How to Create a Novel Critique Group that Won’t Drive You Crazy

So you want to be a member of a fantastic critique group. All your friends have one. Every writer you know offhandedly mentions their beloved circle of trust whose members can spot every plot hole, straighten every bent character arc, and untangle every mixed metaphor. 

You’re jealous to the core. Heck, you’re even jealous of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien for having the Inklings, and they’re both dead. Meanwhile, all you have is a bunch of Meetup misfits who never remember to staple their single-spaced pages and whose go-to comments for your work are always either, “This really flows!” or “I don’t feel like this flows. Can you add more details?”

Well, not to rub it in, but I do currently have two excellent critique groups, though I’ve had many mishaps along the way.

I’m going to begin with some advice about how to recruit a good critique group. Disclaimer: Use common sense here. Do not take candy from strangers.  

Take/audit a college class on creative writing. A community college course costs a few hundred dollars and will gain you feedback from students and a professor, as well as a review of craft. You’d easily spend twice that for one conference, professional writing series, or editor. Of course, each group of students is different. Most likely, you can drop within the first two weeks with a refund if you sense the group or curriculum won’t meet your needs. 

A university-level or upper division class might be more rigorous, but enrollment requirements get trickier. Either way, you’ll make at least a few friends who will want to meet and workshop outside of class, and by then you’ll have a feel for their skill/experience level. Many community college students are non-trads, perhaps like you, with a good deal of life experience. One of my two awesome critique groups is comprised of former students. (I teach creative writing).

Most local libraries host occasional free author talks or editor/agent workshops. Writing professionals need to promote their books, expand their client base, and deduct tax write-offs. You’ll learn about craft and current industry and market trends; you can also join mailing lists or meet with other attendees afterward for coffee and networking. I frequent writing conference on the Front Range and can attest that often the library hosts the same quality workshops, sessions, and even presenters from the expensive, professional conference circuit. In addition, the library calendar of events will announce meetings such as critique groups. 

Attend a conference, network there, and or/join a regional writing group. Some are free; some have affordable yearly membership fees ($20-40) for which you can also attend occasional quality workshops. My second awesome writing critique group stems from my joining the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group (RMFW, based in Denver). Their website listed the email contact for critique groups in my town. This is likely the most effective option, as you’ll be able to get a feel for genre and experience level before you join.

Even if you don’t want to write 50,000 words in one month, is a fantastic resource and platform. There, during November, you can attend “write-ins” hosted all over your local area and meet like-minded writers.   

If these ideas don’t work for you, there’s always Meetup or other social platforms. (If anyone has any other suggestions, please contact me!) Whatever you do, plan to meet in a public area until you feel very sure that no one is going to end up sobbing if you don’t think their writing “flows” well enough. (Or worse, stalking you because you told them it does!)

Tips on making that new critique group successful:

  • Meet regularly to gather momentum. Pick a dedicated time and keep plugging away until you pick up traction even if it’s just two of you for a while.  
  • Consider asking new members for sample pages before offering them a spot. It’s easier to tell someone a door is closed than to push someone back out it later.`
  • Try to find people near the same skill level as you. This can be hard to ascertain. If you’re not sure, then at least try to ascertain the same experience level. 
  • If you’re working on novels in particular, don’t let the group get bigger than five or six regulars or you won’t have the time you need for your own. 
  • Make the workshopping space sacred. Place boundaries around how much “off topic” discussion you’ll allow. Members who really want to chat, not workshop, could agree to meet half an hour earlier or stay late. 
  • Of course, camaraderie is key. Avoid politics unless you know you’re all on the same page. Sorry for the cliché.
  • If a member doesn’t have pages, consider devoting that time to brainstorming or working through blocks or arcs. This activity is beneficial for all, supports the writing process, and/or creates that aforementioned camaraderie.
  • Overall, remember: this is your precious time, and it’s okay to be picky about your groupmates. 
  • Check in every once in a while—what’s working, what’s not?

You might not end up with the Algonquin Roundtable or have a barstool retired for you like Hemingway, but hopefully you’ll get the feedback you need to improve your novel. Keep in touch for my upcoming post on how to give, receive, and apply, useful feedback. What has worked for you in your own critique groups?

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