulletin board at the local coffee house:
New Literary Critique Group Forming. We are looking for open-minded writers. Must be willing to read works with GLBT themes. Genre fiction NOT considered.
Not open-minded enough to critique genre, I guess.

Some critique groups are run like exclusive secret societies. The long-lived Slow Sand Writer's Society in Colorado is one of those. The group is highly formal, with a rigorous audition-based application process, limited enrollment and its own website. Other groups are more inclusive, perhaps part of a non-profit writer's organization. I belonged to a critique group run by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for years. I was also a member of another group, run like an underground cell. I would meet with these secret agent-like creative folks publicly at Barnes and Noble, but I had to know somebody (who knew somebody) to get an invite.

There are lots of online critique groups. They would appeal to writers with inflexible schedules or those living in the middle of nowhere. But I'm afraid to join an online group. Humans are more apt to be flippant and cruel when they think they're anonymous.

Critiquing romance brings up a whole new set of problems. Sex scenes, even when they aren't graphic, are intimate. A romance writer can press a beta-reader's hot buttons (and not always in a good way). I knew I had to leave my secret-agent group when one of the women rewrote my rather tame sex scene using what she considered a more proper feminist perspective. My sex really upset her. In the long run, striking out alone has been a good thing. Writing without a hall monitor allowed me to explore the more intense themes of BDSM erotica.


  1. A very nice article on critique groups. I've yet to find one where I'm comfortable. You brought up a good point with the sex scene, because it's difficult to find a place where people are open-minded.